Brad Troemel On Parsing The Accidental Audience

by Whitney Kimball on March 21, 2013 · 5 comments Opinion

Aaron Graham, "HAIR STRAIGHTENER USED TO COOK INDIVIDUAL PIECE OF BACON", 2012.

If you’re consuming art on the Internet, then by now you’ve stumbled across art images like Marilyn Minter’s high heels on a Tumblr about shoes, or a Baldessari polka dot presented on a design blog. It seems like the inevitable fate of art on the web, so you’ll pay attention when net artist and scholar Brad Troemel sets out to tackle the issue.

In an essay titled “The Accidental Audience,” Troemel describes followers of The Jogging, a Tumblr that hosts images mimicking filter-down advertising strategies and office memes. He dedicates the most time to those he describes as “The Accidental Audience”, the type of people who would understand Aaron Graham’s art photo HAIR STRAIGHTENER USED TO COOK AN INDIVIDUAL PIECE OF BACON as a “kludge,” a meme based on crappy makeshift repairs. Once the image is reblogged on kludge blog ThereIFixedIt.com, Aaron Graham’s art undergoes a contextual transformation. “This transformation (or context-deprived misreading),” Troemel writes, “is not adding new meaning to the work but returning it to its original contex[t.]”

But is it a misreading, to mistake a photo of bacon in a hair straightener for…a photo of bacon in a hair straightener? Jogging intentionally downplays authorship, as Troemel himself writes:

Jogging includes on all posts abstract symbols as links back to creators’ websites. For most, these symbols are unobtrusive nonsense that goes unnoticed far more easily than a fully articulated authorial signature with a first and last name would. In this way Jogging encourages the disregard of authorship while allowing those who are curious about a creator a ubiquitous, if minor, point of entry.

Essentially, getting a correct reading of the project relies on knowledge that this photo was taken by an artist, not a normal person. The symbol, usually linking back to a CV or more traditional-looking artwork, only exists on the text in Jogging posts; the information disappears with the image.

Troemel suggests that this re-integration of art and life (i.e., reblogging on places like ThereIFixedIt.com) “fulfills the avant-garde ambition for art to be integrated with everyday life.” He identifies a real shift that will affect the way we interact with art, being able to once again see Duchamp’s shovel used as a shovel. But, there’s something off-putting about blanket statements that assume that New Inquiry readers implicitly agree with Troemel’s definition of avant-garde. Integrating art with life may neatly fit what Jogging does, but doesn’t signify everybody’s goals for art. At most, it simply reinforces The Jogging’s relationship to the Fluxus movement, which similarly sees art and life as one.

The underlying us-and-them relationships between viewer and artist might also have something to do with the angry reactions that Troemel later observes in his essay. The Jogging most often reappropriates from the kludge-rs, or blue collar America, and intentionally obscures information about the art context. Occasionally, accidentals will retrace the images back to the artist– “reveal[ing] a post as a work of fine art.”

This makes people angry and I don’t blame them. “The ability to see what is banal as something otherwise is rooted in privilege and class,” artist Ryder Ripps wisely points out in his response to this piece.” He writes that the entry point for these social differences needs to be humor, pointing out that “you and your arty friends having a dinner party in Taco Bell is not the same as a redneck family having their weekly Wednesday outing at Taco Bell.” Trying to dictate an art meaning once the image is beyond your control, he writes, is comparable to “taking from other cultures and refusing to let those same cultures consume your stolen bounty.”

The informed art audience and producers, though, not only allow reblogging, they thrive on it. “At what point do artists using social media stop making art for the idealized art world audience they want and start embracing the new audience they have?” Troemel asks. It’s a good question, but one the Jogging isn’t seeking to answer.

  • http://twitter.com/rwetzler Rachel Wetzler

    Paddy and I had a back and forth about this earlier on twitter, so hopefully I’ll be able to clarify what I meant here. It’s sort of a minor-ish point, but I do think it’s worth pointing out in that part of Whitney’s criticism of Brad’s piece seems to hinge on it towards the end. (I’ll also preface this by saying that I have very mixed feelings about Brad’s essay as a whole that I haven’t entirely worked out yet.)

    This is the paragraph that I had a problem with:

    “Troemel suggests that this re-integration of art and life (i.e., reblogging on places like ThereIFixedIt.com) “fulfills the avant-garde ambition for art to be integrated with everyday life.” He identifies a real shift that will affect the way we interact with art, being able to once again see Duchamp’s shovel used as a shovel. But, there’s something off-putting about blanket statements that assume that New Inquiry readers implicitly agree with Troemel’s definition of avant-garde. Integrating art with life may neatly fit what Jogging does, but doesn’t signify everybody’s goals for art. At most, it simply reinforces The Jogging’s relationship to the Fluxus movement, which similarly sees art and life as one.”

    The idea that the ambition of the avant-garde was to integrate art and life isn’t Brad’s definition–it’s Peter Burger’s, and it’s essentially a broadly accepted definition of the avant-garde, mostly because it’s confirmed by the artists themselves. In this case, I’m assuming Brad is using avant-garde in the sense that Burger does–to refer specifically to the “historical” or “revolutionary” avant gardes” of Surrealism, Dada, and Futurism–and to their neo-avant-garde descendants (eg Situationism, Fluxus). You can disagree with Burger, Buchloh, etc. as to whether or not breaking down the barriers between art and life was truly the aspiration of the avant-garde if you want (though I think it’d be difficult) but I don’t think you can criticize Brad’s essay for making that statement since it’s an idea that circulates widely within art history and theory, and it’s misleading to suggest that this is “Brad’s definition” for the same reason. I get the sense that Whitney (and, in our discussion on twitter, Paddy) was assuming that Brad was using avant-garde to refer to any kind of “progressive” or “advanced” art practices, when it seems to me that he’s using it in a very specific sense.

    • WhitneyKimball

      Hey, thanks for the comment. I also had mixed feelings about this piece. I don’t think it deserves a slam, it’s a reasonable and thoughtful essay, but I take issue with the examples he’s using.

      I wouldn’t say everyone accepts that definition of avant-gardism just because a few thinkers defined it that way in writing, but I’d accept that as a catalyzing idea that facilitated a messy array of other ones. I would not say that all Surrealist works share that goal.

      But accepting this as Brad’s definition of the avant-garde, that’s fair. Used in that sense, the work does fulfill very specific goals, which I guess is my whole issue with the concept. His definition of art-making is clearly specific and limiting, and all the while gets to camouflage itself as being of and for the masses.

    • http://hereisafantasy.com Corinna Kirsch

      Here’s my two cents on the topic of saying what you’re doing is “avant-garde”. Honestly, not many people nowadays have the gumption—minus Brad—to refer to their project in one way or another as functioning like the “avant-garde”. That is kind of a big deal.

      Nobody’s going to write that “Brad’s definition” is handed down from Burger if it’s so commonplace in academia, right? My problem with the “integration of art and everyday life” bit is that if Brad’s going, say, the futurist route of angering an audience to break down the barriers between art and life, then why the repetition, especially when all it did was further separate the goals of the futurists from that of the people throwing tomatoes at them in the audience.

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