On art, Web 2.0, and physical/digital seamlessness

Last month, New York-based photographer and digital-media artist An Xiao participated in a panel discussion called "Big Love: Artists and Social Networking Technology," a conversation organized to complement "Status Update," an exhibition presented by the Arts Council of Greater New Haven in collaboration with Haskins Laboratories that explores the use of emerging social networking technologies.

More recently, An was kind enough to put some of her thoughts about art, Web 2.0, and physical/digital seamlessness into words. Enjoy ...

Toward the end of the "Big Love" panel discussion, moderator Sharon Butler asked an intriguing question: "What do you see as the future of all this?"

By "this," she meant art and social media, and social media and society. I believe strongly that if you want to understand the future of social media and the tools of Web 2.0, you should look at either digital natives (i.e., teenagers and younger) or citizens of developing nations (i.e., those whose first important encounters with communications technologies were via cell phone, rather than the Web).

During the panel discussion, I discussed briefly the idea of digital/physical seamlessness, a world in which our digital and physical lives intersect seamlessly. In this view, the line between "real life" and "virtual life" is blurred, for activities in the digital realm can and do have very real consequences in the physical realm, and vice versa. Whereas computers and phones first evolved as tools for business and communications, they have further evolved into extensions of ourselves, storing vast amounts of personal information and allowing us to keep in touch with thousands of people.

This is most true in the lives of today's teenagers, who have scarcely known any other life but that which is infused with social media technology. Witness the 21st century teenage break-up. Teenager A posts a dramatic Status Update about Teenager B, her boyfriend. Teenager B leaves a comment about Teenager A's photos. All of this is carried out on the stage of common news feeds viewed by mutual friends, and rumors quickly spread both via texting and Facebook, and then, when school starts, via traditional whispers and notes. News of the break-up, along with the attendant emotions, spreads rapidly through the physical and digital worlds.

The future of social media is simple: it won't be known as social media. Online social media will simply be part of a balanced social diet, a mixture of both online and offline interactions. And with this seamlessness will come new values and norms, as Web 2.0 becomes Life 2.0.

Edutopia, a project of the George Lucas Education Foundation, has identified that digital natives, armed with tools and technology unlike any other generation, prefer to create, collaborate, and teach while learning. In other words, the TV generation sits on a couch and absorbs; the YouTube generation wants in on the fun.

Edutopia has a number of suggestions about what this means for education, and we're already seeing how digital/physical seamlessness and online social media have influenced everything from political campaigns to business. But what does all this mean for art? If I had to guess, there are three things artists working in any medium should consider as we look toward "Art 2.0," that is, art infused with the principles of Web 2.0.

1. Engage your audience in new ways.
While the traditional artist statement, Web site, and interviews will continue to serve your audience, your audience will continue to demand more. The social media audience wants to keep the conversation going and ask their own questions. Set up a Twitter account, set up a blog, set up a Facebook fan page (or make your own page public). Give your audience a way to interact with you after seeing your work, to learn more about your creative practice and the concepts behind it.

But, perhaps more radically, give your audience a way to interact with your art. You can convert your art to desktop backgrounds, yes. But what if you also made select works available in low-res digital form via a Creative Commons license, so fans of your work can "remix" it? It can sound shocking and uncomfortable, after pouring your heart and soul into your work, to release it to the world not simply for criticism but for editing. And yet musicians, including the ever-popular Nine Inch Nails, have been doing this for years.

This is the ethos of the YouTube generation: they want to create as often as they want to absorb. Try it with one or two of your more popular pieces and see what happens.

2. Connect your audience with one other.
Instead of thinking of art as a two-way experience between artist and audience, start thinking of Art 2.0 as a multi-way experience between artist and audience, and between audience members and one other. This is no different from chatting with your friends after seeing a movie, or going with your family to a museum exhibit and discussing it over coffee afterward. What's changed is that the audience has grown larger and more global, and the tools for connecting them to one another have become much more sophisticated.

The Obama campaign's success with the new generation partially came from the idea that anyone could help him run the campaign, as he crowdsourced campaign calls, meetings, and flyer distribution. He's doing this again as he tries to drum up support for his health-care program. You may not have the million-dollar resources of a national political campaign, but the tools of social media are free and available to all. Your audience will stay more engaged with your work if they can engage with one another.

Here's one basic idea: a Facebook-based guestbook at your next show, so folks can not only see one another's comments, but comment on their comments and stay in touch afterward.

3. Strike a balance between online and offline media.
Don't get me wrong: Art 2.0 can still hang on the wall and sell, and you can preserve your artistic mystique just fine (no one needs to know about the toil and trouble of every little detail in the studio!). I believe firmly that artists deserve fair compensation for their work. But audiences also deserve greater interaction with the work as well. This is true now (just look at how MoMA and the Brooklyn Museum have been giving visitors new ways to interact with their collections), but it will become even more so if we want to engage a world quickly growing accustomed to the values of Web 2.0.

Contrary to beliefs I've heard numerous times, the digital generation doesn't live on their computers and cell phones. They live through their communications devices, which make up a percentage of their lives. They still get together for movies and parties and study sessions and what have you. The need for in-person human interaction will never change; no one can deny the power of seeing a painting in person versus seeing it on the screen. The key is finding a balance by seamlessly integrating your physical art practice with the tools of the Internet.

In the end, what I hope to get across here is that Art 2.0 is less a difference of quality as it is of scale. The eroding borders between digital and physical life have led to new values and norms around interactivity and engagement being emphasized, but these values and norms have always existed. Artists have forever borrowed from and built upon one another's work, and audiences have forever chatted with one another after seeing a good show.

What's new is that the digital world has emphasized audience ownership to a greater degree, and it's allowed that audience to stay in touch for a longer period of time and across the world. A generation raised on YouTube and Facebook is no longer accustomed to passive experiences, whether with the Web or music or art. What artists do to engage this new audience with their art practice will, I suspect, come to define art in the 21st century.

An's Web site
An's blog
An's Twitter feed

The Arts Council's Web site

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