Navigating the Complexity of Harm van den Dorpel’s Post-Internet Art

Dutch artist Harm van den Dorpel is having three concurrent solo shows of his own that all explore the changing organizational structure of the creative process itself, and the new paradigm that's emerged.

While the "net artists" of the early 2000s designed art expressly for the web, today's post-internet artists work in many mediums, from painting and illustration to photography and video, using web-based content as their source material. In this vein, Berlin-based Dutch post-internet artist Harm van den Dorpel creates not only live websites, but also tangible, three-dimensional objects, like sculptural assemblages and photo collages, that both reference and target emerging technologies. As the post-internet genre continues to evolve and gain new meaning, van den Dorpel now has three concurrent solo shows in Berlin, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles, each which explores the changing organizational structure of the creative process itself, and the new paradigms that are emerging.

Drawing from a background in computer science and artificial intelligence, van den Dorpel first began making art by doing animations online with friends. "I was never really fond of the idea of putting the work that I made for the browser, to put that in a space," he says. "So I guess with the new context and possibilities, the work changed a bit, and that's I guess where I am now." While science and technology are traditionally focused on application, art addressed the philosophical questions van den Dorpel found himself asking, so he went from calling himself a computer programmer to an artist, though he still seems to vacillate between the two.

Strategies, 2010

In 2008, he programmed the Dissociations website when he found that social media was all about adding things, and older activity became less relevant or forgotten. He created an algorithm that would help him find connections in his own work that weren't based on chronology. Instead of telling it what should belong together, the system he devised determined what definitely did not belong together. Then van den Dorpel calculated the inverse, which resulted in a new project called Deli Near Info, a platform which introduced a social dimension to his work. 

"I think the systems in my art that I make are not only about exploring technology but also really showing how often the connections [we] make are wrong or stupid," he says, “a certain bluntness in combining things that are kind of ridiculous, but then somehow are the output of some kind of system or algorithm."

Van den Dorpel uses the phenomenon of inline advertising, when a blog post with seemingly unrelated ads combine to create one block of text as a whole that illustrates the awkward placement of the targeted ads, as an example, but also a strange kind of serendipity. He maintains that when making art, he doesn't start off by having a clear idea of the concept he's trying to illustrate: "I'm just steering it with micro-decisions into a direction that I think might lead to more interesting micro-decisions." As a consequence, the artist admits to being reluctant towards defining an essence in his art, partially because he believes "it's happening between the nodes in the system, or in the constellation, or the combination."

The Four Master Tropes, 2011

On view until April 11, van den Dorpel's solo exhibition at Neumeister Bar-Am in Berlin is called Ambiguity points to the mystery of all revealing, the title taken from German philosopher Martin Heidegger's 1954 essay "The Question Concerning Technology." Meanwhile, van den Dorpel’s show Just-in-Time is on view February 20 through April 3 at American Medium in Brooklyn. Both exhibitions utilize the concept of the whiteboard, a tool which modern developers ritually gather around and use to map out their ideas with magnets, Post-It notes, markers, etc. It's a metaphor for the aforementioned paradigm shift that has taken place in the creative process, van den Dorpel explains: "In the Middle Ages, if you would build a church, you would start building a church and it would take maybe a hundred years, and the church would only really be ready when it was ready...  And when you're halfway to building, you can't really change the design anymore. So you call this the cathedral model, and that model, it doesn't work in manufacturing nowadays." Instead, there are now many different agents who collaborate on smaller systems while change is still occurring, creating various iterations while the current one is still in use. "It [is] a way to show the transformation of the temporariness of ideas," he states.

In van den Dorpel's show Loomer at Young Projects in Los Angeles, on view through March 1, the impermanent, oddly organic, and unpredictable interstices of art and technology is further explored—among other artworks—through a quartet of Internet-based pieces.

Showreel (2009) runs about 20 minutes long, and it came about after van den Dorpel invited people to upload him more than 5000 pictures, creating a kind of an online visual narrative. He then programmed a script to turn the images into a video, and edited the images while discovering and exploring the existing visual associations himself. By organizing it and showcasing it in video form on a screen, van den Dorpel recognized that he was translating the online activity into visual space. Strategies (2010), his next project, was a similar exercise, only using visuals taken from van den Dorpel's own online activity, paired with text. Meanwhile, The Four Master Tropes (2011) is an annotated YouTube video that follows a similar logic, but the text actually originated in van den Dorpel's own Kindle highlights, mostly from books on semiology. The images came from DeviantArt users, because as van den Dorpel explains, "they also think or call themselves artists, but they operate in an entirely different context than, let's say, institutionalized contemporary art." Just as the highlights are snippets of various larger written texts, so are the images on DeviantArt snippets of each artist's larger body of work. Finally, Deep Tissue (2014) is a video generated from van den Dorpel's Disassociations website, "which had this algorithm of negating association and thereby calculating the associations that are important."

Deep Tissue, 2014

It may seem obvious how people can acquire his sculptures, collages, and assemblages, but how do collectors go about actually buying websites that are art pieces? In van den Dorpel's case, certain ones can be purchased as higher-res videos, but the website itself is also for sale, and it functions as the "artist's proof." Van den Dorpel also offers buyers solid-state hard drives engraved with his name and the title of the work. But the main requirement is that the works remains online. In certain cases, they come with a contract that states that the buyer promises not to take down the website when he/she buys it, although the domain name is transferred over. In terms of buying and selling art, van den Dorpel says the only possible comparison would be public sculptures.

While van den Dorpel's art and his process are both highly complex, the artist says it's important to understand the quality and the state of things being complicated and/or intricate, at least for himself.

"There's always been an attempt to reduce complexity to understand it better, but I think we can actually embrace complexity, and instead of having a big picture, find a good way to navigate the complexity, where you always are somewhere, and there are other places where you can go from there... But you will never have a whole map of all the places where you were, where you can go, because the map changes as well, all the time. So instead of trying to make it a system that gives an overview, I think I'm trying to develop new ways of navigation — mentally, or in information."