‘52 Artists 52 Actions’
I just received an email from the editor who confirmed that this space doesn’t really work with pictorial forms. This space being the newspaper you are reading, and the pictorial form being the dot-point composition of the article I wanted to write. It would’ve been titled The Neoliberal Form: Observations from a friend or follower, and I guess I was hoping I could test the old adage I learnt when studying both art and design, that “form follows function”.
The intention was to provide a layman’s anthropological study of 52 Artists 52 Actions – an online and offline curatorial project that materialises in an Instagram account, website and associated actions, which are defined as “anything and everything that artists use to communicate and build awareness around important concerns”. When first considering 52 Artists 52 Actions, my mistake was thinking in reductive matters, rather than looking at it as a sort of multifarious möbius strip. This realisation came to me through overhearing a medical entrepreneur and a surgeon discuss the 3D-modelled replica of a hip joint and the possibility of pinpointing the surgery by aid of a robot and two assistants, one trained as a physio-osteo and the other a mechanical engineer. Two observations: it takes more people to operate such precision technology than it does to conduct the procedure without it; and does the surgeon see my subjectivity, or, more importantly, do they need to?
Since January this year, 52 Artists 52 Actions, curated by Talia Linz with Artspace Sydney and Fabio Ongarato Design, has been inviting different artists to each week stage actions that engage with the sociopolitical conditions of the 33 countries regarded as comprising the Asia-Pacific region. These happen offline, but an intention to share them with a wider audience online is built into the project. The first such action occurred in Sydney, at Artspace, and was staged by artist-activist Richard Bell. It highlighted Malcolm Turnbull’s refusal to acknowledge Australia’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. I was in Sydney at the time and happened to be reading Bill Williams’ book Bleed. Since then, my engagement with the 52 artists has been minimal and limited to Instagram. The handle, @52artists52actions, is lost in an algorithm once chronological and now, apparently, behavioural. Writer, filmmaker and artist Hito Steyerl has quipped somewhere that “we are being seen with ever greater resolution, but the systems around us are increasingly disappearing into the background” – function finding form and the visibility of scale.
In a simple analysis of the language that we use, “Instagram account” already denotes the accumulation and storing of things: to count. What we are counting is instant communication, just as the suffix gram or gramma denotes that which is written or marked. Colloquially we call it “the ’gram”, shifting the etymological referent to that indicative of a small weight, a delineation of value and comparison. Instagram measures images, be they pictures or short videos, in real time and the past. @52artists52actions is counting an artist a week. Its hashtags are logged on the 52artists52actions.com website. Here content data – words both literal and lateral – are reproduced as a context of their own. The granular images are transferred via granular gestures and the recording of time between touches, double touches and slides. Touch, scroll, touch, smooth-over, hover, double tap, one click, hashtag grouping, individual page, private message, group message, archive, live, tag – a network of algorithmically read images aesthetically and formally arranged and redistributed according to an equation that somehow calculates behavioural popularity against time.
On the program page of the website, the artists are numbered as they appear. Instagram replicates the feeling of beginning again and again, in the middle, with each new post being a new reproduction, an archive without origin, a collection that streams, rolls, relatively smoothly, a logged record of the past. Somewhere along the line a friend and/or follower rose to the top in the invisible taxonomic hierarchy that is social media.
I guess the hope is that this break into singularities creates the conditions for regrouping, and I don’t doubt that this is something to which 52 Artists 52 Actions aspires. These artists, those places and these things happening. But what are we doing and for whom? To rationalise a grant? To inhabit the social spaces and political discourses our current systems of power ignore? Who are you friends with? What are you following?
On September 22, 2015, Instagram “celebrated a community of 400 million” on its Tumblr blog. The post received 365 notes. There is a rumour, or Reddit thread, that suggests receiving less than 10 per cent “likes” from your followers equates to 80 per cent of them being bots – or something like that. You can purchase followers, I guess, to make you look good, but they might not help you in the algorithmic stakes. In an anonymously authored manifesto on Instagram titled “#Love Conquers All?”, a writer urges users to circumvent the platform, which is increasingly revealed as “community supported corporations” or “friendship as fandom”, and asks Instagram users to freely circulate free links to media downloads.
The artist Maurizio Cattelan’s Instagram was the first single-post account I have encountered. One post, 116k followers, 0 following. Cattelan is an image god, rationing out image relation-ability. Representation devoid of context other than a self. The philosopher Jacques Rancière suggests that neoliberalism eliminates the need for representation and, as a consequence, its ideal. Susan Sontag talks about this to a degree, with reference to the photograph and the idea of “furnish[ing]” evidence. On the social sciences website The Society Pages, Robin James refers to it as “the de facto/de jure segregation”. His duality imagines the gap between fact and its representation.
In ’gramifying a curatorial project, 52 Artists 52 Actions inadvertently asks whether the audience is relevant, and if so, in to what code they are being written. It is arguable that the internet as we know it could be thought of as a solid state. Perhaps then, the most pressing political question of today is how we carve up, divide and also make presentable things such as thought, exchange and intimacy. The acceleration of production and reproduction has hijacked representation, atomising the audience, which we seem to have forgotten we are also a part of.
If we think about the origins of conceptual art practices and their overlap with the accessibility of photographic means, as well as their technological associations, such as being durational, time-based or ephemeral – and this includes much feminist, activist, collective and political work – then Instagram is seemingly the perfect house for a program that aims to explore this in the content of art. Thinking back to the economic, architectural and social implications of the “white cube” of gallery spaces, as explored by Brian O’Doherty, when we consider digital interfaces such as Instagram we must think through the structure of what we are seeing. The timelessness of the white cube turns the gallery space into a limbo, creating the possibility for seeing something reframed and de-contextualised in order to see it again in another way – a separation from life. O’Doherty attributes fragmentation of the self, and the separation of perception from the rest of the body, as inherent to modernism; but it is arguable that this split is apparent in every attempt to categorise and recategorise that which we feel, see, hear, touch, interpret. Three-dimensional space – be it collage, video, installation or performance – requires the presence of a spectator to engage in a materiality. So, too, does the timelessness of Instagram. Instead of reframing, we and the image act merely as a data set. The question is whether the data set produces information or knowledge, and then how it effects dreaming and imagination.
Is there something lost in this desire to create a bottomless pit of memory that is beyond the comprehension of Alain Resnais’ Toute la mémoire du monde? In a watching practice, perhaps it is the capacity for memory that is forsaken? I know there have been some 24 artists “represented” in this project so far, and that Amin Taasha’s short excerpts about the Taliban destroying two Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in 2001 registered something new and at risk, being posted from the “Special Region of Yogyakarta”, still governed by the pre-colonial monarchy. And it was Reetu Sattar who addressed the micro-celebrity of the form, which I have been unable to escape.
But it is the scale of 52 Artists 52 Actions that is in fact beyond the means of critique. Why? Because art is simply somewhere else, and it’s elsewhere-ness is the function of the form.
This piece was updated on July 9, 2018, to note the involvement of Fabio Ongarato Design in the project.
EXHIBITION Like Child’s Play
Carriageworks, Sydney, until August 12
CULTURE Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival
Grove, Tasmania, July 13–15
VISUAL ART A Lightness of Spirit Is the Measure of Happiness
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, until September 16
CLASSICAL Joyce Yang
City Recital Hall, Sydney, July 14 and 23
VISUAL ART Adelaide Park Lands Art Prize
Adelaide Festival Centre, until August 26
THEATRE The Antipodes
Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, Melbourne, July 10—August 12
VISUAL ART Playback: Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2018
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until October 21
MULTIMEDIA Robert Smithson: Time Crystals
UQ Art Museum, Brisbane, until July 8
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 7, 2018 as "Taking actions". Subscribe here.