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How Going Viral Has Changed Art

How memes and viral culture have changed the art world, for better or worse.

In a time when likes, reblogs, and favorites determine what gets seen and what doesn't, all cultural products, movies, music, writing, and visual art alike, exist in an economy of attention. Instead of critical regard or placement in the right magazines, the most obvious metric of a piece of art's success is how many eyeballs it attracts and how quickly it gets spread on the internet.

This economy of attention can be a great thing in that artists have the hope of reaching a wider audience than ever, but it also comes with certain creative conflicts. Should work be designed to go viral, in the same way that the Old Spice Guy campaign was crafted to be a YouTube sensation? Has a work failed if it fails to go viral?


Artists working online are forced to confront this attention economy and are responding to it in different ways. There's a separation to be made between artwork that is created to go viral and art that responds to the conditions created by virality and the communication structures that mainstream social networks have given rise to. Michael Manning's collaborative project Phone Arts, for example, is a Tumblr collecting digital drawings that has literally gone viral, reaching an audience far outside the typical internet art community. In contrast, projects like Joe Hamilton's Hypergeography may not have as wide of a reach, but they confront the internet's distribution channels from a more critical perspective.

Several works from Michael Manning’s collaborative project Phone Arts

If there's one person to talk to about going viral, it's probably Cole Stryker, a writer and meme consultant known for the book Epic Win for Anonymous exploring that infamous meme factory, 4chan. Stryker has noticed that the allure of virality has changed how artists approach making work. According to Stryker, cultural products are increasingly tailor-made to be consumed online and optimized to be easily sharable. In the case of a Nicki Minaj music video, for example, "you could pause that video at any point in that four-minute clip, and that still is worth putting on your blog… every second should be GIFable," Stryker explained in a recent phone conversation. This makes for a full video that's utterly frenetic, constantly loud, and packed with eye-popping visuals, ready to be atomized into four-frame animations and posted on Facebook. Subtlety is not necessarily a meme-friendly quality.


Cultural creators are "looking to be more provocative than they would be otherwise, because if they aggravate or shock someone, their work has that much more of a chance to go viral," Stryker continued, pointing out the trolling strategies of author Tao Lin, whose online stunts have made him internet-famous and put him on the path to mainstream literary success.

Artist Petra Cortright, who posts her surreal, internet-iconography-heavy video self-portraits on YouTube, is likewise intentionally provocative. Cortright tags her videos with spam keywords like "sex" and "porn" with the intention of hijacking search results to drive more traffic to her own work (she recently overhauled her video page and removed the tags after a fight with YouTube over her work's "spam" content). The artist then uses the hit count of her videos to calculate their sale price — the more viral a work goes, the more expensive it is, commodifying online popularity while tweaking the concept. Her strategy has proved successful — the psychedelic "VVEBCAM" reached over 60,000 views before it was taken off YouTube.

Michael Manning acknowledges that another viral body of his work, a series of Meme Generator-style images critiquing art world clichés and ironies that the artist posted to Facebook, has "a nice dash of troll" to it. Like the popular "What Society Thinks I Do" meme, Manning's image macros use a recognizable format to break down stereotypes while cracking jokes — the artist's memes are also "for the lulz." The intentionally aggressive troll factor both draws attention to the work and is part of its critical strategy, as in Cortright's videos.


One of Michael Manning’s art-world memes.

Artist Parker Ito defines "going viral" in an art context as "when you reach really far beyond your initial social networking sphere and the end location is somewhere you usually never expected or planned for the work to end up." That rings particularly true for his most viral work, "The Most Infamous Girl in the History of the Internet / Attractive Student / Parked Domain Girl," which both appropriates virality and has gone viral itself. The project takes as its subject a photo of a grinning girl with a backpack, a piece of stock photography that was adopted as the splash image Demand Media used for its parked domains. Ito reproduced the stock photo on canvas and splashed it with his name, conflating himself with the omnipresence of the appropriated image.

Ito has also crafted different online personas, or personal brands, that function as viral vehicles for different kinds of work — check out Olivia Calix's '80s-inflected fiction oeuvre or the Abstract Expressionist take-offs of the collective project Ito's projects aren't necessarily "driven by the need to go viral," he told Creators Project, but their audience reach is a significant part of their artistic appeal.

Joe Hamilton's "Hypergeography" is a Tumblr-based mash-up of geographical landscapes, renderings of technological products, and stock photography, an online gesamptkunstwerk that's something between a piece of architecture and collage. It exists both as a series of individual images and an aggregate virtual world. The project depends on the viral and social internet for its viewing platform, and has gotten significant exposure through Tumblr, but again is not necessarily about going viral.

Hamilton appreciates the viral quality of his work, but he is "just as interested in how network positioning can be approached as more of a craft," the artist wrote in an email. In other words, the work is tailor-made with an awareness of how it will be distributed and shared on the internet, responding to the conditions of virality. In this way, its sharability is an inherent part of "Hypergeography" — the artist is "analyzing the space and finding appropriate social spaces for works to exist rather than throwing things in to the mega-sphere to see what happens," he described.

Instead of being sequestered into galleries and museums, visual art has to travel the same routes as any other content on the internet, and it adopts similar strategies to reach its audience. Projects are consciously designed to reach viewers, and can be optimized, whether it's through spam keywords or powerful brands, to drive traffic and attract eyes and clicks. But the distinction between art that has gone viral and art that maintains a critical position toward virality while spreading through the same networks, is an increasingly important one.