The Work of Art in an Age of Digital Reproduction

Una Tanović

The artist Anur Hadžiomerspahić has 5000 friends. He’d like to have more, but Facebook caps the number at five thousand. It’s a generous allowance, considering studies in evolutionary psychology have demonstrated that human beings, like our primate ancestors, can only maintain approximately 150 complex social connections at any given time. Facebook, of course, isn’t overly concerned with evolutionary psychology; the company cites “back-end technology” as a reason for the limit. And yet the social network and the parameters of its algorithm do shape how its users think about the social world.

Sixty-eight years ago, George Orwell warned against the dangers of Newspeak:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. […] Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.

Today, we can “like” this sentiment on Facebook and “share” it with our “friends.” As the British writer Zadie Smith points out, echoing widespread anxiety about weakening social ties when acquaintances become friends on social networks and friends become Facebook friends, “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility.” Despite his extensive friend list, or maybe because of it, Anur would no doubt agree: in a 2014 work entitled “Friendship” he depicts a field of headstones, each shaped like the Facebook logo. Friendship is dead, long live Facebook friendship.

Like “Friendship,” a number of Anur’s works from his most recent “Fake Art” series seemingly embrace digital dualism—a cognitive bias towards separating the physical and the digital, whereby the latter is characterized as secondary, less real and largely trivial in contrast to the primary, authentic and significant realm of the “real,” material world. In “iFamily” (2014), four people sit around a dining room table, each engrossed in their own personal screen—a perfect portrait of digital alienation in a 21st century nuclear family (dad, mom, two kids and four screens). A 2015 untitled work depicts digital addiction as a man shooting up using a hypodermic needle shaped as a Facebook logo. “Hypocrisy” (2015) captures a moment of digital slactivism where a cursor is poised to “like” a heart-wrenching photograph of refugees.

And yet, taken as a whole, the “Fake Art” series undermines the digital dualist perspective. Using photo-manipulation software to turn photographs into fake oil paintings, Anur lashes out at real world problems. In “Westetika” (2015), he comments on damaging beauty standards with a Venus de Milo marked up for plastic surgery. In “Thin enough?” (2015), a searing double critique of the exploitative spectacle of both the humanitarian aid and fashion industries, two starving black children pose on a catwalk. A pair of works comment on the logic of capitalism: in “I am what I do” (2014), plastic mannequins have taken to the street with their shopping bags and in “Cheap merchandise” (2014), humans, stripped bare of clothes and dignity, are on display and on sale in a shop window. The fake values Anur exposes in his works—summed up in his artist statement as “fake love, fake friends, fake smiles, fake emotions, fake truth, fake news, fake conflicts, fake wars, fake peace, fake religion, fake empathy, fake justice, fake idols, fake diplomas, fake food, fake fruit, fake vegetables, fake lips, fake hair, fake breasts, fake marriage, fake orgasms, fake money, fake happiness, fake joy, fake sadness, fake success, fake beliefs, fake ideas, fake problems, fake solutions, fake values”—are very much staples of the real, material world we live in. Critiquing the fakeness of the real, Anur’s art troubles the boundary between the virtual and the material, moving towards an awareness of our reality as one in which the digital and the physical co-construct each other. In the world of “Fake Art,” liking a virtual photograph is real hypocrisy.

The “Fake Art” works present a departure for Anur in terms of a new preoccupation with and use of digital tools. But their spirit of social critique provides a sense of continuity with his earlier work. As a student at Milan’s European Institute of Design, Anur began producing a series of posters entitled “Human Condition: Public Shouting and Individual Revolutions,” thereby developing an idiosyncratic mode of artistic expression that he named Artvertising—using the medium of advertising to send socially relevant messages. The “Human Condition” series was exhibited, not only in traditional art spaces, including at the central pavilion of the 49th  Venice Biennale, but also in shopping centers, supermarkets, and on streets and town squares across Bosnia and Herzegovina and Italy, reaffirming the artist’s commitment to communicating directly and simply with an audience outside of the art world. It makes perfect sense, then, that Anur would eventually move his practice to the biggest agora of them all—the Internet—and become the first Bosnian-Herzegovinian artist to mount a fully online exhibition.

Anur Hadžiomerspahić, Retrospective Exhibition 1994-2016, which opens Thursday, 28 January, at 8pm (GMT+1), via Facebook is thus a novelty in terms of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian art scene. It is also, more generally, an intervention into the genre of digital art. The spread of personal computers since the 1970s, coupled with the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, has obviously dramatically changed the way we communicate, search for information, purchase goods, carry out everyday tasks and entertain ourselves. But long before the popular digital revolution, it was artists who were among the first to harness the new possibilities afforded by computer technology by experimenting with digital media and producing art that could be presented, experienced and stored only in a digital format. Doing away with the physical limitations of the art gallery and replacing it with a web browser was taken as further proof of the democratizing potential of the Internet, where anyone with a modem connection could join the conversation.

In a post-Snowden age, we can no longer ignore that the Internet is less a powerhouse of democracy and more the newest mechanism of biopower. Anur’s Retrospective Exhibition challenges such simple tech-utopian thinking. When the friends and friends of friends invited to the Anur Hadžiomerspahić Retrospective Exhibition 1994-2016and, given six degrees of separation, this means we are all invited, all implicated—log onto Facebook on Thursday, 28 January, they will be taken to a fully rendered 3-D white cube, with architecture mimicking a typical if anonymous art space. Anur has taken his art out of the gallery, only to place it in another gallery. And everything there is fake…except the art.

Una Tanović is one of Anur Hadžiomerspahić’s five thousand Facebook friends and his only sister-in-law; she advises MR on digital strategy and teaches courses in comparative literature and digital culture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.