The Gallery is Empty

Art in the Age of Social Media

Dylan Neuwirth’s MMXI, made of blown glass, is inset in an image by 
Nathaniel Willson.


Imagine you show up to an art gallery for a show opening and find only white walls and concrete floors—an empty room. A tiny sign on one otherwise white wall instructs you to download an app and point your smartphone at specific areas of the gallery. You do. On the screen appears images of a 15-piece show—a chain and lock on part of a bike frame; a clear, handmade glass bottle—items that artist Dylan Neuwirth made in real space and time for this show, IDOL THREAT.

The art isn’t present in tangible form, but the gallery-goers are, and their reactions are the point of the show. Neuwirth is interested in people’s responses to the unconventional. Such as an art gallery with no visible art.

As Neuwirth puts it, “The images of the work are the work.”

On a late September day Neuwirth and his collaborator Greg Lundgren are on the fourth floor of the 911 Western building a few blocks north of Pioneer Square. They’re filming an interview about the ideas surrounding IDOL THREAT. Neuwirth sits in a chair next to a row of floor-to-ceiling windows while Lundgren bends over a video camera, guiding the interview with questions from a pile of papers at his feet. Lundgren will later post the video on Walden 3, a website for a large-scale conceptual art space he wants to create in the old Lusty Lady building downtown.

“What’s the difference between something existing in real space or virtual space?” Lundgren asks. “If you can’t touch it, if the object isn’t right there in front of you is it still important? Does it still have value?”

Neuwirth crosses his arms across his chest and nods. “Yes, exactly,” he says. “You can still get a visceral, emotional response without even producing the work. That’s the important part.”

A picture of bike lock or glass bottle on an iPad screen is unlikely to generate an emotional response. But being duped will almost certainly make people angry, and IDOL THREAT could leave that impression. You stand in an empty room staring at images of mundane objects on your phone, objects that the artist claims to have made by hand. But how can you really know if that’s true? The question is beside the point. The intersection of realized art with digital images and the ideas behind them generates the intellectual and emotional reaction, not the artwork itself.

“Art is the way we seek, find and connect to what it means to be human,” Neuwirth says, “regardless of the forms we’re using.”

+ + + +

In the early 1990s, Italian media artist Maurizio Bolognini opened an exhibition called Programmed Machines in Nice, France. Bolognini programmed a group of personal computers to create a limitless flow of images, and then left them to run indefinitely. Many had no monitors and the images produced were never seen.

Twenty years later, artists are turning to social media platforms such as YouTube and Instagram to experiment with digital media, bringing the art experience out of the gallery entirely. They’re not only making art using technology, they’re sharing it via technology, too. For some, the artworks are entirely digital; others still make physical, tangible work that gets seen or sold online.

Earlier this year Brooklyn-based gallery Art F City debuted AFC Selects, a series of original artworks from 11 international artists housed in a limited-edition USB drive made from a single piece of sapphire. The drives contained original museum-quality videos and screensavers, large-scale GIFs and custom software patches. According to art blog Hyperallergic, on the first day of release, the $650 USBs (in an edition of 100) had already sold nine.

In January, Twitter released Vine, a mobile application that allows users to create and post six-second video clips. Less than two months later, a Vine video was sold as art, purchased by Dutch collector and curator Myriam Vanneschi for $200 at the Moving Image Contemporary Video Art Fair in New York. Entitled Tits on Tits on IKEA (2013) the six-second video, by artist Angela Washko, features a young woman in a coonskin cap sitting on an IKEA couch holding a laptop to her chest. On the screen two hands rub two pink balloons positioned to look like absurd breasts. In an interview with the online magazine Motherboard, Vanneschi claims she bought the video because it “represents an alternative model to the gallery system.” She re-uploaded it to her own Vine account, where it’s available to view for free.

“Platforms like this really allow people to get their work out there in a different way,” says Serrah Russell. The Seattle artist co-founded the online gallery Violet Strays with fellow artist Alyssa Volpigno, who she met while studying through the University of Washington in Rome. After graduation, they watched their friends struggle to show work in galleries, so they invented an alternative way to show work.

“We came up with this idea—why don’t we just curate shows on the Internet?” Russell says. “Anyone can do it, it can be accessible to a lot of people, and we could work with whoever we wanted.” In April 2011 they launched Violet Strays to provide an opportunity for artists to show work online and to take risks in ways they might not consider when using expensive materials or dealing with galleries.

“We wanted to create a similar sense that you get when there is a show or exhibition that you have to go see at a certain time or you’ll miss it,” Russell says. “It helped give the site momentum because you are forced to see it at that time.” Violet Strays has showcased work from more than 50 artists, many of them local, and some international (London, Rome, France). Many of the exhibits present work in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional physical space.

Like curators of a brick-and-mortar gallery, Russell and Volpigno accept submissions and put together shows on their website that run for a short amount of time—usually a week—before another artist’s exhibition is mounted. Past work includes digital paintings, video, collaborations between poets and visual artists, 3-D images and documentation of daily walks or nightly events. Although the site doesn’t currently offer work for sale, Russell says that’s an option she’d like to explore in the future.

In August, put another spin on art’s digital possibilities with the launch of Amazon Art, a section of its website that allows users to buy artwork the same way they can buy anything else online. Amazon Art is currently selling nearly 50,000 works of art, ranging in price from $10 to millions. (Norman Rockwell’s 1941 painting “Willie Gillis: Package From Home” is currently offered at $4.85 million.) Amazon Art offers a range of work that can’t be found in a single gallery. But the selection is overwhelming—and without seeing a piece in person, you never know exactly what you’ll get.

Convincing people that a thumb drive full of artwork is as valuable as a painting is not easy. A painting usually ends up on a wall—but what are you supposed to do with a piece of digital art? Our culture has grown comfortable downloading books, movies, TV, tablet magazines, music and other media. But when it comes to visual art, we still associate value with tangibility.

+ + + + 

IDOL THREAT was an idea, not a show. It was the vision of the show Neuwirth would have curated if he had no parameters, unlimited time and infinite resources. Lundgren offers artists the opportunity to show on Walden 3’s website, where they can explore their art and design fantasies. The day after each “show,” Lundgren writes a deceptively convincing blog entry about the night before. He did the same with Neuwirth—whose show took place at the fictional Mercer Gallery—and within two days the post received more Facebook likes than any other entry on the Walden 3 site.

On opening night of IDOL THREAT Dylan Neuwirth woke up in London, where he was traveling for his job as a fabricator and installer with Dale Chihuly. At the time the Walden 3 show would’ve opened, he sat down with an espresso and logged into Twitter to see if IDOL THREAT was getting a reaction.

Technically, the show never happened, but Neuwirth says that doesn’t matter. What matters is that people are talking about it, that they’re engaged. That’s his purpose. Later this month he’s closing his Ballard studio, giving away and selling all his physical work—the metal sculptures made from bike frames, large-scale collages—and delving into the world of social media entirely. Its currency provides a familiar medium with easy access to a broad audience.

“Through Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and Vine I get the engagement I’ve never had and in real time,” he writes in an email from London. “Fuck the forms or how they are made. A piece of compelling art could’ve been made from cardboard and cat litter.”

For Neuwirth, form is not a concern. Reaction and interaction are.

“Social media was where I really connected,” he explains. “The feedback there kept driving the work.”

Neuwirth considers the shifting digital landscape in which rapacious information seekers turn to the Internet for everything. Someone who’s never seen the Mona Lisa in person can Google an image of the painting. In these moments, the image becomes the object, raising the question of which one has more value: da Vinci’s original or the image on the screen. The original painting has more monetary value, more tangible value—but for people around the world who will never visit Paris, the digital image is a powerful, valuable force of knowledge, ideas, inspiration and artfulness.

As the world witnessed during the Arab Spring, social media isn’t just for showing your friends what you ate for lunch. Once an image is out there, its potential to reach people is endless.

“Having a world that engages and talks about interesting things—that’s something that art can inspire, conceptual or not,” Lundgren says. “It’s about sitting up late at night and hashing out why something is right or wrong or interesting or boring. It’s not about cradling some precious object like a baby.”

As e-commerce continues to grow and artists continue to work in digital media, maybe one day consumers will be able to purchase and own personal versions of performances and films as well as videos and images. We’ll scroll through our art apps and share our collections online.

But technology is not infallible. Files are corrupted, things disappear, viruses attack. If an artist sells you a sculpture and you somehow lose it, do you get a replacement? The question of intellectual property also creeps in. Will people download artwork illegally, as they do today with music and movies? People already hack artworks, modifying them into memes. But if the nature of technology lies in constant evolution, maybe that’s a good thing.

As with other forms of digital art, there’s no saying where the technology will lead. For now, it opens up the field to innovation, but it also brings into question the idea of craft.

“If it’s a piece you can make digital, you can turn it into a commodity and allow people to access it,” Russell says. “The Internet allows for a more level playing field.”

In a society that expects everything to move at a quick pace, digital art is an appealing medium for instant gratification. But that doesn’t mean it lacks ideas.

“Nothing can replace the experience of encountering an incredibly impactful work of art,” Neuwirth says. “The materials, the methods are meaningless. Art is an experience, a conversation, not a thing.”