“We are all products in the marketplace. Everything we consume is a product. We consume and are consumed. We are products that produce.”
For two years, each day in his Austin, Texas sublet, 27-year-old Internet artist Kevin Bewersdorf went through an ascetic routine. He rose at 7am and for the next two hours practiced yoga and meditation. Breakfast followed: Nutty Nuggets with Kefir and tea. Then he sat down at his laptop computer, often situating himself on the floor where he meditated. He spent the next five hours online, catching up on email and doing webpage design and editing, the work that pays his meager bills. After a snack he might have written some music or gone outside to take digital photos or continued to surf the net – allowing himself the rare leniency to choose. After dinner, he took the same walk, on the same path, everyday. He watched the same television shows each night: “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld.” Another hour of meditation completed his day.
What might seem like a typical, even boring, life was actually an effort to help reach a level of focus and discipline usually associated with spiritual pursuits. For Bewersdorf, the Internet is where he finds spirituality. And his art, like religious art of any faith, is a physical manifestation of his metaphysical study.
“I make art on the Internet and about the Internet,” Bewersdorf said last October between sips of iced coffee in the backyard of a Greenpoint, Brooklyn café. That art includes everything from written essays to images posted on a surf club (the Internet artist’s equivalent of a blog) to his personal website, www.maximumsorrow.com, which itself functions as a piece of art.
Now, Bewersdorf is moving to New York.Despite the change of environment, he plans to maintain his austerity, but he is aware that his new home offers more temptation for distraction. “The routine will have to change,” he told me over the phone, less than a month before his drive up from Texas. “It’s just gonna be a whole lot of stuff to adapt to.”
The first Internet art movement, often referred to as “net.art,” peaked in the late 1990s and explored the technological boundaries of a new medium.Artists like Vuk Ćosić, Alexei Shulgin, and Olia Lialina manipulated and molded digital coding to create pieces that were displayed online.Lialina’s most recognized work, 1996’s “My boyfriend came back from the war,” tells the story its title implies.The opening screen says, “My boyfriend came back from the war. After dinner they left us alone,” which the viewer clicks to begin.Two black and white images that look like silk-screened photographs – one of a cross-paned window, the other of a couple facing away from each other – appear in corners of the screen.With each point and click the viewer reveals images and pieces of text that tell the couple’s story of painful emotional confrontation.
Bewersdorf is part of a second movement that melds form and content. He uses the web to display and share his artwork, but those images, sounds, and video that make up his oeuvre contain ideas that tease apart and explore our relationship, as humans, to the web. It is in grasping to understand the infinity of the web that Bewersdorf experiences spirituality.
“There’s only this desert of this Internet of info,” Bewersdorf said, describing the feeling of wandering through cyberspace. “In order to survive, we have to bring out some spiritual solutions. That’s where it comes from for me, not from coming to say I need to have some spirituality but trying to deal with this flood of info.”
Growing up in Naperville, Illinois, Bewersdorf spent most of his adolescence working at his dad’s store, Cookie Dough Creations, which sold “cookie dough sandwiches, cookie dough pie, all food products with cookie dough.” As he spoke he couldn’t help but smile, revealing a sentimentality undetectable in his own artwork. His time at the store helped hone an eye for small-scale corporate design. He helped create the marketing materials — the logo, murals, displays, brochures – and even came up with the store’s mascot Cooky the Cookie Dough Cook.
On Sundays, his parents dragged him and his sister to a Presbyterian church.He resisted their efforts and, after leaving to attend college at the Rhode Island School of Design, never returned to organized religion. “I hated the way the pastor talked – I thought he sounded like an infomercial asshole,” he said. “But it started my interest in merging corporate speak with religious speak.”
His website, Maximum Sorrow, is the result of that fusion. The first image you see is Bewersdorf sitting in the lotus pose, his head inclined toward his hands which are poised on the laptop keyboard resting on his crossed legs. Digital images of candles sit on either side of him and symmetrical pulsating graphics fill in the surrounding space. But instead of guru-like garb, Bewersdorf wears khaki slacks, a nod to the unofficial uniform of big-box stores like Target, and a red, white, and blue plaid button down shirt. In other photos his barely-blond hair, small round eyes, and aquiline nose appear more clearly – an appearance striking only in its ordinariness, which he plays up with his prosaic wardrobe. You can easily imagine him pointing you toward electronics in aisle 8.
But Bewersdorf didn’t always find inspiration in the banal.Until recently he resented his mild, suburban upbringing.“I always joke to my friends that all my life I’ve had three dreams – to be black, Jewish, or gay,” he said earnestly, before laughing at the silliness of his assertion.“I felt that somehow my culture was inauthentic…I saw my culture as the oppression of other cultures.”
Bewersdorf’s feelings changed when he returned to Naperville as an adult. In 2006 he moved home from Berlin, where he had been living after college, to travel the festival circuit with Joe Swanberg’s film, LOL, for which he wrote the music. He also had an onscreen role (Alex, a musician obsessed with meeting an Internet model), but brushes off acting as a hobby. In between festivals, he walked around Naperville – “where people don’t walk because there are cars” – taking photos of the scenery he once scorned.
“Gradually I made my peace with the landscape,” he said. This led to an appreciation of all that had previously seemed so boring. “One of the things I love the most about it is that everything, all the structures, all the design, it’s not going to last fifty years. So that means in our lifetime…it’s going to have to be destroyed because it was all so temporary.”
Scrolling down from the opening image on his Web site, you begin to understand that Bewersdorf is meditating on a particular idea of America: a consumption-based culture, which has only been enhanced and amplified by the growth of the Internet.
His most recent digital project, “The Four Sacred Logos,” could be interpreted as his doctrine of faith. Four separate Web pages detail the meaning of each logo with text, graphics and audio. For example, the second logo is “The Product,” which Bewersdorf describes as follows:
“We are all products in the marketplace. In the marketplace there are only products, and these products fill the marketplace to capacity. The products produce and consume. Everything we produce is a product. Everything we consume is a product. We consume and are consumed. We are products that produce.”
At the bottom of the page, a crudely drawn animated graphic features two slumped stick-figures facing each other in profile, bowing their heads together again and again. The accompanying audio exercise, in both written and recorded form, repeats the phrase, “you only know how to consume.” Like Hail Mary’s mumbled over and over, the effect is both soothing and revelatory; if you speak the sentence aloud, you feel as though you more clearly understand the concept.
It’s all very simple, instructive, and aesthetically bland – everything you would expect from a corporate manual. But the ideas about the relationship between the marketplace (the world) and the product (you, me, anything that exists in the marketplace) pose the same questions that ignite all religious sects: Who are we? How do we describe our existence? Why are we here? The answer, for Bewersdorf, is found in the America of Applebee’s, eBay, and Amazon.com.
Finding faith through and in the form of the Internet is not a new phenomenon. In a 1997 article titled “The Sacred, The Regional, and The Digital,” Dr. Paul F. Starrs, an associate professor of geography at the University of Nevada, described the similarities between traditional descriptions of God and our understanding of the Internet. They are both “vast in reach but evanescent in form; evolving quickly, in many guises…difficult to map or locate, and essentially elusive.” There are a slew of cyber-religions including (but certainly not limited to), Cosmofy, Digitalism and the Church of the Subgenius. But while other cyber-religions aim to convert and collect members, Bewersdorf has no such ambition.
“There’s no recruitment going on here,” Bewersdorf said when asked how his work differs from spiritual movements. “It’s an attempt to make sense of the world for myself, an attempt to solve all of these problems and questions, fears and confusions. I don’t check my website statistics. I don’t really care.”
But whether he knows it or not, people are visiting his site and viewing his work, some with Sunday-service regularity.Last year Bewersdorf founded a surf club (or artist blog) called Spirit Surfers, on which ten different Internet artists post images, video, or text found on the web that the artist may have manipulated or reconfigured.Gene McHugh, a 26-year-old graduate student in Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies program, is a Bewersdorf fan.He visits Spirit Surfers multiple times each week, looking specifically for Bewersdorf’s contributions. But he doesn’t think Bewersdorf is proselytizing.“I think the spirituality is more for him,” McHugh explained.“I appreciate that that’s the way he’s thinking about this for himself, but that’s not what it’s about for me.”
McHugh and Bewersdorf are part of a generation who remember life without the Internet but whose formative years have mirrored the Internet’s growth. And like the artist, McHugh struggles with understanding how to live with this indescribable realm. Bewersdorf’s work acts as a guide for McHugh, helping him work through these anxieties. “That’s been the best part, that it reconfigures my relationship with the Internet,” McHugh said.
For those who aren’t looking for spiritual tranquility, Bewersdorf offers humor. Assuming the tone of his television repertoire, “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld,” Bewersdorf presents his work with both honesty and irony. And though he’s dead serious about his commitment to life as a spiritually focused Internet artist, he’s surprisingly genial in person, an engaging conversationalist and a generous listener. You would never guess that he aspires to spend months at a time alone, connected to the outside world only by his laptop. But that is what he wants. “If I intensify my practice of surfing and meditation and really secluded myself, I feel like I would completely give over to all of these ideas and then I would become an info-monk, which is kind of a dream of mine.”
Selections from Kevin Bewerdorf’s work will be part of “the future is not what it used to be,” an exhibit at Postmasters art gallery in New York, which runs from February 28-April 4, 2009.