How does social media art work when it’s not on the Internet? This was the question that hung in the air at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea on September 15. Arranged along one white wall of the gallery were five of the artists whose work make up “Social Media,” on display through October 15th. The panelists were asked to describe the way each had decided to portray this fathomless new landmass that humans are still evolving legs to navigate.

Without the internet or a gadget to demonstrate it, social media is just a sense of hyper isolationism that comes from self-curated online (universal) connectivity. You could throw up your hands and, like David Byrne did for “Social Media,” paint fake apps with names like “Weaselface” and “Bigamist,” as if to say, “It’s all just a joke! A distraction!” Or you could amass the images that come up when you Google a word like “art” and bind them in a book, like Emilio Chapela Perez did. Or you could feed Tweets to a printer, tapping into the public psyche, like Christopher Baker. They’re all evocative recipes for harnessing the essence of social media. But as Byrne noted at the opening of the exhibit that housed the above works, “It’s like making art about telephone wires—it’s the thing that connects us, but there’s nothing really there.” The problem is, works of art about social media are like anecdotes finished with, “Well, you had to be there.” Because social media is not a what, but a when, and the when has to be right now. As Gertrude Stein would say, “There’s no there there.”

The general consensus from the artists on the panel was that it wasn’t the Internet that interested them, but the way social media provides a peek at the new ways people can emote, communicate, and connect with each other. Spread out through the gallery (high ceilings, concrete floor) were works by Christopher Baker, Aram Bartholl, David Byrne, Jonathan Harris, Robert Heinecken, Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher, Sep Kamvar and Penelope Umbrico—that harvested, used, or at least riffed on social media in some way.

“Sunset Portraits” was comprised of nearly a million photos of sunsets taken from Flickr (8/22/2011), and mounted on the wall, by Penelope Umbrico.

Social media is about information being exchanged now. So where was the now?

There was a chart of feelings taken from blogs posts that contained, “I feel” or “I am feeling” by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, called “We Feel Fine” (2006).

“I love Your Work,” (2011) also by Harris, is a video installation that “documents” the lives of women making a lesbian porn flick (ten screens, nine women); each screen played what looked like shots from security cameras or scenes from the “Real World: Suicide Girls,” as the women lounged on beds looking bored.

“Learning to Love You More,” is a series of photos from “Assignment #68: Feel the News,” taken from the website launched by Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher (2002 to 2009), that is now owned by San Francisco MoMA. The interactive website gave assignments to the general public and the responses became part of the site.

“Google Portrait Series” are hand-drawn QR-codes (those little squares that you can scan with your smart phone for “more info”) of Barack Obama, Ai Wei Wei, and Amy Winehouse.

Concurrent to the Social Media show is the installation piece by David Byrne, “Tight Spot.” In the space next door to the Pace Gallery, a wedge of a lot beneath the new extended section of the High Line, was Byrne’s inflatable globe smooshed up under the beams of the repurposed subway track. The sphere emitted ribcage pumping guttural noises (created by Byrne’s own vocal chords) and illuminated the dusty pilings around it with its glowing interior. Even though it wasn’t related to social media, paired with the show it seemed like the most honest representation of it: an inflatable globe shoved under a railroad track; the earth under the information super-highway (“We’re on the road to nowhere!”). The world is big and small all at once.

And in contrast to the globe outside, the “Murmur Study” (Christopher Baker, 2009), a Niagara Falls of receipt printers, was the most directly engaged with social media. The printers lined up on the wall spit down a waterfall of tape as each was fed tweets, in real-time, that contained “emotional utterances,” expressed as, “argh, meh, grrr, ooo, ewww, and hmphh.” I watched as, “‘I want my boo thang, mmm mmm mm her sexy ass’ ikno dats right,” (05:34:13 EDT) was regurgitated from the collective conscious just seconds after, “One thing I do hate about using CD’s is when they get scratched… grr!” (05:33:52 EDT) Oh the humanity. But that was the point—a window onto the mechanics of human interaction.

Apart from this real-time installation piece, the others felt removed from the language and mechanics of social media. If my younger (20-year-old) brother had been with me, he wouldn’t have recognized the exhibit as his native tongue.

The thing is, as Miranda July said with great acumen and amazing hair, “We’re old.” Anyone who was actually raised on social media would see the panel (and the art, I would add) as being behind the times. And she was right. There were no iPhones with a new app that let one person spy on another across the room; no blackberries, no Wiis, no XBoxes, no touch-screen experimentation; no reference to the Arab Spring. When July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), was released, it was the first film I can remember portraying online drama. In the multi-plot dramady, a six-year-old potty curious boy learns to use a chat room and lists his status as: ))><(( meaning, “pooping back and forth, forever.” The image sparks the interest of an adult who mistakes his intentions as kinky—a light touch to the growing fear that exposure to social media would end poorly for children. But this cutting edge device was cutting edge a long time ago.

Some of the artists on the panel seemed concerned with being “outpaced” by technology; some acknowledged that they could never capture technology. It seemed to me that the only thing lacking were the proper tools of translation—this art was the internet (past tense) in translation. Social media is about information being exchanged now. So where was the now? The exhibit was stuck in art 1.1.

Genevieve Walker

Genevieve Walker is a writer and an illustrator living in Brooklyn, New York. Previously at and Newsweek International, Genevieve is a graduate of the journalism institute at NYU. She was once an editorial assistant at Guernica. She has written for the The New York Times, The Atlantic, Cities, and Velojoy.

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