Blueskying a Social Media Platform for the Arts

Hosted by
the Social Media Narratives Class
Art and Technology Studies
School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Facebook and Google Groups
November 7 - 12, 2019

Isobel Harbison
Art Critic and Lecturer in the Department of Art, Goldsmiths

image of Isobel

Isobel Harbison is an art critic, an art historian and Lecturer (Critical Studies) in Art, in the Art Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. She completed her PhD in 2015 in Goldsmiths where she was an AHRC doctoral scholar. Prior to that, in 2014, she was awarded the UK Arts Foundation inaugural Fellowship in Arts Journalism and she regularly writes for a range of magazines, journals and catalogues about contemporary artists working across mediums but most often in performance and moving image. She has written extensively on the works of Robert Rauschenberg, Shu Lea Cheang, Ericka Beckman, Leslie Thornton, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Frances Stark, Cecile B Evans, and Ligia Lewis, among others. In 2019, she was an Archives Research Resident at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in New York and in 2020 she will be an Eadington Fellow at the Center of Gaming Research in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her recent book, Performing Image (MIT Press, 2019) asks how a historical and critical convergence of performance and moving image anticipates a broader social turn to performing images within rapidly evolving economies of attention and modes of digital labor. The book presents an art history and a social history of the 'prosumer', considering how such a productive consumer of images, who frequently visits and creates exhibitions on social media's online platforms, has been modelled on the language, activities, and architectures of contemporary art. Harbison has long been interested in the relationship between digital culture, architecture and exhibition studies, having worked as a curator for a number of institutions, including with Hayward Gallery Touring (2008 – 2010).

And while we wait

I am an art critic and art historian with a long-term interest in the relationship between art and media. Most recently, I have written about social media and the activity of prosumerism, how it’s changing our social and political landscape, and how – as I see it – a lot of the performance and image-based exchanges involved in this widespread activity draw upon the mediums of performance and photography/film, the architectures of exhibition, the language and notional lifestyles associated with art and artists. Social media offers people the opportunity and infrastructure to be an artist for a day, week, month, a life, to curate profiles, accumulate visitors, attract eyeballs. To self-actualize. Meanwhile, many artists I know increasingly look at this activity with ambivalence, utilizing its various functions but suspicious of the side-effects of overuse.

Is the experience of social media sometimes enjoyable? Absolutely. Is the experience universally positive? Absolutely not. For whatever sense of liberation, satisfaction, autonomy and community is felt through creation and communication on ‘free’ social media platforms comes at an enormous cost – precarious labour, intensified and monetized surveillance, political interference and collusion. Ecological damage. Not to mention social and individual harm of intense and widespread peer-anxiety. In the UK, and as I see it in the US, we are living through a period of intense and potentially insurmountable precarity, instability and threat. Social media, as an industry, plays no small part.

While I think there will always be claims that social media corporations make about facilitating creative experience, networking creative people, and sharing creative products the broader consequences of this regular, unremunerated form of engagement cannot be ignored, particularly as we recognize the principle financial and political beneficiaries. I cannot and will not engage on Facebook (or Instagram) and am disturbed by Mark Zuckerberg’s failure to engage with how divisive his platform has become, and how toxic his firm’s incapacity or unwillingness to regulate its data brokering and advertising (most problematically, its political advertising), and its fierce policies of content-licensing. He knows the long-term value of this kind of large-scale invasiveness but continuously insists on marketing it in terms of democracy and freedom. It presents the very opposite.

My thoughts on social media’s efficacy differ according to which political phase we’re in. To my mind, its analysis needs to be undertaken in tandem with that of mainstream (broadcast, broadsheet, centrally distributed) media, and its relationship with politics (electoral processes, campaigning and ideologies of governance). During doctoral research between 2010 – 2014, I was largely critical of prosumerism’s central and labour-exploiting indeterminacy between work and play. Subsequently, while writing that research into a book published last year, a writing period that followed the US presidential election and the UK EU referendum (‘Brexit’), both in 2016, I realised how important it was to maintain these kind of platforms for communication and activism, as politics took a hard and terrifying turn right, discriminating against all of those with whom I most readily identify. I follow and learn from many who use new and social media to challenge political systems that fail to value us all: many of you students seem to be doing just this with your original and often incisive contributions. We do need platforms for self-presentation and self-representation now more than ever, just not platforms that allow such regular and destructive politico-corporate intervention, trading so barbarously on people’s need for space, for solidarity and escape (see again, think again: creative freedom, satisfaction, autonomy...).

I write to and with you from the beginning of another phase. I live in London, where the UK’s withdrawal from Europe is a constant source of consternation and disaccord. The news (broadcast and broadsheet) are consumed by it and an upcoming general election (12th December) hinges on the various parties’ mandates for withdrawal or remain. Everyone is angry. We are divided. One key sticking point in the withdrawal agreement’s negotiation with Europe since 2016 has been the border of Northern Ireland and how the UK (which includes ‘Britain and Northern Ireland’) will regulate the passage of goods, services, people and opportunities through it from the North (the UK) to the south (the Republic of Ireland), without imposing a policed border, the military regulation of which previously caused so much tension and conflict during the civil war (or, ‘the Troubles’, 1969 – 1998). During the last three years, Northern Ireland has been referred to by the UK’s (London-based) media and by Westminster’s politicians as an ‘issue’, and an obstructive ‘object’ to the UK’s withdrawal and supposed sovereignty. So self-consumed have both mainstream media and politicians been to their own London-centric interests they have utterly failed to acknowledge and recognise the increasingly unstable and underrepresented situation in Northern Ireland itself, where education, health and welfare are suffering severe and dangerous financial cuts and, not disconnectedly, where sectarian violence is again on the rise. Riots, petrol bombs, and killings over the last year in Northern Ireland have been consistently unreported.

Here, now, social media (Twitter) has been invaluable: providing a platform for discourse between people in Ireland and Northern Ireland and their diasporas (of which I am one), alongside those in the UK and further afield to alert, discuss, analyse and congregate. To make positive things happen. This has intensified my understanding of how vital social media is in times of crisis, and I value how (albeit unregulated and corporate) social media has brought me into direct contact with curators, artists, writers and academics who feel similarly compelled to make change. And from this contact, already, urgent and important works of art have been made, works that have galvanised communities in tandem with social media's communication platforms. The word gets out. People are coming together in different ways. And the activities, performances, demonstrations and art take place away from the browser, in the other dimensional spaces of life, are affirming in unforeseen ways.

There is no doubt financial, judicial and ethical regulation is needed within wider imperatives to reform for the corporations we identify as social media. But one major question is who is in the position to impose this, especially as those who are in such a position are the principle beneficiaries of its rogue mechanisms: corrosive forms of digital campaigning are still in play for upcoming elections in the UK and US despite the mounting evidence.

And while we wait for those of you (the artists, technologists, designers) brilliant enough to intervene, to forge new models, new platforms, new modes of platform-cooperativism, and here, within this/ your module, innovate new and critical online gallery structures, unearth or platform vital narratives otherwise unspoken, and collectively imagine more efficient and mutually equitable networking applications, as creative people we also need to be careful to distinguish what’s available from what’s necessary. To make good beyond. There are habits and systems we need to kick together.

I look forward to engaging with you all.

Transcript of Isobel Harbison's Google Groups conversation
for the Issues in Social Media for the Arts 2019 panel

Judy Malloy:
Introduction to the Panel

Overviews, Ideas, Histories, and Observations

from Curators and Critics

George Fifield
Founder and Director of Boston Cyberarts

Isobel Harbison
Art Critic and Lecturer in the Department of Art

from Policy Makers and Advocates

Juana Guzman
National Arts Consultant and Arts Advocate

Dal Yong Jin
Professor, School of Communication at Simon Fraser University

Richard Lowenberg
Founding Director of the 1st-Mile Institute, and of NM Broadband for All

Marisa Parham
Professor of English, Amherst College, Director of the Immersive Reality Lab

Ellen Sandor
Founding Director of (art)n, chair of the Gene Siskel Film Center

from: Artists/Educators

Adriene Jenik
Artist, Professor of Intermedia in the School of Art, Arizona State University

Tom Klinkowstein
President, Media A LLC, Professor, Hofstra University, Adj. Professor, Pratt Institute

Wendel A. White
Photographer, Distinguished Professor of Art, Stockton University

from Artists/Designers

Deanne Achong
Artist and Designer

Tommer Peterson
Theatre Artist and Designer

SAIC ATS Class in Social Media Narrative
Vee Nyah Culton, Terrell Davis, Adriana Guillen Santalla, Samuel Han, Xavier Hughes, Yoon Joong Hwang, Olivia Paige Johnson, Mara Iskander Mirzan, Keun Mok Park, Richard Park, Wayne P. Tate, Ruby Hana Williams, and July Yoon

SAIC ATS Part-time Faculty: Judy Malloy