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.
Just a few quick newsy items for this midweek:
*First up, the most significant story of the week (to my mind): Columbia College Journalism professor Dan Sinker – the founder of Punk Planet, no less — was revealed as the @MayorEmanuel Tweeter! Sinker’s fake mayor Twitter persona was the most brilliantly literary use of Twitter I’ve yet seen - punk rock to the core. For further background on the @MayorEmanuel saga, check out his (now defunct) Twitter feed, as well as this annotated, archivable version of those same Tweets on Snarkmarket, and listen to WBEZ Radio’s interview with Sinker on Eight Forty-Eight here.
*On to somewhat more relevant news: The Illinois Arts Council has announced its first round of FY2011 grants, awarding 725 grants totaling over $7,567,938. Click here to see the full rundown of awardees county-by-county. The big question is: how long will it take for awardees to receive their funds? See this July, 2010 article in Time Out to learn more about the IAC’s ongoing budget woes due to the state of Illinois’ economic crisis. Key ‘graph from Time Out’s piece:
“While the agency’s budget has crept back up to $8.5 million for fiscal 2011, [IAC Executive Director] Scrogum warns that Quinn probably will impose a “reserve” on grants, freezing recipients’ access to at least five percent of the money until the state’s finances improve. Fiscal 2011 applications were due in April; our sources’ pessimism about them appears justified. “We don’t know how much will be available to award,” Scrogum admits, “and even once that is known, [we still won’t be] able to predict how long it’s going to take for those grants to be paid.”
For further background, listen to Richard Holland’s interview with the IAC’s Executive Director Terry Scrogum about the funding crisis in Episode 205 of Bad at Sports’ podcast.
*Arts writers declare ‘strike’ against Huffington Post. Make sure to read the comments (there are surprisingly few – maybe that tells ya something), as they provide interesting points of view on the debate.
*David Alan Robertson, The Ellen Philips Katz Director of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, will step down effective December 31, 2011, as stated in a press release issued by Northwestern University.
Kate has done her 30 days, she has her $10,000 and I am sure a stack of non-disclosure agreements signed. The experiment is over and so begins the postmortem. The irony is it is almost pointless doing a review of the job that Kate McGroarty did over the last 30 days (much to her joy I am sure) since she did an affable job at saying nothing. That’s the place to start with this review for me, in that regardless if the Directors of the Museum of Science and Industry didn’t allow her to be open, she wisely decided there was little to be gained from being objective and human or worse there is really nothing to be said about the Museum that isn’t sterile and devoid of saccharin but regardless there was little said and even less done over 30 days.
How do you measure success in a project like this?
Is it success in the social media arena? If so it was an abject failure since the twitter feed had at most 1,800 followers (less then 300 more then @badatsports and no one works that as a full time job) & 4,126 fans on Facebook (which is pumped by the fact that they initially linked the like button on the site and not the actual Facebook page) but if I was the Director I wouldn’t measure it by social media since that is only a single and rather small apple in the larger marketing & PR bushel.
Is it press coverage? Well that was stilted in the bigining with the media’s interest in the human story of 1 person trapped in a
mine museum which quickly dried up and the press didn’t know how to grab onto the story by and large. Kate was a mascot, she put a ribbon on everything that didn’t have one and cut the ones that did, cheered for the home team and had a free smile for anyone that wanted one. She was in essence the Ronald McDonald clown in a orange countdown shirt and she did it well from day 1 to 30. The problem is from a press angle there is no story to tell.
Success can be measured by ticket sales? That may be true and as I am sure I will never know the performance of foot traffic over the course of that month in comparison to the previous 30 days or same time last year but if that is so then she was part human oddity exhibit/part greeter.
I can go on but this turned out better then I expected since I was afraid if they didn’t get the perfect marketing spokesperson and that live mic was handed to them you would have a mixture of silence from editorial indecision and exasperation as the thirty days came to a close. Not constantly but eventually it would slip out. They avoided that by getting the perfect person for the role, someone who was willing to take what they gave her, put a fun spin on it and make two posts and four tweets a day about it (300 in total but many are replies to others). Also I don’t know what the travel and official work schedule was like for Kate but the volume of posting, tweeting and documentation seemed a bit (honestly considerably) low for someone locked in a building 24×7. The average blogger does 2-3x as much if its a full time gig and many even more then that.
I am not a negative person and more so hate reviews or critics that tear down and don’t build or at least offer constructive direction and honest review. If you live in Chicago you want the Art Institute, Museum of Science and Industry, Museum of Contemporary Art, Field Museum & others to grow, flourish and succeed. At its core this is a good idea, at its core this is what social media was built for and at its core this is why social media will fail. Since the 1980′s (and even before but it really came to it’s own then in my view) there has been a top to bottom clamp on message and public image. Gone are the days where Grocery stores would have homegrown competitions and promotions on the store level, gone are the local town commercials where a franchise owner would speak directly for his/her business or brand. They were all removed so that you could control the message nationwide and eliminate potentially expensive missteps. Social media though flourishes on the human voice, insight, personalization, inclusivity and minutia; the very things that contemporary marketing fears most and actively looks to either eliminate or synthesize artificially in a controlled manner (think bad viral ads or national campaigns exactly the same just customized by local age, race, sex, sports affiliation or celebrity).
In order to succeed you need to make social media a part of your PR team (key point to remember, PR is not marketing and never the twain shall meet) have someone daily write, photograph and honestly talk about all the great aspects, locations & touchstones of your group in such a way that you don’t visit the museum to learn about them but to finally see them in person. People don’t visit the Louvre in droves to see this “Mona Lisa” for the first time but to write the final chapter that image has had in their life by seeing it for themselves, outside of books & film.
The web, where pages are free to publish is the prefect place to build a trap for the human imagination so it can roll around joyfully in subject mater of individual pertinent interest like a pig in mud and learn, celebrate and know as much about your product as possible. Its not a billboard, its a quilt as I presume Kate McGroarty’s wise mother knows all too well. Woven with history, personality, flaws & perfection. Thats how social media works and without it that is how it fails.
Social Media I said in May of this year quietly to whoever would listen was dead, by that I meant its growth had hit a plateau and it had come to the crossroads in its life as so many good ideas have. Those ideas and the people that advocated them always knew what the right path was, without exception they knew it. But they never took it. You know WHY? Because it was TOO damn hard (thank you Bo Goldman). Social Media is a dual edged sword that no one wants to swing no mater how sharp it can cut to the truth since no one has faith in the knight swinging it to not cut themselves or the royal family. Until that paranoia or risk calculus changes as a whole you will get performances like the Month at the Museum, all pomp and no circumstance.
Nothing really said or done, nothing to get excited about and worse yet nothing shared about a beautiful gem locked away that only few get to see and one got to live but can never truly tell about without breaking a presumed confidentiality agreement.
In short, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Ryan Trecartin’s latest big project is riverthe.net, an online website in which anonymous users can upload 10 second video clips and are asked to provide them with a maximum of three descriptive tags. The videos are then incorporated into the site’s larger stream of moving images, whose narrative “flow” is dictated solely by these tags. Trecartin collaborated with Tumblr founder David Karp on this project, which will be exhibited as part of the New Museum’s upcoming exhibition Free opening this Wednesday in New York. Trecartin debuted the project on Art Fag City earlier this month, and in conjunction with that Paddy Johnson conducted a lengthy and really fascinating interview with Trecartin about riverthe.net and his recent work in general. Go there for an in-depth take on the project and how it very well could change the (internet) world. (No, seriously, it could).
I feel compelled to note, however, that I’ve been trying to watch riverthe.net without much success over the past few days. For me, the experience can only be described as an exercise in frustration and seriously, seriously delayed gratification minus the gratification. The “flow” of this river is mega-choppy, I get maybe two seconds of video and 10-15 seconds of freeze-frame, and so on throughout the entire experience. From reading Trecartin’s interview with Johnson, I have to assume that a chopped-up subversion of narrative pleasure is not at all what Trecartin and Karp are going for. But that’s been my experience of the project so far, and though I am a numbskull when it comes to tech stuff I know I have a pretty good computer (latest type of iMac with the big screen, and our house has WiFi). So, you know, my setup, which I’m very lucky to have, is not good enough to view this project. Is it because the project itself needs fixin’ on the back end, or because I need even better equipment than that of the average user to view it the way it was intended? Um, if that’s the case – that’s not cool, for all the obvious reasons.
However, if we give the project the benefit of the doubt and assume that the choppiness is just par for the internet course, or better yet, something fixable that will soon be addressed, there’s a lot of interesting food for thought in what Karp and Trecartin are experimenting with here. I’m particularly interested in the idea of riverthe.net as a type of crowd-sourced movie that does away with interface and textual prompts in favor of ideas expressed “without using words,” as Trecartin explained during his conversation with Johnson. And it does so partly by doing away with curation altogether–anyone can upload video material, and that material doesn’t need to be voted up or down or “liked” or “favorited” or any of that type of crowd-sourced curation, in order to gain access or greater visibility within the overall stream. I like that.
Beyond these comments, I’m reserving judgment to see how riverthe.net takes off as greater numbers of people learn about it and start uploading more content to the site. I’m doing my little part by blogging about it here. Go check out the site for yourself and maybe upload something too–this is a project that definitely needs the contributions of the crowd in order to reach its true potential.
A few weeks ago here on the blog, I wrote a post about portraiture in the age of Facebook. At the conclusion of the piece, I said this:
“To whatever extent our online selves reflect our offline selves, Haugsjaa and Moore’s portraits make it harrowingly clear that our online profiles and virtual personas have, in a very real sense, escaped us. They/We are up for grabs, ready to be data-mined, added, followed, memed, and retweeted. The opportunity to have one’s portrait painted was once available only to a select few: typically, the very rich or the very poor. Social recognition used to be a privilege. So why does it now seem more like a punishment?”
After writing that paragraph, I kind of laughed at myself for being so hyperbolic with my prose, but for some reason I still didn’t want to change it. Over the weekend, I read an article in the business section of the Chicago Tribune that was pretty horrifying, and I felt that it kind of confirmed my suspicions that nowadays, having one’s photo taken might be more of a punishment than it is a privilege.
I can’t help but think that vile websites like People of Public Transit exist partly as an offshoot of virtual hangouts like Facebook, My Space, and Flickr. I find it more than a little disturbing to think that not only are our images and personas are up for grabs in a social media sense; a lot of people now apparently think (probably because of this) that it’s totally okay, and not at all morally problematic, to snap a stranger’s picture on the subway train and post it Facebook style for their own and others’ amusement.
Read the Trib’s article about what happened to CTA commuter Jennifer Fastwolf and tell me you don’t agree with me just a teeny bit. (It’s okay if you don’t though).