A panel at the NADA art fair brought out varied and insightful thoughts on social media from a group of progressive artists
At the New Art Dealers Alliance fair – aka NADA, aka indie Basel – in Miami, several innovative young artists gathered for a panel called “Breaking Barriers.” Sponsored by the year-old art magazine DRØME, “Breaking Barriers” was described as a discussion centred around “the concept of razing the walls that relegate artists into limiting boxes,” with a focus on “identity and the interconnectedness of the arts.” This clearly could have gone in a number of different directions. But the resulting conversation was completely fascinating, and I assure you that that was not hyperbole.
The panellists were artists, generally in their early twenties (although one, Chella Man, was just nineteen) who work in a variety of different mediums. In addition to Man, participants included current DRØME cover star and Art Hoe Collective co-founder Gabrielle Richardson, multi-media artist (painting, sculpture, video) Carly Mark, poet and performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon, Brujas skate collective co-founder and musician Arianna Gil, and clothing designer MI Leggett; the moderators were Sunflower Bean frontwoman Julia Cumming and YouTuber Ari Fitz, who you may know as one of the few reasonable people to ever appear on The Real World.
And everybody had a lot to say. Like, a lot. They discussed subjects including net neutrality, gender identity (most of the panellists were trans or gender non-conforming), mental health, how to carve out the time to make meaningful art as opposed to constant content, and making work in the age of Trump. The panellists basically talked about what everyone in a certain age group is talking about all the time, but both the timeframe and variety of perspectives allowed for a rare level of nuance. Some of the most relevant, riveting discussions revolved around social media, and how it can both advance a career and lead to corporate tokenism. Below, we’ve excerpted some of the panellists’ essential quotes, and you can (and should) also listen to the whole damn thing thanks to Know Wave.
“Eventually (you) are what you tumblr” – Carly Marks
Carly Mark: Social media changed my life. I’m a very social person, but it was really hard to put myself out there and form myself into the person that I was going to become, who I wanted to be. Right out of art school I didn’t know what to do next, I didn’t know what to do with myself or how to exist in the art world. So I started a tumblr, and through tumblr I was curating images of things that I was interested in – looking back, a lot of my work is related to that early tumblr that I had.
But then I also started to look at other people’s tumblrs. I found myself very attracted to a lot of young people on tumblr, specifically people who were in high school, who really understood how to use the platform. I could see that they were evolving through their own curation into the people they wanted to be, but they were also projecting it out into the world. I was thinking a lot about the difference between IRL and online, and how those lines blur. And I started to think that you sort of eventually are what you tumblr. You become that. You’re looking at things that you’re interested in, and goals for yourself or your own aesthetic, and you slowly muster up the courage to then become that person.
Alok Vaid-Menon: I definitely feel like my life has been enfranchised because of social media, but I would also like to complicate the conversation to say are we leveraging social media, or is social media leveraging us? Because I think we’re at a moment where a lot people follow a lot of “diverse” bodies online, but we’re not getting paid. And the people who are getting paid are unionised and are working in mainstream entertainment.
I think that social media has created a visibility ceiling, where we only exist to be looked at, and consumed, and never compensated. So I actually feel like the moment we’re in is a very dangerous moment, because what we give marginalised communities is visibility, as if our oppressors looking at us is somehow different than the status quo. And so I think I’m at a moment in my own practice where I’m beginning to question why it is that we’re only permitted the social, and never the economic, the political, the epistemological, the ideological, the material. I think that it’s part of a system that will allow white, male, cis, hegemonic men to pretend that they have a façade of diversity, for the aesthetics of multiculturalism and gender plurality, without actually compensating us.
I feel like we’re being packaged. I feel the sensation a lot where the politics are being made into a GIF. The politics are being made into a prop. When you actually listen to my work and the work of other people on this panel, we’re not saying “I’m fabulous, I’m inspirational, I’m resilient.” We’re saying, “fuck you.” But what happens is we get packaged, compartmentalised, meme-ified, and then we no longer have a movement, we have a meme. And I think it’s very dangerous right now because we’ve mistaken becoming a meme as a form of progress. And so I’m very worried about the situation right now because I see myself getting packaged as I’m being beaten. On my way here, I had multiple people sexually and physically harass me. Yet the aesthetics of me being here allow people to feel accomplished. But when I actually say “we’re under attack right now,” it makes them uncomfortable.
“I think that social media has created a visibility ceiling, where we only exist to be looked at, and consumed, and never compensated” – Alok Vaid-Menon
Chella Man: On social media you can present yourself however you want, and for me that was trans, genderqueer representation. And instead of any company just kind of picking you up and saying, “oh, I want you, you’ll add diversity to our campaign,” you can kind of present yourself in your own way. You become your own representation. And that’s something I really, really lacked. I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania, and I never saw anyone genderqueer, let alone transitioning or anything. And that ability to be my own representation on social media was such a privilege. I’ll value that for the rest of my life.
Arianna Gil: “Brujas: the all-Latina skate crew from the Bronx”. I’ve seen it on headlines: New York Times, Vogue, every single major platform. And those niches that the media were able to package created such a corner for us – and as the moderators were saying before, as creatives we’re always forced to stay in certain lanes. But if you think about it a level deeper, it brings upon this other problem that we have with marketing people and marketing creatives. We have subcultures, and there are niches, and there are levels of niches, things the world hasn’t seen yet: (in this case) it’s the all-Latina skate crew from the Bronx.
When you bring those niche communities to the centre, or you leave them at the fringe and take from that aesthetic, those people are left with nothing. And I feel really responsible in some ways for not having more awareness of this process of taking from the fringe and bringing to the centre, which is what I think corporations and marketing people do. And I think that it’s really important to be super critical of the internet because it enables a lot of people. I keep my stuff on private. Unfortunately I have to keep my business through Instagram, but I’m trying as hard as I can to move off of Instagram as a platform. I think the internet is horrible. I think that the internet is chaining us in the very ways that we went to it for liberation. I think it’s a great tool, but at the end of the day, I’ve seen six campaigns based on female skate crews that are diverse and multi-cultural – from Urban Outfitters, Old Navy, Macy’s, J. Crew – creating campaigns based off an aesthetic that was once a subculture. Two girls out of fifty at a skate park in the Bronx now becomes very centralised for thousands of people to consume, as an image, and then purchase right back into a structure that exploits those very same people, and their mothers, and their families. And sometimes I get criticism for turning my aesthetic into a brand. But I say if I don’t do that, they’re going to – they’ve already done it.
“I think that it’s really important to be super critical of the internet because it enables a lot of people” – Arianna Gil
Gabrielle Richardson: Two weeks ago I saw (professor and writer) Tina Campt – she’s amazing, a genius. She was speaking about this video piece (by Arthur Jafa) called “Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death.” And it’s an amazing piece. It was a mixture of black celebrities singing and dancing – like James Brown gyrating – cut up with videos of Black people being attacked by the police.
It makes me think a lot of what Alok was saying, about how people are digesting the bodies of people of colour in the media. Especially as a black body who’s prominent in social media, it’s really disconcerting that someone would just as easily watch a video of me dancing as a video of me being beaten down. In the political climate we live in, we have to think about that. Are people digesting content because they love us, or because they want us as an object to view? Now, more than ever, we have to keep that in our minds: people are just as willing to watch us fail and suffer as they are to watch us succeed. And so when you are creating art and you are creating content, you have to be aware of that. You have to create something that sticks. The most important thing is sending a message that you believe in, and not trying to veer at all.