In an ideal social media universe, Facebook users would feel comfortable enough to openly tell all of their friends whether or not they’re organ donors, what they’re up to this weekend, and if they are in a relationship, single, or looking. There would be no Facebook stalkers or strange friend requests. Everything really would be about trust. Social networks are not utopic spaces, however; they are digital microcosms of our real world, albeit with the “protection” of a screen. In the exhibition Like. Share. Follow. at Columbia College’s Hokin Gallery, Chicago artists Kevin Serna, James T. Green, Ethan Aaro Jones, Evan Baden, and Josh Billions explore the impact of instant communication via socially networked spaces on our lives today.
James T. Green’s “#Character” from his series BetaEyes (2012) occupies an entire white wall of the spacious gallery. The artist uses Twitter tool Twitpipe to search for three key terms: “black people,” “black guys,” and “black girls.” Green doesn’t define a distance from the current location, so viewers see every tweet on the web regardless of third-party clients or location.
On September 28, the day I visited the gallery, this tweet from @RonTheAnchorman kept getting retweeted:
Twitter is the only place where a bunch of Black people can start following me for no reason and I don’t get nervous about it.
— Ronnie Burgundy (@RonTheAnchorman) September 28, 2012
Retweeted by people who, based on their profile pictures, looked black, white, brown, and every color in between, this brief text speaks to the not-so-covert racism that black people experience everyday, both on- and offline. These Twitter users are easily identified, yet they feel free to share this caustic and hurtful joke. In truth, racism is only one click away. Viewers are invited to watch the scrolling search-term screens for as long as they can bear.
Evan Baden’s photographs “Megan” and “Helen,” from the series Technically Intimate (2009), portray two adolescent girls, each posing for the web cam. On the internet, we are likely to see photographs of young girls in salacious poses à la Suicide Girls, but rarely do we see their real-life surroundings, save for the occasional camera mishap. Baden reveals those spaces. In one photograph, a girl with artificially red hair poses for her web cam from inside her bedroom, a space occupied by varying pink tones. Her walls are covered with posters of sexual idols Britney Spears and Marilyn Monroe. She is exploring her body through the internet. For many adolescents today, this act is part of understanding one’s sexuality. More importantly, Baden’s pictures question the types of images adolescents post to the web and how technology fosters a false sense of intimacy that actually does yield real-life emotions and consequences.
For his piece “ConversationPool” (2012) Josh Billions “exploits trusted networks in the name of art,” according to his artist’s statement. He installs the titular hardware onto a network, thought it is unclear which one, and the program collects and stores data from users’ browsing sessions. It then pulls the images it considers the “most interesting” and translates those into a real-time collage on a separate screen. This piece paints an image of the digital self — the self that is made up of clicks, pageviews, likes, tweets, and tumbles. This is the “self,” or rather the collection of data, that advertisers drool over.
Another piece in the show ask less complex questions about the nature of identity in the socially networked age. Kevin Serna’s “Watch These Leaves Burn, Composition #1” (2012) mixes appropriated videos of Libyan and Syrian citizens being fired upon by their governments with images of leaves twisting into flames and burning bright. The work succeeds in communicating its idea visually but is ultimately too literal and dry. Serna’s title seems to be trying too hard to elevate it to the level of pure conceptual art. Similarly, Ethan Aaro Jones’s “Untited” from the series Faces (2011) sticks too much to the surface of things, offering only boring web cam portraits of people.
Like. Share. Follow. renders the seemingly innocuous question “What’s on your mind?” (the Facebook status update prompt) as something as complex as the strongest pieces on display. After viewing all the works of art, and prompted by an audience participation bit at the end, visitors may feel compelled to sit down in the cushy lounge area, whip out a laptop, iPad, or smartphone, log in to Facebook, and tell their friends exactly what they thought of the show.
Like. Share. Follow. continues at Columbia College’s Hokin Gallery (623 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago) through November 2.