“Via” Culture on Tumblr: Forsaking the Creator for the Curator

The line separating novelty and innovation is a thin one. Whether Tumblr will leave an indelible mark on art remains to be seen. However, there is a trend that is unlikely to recede back into the digital pool of microblogging anytime soon: disappearing authorship.

The line separating novelty and innovation is a thin one.  Whether Tumblr will leave an indelible mark on art remains to be seen.  However, there is a trend that is unlikely to recede back into the digital pool of microblogging anytime soon: disappearing authorship.

Galleries tend to stick to a strict ritual of crediting an artist: wall texts and labels, 200 word bios, artists’ statements, press releases.  However, these are all functions that are virtually meaningless in Tumblr.

I realize I’m far from the first person to point this out.  In fact, of the many words written about art and Tumblr this loss of authorship is consistently a primary concern.  I wonder, though: is this ‘loss of authorship’ perhaps actually a transfer of authorship? Is curating the new creating?

This tendency to separate the art from the artist is primarily due to the way Tumblr mediates the way we view images.  Tumblr is used for text-heavy posts the way marijuana is used for medicinal purposes: I suppose it happens sometimes.   Really, the vast majority of posts are simply images.  The posts from various tumblogs pile up on a user’s “dashboard” as an endless procession of images.  It’s easy to see how the artist behind a piece could get lost in the infinite scroll.

For example, in his essay for Hyperallergic Ben Valentine writes, “This quick and easy dissemination of content is great, but it creates an issue: sustained attention on a single work is hard to come by, therefore deemphasizing authorship.”

Beyond being buried in a mass of images, an artist’s credit is lost further by the way Tumblr favors bloggers over the blogged.  In Tumblr’s art world, the sought after skill isn’t so much rooted in creating art as it is in finding art.  This is especially conspicuous in reblogged images where an artist’s credit is often missing but a bloggers “via” credit is rarely left out.  Thus, Valentine goes on to warn that for some, “Given these reasons, it would make sense for artists to be wary of putting their work on Tumblr.”

However, rather than avoiding the site, some artists are changing the way they work with it.  For example, artist Carlos Sáez’ tumblog project Cloaque, a self-described “digital landfill”, is essentially an exercise based in creative curation.  On Cloaque, the content itself is not as exceptional as the way it has been collected.  Further, while Cloaque is rare among tumblogs, it’s the beginning of an arts trend.

After all, favoring the blogger over the blogged isn’t the creation of Tumblr but a reflection of its users. Tumblr artists are often of a generation that works from within the internet, rather than adding to it from without.

artatbay.tumblr.com
The Art at Bay tumblog

The idea of the artist as a mediator of images has existed and been accepted since the days of Andy Warhol.  Thus it’s surprising that its praxis on Tumblr can be so troubling to some.  As popular as appropriation is, exceptionally few are comfortable with the prospect of actually having their work appropriated.

The Tumblr shift from artist-as-author toward artist-as-editor will most certainly stick around within a social media context.  What is of special interest, though, is how this would eventually translate within a gallery setting.  How willing will we be to ease our conceptual grip on the idea of the artist-genius, to start wrangling the mountains of information instead of adding to it, and relinquishing owner over images?

Written by Danny Olda, Editor of Art at Bay

The Museum of Fine Arts’ Exciting New Acquisition: A Curator

Katherine Pill is now the MFA’s first Assistant Curator of Art after 1950, the first curator dedicated to the museum’s growing contemporary collection and programming.

We often think of grants, donations, and endowments providing museums with new art or adding new wings and galleries.  The Hazel and William Hough Curatorial Endowment, though, has generously provided the Museum of Fine Art St. Petersburg with exactly what it needed: a new job position and the money to fill it.

Katherine Pill is now the MFA’s first Assistant Curator of Art after 1950, the first curator dedicated to the museum’s growing contemporary collection and programming.  It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Pill’s hiring – the move was timely and sorely needed by the museum and Pill appears to be an ideal fit.

Katherine Pill, the MFA’s first Assistant Curator of Art after 1950, stands next to Enrico Donati’s Angkor Wat (1963), a mixed-media work in the collection she admires. Photograph by Thomas U. Gessler
Katherine Pill, the MFA’s first Assistant Curator of Art after 1950, stands next to Enrico Donati’s Angkor Wat (1963), a mixed-media work in the collection she admires. Photograph by Thomas U. Gessler

The museum had rightly been known for its 19th century paintings and extensive photography collection with a blind spot, though, for contemporary art.  The slack would necessarily be picked up by nearby commercial galleries or by sending people to museums across the bay.  However, efforts over the past several years have given reason to be optimistic. Appointing Katherine Pill as a curator of contemporary art is the latest and perhaps most effective effort in uncovering this ‘blind spot’.

Pill’s academic and professional records are impressive and definitely make her appointment a logical one.  The degrees she holds – a double major BA and dual MA – as well as her most recent resume entry as assistant curator at Kansas City’s Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art seem to make her hiring a necessary development.  However, the first piece she has proposed to add to the museum’s collection may offer the clearest insight into her upcoming curatorship.

I try to avoid using such a narrow basis for my optimism but…I can’t help it, I’m excited.  It was only in 2007 that the museum acquired its first work of video art (also thanks to the Houghs) – arguably, a medium that matured before I was even born.  Thus, I never really entertained hopes of the museum adding a digital or net art work to the collection soon.  However, at the April 19th Collector’s Choice event, Pill made her first proposal for an addition to the museum’s collection: a custom piece of software.  Again, the Houghs – like the Charlie to the MFA’s Angels – arranged for the piece’s purchase.

The work Pill proposed is Michael Bell-Smith’s Waves Clock.  The piece is a projection of crashing waves as juxtaposed against a floating clock, ‘natural’ time contrasted with a human quantification of time.  Each portrayal of time nearly makes the other seem absurd.  Further, the piece is software rather than video, allowing the drifting clock to display real time and the work to (hypothetically) play out indefinitely.

This first proposal was not a conservative one.  The piece is new (created last year), the medium is new (to the museum), and the artist is relatively young (born 1978).  However, that isn’t to say the decision was reckless.  As progressive as the piece is, it is rather accessible – a younger web 2.0 audience will readily recognize the language.  Also, acquiring and exhibiting a pieces such as Waves Clock is possibly the most efficient step toward getting caught up with the national discourse, understanding where art is right now.

Perhaps, this may turn out to affirm Pill to be as bold a curator as I had hoped, and the Houghs to be an excellent match.  So as to not exaggerate the importance of a single purchase, though, I’ll limit myself to only adding this: I hope it is the beginning of a pattern.  It may be that seeing a good contemporary exhibit will require a causeway crossing less often.

Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg
Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

Seeing Things at Roger Chamieh’s Apophenia by Danny Olda

These are not grand existential statements. As people may have once been anxious over soul and salvation, today are likewise of car accidents, peanut allergies, smile lines and crow’s feet …

These are not grand existential statements. As people may have once been anxious over soul and salvation, today are likewise of car accidents, peanut allergies, smile lines and crow’s feet – a helpless body. Fittingly, the sculptures of Roger Chamieh’s current solo exhibit nearly appear to sag and be pinched, to wheeze and groan.

Broken, APOPHENIA : Recent Works from Roger Chamieh, Photos by Danny Olda

Despite their imposing size (only four pieces fit inside the Tempus Projects’ gallery) certain fragility colors each piece. For example, the show’s centerpiece projects this idea directly in its title, Broken. The sculpture, using a dining table as a departure point, lies slumped over on one end. The table is missing two of its legs as if it’s a double amputee propping itself up. A giant phonograph horn-like funnel penetrates the table. An antique speaker at its base under the table produces what Chamieh’s website describes as “layered guttural and thoracic sounds”. Indeed, the sculpture sounds as if it’s groaning from the metallic pit deep in its throat.

Apoxia, APOPHENIA : Recent Works from Roger Chamieh, Photos by Danny Olda

A theme that appears in two of the exhibit’s sculptures is breathing or rather, difficulty breathing. One piece’s title, Anoxia, refers to an extreme depletion of oxygen. The other, Daddy’s Girl, similarly makes use of a gas mask installed on the gallery wall. Rather than some sort of filter, though, the mask is fitted with a set of chrome lungs. Inside the mask, where the eyes would be, plays a single channel video similar to a home movie. The piece, perhaps, betrays a parental anxiety, a fear of the multifarious threats to one’s child.

Daddy’s Little Girl, APOPHENIA : Recent Works from Roger Chamieh, Photos by Danny Olda

Really, the entire exhibit does not seem to investigate some grand (and pretentious) existential view of death. Rather, the gallery is filled with a lingering near paranoic fear of dying peculiar to modern life. This isn’t a primal fear of survival, but one of a 5-ounce bottle of liquid on a plane or the newest carcinogen. Chamieh’s sculptures struggle for breath as if hyperventilating, suffocating under a crushing anxiey. Apophenia, the title of the exhibit, is the tendency to find meaning in patterns in which they do not exist. Much like a hypocondriac building pestilence from trivialities, or even an art critic finding meaning in an art exhibit.

APOPHENIA : Recent Works from Roger Chamieh, Photos by Danny Olda
APOPHENIA : Recent Works from Roger Chamieh
November 16 – December 4, 2012
TEMPUS PROJECTS, Tampa, FL


Danny Olda is a Tampa based artist and publisher of
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“Art is for Anyone. It Just isn’t for Everyone.” by Danny Olda

When virtually every image encountered is escorted by a ‘like’ button – when each parcel of information parsed demands an immediate impression and invites instant judgement, it bears repeating a principle: art is not a democracy. To be fair, more than mouse-click-populism brought me to revisit Richard Serra’s famous statement.

by Danny Olda

When virtually every image encountered is escorted by a ‘like’ button – when each parcel of information parsed demands an immediate impression and invites instant judgement, it bears repeating a principle: art is not a democracy.

To be fair, more than mouse-click-populism brought me to revisit Richard Serra’s famous statement. (I last read the quote here, on SVA, but more about that later) My ire was resurrected by a recent GQ article on the apotheosis of artistic populism itself, Artprize.

Artprize is an enormous art fair and contest held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There are two aspects of the contest, though, that make Artprize particularly unique: the obscenely huge top prize of $200,000; and the method of choosing the winner by public vote. It’s also these two distinguishing characteristics that illicit said ire.

I suspect the huge purse to be won is the reason the contest clings to any sort of relevance. Countless artists, including a number of the trendy and critically acclaimed, can hardly resist what would amount for many to six or seven years of income (or for Mitt Romney, a long weekend). This, in turn, impels many critics to be reluctant in dismissing the contest entirely. (As an aside, I’ll take this opportunity to serve ye notice, Artprize: You are hereby dismissed! By me, that is, for what little it’s worth).

Before going any further I should say that there isn’t anything wrong with popular opinion or even popular voting. The method used at Artprize, though, only compounds an already under-curated mess.

Despite how it may be portrayed, the popular vote doesn’t necessarily determine the best art. The most that can be said with certainty is that a public vote determines the art that garnered the most votes. Thus, artists are not encouraged to make the best art, but rather to make art that would attract the most votes. While good art and popular art are not mutually exclusive, the difference between the two is hardly trivial.

Artprize is only an example. The decline of a critical reading of art in favor of a populous one is a trend that is increasingly finding its expression on the internet. Consider, another example – Artist a Day.

Artist a Day is a website which presents a few examples of an artist’s work which is subsequently rated by the site’s visitors on a 1 to 5 scale. Granted, some very good artists, galleries, and curators are often involved with the site. Artist a Day employs considerable more curation than Artprize. However, the site encourages a similar type of interaction with the artwork from its visitors. By the nature of its design), visitors can only view the artwork via computer screen and most mete out judgement after only a few seconds of viewing. Naturally, this impels visitors to become reactionary critics – an oxymoron. In turn, the “top rated artists” are those which have an instant appeal or shock value (and little else).

The gap between populist and critical appeal can even be seen locally. As I mentioned earlier, I last read the aforementioned Richard Serra quote last week in an article featured in Sarasota Visual Art regarding a recent local public art controversy. The post highlighted some of the nation’s best public works of art and the popular rancor each encountered early on. A much more subtle example is the recent Best of the Bay awards given by Creative Loafing. Many of the categories existed as both “Critics’ Picks” and “Reader’ Picks” and predictably the difference between the two (at least in the arts) was marked.

This isn’t to say that popular opinion should somehow be ignored or even minimized. Consider artists such as Cindy Sherman or Marina Abramovic. In the case of these artists, popular opinion coincides with critical opinion. Indeed, each of us is entitled to a personal taste. However, the grand mean of collective personal taste should not be the dominant voice in the national art conversation.

The examples of Artprize and Artist a Day illustrate that mass opinion has a bent toward degrading into the lowest common denominator and a considerable segment of the art world is happy to cater to this. In contrast, great art doesn’t pander to any opinion, not even a critical one.

While art plays a beneficial role in culture, it isn’t necessarily a pleasant one. Like many of the most important things in life, the best art should be painful but rewarding. We should be routinely challenged, questioned, and provoked by art as should art by us, the viewer. It’s a cantankerous relationship, sure, but a very productive one.

I realize saying “art is not a democracy” can come off as needlessly incendiary. The reticence to call anything at once undemocratic and good is understandable. At least here in the U.S., the anathema to democracy is generally any and all evil. However, Serra wasn’t saying that art is undemocratic. Perhaps, art critic Jerry Saltz articulated the thought more eloquently: “Art is for anyone. It just isn’t for everyone”.

Further, when it does operate democratically, it doesn’t resemble the dream of the founding father’s as much as America’s Got Talent. It becomes something of a game show – Art critiques become reductionist and reactionary; artists, in turn, coddle this way of looking at art with facile work that has little new to say.

Art is profoundly important and deserves at least a bit more class and consideration than American Idol. Art deserves to be looked at slowly, thought about carefully, disagreed with vehemently, argued about articulately, and loved passionately – much more than a 1 to 5 vote.


Danny Olda is a Tampa based artist and publisher of
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Olda Reviews: Melting Metaphors and the RNC

Sometimes the most contentious relationships can be the most productive ones. Artists’ and politicians’ mutual suspicion (and at times outright disdain) of each other often serves as fodder for both groups: artwork for the former and budget cuts for the latter.

by Danny Olda

Sometimes the most contentious relationships can be the most productive ones. Artists’ and politicians’ mutual suspicion (and at times outright disdain) of each other often serves as fodder for both groups: artwork for the former and budget cuts for the latter. Although this scuffle between art and professional politics has been playing out internationally over the course of decades something special is unfolding in Tampa Bay at the moment. With the Republican National Convention set to descend on the area within the next couple weeks, a sort of case study of the interplay between art and politics will present itself.

Predictably, there will be an abundance of politically themed exhibits. Naturally, Tampa’s downtown museums will be serving up limp proxy events that convention delegates are sure to find just splendid. Corresponding offerings from Cafe Hey within the convention zone as well as the CL Space and West Tampa Center for the Arts just outside it promise to be more engaging exhibits. Further outside the convention area, throughout Tampa Bay, numerous other shows intend to vie for the increased sets of eyes and political interest. The profusion of political art exhibits may make it appear that the RNC only offers the Tampa Bay art scene a curating no-brainer. However, the art hints at something different.

danny olda, RNC
Promo photo for West Tampa Center for the Arts’ upcoming exhibit “Common Sense”

One piece, a “temporary” sculpture, will be installed in Tampa’s Lykes Gaslight Square on August 27th. The sculpture from artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese is made up of the words “Middle Class” carved from a block of ice that is intended to melt quickly in the Florida summer sun. While the sentiment is a tad obvious in terms of contemporary art, the sculpture’s relationship to its intended audience is a bit more subtle. Gaslight Square is within the convention zone. That means the sculpture will almost exclusively be seen by convention delegates rather than the local art crowd. This is just one of many current pieces that appear to be directed at the RNC instead of art scene usuals.

Rather than speaking to an audience, it seems the work’s intention is to speak for one. In a way, these political works of art (if executed well) act as mediators – we allow the art to plead on our behalf. Art has the capacity for succinctness and emotional impact that can rarely be spoken or written. Informing a politician that the middle class is disappearing is very different from allowing a politician to witness it literally waste away.

However, this sense of “pleading” has a quietly sad quality also. The ample political art aimed at the RNC can feel like a desperate struggle to emotionally pique individuals that have sway over our day-to-day lives. This kind of personal authenticity is usually only reserved for last-ditch efforts because it’s so difficult to ignore. In this way the querulous relationship between politics and art produces the quietest protest downtown Tampa will see, but the most difficult to disregard.


Danny Olda is our Tampa Correspondent and publisher of
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