Essays

Tumblr as Art

by Ben Valentine on June 19, 2012

Much has been written about the rise of internet art. We’ve seen URL works such as “intotime.org,” by Rafaël Rozendaal, Twitter art by the likes of Hyperallergic contributor An Xiao and others, “e.m-bed.de/d/,” an immersive online music video experience by Yung Jake, and “$,” an ongoing Google Docs piece by Man Bartlett. But until recently I hadn’t encountered a newer, less explored type of internet work: Tumblr art.

From its creation in 2007, Tumblr quickly garnered popularity among hipsters and creatives, gathering more than 60 million tumblelogs to date. Unlike other blogging platforms, Tumblr lets you quickly and easily reblog other users’ content. It has a highly customizable interface as well as a wide range of nice, free looks, you can see who is liking and reblogging what and the Tumblr feed is incredibly addictive. When I think of tumblelog — which Tumblr blogs are often referred to — I picture a blog like CCAL: an endless cascade of pretty photographs documenting skate and bike culture, fashion and beautiful women, with some some animated GIFs sprinkled in.

This quick and easy spreading of content is great, but it creates an issue: sustained attention on a single work is hard to come by, causing a devaluing of authorship. This is problematic, at best, for a traditional artistic practice. A Tumblr viewer could conceivably click on every image and follow each link through to it source, but there are thousands of photographs surrounding it, so why bother? The notes that show who liked and shared content are deceptive in that they create the illusion of transparency; yet much of the content’s actual metadata is purposely hidden from the casual browser in order to maintain a tumblelog’s overall aesthetic, much like a gallery foregoing wall text.

On top of this, much of Tumblr’s content is experienced by users on the dashboard feed. Like Twitter, this feed shows all the content being shared by all the tumblelogs you follow in real time. The experience of endlessly scrolling through the feed, watching thousands of images fly past, makes you less inclined to give any one image more than a few seconds’ worth of attention.

Lacan Cat

Alli Miller, image from “Lacan Cat”

Artists often cling to control of their work and the context of its display, but to interact with Tumblr, they must give up that control. Art on Tumblr might get seen by many people, but 1,000 reblogs doesn’t mean anyone will be looking at your art the next week, know who made it or understand it in a meaningful way. For these reasons, many artists seem wary of putting their work on Tumblr. With the help of some friends, however, I found some very different artworks — works that choose to exist only on this platform. “Lacan Cat,” by Alli Miller; “Sony HD,” by Giordano Matteo; “Visual-Aids,” by Sam Hancocks; “Hyper Geography,” by Joe Hamilton; and “Echo Parade,” by Brad Troemel and Jonathan Vingiano, all function within this young medium, using the inherent qualities of Tumblr to varying degrees.

Alli Miller’s “Lacan Cat” most resembles a typical tumblelog. Exploring what Miller describes as the “dark matter between fashion and psychoanalysis,” “Lacan Cat” is a play on Jacques Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage, the idea of a permanent structure of subjectivity. The piece is an ever-growing surreal collection of both found and original content, beginning with a cat looking into a mirror.

So the question becomes, why Tumblr? “I’ve always viewed Tumblr as a ripe platform,” Miller told me. “It’s a fascinating space: as a user, you’re allowed to act (sometimes simultaneously) as blogger, curator, critic and networker.” She described the process of creating “Lacan Cat” as akin to “a dadaist exercise rooted in the process of content aggregation.”

Although I believe anything can be art if the artist calls it such, I asked Miller to elaborate on the difference between “Lacan Cat” as an artwork versus a blog. She wrote back to say, “I’ve controlled the formal and functional aspects of the platform in such a way that relates to the gestalt, and all the content is meant to be presented seamlessly within the jumble of the platform.”

At first, thinking critically about “Lacan Cat” in its entirety seems similar to how a curator might conceive of a large group show, albeit with less importance placed on individual works. However, Miller went on to call the work “a collage of information,” and as with collaging, which began during early modernism, she is using images as readymades from various sources. “Cutting” and “pasting” them together to make a completely new experience, with original metadata still intact, Miller is expanding collage into the digital world. Plus, with a tumblelog’s ability to grow and evolve, “Lacan Cat” becomes something traditional collage never could: a steadily growing combination of images viewable from anywhere in the world. This new-media collage is one of fluctuation and accessibility.

So, if you were following “Lacan Cat” and its newest image appeared in your feed, the assumption is that the image would act as an invitation to re-examine the entire Tumblr artwork anew. Settling for the disconnected images alone is like thinking you have seen a show after only looking at the image in its press release. But if you are already bombarded by too many emailed press releases and, like me, you judge a show on that one image, where does that leave you? Consider that “Lacan Cat” picture one of hundreds in your dashboard feed everyday. Is it reasonable to expect the average viewer to revisit the work every time it grows?

Screen shot of "Sony HD" by Giordano Matteo

Screen shot of “Sony HD” by Giordano Matteo

Sony HD,” by Giordano Matteo, is a more obvious curation of images, but within a much different environment. The online space is a visual exploration of the Sony company, superimposed on the surreal landscape of a Sony distribution center set ablaze after the 2011 London riots. Matteo has compiled ads, promotional event images, products and more from the global technology superpower to create a truly unsettling experience that’s hard to turn away from.

Taken together, the images highlight the absurdist and surreal nature of hyper-branding. Technology companies have been at the forefront of the so-called New Aesthetics and “Sony HD” heightens my latent fears of the deep disconnect between global corporations and local consumers. An image of impoverished children facing a new Sony package brings this unease to the fore, all while the burning distribution center looms in the background. This is the dystopic future of neoliberal capitalism, and it directly pertains to your computer, phone and speakers. It is deeply uncomfortable.

“Sony HD” is an experience that could not exist in a gallery, and shouldn’t try. It is best experienced scrolling; video or photographs alone would not have the same effect. However, as with “Lacan Cat,” a single image from “Sony HD” on your Tumblr feed would hardly be representative of the work’s entirety. Seeing yet another Sony-focused photograph in your feed would seem almost redundant outside of “Sony HD’s” immersive environment.

Screen shot of "Visual-Aids" by Sam Hancocks

Screen shot of “Visual-Aids” by Sam Hancocks

Let’s turn to another Tumblr artwork from the R-U-In?S network with a video background. “Visual-Aids,” by Sam Hancocks of Melbourne, Australia, began in 2010 and is a chaotic collage representing the weird, new globalized and constructed world that we increasingly find ourselves immersed in. The atmosphere is created by the background video, which is a sideways close-up of a Tommykaira Japan showgirl’s crotch, short skirt and high leather boots. Tommykaira Japan is a Japanese car and car accessory company, and the video’s inhuman and hypercapitalist nature sets the stage for the rest of the photographs.

“Visual-Aids” explores the increasingly blurred boundaries of real and unreal, to the point where it is almost impossible to know if there is a line between the two. The images live somewhere between natural and artificial; if that dialectic exists anymore, it seems to less and less online. With imagery of breast implants, fake fingernails, full-body tattoos and more, the subjects featured are strange by-products of contemporary society.

Clicking on the images, I found that Hancocks has often removed the option to go to the original image or like and reblog the content, a feature that characterizes Tumblr. Clicking reroutes the viewer to the top of “Visual-Aids” instead. This rejection of much of what makes Tumblr a unique platform, along with the fact that, as in the other works discussed, viewing “Visual-Aids” on your dashboard is hardly representative of the entire piece, made me wonder why Hancocks chose Tumblr at all. Perhaps for the ease of creation and the readily customizable platform? Whatever the decision, “Visual-Aids” is pushing the medium and is an enthralling and strange space to explore.

Joe Hamilton started using Tumblr in April 2011 with the creation of his own collage, an endlessly looping set of 100 images that have been edited to flow together like a digital puzzle, with the bottom posts reappearing at the top of the site once daily. Hamilton merges and morphs pictures of landscapes, architecture, CGI and anything in between into a seamless and visually stunning online experience. He told me, “I was attempting to create a visual landscape that spoke of our notion of nature and the changing and overlapping definitions of natural, built and networked environments.”

Screen shot of "Hyper Geograph" by Joe Hamilton

Screen shot of “Hyper Geograph” by Joe Hamilton

To a follower of art, urbanism and architecture blogs like me, “Hyper Geography” seems like a visual conglomeration of my RSS feed. However, “Hyper Geography” suffers the most from the dashboard-feed dilemma of Tumblr art, because not only do the images rely on those next to them for effect, but the daily looping would grow tiresome in a feed.

“Hyper Geography” is, however, using one Tumblr quality to its advantage: automated posting. Automated posting allows a Tumblr user to set post times, making their internet presence appear constant while actually being more hands-off. “Hyper Geography” brings its hyperartificial content and the automation of the platform together nicely, testing the limits of the medium.

Hamilton said he “chose Tumblr primarily because it was where I discovered the online art work that initially inspired me.” He also admitted that at first he didn’t appreciate most internet art: “It all seemed a bit primitive. In hindsight I just didn’t know where to look. I stumbled across blogs like ‘Visual-Aids’ and other tumblelogs in the R-U-In?S network, and they instantly got my attention.”

The work that first got me thinking about Tumblr as art was Brad Troemel and Jonathan Vingiano‘s “Echo Parade.” In Troemel’s new book, Peer Pressure, he celebrates the inherent qualities of Tumblr that many artists fear, writing that Tumblr’s fast sharing and equalizing context of the dashboard can be used “to gain a greater art-informed appreciation for worthy cultural relics long deemed non-art and perhaps a chance to forget about the endless garbage heaps of forgettable art.” To that end, “Echo Parade” plays out this flattening of hierarchies through an automated engagement with Tumblr. Troemel’s website describes its inner workings:

Echo Parade was a bot that scanned and posted content on Tumblr according to numerically defined popularity.
The bot was fed 200 art Tumblrs to start with.
Every post that filtered through Echo Parade’s dashboard that was able to accrue 15 notes in under 24 hours would be automatically reblogged.
If 95 posts were reblogged in a single day the bot would update its standards, necessitating that posts have 25, 35, 45 … notes to be reblogged.
Every time a new post would be reblogged the bot would follow the last 5 people who were included in that specific post’s notes.
By exponentially adding new people the bot was able to monitor an even wider network of material on a daily basis.
Though it was initially thought the bot would monitor the internet art world on Tumblr, the increased note standards and widened network quickly lead out from the art world and into the more general Tumblr public.
Boy bands, memes, and cartoons came to dominate the bot’s attention in a matter of days.
The bot crashed a month after it was released, but the images that the bot processed and posted can still be viewed above.
The bot went on to follow 1,200 blogs, monitor 47,500 posts, and reblog 760 posts automatically.

In this respect, “Echo Parade” was more like a highly customized feed of all of Tumblr, showcasing the process of Tumblr users’ engagement and their aesthetic choices, instead of just the aesthetics of Troemel and Vingiano. This sets “Echo Parade” apart from all the aforementioned works, in that it maintained most of its quality when viewed on the dashboard feed and incorporated automated posting and the like and reblog functions into the artwork itself.

Most recent photo from "Echo Parade" by Brad Troemel and Jonathan Vingiano from leilockheart.me with 55,821 notes.

A photo on Brad Troemel and Jonathan Vingiano’s “Echo Parade,” from leilockheart.me, with 55,821 notes

But does “Echo Parade” really collapse hierarchies? Troemel believes platforms like Tumblr offer a new, exciting and more democratic space for art production. Although I tend to agree with him, we also have to remember that much of what is popular online is easily digestible and by no means innovative. While user-generated content is theoretically exciting, many of the posts on “Echo Parade” are downright generic.

Troemel might say that this is not the point; Tumblr and other new platforms are interesting not because of their specific content but because they represent a completely new type and scale of engagement for the average viewer. New media provide the option to create and share content in a way that was unimaginable with radio and television. Maybe, as we become more accustomed to sharing and interacting online, the popular content on Tumblr will become more interesting. For now, Troemel and Vingiano are highlighting and celebrating the processes that could create that future.

Just so you know, Hyperallergic has a very active tumblelog of its own, Hyperallergic LABS, that you should probably check out.

Editorial note: After publication of this post, we realized that some of the backgrounds on the websites mentioned have changed. The author offers a follow-up here:

Between the research for this post and its publication, the background videos for “Visual-Aids” and “Sony-HD” both stopped working. Although Sam Hancocks didn’t care to comment and Giordano Matteo couldn’t be reached, I assume that what’s occurring is a common problem with internet-based appropriation: link rot. When an artist reblogs, embeds or shares information directly from an online source, that puts the content at risk of disappearing should the original author remove it from the web. This is why many blogs (including Hyperallergic) save all of their images onto their own server, so that if the original online file is moved or damaged, the images are still viewable on the blog’s site. This relates back to the most recent #ArtsTech talk, which discussed digital conservation and archiving.

What does this mean for Tumblrs as art? If the video backgrounds are fundamental to the aesthetics of these pieces, then the artworks are currently broken, and what we see are only pieces of a whole. Artists working online — especially in a medium like Tumblr, where crowd-sourced content is the norm — must take ownership of their content and plan for these types of errors, or at least deal with them as they arise.

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  • Kate Durbin

    This is great! Check out http://www.womenasobjects.tumblr.com for a conceptual art project about tumblr-as-art. The project focuses on how the interface uniquely shapes the body identities and self-actualization of teenage girls.

    • http://benjaminvalentine.com/ Ben Valentine

      Thanks for sharing this, I want to see the performances that come out of the tumblr. I hope to find some psychologists writing about image sharing sites like Tumblr and the effects they have on identity construction, especially amongst young users… great find.

  • Paul McLean

    Great one, Ben. I’ve been using Tumblr since early 2009. It’s a great artist tool. As your survey points out, automation features, mobile user apps, good media integration, chats + more give the user plenty of options for mashing text, images (moving + still), audio, concept. Lots of options to adapt interface, or buy cheap shells. Makes real time integration with actual exhibition or production ez. Here’s the link to my current list of Tumblrs, some active, others closed, a few stubs: http://afh2012.tumblr.com/post/25575469346/tumblr-as-art

  • Billy Gallery

    Great article to get the impressions on how creativity can find its place on internet that is self-sustained – economically and robust – socially. Though we can argue about current examples. Most of this strategies are simple contemporary art gestures copied to internet. (iconization, displaying its ability to understand medium, aesthetization of the internesthetics). Just the title – ‘Tumblr as Art’ is telling. Because in such “something as something” relations – the first word is inferior to the second. It would be much more constructive if we would try to find out the activities that are natural, robust, self-contained to this point where we would lose necessity to defend them with the word – ‘art’. /billygallery.com

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