Social Media at The Pace Gallery assembles a group of artists responding to the internet, whether as a way of bringing people together, as an aesthetic influence, or as a state of affairs to regard skeptically and even satirize. Social Media takes a long view that starts in the 1960s with Robert Heinecken (the show’s one pre-internet artist), who altered magazines like Time and Mademoiselle with his own collages and put them back on supermarket racks for others to stumble on. Since Heinecken, the idea of pulling from, responding to, and feeding back into the media has become more commonplace – Twitter, Tumblr, conceptual art video games, supercuts, and super supercuts attest to the prevalence of Heinecken’s media interventionism.
Before the opening, the gallery convened exhibiting artists Aram Bartholl, David Byrne, Emilio Chapela, Penelope Umbrico, and Miranda July for a panel moderated by Artlog. The panelists articulated a desire to explore new technology without making art merely about the technology’s novelty, or as Byrne put it, “making art about telephone wires.” July emphasized that her project preceded (and anticipated) the websites we think of as social media. Her collaboration with Harrell Fletcher, Learning to Love You More, created a community around an ongoing series of art assignments posted online from 2002-2009. Bartholl likewise emphasized how quickly the internet is evolving and how recently the term social media supplanted the previously trendy “Web 2.0.”
Bartholl’s work registered this push and pull most dramatically with Dead Drop, an “offline, peer-to-peer file-sharing network.” In other words, USB sticks poking out of cement walls around New York, an antithesis to cloud computing, Google’s server farms, and the assumption that we can find all the data we need online. Penelope Umbrico brought online image service Flickr offline in her installation Sunset Portraits from 9,623,557 Flickr Sunset Pictures on 8/22/11, a grid of over one thousand pictures of sunsets taken on that date, printed in a somewhat pixelated, compressed format that refers back to their digital origins. The nearly ten million pictures referenced in the title are a concrete instance of the idea that everyone is becoming a cultural producer, their own Heinecken, yet the kitschy ubiquity of sunset photography undermines any triumphalism in that sentiment.
In taking the internet offline, much of the work brings the web down to human scale. Chapela spoke most candidly about social media as a common adventure, something to “explore together” and also to fail at. “We are going to keep failing to grasp what social media is,” he said, and his work made that futile attempt concrete. Chapela’s According to Google records Google image search results in bound volumes, by nature outdated and incomplete.
Back in 2002 when July launched Learning to Love You More, she considered the internet “a really cool way to get lots of people involved” and “to ask people to engage with other people.” Keeping the focus on the interaction and not the technology, she designed the website’s assignments so that participants would have to leave the computer in order to complete them. July called her strategy “using the web to rebel against the web,” and strains of that rebellion echo throughout the show, a tone that might resonate even more in 2011 than 2002, as the internet in equal measure facilitates protests and compromises privacy.
Social Media is on view at The Pace Gallery (510 West 25th Street, NYC) through October 15 and is organized by Pace/MacGill in conjunction with The Pace Gallery and the MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department at the School of Visual Arts.