Editor’s note: This is the second installment in An Xiao’s series on the development of Social Media Art. Part One appeared on Monday and Part Three on Friday.

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.

A young girl looks at the 1stfans sign during their launch event in January2 008

A young girl looks at the 1stfans sign during their launch event in January 2008.

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.

Eva and Franco Mattes, “Life Sharing” (2000 – 2003), Website screenshot (via 0100101110101101.org)

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.

A screencapture of The Mime (@themime)

A screencapture of The Mime (@themime),a performance feed on Twitter

Other conceptual projects like @injuries and @themime opened the door to conceptual art regularly appearing in our feeds with the same mixture of anonymity and ubiquity found in street art.

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.

In the Tumblr-verse, Brooklyn-based Nina Meledandri ran a feed on 1stfans that expounded on the collective energy of digital response and reference that she built with her Tumblogs.

Heavyweights Enter the Ring

A view of Man Barlett’s performance during “#class” at Winkleman Gallery (via flickr.com/hragv‚

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.

A sample Twitpic from Ai Weiwei during his recovery.

A sample Twitpic from Ai Weiwei during his recovery.

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

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice. 

17 replies on “Always Social: Getting Noticed (2008-2010), Part Two”

  1. Maybe you’ll cover this in your next essay, but I think you’ve failed to mention a few key artists that have contributed to the overall awareness of artists using social media other than yourself, a few relatively unknown projects and than more obvious Jerry Saltz’ et al such as Rachel Perry Welty, Matt Held, Lee Walton, Steve Lambert etc… I realize you use Twitter as your medium (as evident by the amount of times you mention your work in this piece particularly) but not all work consumed by social media is Twitter-centric. In fact, the work I’ve seen on Twitter is much less tangible in the long term and I think that’s the dividing line. Work that has “legs” will be more influential in the long run than work that ends up lost in the chatter and continuing scroll of feeds. That’s not to say that an artist, such as yourself, wouldn’t gain respected recognition for a body of work performed in social media, but I think it does a disservice to the reading public by not mentioning the expanse of good work done outside Twitter.

    1. Piper, would you be interested in writing a response that would supplement the “history” An is developing? I know one of her main concerns when she was writing this was that she would be unable to capture all of it in her piece so I told her not to be encyclopedic about it but to focus on issues she saw as important or related to the issuesshe was interested in. My intention was always to find others to supplement the series.

      1. Hrag – Possibly, but I’d like to read the 3rd installment before I could develop a thoughtful angle. I work better in 500 characters or less, usually :)>.

        *Sorry – I had to adjust my email address as I haven’t used the old one for ages.

    2. Thanks, Piper – yes, I’d love to read a response article from your perspective. It’s an emerging, messily-defined practice, and I know mine is only one viewpoint. Not to jumpstart my third installment, where I hope to address much of this, but I have a few initial responses here:

      * In this survey, I was looking for artists for whom social media has become a dominant mode of practice. For example, I’ve written about Rachel Perry Welty’s Facebook performance before, but my understanding is that she has largely focused on her conceptual objects since then.

      * I also hope in my third article to make clear the difference between art that uses social media as source material vs. art in which social media is part and parcel of the work’s expression. The purpose of this article is not to devalue the former — the specific artists you mention have done important work here — but simply to focus on the latter. I’m interested in general in how technology is embedded in our lives, and thus, I’m interested in how technology is becoming embedded in our art. I’ll grant that it’s messy territory and that my proposed definition (which is coming in the next article) may be narrow; I’d welcome your thoughts. (As an aside, I took Matt Held’s portrait after he painted mine — it was very meta.)

      * I focused on Twitter simply because that’s where I’ve been seeing most of the activity I find interesting with social media art. I’ll grant that that’s my bias, but I do think social media should by definition be social and collective (I expound on this a bit more in part three), and I’ve seen the most frequent examples of that on Twitter. I’ve been thinking that spaces like Facebook and Tumblr are perfect media for collective energy, which is why I was excited to see both Brad Troemel’s and Christi Nielsen’s collectives. I’d like to see more, and I think we will see more: up next, I’m going to look at a Wiki-based performance piece, as well as a piece that worked to bring in blogs, Tumblrs, Facebook and other social media into an analog project. If I’ve missed key artistic explorations of mainstream social media in this way, please let me know — I’m eager to learn more.

      * With regards to tangibility and long term access, I think that connects with larger debates around performance art and ephemeral works – something I’m not sure fits into the scope of this article. But I do think Twitter is a little more permanent and archivable than it leads us to believe.

  2. Ugg – I just lost my entire response! So much for technology! Let’s see if I can recreate those thoughts…

    ” * I also hope in my third article to make clear the difference between art that uses social media as source material vs. art in which social media is part and parcel of the work’s expression. The purpose of this article is not to devalue the former — the specific artists you mention have done important work here — but simply to focus on the latter. I’m interested in general in how technology is embedded in our lives, and thus, I’m interested in how technology is becoming embedded in our art. I’ll grant that it’s messy territory and that my proposed definition (which is coming in the next article) may be narrow; I’d welcome your thoughts. ”

    I think this distinction as a qualifier for your piece was missing, thus my gripe. Though, I am very interested to read the 3rd installment and see where you go with and flush out your definition of it.

    It may be my view, but I think the distinction might not be necessary because I see it as both source and platform. This may be where we just differ in philosophy. I simply don’t see how one could exist without the other…

    That aside, here is my nagging question if we are looking at social media as part of a growing movement or revolution in art production because I guess I don’t see social media as a “technology” or medium in and of itself per se, but more as a mean to an end. I am interested in the congruity of art and technology as a tool of production to create/formulate ideas/converse/promote/satisfy/question (you get the picture) but is social media any different than when say — early artists were using their own version of a modern projector or when the camera was invented? As both source and platform, as they generally seem to exist in the same space, social media is not unlike the rest of society, it’s simply another means of access to explore it. The only thing that necessitates something being social is the existence of individuals and the use of the space.

    That said, I am open to being convinced otherwise.

    1. Erk – I’m sorry to hear that! A perfect example of technology not quite being where we need it to be yet.

      It’s a fair gripe, and an oversight on my part – I’d written these pieces as a single large article, not taking into account the simple fact that they’d be distributed over a few days.

      I go back and forth on whether the distinction is necessary, and I can see your side. Hopefully my part three will address why I take the philosophy I do, though whether that ultimately makes sense is something to discuss.

      Your nagging question is right, and it’s a good one. It’s kind of a perfect segue to my next piece (and sorry, I don’t mean to hype it up – it’s just that it happens to address this very issue). I’m looking forward to talking about this more. Thanks for helping me refine my thinking.

  3. This is a very important topic to grapple with. Social media in my view is like nothing we have ever seen or used. It is reshaping our very brains and literally remaping how we see the world and process information. I am of the view that the impact on our brains is positive! It will open up a future for human kind we can’t even imagine now. Where art fits in is where it has always fit it. Artists see the world in ways most people do not and they give form to this vision. Art also is powerfully prophetic, so anyone who wants a clue about what’s to come in the world, what will be learned and what will be revealed, need only follow contemporary art. That’s why I’m here.

    1. I’ve really enjoyed your presence on social media, Kianga, and your passion for art. Artists are frequently at the forefront when it comes to new technologies (everything from cave paint to marble sculpture to Nasty Nets), and I’ve personally found it very exciting to watch how each artist has innovated w/ these emerging tecnologies.

  4. i’ve been using social networking since its inception to create “art” [including back in the 90s through game software such as Everquest]. a quick sample of my efforts:

    1. a european mixed reality exhibition [2007] where part of my twitter account was displayed physically in multiple gallery settings http://twitter.com/netwurker/statuses/133392812

    2. an online twitter-residency via New Media Scotland in July 08
    [see http://www.mediascot.org/twitterwurkset/ for documentation]

    3. my latest creation #feralC: a “socumentary” [social network/mocumentary cross over] which uses twitter/blogging software as avenues 2 create the work [see http://netwurker.net ]


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