Tag ties & affective spies, a critical approach on the social media of our times

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It might come as a surprise to some of you but it's not everyday that a major contemporary art institution in Europe dedicates some space and energy to look into one of the most prominent characteristics of today's culture: the social web. The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens is doing just that with an exhibition bearing one of the most evocative and imaginative titles i've ever read: Tag ties & affective spies. The online works selected for the show comment on the aspects of the web 2.0 and evoke more particularly the controversies that have animated its short but intense life.

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Image courtesy Daphne Dragona.

Exploring the functioning modes of the social networks and the ways users interact within them, a new form of artistic practice is being formed that comments, critisizes and subverts their structures by altering their semiology and formalism. Posing questions, and approaching the social media in a playful way, the works presented aim to raise awareness about the different possibilities that are now opened up to the users.

The brain behind the concept and curating of Tag ties & affective spies is Daphne Dragona (who co-curated Homo Ludens Ludens at LABoral in Gijon a year ago.)

Daphne is an Athens-based media arts curator and organiser. The exhibitions and events she's been involved in over the last few years have focused on the notion of play and its merging with art as a form of networking and resistance. She is a also PhD candidate in the Faculty of Mass Media & Communication of the University in Athens conducting a research on social media. I asked her to give us more details about the why and how of the exhibition.

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L'Attente - The Waiting, by Grégory Chatonsky. Image courtesy Daphne Dragona

Tag ties and affective spies is part of a series of online exhibitions featuring works conceived for the Web. Does the exhibition appear only online or is there an installation or anything else inside the actual museum that points to its existence? Would it make sense to you to mirror this exhibition in 'real' space like it is done sometimes with online exhibitions?

Tag ties & affective spies is presented online in the museum's media lounge area, where computers are available for visitors to explore the works.

We have not created a specially built environment or installation particularly for this exhibition. Really, there wasn't need for an additional structure. The natural environment of these works is the internet, wherever this is : at the computers in the users' homes or offices, at their mobile phones or at the computer screens provided in public spaces - such as those in the museum.

But, yes I do believe that it is very important for museums to mirror online exhibitions in the real space so that net based art can be further supported. Visitors might not spend hours to view all works. In reality, they usually have a glimpse of the exhibition and then they visit it again at their own places and leisure. But museums need to support the opportunity for this first acquaintance in order to spread the information. Also, let us not forget that visitors mostly go in a contemporary art museum, to see contemporary art works. Most of them would not look at net based art on their own because they are not accustomed with this form of creativity. An institution though, can help to attract their attention towards a new direction.

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Image courtesy Daphne Dragona

In reality, net based art cannot become institutionalized. This is its charm but also its handicap because it cannot support itself easily. Net based art is about works that usually cannot be sold and consequently cannot offer money to their creators. It is about works that bring different kinds of challenges to institutions.

Projects based on social media bring into mind the issues net art was facing back in the nineties. Issues to do with what can be bought, what can be preserved and what can be owned. Instead of bringing to light these discussions again I think, we should look for ways to support these forms of art, to assist in conveying their messages and making them known to a wider public. Therefore, mounting an exhibition like the "tag ties & affective spies" in an institution is meaningful to me.

The exhibition is a critical approach on the social media of our times. Could you tell us how you got the idea for this show? What motivated its existence?

Well, I find that it is a field with an amazing interest as it is also controversial; both full of promises and restrictions; a genuine product of our times based on connectivity, affection, and surveillance. I think, what intrigues me most is the fact that most people share, communicate, and participate without realizing the story behind or without thinking about how this constant aggregation of information from their profiles works for the market. I believe creativity can play a role here as it speaks for the medium using the medium itself, a fact that I consider to be very interesting. While forms of creativity based on the social media platforms might be difficult to attract an art audience that is not technologically savvy, on the other hand, they can turn up to be of an interest for a wider audience that might not be art savvy but partly lives in this virtual dimension.

Speaking from a more personal point of view, this exhibition also expresses my need to share the first bit of knowledge I have gained from my PhD, which I have just started on social media and art. I wanted to see how the audience would react to such an entity of works, how the press would respond, and how local artists would experience it. I looks it is going well so far... Greece is not an easy country. My experience, during the last decade, tells me that things are moving slowly in the field of media arts. Budget is usually tight and the audience is usually reserved. Some of the media art festivals happening in the country in the past have now ceased to exist. It is somewhat difficult to take big risks. But, organising events of a smaller scale, like an online exhibition, that thematically refer to contexts and issues the people are familiar with, could be a safer path and a transitional stage for a wider opening to the media arts.

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We Feel Fine, by Jonathan Harris & Sep Kamvar

Did it change anything in the way of curating the exhibition to know that the exhibition was organized by one of the major art institutions in the country? This probably implied that the exhibition would receive a different, maybe broader exposure. Did you approach the subject differently than you would have done if you had worked again for a more media art-oriented institution like, say, LABoral?

No it did not. I did not modify or alter any of my ideas because the exhibition was organised by a museum. I must say that the museum was very positive and did not have any hesitations regarding the concept and the selection. So, all went very smoothly. Context and content would have been the same even if I was to do this privately somehow. I was thinking anyway of an exhibition that would be viewed, hopefully, not only by people from athens but by internet users from different parts of world. There is no locality on the web. What locally exists, is the support of institutions to net based projects as well as their presentation to new audiences. For instance, now, the exhibition will also be presented in the context of the Enter festival in Prague. This support can attract attention, bring discussions and open new roads for collaboration among art and other disciplines.

A comparison with the work in LABoral is difficult because the exhibitions were very different from one another. But, as institutions they are not that different. LABoral is more media art oriented but it does have a strong interest also towards contemporary art. Additionally, every institution does have particularities that connect to the structures of the country it belongs. In general, I think it is the feeling of trust and mutual appreciation that is essential for collaborations between artists, curators and institutions. When there is such ground, fruitful collaborations do happen.

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Folded-in, by Personal Cinema and The Erasers

Having a look at your selection of artworks i had the feeling that it provides a good snapshot of the current issues and debates that surrounds social media. The title itself reflects quite accurately and poetically the appealing and appalling aspects of contemporary social media. Do you feel that the general trend is heading towards more "surveillance and exploitation" or is the big picture much more optimistic? Which trend(s) does the now ueber-popular Twitter embodies best for example? subjectivity - collectivity - production - consumption - exposure - surveillance - affection - exploitation - participation - resistance...all of them at the same time?

I think that the moment web 2.0 embodies all these notions. Each platform might have some features stronger than others depending on the possibilities it offers. Twitter is a lot about announcing feelings and moments. Exposure, affection, and a kind of surveillance are definitely involved. I don't like to be negative for the future. I hope that we are not going towards a model that involves more surveillance and exploitation. I believe that as the "mainstream" social media evolve, so do the creative and critical stances. The great number of people using the social media will soon bring a new situation on stage. More and more social platforms should soon appear that would allow groups of people to connect and form networks for different purposes based on open source models and these do not need to be controlled or be accessible by the market. Connectivity is an incredible feature of our times - we don't need to get lost on the way.

Thanks Daphne!