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These rocks are called “Fine Aggregate”. (image via rockydalequarries.com)

In response to my post on ambient creativity, speaking to how our online creative outlets of Twitter and Facebook might be sapping our ambition for bigger projects, the idea came up that maybe we don’t need to seek out masterpieces of these new media. Instead, what about thinking of social media networks as aggregate works of art?

Hyperallergic editor Hrag Vartanian wrote that maybe we need to rethink the idea of the author in online art:

I also wonder if we should look at the idea of the artist again. We have for too long had this idea of the solitary genius and I’m starting to think that may becoming obsolete. I’m not talk about the “death of the author” stuff but a more collective form of creation. For every medieval cathedral there was a team of geniuses who contributed their expertise from their field … though in the modern era the architect often got most of the praise. What if in the [contemporary] era the aggregate is the masterpiece?

The idea that art could exist in aggregate rather than individuality is particularly relevant for a medium (the internet) in which the single author is downplayed in favor of the collective. Think of how images constantly churn through internet cycles, getting used, re-used and re-appropriated. Where does the creation of a unique work end and where does it stop? Where do consumption and production separate, and when does a work even become individualized?

The concept of anonymous bodies of art work existing in aggregate rather than individually first brings to mind the acceptance of vernacular and folk art as discreet bodies of work. Think of the crate of family snapshots discovered in a flea market, or the stack of landscape paintings by someone’s grandma that manage to have a certain something despite their simplicity. None of these things are masterpieces in their own right, but altogether, vernacular photos and Sunday painters create huge, magnificent bodies of work whose total magnitude lends the individual works an air of existence in a greater whole. This whole forms the “aggregate.”

Screenshot from GIF aggregating community site Dump.fm (screenshot by author)

This aggregate art exists online most obviously through social networks, websites that already collect the work of individuals into a new whole. But I don’t really think it’s enough to say that Twitter by itself is an aggregate artwork. It seems like there has to be some kind of governing logic behind the production. The idea comes across in Facebook albums. Your own Facebook album isn’t really anything special, but in the insane global volume of Facebook albums that share similar formats and presentations, each single album is part of the aggregate whole. The aggregate whole, produced by a single community and single artistic consciousness, thus takes on some of the magnitude and heft necessary for great works of art.

Aggregate art is monolithic from the outside but splits into individual components in its structure. For me, the best example might be 4Chan. From the outside, the website is a monument to sheer human implacability with new images and comments being posted every second within the greater structure of the uniquely sculpted website. Users generate content in an infinity of artistic gestures, and the result fits into a larger context. Internet surf clubs like dump.fm and Spirit Surfers share the same format of image creation and sharing, but the niche operations don’t quite reach the monumental quality 4chan has. Sort of like the Sphinx versus the Giza pyramids, more refined, but just not as mind blowing.

In trying to find a way to parse online artistic production, I’d pose the question: could 4Chan be the best digital work of art yet?

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

2 replies on “Art in the Aggregate”

  1. you know you just described 4chan as “monumental quality” and “art” right? i do believe that’s known as trolling.
    oh WAIT, is THIS ARTICLE a work of art to make old bourgeois art snobs go on 4chan and see goatse?? oh boy, am i collaborating by writing on this page?? it’s so AGGREGATORY!!! I AM ART!!! CHAYKA IS ART!!! 4CHAN IS ART!!! GOATSE IS ART!!! CALL THE GALLERIEZ!!

  2. I like this idea, but anything collective piques my interest, pretty much.
    Could this art in the aggregate be conceived of as the relational aesthetics of social media/new media? …kinda?

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