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"Social Media" Hits NYC's Gallery World With Mixed Success

With works from artists like David Byrne and Miranda July, new media meets social interaction in the fine art world.
September 23, 2011, 6:47pm

Last week, in lieu of the opening for the show “Social Media” (on view through October 16th), Pace Gallery moderated a panel with some of the artists on view: David Byrne, Miranda July, Aram Bartholl, Penelope Umbrico and Emilio Chapela. While the premise of the talk was ostensibly a discussion of the artists’ work and their own engagement with social media, what unfolded was a microcosm of the art world’s own struggle with how to come to terms with new technologies and how to use them for artistic expression.

New media as an art form is something that the traditional art world is still figuring out how to handle, and so far the results have been timid and clumsy at best. Part of the issue is that new media art is often perceived as still struggling to develop its own formal language, as not yet capable of transcending its own medium. Too often, works seem to privilege showing us what the technology can do over the importance of artistic expression. But with the increasing ubiquity of social media, and digital technology in general, there is a desire on the part of both artists and curators to pay more attention to these new tools, to use them both as a medium for expression and as a way of providing some much needed critical commentary on the tools themselves.

The idea of social media exists today within the context of human interaction mediated by technology. It’s about more than just being social, however—being social has evolved to adapt to our transforming technological landscape, and media is changing the nature of our interpersonal communication and relationships. Social media art is a subset of new media art that refers to the social tools and networks that have become so firmly embedded in our culture. And while some critics dispute its validity as an art form, it’s been garnering increasing attention and recognition from the “traditional” art world.

David Byrne’s Buzzclip and Weaselface.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that of the artists on the panel, Aram Bartholl is the only artist from the “media art world” proper. And whereas all of the artists included in the show are creative powerhouses in their own right, several of them expressed a wariness, even a downright reluctance, to engage with social media. David Byrne, for instance, admitted that he never uses social media–although he is always on his phone.

Although technology, or at least the idea of technology, was present in each of the artists’ works, the majority of them only rarely touched upon social media as we understand it today. In general, the work in the show mostly represented how technology is augmenting perception or used it as a conduit to represent specific ideas. Byrne’s Democracy in Action, in particular, appeared to only use the digital frames on which it was displayed for their technological capacity to stream still images than to make any kind of statement on how the medium has affected our perception of the images portrayed therein.

Miranda July at Pace/MacGill Gallery – Social Media Exhibition from Pace/MacGill Gallery on Vimeo.

July’s Learning To Love You More, on the other hand, placed a more pronounced emphasis on being social, while the medium itself was largely marginal to its intent, since most of the entries were submitted via snail mail.

Penelope Umbrico’s Sunset Portraits.

Penelope Umbrico’s Sunset Pictures and Sunset Portraits are more about how photos constructed out of data affect our perception of natural phenomena. Their only link to social media seems to be the fact that they’re sourced from Flickr.

A closer look at Chris Baker’s Murmur Study.

Chris Baker’s Murmur Study and Jonathan Harris’ and Sep Kamvar’s We Feel Fine are the only pieces in the show that comment on how social media has affected communication or relationships. By aggregating onomatopoeic grunts and grumbles from Twitter, Murmur Study highlights the absurdity of reducing communication to 140 characters and the limitations of this form of interaction. By representing the tweets as something akin to receipts, the piece portrays communication reduced to a form of commerce where information is simply an object of exchange.

A still from Jonathan Harris’ and Sep Kamvar’s We Feel Fine.

Through an interactive data visualization, We Feel Fine capably shows how the expression of emotions has adapted in response to the social platform of blogging. It paints a vivid picture of how the language of expression and the willingness to share has co-evolved with technology.

_Aram Bartholl’s_Are You Human?

Although the work of Bartholl did not focus squarely on actual social media platforms, they were perhaps more archetypal than the other works in the show. Using CAPTCHAs and QR Codes as themes, he transformed these digital fixtures into art objects that foreground their status as motifs of the digital age. Bartholl is more concerned with the relationship between the physical and the digital and how that interplay affects our interaction with them.

“Social Media,” then, is not without its variety. In fact, one of the more difficult aspects of the show is its lack of a cohesive vision. Technology in general appears to be the only common theme among the art works featured in the show. The approaches to ideas of information, perception, sharing, participation and communication are so broad that the show fails to make a definitive point. It instead states the obvious: that technology has changed things.

Learning To Love You More

Incidentally, what arises as most interesting about the show is the dynamic of older, more notable art world figures juxtaposed next to artists steeped in contemporary technology. The show privileges bigger names over actual engagement, thus sacrificing a relevant discourse with what is actually happening today. This is more apparent when the work of Byrne or July is contrasted with the works of Bartholl, Harris and Kamvar. David Byrne’s Apps come off as a feeble attempt to respond to the one aspect of technology he participates in, resulting in a shallow awareness of how they work or how people use them. At best, July’s Learning to Love You More offers a snapshot of media participation prior to the rise of social networking as we know it today.

At least with Bartholl’s appropriation of CAPTCHAs and QR Codes there is a larger question of repositioning digital motifs into the real world, and how that affects their perception or functionality. Harris and Kamvar take advantage of the computational ability to aggregate massive amounts of data to make a specific point.

_Aram Bartholl’s_Google Portraits.

Surprisingly, perhaps one of the strongest pieces in the show is the one you’re most likely to miss: Bartholl’s Dead Drops, a self-created social network that operates within a a physical space as well as “outside of the wire.” The Dead Drops do not refer to any specific social media sites, but instead comment on aspects of risk and privacy that are inherent to the medium. However, they lack the reverential appeal of an art work hung in a gallery. There is no immediately perceptible aesthetic object that can be stood in front of and contemplated.

During the panel, the inevitable question was raised as to whether this type of art should even be exhibited in a gallery, since it feels most at home online or, in the case of Dead Drops, in public spaces on the city streets. It should be possible to appreciate this type of work in the confines of the “white cube,” but the gallery as an entity has to reconsider its own role in how it exhibits and contextualizes this type of work. The context has to evolve along with it rather than being shoehorned in to more traditional notions of what an exhibition is and looks like.

Social Media, as a show, puts forth a valiant effort to engage with social media art, but in the end it mostly serves as a reminder of how far we have yet to go in terms of integrating media art into more traditional art world settings. Not only do the curators predictably favor bigger names in spite of an actual dialogue, but they also favor more traditionally “artistic” pieces such as Apps at the same expense. There is a failure to adapt and thus a failure to genuinely participate in the contemporary practices the show ostensibly means to address. Instead we get, well, another Chelsea gallery show.

Social Media is on view at New York City’s Pace/MacGill Gallery until October 16.