by Kris Cohen. Duke University Press, October 2017. 196 p. ill. ISBN 9780822369400 (pbk), $23.95.
Reviewed March 2018
Never Alone, Except for Now: Art, Networks, Populations, written by Kris Cohen, assistant professor of art history and humanities at Reed College, is a densely written book that explores the phenomena of group form and belonging as it manifests through the internet and contemporary art and literature. Cohen adopts an ekphrastic approach to understanding these group forms, seeking to find meaning in description rather than definition, while also drawing on a broad array of critical, queer, and media theorists, both historical and contemporary, to attempt to sociologically unpack these dynamics. The title describes the unique condition of our digital age: the cognitive dissonance inherent in imagining the internet as a democratically social space while also being aware of the constant commodification of our individual and shared interests and desires in the era of Big Data. Cohen deftly weaves together various internet culture phenomena–such as trolling and the use of emoticons as an antidote to atonality–with contemporary art concerns to demonstrate some of the ways we have struggled to communicate on this platform. It is vital, he argues, to understand how populations and publics function in the neoliberal cult of the individual.
Cohen further examines these concepts through the lens of works by Sharon Hayes, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, William Gibson, and Thomson & Craighead, with several pages of full-color plates. Hayes’ “love addresses” performances mirror the act of addressing the amorphous, anonymous other online and the accompanying fragmentation. Gonzalez-Torres’ candy pieces bring up questions of absence and interaction and complicate notions of ownership and stewardship, while his practice of titling works in parentheses connotes “inside jokes” or meaning approachable only by certain groups. Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition describes the way intimacy and commodity are so deeply connected in a digital environment. Thomson & Craighead’s practice of harvesting random search queries for display in their piece “BEACON” addresses both the knowing (and unknowing) of the self and others based on our online desires.
Never Alone, Except for Now would make a good addition to collections at academic and museum libraries that serve patrons interested in the cultural and social machinations of the internet as they relate to critical theory and contemporary art. The book includes an appendix transcript of Sharon Hayes’ performance “I March In The Parade Of Liberty, But As Long As I Love You I’m Not Free,” extensive endnotes, and an index.