Tweeting is the New Painting?

I’m currently reading Walter Benjamin‘s 1936 text The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, and I started thinking about Jenny Holzer and her Twitter account. For the uninitiated, here’s an excerpt from trusty old Wikipedia:

Jenny Holzer (born 1950 in Gallipolis, Ohio) is an American conceptual artist… The main focus of her work is the use of words and ideas in public space. Originally utilizing street posters, LED signs became her most visible medium, though her diverse practice incorporates a wide array of media including bronze plaques, painted signs, stone benches and footstools, stickers, T-shirts, condoms, paintings, photographs, sound, video, light projection and the Internet.”

Anyway, so I saw someone RT one of her tweets a few weeks back, and I decided to follow her. Her page is full of all the ‘Truisms’ that she has used in her art over the years, all typed in trademark capital glory. E.g.:

CHILDREN ARE THE MOST CRUEL OF ALL
YOU CAN’T EXPECT PEOPLE TO BE SOMETHING THEY’RE NOT
OLD FRIENDS ARE BETTER LEFT IN THE PAST
EXPIRING FOR LOVE IS BEAUTIFUL BUT STUPID

When I first started typing this I was going to discuss how Holzer is using modern technology to communicate her art, but then I wisely decided to do a bit of research first and I’ve found out that the account is actually FAKE. The words are indeed hers, but the owner of the account is not Jenny Holzer. The strange thing is as I scrolled down I found that this person repeated some of the phrases, almost like how the text on Holzer’s LED screens would repeat themselves (or maybe he/she ran out of Truisms).

But I think it still makes for a good discussion about how art reflects our life – a life that revolves around technology, and in particular the internet. As Benjamin states, “Within major historical periods, along with changes in the overall mode of being of the human collective, there are also changes in the manner of its sense perception.” For a long time, since the invention of photography and video and so on (but particularly in the post-WWII period), contemporary art has had close ties with technological breakthroughs, sharpened by the Post-Modern sentiment that anything could be art. This was summed up nicely by another artist that works with text, Lawrence Weiner, in his 1968 Declaration of Intent:

1. The artist may construct the piece.
2. The piece may be fabricated.
3. The piece need not be built.
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

In general, I think it’s fair to say that the “sense perception” of our generation is rooted in our prolonged exposure to the computer screen, particularly to social networking sites such as Facebook or the microblogs of the Twitterverse. I’m sure many of us constantly have one tab in our internet browsers dedicated to one of those sites (even now I’m pausing to check Facebook). In fact, I do know of a contemporary Chinese artist, Cao Fei a.k.a. China Tracy, who created a series of video works based on Second Life and exhibited at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

Our world thus plays out in front of our eyes not just through a constant bombardment of images but also the digital reproduction of text. So, even as this Jenny Holzer account may be fake, artists like her who work with text will find themselves drawn into the internet as their medium. I think it’s interesting that the way these quotes appear on Twitter is just an intermittent version of her typical scrolling LED text or projections; the way Twitter works is very similar to how Holzer visually attacks us with her text.

It is unsurprising that art would – should?- align itself with our current lifestyles, problems, activities etc. This feature of art has existed since the time of Gustave Courbet and French Realism (or maybe even earlier, if you count those French Revolution paintings, one of which has since graced the cover of a Coldplay album). Art no longer had to be lofty and aristocratic but could be intertwined with the lives of the masses. It will be soon – if it has not already happened yet – that works of art could reside alongside our own accounts with Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, various blog hosts… as if they are in an art gallery. Not in the form of reproduction of images, but as the original albeit intangible art form, birthed straight into a realm that is inherently “reproductive” (Benjamin), on a much larger scale than photographs, silk screen prints, and even the never-ending scrolling of LED screens.

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