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Austin's voice in the global conversation on art and social media

Reviewed by Seth Orion Schwaiger, June 13, 2014, Arts

The ubiquity of social media is far from new, but its use in visual art in Austin is worth noting. Beyond expected Twitter debates and art-show announcements, social media affects our very relationship to images, a point addressed in several recent local exhibitions.

"Danielle Georgiou: #hashtag," a solo show at Women & Their Work, looks at our growing desire to document our lives using the mechanics of social media. #iwokeuplikethis is an installation of selfies taken of the artist in a disheveled state, ostensibly upon rising (in print and in sequence as a film), coupled with audio from Beyoncé's single "Flawless." The supposed critique of the song's contradictory remixing of a famous feminist speech is more flimsy than the exhibition text makes it out to be. However, the work does successfully point out the increasing influence of pop culture on everyday motivations, the contrast between "reality" and celebrity, and how the population blurs those boundaries through social media – becoming self-paparazzi in pursuit of micro-fame.

#datass, a small edition of photo calendars made up of 12 belfies (butt-selfies), comments on bizarre Twitter trends. Surprisingly different from one image to the next, the body part depicted doesn't even appear to belong to the same model. It's, as the artist suggests, "all about the angle." This new kind of common knowledge extends past social media and changes the understanding of the image as art as well. From Georgiou: "Selfies document the banal existence of someone's day-to-day life, but the absurd nature in which you can alter your appearance by a filter, or angle, or lighting pushes the photograph to an extreme." The photograph and, in a sense, curation have come down from their pedestals and into the public realm. The connotations of both have shifted from notions of the documentary or presentation of facts to something manipulated to serve the purposes of the author.

There's plenty to glean from the exhibition about ideas of the body and, if not feminism, then at least what it is to be female now in light of pop culture and social media. Video works in the show speak to these issues more directly, but the exhibition's implications concerning how we view images now link it to a broader conversation in the city.

The equally direct "Blog Reblog" at Big Medium, which closed June 7, addressed the changing nature of image authorship in the current culture and the speed with which we look at pictures. For this Austin Center for Photography exhibition, Max Marshall and Paul Paper selected 200 photographers, paired them, and handed over to them much of their curatorial control. Each partnered person selected one work from the other. The works were projected in large format as pairs. In acknowledgment of the high speed at which images are digested online, each slide pair stayed projected for a matter of seconds – long enough for the viewer to take in both works, but shorter than one might linger with a physical photograph.

The whole production replicated the reality of images being lifted, reposted, shared, tweeted, along the way losing their authorship and accreditation but finding interesting neighbors, new curations, and unlikely montages to dwell in. The show reflected technology's influence on the way we see images and managed to do so without moral overtones; it presented the facts: Authorship has become less important in the blogosphere, viewing pace has picked up, and more interesting connections are made when curating becomes the international pastime that the Internet has allowed it to be.

"Wura-Natasha Ogunji: Your heart is clean," shown at MASS Gallery last month, relied heavily on intentionally low-quality smartphone footage of the city of Lagos, Nigeria. The video, projected over drawings and threadwork, acted as a symbol of the present sliding over the past in a temporal topography of conflicted history. Like Austin, the city is increasing in population quickly, but suffering significantly worse growing pains than its Texas counterpart. The phone video served as a digital link between the cities and the new connectedness of the modern world.

Co-Lab is no stranger to the topic, with scarcely a show that doesn't acknowledge the new image-saturated, interconnected reality, like "Just Me Doin' Me" by Erica Botkin and "ΔDELTA" by Noah Spidermen earlier this year. Even its programming reflects the increased pace, with rapid-fire exhibitions every other week.

In general, Austin artists are addressing this new relationship well – better certainly than some institutions on the national stage. The Whitney recently faced controversy over the collective HowDoYouSayYamInAfrican? withdrawing from its biennial in protest of "institutional white supremacy." Curator Michelle Grabner said preconflict, "[Collectives] reflect the proficiency of our networked culture. Authorship has become very slippery, and the ownership of ideas has become less interesting today than the rapid sharing of them." Something Grabner didn't recognize was that the institutional power to suppress debate is waning; along with slippery authorship and increased networking comes the ability to risk reputation. Scattered across the globe, the Yams collaborate via social media, digital image, and video. This savvy has given them a collective voice loud enough to bring unprecedented attention to a problem in a powerful institution, something that wasn't possible 20 years prior. Rather than losing their time in the spotlight, their story and their work's viewership spread like wildfire through Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Social media caused a different kind of problem for international art-star Kara Walker's latest project A Subtlety, an ambitious public work. The giant sexualized sphinx made of sugar was created as an "homage to the unpaid and overworked artisans ... from the cane fields to the kitchens of the New World." However, many of the visitors to Brooklyn's Domino Sugar factory have rushed to take a snap of themselves in front of the more explicit areas of the sculpture, frequently with tongues out. Posted on Instagram, the images reduce a complex work concerned with race, labor conditions, and difficult histories to a sex joke.

If these high-level institutions and artists can't anticipate our changing relationship to images and communication, then it's no surprise that some of the more established institutions in Austin are having trouble as well. The Blanton Museum of Art is at least trying to address the issue, though I'm not sure it's chosen the best way to sashay into the conversation. Its upcoming show "In the Company of Cats and Dogs" takes its cue from the most loathed form of Facebook post. Viewers are encouraged to send images of themselves with their pets. Selections will be made from these submissions and displayed congruently with historical artworks on the same topic. #WhatWereTheyThinking. #LowestCommonDenominator. #ItsRainingBoringArt.

The entire art world is grappling with this new networked landscape, and the professional art hierarchy is no predictor of success or failure in it. The Whitney flounders while artists in Austin like Georgiou and Ogunji approach the matter deftly and with nuance. They not only have used new technologies to produce their work, but also have engaged directly with the way we experience the world through the lens of omnipresent social media: our new appetite for images, our new view of intellectual property, the perforated boundaries of curation, and multiple expansive layers of connection.


"Danielle Georgiou: #hashtag" is on view through July 3 at Women & Their Work, 1710 Lavaca. For more information, call 512/477-1064 or visit www.womenandtheirwork.org.

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