The world of social media offers interesting territory for artists to explore. The emergent values of the medium—most centrally an anarchic, user-created information experience—lend themselves especially to social practice works, where social media can serve as an important connector. But two recent projects show how artists are using the new medium in other ways.
For his 2012 Open Air project in Philadelphia, Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer programmed 24 powerful searchlights to respond to voice intonations and inflections on messages recorded via a free mobile app. If a participant was standing on Benjamin Franklin Parkway when his or her message was played—on the app, a website, and public speakers at the project’s information center—the lights geolocated the user and projected the light patterns over that person’s head. Messages from participants who were not present were played if they were rated highly on the project’s website by other participants. Inspired by Philadelphia’s ties to free speech, the project, commissioned by the Association for Public Art, includes an archive of the messages, including rants, shout-outs, marriage proposals, and songs (openairphilly.net).
Conrad Gleber, director of the Digital Arts and Multimedia Design Program at Philadelphia’s La Salle University, and Gail Rubini, a professor of art and design at Florida State University, advocate for a holistic approach to incorporating social media into artworks. They recently collaborated on the Anchorage, Alaska, piece My Alaska, Too, which illustrates some of the complexities in launching such works.
A 27-foot-long installation in an office complex, My Alaska, Too consists of several glass screens overlaying a Google-maps image of the state. One screen is printed with overheard snatches of description about Alaska, a second with poetry written by local poets. A third screen uses social media to project a random, constantly updated stream of photographs skimmed from the photo-sharing site, Flickr. Six Apple computers scan the public-domain website for photos—family portraits, tourist snapshots, fishing excursions, or anything else tagged with the word “Alaska”—and link them into the ongoing slideshow.
The result, says Gleber, is an ever-changing snapshot of how people view the state. “It’s not as extreme as voyeurism,” he says, “but you begin to see the humanity in the selections that people are making.” The repurposed photographs from Flickr, he explains, give a candid, unscripted, and honest portrait of the state—one uniquely captured by the social media aspect of the piece.
The technical challenges of creating the piece ranged from logistical issues, like ensuring that the building IT department was trained in managing the six computers and their tasks, to the absurd, like preventing pornographic pictures from entering the feed. But this deep embedding of technology also proved to be My Alaska, Too’s most critical artistic challenge, says Gleber.
It’s not enough, Gleber argues, for a piece to simply respond to social media or incorporate new media for its gee-whiz factor. Instead, the technology should demonstrate “a sensuous engagement with the work.” In My Alaska, Too, the Flickr stream is so deeply integrated that not only are people viewing the piece connected to the social media, but the media itself is transformed and recontextualized by the artwork. “We’re emphasizing relationships over a ‘thing,’” Gleber says.