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Losing it with paper: the distribution of publications by and about artists in the digital context


13 October 2012
This month's topic: Distribution of contents

Losing it with paper: the distribution of publications by and about artists in the digital context

Towards the end of 1990 and at the beginning of the last decade, the distribution of artistic creation promised to renew itself with the development of what was known as digital art. Even though terms such as net art or virtual reality are no longer foreign to curators, artists and the general public, and can even end up being considered “historic”, what is certain is that the promise of leaving behind the materiality of the work of art doesn´t seem to have materialised: art exhibitions, like the infamous dinosaur, are still around.

Different categories of digital art have tried to weasel their way in, more by pushing and shoving than with pats on the back, between contemporary art and the distinct forms of art world art (“art of the world of art”). They vindicate a coexistence of artistic spheres though even today it is more of a (funerary) niche than a grand expanse, that is marked by the incessant obsolescence and difficulty of validating shows, colleagues and publics, that, as described in the recent monograph of the revised magazine Artnodes, are still unlike those that traditionally define the contemporary art market.

Nonetheless, it is undeniable that different forms of art, designed for the web as much as for beyond it, have been subsumed into the flux that is generated by the growing digitalisation, digital techniques of production and the development of a self-feeding loop between what is inside and outside the line: the frontiers are maintained deliciously blurred and analogical, as much digital, practices seem to mutually feed off each other.

While on the one hand visual art creations, the exhibiting of audio-visuals, with even an institutional art fair, and actuations or performances proliferate, their digital mirrors also abound, as much for their static or in movement recording, as for the digitalising of works, or the dissemination of those that have already been created on a computer. It ends up that “online art” is not, as it seemed ten years ago, defined by the categories of net art, software art or generative art, so much as it is a collection of contemporary creation that continuously and insatiably imbibes from the same Matrix.

This same logic is applied to the production of writing, with regards to publications by artists as much as to the publications about artists. For artists’ publications we understand the selection of texts created by an art professional, with an artistic desire in line with any other material or immaterial production. For publications about artists we understand the body of documents generated around the productions of artists. To avoid a graph-centric focus in relation to both elements is relatively simple for two simple reasons that in reality are one and the same. The application of the same logic of mirroring in the digital amplification supposes that all these documents end up having a multimedia character. And this multimedia nature makes it possible to talk about publications with images, moving images and sounds in the documents themselves, as much as their interrelation with other documents. Any document online, is by definition hypertextual and hypermedia.

We are interested on focusing on this type of publication to study the changes that have occurred in the processes of distribution. Can we affirm that currently all forms of communication could be a way to distribute artworks?

Despite the multiple devices of creation and technological connection that proliferate in daily life and despite the fact that the weight of paperwork has been alleviated in the home, with something as prosaic as no longer continuing to receive bills through the post, the truth is that the distribution of art doesn´t live far from leaflets, posters, catalogues and of course books, fanzines and other short publications.

Artists and curators have not abandoned, so much as seem to cling to, the fetish surrounding the codex. There continue to be frequent encounters -not necessarily, but also, in the fanzine spirit- where one can present and exchange publications. The exhibition Petits Editors or the fair Arts Libris are examples of the first, the gathering Libros Mutantes of the second.

In addition, the digital environment makes it easier to publicise the work of distributors of books; rare, antique, vintage, rescued from warehouse stores, from second hand flea markets or from shelves of private bibliophiles. Distributors who clean them, place them, photograph them and show them in personal pages, tumblrs and social networks, as well as in well known bookshops, popups and DIY shows, where they enthuse about the fact that some are the result of hard work, photocopying, scanning and even hand-sewing, focussing on the emotional relations based on touch (obviously sidestepping the fact that the majority have been produced industrially).

The digital trade-off, that accompanies the love of paper, inevitably has to restrict itself to the fingerprints left on the tactile screens of smartphones y tablets, as in the digital overhaul all publications (like all artworks) acquire an intangible dimension. The humorous term book porn, or even book shelf porn (like another tendency on the rise, food porn or the detailed and lascivious representation of food), circulates on the Internet, to explain the enthusiasm instilled by photo-galleries of beautiful bookstores y libraries that extends into any art and design publication.

The digital presentation of these publications endeavours to amend the painful divide that is supposed by “you can look but you can’t touch”. One thinks of how biblio-pornography is linked to the experience of navigating a project like the Google Art Project, where some of the most important museums of the world have signed a deal with Google to record photographically a large part of the paintings in their exhibition rooms, so that anybody with an Internet connection can navigate them and inspect them close up, to previously unknown levels of detail. This prospection generates notorious consequences: as has traditionally occurred with the technologies of virtual reality in general, and the digital exploration of museums in particular, the Google Art Project adopts the focus in first person, the spectator is the camera always ready to carry out a travelling. The experience is a little different in the webpages of publications, as the main page often presents photographs of the covers in the form of a showcase, generally in a still frame. Nevertheless, as with Amazon, there is usually a second level of navigation, in which, as if dealing with food (women or men), the books are explored from top to bottom, the zoom homes in on typographies and illustrations. Thanks to digital technology books are penetrated and the experience of touching them is visually emulated. However, the limitations of exploration are marked by physical and legal conditions: for works might be in the process of being restored at when the images are registered, and depending on the copyright restrictions of the moment. The same could occur with digital publications by and about artists, but here one is dealing with the interesting variable of self-publishing and with the application of Creative Commons licences for those artists who have decided to use them and for those institutions, associations and galleries, etc., that have discovered ways of circumventing copyright.

The question of self-publishing is particularly relevant to the extent that a practice marked by the lack of printing workshops, as well as the limited possibilities of reaching negligible publics and highly specialised in the version of fanzines and different forms of traditional mail art, has grown exponentially, thanks to new self-publishing tools and the dissemination of projects through distribution lists and social networks.

That said, while in the analogical context the artist and institutions compete to capture attention with the rest of the artists and institutions and the agenda of the mass media, the digital context supposes for the artist a magma of information, in which knowing the webs of institutional sources, subscribing to groups and mailing lists, and reading blogs, tumblrs and status actualizations of other colleagues are only the first steps. So, while relatively simplifying the tasks of programming and designing the creation of personal webpages and habilitating profiles in social networks, that make it possible to place photographs and attract the attention of other parties, it seems that the task of distributing artworks calls for the acquisition of skills in SEO (search engine optimization) and SMM (social media management) that have little or nothing to do with the traditional figure of the more or less autonomous creator, a lot to do with the idea of the artist and producer, and even more to do with that of the idea of the artist as (advertising) communicator.

What is more, art institutions participate in the propaganda task not just for themselves, but also through the online archives that they manage and the publications that they generate. A mention in a virtual catalogue or in a line of text, a photograph or a labelled video, can notably contribute to promoting the reputation of the artist as a brand, without the artist having to introduce metadata or exercise as a computer engineer. However, the implications of capitalist ideological reproduction, that bring with them this adherence to systems of institutional classification, seem to enter into contradiction with the spirit of self-governed distribution, and the expanse of more or less unconquered areas, with regard to those institutions that don’t necessarily situate themselves in the creative horizon or territory closest to the artist.

As such the digital context supposes a form of hypertrophied tension between the hegemony of the archive and the flux of independent artistic production. However, the very systemization makes it necessary to augment the possibilities of contact and collaboration: the development of the web 2.0 has fomented that all artists count as a potential node for contact with others, a little dot for situating the statistics coloured as a result of visualization projects, such as for example the Resource Locator for Residences and Space for Art Production in Europe. Following the essential scheme of the theory of information, artists can represent themselves as data that provide information and can generate knowledge networks. It is worth asking if the growth of policies regarding the “opening up of on-line data” can contribute to the formation of networks, through distribution mechanisms, that don´t reproduce the patterns, secrecy and preferences of institutional verticality.

We will now take a look at two tools that stand out in the diffusion of artists’ profiles that make it possible to specify finally how the publications of art professionals are distributed on the Internet: as well as the umbrella that can sometimes be supposed by the classification into associations and art institutions and the later recuperation of this data through diverse search systems. One also finds tools designed for the art professional that offer a certain autonomy and satisfy diverse objectives. What do these tools represent and how do they function?

Since 2001, Indexhibit has constituted a minimalist proposal to create artist webpages without a great deal of technical knowhow, by presenting lists of resources on the left and amplifications on the right, with the omnipresent white background and black lettering. Its aesthetic draws from conceptual tendencies as much as from the origins of web design that favour purged surfaces and restricted information.

Since 2007, Tumblr supposes a different aesthetic wager: even though buying a template and adapting it is not the same as using the pre-existing ones (as already occurred with Blogger or WordPress), it can facilitate the cluttered, baroque, pop aesthetics of cut and paste, even if it is only because, as a form of micro-blogging, it stimulates a navigation by entries according to chronological order and labels, in a potentially never-ending glide of the cursor.

The first presents an ordered page of the work of the artist, in the visual register as much as in the textual description. The second resembles more of a collage, a never-ending pin-board, where texts and images accumulate and often overlap.

However, the tracking or archival capacity runs through both projects, identifiable and locatable via a simple Google search. Despite the ever more decisive role played by social networks, distribution (still) only depends on saint Google: without appearing in the first page of results the diffusion of physical projects or creation of digital projects ends up being practically null and void. So Indexhibit as much as Tumblr thus make it possible to locate with ease the pages where artists distribute contents; another question is the classification and recuperation of the contents that such pages house.

The simplicity of Indexhibit is the result of the strict control of the one who creates it, with the template ending up being secondary to the content that each artist publishes. The interminable chronology of Tumblr and its possibilities for overlapping and even stacking up of contents foments not just the incorporation of subjects of interest and documentation for the artist, but also in general the diffusion and appropriation of images of others, or at least the following of other registered users when creating ones own entries.

What Indexhibit has as a portfolio of works, Tumblr has as a portfolio of ideas. What then does each platform tend to distribute?

The first is closer to the profile of the graphic designer or art director who presents his portfolio of works, although the artist in question works strictly within a framework of galleries or museums. The text, even though often present, is more reminiscent of the lists of works in conceptual art exhibitions that many enjoy and only a few ultimately read.

The second is closer to the profile of the “genius” artist, this creator, who no longer responds to the hackneyed stereotype of the wild child surrounded by unfinished canvases and tubes of dry paint so much as to the model of the methodical professional, who doesn´t need to order his work so much as exhibit his tastes. It is not therefore necessarily about the presentation of a “finished” work or working processes, so much as making known what shots are being called (personal), what key words make it possible to channel the chosen projection and the resultant perception.

The transformations present in all ambits of professional publishing impede the fixing, as yet, of any evaluation about the consequences of the shifts, in the digital arena, in the distribution of publications by and about artists. Each day new devices, programmes, platforms and archives appear to encompass them, augmenting the possibilities for disseminating what has been born on paper, as much as what was already designed for the web. And the intersection of these archives, and their diffusion in social networks, seem to bring together thesauri more or less in tune with the panoply and contradictions of the artistic vocabulary.

In any case, the rage for paper and the enthusiasm for the immaterial make it possible to conclude with three provisional comments; one, that the temporality of publications becomes flexible and uninterrupted, because what is rescued and dusted down can gain as much or more relevance as what has just been typed. From a semiotic point of view, the amalgam of analogical and digital languages makes it difficult to unravel the traditional distinctions between work and related (para)texts , while also making it necessary to reflect on the overlapping, and even lack of distinction, between processes of artistic documentation, realization and distribution.

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"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)