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    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Nerd

    Written by

    Cameron Cuchulainn

    How Art Works Online

    I have been avoiding updating the iOS on my phone like the plague. But when I took the chance to add more music to my old iPhone, I went for it. In the process, I inadvertently OK’d the operating system update. Flash forward to a recent attempt to improvise my way to the destination of one weekend's fun. I plugged some coordinates in, and to my horror, the directions generated went from the clear guide I was used to to what felt like the trash compactor scene from Star Wars. The new version's results were a mess and suddenly I was direction-less.

    We’re at the point now where the Internet underwrites many of our experiences when we're not online. Art's no exception. The work, events, gigs, jobs, announcements, and unfamiliar places for the interactions that make up the offline art experience are powered by the web. But the relationship between art and the Internet is much more than that. It affects the forest and the trees of our lives in a way that burrows to the root of the way we think, communicate, and act. It allows all of us to transcend time and space, to collide, and to carve out new action, new art, and new influences. I started to think about the places the web is taking us as we make and look at art.

    Work and Audience  

    The web’s mechanism as a central platform and marketplace of ideas facilitates work through the connections it makes between people and organizations with different supporting roles in the arts. In this way, a client may encounter and then approach an artist to commision or buy something. By establishing a website, artist’s profile, Facebook page, or blog, you open yourself up exponentially to a potential audience. Then Twitter provides a way to make announcements to that audience, with the chance for their content to be carried away by the Internet’s tide and become a common knowledge topic in the collective consciousness.

    How to Get a Job  

    The Internet batcave also supplies a utility belt during creative job searches. Art and design jobs on New York’s Craigslist and Mediabistro are abundant and terrific, but then you open Door Number Three to the NYFA.org site and it’s like an explosion of lucky charms. These lucky charms include positions outside of the New York area, in emerging scenes like Qatar, and often aren’t posted in other locations.

    An effective way to distinguish yourself when pursuing these jobs is to make a well-crafted letter of intent with easy links to internet locations of your art. The links are not only immediate and vivid, but expand the dimensions of the interchange too; instead of simply citing what you can do using flat text or summary language, your array of images, photos, and videos made ready by the Internet quickly surrounds and entices your audience.

    David Choe 

    To go deeper, the Internet adds a complex strand to the 21st century braid it forms with artist, audience, and work. Take a look at David Choe. In many ways, Choe is living his dreams as an artist. In his words, “a slum lord once told me, real G’s don’t get up before noon; my whole life I’ve worked hard to get to a place in my life where I don’t have to wake up before noon, and now I’m here and I love it, sleeping in is the best shit in the universe and I sleep in everyday!!!”  

    Ironically, Choe’s ability to sleep in is due in very large part to his insane work ethic. As the artist explains, he’s not afraid of young bucks fresh out of art school because “while you sleep, while you drink and party, I’m a machine--I never stop.”  Along with other character traits and his amazing, visceral talent, Choe’s work ethic brought him respect in the world of street art.

    He's since gravitated into other worlds. In one realm, Choe’s portrait of Obama was used as part of Obama’s campaign and later displayed at the White House. But Choe's biggest claim to fame is that he was sought out by Sean Parker and Mark Zuckerberg to create murals for Facebook’s offices.

    Parker and Zuckerberg may not have found out about Choe on the web, but it was the internet economy that provided Choe with stock options that may underwrite his projects for the rest of his life, and that catapulted him into the mainstream stratosphere. Moreover, the Internet will keep connecting appreciators to the digital library of his many great works, the Obama portrait among them.

    Social media  

    The networks of the web like Twitter or Facebook allow you to play concentric tree circle telephone about your work with audiences that include a variety of characters, including appreciators who might not have the dough to buy your pieces, but feel something when interacting with them. These likers affect your art by praising it or recommending it to their friends, perhaps leading to a curator's desk, an interview, or a final sale. They are your digital street team, and the value of their generous support cannot be understated.  

    Moreover, that support is built into the social media system and is to the advantage of its platforms. Their traffic is largely driven by the presentation, seeking, and sharing of content, which you need artists and makers to create.


    The tools for social media are evolving and will continue to do so. Speaking in June at The Economist’s Ideas Economy conference, which was focused on exploring big data and the evolution of smart systems, TED founder Richard Saul Wurman and The Economist’s Ken Cukier reminded us that Twitter, Facebook, and some of the other things we presently take for granted won't be around forever. In 20 years, the Internet is going to “take a direction we don’t know anything about.”

    Later that day, the media entrepreneur Juliette Powell remarked that the Internet is “a nervous system in the process of being born," while her mentor John Perry Barlow added that “culture is the voice of that nervous system.” Given the early developmental stage of the Internet then, the arts as culture hold possibilities in the digital future of an immeasurably vast magnitude.

    New Tensions

    To be sure, the relationship of art and technology is still an uneasy one. Claire Bishop’s article “The Digital Divide” in a recent issue of Artforum describes this tension, arguing that while contemporary artists may play with the Internet in their art (think of that New Aesthetic), for the most part they have not confronted what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital. Bishop asserts that there is a shallow disavowal in contemporary art as artists are aware of the way the digital revolution has changed our lives, but choose instead to nurture a nostalgia for the artifacts of old media (for example, analog film). Many of Bishop’s critics are champions of new media art, arguing that she has overlooked all of the genre’s contributions that do confront this question, and do it using digital tools.

    For now the promise of sharing and connecting on the Internet is represented by crowdsourcing. But could art empower a network to make political change with effects on the ground?

    But Bishop's real concern is contemporary art, what is exhibited to the mainstream in the largest, most well-known, and most visible institutions. Contemporary art could use more contributions that reflect on the human condition in the Digital Age.  Plus, you’ve got to give it to her for seeing the drought and asking for more of it.  And the fact that she pissed a lot of people off by critiquing what passes for digital art in the mainstream might lend some weight to her argument. That people have a strong response to the question of if and how we are processing what it means to think, see, and filter our new reality indicates that we are in that emergent historical space where we are still figuring it all out.

    Even the link to Bishop's article at Artforum points to the tension of how art and the Internet are going to surf together: the art world stalwart embraces the free quality of the Internet, but in what seems like an attempt to retain value, order, and channel an online audience modeled after the entrance and exit confines of a gallery or museum experience, it requires that you create a username and password to access the archives or participate in any of the site’s discussions. It’s a great magazine, but this restriction is the kind of digital practice that will make you obsolete in the new era.

    Social Art  

    For now the promise of sharing and connecting on the Internet is represented by crowdsourcing. But could art empower a network to make political change with effects on the ground? Consider the cause of sex slavery: Siddharth Kara’s research found that by the end of 2006, there were 28.4 million slaves in the world, and 1.2 million of them were women and children who had been forced into the practice. Taking into account the wacky pitfalls of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 appeals, it’s worth wondering how we could use art to address this kind of problem successfully.

    Unlike art focused on personal exploration, or still-lifes, or actionless paintings of a bunch of white people standing around, imagine instead, say, an installation that replicates a room used for transactional sex with teen slaves in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The installation could come with stained kids’ sheets and a garbage can overflowing with condoms wrapped in paper towels: an awful immersive experience that makes the audience feel something deeply and want to do something about it, or at least talk about it online.

    It was through collective political campaigns that we have been able to eliminate things like institutionalized slavery and child labor in the developed world; if we work together today using more advanced technologies and the language of art, why wouldn’t we be able to duplicate that success elsewhere?

    Influence and Understanding  

    To understand how artist and audience interact with each other on this kind of grand scale, consider our new-found ability to mine big data by looking to the experience of Austin Kleon. A self-described writer who draws, Kleon wrote the best-selling book on creativity Steal Like an Artist, and before that was noted for his breakthrough work, Newspaper Blackout. Kleon didn't have much going for him at the outset. He doesn't live in a hotspot like New York or L.A.. He did not have considerable resources to roll out his first two works. He does not have a long history of building up contacts and supporters in corners with concentrated cultural cache. Kleon is young and he lives in Austin, Texas.

    What did Kleon have going for him? Disciplined motivation and a keen understanding of the web as a venue to broadcast his talents to a wider audience. Once Kleon graduated from college, he drove himself to consistently work on his personal projects during his daily commute and during his free time. He began sharing his body of work online and opened himself up to trying something new and different when he suffered from writer’s block.

    Kleon's blackout poems and essays garnered widespread attention online. Then once a blog post based on the commencement speech he gave at Broome Community College enraptured more than a million people, the fires continued to light with more intensity. The popular reception molded the trajectory of his work, making it an iterative process built upon interaction with his growing audience.

    "Steal Like An Artist began as an hour-long talk written in a hotel room which was mostly adapted from over five years of online writing," Kleon notes in his blog, and "that talk was turned into a 4,000 word blog post, then over two months of nights and weekends I expanded that blog post into 10,000 words and about 30 or so illustrations.” The final product is a short-form book appreciated internationally that has spread the interaction between writer and audience to another medium.

    For a first-hand take on his experience so far, I asked Kleon for his perspective on the relationship of art and the Internet: “In my experience," he wrote, "what the Internet can do is zap the distance and time between writer and reader—a writer can reach readers at the click of a button. It also can switch their roles—readers can reach the writer at the click of the button. Writers become readers, readers become writers. This isn't necessarily a good or a bad thing—I think for some writers, having a direct access line to readers is both terrifying and paralyzing.” But as an artist coming into his own in the age of the Internet, it's what Kleon has always known.

    With an eye on both the present and the horizon, Kleon says he doesn't have a lot of love for crowdsourced art, preferring work that comes from individuals or a tightly collaborative group of them. But, he has a sunnier feeling for the future prospects of crowdfunding art through sites like Kickstarter: "Now that's interesting to me."


    But crowdfunding is not the only economic bridge that the web builds between artist and audience. The Internet is also home to new mechanisms that democratize the playing field for participating in the commerce of the arts. In an established practice, an artist hoping to sell their works online can set up a payment system on their personal website using a service like PayPal. But take a step further, and imagine expanded possibilities for buying, selling, offering and receiving services.

    Start with Square, the brainchild of Jack Dorsey, one of the inventors of Twitter. In its most recognizable form, it’s that little angled white dongle that you see merchants plug into their iPhones and iPads so that they can swipe credit and debit cards on the spot with no register or POS system, democratizing what historically has been a pricey process.

    As Steven Levy describes in his Wired interview with Dorsey, the system is much more than that though, developed to the point where advanced users can conduct business with merchants in the here and now without even having to take out their wallets. So for the arts, imagine a gallery opening where a new admirer of your work seeks you out and wants to buy one work in particular. If they don’t have cash, you need to find a way to hurriedly exchange contact information and then follow up on it. But with technology like Square, if a buyer wants to buy, he doesn't have to wait. Swipe a card and he could take the piece right off the wall and walk out the door with it.

    What’s more, there are forces at play that are using work-smarter methods to bring appreciators and collectors to artists and vice-versa. From the algorithms of Art.sy to the rentals of Artsicle to the limited edition model promoted by 20x200, these organizations use digital means to fuel arts commerce. Not only that, they are educating a greater part of the human population about art. In hand with this movement, new forms like Hennessy Youngman's Art Thoughtz and the Google Arts Project are working to provide direct, de-mystified access to the arts for everyone—access that is rich and entertaining enough to engage all kinds, even if the viewer isn’t well-informed about the traditional art world—and keep them coming back.

    Beach View 

    Finally, the relationship between art and the Internet stretches all the way to our very existential qualities, albeit in a counter-intuitive way. We’re aware of the dehumanizing effects of being more tied to our phones than to the people in front of us, but consider the far-seeing words of Gunnther Hamilton. When we as people are asked where we want to be, Hamilton notes, “no one says in a box. They say ‘on a beach.’”

    We flock to cities because of the wealth and technology stored there. But as you drift into the digital realm and decentralize everything from work to medicine to manufacturing, Hamilton argues that you won’t need the big city anymore. Contrary to Marissa Mayer’s VPN-based moves at Yahoo!, there are many job tasks in Taipei or New York that one could accomplish from the comfort of, say, Danville, CA.

    The eight-hour work day, Hamilton says, may turn into a two-hour one, “because the other six is mostly bullshit,” and you don’t have to go anywhere if you can accomplish the tasks remotely. Hamilton views this new pattern as moving closer to “do what you like to do while still facilitating society.”  To him, the “love what you do” concept we currently embrace is a farce: work is a function, it facilitates what you really love–a means, not an end. “You don’t love your work; you love having sex, you love going on vacation, you love sleeping, and being around your loved ones,” he says. Work sustains what you really care about.

    For Hamilton, connecting is what a human being really wants to do, in life as in art. The idea of loving what you do for work then breaks down more to the identification of a channel, a medium, for sustenance. Given our present circumstances, Hamilton argues the trick is to do something that isn’t painful while maintaining this model.

    But as the capabilities of the Internet grow, and people can do more with less from a place of their choosing, the choose-your-own-endings for creativity grow too. Distance working also means more opportunity to make and experience art in places beyond its traditional urban strongholds, which can only be productive for the marginal economies that currently exist outside the city. We could, like Kleon, make serious international contributions while living in a smaller community like Austin, benefit our local communities, and in turn draw more inspiration and interaction from our environments. As individuals, we could open up more quality time with our loved ones while still pursuing our passions.

    Consider this: Instead of making our work at a table or in a studio, we could be doing it at the beach. If that sounds far-fetched, remember that the weekend as we know it is a feature of recent history, based on collective and institutional action. It did not exist until people got together and started brainstorming about it.