Internet and social media are rapidly transforming the art system: a new generation of artists is using proprietary platforms like Facebook and Instagram to reach out to a global public, directly and in real time, bypassing traditional institutions and gatekeepers of the art establishment. Old hierarchies are shaken, while new ones arise; as the role of galleries and curators is radically questioned, brooding corporate powers loom in the background.
The exhibition project Internet Fame explored these transformation, following the questions raised by the shifting relationship between establishment and subcultures, new and old hierarchies, declining and emerging forms of power and counter-power: over the course of eight weeks, starting from November 1st 2017, over 35 artists, performers and digital creators from all over the internet reflected on the topics of the open call.
The works presented reflected the wide range of clusters, thematics and artistic approaches to be found on the internet. Four thematic rooms highlighted different phenomena related to the concept of fame in the age of total digitalisation: Fame and Sex, Fame and Hype, Fame and Power and Fame and Art.
To mark the end of this month-long exploration, Clusterduck collective and panke.gallery set up an exhibition as part of the official Embassy Program of the Wrong Digital Biennale. Fifteen artists presented and expanded the themes and practices found in the Online Pavilion, showing them in the spaces of panke.gallery in Berlin Wedding.
The exhibition was conceived as part of the Digital Art Biennale “The Wrong”. “The Wrong - New Digital Art Biennale” defines itself as “the largest and most comprehensive international digital art biennale today. Its mission is to create, promote and push positive forward-thinking contemporary digital art to a wider audience worldwide.”
Fame and sex have always been presented as closely intertwined phenomena, especially with regards to popular culture. Celebrities appearing on media and adorning magazine covers are still widely accepted as the dominant social standard of beauty and desirability. In its most vernacular manifestation, the relationship between fame and sex constitutes the core of the gossip industry, itself a substantial economic and symbolic pillar of tabloid journalism and of the manifold power structures related to it.
Like any other aspect of contemporary society, the relationship between fame and sex has been strongly affected by the combined disruptive effects of social media and mobile communication devices; and, as in other fields, the emancipatory potential of these new technologies has been promptly questioned by the emergence of new hierarchies and power structures. For now, the form of the new world is still unclear and blurred, veiled by the dust slowly rising from the crumbling celebrity-temples of yore. Nonetheless, we can already start to appreciate the scale of the chaotic realignment of powers taking place.
A proper assessment of the relationship between sex and fame seems impossible without taking into consideration the role of the gendered power structures underlying these phenomena. Grossly oversimplifying, we might say that men longly strived for fame as a gateway to satisfy their sexual desires. Paradoxically, the exposure and social prestige granted by fame can act as a shield from public judgement, granting impunity to sexual predators and allowing some of the worst cases of abuse to remain undisclosed for years, decades or even until the perpetrator’s death. Jimmy Savile, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein are but a few examples of the enormous difficulties and the hostile ostracism victims must endure when trying to denounce abuses from a male celebrity. This blatant culture of impunity and widespread omertà is not only well known, but socially accepted, as the latest american elections have impressively shown.
Uncommon sexual freedom and impunity from public judgement is what many male actants expect from their status as celebrities; conversely, many female actants are lured into sexual intercourse by the promise of fame. At worst, they are tricked into an exchange which brings them no gain and locks them in a cycle of abuse and sexual exploitation, be it in prostitution or the porn industry. For countless others, such transactions and the power imbalance characterizing them remain cloaked under the false pretence of consent.
The “sex scandal”, besides showcasing the impressive extent to which social hierarchies have been built on gender, well represents the disruptive power of negative forms of fame. Western societies have mostly tried to shield men - unless they were accused of homosexuality - from the worst consequences of such scandals, and for centuries they could easily succeed in doing so by blaming the female victims as the real culprits. No longer so. Viral social media campaigns against sexism and harassment are only the latest episodes highlighting a possible realignment of powers and should be viewed in the frame of the larger culture wars which are currently raging both on new and traditional media.
Technology isn’t neutral in this fight. Far from actively sustaining efforts towards emancipation and diversity, as the dominant silicon valley narrative would like the public to believe, misogyny and sexism are deeply rooted in large parts of tech culture. The naked female body, especially if not adapted to dominant standards of beauty, still has to fight for its right to be seen, and censorship on social media platforms is structuring social views of gender no less than it did on traditional media.
Still, it may well be that, as in other crucial moments in history, artists are signaling and possibly even spearheading a shift in powers. The new relationship between author and audience enabled by social media is allowing a new generation of female artists to use their sexuality and the staged intimacy of their bodies as a powerful means to build an innovative public discourse around the relationship between sex(uality) and fame, which bears enormous potential for social change. We shouldn’t be overtly optimistic. The combined effect of normalization efforts on the neoliberal side, which are fastly incorporating some of these young female artists into mainstream symbolic codes of value production, and the widespread adverse reaction signaled by the rise of right-wing populism across the western world, shows that the female body and female sexuality (and, probably even more so, the queer body and queer sexuality) still represent an everlasting menace to dominant power structures, a menace these structure are determined to contain, redirect and, if necessary, openly fight.
Moreover, what becomes visible between the exposed surfaces of naked skin and vulnerable bodies showcased on contemporary social media, is the even more fragile psyche of a generation that is constituting its whole emotional life through and around technology, in a way that is both unprecedented and still largely misunderstood, by its observers and actors alike. The libidinal power of the (technological) commodity is such, that it seems capable of subsuming the emotional life and personality of its users, leaving us only with dystopian reminiscences of gnostic disembodiment: the smartphone contemplating its own image in a mirror as the most faithful representation of the contemporary self.
The display of intimacy allowed by livecasting technologies is not a new topic in net-art, and has been thoroughly explored for decades now. Yet, the scale of its use in the age of social media forces us to frame old questions in new ways, and it begs for the development of new concepts and a new language. Artistic practice seems like the perfect place to start.
The origins of the word hype are unclear. Most sources agree that the term emerged from American slang in the mid 1920s as a synonym for “shortchange swindle or con game” (by 1925); other meanings include “a sudden steep but usually impermanent rise in retail price” (by 1926), a “misleading or exaggerated story” (by 1938), and “overblown publicity or advertising” (by 1958).
It might be interesting to note that in the very same years when the term hype was firstly debuting in dictionaries, the world was on the eve of the most dramatic financial crisis of the modern era, and artistic avant-gardes were setting new standards in every field of human creativity. The synchronicity between early financialization, innovative artistic currents and the spreading of the word hype could be considered just a mere coincidence or a trivial footnote, hadn’t their relationship grown closer over time, to the point that, these days, it seems impossible to ignore. If we were to search for a turning point, a single moment when the abovementioned relationship became clearly visible, we’d probably find it in the grimy streets of 1980’s New York: as that was the time when a generation of artists and bohemians who had come to age under the aegis of mature consumerism, budding post-modernism and Andy Warhol, openly engaged in a conflictual, yet profitable relationship with Wall Street’s resurgent financial capital. With hindsight, it’s hard to deny that those years were a laboratory and a model for futures to come, as that was also the moment when urban restructuring processes fed by those very same realities - financial and artistic capital, joined in the dance of hype - started to ravage the physical fabric of metropolitan bohemia.
Today, in the eyes of the inhabitants of overhyped neighborhoods engulfed by gentrification processes around the globe, urban creatives are hardly distinguishable from the loathed yuppies of yesteryear. As such, they often attract the same aggressive hostility their predecessors used to elicit, and the Downtown yuppie of the 1980s seamlessly morphed into the Williamsburg hipster of the 2000s. When considering the widely different purchasing power of the two groups, this seems ironic, to say the least. Particularly if artists are counted amongst the heterogeneous group of the urban creatives, several questions come up about the role of so called “gentrification pioneers”, and their prolonged incapacity to, if not control or oppose, at least emancipate themselves or critically reflect these processes. It should be said that the past decades, and the past few years in particular, have seen encouraging signs regarding an increased awareness around the aforementioned issues, also and particularly amongst members of the so called creative class. Yet, the evil spell of gentrification seems just as hard to cast off for artists and their peers as the entanglement between artistic production and financialization: just as a neighborhood that succeeds in defending its unique spirit and character only seems to increase the appetite of potential investors, the more an artistic current tries to slip away from the mortal embrace of capital, the more its potential exchange value appears to rise.
In recent times, capitalism’s voracity for the “next big thing” has become nearly insatiable. The media’s search for the new “place to be” never ends, markets keep crowning new champions on an almost daily basis, and talent and reality shows are ceaselessly engaged in a manic hunt for the next top-model, pop-star or internet sensation. Artistic currents get labeled and sold before they even get a chance to become self-aware: like the hipster, vaporwave, digital-art and post-internet have all been proclaimed “dead” in the very same moment the world acknowledged their existence by naming them. By feeding on aesthetic recognizability and largely avoiding confronting the aforementioned contradictions, considerable parts of contemporary internet subculture seem to validate their most ferocious critics. However, as more nuanced positions have rightly pointed out, simple labels won’t help us understand the complexity of the situation. This seems even more true as we start to understand that digitalization and social media are cause and consequence of a wider realignment of powers across every sector of society, the arts included. And while there can be few doubts about the responsibility of the art world’s traditional gatekeepers in allowing capital to subsume every aspect of artistic production, from the artist’s dwelling and workplace to the fate of his work as a financial asset, there should be just as much attention when evaluating the impact of the rise of the digital world’s new corporate overlords.
As many former Silicon Valley employees and executives candidly acknowledged, platforms like Facebook and Instagram are built around well-known weaknesses hard-wired into our brains. Just as a hacker would exploit a flaw in a digital system to attain his goals, our minds’ desire for social stimulation has been recognized, appropriated and incorporated into the most powerful weapon of mass social engineering the world has ever seen - social media. “Hype” is not anymore a mere byproduct of consumer capitalism: in the age of digital platform economy, it has become the essence of the system itself. Beyond the art system, show-business and Wall Street, the whole Silicon Valley nowadays appears like a giant hype-bubble, as do all current manifestations of politics and public discourse.
After the hype is before the hype. But what happens when the hype fades away, leaving us only with reality to confront? As a matter of fact, we are barely starting to understand how all these processes stem from the recognition of one simple truth: human attention is a finite resource. We all have only limited amounts of time, and equally limited cognitive capacities; and before us, endless universes of content, all screaming and competing for our attention. Those who know how to grab the limited amounts of attention we have, hold the key to true power.
If the relation between different aspects of our society could be described in the gaunt style that characterizes the informations on our social profiles, Fame and Power would definitely be in a complicated relationship. In the age of information, one of the characteristics of power is indeed its capacity of obscuring and rendering opaque the data that belongs to powerful people, sometimes to the point of making them almost invisible to the public; a capacity complemented by the Midas touch enabling power to make others famous and recognizable, if this can serve its purposes. But what is the essence of the bond between Fame and Power in the digital age?
If the characteristic of power is to be pandemic and incorporated in the discourses it produces, thus belonging both to the oppressor and to the oppressed, fame can be seen as performing a very similar operation in these times of constant exposure and contact. Fame doesn’t belong only to the famous and to the renowned, it is shaped and produced also by the desires and ambitions of the ones excluded by fame and celebrity. Furthermore, the rarity making fame so desirable is artificial: another point in common with power. But what unites these two powerful and influential phenomena the most, is possibly the unsatisfactory attempts at explanation and analysis they produced. To quote Foucault, ‘The exercise of power is not simply a relationship between partners, individual or collective; it is a way in which certain actions modify others. Which is to say, of course, that something called Power, with or without a capital letter, which is assumed to exist universally in a concentrated or diffused form, does not exist.’ While we may affirm to know the effects of fame and its manifestations, can we really claim to know what Fame intrinsically is, especially in an age that potentially grants at least 15 minutes of celebrity to everyone? And, most specifically, can the conditions of fame and obscurity be present simultaneously, in times when we can be extremely well-known to some communities and clusters, but completely unknown to others?
If, starting from this reflection, we shift from a personal and intimate point of view to a much wider perspective, while maintaining our attention focused on the emerging forms of power and fame in contemporary society, some distinct mechanisms become visible: the economic revolution driven by information technologies without any doubt needs to be fueled by a constant production of meanings and semantic discourses; in other words, our expressive capacities need to be kept in constant activity. This is a basic need for all those industries, born thanks to the 90s first Internet boom, that slowly but constantly evolved into a new stage of neoliberism epitomized by Social Media and, more generally, platform capitalism in its many glaring manifestation. As some of their own creators admit, these platforms are basically built around the question “How do we consume as much of a person’s time and attention as possible?” Pushing forward this assumption, what is the main way to obtain someone’s attention, if not to give him or her not only our attention, but a crowd of contacts and profiles ready to like, discuss and share every kind of content they produce?
Inevitably, we can observe a widespread reaction to this state of things. The true or presumed rebellion occurring through memes and politically uncorrect communication may seem like a perfect response to an attention economy that demands all our free time: what better than totally inattentive desecration and distracting idiocy to fight off this extreme demand for care and focus? Truth is, the self-consolatory narratives that followed the Arab Springs, hailing the progressive and democratizing virtues of Twitter and the Californian ideology, have been brutally swept away by the rising tide of the Alt-Right and the resurgence of reactionary ideologies worldwide. As the first “Twitter-President” in the White House doesn’t look like anything digital evangelists had expected, Silicon Valley has rapidly adapted to the new state of things and seems more than willing to cooperate with whoever holds the levers of power. The latest experiments by Facebook and its Chinese counterparts suggest a rather bleak future for freedom of expression, as Social credit systems determining the strength of digital citizenship are already being implemented on a local scale. It could very well be that one day, being “Internet Famous” could save your life.
“Though they carry nothing forth with them, yet in all their journey they lack nothing. For wheresoever they come, they be at home.”
Thomas Moore - Utopia
This text marks the conclusion of a three-month long journey: an exploration of the topic of Fame in times of total digitalization, as we dared to call it. It seemed fitting therefore to cast a short retrospective of the rooms we presented so far - Fame and Sex, Fame and Hype and Fame and Power - as an introduction for this last room, which is going to ponder the relationship between Fame and Art.
The dichotomy implied by the structure of The Wrong Biennale, with its online digital Pavilions and offline Embassies, marked the starting point of our inquiry, and encouraged us to focus on the theme of body and physicality in online celebrity culture, and more specifically on fame and sex as both bodily and power-related phenomena. Quoting Marina Abramovic: today more than ever, “art must be beautiful”, just as the artist that produces it, bonding creator and creation in an all-too-often purely aesthetic link that seems to get more attention than the artistic content itself. In times of viral social activism campaigns and, the limit between self-empowerment and cynical exploitation of the flaws of an emerging system is often blurry and hard to determine.
We thus shifted our attention on the elusive concept of Hype, focusing on the mechanisms behind Silicon Valley’s often decried “attention economy”. As the powerful symbiosis between portable digital communication devices and social media platforms marks the latest phase of digitalization, information, so the saying, is no more the ultimate key strategic asset. In a world where endless quantities of content get produced and effortlessly delivered to every smartphone owner around the globe within fractions of a second, what is truly scarce is the attention of these final users - and that’s what everybody is fiercely and recklessly fighting for. As the false dichotomy of IRL and URL universes tries to hide inside the filter bubbles and binary gendered communication of mainstream social media, the arousal and excitement about the “next big thing” constantly reminds us of the hidden agenda set by the markets’ iron rules and needs. Again, this point invited a deviation towards a familiar topos already mentioned above: the struggle between the artist’s desire for free expression, and the need to get the public’s (and the market’s) attention in order to ensure her/his economic survival - a complex and conflictual dynamic well revealed by the conceptual revolution operated by Duchamp, or by the raging critique expressed by Piero Manzoni. The other side of the coin has always been the serialization and pattern-recognition exercise that every artist must master in order to manage the codes and languages of the markets, and get sufficient credit to survive from her/his work - a contradictory phenomenon that becomes all the more apparent in the widespread contempt by wide sectors of the art establishment (and the attraction of the art market) towards digital art and everything that can be labeled as “post-internet”.
The third passage in our stroll beneath the arcades of internet fame has then highlighted the complicated relationship that bonds Fame and Power, in which Art itself plays a non-secondary role due to the commodification and exploitation of another diffused and common human capability, apart from the relational one that power trades on: the expressive capacity. In fact, humankind never produced in its whole history expressive artifacts in such numbers as in our days: we are ceaselessly bombed by a numbing, ever-increasing visual communication stream, through multiple channels and in every thinkable environment. Victims and executioners in this bombing, we fail to see how all the effort we put in our digital identity is often what deprives us and everyone else of our free time. Even without quoting the harsh and dystopian reality of reactionary movements spreading like wildfire through the digital undergrowth, it’s easy to see why the optimistic rhetoric which still exuded from the Twitter revolutions of the Arab spring is radically different from the cold winds surrounding the first Twitter presidency. The structural question of power in the age of Social Media is just starting to be discussed, but it’s already clear that, for all its disruptive and emancipatory potential, digitalization is creating new, powerful architectures of inequality and hierarchy.
New structures of power are emerging in every sphere of social activity, and Art is no exception. Social Media platforms allow for a direct relationship between artists and public, potentially bypassing traditional gatekeepers of the art system. However, what may seem as the fulfillment of a long-held dream for generations of artists - the emancipation from curators, galleries, collectors and their desires and whims - comes at a price. The system doesn’t allow the monetary value of the symbolic capital created by artists to be dissipated or - even worse - harnessed by those who produced it. The pervasive logic of neoliberism demands from artists that they become their own brand, and the best way to do so is by creating a digital persona that satisfies the expectations of the public and keeps the circle of the attention economy flowing. As Warhol had brilliantly recognized, the artists can sell two kinds of products: either easily sellable objects that prey on the taste of the time and the aura of fame, or his own persona, as vehicle for brands and other objects. Thus, the figure of the artist as influencer was born. To close on a more optimistic note, we should point out that all the processes described above are still in full development. While many indicators strongly suggest that windows of opportunity that seemed wide-open just two decades ago are now tightly shut, everyday reality shows as that the status-quo has never been less stable. Art still remains the most powerful human practice to investigate what is going on in our times from a meta-perspective, an essential task if we are to find a strategic response to the problems we are facing. It is encouraging to see that wide parts of the art world seem to be well aware of this challenge, as we are witnessing an unprecedented compenetration of science, research, art and technology. Utopia and Dystopia are still both within our grasp, as we keep hesitantly walking along the razor’s edge.