“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