Missing the Point About “Twitter Art”

Critic Paddy Johnson just penned a column for L Magazine about something she terms “Twitter art,” by which she means (I assume) art that uses Twitter. I often enjoy her take on new media but in regards to her treatment of Twitter-related art, I think she misses the mark.

First of all, she cites three artists (Joy Garnett, An Xiao and Man Bartlett) as “Twitter artists”. But Garnett never struck me as a significant “Twitter artist” in any way. Her recent #LostLibrary project is something Johnson starts with in her assessment of this category of art making, but it’s a weak project to build any sort of case around. I agree with Johnson that Garnett’s project needed more imagination, and I’m personally not a big fan of housecleaning as art.

A view of An Xiao's "The Artist Is Kinda Present" (2010) (photo by the author)

As is true of most art, 80% of Twitter projects are worth forgetting. But when Johnson focuses on An Xiao’s “The Artist Is Kinda Present” (2010), I think she does the work an injustice—not only because the tweets were only part of the performance, but it was never intended as “Twitter art” project in the first place (it was a performance work that used Twitter as a way to mediate experience). It was a send-up of Marina Abramović’s “The Artist Is Present” (2010); a conventional & social media orgy, but also an exploration of the need to connect virtually as much as in person. I can’t tell you how many of my own relationships with people are stronger online than in person, and certainly the opposite is also true. As a point of clarification, I should also mention that texting was also part of Xiao’s project, and many participants preferred SMS in their way to kinda connect with the artist. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that Xiao is a contributor to Hyperallergic.)

As someone who took part in the performance at Olympia Lambert’s Escape from New York exhibition, I found Xiao’s performance strangely personal and intimate, but also isolating. Considering the fact that Johnson never attended the performance, I’m not quite sure if she considers the tweets, which document only one aspect of the performance, as the main criteria for its inclusion in her category of “Twitter art”. I’d also mention that the Shanghai incarnation of “The Artist Is Kinda Present” was done over Weibo and not Twitter—which may sound like a nuanced difference. But as someone who uses both, I can tell you that it changes the nature of conversations because of your ability to comment on posts (where there is no character limitation) and embed images or video directly into your “tweet.”

A screenshot of Man Bartlett's "#24hKith" (2010) (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)

In terms of Man Bartlett (who I’m glad Johnson included in her article) I think he’s getting to a point where he could benefit from a thorough critical assessment. But that’s something for another time and place. When Bartlett is at his best, which I think he was with “#24hKith” (2010), he taps into an online audience’s need for drama, insight, interaction and feedback. During “#24hKith,” which took place at Hyperallergic HQ during #TheSocialGraph, his performance reflected the different audiences, including some late-night individuals who were probably emotionally disturbed, who would chime in as the whole performance was livecast online.

I obsessively watched the performance through video and on Twitter to see it evolve, and I found it cathartic and soothing. In other works, like his more recent “#24hPort” (2011), I find the Twitter-only connection to Bartlett a weakness. I wished I could see the people he was interacting with or the way he patrolled the halls during his performance. Sure, I could’ve visited the artist at Port Authority where there performance took place. But I wanted to follow him anonymously and quietly, like a fly on the wall in a building known for being dehumanizing. I find the power of Barlett’s Twitter-facilitated works much more effective in their combination of mediums: it seems to be the power of Twitter to augment conversations and direct interest rather than shine as a standalone medium. Anyone who has watched television or attended a conference and followed a related hashtag can tell you this.

And finally, I’m not sure what Johnson means when she says that “success is measured in relationships.” That seems like a convenient way to pigeonhole a medium into a kind of “it’s who you know” dismissal, but it isn’t accurate. I consider artists who use Twitter (almost all of whom hate the term “Twitter artist” as much as “Social Media artist”) are more like conductors. They use the medium to tap into a group and explore what they are willing to contribute to the work. Sometimes it can be powerful, but other times a missed opportunity that functions better as an abstract idea.

What Johnson’s article shares with other articles that have dismissed Twitter or social media-related art is their arbitrary stringing together of projects that have little to do with each other besides their use of Twitter in some way. That is very much like making judgments about painting while cherry-picking works on canvas that share no dialogue or commonality. I think Twitter, and all social media, is beyond the point where we can lump them together to discuss them as a “thing”. It may make for good titles, but it usually makes for bad art categories.

The original base image for the graphic at the top came from here.

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