Club Kids: The Social Life of Artists on Facebook

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Facebook is the platform on which our generation negotiates its artists’ respective brands and the tenuous connections between them. Facebook is tactically governed by a kind of silent populism– the subtle linking of identities through ‘Likes’, ‘Shares’, and brief but favorable commentary.Some peoples buy facebook fans or likes to grow up their fan base. Silence, in this case, is fitting because the formation of social ties is a gradual process on the part of the Facebook viewer, who accumulates an understanding of which artists are in lockstep with whoever else through incremental calculations based on memory, viewership, and discussion. The murky edges of who is in what clique form over time and are highly permeable. This is unlike the directly communicative methods of OWS, for instance, where the decisions and allegiances of a group are established directly and necessitate the simultaneous participation of all in a single moment.

Silent populism’s faintly projected image of communal support is solidified through one’s placement in group exhibitions. Today there are many such exhibitions originating from the internet and participants in them are often numerous (JstChillin, BYOB, Speedshows, immaterial surveys, etc.). Group exhibitions are the punctuation to an ongoing social media conversation where individuals promote one another until those very promotions materialize into their names being shown side by side one another, categorized by a curator and legitimated by a gallery.

The physical display of these artists’ works next to one another is not unlike the photos of parties artists attend, strategically tagging each other and posting those images to Facebook for their online audience to digest. Both are ways of making literal otherwise loose social ties exemplified through text’s silent populism. The image –both of gallery installations and social life– operates in a liminal space between projected conception and firmly believed reality. While artists have always consorted in packs, the process of distinguishing and joining such groupings has never been so formalized as it is today through Facebook. The need to socially orient oneself has now been reversed from its normal position: today’s artist on the internet needs an audience to create art, as opposed to the traditional recipe that you need to create art to have an audience. Posting work to the internet with no social network readily in place is synonymous with the riddle ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ For young artists on the internet the answer to the forest question is ‘no’– their work will easily go unnoticed, making their participation as a social actor an a priori necessity to contextualizing what they do as art.

If Anton Vidokle suggested we are entering a period of “Art Without Artists”, we are instead suggesting we are present in a moment of Artists Without Art. We live in a time when young artists look at each other’s Facebook pages more than each other’s art. The affect of Facebook may be why so few artists online actually make much art–because they aren’t being rewarded for anything so much as the performance of their own personal brand online. Thus, the strongest ties artworks in today’s group shows often share are the Mutual Friends the artists have rather than the work itself.

But what is it that we call “work?” Alternatively one could argue that in this situation, if the ultimate goal of an artwork is to in some way transform the consciousness of the individual receiving it (to follow a traditional model), what is happening as we speak between artists who connect with each other via Facebook and other social networks could be seen as cutting out the aesthetic middle man.

The traditional method of interaction between Artist and Other is through exhibition, i.e., generating a scenario in which a predetermined Artist exists and individuals who happen upon the work in space or through images are transformed into Viewers. When the primary audience for the work becomes a core network of selected peers, the traditional boundaries of Artist and Viewer can no longer be solidified in the same way. Rather than creating discrete moments of exhibition and reception, the artist-viewer and other artist-viewers are caught in a sphere of perpetual reception and distribution.

This liberates the practice of aesthetic consciousness transformation from the confines of the art-object-as-delivery-method. In its place, people are understood from within their peer group as Artists, every public or private act taken within social relations acts as an influence on consciousness at a minute level. Rather than sharing or enforcing a certain aesthetic value structure through a set of objects, this same information is transmitted through a direct, consumable lifestyle projected by said peer through a sequence of posts. This could account for the condition of Artists Without Art: rather than artists producing identifiable aesthetic works, their disruptive and compositional energy is used towards relational exchange. Why go to such great lengths to make and photograph a painting that will net 5 Likes when a photo of you and your friends eating 50 McChickens could net hundreds?

Is this to say that interactions on Facebook are now artists’ work? If so, how may we qualify a ‘good’ work of art on Facebook? Is it a meaningful conversation? Is it commentary that draws attention to the apparatus being communicated through? Is it merely a personality capable of drawing attention by whatever means necessary? My perception of artists’ social media personas is that they are a vehicle for creating an authorial context that viewers may use to better understand the vantage point an artist’s ‘actual’ work is coming from (i.e. what they’d exhibit in a gallery or show on their portfolio website). Be it ‘politicized’, ‘sexy’, ‘ironic’, or anything else, the artist’s online brand tends to function as a kind of live-action role playing artist statement. Though these brands tend to eclipse an artist’s work due to the amount of attention (perhaps wrongly) heaped upon them, I doubt many artists would categorize what they do on Facebook as their art unto itself, however socially performative they may be. To call these online exchanges ‘relational’ would shift authorship to the creator of the context the social exchanges take place through, meaning the makers of Facebook are the artists and we are merely participants in their system.

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While it’s impossible to speak of art never produced, an argument can be made that such emphasis on projected lifestyles through Facebook has a regressive effect on the willingness of artists to take bold social risks with their work and/or online personas. Social contact, after all, is the young internet artist’s lifeblood, their peer group and target audience combined, their judge and their jury. The ability to risk antagonism or criticize a peer becomes unnecessarily divisive on Facebook; comment sections more often than not go empty. Feedback, if any, is always on a scale ranging from positive to non-existent—the Like function itself being explicitly designed as a binary function between total consensus and total lack of response. Instead of moving the artistic conversation forward, most people are literally just happy to be part of the online conversation, to be part of the club or whatever other indistinct social group they silently pledge allegiance to.

However, it very well may be possible to move the artistic conversation forward through venues like online clubs or Facebook. With the rise of biocapitalism and radical shifts in the way we value labor and objects, the only way to produce meaningful artistic dialogue may be through a series of mediated social relations and exchanges. As Christian Marazzi writes of the financialization of the global economy,

There has been a transformation of valorization processes that witnesses the extraction of value no longer circumscribed to the place dedicated to the production of goods and services, but that extends beyond the factory gates so to speak, in the sense that it enters directly into the sphere of the circulation of capital … extending the processes of value extraction to the sphere of reproduction and distribution.[1]

In the same way, the value of an artist’s production is not in the value of the works they construct (a decidedly subjective idea) but instead in the net of relations and citations they instigate socially.

The shrinking difference between social networking for the betterment of your art career (a traditional view) and social networking as an art project unto itself (an idea now raised in this essay) may be part of a greater trend in our contemporary understanding of celebrity. Prior to reality television, the distinction between a celebrity’s private and public life was tenuously kept but widely believed. Gossip magazines served to satisfy our lust for celebrities beyond the brief screen time we were able to spend with them as public figures. Though the narrative arcs created by gossip magazines intentionally resembled the plot lines of the movies and television shows their subjects starred in, the sensationalized nature of these publications –disparagingly referred to as ‘rags’– maintained an air of uncertainty over whether the private information being revealed in their pages was actually true or not. Reality television effectively banished these borders between public and private for the celebrities it created, ideally establishing a constant stream of people behaving as they would privately for the viewing of the public. In one fell swoop reality television usurped the function of both the gossip magazines and the movies celebrities appeared in simultaneously. The purportedly objective, documentary-style filming of people in everyday situations made the grainy, decontextualized still images of gossip magazines second rate material. The lure of real embarrassment, secrets, sex, violence, and all else quickly eclipsed the fictional characters portrayed by celebrities on sitcoms and other fictions, establishing a new dominance in cable television. Actors who once devoted time to projects, sets, and the performance of characters separate from themselves now increasingly choose to have the camera follow them in their day-to-day lives as celebrities. Similarly, artists who at one point may have made art now spend time publicly exemplifying their lifestyle as an artist through Facebook.

Further, the social venue is a critical component– private discussion, social networks, and the browser-based web each bear their own relative levels of engagement, audience, and influence. And for each of these, a different kind of social levy: the relations of which we currently speak, not adhering to traditional artistic forms of salable objects, produce little to no economic advancement for the average artist while at the same time generating profit for the venue. With Facebook’s revenue from ads and Facebook Credits expected to hit $4.27 Billion this year[2], and with 870 million unique visitors per month[3], Facebook makes about 4 cents for every hour we spend trolling photo albums wishing we had been at some important gathering in some distant city filled with diverse cultures and complicated intellectuals.

If we can agree that Facebook has become the dominant platform not just for the dissemination but the very constituent parts of an artist’s practice, it’s in this context that we must question the implication for such a shift to Artists without Art. In a recent Forbes[4] article, the social graph that tracks and consolidates every action or relationship defined in a social network, was declared soon be an exploitable resource comparable to crude oil. With Facebook’s IPO set to enter the market shortly, and expected to start around 40 times larger a figure than the average large-scale IPO,[5] we are poised to find out to what degree our social connections are valued as investment commodities. This places us squarely in a period of net-time not dissimilar to the rise of early service providers such as AOL, Prodigy or CompuServ, who fought to become the dominant mass-market gateway to the internet. The analogy presents itself now in Google’s and Facebook’s attempt to become the new mass-market gateway to the social graph.

Hidden from the sight of users, a generative system has been developed to mine the implicit and explicit actions of millions of users globally. Where Myspace failed to grasp the monetary implications for the vast aggregation of personal data, Facebook reigns supreme. The manifestation of such technological innovation can be witnessed first hand in recent shifts towards the ‘personalised web’[6]. With the introduction of Google’s personalized search for every user, there no longer exists any form of collective or empirical search result. Equally in the case of Facebook’s implementation of algorithmic viewing, the option to opt out of a personalised wall feed, governed by your clicking activity was recently revoked, condemning the user to experience all social relations through the lens of Facebook’s financially weighted algorithms.

Such developments are brought to the fore in Eli Pariser’s recent book Filter Bubbles, which elucidates the possible outcomes for the transformation to an analytical web, governed by personalized experience. Pariser cites a combination of damaging societal effects that may arise in the event of being overexposed to preferable and ‘relevant’ content. Perhaps the concluding ethical dilemma inherent in this question of preferable content is demonstrated most starkly by Zuckerberg’s claim “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

The accusation of a world dominated by filter bubbles is given significant weight in the social demographic research conducted by Ethan Zuckerman, in mining the class composition of Twitter users, Zuckerman found that on average most users communicated in codified form within groups defined by their own race and class. Self evidently this is one element that can be said to be unequivocally true of the young internet based artist, a seemingly dramatic contradiction to the presumed sense of ‘horizontalism’ and democratised exchange that previously characterised our perception of the web. In this instance it might be suggested that today’s young internet artists provide an exceptional case study for such research, for it is the reserve of few netizens that the materiality of the internet provides the platform by which work is produced, consumed, branded, discussed and socially defined.

If we are to accept the previously stated logic that “individuals promote one another until those very promotions materialize into their names being shown side by side one another, categorized by a curator and legitimated by a gallery.” then we should also accept that to a lesser or greater extent it is Facebook’s implicit populist algorithms that form the foundations for an outcome on the aforementioned trajectory.

On this basis we can ascertain the artist and their behavior within this network as the performance of a personal brand, particularly in the instance “Why go to such great lengths to make and photograph a painting that will net 5 Likes when a photo of you and your friends eating McChickens could net hundreds? Because of this reliance it is possible (in speculative terms) to think of structuring a kind of formal or statistical analysis for the rise of particular aesthetic tropes based on the edgeranking[7] system by which Facebook aggregates its content. Likely this will be greatly beneficial to quantitative art historians and mass marketers alike.

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As the number of network participants rises, the ease of leaving that network or creating an alternative to it becomes increasingly difficult. With this in mind it’s fair to say Facebook will play a primary role in the the dissemination of culture for at least this generation to come and as such warrants a discourse separate from talk of ‘the internet and art’ at large. The problem with this, as is the problem equally with any social networks or any discipline, as we are want to describe art, is that they engender this sense of impassable boundaries– leaving the walled garden involves just too many risk factors. The danger is that this or any walled garden become taken for granted. One can all too easily venerate the Facebooks or Tumblrs of the world for establishing what amounts to infinite space of free exhibition and expression: what amounts, for many young artists, to a false promise of free exhibition and studio space with unlimited access and viewership potential. Instead it is important to realize that these spaces remain a “bad infinity.”[8]

The dream is an egalitarian space of cultural exchange. However the notion of creating a structure or a network for this purpose inevitably leads to the same pitfalls, wherein this liberal logic circles in on itself. As an individual recently explained to me, describing his company’s plans for a new social network for fashion, “we want to create a network where people can become recognized for their talents and rise above those who already have clout, without relying on a third party network … so long as they rely on our third party network.”

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