Reactor

Missing the Point About “Twitter Art”

by Hrag Vartanian on July 7, 2011

Critic Paddy Johnson just penned a column for L Magazine about something she terms “Twitter art,” by which she means (I assume) art that uses Twitter. I often enjoy her take on new media but in regards to her treatment of Twitter-related art, I think she misses the mark.

First of all, she cites three artists (Joy Garnett, An Xiao and Man Bartlett) as “Twitter artists”. But Garnett never struck me as a significant “Twitter artist” in any way. Her recent #LostLibrary project is something Johnson starts with in her assessment of this category of art making, but it’s a weak project to build any sort of case around. I agree with Johnson that Garnett’s project needed more imagination, and I’m personally not a big fan of housecleaning as art.

A view of An Xiao's "The Artist Is Kinda Present" (2010) (photo by the author)

As is true of most art, 80% of Twitter projects are worth forgetting. But when Johnson focuses on An Xiao’s “The Artist Is Kinda Present” (2010), I think she does the work an injustice—not only because the tweets were only part of the performance, but it was never intended as “Twitter art” project in the first place (it was a performance work that used Twitter as a way to mediate experience). It was a send-up of Marina Abramović’s “The Artist Is Present” (2010); a conventional & social media orgy, but also an exploration of the need to connect virtually as much as in person. I can’t tell you how many of my own relationships with people are stronger online than in person, and certainly the opposite is also true. As a point of clarification, I should also mention that texting was also part of Xiao’s project, and many participants preferred SMS in their way to kinda connect with the artist. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that Xiao is a contributor to Hyperallergic.)

As someone who took part in the performance at Olympia Lambert’s Escape from New York exhibition, I found Xiao’s performance strangely personal and intimate, but also isolating. Considering the fact that Johnson never attended the performance, I’m not quite sure if she considers the tweets, which document only one aspect of the performance, as the main criteria for its inclusion in her category of “Twitter art”. I’d also mention that the Shanghai incarnation of “The Artist Is Kinda Present” was done over Weibo and not Twitter—which may sound like a nuanced difference. But as someone who uses both, I can tell you that it changes the nature of conversations because of your ability to comment on posts (where there is no character limitation) and embed images or video directly into your “tweet.”

A screenshot of Man Bartlett's "#24hKith" (2010) (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)

In terms of Man Bartlett (who I’m glad Johnson included in her article) I think he’s getting to a point where he could benefit from a thorough critical assessment. But that’s something for another time and place. When Bartlett is at his best, which I think he was with “#24hKith” (2010), he taps into an online audience’s need for drama, insight, interaction and feedback. During “#24hKith,” which took place at Hyperallergic HQ during #TheSocialGraph, his performance reflected the different audiences, including some late-night individuals who were probably emotionally disturbed, who would chime in as the whole performance was livecast online.

I obsessively watched the performance through video and on Twitter to see it evolve, and I found it cathartic and soothing. In other works, like his more recent “#24hPort” (2011), I find the Twitter-only connection to Bartlett a weakness. I wished I could see the people he was interacting with or the way he patrolled the halls during his performance. Sure, I could’ve visited the artist at Port Authority where there performance took place. But I wanted to follow him anonymously and quietly, like a fly on the wall in a building known for being dehumanizing. I find the power of Barlett’s Twitter-facilitated works much more effective in their combination of mediums: it seems to be the power of Twitter to augment conversations and direct interest rather than shine as a standalone medium. Anyone who has watched television or attended a conference and followed a related hashtag can tell you this.

And finally, I’m not sure what Johnson means when she says that “success is measured in relationships.” That seems like a convenient way to pigeonhole a medium into a kind of “it’s who you know” dismissal, but it isn’t accurate. I consider artists who use Twitter (almost all of whom hate the term “Twitter artist” as much as “Social Media artist”) are more like conductors. They use the medium to tap into a group and explore what they are willing to contribute to the work. Sometimes it can be powerful, but other times a missed opportunity that functions better as an abstract idea.

What Johnson’s article shares with other articles that have dismissed Twitter or social media-related art is their arbitrary stringing together of projects that have little to do with each other besides their use of Twitter in some way. That is very much like making judgments about painting while cherry-picking works on canvas that share no dialogue or commonality. I think Twitter, and all social media, is beyond the point where we can lump them together to discuss them as a “thing”. It may make for good titles, but it usually makes for bad art categories.

The original base image for the graphic at the top came from here.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kamilah-Gill/27314257 Kamilah Gill

    What really confuses me is how Paddy has a problem with “Twitter art” but loves almost all “net art” unconditionally, as far as I can tell from her blog. (Yes, I’m too chicken to try to say this directly to her face on her blog.) They seem pretty closely connected to me, at least in being immaterial and dependent on computers for their existence. I think she doesn’t like things that veer into relational aesthetics territory, but it seems like at least Twitter-based art is more open to the general public than some Tiravanija dinner or something like that.

    • http://twitter.com/rwetzler Rachel Wetzler

      I’ve got a longer response brewing to the whole article/phenomenon (as Hrag knows, I’ve been irked by social media art for awhile) but I don’t see these two positions as being conflicting. The problem isn’t the immateriality of so-called Twitter art, but (at least for me) the gimmickry — Twitter is being used as a tool in not-particularly-inventive ways and then called groundbreaking by nature of employing said tool in art. There’s a lot of digital/Internet-based art out there that is able to comment upon Internet culture, digital communication, the way that technology has transformed the world, etc. in far more interesting ways than any of the projects Paddy discusses in her column. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kamilah-Gill/27314257 Kamilah Gill

        There’s plenty of gimmickry in other digital/Internet-based art, too. In fact, most of it seems gimmicky and short-sighted to me. I’d love to see some examples that do a good job of handling the deeper issues that you list. I didn’t say that the immateriality was a problem, just a shared characteristic. 

    • http://www.artfagcity.com Paddy Johnson

      @Kamilah Gill Ha! But you think I won’t see your comments about these biases here? It’s true I take an interest in net art, but most of it isn’t very good. You don’t have to look too hard to find that assessment on AFC.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kamilah-Gill/27314257 Kamilah Gill

        I knew that you would find me, but you can’t block me here :P (Don’t block me, Hrag!)  I’m not so sure that it’s easy to find criticism of bad net art on your site. I check your blog almost every day. I might have missed some things, though, because I do miss a few days and particular posts. thepulse.tumblr.com pokes fun at weaker net art, but it’s infrequently updated, and sometimes I’m not sure how serious they are about it all.

  • http://twitter.com/j_d_hastings The_real_jd_hastings

    I think early explorations of new media are always formal exercises. While we can use the medium to say some of the same things art speaks of in any media, when we start categorizing art based on that new medium, it’s own formal nature becomes the critical subject.  The exploration becomes: How can this new tool be used and what are the consequences of those possibilities upon whatever it is we ultimately try to SAY with them.   

    If you look at the history of something like film, it’s the same.  Melies’s work is primarily notable for the tools he used to present his silly stories.  Only after years of working out the framework of what could be done in film did it fully exploit it’s ability to present content in a way that transcended the formal qualities.

    We’re still in the early stages of this with social media, which itself continues to change so rapidly that it’s hard to pin it down.  I see the works of Bartlett and Xiao as exploring the basic first consequences of use of social media.  For instance as you note Xiao’s work seems to use twitter to comment on issues of connectivity and isolation.  The work is about socializing itself, but also how this medium for socializing affects the activity it’s meant to serve.

    So if we know where we are in this early state of the medium, I think it’s most useful to start discussing what are the novel traits of the medium.  Artworks can imply some of these implications over time, but that exercise needs to be complimented by direct critical analysis. 

    Twitter distinguishes itself from the traditional social medium of being in the same room as people by:

    -Allowing contact from greater geographical distance (a running theme through much of social media art)

    -Allowing instantaneous contact from those people, in a manner that is both disposable and archived.

    -Allowing people in your presence to be similarly engaged somewhere else. Even when you’re alone with people now, they are capable of having a conversation with 1000 other people on their smart phone. The same system that bridges geographical distance can create artificial distance in person.

    -Allow for simple dispersion of information and media from 1 outlet to it’s audience. Instant publishing that again has traits of the disposable despite being archived (this is as much tumblr as twitter).

    -The possibility of near permanent connectivity and immersion.

    -Allowing large numbers of people to instantly react to and offer input on a single topic. Think of a disembodied hastag meme like #lessambitiousfilms that sweeps over the entire forum, or a false rumor about someone’s death that gets quickly disseminated then dispelled.  This aspect of twitter allows various, distinct networks of individuals to interact with information in a manner that is, to me, the most fascinating part of twitter, and the least explored in “twitter art” so far. In a lesser, more directed sense, a project like #class used this.

    -Building on the last item, the possibility of disseminated authorship.  Like relational aesthetics, a hashtag meme may start somewhere, and individuals participating have their own authorship of individual tweets, but the overall experience is one of partially anonymous content being generated by webs of people in very short amounts of time with no centralized conductor leading the event.  I like to think of it as a precursor to hiveminds of the future.

    These aren’t definitive, and I’m leaving the consequences of each of them largely unexplored.  The key to me, though, is to understand the contemporary state of “twitter” or “social media” art we have to understand their formal implications.  So far the works I’ve seen tend to focus on 1 or 2 of these elementsat a time, implying their consequences rather than examining them explicitly.  While this has the benefit of showing some of the issues in practice, it’s time to have a thorough discussion of the media itself, which will help expedite the development from novelty into mature form unto itself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lawrence.swan2 Lawrence Swan

    I thought Man’s piece in #TheSocialGraph, or whatever it was called, was a brilliant investigation of identity in the new media. The spectator was asked to identify him/herself with a thumbprint on one figure and with a tweet that began with “I am.” That each tweet was represented by a feather on the other figure was amusing. Naturally, participants were free to be idiots or philosophers. That’s characteristic of social media. 

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      “Or whatever it was called”? You were in the show.

  • Stephen Truax

    We need to locate this discourse outside of just relational aesthetics or new media art. This is interactive performance that happens to occur in the digital space, and raises interesting and unique questions about global connectivity, how digital technology has transformed our experience of the world, etc. I would equate it closer to artists’ commentary on advertising (perhaps Lynda Benglis’ Artforum ad) and other interactive performances (obviously Marina, but Paddy smartly noted Yoko Ono too).

    Just because they’re on Twitter and — gasp! — they’re being criticized by mean old Art Fag City doesn’t mean its bad, or or dismissed. An and Man ARE groundbreaking insofar as they are the first to take this on medium specifically. Agree with all Hrag, Paddy and JD (note the similarities in all the writing) that it needs further critical investigation — hence why mean old AFC took An and Man on in the first place.

    Summarize what I said yesterday: Thanks to An and Man, we have a new term, “social media performance art,” hooray! Which makes them groundbreaking. They do need greater critical analysis (thank you, Paddy) and not just cheerleading.

  • http://twitter.com/j_d_hastings The_real_jd_hastings

    I just actually clicked on a #twitterart hashtag and apparently the common use of the term actually refers to this: http://twitter.com/Tweet_Fun_/status/89064740676059136

    So… yeah.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kamilah-Gill/27314257 Kamilah Gill

      Bleh. Yikes… Thanks for looking that up. I didn’t even think about those ASCII-style things.

  • http://twitter.com/art_news Mark Philip Venema

    Thanks for writing this Hrag. I think Man’s work on 24hrKith was great fun and both thoughtful and beautiful. What more should we really be trying to do as artists?  So much more to explore using social media and twitter as medium. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/cruzanmo Morgan Croney

    I see Man Bartlett as a pioneer (at least in New York) in making twitter a large part of an artwork. There are some other artworks that exist entirely on the web I have recently seen that are really powerful and are beginning to move beyond the fascination of animated gifs. Twitter is somewhat problematic for my love of art which is very much grounded in the experience. Just last night I was looking at some artworks and realizing again how there is something significant and unique at play in artwork — why is that? I tend to link it with the experience. I am starting to believe that experience can happen in front of the screen. Not to say that a painting can be viewed well through a screen (I am often mislead by an image online only to discover something entirely different in person), but that work (or an element of a work) that is intended for and exists only online has potential to offer a “real” experience in front of the screen.

    I enjoyed Paddy’s article; however, arguing for or against an entire medium is pretty dubious.

  • Anonymous

    “Twitter Art” is in fact commonly understood as ASCII-art on Twitter. Yuck! I’ve unfollowed people for it. And it’s certainly not what myself, An, Joy, etc. are doing. What we’re doing should instead be considered Social-Media Art. @powhida:twitter made a great analogy saying you wouldn’t talk about making BetaMax art. Duncan (aka @hypothete:twitter also made a great point in the L comments that my work in particular is more cross-platform dependent (than I’d like to admit).

    The potential of the medium to me has always been the passive participation of an audience. When I decided to use Twitter for the performance in Best Buy, it had never been used that way, to my knowledge. But who cares about timelines or first use, was it GOOD? Yes. Not all of my projects have been (by a long shot), but I work EVERY DAY at improving and developing them. And my audience is GROWING, and is DIVERSE. They are people who might never have participated in any type of art project before: kids, geezers, random strangers. They are also art world folks and friends. The fact that I have an active audience has been missing from these commentaries, and I think is an important point. As long as there is an engaged audience, I will work with them. Together. Wherever we are.

    I would challenge anyone who is accusing me of being boring, or not inventive, to mount a similar project themselves. Go for it, seriously. Let me know how it works out for you. Or even just conceptualize one. You might be surprised how hard it is to do something that seems so simple. To engage people in ANY meaningful way. And to anyone who has their panties in a bunch at my persistence, wow! Ha! I’ve been listening to a lot of different people over the years about different ways to “make it” as an artist. One thing I hear a lot, is patience. Another is persistence. I don’t have a Fine Art degree. I have a theatre degree. I’m currently without gallery representation. I have a great and inspiring network, but not a YALE-network (for whatever that’s worth anyway). I can’t speak in art-tongue like many people I know. So what! The reality is I’ve chosen to attempt to survive on my art ALONE. I’ve been supporting myself in NYC as a full time artist since Fall 2009. It’s suicidal! Pure lunacy. Yet somehow I’ve done it, with a little bit of infrequent help from unexpected places. I’ve gotten lucky. I’ve worked hard. I’ve had one or two good ideas. I’ve worked harder. Gotten lucky again. Possibly benefited from having a naturally positive energy. I’ve, yes, persisted. In part because I am making the time for all of this, but in part because that’s what I do. I fucking persist. Isn’t what we, as HUMANS, do? And I’ve made a lot of personal sacrifices in order to do this. Isolated myself, RUINED intimate relationships, denied myself almost any personal relationships, practically starved, navigated challenging living situations. All while doing my damnest not to become a bitter, angry, cynical and/or disgruntled New York artist. All while doing my damnest to make it look easy. The truth is, I LOVE what I do. I BELIEVE in what I do. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. It’s why I left the theatre in 2005. I wasn’t having fun, and I didn’t know why I was doing it anymore.

    Critical discourse is great, and necessary. Bring it on. I’m happy to engage. And I understand being a target as a result of my success (qualified or not). But telling people NOT to follow/participate in something is just plain lame. On the flip side, I have picked up more followers the last few days than normal (go pink elephant!).

    Last but certainly not least, a HUGE thanks to those who support the work, and constructively challenge it (and me). I am infinitely grateful for it, and wouldn’t be typing these words without it. Thank you.

    xo,
    Man

  • http://twitter.com/johnpyper John Pyper

    I’m of the opinion that twitter use for performance artists is like a photograph/video/account of a performance. Miserable and inconsequential compared to the range of emotions and secondary themes available to a hypothetical person in the same room as each of these three artists. That being said, it’s the only way sometimes. I wasn’t alive when Adrian Piper was walking around the mall with fresh paint on her shirt. I wasn’t there when Oldenberg opened his store. Photos and accounts of the event are the best I can do today.

    At least when I respond to a performer via twitter I can get a response from him/her. It’s better than a photo that way.

    I also like that the art is being delivered into my life via something I use already. No gallery/museum distortion fields surrounding it.

  • Anonymous

    we are most interested in the response of an actual individual working in this medium!  that was far more enlightening than reading someone’s reaction to “twitter art”, when in fact we are more than capable of responding to anything we come across for ourselves in whatever way we are going to respond based on whatever the artist is doing and what we think/feel about it.

    thank you for commenting here, manbartlett!  now we feel like we have a grasp on where this idea might be coming from and going to.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks! 

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