In November 2008, halfway around the world in Mumbai, Twitter finally reached the general public consciousness, as reports came in about its remarkable use in the rescue and reportage efforts. And earlier that summer, Facebook had reached its first 100 million users, and more established names in the art world were starting to notice. Lehman Bros. fell, a surge of newly unemployed went online to seek jobs and find solace, and America elected a tweeting, texting and YouTubing President.
It was also the year, according to the New York Observer and the Brooklyn Rail, when New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz first logged onto Facebook, where he regularly engages online conversations with thousands of people by turning his wall into an open forum.
In January 2009, the Brooklyn Museum launched 1stfans, the museum world’s first socially-networked membership. As part of the program, they kicked off @1stfans, a members-only Twitter art feed curated by Eugenie Tsai, and they selected me as the first artist. Obviously a personal milestone for me, 1stfans was also an important milestone for social media art: a major arts institution not dedicated specifically to technology began commissioning social media art.
The social, Web 2.0 Internet, once the stereotyped province of angsty Livejournal-ers and geeky Usenet users, was finally and quickly entering mainstream consciousness. It only made sense that the art world would respond.
Whence the Artists Tweeteth
1stfans, of course, was both a beginning and, as we saw, a continuation. It introduced to me a wave of commissioned artists willing to utilize mainstream social media as a canvas, most frequently for performance. While some 1stfans artists seemed to dabble in Twitter as a medium, a number used the feed as part of a larger social media practice.
I was struck in particular by the work of Los Angeles-based Lauren McCarthy, who constructed a special phone for her shower performances, questioning notions of public and private, and Ranjit Bhatnagar, who adapted an early net.art project of his by crowdsourcing a sonnet via Twitter, rather than email.
I was soon inspired in March 2008 to found @Platea, a social media art collective named after the Latin word for “street.” I wanted to see the potential of social media art and explore my emerging belief that mainstream social media, particularly those that utilize a news feed as a one-stop area for updates, represent a new form of public space and therefore an opportunity to develop a new form of public art. It was through this work that I met Christi Nielsen, whom I interviewed in the previous section, when she joined the collective’s steering committee.
I also began seeing more and more social media feeds dedicated specifically to a conceptual art project. Keytweeter, which I discovered via Rhizome, continued in the vein of Eva and Franco Mattes’s “Life Sharing,” wherein literally all of the user’s keystrokes are sent out into the Twitterverse, a vision of perfect transparency.
And, in the world outside Twitter, San Diego artist Brad Troemel’s “Jogging” has presented projects like “Perfo Rmanceart,” where collective members flooded the Facebook page of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and other museums with images of their work, transforming them into a sort of flash gallery online.
Heavyweights Enter the Ring
More established artists have begun entering the social media realm. Brooklyn artist William Powhida, well-known for his mercurial art persona expressed via his blog, joined forces with conceptual artist Jennifer Dalton to present #class. The month-long symposium at Winkleman Gallery, of which I took part, was simulcast on ustream.tv and Twitter, making it accessible and engaging to artists outside New York City.
Across the ocean, London-based Yoko Ono, the most popular contemporary artist on Twitter with close to a million followers, kicked up her social media efforts with #YokoQandA and participatory Facebook and Flickr albums. While rich in hashtags and invitations to engage, the lack of @replies and a personal voice give the feed a more broadcast-like quality, suggesting the work of assistants rather than the artist herself; nevertheless, her presence is notable, if only because it draws attention to how few established artists are active on Twitter.
More compelling and interactive has been the Chinese-language feed of Beijing artist Ai Weiwei, whose 40,000-follower count is all the more remarkable in a country where Twitter is formally banned (according to one estimate, there are 80,000 active Twitter users in China, suggesting Ai may reach as many as half of them). His tweets promote his work, organize impromptu gatherings (including a much-publicized one in Chengdu with New Yorker writer Evan Osnos), and lifestream his art-and-activism. This latter category pushes the boundaries of Twitter as both a collective art form and an act of defiance in an authoritarian state: Ai’s online projects have ranged from posting snapshots of his hospitalization after suffering a beating at the hands of the police, sharing the birthdays of the students who died in the May 12, 2008 Sichuan earthquake with the hashtag #512birthday, and, recently, organizing the Say Out Your Name Activity, where nearly 1,000 Chinese nationals tweeted out their real names and locations. (Aside: Lugano-based museologist Jennifer Ng and I are working on translating selected tweets into English, including #512birthday, at aiwwenglish.tumblr.com)
How the Heck Do I Know If It’s Good?
In the broader world of social media, so much has changed in the past two years. Words like “tweet,” “check in,” and “status update” have entered the vernacular. And the art world has seen an explosion of energy around these new media, which combine digital language with popular appeal. The most striking aspect of social media art is that it contains facets of net.art, by being digital; visual art, by existing on a two-dimensional surface; public art, by existing in spaces used habitually by hundreds of millions of people; and performance art, by being inherently social. Whether the aggregate is greater than its sum remains to be seen …
Next: Always Social: Right Now (2010 — ), Part Three