The web is shaking up the art world – but is it a blessing or a curse?
Deny it all you like, but technology is changing how we act. I bet you’ve taken a photo in the last 24 hours. I bet you’ve checked your phone at least once in the past 15 minutes. We can instantly project every aspect of our lives onto public profiles for all to see. Instagram and Tumblr rely on a constant stream of images from users – but how does this affect the art world? Do the swathes of images instantly available via a speedy internet search inspire or overwhelm us? What about artists using the web – can they gain exposure more easily, or is it more challenging to get their voice heard?
The web has totally altered the structure of the art world – for starters, it’s now entirely delocalised. You don’t need to reside in the edgy streets of New York or be an alumni of a posh art school to hit the big time – as long as you’ve got a Wi-Fi connection and something to say, you can make it work. As spectators, we can scour the web for inspiration or up-and-coming stars of the art world, and as artists we can post our work straight to our own custom-made galleries for all the world to see.
For some, using the web as an exhibition space is essential in forming a reputation and building an audience. 22-year-old Canadian photographer Petra Collins uses social media, in addition to her website, to exhibit her work. Collins’ Instagram profile offers fans exclusive peeks at current projects and an insight into her life. She currently has 110,000 Instagram followers, while also using social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr to showcase her talents. Not only has her work gained more exposure online, but now that she is a respected cultural figure with an audience, companies are looking to utilise this commercially. In 2013, she designed a small range of t-shirts for American Apparel; she’s also had a successful exhibition of contemporary artwork and photography at Capricious 88 in New York, and is set to publish a book.
Instagram-famous design student Dom Sebastian has seen his artwork explode on social media, which can only mean good things for his future. “When I started to see my work all over the internet, I realised it was reaching a lot of people,” he said in an interview with Dazed magazine. “It’s an amazing feeling seeing people engaging with something I’ve created.”
On a similar note, fashion photographer Lena Scheynius said in a recent interview that she owes much of her success to the internet: “[My] agent found my work on the internet because so many people were blogging it.” Interestingly, this interview was conducted by Lena herself using a webcam, answering fan questions straight from Instagram. This is another exciting aspect of the web: the ease of interaction between fans and artists. Admirers can initiate conversation with their favourite artists simply by replying to Tweets or sending a message on Tumblr. Artists can also interact with each other, bouncing creativity off one another and promoting each other’s work via shoutouts and collaborations. A recent example of this is a collaborative photoshoot for Lula magazine by Petra Collins and Instagram-famous designer Julia Baylis, with exclusive previews shown on each of their profiles.
The online world now also serves as inspiration for many pieces. ‘Post-internet art’ has become a genre in itself. Web artists like Arvida Byström and Zoe Burnett, aka ‘Dreambeam’, create work that is directly influenced by their online ‘lives’. Many of their pieces sarcastically comment on our society’s modern relationship with the web, using selfie sticks, iPhones and emojis as inspiration. In 2014, Argentinian multimedia artist Amelia Ulman created an art piece utilising Instagram. In her piece, entitled ‘Excellences and Perfections’, she constructed a fictional narrative of events through the images she posted on her account. Images documented stays in luxurious hotels and lavish shopping sprees, but none of this was real. The project was a comment on the obsession with femininity and luxury in our image-focused society. As well as being an incredibly interesting piece in social terms, it also introduced a revolutionary concept – the idea that social media can become a work of art in itself.
However, there are negative consequences of the art world transferring to the online world. It’s now easier than ever for people to display work, but no guarantee that it’ll be seen. Artists are spending as much time on their artwork as they always have, but our culture of scrolling means the way we digest it has changed. People have a different attitude towards viewing art online, looking for a split second before moving on to the next thing and forgetting about it completely. Even if we come across pieces we admire online, what can we do with them? The specialness that comes from visiting an art gallery and appraising a real, physical piece of art has been diminished.
Aline Smithson, a photographer who founded Lenscratch (an online photo journal celebrating quality photography) highlights an interesting point: that “for many, the plethora of images and the sheer volume of work being created, is indeed daunting”. For her, it can be great to see how we visually articulate our lives, but at other times, she says, “I see a sameness to work, where photographers are mining the same territory and therefore diluting the power of the project.”
A similar perspective comes from media arts writer Gene McHugh, in his book Post Internet (Notes on the Internet and Art). He suggests that it is challenging to find the good stuff. “If somebody wants their voice heard, they can do it with a couple of clicks. However, as this democratic culture creates more instantaneously available media on a daily basis than anyone could possibly consume in a lifetime, a tension emerges in which each of these individual units of media is transformed into noise”. This noise means that even if all of these media are strong pieces individually, the effect of the over-saturation does a lot of damage – “the meaningful value of this work becomes relatively minuscule, because it’s now just one drop in an ocean of other works”.
It seems the debate is difficult to settle. The internet has become an effortless way for spectators to expose themselves to art, and for artists to exhibit for free to a limitless audience. However, the web’s freedom means that carefully developed, meaningful pieces of art get lost within the huge stream of content. As McHugh writes, “there are so many people shouting in the room, that one voice cannot be heard clearly”. We need to strike the right balance – accessing art online, but also appreciating it in galleries. In the end, we can’t control much anyway. Love it or hate it, online art is here to stay.
Words: Rachel Stanley
Image: Charlie Belle-Shaw