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The Rise of the Twitterati

December 10, 2010

by Rebecca Wilenski

Whilst the worldwide recession continues to bite, the ‘glitterati’ of today’s art world are transforming into the ‘twitterati’, embracing an alternative art practice for the Web 2.0 generation. Who needs the lucrative support of the Arts Council or to count on BP for your next meal when Twitter is a free art form open to all at no cost – financially, socially or ethically? Twitter’s war cry resounds and we take note. ‘Bring on the budget cuts! Because the world we inhabit is free!’
As online platforms emerge artists are turning away from the tangible world of the exhibition space to the virtual world of online media. Central to this burgeoning online world is Rhizome.com an affiliate of the New Museum in New York. Rhizome.com is an online forum with links to online media based practices; it’s a space for discussion and ultimately the sovereign map to the online art world. Alongside Rhizome.com another important online platform is 1st fans, a low cost online museum membership set up by the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Organised by curator Eugenie Tsai, 1st fans’ Twitter project involves inviting one artist per month to explore the medium of Twitter as a praxis for art. Artists such as Mary Temple, An Xiao and Joseph Kosuth have all contributed to this project. As an example the conceptualist Kosuth created a project whereby a visual story unfolded day-by-day.
As the ‘tweets’ produced by 1st Fans ‘leave the safe museum space behind’, evident is the capacity of Twitter to produce art that interacts uniquely in the public realm. In fact in doing so, Twitter completely re-negotiates what is known as the public realm, where the boundary between public art and private space vanishes. Tweets reach you in the comfort of your own home, on a busy street, whilst you are in a meeting, on the toilet or in the bath – removing art from the public sphere and placing it deep down in your pocket. In this respect Twitter art has the same revolutionary potential as performance art once had. The 1st fans artist An Xiao, one of the most astute Twitter critics, notes this. She writes ‘A Twitter-based performance art project could displace and activate this online space in a fashion not unlike street performance art. It would be “stweet” performance art, so to speak.’
Unsurprisingly Twitter, a language-based medium that relies on short haiku-like divulgences, has attracted a whole range of conceptual artists, the most noted among them being Jenny Holzer, Yoko Ono and On Kawara. On Kawara’s repetitive ‘tweets’, which sporadically read: ‘I am still alive’, ‘I am still alive’, ‘I am still alive’, remind a following public of the presence of the artist, saturating the cracks and hollows of daily life with that presence.
Not only is Twitter the ideal medium for veteran conceptualists – but it has also lent itself to mass political protest within an arena of digital activism fostering positive social change. Harold Rheingold’s book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution convincingly argues that Web.20 practices and new communication technologies are enabling mass political uprising through their capacity to unite diverse publics. Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei has utilised the capacity of Rheingold’s ‘Smart Mobs’ to become a digital activist. His tweets have managed to open up a line of communication in China, with Wei Wei accruing a huge group of followers. In this respect constantly slipping through the net of the Chinese authorities by creating more and more Twitter identities, Wei Wei creates poetic acts of resistance which have radical political effect within a country run by a government with questionable regard for human rights.
What does ‘Twitter’ mean for a new generation of artists? Does it symbolise a collapse of the public into the private sphere? Or instead does it suppose an opposite phenomenon, wherein arts escape from the institution altogether into the private zone of the house (or the toilet).  Private, public, political, conceptual, or poetic Twitter art is on its way up, bringing with it a whole new field of aesthetics for the post-recession era.

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