The impact of a tweet depends on who's tweeting it (Trump, you, me, Yoko Ono) and also what it ends up begetting. The power, or illusion of power, of a tweet or any unit of social media (inter-) action, is the focus of a new installation by Austrian artist Martin Roth.
The New York-based artist's new piece is currently on display at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York (ACFNY) and is titled In May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan nurtured by tweets. It features a room of 200 lavender plants, growing in six rows in seven tons of soil and sand, under the flickering and intense buzzing of 16 fluorescent lights which are powered by the Twitter accounts of politically conservative policy makers. Surrounding the plants is wallpaper with trees on, simulating a forest.
The grow lights' strength will increase the more retweets the accounts can muster, and so, too, will the lavender grow. A Raspberry Pi has been set up to program the lights, checking the Twitter groups for changes in retweets.
"[The] Twitter storm is something to be resisted," Roth tells Creators. "But I am using it in my exhibition as a force to create growth. When you are in the space the instability of the light / the flickering makes you aware of an instability outside."
The accounts Roth has used to power the lights include Trump himself, of course, and also media friends and allies, along with some major news corporations too. "So in a sense him at the center and the ecosystem around him," notes Roth. "It's basically a virtual organism that's constantly changing. At the center is Trump, his media friends at Fox (the place where he gets his info), the official White House handle, Sean Spicer, CNN, Washington news (news channels that report on his tweets)."
The idea for the piece, Roth says, came naturally. Invited by the center to create a new work, Roth explains that ACFNY sits only a few blocks from Trump Tower. The fact that Trump Tower has become so militarized since Trump's win—with barricades, secret service, and armed police—gave Roth inspiration to create something that was also a retreat, a kind of doomsday bunker, he says.
"In a sense also an indoor garden," Roth explains. "Huge warehouses are converted to grow lettuce and old military silos are more often turned into apartments that will survive a nuclear war. But instead of growing food I'm growing something for the psyche. (Lavender as natural medicine. A natural anti-anxiety remedy / natural Xanax.) I like to work with scents. Basically the art enters the viewer."
Roth also spends his time out in the field himself, working the land, planting, gardening, toiling. So this became a strange juxtaposition for him. Here he was inside, in a basement gallery, doing labor that is usually done not only in the open air, but also away from the city. "It felt strange to be between skyscraper and to work on my field," he notes.
It also points to the strangeness of a media and political climate where the POTUS tweets in the same reactionary way we all do, except his tweets have geopolitical consequences.
"May he live in interesting times," says an old Chinese curse. Except it isn't an old Chinese curse. We don't know where it originates from, Robert F. Kennedy called it a Chinese curse in 1966 and it stuck. It's fake news. Fake news is nothing new, but it's proliferation perhaps is.
"I'm interested in Twitter because it seemed to be the only news getting through," notes Roth. "It's so fast, political, weaponized but trivial. Often untrue and seems overall just to be there to distract us. But [tweets] are updated so often that the last messages are forgotten very quickly. It changed the media. But it also has strong effects on us. At any moment we can be confronted with an untruth, but it also has wider political impacts on our lives."
In May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan nurtured by tweets by Martin Roth is on now until June 21, 2017 at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York (ACFNY), 11 East 52nd Street, New York. You can see more of Roth's work at his website here.