Paddy Johnson has responded to my response of her article, “Don’t Follow Twitter Art.” We obviously disagree and I think we’ve made our opinions rather clear, so you can make up your own mind. But before I move on to other points about art that uses Twitter I want to make a few points of clarification, particularly since Johnson is particularly harsh toward An Xiao’s work (she calls it “vacuous”) without having taken any time to get to know it with more than a passing familiarity.

First off, An Xiao’s “Being Telepresent” (2010), which I curated into #TheSocialGraph, was an opening night (not closing night) project, and the fact that she was actually in the gallery was not the point—the work was planned regardless of her location. In fact, she waited until the end, and after most people left, so that she could surprise her friends and some stragglers with her unexpected presence. But the work in no way was about that element of surprise. Instead, it was intended to be viewed as part of her continuing fascination with party photographers and the ideas of event openings and microfame, something she experimented with in another project, “Photoglam” (2010), during #Class. She was actually the party photographer for the event and I don’t know what one work — which she admits has nothing to do with Twitter and her article — has to do with the other. It is questionable why Paddy chose to attack another work without getting all the facts to justify her first misstep.

Art (and Criticism) That’s Social

But back to the bigger issues that this dialogue has created and that William Powhida touched upon in the comment section of Johnson’s most recent post:

… I think social media also poses a broader problem that Paddy started to get to at the end of her post when thinking about self-promotion. Building networks requires a lot of ‘liking’ and positive affirmation. Critique, criticism, negativity, cynicism … not so much. I feel like my ability to critique anything has been compromised by the relationships social media fosters. This is counter-intuitive, ‘social media brings people together!” Well, perhaps the artist and critic should not be so engaged, so part of the community if it means we start to lose our ability to see clearly and have honest discussions without worrying about upsetting somebody or losing a few hundred followers.

While that may be a concern, I don’t think it’s unique to social media. If anything, I think it lays bare the machinations that are usually obfuscated by the art world. I believe in engaged criticism, one that actively explores the work you are encountering and requires being part of a conversation. Removing yourself from the medium doesn’t necessarily guarantee any more access to truth than engagement; the only difference is the bias is less obvious at times.

Critics of social media encounter reactions to our opinions faster than critics who avoid it altogether. My concern is not any kind of positive feedback loop but a type of reality TV syndrome, where conflict attracts attention, followers and more conflict, often without any resolution … step and repeat. The secret of conflict on social media is that regardless of whether you’re right or wrong, the attention (maybe we should call them ratings?) is being generated and “rewarded” by followers. Sure, people may unfollow you for spamming them too much, but when it comes to content there is little you can do to offend everyone (and often it gains you a new following).

I also disagree with the idea that social media brings us “together.” I don’t know if that type of utopian idea was ever true. But social media does have the ability to connect people easier.

Getting to the Bottom of It

Now, what’s the way forward?

In my opinion, social media is often used as an easy out — which is also true of some artists who use animated GIFs — for many artists who have little programming knowledge. These media provide artists with the ability to create work online (often with few resources) without the need to spend hours perfecting their technical craft. I wish more artists would grapple with the technology itself. I wish they would play with the way information is transmitted, transform the way information is received or question the corporate entities that create the systems most of us use without a second thought.

Man Bartlett spoke to me once about finding a way to transmit video online without the corporate frame that Livestream, Ustream or other entities provide. But with limited financial resources, it is a challenge for any emerging artist to avoid these free services. I liked his instinct to challenge the frame or context provided by social media while maintaining a connection to its huge audience of users.

One of the reasons I chose the title #TheSocialGraph for the November exhibition last year was that I felt that artists were only starting to engage with the bigger revolution at work in social media. It’s neither the instanteous nature of communication, nor the access it provides, but the potential to learn from interactions with others and create new things or experiences based on that information.


The terms Social Media, Social Network, and the Social Graph are often used interchangeably but there are important, if sometimes minor, differences between them. I asked Hyperallergic publisher, Veken Gueyikian, who is also an interactive marketer and thinks about this topic quite a bit, to help me out by proving me with some clear definitions. Here they are:

 Social Media is the use of web-based technology and accessible publishing techniques to turn communication into interactive dialogues. These dialogues or interactions are often combined to create value and outcomes that would otherwise have never been possible or practical from individual uncoordinated contributions.

 Social Networks are made up of individuals (or organizations) connected to each other based on one or many factors that tie or connect them together, such as friendships, family relations, work experiences, common interests, sexual relationships, financial exchanges or beliefs. Early online social networks attempted to recreate these social structures online to strengthen existing connections and create new avenues for communication and discovery of common connections.

 The Social Graph, a term originally introduced by Facebook in 2007, refers to a global map of people and their relationships to one another within an online social network. While social networks exist both offline and online, a social graph is a digital representation or model of our relationships and defined explicitly by all the connections involved between people. Since it’s introduction, the term social graph has expanded to include not just a map of relationships between people, but between people and all types of information about their lives and the interactions they share online.

Have artists been able to grapple with the first two? Yes. Have they had any success with the third? Not yet.

The title of the social media art exhibition I created was aspirational. Only one project, Benjamin Lotan’s “The Social Printshop” (2010– ), grappled with anything even remotely approaching the idea of the social graph, but his focus was more on the idea of the social media startup itself and not on the technology and social graph. My hope is that social media-related art will take up that challenge one day. How artists will do that is not yet clear.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

21 replies on “The Way Forward For Social Media Art”

  1. After reading your debate plus most comment threads, perhaps part of why Twitter art bums Paddy out is her boredom with the application itself. I do follow Paddy and it seems like she uses it reluctantly these days, perhaps in the same was I use Facebook, rarely and reluctantly. She might be ready to move on, therefor Twitter as medium for art could be like nails down a chalkboard. Maybe that’s a simplistic view.

    Man or Nate might incorporate other ways to engage their audience online as technology develops. But their few projects using Twitter as a mega phone was effective. It wasn’t just promotion, and it wasn’t the entire piece – the viewer was able to take part. Like a Yoko Ono or Marina Abramović performance, #24hrKith allowed the viewers who tweeted to be the fabric his interpretive piece. It was hypnotic and well executed. Punch Me Panda was totally insane, but Nate was able to connect us to the project by using Twitter to map out his locations, like Four Square. At the time it made sense, and it’s not clear if he’ll repeat that approach. Using Twitter as a tool is difficult because society is already looking for something better, faster and more powerful in technology (thus turning Twitter art into a “trend”), whereas no one questions paint and brush – a safe and classic medium of the ages.

    Ultimately using Twitter is not the point; successful projects should stand on their own no matter which medium. If Paddy can embrace a piece of Twitter art because it’s clever, rich and pops her cherry – then I promise to embrace the occasional sculpture made with glue guns and broken mirror.

  2. Really nice post, Hrag – thoughtful and provocative and I love the lexicon you’re starting (and already challenging). The GIF bit also made me laugh out loud (ahem) – must agree there.
    Not that you made the generalization – I in fact appreciate how very careful you were with your language and the use of the word “need” – but I’d say that many social media artists do spend time “perfecting their technical craft” (depending, I suppose, on your definition of “technical”). I can code code and video edit and build circuits, for example, and I spend just as much time crafting the few social art projects I have to my name; sometimes more.
    But I prefer to give someone other than myself as a good example of well crafted Twitter / Social Media art: Nate Larson’s Geolocations are simply gorgeous.
    Again, I understand that you were making a distinction that AFC may have left out, rather than a direct crit, but I felt the need to remind your readers that there’s still craftsmanship out there, even in social media.

    1. Thanks for noticing the distinction, Nathaniel. I was very aware of that. I think there are some really talented people experimenting (and achieving wonderful things) with each medium, but I see you (like I) have noticed that’s not always the case. I’m excited to find new work, including yours, and links would be much appreciated. 🙂

      1. 🙂
        Some of Nate Larson’s Geolocations (with Marni Shindelman) can be found here:
        One of my own social media projects (a collaboration with Scott Kildall) was an intervention into Wikipedia
        Twitter art is in the works – now crafting for release in the Fall of 2012 🙂

  3. Okay, with sincere apologies to An Xiao – as Powhida says, it’s not you, it’s the work – “Being Telepresent” is not a good work of art. 

    In her post here, An states: “Since almost as early as the invention of the telephone, human beings have imagined the possibilities of video communication. How amazing would it be to see each other over the phone?”

    Pretty amazing. Or, at least, it was pretty amazing when Bill Bartlett did it in 1979 using Slow-Scan TV technology, which was literally transmitted via phone ( ). Was it primitive? Sure. But it was two-way image transmission as art, and it was 21 years before “Being Telepresent”. What did we gain in those 21 years? Bandwidth (and frame rates) went up, software and hardware went from massively expensive to essentially free, infrastructure went from leasing a NASA satellite (as Bartlett did) to automatically connecting to the gallery’s broadband line – all of this occurred without needing any contribution from artists – and then, for An Xiao’s part, she put it at an opening. Okay.

    I understand there’s a point in the development of this technology at which the avatar gets freaky real – drop “uncanny valley” here – and it’s totally like there’s another person there, and then there’s some issues around that that are sort of interesting. An Xiao’s work, however, does nothing to accelerate that process and nothing to cast it in a new light. Has she suddenly made the utopian say-hi-to-grandpa-in-France image of video teleconferencing into something politically troublesome? No. Has she looked beyond presently readily available features to interesting tools of a future society? No. Has she cast the conversation in such a way as to provide particular interest in talking to her, as opposed to talking to anybody else? No. There’s not even anything about art openings that would seem to be changed by An not being there in person, except that she gets rather less choice about whom to talk to.  

    Talking to people is nice. Talking to people who share interests with you, as one might expect to be the case when an artist talks to her opening-night audience, is especially nice. What else is nice? Handjobs. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good art, because if they were I wouldn’t be a critic.

    “Being Telepresent” needed to be something more.

    1. Will, why are you attacking Xiao’s “Being Telepresent”? I didn’t even make a value judgment about the work in my post. And if you haven’t had a handjob that wasn’t art, I feel bad for you. Pure.Art.All.The.Time.

      1. If you believe it’s a bad work of art, cool, but then I don’t get why you’re disagreeing with Paddy about it in the first two paragraphs. What, you’re just the referee, making sure she remembers the degree to which being in the gallery was planned?

        If you believe it’s a good work of art, I’ve provided plenty of points that I think would be worth rebutting. 

        If you believe neither, I’m not sure why you’re in this argument to begin with.

        Handjob art: good as performance, better when participatory, worse when you have to deal with the relational aesthetics afterwards.

        1. I think it is very unfair to the artist to criticize her work without knowing the facts or spending time with the work. The argument, and her original article, was about “The Artist Is Kinda Present” and then the discussion about the second work came out of nowhere. I think it is a case of bait and switch.

          1. Hrag, I explained why I didn’t like the “Artist is Kind of Present” but you said my experience wasn’t good enough because I didn’t see it in person. Having seen some of her work in person I don’t really buy this, so I said, hey, I’ve seen other work in person that engages another technology and is similarly concerned with how technology mediates relationships. That one was bad too. I’m not doing a bait and switch and I’m showing An Xiao’s consistently light engagement with concepts, which as I’ve mentioned several times now is the core problem I identified at the L Magazine. 

            Obviously, last November you thought there were some really good reasons for putting her in the show. Personally, I’m curious to hear more about what you liked about that work and how your thoughts about the work have evolved. 

            Of course, if you’d rather talk about why I’m a bad critic we can do that too but it’s not going to be very fulfilling. Every critic loses that argument.  

          2. My curation has nothing to do with this argument. The experience of the work is as important as the concept, so I don’t understand why you feel so confident in asserting that the work was bad simply because of what you read or heard about it. I think if you stated that it appeared to be bad or something similar, I wouldn’t have a problem, but I think you presented the piece as if you had actually experienced the work, which I really don’t think is fair to An Xiao.

          3. I wish you had expressed that in the post itself then. Personally, I think those first two paragraphs read as though their only purpose is to reveal me as a charlotin (sp?) who hasn’t thought about Being Telepresent for more than a nanosecond. You however, have, and are happy to teach me the error of my ways.

            I don’t like the way this sounds, or that it’s the lead of a post about something entirely different, but of course, maybe you didn’t mean it to read as it does. People write things all the time they think are clear, only to discover after the fact, that their words on say, The Artist Is Kind of Present, have been interpreted as…a complaint about artists networking getting ahead!

            On that note, we may need to agree to disagree on some of this stuff about The Artist Is Kind of Present. A disclaimer that I haven’t seen the work in person would have added to the original article, but there’s nothing in the piece that’s dishonest. I never say I saw the work in person and it’s not like leaving it out was some intentional omission. I’m not sure why you think it is.

          4. Also, I still think this an idea worth discussing as it pertains to The Artist is Kind of Present:

            Art that does little more than demonstrate how technology works isn’t
            very interesting, and there’s a lot of that in Xiao’s work. It’s for
            this reason, that I don’t think Vartanian’s point about how both virtual
            and physical connections are things we need is any kind of evaluation
            of the work. This reality is made self evident every time I IM with an
            intern who’s sitting across a desk from me. I don’t need or want art to
            further illuminate that for me.

            What say you?

          5. I wasn’t assuming there was no emotional content so much as questioning its value. Was there anything about your exchange that made you think about your relationship to An and technology in a way that you wouldn’t have outside the gallery? Did it bring a new reading to Abramovic’s piece that you weren’t already aware of? I’m curious about what you gained from your personal experience. 

          6. One thing I think might be worth mentioning in this is that what might be commonplace use of technology to some (most of us reading these threads) can also be “new” to many people (e.g. Barbara Pollock, the general public, even the general art-going public, et al). This “newness” can bring insight to some people, but not everyone. There is a balance between getting work seen, which can open other doors, and being on the edge. Speaking for myself, I seek to create what I hope is compelling work, that also strikes a balance. I want to further our understanding of our relationships (to technology), but not at the expense of alienating my audience. At least not the majority of them.

  4. I thought it was curious that a show about social media and online interrelationships was set in a specific physical location. I also thought that a theme that came out of this project was physical dislocation or nonlocation, as in An’s telepresence. It is strange that HV is saying, in effect, “you had to be there” to fairly evaluate what An did, since it didn’t matter that An was there when most of us thought she wasn’t. An’s appearance on that screen made us believe she was absent, although she could see us and talk to us. Since social media has a kind of omnipresence, or omniabsence, was the show an attempt to limit in duration and location (October 2010 in Ridgewood) a simulation of social networking in a microcosmos for critical study? A virtual virtuality? Was it an attempt to contain an activity that is popular and global in a gallery situation with certified cultural workers to see how the New York gallery scene can adapt to an emerging cosmoculture that anyone with access to a device can participate in? NY artists and art enthusiasts now look to Bushwick/Ridgewood for a new scene (or is that already over?) and that had something to do with the project being centered there, I think, but this new media culture has no center and no periphery, does it?

    1. Not all social media are created equal. Skype is not a “public” medium like Twitter, you can’t just drop in on a Skype conversation. Also, some of the show wasn’t in a physical place. The blogazine, our tumblelog and other venues were as much part of the show as the Outpost. Also, we moved our workplace there. Also, the exhibition was an exploration, not a retrospective or something like that, it was intended to explore aspects of work being produced with social media.

  5. Hrag, A late comment. Your concern with “artists would grapple with the technology itself.”  There is a whole 20 year history of this. Consult or The use of social media for artwork is not at all new. It strikes me that the more traditionally accepted arts and artists are just now concerning themselves with it because they, as are we all, are coming to depend on it. For example, using the WebCam for artwork performance, which is fascinating, was the reason I got interested in these media in 1997. There’s tons of great work in this area over the years; Wolfgang Staehle, Diller Scofidio, Thompson & Craighead, and the  college-bound pioneer, of JenniCam (1996). Not at all to say that the new work isn’t equally engaging!

    1. You’re absolutely right, Will. I’m simply eager for someone to grapple with the social graph. Seems like it could have a fantastically powerful potential.

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