March 25, 2013 · Print This Article
In the past couple weeks a myriad of media outlets have been chomping at the bit to comment on the first sale of a piece of art made on the rapidly rising social media platform Vine. The work in question was made by Angela Washko and presented at the Moving Image Fair by Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina in their Shortest Video Art Ever Sold (SVAES for short) booth produced in collaboration with Postmasters Gallery. The sale of the work has been quickly marked as an easy target for many critical articles for a variety of reasons, however I feel that most takes have missed some of the more salient issues that surround this sale. I sought out Chayka, Galperina, and Washko to discuss not only their intentions with the project but also to examine what exactly this sale might signal in terms of a potential future for new media art production and saleability.
Before continuing, I feel it’s important for me to say that I have serious misgivings about what the gesture of this sale means for contemporary digital art. That being said, I feel like the media coverage of this event hasn’t given the participants a proper due, or has often been delivered from a somewhat askew and reactionary perspective (which I also might be guilty of). Although what follows is not an attempt to “get the story straight,” I’ll try to curb my personal trepidations in favor of unpacking the intentions of this project. Discussing the implications of this sale – albeit from my hesitant vantage point – come from an underlying respect for the curators to find ways of challenging media art and it’s location within a contemporary market.
On first glance, SVAES presents itself as a very self-assured project in that it immediately places these works in the context of purchasing and ownership. As a markedly youthful project, SVAES revolves around showing Vine as a kind of media art shopping-network/sketchpad. The rapid adoption of this product by artists working online (from Ryder Ripps to Rollin Leonard) seemed of particular interest and importance for the curators. In our conversation over email, Chayka maintains that his and Galperina’s intention was always aimed at being tongue-in-cheek. Through employing this trending technology, Chayka articulates how initially the idea of asking artists to use Vine was a way of creating a semi-satirical entry point for this type of work within a larger art market:
I don’t think SVAES was trying to present any particular kind of aesthetic or enforce a style; it was just about giving artists an opportunity to try something different, more improvisatory. For many of the artists, video isn’t even their primary medium. This is more like a quick, expressive sketch, a video doodle, which seems like what Vine is made for.
Much of the press around SVAES positions the booth not only as a – in my mind seemingly unnecessary – bridge between video art and netart (as Chayka articulates) but also as a way for fairs to start to include artists primarily working through the web. This kind of representation of a netart community points to the abnormality of netart to be shown within the art fair circuit (artists participating either lack typical gallery representation or have decided to work outside of/parallel to traditional art markets). A result of this representation – combined with the curatorial decisions of Chayka and Galperina – is that the booth acted not only as a segue for netartist to be considered within a video art context, but also served as one of the first representational outposts of this generation of artists within a bigger art market. There have been other efforts and offshoots, including LikeArtBasel, but the specific intentions combined with internal support from the Moving Image fair mark it in specifically unique ways. As a result, the SVAES project coyly suggests to the traditional art world a need for opening up traditional methods of distribution for the sake of staving off cultural obsolescence.
This attempt at expanding horizons was a particularly important gesture for Chayka, especially when considering how digital art inherently disrupts the standard channels of art collection and distribution. An important aspect of this disruption comes from the way that the curators dealt with asking artists to use this social media platform. Artists participating in SVAES withheld their videos from public consumption, only to be viewable at the Moving Image booth. If a work was purchased, however, the responsibility of distribution and hosting was put to the collector.:
The social media tie meant that until the piece was bought, you couldn’t see it online — the artist couldn’t publish it, no one could share it, it functionally only existed in the gallery space, it had scarcity. But then when it was bought it was put online instead of taken off, with the imprimatur of the collector. Collecting is at times a very public act, and people should be proud of the art they buy and the artists they support. Through the Vine format and the SVAES project, we mad a meaningful way for them to do that.
The proposed, and eventual, collector had the choice of reposting the video back to Vine or to keep the work within private circulation. The sale of a work implicates the collector in deciding whether or not to allow the work to return to its native networked environment. This curatorial decision is where – in my opinion – the art in SVAES lives.
The unfortunate result of this artistic gesture is that it inadvertently undermines the work of the individual artist. In other words, Washko’s work – and other SVAES pieces – becomes a foil for a curatorial critique of the art market. Washko’s Vine is rendered somewhat irrelevant as soon as it is sold since the work no longer becomes about the artists and their piece, but more about the curators and the collector; at least this shift is where we find ourselves after the purchase has been complete. This process is not exclusive to SVAES as a model/format, but I wonder if the execution of this project is just highlighting an already standardized procedure within contemporary art sales in the form of an intentional gesture. If this is the case, maybe I’m not giving enough credit to SVAES. Even if this were so, the agendas involved in SVAES speak more directly to collection, distribution, or the way the net is expanding these horizons, and not to the content of each piece.
This is particularly worth noting given the content of Washko’s piece, entitled Tits on Tits on Ikea. The work, a shortened alternative of a longer video, was in part made “as a reaction to all of the [already existing] homemade porn vines,” while also following in a line of feminist investigation/criticism that informs Washko’s practice. To undercut this content seems to work against the artist’s intentions of reflecting on this platform and the performative possibilities of short-form networked-video. When asked about the altered status of the work, Washko shared her ambivalent feelings about the overall process:
The thing that is important to [the Moving Image Fair] is that this so-called groundbreaking “Vine-art sale” happened within a framework they own. So it feels especially shitty when I’m not getting any love from them and also taking all of the heat for this project in several extremely spiteful articles, which I must admit are fun to deconstruct and respond directly to. I am thankful for having a very supportive community who are talking to me a lot about this experience as I try to process it, because it’s been really weird… this unexpected media response to this piece was really hard for me in a way, because this was a work I wasn’t ready to talk about yet.
Washko continued to explain how the sale of her vine went to a collector who has previously supported her work (Myriam Vanneschi), and that the $200 sale was a particularly personal gesture of a sustained artist-collector relationship. More importantly, the pointed backlash against Washko as an artists (as opposed to Vine as a product, or the Moving Image Fair as a cultural institution), strikes a disturbing chord since SVAES as a projects wants to critique institutions and not makers. Perhaps the vehement misrepresentation of the work and of SVAES speaks to the problems of presenting and selling work that embraces the sketching quality of Vine that Chayka discusses above. In my mind, relying on social networking as the primary platform of creative production is in itself a pressing problem within online art communities, and should be viewed as one of the primary sources of skepticism put toward this medium. Washko, however, discusses how this reliance is now part and parcel for how artwork is being made online:
We are already reliant on facebook/twitter/whatever to distribute work because the gallery system doesn’t support this kind of work and we realize that we have access to like-minded artists across the globe, and we can support each other by helping to find contexts where this work will be supported for each other. I think it is surely problematic to reinforce the value of these branded, evil(!) channels, however it is hard to deny the benefits they have to broadening audiences and finding better contexts for work.
Perhaps the underlying problem here is that artists working online (at least in America) have decided to choose either gallery representation or social media; both formats necessitating a sidelining of personal politics in favor of reaching a larger and more lucrative audience. For those that choose social media in favor of traditional gallery representation, the artist is left in a particularly vulnerable position since their personal web presences acts as a stand-in for institutional safeguarding (i.e., a museum or curator can take the brunt of criticism and not the individual artist). The sacrifice is becoming more and more daunting as issues of digital ownership and intellectual property online are quickly mounting an End User License Agreement event horizon. The problematic that Washnko describes is perhaps the central location of where my reservation against SVAES lies. When an artist makes work specifically for the context of any given social platform – whether by choice or by invitation – the work unintentionally becomes a supporter of that brand. Perhaps the most troubling thing is the willingness on the part of the artist or curator to submit themselves to the whim of a more dominant cultural identity like Facebook.
This is particularly the case when a work made with social media does not address the material specifics of that platform. At the opening comments at the Tumblr Art Symposium held at 319 Scholes, Christiane Paul addressed how few artists working in social media actually use the infrastructure or material of that media as a resource of creativity (a telling differentiation between the current generation of netartists and their predecessors). Paul quipped (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Are we really talking about Tumblr Art, or merely talking about art on Tumblr?” To that end, if artists online are willing to be making work using social media platforms, then how is that work reflecting on the platform on which they are distributing? More importantly are we even at the point now where questions like this are still relevant? Although SVAES is moving toward this critical position by questioning distribution, access, and ownership, in doing so it renders the content of each individual work as negligible and ultimately subservient to being just another vine in a digital bramble.
In an exhibition last year at the Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles entitled Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 co-curators Phillip Kaiser and Miwon Kwon attempted to create the most comprehensive assessment and categorization Land Art to date. This exhibition was lauded for not merely being comprehensive, but also for challenging the American-centric notions that usually define this movement, thus extending the conversation into a more international discourse. Thinking about this exhibition, and the attempts by the curators to reintroduce site-specific practices into a contemporary conversation has made me question the role of site and of location within digitally produced works.
Kwon herself offers many perspectives on the shifting state of site-specific work in her One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. The book examines the emergence of site-specific artworks as a direct response to the stale/domestic/white cube settings that more commonly permeate contemporary art at the time. She notably points to the shift of site-specificity from wilderness sites back into the gallery due to the convenience of re-fabrication processes. This practice is then eventually supplanted by an adoption of institutional critique performance by museums as a way of continuing to support site-specificity work. However, this gesture of support still truncates this work within the confines walls of the institution. As a result of the increased modularity and/or insularity of many site-specific works – an effort to make these pieces more capable of traveling to multiple institutions – Kwon argues that the very nature of a site-specific practice is more mobile as of late. As a result:
“the specificity of the site in terms of time and space is rendered irrelevant, making it all the easier for autonomy to be smuggled back into the art work… The artwork is newly objectified (and commodified) and site specificity is redescribed as the personal aesthetic choice of an artist’s stylistic preference rather than a structural reorganization of aesthetic experience…. In this way, site-specific art comes to represent criticality rather than performing it.”
This trajectory not only asks artists to take hold of the performative role of a location based work (as famously done by Andrea Fraser) but it also asks artists to take the materiality of mobility as the primary location for criticism. If a work of location-based art is freed from needing specific time and space to discuss locational identity, then how might this serve an artist already working with a medium that embraces mobility? If one were to embrace the spatial and temporal flexibility of location then this site can become decentralized or abstracted in order to speak to the underlying cultural significance of a specific place.
It’s important to note here the importance difference in the two types of locations that artists might engage: space and place. In space, artists are concerned with geography, geometry, and dimensions of distance or volume; however, in place, artists are investigating the culture, history, identity, and politics of a location. This differentiation is important since space is the only location of the two that requires (or at least asks) the artist to be physically present with the site. (Various Marina Abramovic puns can be inserted here).
With place, that physicality is not required. In fact, place does not inherently require any physical manifestation whatsoever. Place can exist in memory, in writing, in oration, or in any variable/ephemeral media. In this way, place is much more akin to Conceptual art of the 1970s, where the idea of a work takes precedence, and the execution of object-making for the purposes of containing that idea are secondary (or at least that is the hope). If place can then exist within non-physical environments, then it is a ripe location for digital artists to inhabit and work within.
I feel as though there are already artists dealing with space as a decentralized phenomenon. For instance, in his Tantamount Series, JK Keller flattens various mountain peaks into a unified horizon line. This gesture then visually and metaphorically flattens the rooftops of the world into one single homogenous space. Regardless of Keller’s visually inventive gesture, this work does not necessarily take into account the actual placial relationships these locations might possibly have with one another. The decentrality of these mountaintops marks these locations more as a type of “any-space-whatever” then it does a place with a specific history/identity. This is not to fault Keller by any means, but his work serves as fitting evidence of a continued trepidation to address place within the digital arts.
Some artists seem to be slowly approaching place as it relates to personal history, however. Nicolas Sassoon has made a couple of works – notably Fidji – that address the architectural history of locations from his childhood and how these sites have influenced his amazingly consistent style. Works like Legend by Timur Si-Qin, on the other hand, addresses place not through personal narrative, but through the context of the gallery in which he is shown/invited. The place in this piece (although situated in a specific space) involves the family of one of the gallerists. Si-Qin asks the gallerist to engage with her father’s interest in medieval reenactment through the devices of contemporary warfare. This process then creates a fictional, decentralized place that involves a specific family history and cultural lineage. The catalyst for creating place in this work occurs in the “simulated anachronistic battle [that] double[s] as the act of artistic production.” The physical space of the gallery is then made somewhat irrelevant, and in turn creates a “context-specific project.” (Above quotes taken from the press release of the exhibition at Fluxia in Italy).
Si-Qin combats falling into the trappings of a more typical context-driven methodology that takes cues from the spatial concerns presented by a physical gallery or institution. This more standard way of working, however, is what most artists I know would identify as site-specific work (or what I too have identified in the past for invitational projects). It goes something like: a gallery asks to do a show with an artist, and the artist seeks to make a new body of work in response to such a request. This process is still grounded in issues of space, and rarely addresses the place of the gallery or site. As a result of this trend the gallery itself becomes a no-place, and merely serves as a spatial vessel for transporting (or manifesting) the consumable goods that Kwon had initially argued against. However, because digital art does not require spatial presentation of a work (although some would argue this abandonment is naïve), artists in this medium should take the opportunity to create work that investigates the nuances of place.
I could be asking for too much, since the lure and attraction of showing in a gallery poses artists with an opportunity to sell work or to recoup production/education costs. I suppose it’s more than a lure, it’s a real/physical possibility that digital artists are rarely afforded. But in my mind artists should already be working on projects or ideas regardless of representation and/or exhibition opportunities. Due to the accessibility – and I use that term lightly – of the net, the potential for emphasizing placial concerns should be unavoidable. This is particularly the case since the space of the Internet is much more decentralized. So why is there still reservations in discussing the potential of a decentralized place?
It might be that the conceptual project of a decentralized place is much more of a challenge to those already comfortable with the idea of working within decentralized space. How does one talk about the specifics of a culture or history in such a way that is not predicated on a particular geography? One recent project that I feel is attempting to approach this conundrum is a kickstarter initiative by Lance Wakeling entitled Field Visits for Bradley Manning. In his description of the project Wakeling outlines a particular methodology for tackling the task of decentralized place through looking at multiple spaces:
“despite the title, Field Visits is not a straight-up documentary about Bradley Manning. Instead, the video explores the peripheral histories and landscapes of the surrounding areas. The case of Manning and the fight for open information become one tile in the larger mosaic of an internet impatient to assume the world.”
By stitching together histories, sites, and spaces, Wakeling is attempting to create a place – an imagined and decentralized location – to discuss the implications of free information in a heavily surveiled society. In doing so, the space of these locations – Kuwait, Virginia, Kansas, and Maryland – becomes subservient to the place in which these locations come to represent. Thus the place of this work is situated in a decentralized location.
In looking back at the strategies of Land Artists included in Kwon’s exhibition one can observe how desire to relocate art outside of the minimalist influenced “neutral” interiors of the gallery was an act of rebellion against the sterility of that aesthetic. The organic forms of Land Art, in and of themselves, serve as an oppositional stance against the geometric rigidity and spatial obsessiveness of minimalism. Artists working with digital technology have certainly taken it upon themselves to investigate how the ephemeral material of their medium challenges traditional notions of space. However, artists of this ilk must also take advantage of that ephemeral materiality as a way to challenge traditional notions of place. In this way, I wonder how the potential for a new form of decentralized or actively mobile site-specificity might in turn serve as a reaction against the rapid commercialization and institutionalization of art online.
January 28, 2013 · Print This Article
After reading about the sudden suicide of Aaron Swartz, I’ve been thinking deeply about my role as a digital artist. Swartz, a prolific computer programmer and activist ended his life after battling depression and a pending prosecution by the US Department of Justice for his intent to distribute academic texts only accessible through JSTOR. This material was taken by trespassing onto the MIT campus (Aaron attending Harvard at the time) however the prosecution charged him with counts of wire fraud, computer fraud, and obtaining information illegally through a computer – charges that many feel were unwarranted and/or severe. The sentence that prosecutors pursued in this case – up to 50 years of jail and a $1 million fine – illustrate the growing division between those who want information to remain free and those wanting to continue the privatization of data through pay-walls and limited access. This division, as catalyzed in some way by Aaron’s suicide, is rapidly approaching a point where the very notion of keeping information decentralized and open risks criminalization.
This situation – filled with grief, anger, and sorrow – brings up concerns about the freedom of information. It’s important to note here that access to information does not equate with freedom of information. Computer Scientist and activist Richard Stallman once put forth a fitting analogy, saying that there is “free as in freedom,” and then there is “free as in beer.” In the former, freedom is a universal liberation of expression; in the latter, you are only afforded access to beer on the predication that you belong to the party. If you area stranger to the party, taking beer from the fridge is not merely be uncool, but it can easily break out into pandemonium. This nuanced line of what constitutes “free” is precisely the fine line that Aaron and others digital activists tread.
As I said initially, in the wake of Aaron’s widely publicized suicide, I’ve been thinking considerably about the state of digital rebellion and electronic civil disobedience amongst the makers that have recently become closely associated with art online. It’s important to note that many notable figures within the new media and net art community have spoken out about the implications of Aaron’s prosecution and suicide. However, besides the occasional prank or gimmick, I found it hard to come up with many young artists that were tackling digital politics head on. I know that many within that community have sought, in one way or another, to comment on the state of digital distribution with regards to authorship and appropriation, but few seem up for the task of talking directly about the ways in which the web is changing for the worse.
The Jogging’s Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) project ASSEMBLY in 2010, which polled users on what site they should shut down, was criticized by many as an act of feigned martyrdom after their Tumblr was shut down (which has since been reopened). Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern attempted multiple variations of internal subversion in their Wikipedia Art project in 2009, only to be quickly asked to cease and desist and later threatened with legal documents that were eventually defended by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Artie Veirkant’s Real Proper asks questions of piracy and the standards of distribution that occur within p2p networks, but again the work does not necessarily take a stance on how the illegal access to copies of Hollywood cinema inform a digital art practice. Although I’m sure that I’m overlooking some projects, it seems that just until recently artists were at least entertaining the idea of digital protest and radicalism. Now, however, The Jogging (for example) seems little more than a branding engine to fuel Brad Troemel’s etsy page.
This is not to say that The Jogging, or any digital artist really, should be faulted or put under the microscope for wanting to pursue a viable commercial career. Perhaps more to the point, it’s important to articulate that the pursuit of economic sustainability as a digital artists does not inherently fly in the face of radicalism or political activity. This being said, I might be looking too intently for a clearer expression of a political stance from artists, contemporaries, and myself. The vagueness of the politics of contemporary digital media – generally leaning left and in support of the freedom of information – marks the medium with a sense of apathy, or else opportunism. Or at least this is a fear within my own work.
This is not to say that the field is completely void of radical activity. 0-Day Art, maintained by Don Miller and Jeremiah Johnson, copy and redistribute “net art taken offline” through p2p torrents. Through copying and rehosting privately distributed work like Rhizome’s The Download, the duo explicitly relocates work back into a public distribution network in an effort to weaken the commodification of that artwork. This gesture not only subverts private institutionalization of digital media, but also questions the need for art online to abide by traditional art market principles like scarcity and collectability. Although their work has generated several conversations regarding the efficacy of redistributing work without the consent of the artists – and whether this gesture critiques institutions or the artists themselves – the spark that 0-Day Art ignites comes from a fire familiar to Aaron’s torch.
Certainly, the art world is not oblivious to Aaron’s death as evidenced by the outcry of support for his cause by many notable net-publishing outlets with equally notable guest columnists. I am surprised, however, that notions of radicalism, digital protest, and hacktivism haven’t been more prevalent in the contemporary discourse of art online. With all the concern around net art’s ability to mature into a gallery viable medium, I’m left wondering how the rapid commercialization of art online – itself a reflection of the increasing commodification of data – might estrange the medium from its radical roots.
Looking at mid 90s or early 00s work by JODI.org or Eva and Franco Mattes, a strong political message repeatedly occurs. Works like Biennale.py and Mongrel’s hack of the Tate Modern’s site positioned digital art as a medium that not only challenged contemporary art conventions, but also a the larger political infrastructure that supported those institutional models. Tactics like flame-wars, and list-serv spam-bombing are all now completely passé. This once popular and aggressive tactic employed by Netochka Nezvanova on many VJ forums at the turn of the century is now nothing more than twitter cattiness or comment spam. This history, sadly, seems lost to many emerging digital practitioners; a community all too willing to site Marshall McLuhan or Walter Benjamin, but unwilling to look at immediate predecessors. In other words, trolling has gone “mainstream.”
Much as the educator in me would like to imagine, history lessons won’t suffice in moving contemporary digital practice toward a location of radicalism. A critical reengagement of the material of our tools seems to be a more worthwhile endeavor. The ways in which we use software and hardware to create cultural material speak volumes about the intention of the maker and the willingness of that individual to take a stance against the material of monoculture. Instead of celebrating the access of iDevices for making pretty drawings and using monoculture social media as an artificial performance platform, an investment in progressive alternatives might be in order. To this end, I know few artists that use opensource software, build their own computers, or at the very least release their work under Creative Commons. I’ll reproach myself slightly for positioning this as some kind of merit badge of nerdiness. But the fact remains that the ease of piracy and/or pilfering volume licenses from academia have an effect on the way that these tools get used.
Whatever potential for subversion that might occur in using mass-market software is subsumed by the software rigidity. I’m constantly surprised by my own willingness to agree to End User License Agreements that I know full well compromise my freedom. This agreement not only constrains creative potential, it also dictates a specific aesthetic. Digital artists using excessive drop-shadow in Photoshop, or crowd-sourced models from Google SketchUp, turns into a convenient visual style. It seems as if the cultural capital that net art has coveted so consciously is slowly losing its metaphorical gold standard. In other words, because of the aesthetic motivations behind a potential subversion, the intention of the artist becomes clouded. When look becomes primary and content becomes secondary the potential for political activation becomes lost.
Perhaps the immediacy of creative tools has rendered critical inquiry into the need for those tools as insignificant (or moot). Instead tools are taken for granted, and as a result this entitlement breeds a homogenous aesthetic. For example, instead of figuring out how to modify, hack, or renegotiate available technology (i.e. an obsolete printer or gaming console), contemporary artists can simply pirate the latest version of ZBrush. Again, issues of access seem integral in refamiliarizing ourselves with a radical vernacular. What happens to the content of our media when we can pirate any software we need? What happens to our culture when open-source options seem alien or only for those with computer science degrees?
Perhaps, what I’m observing is a desire in contemporary net-based practices to diverge away from a hacker ethic that once informed a previous generation of new media artists. In some ways, 0-Day Art embodies a unique creative intersection between hacker culture and contemporary net art. As a result of this divergence, there is a noticeable political division between those interested in DEF CON and those going to Art Basel. The dwindling overlap between these potential communities has either migrated offline completely or gone into other fields (game development, e-journalism, music, etc.).
But why? Is the conflict here merely financial, or is there inherently an ideological divide between digital activism and digital creativity? The willingness of net-based practitioners to champion the flexibility and openness of the web must come also with a willingness to defend that openness at the cost of personal gain and/or success in the art world.
It’s clear that the impact of Aaron’s death is reaching far and wide to many different types of free information advocates, but to what extent his suicide will effect contemporary net art is still uncertain (if at all). My hope is that Aaron’s sudden death, again tragic and profoundly dire, will inspire others to continue in his wake. I especially hope that this happens within the arts – where the debate of property, distribution, access, and potential profitability continue to create contentions and rifts amongst what once appeared to be a tight community of peers.
This past weekend Frieze mounted their inaugural New York fair on Randall’s Island in an extensive, 180 gallery showcase of contemporary art. With large financial backers like the Financial Times, BMW, and Deutsche Bank, it seemed the big concern on everyone’s mind regarded the state of the contemporary market as well as whether a new fair for Frieze stateside would prove to be a good investment. For all intense and purposes, it appears that Frieze made a good bet. Covering a large swath of commercial contemporary art movers and shakers, the fair catered well to not only the blue-chippers, but also to the more independently minded. Of the artists, critics, and curators that I talked to, the general sentiment was “As art fairs go, Frieze was pretty good.” I tend to agree with this sentiment even though the abundantly transparent “safeness” of galleries dominated the conversation. As a result, work on display was often limited to paintings and sculptures that reenforced the hierarchy of fine arts over more experimental practices. That being said, there were some good moments and what follows is a rough and tumble round up of noteworthy booths.
One thing that immediately struck me about Frieze was the amount of work on display from non-major player and specifically those considering themselves emerging art spaces. Galleries like Seventeen (UK), Tanya Leighton (DE), Bartolami and Team Gallery (both NYC) represented well, although again banking on somewhat safe measures. I wasn’t thrilled with what Team was showing, considering that they had a large corner booth right in front of the main entrance. A Banks Violette sculpture of #88 that Dale Earnhart Jr. drives in Nascar dominated a lot of attention in their space, but didn’t really hold up much beyond being a big metal sculpture. Tanya Leighton and Seventeen both showed work by Oliver Laric – Seventeen focusing more on wall pieces, and Tanya Leighton emphasizing more his exploration of variations in sculpture and rapid-prototyping with long time collaborator Aleksandra Domanovic. Tanya Leighton’s space was certainly popular and by Sunday it seemed as though they had sold a good portion of the show. I’d argue that these works are actually not the best pieces of these artist’s repertoire, but in the context of this fair they served as very acute examples of how to move a traditional fine art conversation into more digital, research based, experimental directions.
Where Tanya Leighton only showed these two, Seventeen showed a bit more of their stable crew. One work that really stood out to me was a series of pieces by Kate Owens called The Speaking Exercise. This series comprises of backwards facing, cheaply framed “poorly” (according to Seventeen manager Tim Steer) reproduced works by High Modernist masters like Josef Albers and Barnett Newman. The works are then tilted upwards against the white wall creating a saturated aura that speak to the original paintings. Although one would argue that this might appear to be a rather tired combination of cheap materials with canonical art history, the experience of the glow of these works is what propels them beyond being a simple one-liner and into elegant comments on the metaphysical materials of the avant-garde.
Bartolami’s booth, although slightly inconsistent for my tastes, had some fantastic works by Ben Schumacher that delicately tight-roped the line between very salable and very contemporary works in that they clearly evidence a need for reconsidering material, surface, and painterly form. The three gray works by Schumacher used a foamy and artificially rendered surface that seemed to seep through or over an infrastructure of mesh that covered the under layer of this “painting.” These works almost appeared as if rendered through the use of some preset glob brush in something like z-brush or mudbox, but the subtitles of patterning and flecked paint show a hand of the maker in what could otherwise be considered a personality-less work.
Besides some of these emerging spaces, some of the “bigger guns” of the fair also had good showings. Although mega-galleries like White Cube (UK) and Gagosian (Everywhere) basically acted like micro-museums/retrospectives, some of the other larger booths did display some worthwhile works and at times risky choices. One such large booth that I particularly liked was Contemporary Fine Arts from Berlin that showed about a handful of large mixed media works by Anslem Reyle. The combination of humor, high craft, and play on monumental tackiness mixed together well, however I thought that the more evident displays of the artists hand with purposeful sloppiness that existed on the outside of the booth were more interesting. The coldness of the interior pieces were certainly worthy of attention, but I felt like the humor of those works could’ve transcended the simplicity of their formal considerations if buttressed with pieces that more deliberately referenced painting, craft, and the artist at work.
Lisson (UK) was also one of those blue-chip galleries that had some fairly interesting artists on display. A plethora of experimental sound, electronics, and installation work from Haroon Mirza interspersed the space to create a sonic interjection into a primarily “silent” fair. Their decision to even display work of a non-traditional variety – albeit Mirza is one of the most digestible artist of this ilk – was a relatively gutsy move, particularly when juxtaposed with several large sculptural works by Ai Weiwei. This obviously attention seeking interruption worked in Lisson’s favor as I noticed that both times I thoroughly walked through this space I had to navigate troves of visitors and spectators. This is not to congratulate Lisson too much, but their effort to expand the fair out into mediums that rarely get proper displays within this context was definitely something that stood out within the fair.
One of my favorite booths was without a doubt Elizabeth Dee (NYC) due to their very well rounded display of historical and contemporary works. The standout here was the six TV screens displaying a recent compilation of rarely-seen early video works by Adrian Piper. In a fair almost completely devoid of media works, Elizabeth Dee’s decision to show works that not only require headphones and a certain attention span, but also works intended for museum collection was a bold move. These videos were then nicely paired with some delicate painted pieces by Mark Barrow and a stunning optical wall piece by Philippe Decrauzat.
There were other notable statements from international booths, including a superbly put together booth by Galeria Vermelho from São Paulo, a great Chris Burden mock-up by Wien based Galerie Krinzinger, as well as some nice photographic works by Willie Doherty presented by Kerlin Gallery in Dublin. That being said, I was disappointed by the majority of the Frame project spaces for galleries established less than six years ago. These spaces, situated in the middle of the fair, were almost too safe by either showing conservative work or else relying solely on spectacle. That being said, 47 Canal‘s booth displaying work by Michele Abeles stood out amongst these spaces. The digital collages that blended scraps from previous works seemed both dense and flat at the same time. This series of roughly ten works created a tension showing an active (almost impatient) mind, willing to spread images and ideas evenly to sort through a personal past.
As stated above, the general sentiment of Frieze was both jolly and practical. Amidst the crowds of art enthusiasts one could find enjoyable work in regular frequency, and booths devoid of interested audiences were few and far between. Even though I would have liked to have seen more experimental work, the understandable need for predictability within the contemporary art market didn’t prove to make for a bland experience. See below more images of noteworthy works and booths of last weekend.
February 14, 2012 · Print This Article
Recently the topic of online galleries and their proliferation in the past year has been on the tips of many tongues. Specifically, the argument involves a musing on how the development of online venues for showing net-based work is providing a fundamental shift in the paradigms of traditional art market systems. Although I support and am interested in these projects, I haven’t been convinced one way another of their effectiveness, or if these new galleries are actively engaging, responding, or directly working against the establish status quo of art exhibition. One such criticism of the overall impact of these spaces comes from the striking similarity of artists shown in these venues. In very few instances do these spaces show artists that haven’t otherwise had some kind of successful online exposure (through something like Rhizome, Art Fag City, or even the artist’s own dynamic social networking presence). The amount of overlap between the artists shown in these online venues is telling to the overall quality of work being made and distributed online. It’s not that I want to argue that these artists are underserving of so much attention, or that their work hasn’t earned wide distribution and exhibition, but I do question the value of having multiple online venues showing such similar kinds of work and artists (especially given the availability of so many creative, insightful, and challenging works being made within/around network culture).
This being said, I came to scrutinize my own suspicion of these so-called alternatives by questioning the fundamental basis of my own judgement: is it the responsibility of these websites and galleries to create an antithesis of the standard model of commercial distribution? Is it is also their responsibility to only show artists that otherwise would never have an opportunity to show in physical space? Following this train of thought, I came to question whether it is even the intent of these spaces and sites to operate as opponents or counters to the art market, and if it is fair of me to critique these spaces underneath these expectations. If not, then what intentions and responsibilities do organizers and curators have in the creation of their forum? To provide more substance for these considerations, I decided to talk directly with those that have been cited as promising examples of this trend in an attempt to uncover how these (mostly artist-run) initiatives consider their own activities within the larger scope of contemporary art exhibition and economics.
For my pool of information I solicited responses and conversations from Art Micro Patronage, BOCA, Bubblebyte, Fach and Asendorf Gallery, Klaus Gallery, and Parallelograms to contribute some thoughts on their role as ambassadors for online artworks. I asked these spaces how their projects saw themselves within the dominant art market system, and how they attempt to incorporate both online audiences interested in the type of work they are showing, as well as audiences that extend beyond what I characterized before as a rather insular group. It might be important to note here that some of these spaces offer their exhibitions without any intention to make money, or without any deliberate sense of “marketing” their work to buyers and sellers. This being said, that stance can be viewed as an act of defiance against the normative system of commercial markets, and in itself can be viewed as a (political) position within that market. Given this, my inquiries of how they effect and respond to normative art showcasing still applies. My decision to consider these questions in light of this variability in itself speaks to the need for flexibility in traditional systems of showing emerging artists and/or work that is difficult to purchase, own, or commercialize.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was provided with an equally variable array of answers to the above posed questions. That being said, I wasn’t surprised that most responders emphasized the creativity of the artists and work exhibited on these sites overrode the significance of needing to reach an audience that might not be aware of online cultural production. Leah Beeferman and Matthew Harvey of Parallelograms stress that their project isn’t directly intending to “dismantle” the traditional art market, but instead is “really a project for artists, and hopefully one that ends up being [more] about ‘creative’ process than anything else.” The accentuation of the work is perhaps the reason why there is so much overlap between galleries and their audiences, since the sampling of work in these venues is often specifically invested in a long term process, as opposed to the more product driven model of commercial galleries. Although the quick turn around between conception of an idea and execution might be sped up by online production, the underlying substance of most of these makers involve a long term exploration of their craft and culture.
The other central benefit that almost all spaces identified with is that by maintaining work online all the physical limitations of spatial and temporal proximity no longer are an issue. As Rhys Coren and Attilia Fattori Franchini from Bubblebyte argue:
Art online gives you a lot of freedom, the possibility of eliminating lots of costs that you would have in a normal gallery setting – equipment, space, exhibition costs, communication costs [are minimized]. It is definitely weird but we are enjoying the challenge, often using limitations as a strength to develop our discourse… we can reach the world for the cost of an Internet connection, and we’re open 24 hours a day.
In terms of considering audience, The Internet is the most accessible place I know to see art. The only requirements are an Internet connection and a way of accessing that. Where you are isn’t a factor. When you look isn’t a factor.
The newfound accessibility and wide distribution that these sites offer patrons and artists appears to be enough to sustain the importance of adapting to contemporary cultural communities. However, there is a dangerous presumption that everyone is looking at the work at the same time, or even in the same way. Not that this is necessarily suggested by these projects, but I’d argue that the vast distribution and decentrality of these works occasionally usurps the actual political, cultural, or aesthetic content. To apply this metric to the successfulness of any one show is a slippery slope, and seems a bit too closely tied to attendance demands that plague physical cultural institutions (although this problem has been partially alleviated by the growing attendance of many major institutions). In order to create “value” out of these works, one needs more criteria than a mere visit counter to judge impact. This being said, that “value” seems to be generated from the growing amount of physical mountings and exhibitions that are directly influenced by these sites (many of the projects above have already specifically forayed into physical shows, or plan on have IRL versions in the near future).
The question of how to create a space of appreciation for the kind of art being distributed through social networks and online galleries has to involve an inquiry into how to cross pollinate audiences online and off. A tricky aspect of this process lies in how one defines – or identifies with – the community they exist within, as well as the audience that they wish to access. This is particularly the case when we observe how a market system is often times attached to a specific physical audience or temporal community. The physical space often reflects the culture around it, and for the Internet, this mimetic process is almost impossible to centrally locate and concretely diagnose. To navigate between a community of makers across the globe and a local constituency can often lead to competing terms and expectations. Most responders argued that because a system of sharing, open distribution, and community discourse was already been established online, that all these projects had to do was put a name to an already familiar face. This name then serves as an external identification for an online community to be in dialog with those that might be unfamiliar – or else those that don’t have the benefit of a local forum (as Coren and Franchini indicated).
Duncan Malashock identifies that being able to talk to both a larger international audience and those more local influences how he helps operate Klaus Gallery:
The goal of the project was to introduce Internet-related artists to the audience of Klaus von Nichtssagend, two groups who’d had limited exposure to one another. The work is of course available, but to suggest that the project is “in dialogue” with a “market,” I think is perhaps to put too fine a point on it. Our hope is to introduce the online work of particular artists whose work we find potentially engaging to a particular audience that we’re familiar with.
Similarly, Eleanor Hanson Wise and Oliver Wise of Art Micro Patronage also urge that their intentions come from extending the work of artists primarily working online onto the personal computers of contemporary art appreciators and collectors:
We didn’t design AMP to compete with galleries selling work. We looked more to a museum model, where the community who appreciates the institution supports it. For a collector, we tried to provide an easy way to keep track of and access the work you like… Why don’t museums (for the most part) show or collect “netart”? It seems to us that it’s because they don’t have a good way to show it, curate it, and make it accessible to the public… By offering the general public a way to experience the shows and fund the artists working in this way, artists can reach a different audience, and that audience can give those artists a financial vote of confidence, even if it’s in a small way.
Art Micro Patronage goes on to admit how their unwillingness to participate in direct competition with the commercial gallery system shows that again the important part is to enable artists working online to gain exposure to channels that otherwise might not be readily available.
Often the power of these sites is that they already come prepackaged with an entire community at their backs. The proliferation of online spaces (and the multiplicity at which they continue to crop up) is in no small part due to a net-based community of artists that have been arguing the need for these types of venues. Kim Asendorf of FA-G even goes so far as to say that “Net Art legitimizes online galleries,” as opposed to the other way around as I initially suggest. The overall strength of this network lies in their willingness to support the programming and curation of a underrepresented net art scene. Moreover, it could be argued that this enthusiasm and support will play a major role in tipping the scale in favor of non-commercial gallery distribution, and to create the much needed alternative to the status quo that dominates most art institutionalization.
A foreseeable danger in this is finding a way to make these spaces have long term sustainability, and continued resonance with online makers. A case study to consider in light of the somewhat temporary-ness of online curatorial projects (i.e., jstchillin, The State, etc.) is to look at the transience that also occurs in the apartment gallery scenes of cities like Chicago and San Francisco. Although these projects and experimental spaces crop up frequently with much initial support, artists and organizers of those types of spaces usually move on from them after two or three years. What online galleries have going for them is that they are not as tied down to physical space, finance, and luck as these temporary spaces usually are. However, the rapid audience shifts that often occur in online environments might also serve as a word of caution to these spaces to consider how to sustain a practice over a longer concentrated amount of time (although this might not be important for some).
Some would dispute that the only way to prevent the potential collapse of an unsustainable and primarily voluntary project is to introduce a financial element into the mix. Often this takes the shape of incorporation of one kind or another – non-for-profit status, a business license or LLC, etc. In this way, Bozeau Ortega Contemporary Arts (or BOCA for short) stands out amongst the participants I polled as a specifically commercially driven platform for the distribution and sale of digital projects and objects (with some visible success according to their website). Of the projects mentioned above, BOCA is distinct in that it attempts to comment on the art market directly by satirically playing into its rhetoric and formula. Their position as a viable commercial entity explicitly investing in digital objects – regardless if the project has fictitious elements and cleverly disguised “backers” – serves as an ironic twist on standard marketplace practices:
The immaterial nature of our product has problematized its commodity status and, as a result, dialogue has become our central function (we see this as an investment in the future of ourselves and our artists)… Unwittingly, our gallery has come to occupy a critical space: our immaterial works of art, and their relatively low market value in spite of their rarity and novelty, occupy a position critical of the value of typical, physically mediated works of art… If commodification and market viability make a body of work legitimate, then yes, BOCA Gallery could be seen to be legitimizing an area of artistic production which formerly expressed no interest in such “legitimization.” However, by doing such a poor job of commodifying these objects for market consumption, our project could actually be fulfilling the opposite role, unwittingly exposing the absurdity of such economics applied to such arbritrarily valuated virtual objects (both physical and digital).
Regardless of the clarity of intention, or the degree at which a project aims to complicate the standard system of art exhibition (or the certainty of authorship and origin in the case of BOCA), the common thread between the responses that I got reflect a similar attitude to what Beeferman and Harvey discussed initially. The priority of showing work that is otherwise underrepresented in traditional gallery scenes dominates the central desires of most of these sites. The trouble I have with this is an implied marginality that occurs when discussing net based artists. This imposition of feeling excluded, or else impatience with the for-profit market system, is more self-imposed then externally dictated. To ride this rhetoric fully seems ignorant of the ways in which digital art is, or more accurately already has infiltrated and become more pronounced in the greater art world dialog. To favor one system over the other, or to underscore the supposed ignorance of major cultural institutions for not having more net based art, can position the artist, work, or community as having ingrained entitlement due to its novelty. As a result, that dueness inherently denigrates the process driven community based discourse that gives net-based art so much life and energy.
Perhaps an underlying question then becomes: why is net-art perceived as such a marginal medium needing specific online galleries to cater to their production and distribution? If an ideal environment of an artists working online lies within the personal computing web-browsing experience, then why the need for relocating these works into another specific website/framing? What is “more accessible” about an online gallery then an artists personal website? Are the tropes from the traditional gallery system still playing too significant a role in the way in which net-art is being presented? Or are these systems only being utilized in order to be exploited, undermined, and (eventually) refashioned from inside out?