Reactor

Is Ambient Creativity Killing Our Ambition?

by Kyle Chayka on March 14, 2011

Is easy ambient creativity just leaving a blank space? (image via michaelpeters.de)

Social media has brought the art community huge benefits, chief among them the ability to easily share artistic creations, whether it’s through Twitter, Facebook or a group Tumblr. But is the possibility of easy creation and publishing diminishing our drive for making more ambitious works? Are iconic masterpieces rarer in this age of ambient creativity?

In a study carried out by the European Commission’s Culture office called the “Ambiant Creativity Project,” the term is explained in somewhat scientific terms:

This phenomenon is a reflection of the facts that digital technologies and tools are easily available for a large public (not necessarily professionals), and that this public develops its own creativity in producing and diffusing multimedia works and stimulating back general public and professionals, as never before. However, it is a difficult and problematic task today to use a “new technology” immediately in a relevant way without considering the paradigm shift it has brought with regards to previous technologies. The variety of tools available for artistic creation may blur the artistic process.

The everyday creative exercises of composing Tweets, editing and posting Facebook albums and naming a personal blog or Tumblr are often referred to as ambient creativity. It’s an interesting term that creates a verbal double-edged sword– the possibility of more creativity is always a good thing, but ambient creativity seems to undermine the very significance of the creative act itself. Ambient sounds like unintentional, like we just happen to make things that don’t require much effort, and our creative drives are thus sated. What more could anyone want besides a cleverly titled Facebook photo album?

Facebook's new photo viewer (image via facebook.com)

Ambient intimacy, a similarly ambivalent term, has been making in-roads into popular dialogue, referring to our ambient relationships with others’ daily lives through the internet. Think of seeing facets of friends’ lives on their Twitter accounts or Facebook pages and feeling like you don’t really need to hear about the wedding in person, it was enough just to read the post, see the photos and hit the like button. The problem I have with both of these terms, but particularly with ambient creativity, is that it seems to denigrate not the creative act, but the media we use in our creative acts today.

It’s not that we’ll never create a masterpiece with Twitter, it’s that we have to find new ways to think about these new media. As the European Commission’s study points out, what ambient creativity points out isn’t so much a downturn in creative productivity or people actually making things, it’s simply a paradigm shift. To me, a Tumblr image or a tweet or a written status (or a GIF) are just as worthy of artistic consideration as a painted canvas. It’s more difficult to make an emotionally impactful work through a medium known for its lack of deep engagement, but I have no doubt that it is possible. Artists more and more are using these new media, the stomping grounds of “ambient creativity,” to create deep and significant works, and viewers are more and more learning to understand them as such.

The fact that pieces involving social media could have been made quickly and were easily published should in no way dominate the discussion of their overall artistic success. If Robert Frank’s The Americans were a Facebook photo album, would it really be any less powerful? Personally, I don’t think so.

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  • ContempExt

    It’s intriguing that technology can play into similar issues the readymade provoked in terms of utilizing commodity as art. It investigates life from an ‘artistic’ scope. Is conscious creation the primary indicator of art’s definition?

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      I tend to define art by conscious creation. I wasn’t actually thinking of this kind of tech as commodity, but that’s also totally true, artists are using pre-established commercial avenues as the support for their work.

      Gotta ask what happens when the backups fail or the tech becomes obsolete… What happens to Twitter art without Twitter? (see also: Brooklyn Museum’s Twitter commissions)

  • http://twitter.com/ADuffie26 Andrea Duffie

    Once the technology becomes obsolete, artists may start playing around with the media in an attempt to approach it in a new way. I’m thinking of Cory Arcangel’s “Super Mario Movie” or even the software developers who created The Great Gatsby video game, which was essentially created in the NES format to provoke nostalgia, and it worked.

    I also wonder whether these “iconic masterpieces” might be harder to come by simply because they’re often overlooked. While sharing art on the internet is incredibly beneficial, our Facebook newsfeeds, Tumblrs, and Twitter streams create such a bombardment of media that people tend to look at the art (or images of the art) without actually “seeing” it: evaluating for aesthetics, symbolism, meaning, purpose, etc. It’s seems difficult to get an art audience to actually stop and look anymore, unless they’re physically in the presence of a work.

    And also, at what point can ambient creativity be passed off as art, or vice versa? (Let’s say, for example, that a certain Oscar host was tweeting from backstage during the event, and attempted to call it “art”…would the claim hold up?)

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Great comment. I agree that the “masterpieces” of these kinds of formats are much harder to come by, and also more difficult to identify as significant works because of their context in the noise of the internet. For me, The Great Gatsby game was a small masterpiece of digital creativity, passed off without too much fanfare but brilliant in its conceptualization and execution.

      I think maybe I went too far in characterizing random tweeting as art, I think very few pieces have actually been successful at anything like that, and certainly not James Franco.

      • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

        I also wonder if we should look at the idea of the artist again. We have for too long had this idea of the solitary genius and I’m starting to think that may becoming obsolete. I’m not talk about the “death of the author” stuff but a more collective form of creation. For every medieval cathedral there was a team of geniuses who contributed their expertise from their field (stained glass, sculpture, masons…), though in the modern era the architect often got most of the praise. What if in the modern era the aggregate is the masterpiece?

        • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

          I was trying to think of an example of the aggregate as masterpiece. I don’t think Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr really works, but 4Chan to me is an example of an epic monumental artwork that doesn’t really exist on a “single genius” level. The anonymity helps, kind of like a medieval studio, there’s no one face and no one is trying to exert authorship, unlike FB etc.

          • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

            I think the aggregate on Twitter often happens with the hashtags, not the accounts, and on Tumblr the group blogs or the one where you can submit, but yes, we’re not really there yet. Last.fm has been trying to do things and there are others too.

          • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

            I think you mean Dump.fm? Yeah, that and Spirit Surfers… the GIF crew haha. GIFs are only good in aggregate?

  • http://twitter.com/ADuffie26 Andrea Duffie

    Another interesting compare/contrast in terms of Twitter art is Jenny Holzer’s Twitter account (@jennyholzer). She essentially takes her Truisms, which have mostly been viewed as “art” in the form of posters / LED displays / whatever, and broadcasts them to the Twitterverse.

    While most of her Truisms still retain that simple, poignant effect when taken individually, it’s really difficult to consider them art-as-Tweet when they pop up in my feed, (which, let’s be honest, refreshes so often that it’s hard to contemplate ANY of its information very deeply.) By comparison, I would argue that Holzer’s work requires a physical presence in the real world to be appreciated and contemplated, and doesn’t translate very well to social media art.

    And Kyle, I’ll agree with your review of The Great Gatsby videogame, although admittedly when I first played it I was too interested in relishing my literary nerd moment (“Doctor T. J. Eckleburg is trying to kill me! Awesome!”) to think about it as an art piece.

    • Templeton Ed

      If “The Americans” was a Facebook album or blog post, it would absolutely never have been famous or renowned. It was the time and manner that made it what it was. There are thousands of “The Americans” quality work online that will never rise above the pixels.

      • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

        @Andrea,

        I’m positive that that Jenny Holzer account isn’t actually run by the artist, but it is an interesting example in comparing efficacy online with efficacy off. The difficult with the Great Gatsby stuff for me is that it’s so difficult to contemplate it as art when it so clearly should be. The contextualization + mass consumption puts it outside of our normal context for art.

        @Ed,

        I find it tough to think that there’s that much work online the quality of “The Americans”. I’m not thinking of a carbon copy either, I guess, but a work on the level of The Americans, relevant to our time. If something that brilliant were created on Facebook, would it even be picked up by the art world?

  • Eva

    One thing I found encouraging about online creativity is that size is not the issue it once was, or at least not for me. Just yesterday I made a very small collage (no more than 8 inches either way). There was a time I would think less of it; it might become a gift or just feel like something I tossed off. But living in a JPEG world changed all of that. Of course this doesn’t work for paintings and a lot of other mediums. In fact it kind of reduces them. But in some ways it actually raised the status of some work.

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