above: altered Ben Vickers image
Much has been written about how platforms like Tumblr, Flickr, and even Facebook have changed the way we discover, view, and disseminate work. While observations along these lines are generally valid, they also tend to underplay an obvious but crucial point: namely, that for a majority of creatives (photographers, artists, designers, etc), these sites are indeed social outlets. More often than not, our engagement with them goes beyond their capacities as autonomous galleries, publishing houses, even as artistic media in themselves; like everyone else, we also use these sites to make and keep up with friends, to stay informed, and to maintain a consistent presence in a given community.
While this isn’t a mind-blowing observation in itself, things get a bit more interesting when we consider that even our most apparently “casual” activity on these platforms (ie, activity not explicitly geared towards promoting ones work) is offered up for the consumption and approval of our creative peers – whom, for most of us, also serve as the intended audience for our work. So even at its most informal, our experience on these sites routinely blurs the lines between friend and audience, between offhand and professional. As such, it’s worth asking how and to what extent this “casual” activity influences the work we create, the way we present that work, and how it’s received by others.
Over the past few months, we’ve seen a series of artworks, writings, and lectures aimed at exploring these ideas. Together, they provide some useful insight into a mode of online activity which, for many of us, has become not only a prominent element of our social lives, but also a legitimate, even central facet of our creative practice. In looking closely at how the “social” elements shape the “media,” these artists and writers urge us to consider the following: how (and to what end) we develop our online identities; how our online networking strategies inform (and perhaps redefine) our practices; and how the feedback we encounter online can affect the way we judge the quality of a given work – particularly if its our own.
(NOTE: There’s a lot more work and writing being produced on this subject than I’ve included here. If I’ve missed a work/text/artist that you think would add to the conversation, feel free to bring it up in the comment section.)
(1.) BRAD TROEMEL – Various Essays and Lectures
(a) A few weeks ago, artist/writer Brad Troemel uploaded a video titled “Art After Social Media” onto his Youtube Channel. Produced in his NYC studio using Photobooth and some visual aids, and based on a lecture he’d given the previous day at PS1 MoMA, “Art After Social Media” is an eleven-minute talk in which Troemel lays out what he sees as the effects of social media on art and artists. It serves as a nice overview of ideas explored in greater detail by the other items listed below.
Troemel observes two larger trends at work: On one hand lies a utopian potential for creative works on the internet. Through digital manipulation, reblogging, and other means of intervention, he says, the web has the potential to redefine (and, to a certain extent, render obsolete) conventional notions of creative authorship, artistic intention, and property. As such, the web could serve as a sort of intellectual commons in which the entirety of culture lies at our disposal, ready to be used to whatever ends we choose. At the same time, he writes, these circumstances have brought about a rise in “hyperbranding,” wherein artists, unable to control how and where their work is presented online, are driven to develop consistent and unique identities (“brands”) in order to retain an element of authorship and secure the recognition of an audience.
(b) Troemel explored similar ideas in “CLUB KIDS: The Social Life of Artists on Facebook,” a much-discussed, mildly controversial essay he published through Dis Magazine back in February. Written in collaboration with artists Artie Vierkant and Ben Vickers, “Club Kids” characterizes the Artist’s Facebook as an environment governed by a series of formalized tendencies: alliances formed through the “silent populism” of Likes, Shares, and brief but typically favorable comments; the formation of personalized “brands” used to situate an artist within a particular clique or ongoing conversation. While the writers go on to explore topics ranging from our contemporary understanding of celebrity to “the rise of biocapitalism,” “Club Kids” can be condensed to a single basic but encompassing premise: while artists often use social media in conventional ways, certain online norms have a direct hand in determining which artists show what and where.
The essay was written by and intended for members of the “net art” community, so perhaps not everything discussed will apply directly to photographers. Still, I have a feeling that for those of us actively engaged with photography online (especially through forums like Facebook, Instagram, and/or Tumblr), a number of these ideas ring true. For instance:
- “Group exhibitions are the punctuation to an ongoing social media conversation where individuals promote one another until those very promotions materialize into their names being shown side by side one another.”
Probably not a new concept, of course, but one which does seem to have been streamlined and amplified in the wake of social media.
- “…An argument can be made that such emphasis on projected lifestyles through Facebook has a regressive effect on the willingness of artists to take bold social risks with their work and/or online personas. Social contact, after all, is the young internet artist’s lifeblood, their peer group and target audience combined, their judge and their jury. The ability to risk antagonism or criticize a peer becomes unnecessarily divisive on Facebook…Feedback, if any, is always on a scale ranging from positive to non-existent.”
An important idea, and one examined in greater detail later in this post.
- “The artist’s online brand tends to function as a kind of live-action role playing artist statement… a vehicle for creating an authorial context that viewers may use to better understand the vantage point an artist’s ‘actual’ work is coming from (i.e. what they’d exhibit in a gallery or show on their portfolio website).”
I’ve seen/heard numerous creatives say as much about their own approach to social media, and I wonder if it’s not a potentially useful development. Gaining a sense of an artist’s work via status updates and blog posts is, admittedly, a less direct, less coherent process than simply reading an artist statement. But so what? For those users willing to pay attention and connect their own dots, the “live-action artist statement” model provides a great deal of functional context for an artist’s work – and, as an audience member, seems to me a far more engaging and liberating prospect than trudging through an obligatory written text. (Which isn’t to say that we’d benefit from the outright abandonment of artist statements – it’s important that creatives be capable of developing and presenting articulate accounts of what they’re doing – but I do think the authors present an interesting idea.)
(2.) JAAKO PALLUSVUO – “How To: Internet”
Released at the end of 2011, Berlin-based artist Jaakko Pallasvuo‘s “How To” video series lays out numerous “paths to success in the international art world,” taking on topics like craft, location, and sexual orientation with cynicism and humor in equal measure. Of the five works in the series, “How To: Internet” is particularly on point, as Pallasvuo sets his sights on the strategies artists use online to gain and maintain popularity. Like “Club Kids,” the work is aimed mainly at net artists – at various points, Pallasvuo calls out his peers for favoring simplistic humor over critical engagement, as well as for their supposed concession to traditional forms of validation vis-a-vis the art market – but again, I’d be surprised if certain portions failed to resonate with the online photo community.
In both tone and intent, the videos invite comparison to the YouTube critiques of Hennessy Youngman, whose Art Thoughtz series offers a similar blend of sarcasm and insight in its indictments of art world norms. (Youngman even has his own collection of “How To” videos, including “How to be a successful artist”; “How to be a successful black artist”; and “How to make an art”). If by some chance you haven’t already checked out Art Thoughtz, get on that.
(3.) LOUIS DOULAS – “Likes and Notes At a Glance: Consumption without Contextualization”
Anthony Antonellis, “Facebook Bliss” (2012)
Central to our experience of the internet is the ability to respond to what we encounter there. For those with something to say, most blogs and networking forums offer comment sections or “reply” options; if so motivated, one may also rejoin by transplanting images, videos, or information of interest into his own outlets. For those of us active on social media, however, the majority of our responses come in the form of clicking (or not clicking) a “like” button. It’s an effortless and seemingly innocuous way of making ones opinions known – but as NYC-based artist/writer Louis Doulas points out, its simplicity often comes at the expense of thoughtful online discourse.
Doulas’ essay “Likes and Notes at a Glance: Consumption Without Contextualization” looks closely at the way we give and take feedback online. As in “Club Kids,” he explains how, in its most basic function, “liking” things helps users to construct a coherent online identity (there’s that “B” word again) and cultivate a reciprocating audience. He also alludes to the question of whether the number of Likes and Notes an item receives is always the best way of judging its quality.
Doulas’ biggest concern with the Like/Note format, however, is that it implicitly discourages users from engaging in a more informed and critical brand of online exchange. “Criticality manifests only in its continual use,” he argues. “Current platforms like Facebook and Tumblr are far too basic and undemanding to represent any real content evaluation system. Their existence is formed not within the domain of contemplation of content but in reaction to it, and thus limited to the impulses and immediacy that accompanies brief encounters and assessments.” If social media is going to be our primary venue for viewing and sharing work, he says, it should also be a prime venue for reviewing and discussing that work; and since our current social media platforms ultimately promote mere consumption, it’s up to users to find ways of responding to online content with more than passing gestures of affirmation.
“It is these clickable symbols that replace textual responses online and justify consumption without dissertation, ultimately encouraging a type of passive consumerism where things are merely nodded at and popularized through formal evaluation and understanding. The Like and Note buttons represent only the lowest common denominator of support. If we are really to offer our deepest convictions, support and criticisms to our peers and institutions, let us actually actively communicate them–not merely click them.”
(4.) DAN ABBE – “Behind the Notes”
Chris Dorley-Brown, “3 boys, London fields, Hackney 1987″ (1987)
Among those who share Doulas’ wish for open and critical online discourse is Tokyo-based photo critic (and regular LPV contributor) Dan Abbe, whose new APM column “Behind the Notes” looks at Likes and Notes from the perspective of those creating the work. With each installment, Abbe focuses on a single photo that has gone viral on Tumblr, examining its content and interviewing its author in the hopes of determining not only why the image has gained such popularity, but also what effect (if any) this popularity has had on the photographer’s practice and/or career.
Admittedly, the discussions thus far have been something less than revelatory (“Now you know: mix skateboards with 80s nostalgia for Tumblr success”); they could perhaps benefit from a closer look at just how the images became so popular – the sequence and variety of sites/people reblogging them, the different contexts in which they landed and, ostensibly, retained validity. Still, Abbe’s attempts to establish a contextual framework for these images should be applauded; through this column, he stands to inject a bit of perspective and discussion into a process which tends to promote little of either.
MEDIUM:1 can be read HERE.
Christopher Schreck is an artist/writer based in New York City.