Atom-R (Anatomical Theatre of Mixed Realities), a Mark Jeffery (Faculty, Performance) and Judd Morrisey (Faculty, Art and Tech) perform at Hyde Park Salon.
I’ll be the first to admit that I know very little about art on the web. And, with all of my Facebook friends constantly Instagramming their breakfasts, I will also admit that I don’t really care. Why is everyone talking about web art? Can social media be a social medium for a social practice? I go online and see fuzzy, artificially discolored images of someone’s latte, and all that curiosity shuts down.
That is why when Hyperallergic announced that they would be holding “The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium,” I bought the cheapest ticket possible to Brooklyn, smashed myself into the tiny Spirit Airlines seat, and headed off to New York City to get a taste of what editor-in-chief of Hyperallergic, Hrag Vartanian, says is, “a discussion about the art community on Tumblr and how they are impacting art making today.”
This discussion involved a one-night event in which various panelists, who were invited to contribute scholarly essays on various subjects relating to Tumblr art and social media, shared these papers and their expertise on the subject.
I went. I saw. I ate pizza. I drank beer. And I left, still wondering: what the hell are they talking about?
Artists have been using the Internet since before I was born, offering credence to the very convoluted platform of the web. Social media, however, is something relatively new, and does warrant some discussion, which the panelists indulged in as we, the audience, indulged in the free pizzas.
Christiane Paul, author and professor at the School of Visual Arts in N.Y., spent her panel time trying to divert the moderator, played by Vartanian himself, from making sweeping generalizations about social media as a medium, not a platform.
Lindsay Howard, the Curatorial Director of 319 Scholes (which also happened to be the venue), spent her time trying to divert the moderator from making sweeping generalizations about social media artists, differentiating them from artists who are, as she says, “clever enough to use social media.”
Perhaps I had one beer-too-many, but I couldn’t help but feel that the discussion was not being moved in any particular direction. Vartanian was attempting to contextualize the concepts of social media art into a distinct history and social context. The Q&A at the end touched on just about every topic possible relating to the web from pictures of cats to the Arab Spring.
I left highly disturbed. My questions were still unanswered: is Internet art innately more democratic than, well, “regular” art? Are we moving in a direction where art becomes an entity for all, rather than a luxury for some?
And then, it hit me: We sat in a gallery space in newly gentrified Bushwick. I was surrounded by white people, in the midst of an intellectualized circle-jerk of experts and curators who were desperately attempting to slap labels on works of art by artists who were doing their best to leave that world behind.
Dizzying as it was, after the symposium I discovered something new: the realm of sacred space.
Don’t be confused: I’m not talking about sacred spaces in the traditional sense; a church, temples, caves in France or even your childhood bedroom. All of these place are sacred, but they carry with them a heaviness that links to your identity. They are reminders of who you are.
The Internet — Tumblr, specifically — is a new kind of sacred. It is a place in which you (or your art) can represent yourself, whichever “self” that may be.
In her essay published for the symposium, web artist An Xiao wrote beautifully about how Tumblr, as a platform, allowed more flexibility than Facebook or other social media sites for its users to fabricate an identity. Tumblr allows users to have elastic identities online, to form new personas for each project.
“Unlike Facebook, one’s Tumblr identity can simply be a screen name,” she wrote. “And one can create a seemingly infinite variety of tumblelogs, none of which are necessarily tied to the original screen name. They exist separately and develop independently, and the ties that develop tend to be with strangers rather than old friends.”
What could be more poetic than a forum in which a person does not merely assimilate into, but constructs a whole new range of identity interests and politics?
Instead, Hyperallergic has corrupted this necessary sacred space, a space which attracts more young people as users because of this freedom to temporarily leave behind the skin they were born in. At the symposium, the sacred space of flexible identities was processed, labeled and packaged.
It became everything I hoped that web art was not.
In the physical space at 319 Scholes, we found ourselves submitting to what the experts (a panel delightfully white and privileged ones, at that) have to say regarding something so nebulous — yet so powerful — as a venue in which artists can produce new, non-commodifiable, non-policeable identities.
I’m still somewhat shocked and confused by the event. When I tell people that I went to this festival, I get looks of bewilderment while my mouth twists trying to find the words to express my utter disappointment; how foolish of me to think that academia and other tangible institutions could clarify something that is intrinsic to all of us: a sense of self, and a new, sacredness — a jungle gym in which we can playfully skew that burdensome notion of identity.
There was, however, one shining moment of this cluster. Artists Cary Peppermint and Leila Nadir, of Eco Art Tech, were asked about their work on the web and their thoughts on public versus private space. Leila responded with a profound statement: “We look at nature as anything we take for granted. It is what we ‘get used to’; it becomes a routine. … As media evolves, it creates new natures, new landscapes … new environments that we will get used to, and that need to be explored. Regardless of whether it is public or private, it needs to be questioned. And in the land of a highly-structured web 2.0, we are finding new places for wildness.”
Here’s my plea to Hyperallergic: Let’s let this one entity go untouched. Let’s rejoice in whatever is left to us to frolic in, be it your ability to change whomever you are via Tumblr, or to become a whole new potential mate on OKCupid. Allow us, the users, to explore the possibilities of wildness between the margins of a corporatized platform and amongst the already commoditized art histories present in web-based art. Thanks for trying, Hyperallergic. But we, the users, got this.
Beyoncé-mania has reached unknown heights in the past couple of months. On top of lip synching at the Presidential inauguration, the pop star appeared on the cover of GQ and Vogue magazines, aired a self-directed documentary on HBO, sat down for an interview with Oprah and gave a powerhouse Super Bowl halftime show performance. Her message is that, through hard work, one can rub elbows with Oprah and Obama and dominate the most macho of events, all while wearing stilettos with a loving family cheering on the sidelines. She represents what happens when a black entertainer successfully balances tropes of gender, Eurocentric beauty standards and capitalism, without the nasty suffering that often befalls celebrities who reach her level of fame (see: MJ, Whitney, Mariah). Girls, rather Beyoncé, run the world.
Several SAIC students have taken on the challenge to use pop culture to understand our society, often incorporating Beyoncé into their work. In the Warholian mode, there is a pervasive desire for young artists at SAIC to fully understand the nature of our icons and make work about them. Sometimes Bey is used as a stand-in for beauty and confidence, such as in junior SAIC student J.J. King’s screenprints of glitched images that comment on the desire for perfection. Both Beyoncé’s corporate model of success (not the self-owned, avant-garde kind of, say, Prince) and the force of her fame are subjects of interest to artists. Her massive, ubiquitous commercial exposure makes her seem supernatural. “I find it funny,” said Vincent Martin, a multimedia artist in the class of 2014 who composes satirical digital collages with Beyoncé’s image. “It” being the internet conspiracy that has cast Beyoncé as part of the Illuminati, the secret society of politicians, pop stars and corporations scheming to take over the world. Working with a similar topic, recent BFA Photography graduate Joshua Emmanuel Slater performed in drag and lip-synched her songs in reverse, which he explains “addressed the idea of fame coming to a black female through mystical forces, i.e. the Illuminati rumors.”
Beyoncé’s documentary “Life is But a Dream,” which aired in February, fails to provide much insight into such rumors over her mysterious and private life. However, in the midst of the vignettes about how much of a businesswoman and artist she is, the patriarchal mechanisms that made her growth possible are also revealed — a tough father who withheld affection, a husband who “taught [her] to be a woman” and a team of neurotic managers and corporate affiliates, all eager to please. Moments like these suggest she is just as affected by these paradigms of power, despite the fact that she has considerable financial power herself.
It seems that the mystical forces that allow Beyoncé to succeed are real gender and race paradigms that promise financial reward to the entertainers who express them beautifully and precisely. This effect of identity politics on Bey surfaces in other artworks about her as well. Gabriella Brown, a BFA Painting and Art History student, makes life-size graphite drawings of women of color to address the glammed-up, hyper-constructed images that inform how we view them. “I identify with the images, celebrate them, am seduced by them, feel constrained and sometimes objectified by them,” Brown explains.
This interest in identity performance is also explored in the work of Alexandria Eregbu, a BFA senior specializing in fibers and performance. Eregbu layers images of Beyoncé in a kente-like pattern to explore the visual representation of blacks in and outside of the contemporary art community. In her performance “Gilding the Kitty Kat,” Eregbu also dresses in an outfit similar to one worn in Bey’s video for her song “Kitty Kat” to prowl around a gallery with feline gestures as an alpha female archetype.
The works of these artists thoughtfully engage the multiple meanings of Beyoncé as an icon, since we are all a part of making her, or any celebrity for that matter, who they are. At one point in “Life is But a Dream,” Beyoncé states, “I can’t do it by myself,” in response to the difficulties of managing different expectations. Maybe not a secret society, but thousands of people are responsible for the Beyoncé we know. The effect of a celebrity on young artists suggests how intimately popular culture and capitalism go hand in hand, as do pop culture and art.