One of An Xiao's tweets for the 1stfans Twitter Art Feed: COFFEE POT EMPTY. PLEASE ADVISE.
This past January, the Brooklyn Museum kicked off 1stfans, a new, low-cost membership program for fans of the museum’s First Saturdays. It marked the world’s first socially networked museum membership, which encourages social interaction both online and during museum-sponsored events. The online component includes Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter, with the latter serving as a medium to connect contemporary artists directly with 1stfans members. As elegant as it is ground-breaking, this new form of paperless membership will, I suspect, see the same success and energy that helped drive President Obama's social media-enabled campaign as a new generation of digital natives encounters the museum world.
When I first heard about 1stfans, the aspect that most stood out to me was their Twitter Art Feed. Each month, memberships manager Will Cary and chief of technology Shelley Bernstein work with contempory art curator Eugenie Tsai to select a featured artist, either by invitation or, in my case, from an open call process. Each brings to the table a different project, not merely to promote our creative practice or discuss technique, but with the goal of utilizing Twitter as art. In February, artist Mary Temple combined Twitter with her drawing process to explore issues in contemporary journalism and media, while this March, conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth has been telling a visual story that has been slowly unfolding each day. This element of 1stfans should not be underestimated: the fact that a major arts institution is recognizing and promoting Twitter as a medium for art marks an important milestone for the role of online social media in art, and the role of art in exploring this new technology.
Morse code signs, circa 1837
For my project with the 1stfans Twitter Art Feed, I developed a concept for the program based on Morse code. Writer Nicholas Carr noted in a 2007 post on his blog Rough Type, “Twitter is the telegraph system of Web 2.0.” The parallels between microblogging media and the telegraph are apparent—speed, brevity, and a need for acronyms—but their purposes are entirely different. Whereas telegrams were used for business and important personal communication, tweets generally act as wide broadcasts and rarely contain substantive information. Telegrams conveyed news of deaths, deals, and diplomacy; tweets convey breakfast habits.
My project for the Brooklyn Museum aimed to look at the why of Twitter. I communicated daily minutiae, such as “AN XIAO SLEEPY” and “COFEE POT EMPTY. PLEASE ADVISE,” all in Morse code. Each tweet appeared solely in dots and dashes, but I provided an online translator which allowed readers to simply copy and paste the code to get a response in the Roman alphabet. Such inane usage of telegraph technology would have been inconceivable in its heyday, and such an opaque use of Twitter, known for its ease of access, is hardly logical today. But in doing so, I wanted to encourage viewers to examine the evolution of instant communication and what purpose, exactly, is served by sharing such minor details of one’s life.
1stfans Twitter Art Feed Artist for January 2009: An Xiao
Why Do We Tweet?
During my video interview with the Brooklyn Museum about my project concept, I mentioned how my long-distance relationship with my grandmother—alternating between months when she helped raise me in Los Angeles, and years when she lived in Manila—reflected a microcosm of the history of communication. It started, of course, with letters, which took roughly two weeks each way, and then evolved into faxes, then emails, and then, toward the end of her life, we were able to speak via cell phone and video chats. In fact, the very last time I saw her, before she passed away, was during a video conference.
In this spirit, I remember that Samuel Morse invented the telegraph after hearing about his wife’s passing some twenty days too late. For all this talk about how the telegraph, phones, and the Internet have revolutionized business and government and the perceived size of the world, I have to wonder if instant communication technology’s most important contribution to human life is the way it’s revolutionized the way we relate to people whom we care about on a personal level.
Communications media, of course, could never replace in-person social connections, at least not until technology allows for devices that perfectly simulate sharing physical space, similar to holodecks in Star Trek. Silences that are awkward on the phone can be touching in real life, and the broadcast of daily occurrences on Facebook is only a tiny fraction of a person’s actual goings-on during any given day. But as the cost of world-wide communication continues to plummet, it’s intriguing to consider why we so naturally gravitate toward sharing our daily mundanities.
One of An Xiao's final tweets for the 1stfans Twitter Art Feed, posted toward the end of January 2009: ON FEB 1 I INTEND TO BEGIN UNRESTRICTED SLEEP.
Clive Thompson, in his 2008 article in New York Times Magazine, described Twitter’s ability to create an online version of what social scientists call “ambient awareness”; Twitter, in other words, is “very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does—body language, sighs, stray comments—out of the corner of your eye.” Indeed, thinking back to those days when my grandmother had to return to the Philippines after spending time with me in California, it wasn’t the big things that I missed—we had phone calls and letters, after all. Rather, it was the simple, mundane moments: the slap of her tsinelas as she walked around the house, the hum of the sewing machine as she mended clothes, the gentle bubbling of water as she cooked sinigang soup.
By the end of my project, I realized that Twitter and other microblogging media allow us to simulate closeness. It is in fact those seemingly banal details, not the big things, which allow us to feel most connected. It’s the mundane tidbits that make us feel like the people we love, even those who are on the other side of the planet, are but a few feet away.
Twitter as an Artistic Medium
Yet shades of complexity remain. Twitter feeds often appear in a public forum, for any stranger to stumble across and read. No one else shared the ambient moments I had with my grandmother, but some 1,000 people, a combination of strangers, acquaintances, and friends across Twitter and Facebook, hear about my insomnia, my bouts of sickness, my love of authentic California burritos. Why do we feel compelled to share this information with other people? How do we edit our tweets to create a carefully managed picture of ourselves? How does microblogging help us shape and record our experiences in memory?
Combining the traditional easy-to-use, easy-to-read nature of Twitter with my Morse code messages allowed me to explore some of those questions, and to start thinking about Twitter not simply as a social-networking site for artists, critics, and curators, but as an artistic medium in and of itself. Twitter, with its 140-character limit per message, presents an artificial constraint that encourages creativity. For my 1stfans project in particular, the addition of Morse code, where every alphanumeric character translates into multiple dots and dashes, reduced the content of the message dramatically. As a haiku poet, photographer, and digital media artist strongly influenced by Zen aesthetics and concepts, I have long appreciated the power of brevity.
Robert Rauschenberg Portrait of Iris Clert (1961)
The telegram has also been mined for its artistic possibilities. For instance, Robert Rauschenberg was invited to make a portrait of Iris Clert for a 1961 exhibition at her eponymous Parisian gallery, and used the Twitter of his day to send a telegram for inclusion in the show: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so—Robert Rauschenberg.” In recent years, some have used Twitter to share narratives. Others have used it to role-play as a Star Trek character and interact with other role players. Jenny Holzer’s aphorisms translate perfectly in the medium (though her purported feed is actually managed by a fan not affiliated directly with the artist), as do Yoko Ono’s blissful messages.
During my project I also came to realize that Twitter presents a unique opportunity for public art, especially in the realm of performance pieces. Throughout the course of tweeting, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a number of responses from 1stfans members in Morse code, rich in the wordplay and wit that telegrams often contained. Artist Nina Meledandri even responded visually to many of my tweets, including a final photo of code spelled out in pencils, crayons, and pastels. I enjoyed so many responses that I retweeted them, to ensure they remained a permanent part of the feed. In that sense, it became not just the work of one artist but that of many—an interactive, collaborative performance piece carried out over the Internet.
Nina Meledandri A visual response to an An Xiao tweet (2009)
pencils/crayons/pastels = dash: -
shells/stones = dot: .
seed pods = slash: /
Twitter (and other microblogging media) presents distinct creative opportunities: free and easy to use, it remains accessible to both audiences and artists alike from around the world; a relatively new medium, it presents a veritable tabula rasa to the arts community; and deceitfully simple, it remains a challenging medium for artists accustomed to free-flowing canvases and unlimited digital photography. Additionally, as Twitter usage is now so widespread and embedded into the daily lives of some 6 million users, it has become a veritable public space, a living megacity not unlike the streets of a physical city, where we chat with friends and conduct certain routines. Twitter-based art has great potential to displace and activate this online space.
In my first Twitter-based project, I used the medium as a means to explore concepts in communications technology and to ask how it impacts our daily lives. I started the project with an open-ended question: “Why do we tweet?” By the end, through all the inconvenience of translating Morse code and the strangeness of sharing my sleeping habits with total strangers, I found myself asking a similar question to what Samuel Morse posed in his first telegram: “What hath God wrought?”
What have we wrought upon our social lives with this infant technology? Sociologists, technologists, and entrepreneurs have been pondering this question openly for years now, but I think artists, through using Twitter, can contribute to the dialogue in unique and compelling ways, and challenge us to look at the range of questions raised by microblogging and communications technology as a whole, and how these questions relate to larger issues in society.
Photographer and digital media artist An Xiao was the first featured artist of the Brooklyn Museum's 1stfans Twitter Art Feed. She was listed in the Guardian UK's "who's who" of the Twitter art world and recently founded @Platea, a collective of individuals interested in the power of public art carried out in the digital megacity of online social media. She tweets at @thatwaszen, blogs at http://thatwaszen.blogspot.com, and displays her body of work at http://www.anxiaostudio.com.