Essays

Revisiting Tumblr as Art

by Ben Valentine on February 22, 2013

Screen shot of the collaborative Tumblr artwork “Cloaque”

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of commissioned essays for The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium on Saturday, March 9, 2013. This essay is a revised and expanded version of Ben Valentine’s “Tumblr as Art” that was first published on June 19, 2012.

Much has been written about the rise of internet art. Just in the last few years, we’ve seen net artworks such as “intotime.org” by Rafaël Rozendaal; Twitter art by the likes of An Xiao and others; “e.m-bed.de/d/,” an immersive online music video experience by Yung Jake; and “$,” a Google Docs piece by Man Bartlett. But there is a burgeoning field of both social and discrete, beautiful, and weird internet art that demands our attention: Tumblr art.

… sustained attention on a single work is hard to come by, therefore deemphasizing authorship.

After its creation in 2007, Tumblr quickly garnered popularity among hipsters and creatives, gathering more than 95+ 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 templates to choose from. You can see who is liking and reblogging what, and your Tumblr dashboard feed is an incredibly addictive, chaotic space. When I think of a tumblelog — which is how Tumblr blogs are often referred to — I picture one like CCAL: an endless cascade of pretty photographs documenting skate and bike culture, fashion and beautiful women, with some animated GIFs sprinkled in.

This quick and easy dissemination of content is great, but it creates an issue: sustained attention on a single work is hard to come by, therefore deemphasizing 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, except here there’s no press release to find.

Alli Miller, image from “Lacan Cat”

What’s more, much of Tumblr’s content is experienced by users in 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, only adds to the viewer feeling less inclined to give any one image more than a few seconds’ worth of attention.

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 next week, know that you made it, or be having a critical discussion. Given these reasons, it would make sense for artists to be wary of putting their work on Tumblr. But this isn’t always the case; a younger, more internet-savvy generation has embraced the web 2.0, feeling that the costs outweigh the benefits. “Lacan Cat” by Alli Miller, “Sony HD” by Giordano Matteo, “Friendster Friday” by Ian Aleksander Adams, “Hyper Geography” by Joe Hamilton, “Cloaque” by Carlos Sáez and Claudia Maté, and “Echo Parade” by Brad Troemel and Jonathan Vingiano all function within this young medium, and all are using the inherent qualities of Tumblr to varying degrees.

The Artwork

Compared to all the Tumblr-based works I will discuss, 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.

… with a tumblelog’s ability to expand and evolve, “Lacan Cat” becomes something traditional collage never could: a steadily growing combination of images viewable from anywhere in the world.

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,” as she is using found images from a variety of sources. “Cutting” and “pasting” together content to make a completely new experience, with original metadata still intact, Miller is continuing the long tradition of collage in the digital world. Plus, with a tumblelog’s ability to expand 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 constant change and accessibility.

So, if you were following “Lacan Cat” and its newest image appeared in your feed, the hope is that the image would act as an invitation to reexamine the entire Tumblr artwork anew. Settling for the disconnected images alone is akin to thinking you understand a collage after only seeing one piece. Considering that an image from “Lacan Cat” will be 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

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

Taken together, the images highlight the absurdist and surreal nature of hyper-branding. Technology companies with large advertising budgets have long sought to capitalize on futuristic, digitized aesthetics for their branding. “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, we may assume, is the dystopian future of neoliberal capitalism, and it directly pertains to your personal electronics, whether it is you computer, phone, or speakers. It is deeply uncomfortable.

“Sony HD” could not exist in a traditional white box gallery, and it 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 of sound, video, and images.

Like anything new, growing pains are all too common early on. Between the research for this post and its publication, the background video for “Sony-HD” no longer loads, making it completely different than the piece I loved and was inspired to review. Although Giordano Matteo, the artist behind “Sony HD,” couldn’t be reached for comment, 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 to the work of digital conservation and archiving by people like Ben Fino-Radin, the digital conservator at Rhizome.

What does this mean for tumblelogs wanting to be taken seriously as art? If a video background is fundamental to the aesthetics of a work, then when the video disappears or doesn’t play, the artwork is temporarily broken; what we see are only glimpses 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.

Screen shot of "Friendster Friday" by Ian Aleksander Adams

Screen shot of “Friendster Friday” by Ian Aleksander Adams

Ian Aleksander Adams is an extremely active internet user based in San Francisco whose tumblelog, “Friendster Friday,” is worth mentioning for its unique qualities. “Friendster Friday” is Adams’s Tumblr documentation of his performance (or personality) as an insanely loquacious internet presence on Facebook, which has come to be called “Tumblr Tuesday.”

Adams’s work is collapsing his internet presence into a chaotic and beautiful mess — he’s the Club Kids on speed and a more chaotic version of Kaja Cxzy Anderson’s tumblelog “cxzy.tumblr.com.” Witty updates, weird pictures, and meaningful comments from Adams or any of his friends on Facebook are screen captured and reappear on “Friendster Friday,” while images blogged on “Friendster Friday” resurface on Facebook the following week, blurring the barriers between the two social media platform.

And he doesn’t just use Facebook and Tumblr: Adams’s work has included other social media sites like Twitter and LinkedIn, Yahoo message boards, various tech and art blogs, and anything in between. While some of us are beginning to feel burnt out on the multiplying endless scrolls of social media, Adams appears very much in his element navigating this vertical path, with an ability to keep things interesting and at least hovering around a very serious conversation.

Unfortunately, due to his website’s coding, the posts usually do not translate into the dashboard. However, in keeping with the theme, Adams has made these awkward dashboard posts also link directly to his Facebook page, as well as to the actual tumblelog, where you can see the image accurately and in context.

Joe Hamilton started using Tumblr in April 2011 with the creation of his own highly customized digital collage, “Hyper Geography.” Appearing at first like one overly Photoshopped image, “Hyper Geography” is actually cut up into many images that all flow together visually. Hamilton has programmatically made the Tumblr endlessly repost the bottom images back at the top of the site daily, giving the site a cyclical flow. He merges and morphs pictures of landscapes, architecture, CGI, and anything in between into a seamless and visually stunning online experience. Hamilton explains, “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 Geography” by Joe Hamilton

To a follower of art, urbanism, and architecture blogs like me, “Hyper Geography” seems like a visual conglomeration of my feedreader. However, the piece 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 eventually feel tiresome in a feed.

On the other hand, “Hyper Geography” is using one Tumblr quality to its advantage: automated posting. Automated posting allows a Tumblr user to set post times, making his internet presence appear constant while actually being more hands-off. “Hyper Geography” joins 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 artwork 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.”

Screen shot of “Cloaque”

Another exceptional Tumblr-based artwork is Carlos Sáez and Claudia Maté’s “Cloaque,” which has an impressive group of 25+ international contributing artists. After browsing this stunning and surreal visual stream of internet garbage (or gold?), I reached out to Sáez to learn more about the work.

Sáez explained that he was inspired by Takeda Hirozumi’s “Thirozumi” and Joe Hamilton’s “Hyper Geography,” both of which are pushing the limits of Tumblr as an art platform. He was also influenced by the idea of the internet as a potential tool for collaboration, as with such projects as “Phone Arts,” “The Paint Shop”by Jonas Lund, and the Computers Club “Drawing Society.” By customizing their tumblelog and collaborating with other talented artists, Sáezand and Maté set in motion a work that is possibly better than anything one artist could make alone.

Sáez described the origins of “Cloaque”:

“Cloaque” started as “Digital Landfill.” Constantly trolling Google images and Tumblr gave me this concept or idea of digital trash: thousands and thousands of nonsensical, stupid, and beautiful images floating on the internet. I thought that, in the same way the garbage of a house can define the family that lives inside, a Digital Landfill could be a reflection of contemporary society or our visual culture.

A GIF that demonstrates part of the effect of scrolling through Takeda Hirozumi’s “Thirozumi" tumblelog. (GIF by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

A GIF that demonstrates part of the effect of scrolling through Takeda Hirozumi’s “Thirozumi” tumblelog. (GIF by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Today, we can all effortlessly add to the heap of content, or “Digital Landfill,” that is available for anyone to see, share, and also remix. “Your Tumblr dashboard can become a magnificently beautiful dump if you don’t overthink it,” Sáez said. In that sense, “Cloaque” attempts to give a hint of curation to this mess, without ever pretending it is anything but that — a giant, beautiful mess.

Customizing your website in a manner that showcases your talent has naturally become a large part of the freedom of working digitally. “You [can] create your own museum with your own rules,” he said. That freedom of expression is a large part of the reason why Sáez was interested in working with Tumblr.

Although the dashboard experience of “Cloaque” is fragmented, Sáez doesn’t view this as a big issue. The images appearing there include an obvious link back to both “Cloaque” and the website of the artist, thus encouraging viewers to engage with the work on the specific URL, outside of the platform. This embraces the customizability of Tumblr but also, more importantly, the sociability and large audience. “The dashboard helps us a lot to invite followers to come and see what is new,” Sáez said.

“Cloaque” also includes a Map page to show the global and collaborative nature of the project. The map has an individualized GIF for each artist’s name, which hovers over the city he or she lives in, as well as a submission section to encourage new artists to join. The map feature really ties the entire project together; “Cloaque” is about a diverse global community of artists coming together to make an unforgettable work.

Screen shot of “Cloaque”

The tumblelog that first got me thinking about Tumblr as art in the first place was Brad Troemel and Jonathan Vingiano’s “Echo Parade.” In Troemel’s 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.

This means that although “Echo Parade” began as a customized feed of art-specific tumblelogs, as it programmatically identified and reblogged popular content, it broadened its scope to find increasingly popular content, whether it came from an art context or not. This process was an attempt to illustrate the aesthetics of Tumblr users and the “Like” economy, instead of relying on Troemel and Vingiano’s tastes alone. That sets “Echo Parade” apart from all the aforementioned work: it maintained most of its quality when viewed in the dashboard feed and incorporated automated posting as well as the “Like” and reblog functions into the artwork itself.

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

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

Maybe, however, that isn’t the point of “Echo Parade.” Tumblr and other new social media platforms are interesting less because of their content and more because they represent a completely new type and scale of engagement. Social media provides the chance to create and share material in a way that was not only unimaginable with radio and television, but also impossible. “Echo Parade” began to study and decipher this chaotic and massive engagement. It was a crude, programmatic tool to understand the aesthetics of Tumblr. 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 help work towards that future.

As new as “Echo Parade” and these tumblelogs feel, they are still embedded in an art historical context. While I had never seen a work like “Cloaque” before, it clearly has roots in the Surrealist drawing game exquisite corpse, which originated in the early 20th century as a playful method of drawing or writing collectively. One can look at “Exquisite Corpse” (1927), which was by drawn in sections by Andre Breton, Man Ray, Max Morise, and Yves Tanguy, and see how similar it is to the process of “Cloaque.” Even a programmatic artwork based in the web 2.0 “Like” economy such as “Echo Parade” is strongly rooted in a long tradition of Generative Art, where the artist gives up personal aesthetics in favor of an automated process that produces something of aesthetic value. And as stated about “Lacan Cat,” these blogs all represent a natural evolution of collage into the virtual realm.

Changing Relationships Between Art and Audience

Yet Tumblr, and more generally the web 2.0, have contributed to monumental changes that cannot be overlooked. The amount of content available online has increased exponentially as more and more users gain access to easy publishing tools. Platforms like Tumblr and Facebook, where users can share ideas or images with anyone, have made this process effortless. As Hyperallergic has already covered, Facebook stores 10,000 times the amount of photographs as the Library of Congress, and that number is growing. So while a good gallery opening may attract 400+ attendees, a popular Tumblr post can easily have 10,000 notes with even more viewers from across the globe. These tumblelogs are starting to actually incorporate these new web 2.0 qualities directly into their work.

There is a broader audience for these works, and the relationship between the art and the viewer is blurring.

The breaking down of geographical hurdles is what makes global collaborative projects like “Cloaque” feasible. The flawlessness of new digital editing software and programming languages are what make “Hyper Geography” so exceptional. Although performance art and happenings have relied on audiences for content, “Echo Parade” and “Friendster Friday” are made almost entirely of viewer participation. There is a broader audience for these works, and the relationship between the art and the viewer is blurring.

My highlighting of these tumblelogs should by no means be mistaken as an exhaustive overview of Tumblr art. It is an attempt to explore a diverse and exciting new field that is rapidly expanding. As artists’ portfolios are no longer merely documentation of paintings and sculptures but tumblelogs, too, we critics and art lovers must look at these emerging practices with both excitement and a discerning eye.

As more artists flock to Tumblr, the medium will no doubt continue to be challenged, and many of the problems I have discussed will be smoothed out. Some changes in particular that I look forward to seeing are:

  • a reconciliation between the tumblelog and dashboard experience
  • using Tumblr’s sociability as an integral part of the works, as in “Friendster Friday”
  • more programmatic artwork using features like automated posting or entirely customized programs, as in “Echo Parade”
  • artists paying attention to problems like link rot and their effect on the quality of the work
  • more creative and seamless customization of the platform, as found in works like “Cloaque”

If artists demand that we take their work on Tumblr seriously, we must expect their tumblelogs to be cared for and preserved, otherwise they become just so many more hastily made tumblelogs out of 91 million. The tools and environment that Tumblr offers are just like any other medium, with boundaries and limitations that artists are only now understanding and beginning to capitalize on.

*   *   *

Hyperallergic would like to thank Pernod Absinthe for their support of The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium essay series.

Homepage image via fanpop.com

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  • http://twitter.com/j_d_hastings The_real_jd_hastings

    Whenever I see analysis of any type of new medium in art I cringe at the story being “Tool X is being used as art!” Being the first to use something isn’t interesting. Being the first to use it WELL is. What is interesting about the pieces described in here is how each uses the medium in different ways that show off its potential. I appreciate how you’ve specifically described the different aspects of Tumblr that are used, and identified which help define it as an effective tool, since that is the level on which new media has to be judged on if it isn’t going to be a simple novelty.

  • stoicmike

    I’ve been blogging my collages and epigrams on tumblr for over two years now as stoicmike. They get anything from 1 note to over 28,000. I have 1,055 following at the moment & I’m following about 200. I love the spontaneity across the planet. I’ve had an idea while shaving, blogged it, and seen it reblogged in Australia moments later. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands more people have seen my work than will ever see the original collages or my books. That said, I have to be realistic that tumblr is ephemeral. The entire site could be shut down, crapped up with ads like MySpace, sold to NewsCorp or some billionaire or whatever. It’s been a good run, but I could see it ending in the not distant future. I have no idea what their business plan, but I assume something will monetize it big time eventually. BTW, I’m no kid, I’m 71 and have been making art for over 50 years. I still do my work with scissors and glue, just added scanner, iPhoto & the internet, which is only more tools made by people, like the scissors. – Michael Lipsey

  • http://www.artatbay.com/ Danny Olda

    I know I’m getting to this late but great essay Ben!
    I am a bit disappointed that these very cool Tumblogs seem to stumble when it comes to the dashboard. It would be awesome to see a an art project that makes full use of Tumblr’s dashboard view over its blog view somehow.
    Also, it always blew my mind how it seems much easier to find that work is “via” a blog than “by” an artist. But I do wonder if it’s too early to say that this loss of authorship is really a bad thing. It could get very interesting.

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