Essays

Twitter as Art

by Ben Valentine on July 13, 2012

Twitter nail art

Twitter as art (image via daily-nail.blogspot.com)

After thinking through the idea of Tumblr as art, I began to find the difference between various social media platforms glaringly obvious. Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message” came to mind. How do settings and mediums change or possibly mandate artistic intention? After exploring Tumblr’s unique qualities, I wanted to expand the focus to another relatively new platform for artistic creation, Twitter.

On a surface level, Twitter is similar to Tumblr: a new social media tool that is excellent at quickly sharing information on a global scale. Celebrities, digital gurus and intellectuals have run the gambit with claims about Twitter, from it being the most revolutionary new tool for democracy to the latest in the mind-numbing time-suck that is social media.

The biggest difference between Twitter and Tumblr is that Twitter is word based, whereas Tumblr is image based. Yes, I know, you can share images on Twitter, and you could write books on Tumblr, but neither would be using the medium in terms of what it is best suited for. Twitter also has more specific rules for the platform: a user only has 140 characters, an image and a location allowed per tweet. He can customize his account only by picking a background and a profile image, and tweets are usually seen without the individual backgrounds, on a feed. So while many Tumblr artworks are notable for their customization of the platform, Twitter artwork is mostly characterized by a creativity within constraint.

Screen shot of @big_ben_clock's Twitter feed

Screen shot of @big_ben_clock’s Twitter feed

There are Twitter accounts that are dedicated to utilizing nothing but the 140-character field to make simple, unengaging tweets. There are ASCII accounts like @tw1tt3rart that do little drawings and messages, and programmatic Twitter artwork, such as @big_ben_clock, which tweets varying numbers of the word “BONG” in an easily recognizable pattern on the hour, every hour. These creators take the strict limitations of the medium and do almost nothing with them, still operating within a 2-D artwork or old internet methodology. They miss the medium’s main asset: Twitter is a communicative platform, connecting people and places all over the world in real time.

Because the art market is so fickle and cutthroat, many artists jumped onto Twitter for branding and networking. Often artists must act as their own promoters if they want to be successful, and social media tools like Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter have helped them open up their dialogue, process and work to a greater public. Promotion in a strict sense is not art, but ever since Andy Warhol, it has become an assumed part of contemporary artists’ lives. While I was still living in Indiana, it was exciting to watch conversations online between artists I respected; I got to know about their lives and what they were interested in without being in the same city.

Some artists have taken the promotional tools and identity construction to a level where the line between their art practice and their life is blurred. Watching William Powhida (@powhida) rant on Twitter piqued my interest because his artwork mirrors his online persona, and the two feed into the other. The same is true for Ryan Trecartin (@RyanTrecartin). Artists have long mixed their personalities with their work; would Joseph Beuys have become as famous without the plane crash mythology? Art is celebrated for many reasons, and often one of them is the artist’s personality. Twitter is a place where artists can create and share theirs.

Screen shot of @RyanTrecartin's Twitter feed

Screen shot of @RyanTrecartin’s Twitter feed

But what happens when the artist and the artwork are separate on Twitter? Jayson Musson’s (@PackofJayson) performance character, Hennessy Youngman, has his own Twitter account (@therealhennessy). Although the Twitter account is still serving as a promotional tool, it also becomes a platform for the work. Musson uses YouTube, Twitter and live performances to create and define Youngman, all of them integral parts of the character.

Transferring internet fame into “real-world” success is difficult, so often internet-based artworks feel as though they exist entirely separate from our physical world. What makes Twitter so simple and important is how it acts as an intermediary between the internet and real-world people and events. Twitter is a contingent space where stories unfolding all over the world are represented digitally in real time, fostering new stories and potential connections. The 140 characters offer a window onto this liminal space, and artists like An Xiao (@anxiaostudio) and Man Bartlett (@ManBartlett) embrace this new function of web 2.0.

For instance, Xiao’s “The Artist Is Kinda Present” (2010) and Bartlett’s “#24hPort” (2011) were both performances that relied on the physical presence of the artist while also using Twitter as a digital expression for the work. “I find value in Twitter because it’s a conversational medium,” Xiao told me over email. “It’s much more direct than Tumblr or blogging.” Although Xiao blogs, including on Hyperallergic, and has a Tumblr, she mostly uses Twitter and Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging platform out of China. “I find that the immediacy of Twitter makes it more engaging and the best way to bring the dynamics of live performance art into the online space,” she says.

An Xiao, "The Artist Is Kinda Present"

An Xiao, “The Artist Is Kinda Present” (photo by Hrag Vartanian)

Bartlett got even more specific about his decision to use Twitter, which, after he deleted his Facebook page, is one of his main social media platforms. “I was also drawn to Twitter because the hashtag function makes it really easy to create specific ‘locations’ within an otherwise overwhelming sea of information,” he said. “These locations can then act as ‘containers’ for time-specific actions. And they are essentially ephemeral.” Most everyone can relate to the idea of getting lost online, but Twitter’s hashtag function provides some direction and guidance, allowing a close friend or a random stranger to find your content.

Screen shot from "blinkinggirls.com"

Screen shot from “blinkinggirls.com”

It was Bartlett and Xiao that first got me thinking about Twitter as an artistic medium, but could their work really be called Twitter art? Performances that utilize social media to broaden context and conversation aren’t necessarily social media artworks. @PimptressObject and the “Blinking Girls” project are a better example, a purely web-based and mostly social media artwork. I wrote to @PimptressObject to try to get a firmer grasp of the work, and she never broke character. @PimptressObject told me the project was inspired by Leisure Suit Larry in the game The Land of the Lounge Lizards, Facebook interactions and Sweet Pink Games (NSFW). When I asked what type of experience and message @PimptressObject wanted to created for the viewer, I got this answer, written in pink:

♡ ♥ Blinking Girls ♥ ♡ is a feeling, an experience, an environment more than a message. It denotes girls owning themselves within submission – women online are like game characters and ♡ ♥ Blinking Girls ♥ ♡ embraces that.

♡ ♥ Blinking Girls ♥ ♡ is postpostpost-transexual [sic]. It empowers blinking as a strong multi-faceted sexual act. It’s more about shifting console sex game paradigms into another reality than making a sociopolitical or cultural comment about women online, sex & social media.

Using URL-based work (here, here, here and here), audience interaction, a Tumblr (NSFW) and the Twitter account to build a completely online experience, @PimptressObject and other projects like it are the newest in web 2.0 art, and entirely different than art still rooted in a physical presence, like much of An Xiao’s and Man Bartlett’s work. @PimptressObject is building an entirely virtual identity, culling content from all over the internet, building relationships and tweeting back.

Screen shot of Ranjit Bhatnagar's “Pentametron"

Screen shot of Ranjit Bhatnagar’s “Pentametron”

Finally, there are works that scrape Twitter for content to create art. This means that the artist acts as a programmer to create a work that scours Twitter for specific information, then grabs the found data and puts it in an artwork. There is “Re-Twitteringmachine.com” by Angelo Plessas, which I wrote about for Hyperallergic, and a light-hearted project by Ranjit Bhatnagar that uses content from Twitter to form iambic pentameter poetry, the “Pentametron,” and also has a live Twitter version, @pentametron. I think this form of data visualization and appropriation will only become more popular as artists begin to use programming over painting. Artists might offer exciting new ideas for how to navigate the sea of information that is the internet.

This type of scraping has been controversial, because users lose control of their tweets. As I emphasized about Tumblr, much information that’s put online is grabbed, remixed and changed. The platform is controlled by Twitter, a giant corporation, and is not a open public space, although the legal specifics of it are being hotly contested. This is also hard on a traditional artistic practice. Artists interested in using the internet as a space to create must consider which platform works best for the work, or create their own. As more of us spend more of our time online, the field of social media art will only grow more complex and fascinating.

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  • mab macmoragh

    Roy Ascott’s LPDT2’s Twitter feed is scraped randomly by various international collaborators from public domain texts included in the Gutenberg Project. In that sense it includes distributed authorship in time and space from the present and from the past.

    http://twitter.com/lpdt2

    LPDT2 is the virtual incarnation of Roy Ascott’s groundbreaking new media art work La Plissure du Texte (1983).

    http://alien.mur.at/rax/ARTEX/PLISSURE/plissure.html

    • http://benjaminvalentine.com/ Ben Valentine

      That is a really fascinating work! I had never heard of it. More reading required…

  • http://twitter.com/tmccool Pablum Picasso

    I’d like to respectfully add that no discussion of Twitter art would be complete without mentioning Horse_ebooks: https://twitter.com/Horse_ebooks

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