Art and Viral Media
Artist, writer and lecturer at Southern Cross University, Australia
The position of the spectator of art is not a static or unchanging site in space or time. The modalities of spectatorship as initiated by the work of art change with each technological epoch, whether the work of art itself changes or not. In the 1990s, digital media brought about some significant changes to both art production and spectatorship, many of which were theoretically miscast, at the time, as constituting something like an alternate universe where physicality ceased to be a relevant concept for understanding the world or participating in its cultures (Mitchell 1994; Mitchell 1996).
In coming to terms with this erroneous assumption about the future, cultural theorists came to see the value of embodied experience, drawing on ground already well covered by feminist theory (Grosz 1994), as the key to understanding how art functioned not only in a digitising world but also in a general sense (Mitchell 2003). The concept of ‘materiality’ (as opposed to ‘physicality’) became a key trope through which to discuss the various experiential conditions different media, including digital, elicit (Hayles 1999; Hayles 2002). This focus on the unique material factors rather than the brute physical factors represents a key shift in spectatorship away from the object and towards experience. However, as this paper argues, it is this experiential materiality that is itself becoming corrupted through a kind of virtualisation akin to that described in outdated theories of digital media and disembodiment. Viral media and the modalities of spectatorship it trades on represent one aspect of the new digital culture that reinstates these conditions. Such a corruption of experience is important not only for art but also for its political implications.
In 1975 the American photographer Nicholas Nixon, while visiting his wife Bebe’s family, casually asked Bebe and her three sisters if he could photograph them together. Nixon and the Brown sisters have recreated this initial photograph each year for past 40 years, culminating, but not terminating, in an exhibition of all 40 images that opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in November 2014. The series is a fascinating personal exploration of time, aging and mortality that rarely fails to engage viewers. The most recent instalment is of particular interest, not, however, for these sentimental reasons but for the context in which it emerged. The round number milestone of the 40th image in the series was always going to ensure that a certain level of fanfare accompanied its publication, more so than the 39th for example. Another difference however is that the images of even a year or two ago would have emerged in a different media landscape. I first heard about the publication of the 40th Brown Sisters image via a link shared on Facebook. Theoretically, this could have happened anytime in the last 10 years but the context that this link was shared into was one that also featured innumerable Buzzfeed lists of ‘things you’ve missed’, ‘10 reasons another thing is good’, or of which ‘number 7 will blow you away’, but also videos in which ‘I’ll be shocked by what happens at the end’, or in which something happens in a particular corner of the image highlighted by a red arrow or circle – this is the language of clickbait, and it is the context into which Nicholas Nixon’s 40th Brown Sisters image emerged.
Of course MoMA is the traditional space in which Nixon’s show would be seen and critiqued, as well it should; Nixon uses and 8 x 10 view camera and generates contact prints from the large negatives for the final image giving his photographs an arresting level of detail and material presence that is uncommon in a digitising world. But it is primarily through the interfaces of this digitising world that Nixon’s series will be publicised, linked to, and in most cases will constitute the extent of the experience that most viewers will have with the work. But the central power and message of Nixon’s series seems able to withstand this traversal of contexts and the fundamentally different material experiences that become available at each point. There are, however, elements of the context in which the series turns 40 that do detract from it. This is not a direct detraction of the work itself through digitisation in the form of a secondary Benjaminian depletion of aura as theorised by William J. T. Mitchell in the mid-nineties, but a rather a corruption of the conditions of spectatorship brought about by the clickbait culture of social media platforms.
Oddly though, Nixon’s 40-year-old project finds itself in sympathetic company in 2014. The practice of photographing something over an extended period of time has become a relatively common object for use in clickbait posts. For example, Dutch video artist and photographer Frans Hofmeester made a video compiled of 15 second clips of his daughter taken every week from birth to 14 years of age and then compressed the footage into four minutes and published it on YouTube in April, 2014 (Hofmeester, 2014). By May it was a viral hit reaching almost 4 million views in a matter of weeks. In 2006 Brooklyn-based photographer Noah Kalina similarly compiled a series of self portraits taken everyday for over 6 years into an eight minute animated video after seeing a work entitled Me by Los Angeles-based artist, Ahree Lee which did the same thing but began in 2001 (Zhang 2012).
Kalina’s version of the project is most often credited as the one that kicked off a viral trend that prompted a Serbian woman to take a self-portrait every day in what she called the ‘worst year of my life’. These images documented a seemingly average person with an uncanny gift for framing, and the effects of the physical domestic abuse she was receiving over the course of that year. The series was and still is highly moving for viewers who have not realised that the animation is actually part of a Serbian advertising campaign against domestic violence and the bruises she exhibits are actually make up (Zhang 2013). The concept even reached the point of parody when news parody site, The Onion’s sister clickbait parody site, ClickHole posted the timelapse video of a woman who took a photo of herself every day for a week (ClickHole 2014). The fact that this format can be so effectively co-opted and performed for satire or an ad campaign demonstrates both the viral reach of Kalina’s (or Lee’s) video and also a unique feature of viral media: that it reveals sentimentality (or potentially any other meaning or affect) occurs here as a shifting value, easily transferable between various instances of the same digital event regardless of the authenticity of the work.
It is, however, not a question of authenticity in this context. Arguments about authenticity in digital culture have proven to be largely pointless. The fears espoused in Mitchell’s The Reconfigured Eye about the fate of the perceived authenticity of the photograph at the hands of digital manipulation have since been regarded as flawed on the basis that photographic authenticity is already an unstable theoretical position (Lister 1995). One reason for this instability is that arguments centring around authenticity weigh the analysis too heavily on the object itself, essentially ignoring the viewer experience. The inauthentic work can still produce a profound experience for the viewer (as in the Serbian domestic violence campaign) and similarly the authentic work can be profoundly boring. What is at issue here is the ease with which meaning can be detached from its material effects, so that it is not something unique to each viewer, generated through a personal interaction with a work of art, but a pre-determined destination, a closed semiotic circuit that comes embedded with its own criticality that need only be clicked to be revealed rather than thought through, felt or experienced.
In other words, what occurs here is an alteration of the conditions of spectatorship, the viewing experience is corrupted in such a way that the very emotional currency that something like Nixon’s work trades on (mortality, aging, time) is now something spelled out and signified rather than felt palpably, the experience of the work (rather than the work itself, or the body of the viewer) has become virtualised. This is not, as we assumed in the 1990s, a result of the digitisation of media but the manner in which viral media delivers its content. In every case there is an attempt made to guide the reading of the content presented whether it is a series of cat videos or political paintings, the language and visual devices used to attract clicks emphasise specific points of meaning (‘number 7 will blow your mind!’) where there may or may not be any. Regardless, meaning is not ours to experience directly, it is ours to find using the instructions provided to us. But it is not the kind of meaning that will resonate with our own histories, emotions and imaginations in ways that generate new thoughts and feelings, it is a battery of clear signifieds set for us to affirm our existing beliefs against, setting up the illusion that we are in fact understanding.
The usual critical reflection we would exercise before a work of art is absorbed into this sense of immediate understanding. Recently the work of Polish cartoonist Pawel Kuczynski found itself the subject of numerous clickbait posts being described as ‘thought provoking’ (My Modern Met 2013), ‘brilliant satirical artwork’ (TwistedSifter 2012). As cartoons they fulfil their purpose as being easily readable messages about political and social problems with the world. As art, however, they are less effective; the immediacy of their message is suited to the pace required by viral media to enable quick clicking and sharing, but not to art, the function of which is to actually provoke thought rather than illustrate it. However, in presenting these works as art, as sites like TwistedSifter.com or Viralnova.com have (Viralnova 2014), gives the viewer the idea that art is indeed what they are looking at. A minutes or so of superficial research would reveal that Kuczynski himself identifies as a ‘satirical illustrator’ and ‘cartoonist’, rather than an artist (Kuczynski 2014). The point here, however, is not one of nomenclature but of understanding. It is not difficult to understand Kuczynski’s work, so direct and almost clichéd are the visual metaphors used, and therefore if it is understood as art, on equal footing with Nixon for example, then that understanding becomes misapprehended as meaning, a unique experiential response to the work informed by the viewer’s own subjectivity. It is not necessarily an absence of critical reception that permits this misunderstanding but the virtualisation of it.
Criticality has not disappeared, it has simply been virtualised. Consumption of viral media that appears to have a critical or political sentiment is still a critical or political act but a largely ineffectual one, having little if any critical or political impact and demonstrating very little actual critical or political thought. In fact, posting a meme featuring a George Carlin quote about the importance of critical thinking (QuotesPicture 2013) actually represents the opposite of critical thinking even if we ignore the fact that Carlin is not actually responsible for most of the quotes attributed to him in viral media (Bill 2014). Similarly, posting a video of Russell Brand analysing a Fox News interview and discussing its biases (Brand 2014) obviously does not demonstrate any criticality or political awareness on the part of the poster, rather it expresses a pre-existing political position that many individuals may already share (notwithstanding, of course, the fact that identifying the biases of Fox News hardly represents the heights of critical analysis). In this context critical and political thought do exist, otherwise there would be no reason to click and share, but as much as it might feel like these are our own thoughts and criticisms they are not. If they were, and we were actually exercising some criticality, we would see the shallow populism of Brand’s analysis and the one-dimensional message of Kuczynski’s cartoons fairly quickly. In the same way that consciousness was separated from the body, and the growth of virtual worlds seemed to threaten the very existence of the real world in the nineties, the result of today’s click and share culture is that the entire critical thought process has become disembodied and virtualised.
Virtualised in this sense means that it is not so much an immaterial, not-real, ghost version of the real, rather the artistic experience is virtualised in that it is indeed real but de-actualised. The media theorists of the 1990s often opposed the virtual with the real, however, Gilles Deleuze differentiated the virtual with the ‘actual’ rather than with the real (Deleuze 1991, pp. 42-43). The Deleuzian virtual can, or in fact needs contact with some element of the real, but it is the continual becoming-actual of this real that characterises the Deleuzian virtual and also the kind of virtualisation brought about by viral media. This is in spite of its every related action being designed in some way to make it actual. That is to say that viral media’s ontological essence is that of clicked and shared links, clicks and shares driven by a desire to engage in, or encourage others to engage in critical and political thought, a desire to actualise these (virtual) beliefs and ideas into (actual) actions and outcomes. However, the clicking and sharing at the base of these desires is the very thing that continually displaces and delays this actualisation, the very operation of the virtual.
The corruption of spectatorship initiated by viral media’s virtualisation of experience will presumably not impact significantly on the way Nixon’s MoMA exhibition is received. The impact is not one that is so direct, rather there are certain conditions being created that constitute a different kind of spectatorship than those that have existed at any point along the 40 year history of Nixon’s Brown Sisters project. The experience of having a work of art generate meaning for a viewer is enigmatic, often difficult to explain in words, and is also acutely subjective. However, these conditions of virtualisation render this experience clearly and precisely communicable, sharable and readable, detaching and generalising meaning for ease of consumption and distribution. This is a device familiar to political spin that seeks to distil issues down to their bare minimum so that they can be more easily made to perform whatever political task required of them, while absorbing any critical engagement. For this reason spectatorship is perhaps best understood as an active political position rather than a passive site of reception, if it is to withstand the kind of corruption it now faces.
 In a number of books, William J. Mitchell was an early subscriber to the “virtual” metaphor of digital technology and specifically digital imaging. See most notably William J. Mitchell, The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (1994) and City of Bits: Space, Place and Infobahn (1996).
 There many examples of this but one of the most clear and focused is Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism(1994).
 Mitchell re-evaluates his position on the virtual in Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City (2003), stating outright that “The metaphor of “virtuality” seemed a powerful one as we first struggled to understand the implications of digital information, but it has long outlived its usefulness.”
 This is most clearly articulated by N. Katherine Hayles in Writing Machines (2002) and also How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999).
Bill (2014) George Didn’t Say That! (Part 2: The Bogus Quote List) [Online] Georgecarlin.net. Available: http://www.georgecarlin.net/boguslist.html (Accessed: 4 December, 2014)
Brand, Russell (2014) ‘Israel-Palestine: Is This A Debate? Russell Brand The Trews (E111)’ YouTube video, 11:59. Available:https://youtu.be/V_m98GAdqKM
ClickHole (2014) ‘Woman Takes One Photo Of Herself Every Day For A Week’. Available: http://www.clickhole.com/article/woman-takes-one-photo-herself-every-day-week-337
Deleuze, Gilles (1991) Bergsonism, New York: Zone Books.
Grosz, Elizabeth (1994) Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.
Hofmeester, Frans (2014) Portrait of Lotte – 0 to 14 years in 4 min. (The Original), YouTube video, 4:06. Available:https://youtu.be/UH1x5aRtjSQ
Kuczynski, Pawel (2014) Pawel Kuczynski [Online] Available: http://pawelkuczynski.com/Strona-g-owna/Home/index.php (Accessed: 12 December 2014)
Lister, Martin (1995) The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. New York: Routledge.
Mitchell, William J (1994) The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Mitchell, William J (1996) City of Bits: Space, Place and Infobahn, Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Mitchell, William J (2003) Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
My Modern Met (2013) Thought-Provoking Satirical Illustrations by Pawel Kuczynski [Online] Available:http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/pawel-kuczynski-illustrations
TwistedSifter (2012) Brilliant Satirical Artwork by Pawel Kuczynski [Online] Available: http://twistedsifter.com/2012/05/satirical-artwork-by-pawel-kuczynski/
QuotesPictures (2013) Governments don’t want a population capable of critical thinking- George Carlin [Online] Available:http://quotespictures.net/10042/governments-dont-want-a-population-capable-of-critical-thinking-george-carlin
ViralNova (2014) Each Of These Paintings Have A Brilliant Message. #2 Is Clever… But Unfortunately Reality [Online] Available:http://www.viralnova.com/pawel-kuczynski-paintings/
Zhang, Michael (2012) 12.5 Years of Self-Portraits by Noah Kalina in 7.5 Minutes [Online] PetaPixel. Available:http://petapixel.com/2012/09/04/12-5-years-of-self-portraits-by-noah-kalina-in-7-5-minutes/
Zhang, Michael (2013) PSA Uses ‘Photo a Day’ Concept to Draw Attention to Domestic Violence [Online] PetaPixel. Available:http://petapixel.com/2013/03/20/psa-uses-photo-a-day-concept-to-draw-attention-to-domestic-violence/
Fig 1. Photographs by Liz McQuiston
Fig. 2 Karl Baden, Every Day: February 23, 1987 – March 26, 2010, self portraits taken every day from 1987 to 2010 (video). Used with permission from Karl Baden. Baden’s work can also be accessed on the following site: http://kbeveryday.blogspot.co.uk/