Barbara Pollack, The Social Revolution
How many friends does an artist need? Facebook sets a limit of 5,000, but that hasn’t stopped many artists from tweeting, blogging, posting to well past that number. Today, there are artists who are fully engaged with the world of Web 2.0, the term for an interconnective Internet with sites that encourage user participation. With more and more people becoming familiar with social-networking sites, artists are tapping into these online communities and making works that harness new capabilities.
“The possibilities are endless,” says Louise Shannon, curator of contemporary art at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, who organized “Decode: Digital Design Sensations” at the museum in December 2009. The exhibition featured a number of examples of social-media art. “As networks grow, these opportunities will grow exponentially. We are only at the tip of an iceberg.”
“I look at it with a very long term of view,” says Barbara London, new-media curator at the Museum of Modern Art. “Artists are harbingers in working with materials and technology that keep updating faster than we can blink.”
Social-media art is an umbrella that covers a mind-boggling array of projects: performances accompanied by Twitter feeds, paintings inspired by Facebook profiles, online works that evolve as people participate, videos compiled from postings on YouTube, start-up companies created as art. “Social-media art, for me, is defined as anything that uses social media as either a medium, as source material, or as a starting point for critique,” says Hrag Vartanian, editor of Hyperallergic.com, a Brooklyn-based online publication, and the curator of “The Social Graph,” an exhibition that examined the impact of social networking on art, held at Outpost, a nonprofit art space in Bushwick, Brooklyn, last year. “The social graph” is a term coined by Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to describe the way that a network of relationships can be applied to a variety of purposes, such as marketing.
Creating an exhibition in a physical space from what is basically an online phenomenon presented its own set of challenges. Artist An Xiao spoke to visitors through the online video-chat service Skype from the basement of Outpost, pretending she was in Los Angeles. Performance artist Man Bartlett was also present through a live video feed, stationed at Hyperallergic’s offices in Williamsburg. He asked visitors to complete the sentence “I am …”—”I am hungry,” “I am overly sensitive to criticism,” “I am thinking about my future”—via Twitter. In a 24-hour period, Bartlett received 1,500 responses, tagged with #24hkith, the title of the piece. The artist read the responses aloud, and for each one he attached a feather to a mannequin, which he sold to a collector for $2,000. “I am interested in looking beneath the technology itself at how we communicate with other human beings, and how that is changing as a result of social networking,” says Bartlett.
An Xiao’s The Artist Is Kinda Present, 2010, a performance in which the artist had conversations with gallerygoers over Twitter.
Keeping with the spirit of the show, “The Social Graph” was sponsored by another media-art project, Social Printshop, developed by Benjamin Lotan. Social Printshop is a service that makes posters out of people’s Facebook pictures, each costing $25. Lotan created the company for the M.F.A. program at the University of California, San Diego, where he is still a student. “I would say the company, its organization, and the group of people that I am working with are more the art piece than the posters, though it’s blurry,” says Lotan, who describes his practice as “durational performances where relationships and networks are formed.” He has already attracted two investors, raising over $70,000, but plans to expand social printshop to a much larger scale by this summer. For “The Social Graph,” Vartanian struggled to figure out the best way to include the project in the exhibition, and realized that the most natural relationship would be to have Social Printshop as his sponsor, the way that most cultural institutions interact with large corporations.
“The Social Graph” is just one of several recent exhibitions to showcase social-media art. “Free,” at the New Museum in New York last year, explored the ways that the Internet has expanded artists’ access to information. It included riverthe.net, a collaboration between video artist Ryan Trecartin and David Karp, the founder of Tumblr, a social-blogging platform. Like stream-of-consciousness poetry, riverthe.net is a constant flow of short videos posted by visitors to the site with additions from Trecartin. A much more ominous work in the show was Untitled Black Video (2009), by Dutch artist Martijn Hendriks. For this piece, the artist lifted online comments on an illegal video of the execution of Saddam Hussein and arranged them as subtitles beneath a black screen. Viewers can imagine the gruesome hanging from the posted words.
In the future, social art will mean more than performance art using social media tools. Conversational art objects will argue with us, like pedantic spimes. Mobs of people will leave trails of their social interactions, like Jackson Pollock paint spills. Heat maps of our wanderings across cities and the earth will be cross indexed with alien sitings or automobile collisions or the current color of the sky. Giant tribes and big data will mean monumental art, globe-spanning art, as if Christo got his final wish and could wrap the entire earth in brown paper.