Twitter art bums me out. Fine, it’s a new medium that we don’t know what to do with yet, but it's receiving a growing amount of attention and most of it is bad. Between Creative Time’s Twitter artwork commissions and a recent ARTnews feature on social media, there’s enough conversation on the subject to start the complaining. Let me lead the way.
I’ll begin with painter and veteran online news maverick Joy Garnett’s self-described social-media performance #LostLibrary. In spirit, the concept is generous: each day Garnett gives followers a chance to pick up a curated selection of free books she no longer has space for, tweeting the address and an image of each new Soho location where she’s left them. Problem is, it’s not very compelling. The different locations don’t do much more than produce a set of average documentary photographs, and Garnett’s claims that #LostLibrary pushes against the online music and book industries that often prevent sharing aren’t particularly persuasive. Yes, there’s a personal touch to the curation and selection of locations, and books are great for sharing, but we knew all this already. Art that does little but shed light on the pre-existing qualities of objects deemed relevant by the artist sets a pretty low bar for activism.
Though I doubt Garnett conceived #LostLibrary with the notion that it would transform our relationship with digital licensing—reaching a few people at a time by spreading awareness is a much more manageable (and fashionable) model right now—I wish it were more imaginative. This is a problem for much social media art, which while refreshingly clear in intent—statements written by artists working with social media are actually a joy to read—often lacks the creative juice that defines truly great art, and privileges meaningful exchange instead.
An Xiao, a social-media artist receiving growing attention this year, is a consistent offender in this respect, using her projects to engage people in relentlessly banal ways. It isn’t intentional: in a project titled "The Artist is Kind of Present" recently profiled in ARTnews, she asks participants to sit in front of her as they would in Marina Abramovic’s famous stare-off performance, only this time they tweet! Predictably, as evidence of merit, ARTnews quoted Xiao’s account of a conversation made significant by its middlebrow depth. "One woman told me stories about her first child and I asked her about how that felt and she was very forthcoming," she said, "We never actually spoke but we had a very intimate conversation."
Fine, but I can’t help being skeptical of art whose success is measured in relationships—after all, we make plenty of those on our own. The social conditions here are mostly irrelevant, making this project and others like it part of a growing worst-case-scenario movement for Relational Aesthetics. Unlike Nicolas Bourriaud’s original description, in Twitter art alternative visions for interaction are never proposed.
Whatever the weaknesses, Xiao still shares one quality nearly every successful Twitter artist needs: endurance. The reigning champion on that front is Man Bartlett, a young artist (and former AFC intern!) who carved out a niche for himself staying up all night tweeting in a single location. Most recently, he performed the like for Creative Time Tweets, asking passengers in the Port Authority bus station "Where have you been" and "Where are you going." Like many of his Twitter projects, the bulk of his tweets reflect standard use of the medium: most are chitchat, peppered with occasional moments of hilarity or seriousness. As Bartlett’s performances demonstrate, even more so than other media, Twitter art requires complete immersion to attain any kind of success because it’s about cumulative experience. But that’s a suspect accolade, too. As gallerist Jen Bekman recently tweeted,"Persistence, so often mistaken for achievement."
(Pictured: An Xiao; photo by Alan Lupiani)