Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian thinks my L Magazine column on Twitter Art is off the mark. As Vartanian tells it, the term itself indicts the author. It’s a cheap ploy for headlines that fails to accurately describe these artist’s practice. Also: Why oh why, did Johnson write a column about bad twitter art and then fail to discuss the most significant artists! I’m exaggerating here for effect – Hrag wasn’t nearly so dramatic — but you get the point. Vartanian believes the examples I chose weaken an already thin case against twitter art (Joy Garnett’s #lostlibrary, An Xiao’s The Artist is Kind of Present, and Man Bartlett’s #24hPort).
Vartanian’s probably right that I could have come up with a better term than “Twitter art”, though the idea that this was a traffic friendly hook used to bring together work with no real commonality is a little far fetched. The truth of the matter is, I don’t believe the pieces have anything to do with one another past their engagement with Twitter. I never made any claims that they did, though I doubt Vartanian would have interpreted much of the article as he did had I more clearly expressed why I chose each artist.
The point of the article was not to build a case against all Twitter art/artists who use Twitter but simply to select three works that were topical and discuss them. (Yes, I wrote “Twitter art bums me out”, but this was followed by “most of it is bad”, which is not the same as “all of it”.) I chose artists whose work had received attention recently, or were currently running projects. For example, while Joy Garnett doesn’t often use Twitter for performative based work and seems an unusual inclusion, I discussed her work because I believed it likely that she would still be working on #lostlibrary when the article was published. That only nominally worked out — she stopped the project the day my article ran — but at least I had a few hours. Garnett was also an appealing subject since she’s been working online since the late 90’s. This allowed me respond to work from a different generation of artists than Man Bartlett or An Xiao.
An Xiao’s “The Artist Is Kind of Present” was similarly selected for its newsiness. Xiao herself was recently quoted by Christopher Knight at The L.A. Times, the work discussed recently cited in ARTnews. In this case, Vartanian believes I’ve done a disservice to the work. I didn’t mention its critique of the Abramovic online media circus nor our need to connect virtually as much as in person. Also, I didn’t personally experience the piece and didn’t report that she also texted.
On that last bit Vartanian has me — I didn’t sit down and tweet with Xiao — a complaint that would hold more water if I’d never seen any of the artist’s works. But that’s not the case. Just last fall, I participated in Xiao’s “Being Telepresent“, a web cam work which allowed Xiao to “virtually” attend the opening and closing and chat with viewers. Once the performance was completed she posted screenshots of her conversations on Facebook. At the closing party, it turned out she was actually in the gallery office. Surprise!
Now, obviously this is a different piece, and it doesn’t involve Twitter, but one is clearly just as vacuous as the other. 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.
As for Xiao’s take on the social media frenzy surrounding Marina Abromovic stare-off, it’s worth asking what is being said with this piece. Is it that hype about intimacy can perpetuate a false sense of intimacy over these mediums and in real life? Unlikely given that Xiao’s description of the piece always trumpets precious shared moments. Maybe it is a message about how social media experiences change with context. Maybe it’s about how hard it is to generate the same excitement for a work inspired by Abramovic without MoMA’s press team. Whatever the case, I can think of more poignant work.
This lack of clarity, however, isn’t something Vartanian has a problem with, who instead misinterprets my complaint that ARTnews had evaluated Xiao’s success by how many people the artist meaningfully tweeted and text with that day, as a complaint about artists networking to get ahead! He then goes on to describe the mechanics of twitter use. “Artists who use Twitter…are more like conductors.” Vartanian writes, “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.”
Call me idealistic, but I think art should be more than a leadership retreat. Yes, it’s about engaging the community around you, but there’s not much value in it if the ideas themselves are flimsy. As I mention at the L Magazine, this is the core criticism I have with a lot of the work I have seen on twitter recently. There are a lot of ways to address this, but probably the most effective is through a strong work ethic and willingness to evaluate one’s work harshly.
Obviously that’s a good sign for Man Bartlett, who based on his tweets must live in his studio, though I haven’t spoken to the artist enough about his practice to know whether he’s critical of it. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Vartanian’s likes this inclusion; Bartlett’s very active and has a large following. “He’s getting to the point where he could benefit from a thorough assessment”, the blogger opines, promising the feature for another day. In addition to the reasons already noted by Vartanian, Bartlett’s recent commission as a Creative Time Tweets artist this spring also prompted his mention. (David Horovitz and Jill Magid also produced projects.)
At this point, it will likely not be shocking to read that Vartanian’s take is slightly different from my own: Vartanian cites the artist’s inclusion of other media as a strength in the work, and again, I don’t see this attribute as particularly consequential if the concept itself is weak. For this reason, I never cared much for #24hKith, a piece Vartanian cites as amongst Bartlett’s better works. Here, Bartlett asks Twitter followers to complete the phrase “I am”, while a live video stream of the artist is projected onto a gallery wall. Bartlett then repeats the tweets aloud, while pinning a feather per tweet on a mannequin as he does it. Over the course of the performance the mannequin is covered.
The problem with this piece is that it’s lob ball information aesthetics whereby the mannequin, the tweets, and the feathers all represent the idea that consciousness and physical presence is made up of countless interactions virtual and real. #24hPort is a better work because he leaves the trite metaphors out of it, but the only reason asking a bunch of people where they’re going has any appeal at all is because the cumulative effect of Bartlett’s tweets is compelling. Now that only occurs when if the Tweeter in question is skilled, but I’d also argue that it’s completely common to see this happen. I read Melissa Gira Grant’s Twitter updates from Europe religiously when she got stuck in Europe last year due to ash erupting in Iceland, even though objectively speaking they weren’t that interesting. Event- and news-based Twitter commentary can be bizarrely addictive.
I don’t know how Vartanian feels about this, but given that artist is simply exploiting Twitter for what Twitter does, I, for one, would be more satisfied if Bartlett’s projects offered a little Steve Lambert-esque punch. Offering another perspective, Hypothete, a popular commentor and artist, thinks artists working within said medium who want to make a point about it should not complicate the form with other mediums. Of course, since Bartlett often uses different media, by this rationale this wouldn’t make Bartlett a Twitter artist so much as a performance artist with a great knack for self promotion. I don’t see anything wrong with this, though I’d add that this is sometimes an undesirable quality that I’ve come to associate with many Twitter accounts, my own included.