Artist Nic Rad talks about his PeopleMatter project at an ArtsTech event during Social Media Week (2010)
On a wintry Thursday night in mid-January 2009, a crowd of arts professionals met in a downtown bar. Many knew of each other but had never actually met before. In the midst stood Julia Kaganskiy, who after months of preparation and research had organized this gathering, which she called the Arts, Culture and Technology Meetup (ArtsTech), comprised of people committed to exploring how arts and cultural institutions can uutilize new technologies to increase awareness of the arts. Some 100 individuals had expressed interest in this initial event on Meetup.com, and since then ArtsTech has grown into a must-attend event for artists and arts and culture professionals working with technology.
ArtsTech Meetups take place regularly at different venues around New York City, and typically consist of a panel format where professionals in cultural and technology organizations present briefly on their work. Afterward, Kaganskiy moderates discussion and fields questions from audience members before attendees break up for relaxed conversation and networking.
A recent ArtsTech event, “Video and the Arts,” represented the high quality and focus of these Meetups. Featuring perspectives from different institutions utilizing video to promote arts education, the Meetup looked at how the video format presents a unique opportunity to reach and engage arts audiences. Jonathan Munar opened the discussion with an overview of Art21, a PBS-affiliate show about art, and its programming. In addition to its popular show on PBS, Art21 produces short-form videos geared best for Internet viewers and which serve as quick touchpoints on art between their regular programming. Art21 utilizes blip.tv, which Eric Mortensen, Director of Content Development, discussed. Like a more sophisticated and curated form of YouTube, blip.tv provides tools that allow independent shows to share videos and track viewership. An organization like Art21 receives a dedicated page (http://art21.blip.tv/) and can embed videos in their own web sites, while blip.tv utilizes its network to promote quality shows and streamlines the Internet side of distribution.
With brief presentations, effective moderation from Julia, and a lively group, the Meetup helped everyone understand the basics of video distribution of arts programming. In a world where YouTube is frequently the most popular site on the Internet, video is often the best way to reach a media-savvy public and make art relevant and interesting. Additionally, the Internet serves as an ideal format for short-form video that can be embedded on web sites and shared virally.
Left: ArtsTech organizers Jaki Levy, Mia Rut, Jon Lazar, and Topher Ziobro confer before the Social Media Week event (2010).
Online/Offline: A Forum for Ideas
It's difficult to imagine the ArtsTech Meetup existing, much less flourishing, without the very technologies it aims to explore. Meetup.com, a popular site connecting individuals with common interests online to get together offline, obviously catalyzed the group and gave it its initial membership, but Julia's social energy and intellectual curiosity helped transform it into something deeper.
"It's funny because my background has in no formal way prepared me for arts education," Julia said. "I went to school for magazine journalism." After managing the social media and community efforts at Unigo, she initially hoped to find work in print and online editorial before a conversation with her boss steered her in a new direction. "Why would you want to be part of a dying industry?" she remembers him saying. "I don't know about you, but I'm more interested in creating something new online."
Julia quickly poured her attention into New York's rich technology scene, educating herself in a world of fancy gadgets and new web sites as she met countless innovators in what is arguably the country's most technologically-forward metropolitan area outside Silicon Valley. Her friend Charlie O'Donnell, an Internet entrepreneur and founder of the websites, NextNY.org and Path 101, encouraged her to start the Meetup, and Julia took to the idea with gusto.
Digging through LinkedIn, museum blogs, and Twitter follower lists, she began conversations with the most interesting and engaged individuals, both in New York and elsewhere. Given the media she was researching, she encountered a number of cultural professionals with a particular engagement with technology who could speak to the challenges and points of interest in their professional sector.
"Julia and I had been communicating via Twitter about technology and the arts for quite some time," said Jeffrey Inscho, who heads up public and media relations at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. Twitter, with its 140 character limit and in-the-now ethos, makes chats with people like Jeffrey simple and easy. It reduces the typical barriers that might prevent a young unknown from speaking directly with representatives of major arts institutions around the world, and it allows a community to build quickly, both online and off. Jeff traveled to New York to present during the “Mobile Tech for Art Orgs” panel about SREENtxt, a live screen at the museum consisting of SMS messages and images sent from visitor’s mobile phones, which engages visitors with its new, ubiquitous technology.
"She [Julia] seemed eager to create a forum for ideas," said Koven Smith, a digital content strategist currently working with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a regular at ArtsTech events. He contributes regularly to this forum and has moderated an evening with Sebastian Chan of New Zealand's Powerhouse Museum and presented alongside Jeffrey on the possibilities of mobile technologies in replacing traditional museum audio guides (http://www.archimuse.com/mw2009/papers/smith/smith.html).
One Year of Programming: Plenty to Celebrate
This past December, ArtsTech threw a one year anniversary party at The Open Planning Project in SoHo. There was plenty to celebrate. They'd hosted speakers from diverse organizations and institutions like blip.tv, the Powerhouse Museum, Creative Commons, and Etsy.com, with programming as diverse as “Creative Commons and the Arts” and “How to Build a Community Around Your Brand”. Each of these events featured lively discussions both during and after the panels, as artists and those in the cultural sector shared best practices and concerns with utilizing new technologies.
On the personal front, Julia had just landed an internship with the Museum of Modern Art's digital learning department, an opportunity that brought her directly in line with her new professional aspirations. To ensure Meetup's viability and continued success amidst her increasing work responsibilities, she corraled a group of volunteers to join her in organizing the anniversary event. Primarily social, the one-year anniversary party brought the focus back to the arts directly, and exhibited the work of new media artists like Josephine Dorado and Chris Burke, who produce This Spartan Life, a popular talk show hosted in the chaotic environment of online video game Halo.
A packed house at the November 2009 Meetup, "Creative Commons and the Arts," featuring artists M.River and T.Whid of MTAA, Fred Berenson of Creative Commons, Shelley Bernstein of the Brooklyn Museum, Jonathan Lutsky of Masur Law, and Tim Whidden (T. Whid) from MTAA.
Social Media Week: A Growing Community
I’d popped in a few times for ArtsTech meetings but never truly experienced its broad range of community until I spoke during its tenth meeting earlier this month. The specific event, hosted in conjunction with Social Media Week New York, focused on social media art and the different interpretations of what art in a social media world can look like.
On the one hand, some artists utilize social media as something of a public forum and performance space. William Powhida discussed how he used the web to create an enemies list to satirize the art world, and his blog regularly features critiques and commentaries on the art world. Rachel Perry Welty discussed her Facebook performance, where she updated her status every minute for an entire day.
On the other hand (and I realize both of these categorizations oversimplify things immensely), some artists use social media as a source tool for analog projects. Nic Rad explored the merging of the everything-is-free culture of the digital world in a project in which he plans to give away painted portraits (http://www.peoplematter.info/blog/about/). Adam Smith and Yanira Castro talked about crowdsourced dance, a brilliant combination of Twitter and physical performance.
It was refreshing to hear different artists’ perspectives on how they bring together their own artistic work with social media technologies. At the same time, I saw that a powerful professional and personal community has truly formed amongst attendees. I could watch and contribute to conversations occurring on Twitter by following the hashtag #ArtsTech, which is appended to tweets to help organize tweets by subject. These conversations then continued in person during the mingling period and back again online the next morning. This is a group as eager to get to know each other as they are to learn from each other.
Artist Rachel Perry Welty talks about her Facebook performance, "Rachel Is," while artist Man Bartlett live tweets the event.
Julia and the ArtsTech organizers are now busy setting up SMArt Camp, something of a social media boot camp for arts-related uses of social media and ArtsTech’s most ambitious Meetup so far. Hosted during Armory Arts Week, March 5-7, at the Roger Smith Hotel, the event's site indicates that they aim to explore how arts and cultural institutions can use social media “to communicate with audiences, build vibrant and loyal communities on an international scale, and continue to spread enthusiasm for the arts.”
Of course, the benefit comes as much from the panel as from the community, something Julia hopes to share with more people. With a lineup of speakers such as Jen Bekman, founder of 20x200, and Nancy Proctor, Head of New Media at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, SMart Camp should prove to be an engaging forum for ideas.
To sign up for the Arts, Culture and Technology Meetup and propose potential panel topics, go to http://www.meetup.com/Arts-Culture-and-Technology/.
Artist and essayist An Xiao looks at the intersection of digital and analog. She photographs, installs, performs, and tweets and has shown her work a in publications and galleries internationally, including the Brooklyn Museum, Yale/Haskins Laboratories, The New York Times, and ARTNews. She founded and directs @Platea, a global online public art collective, and can be found online at www.anxiaostudio.com and @thatwaszen.
Special thanks to Andres Glusman, Charlie O'Donnell, Jaki Levy, Topher Ziobro and the Roger Smith Hotel for their help in researching this article. Photos by Weily Lang and Aleks Gryczon.
Banner image: The 2009 Meetup, "Creative Commons and the Arts"