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posted on 09.24.09

The following conversation took place on Facebook between between An Xiao, social media artist and Marc Lafia, art+culture founder, from Monday Sept 21 to Tuesday Sept 22, 2009. The following is a transcription of the conversation.


 



 


Marc Lafia
Last week on behalf of art+culture I had the pleasure to meet An Xoap, an artist working with social media. We talked about her upcoming work for the DUMBO Arts Festival and her interest in social media as a medium itself. An Xiao, can you tell us a ...bout your background and how this interest got started?


An Xiao
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Marc. I've been looking forward to this Facebook interview.

My interests in social media started, firstly, with a very old form of short media -- the tanka poetic form popular in the Heian era of Japan. Tanka are very similar to haiku. If haiku are three lines of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables, tanka are five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 and pre-date haiku. They were a social form and a very short form, and popular amongst the court.

Marc Lafia
i am curious about the context of this older form, were they passed along in written manner, exchanged back and forth or were they presented as an art form, in a formal way - in other words were they communications and used in a way of exchanging messages back and forth?

An Xiao
Both, I would say. They were used frequently in social contexts, to sum up an occasion, celebrate a day, reply to a lover, capture an emotion. They were first and foremost poetic exchanges, but they definitely had a communicative element. Messengers would carry the poems back and forth. In many ways, they were analogous the Greek and Roman ... Leer mástradition of the epigram: pithy prose to sum up an event with sharp clarity. But tanka had a more social element not unlike the @reply structure of Twitter.

Marc Lafia
I can imagine how it would be both, on the one hand in certain contexts, something intimate and perhaps conversational, in another, in public reception a more stand alone form.

This social element of tanka, how do you see it as analogous to the@reply structure of Twitter? How would you characterize the kind of spaces and communications enabled by these two forms? Is there a continuum here?

An Xiao
In many ways, both tanka and Twitter are not simply messages between two people, but messages for everyone to see. Though many poems were meant as private notes, many were a form of public intellectual play and conversation among courtiers.

Twitter @replies (not to mention Facebook wall post dialogues like this one) are also a form of public ... Leer másconversation--an ostensibly private dialogue meant to be witnessed by a court/forum. In Heian Japan, poems were tiny messages for a courtly audience to demonstrate one's intellectual prowess. In the 21st century, @replies and tweets are tiny messages for the public forum of social media, often to show wit or political savvy. And so I think of Twitter and Facebook conversations as a new type of public space, the 21st century edition of the Heian court, the Greek agora, the Roman forum.

Marc Lafia
To be at the same time private and knowingly public is very interesting. Are there different styles of performing, of inhabiting this public space that you've observed and can tell us about? But perhaps before or in answering that how did you come to see social media as public space?

An Xiao
I've seen much in the way of classic performance art on Facebook. Performance poets will post their writing. Conceptual artist Rachel Perry Welty did a day-long performance in which she posted a status update every minute (http://theartblog.org/2009/03/facebook-performance-tomorrow-by-rachel-perry-weltyhow-you-ask/). I found this latter fascinating ... Leer más because she took a series of moments that until recently would have been considered private, and she made it very public, and opened up a dialogue with her Facebook friends. In that sense, it started as a one-way performance (Rachel tapping updates every minute) to a two-way interaction (viewers responding).

What interests me about social media is that they enable multi-way interaction. Every day, we see how a one-way status update becomes a two-way chat, and then suddenly a third and fourth person jump in, and all those people dialogue together, and the conversation even brings off into other areas. With @Platea, the online public art group I direct, we look at multi-way performances enabled by this ethos of social media. When dozens of people perform online at the same time, they interact not just with an audience but with each other--they become both audience and performer.





Marc Lafia
A friend of mine, Luke Dubois, post here this morning a recent work of the Yes Men, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzpJk47U3Os, who use the media, to perform it, to put themselves into a conversation they're not intended to be, that is into a mediashpere that has been a one way PR machine to sell a corporate agenda.

As you talk about an ethos of ... Leer mássocial media, I think of the Yes Men taking the traditional media and making it social, making it public, putting it on so that it can be seen and talked to. Is this something we are going to be seeing more and more of in the social media space?

An Xiao
Yes, definitely. The Yes Men are a great example--they've become incredibly popular on the Internet for doing just what you describe. They're making traditional media more social.

There's an entire generation now who doesn't simply watch TV. They text in their responses to American Idol. They blog about politics. They tweet about daily events ... Leer más. They post video logs to YouTube. They post photos to Flickr. All these media become forums for conversation.

The YouTube generation isn't used to passively absorbing what's on the screen--they want to contribute to the conversation, even if it's just a small part of the larger discussion.

Marc Lafia
This media is very real, very tangible, is hand made, an extension and expression of themselves, instantly broadcast, immediately put to conversation.


An Xiao


Yes, I love that: "an extension and expression of themselves." I think that's the heart of the social Internet - it's simply an extension of who we are and what we do. These technologies have become so habitual, mobile and easy to use that, more and more, they are becoming embedded into our lives. It's second nature now for many people to share out and broadcast; in many ways, it's no more a broadcast than sharing your thoughts at a dinner party.




Marc Lafia
This plurality, this simultaneity of multiple ongoing conversations is in every sense from certain perspectives, disruptive, a new way of going for media which has been forever one to many. If media once produced a public, what is the 'public', a public in this new space of social media?

An Xiao
The public now has the potential to be everywhere and created by anyone. Yes, mainstream, one-to-many media still play a key and important role, but now anyone can create a public space. A person passionate about something can start a blog or other account and start the conversation. You might say that the public space now is anywhere conversations happen. Most frequently they happen on Facebook, Twitter and blogs, but they can occur on any number of social media sites.

Marc Lafia
Yes. Two things come to mind, what is private? what do we mean here in the conflated public-private space of social media where the thought balloons of desire bubble everywhere. And as to the public, any number of publics, this multiplicity, this conversation started anywhere and everywhere, how has it the opportunity of being represented in other than an either or political circuit?
It seems we really don't quite yet know how to live with our social media nor how to represent it.

Chris Vroom
Love the interplay here. The intermingling of the public and the private is something that, at its core, requires honesty; it is after all an unwinding of a separation that can be comforting. At the same time, the character of interpersonal relationships changes radically. Just because you have hundreds of relationships does not mean that they are not deep or meaningful. I feel somehow connected to an artist named an xiao who I have never met. Rilke would have been totally loving it.

Marc Lafia
Thanks. This is quite interesting. To perform in the public sphere is a desire to be seen. There certainly is an erotics to this desire. It may be this very veil, this remove, that allows for a certain pose, a posture, a position that can produce a kind of honesty. Perhaps honesty as an unwinding, or conversely a masking that produces an honestly that a social space can allow, allow one in this form to be heard, to be private publically, to be known privately publically. Private, privacy going forward might simply mean alone time.

An Xiao, can you tell us from your interest in the short form of the Tanka how it lead to your interest in social media as a medium, as a form?

An Xiao
Chris and Marc - Social media have turned what were once very private actions--sitting in front of a computer, writing and journaling--into actions that are immediately public. No one in their right mind would stand up before hundreds of people and declare that they are having a ham sandwich for lunch. But we do it all the time on Facebook and Twitter. Part of my art is exploring that motivation.

Marc - I started tanka purely as an aesthetic practice. It was meditative and generally something I shared with a small circle of friends, as very few people really understood the conventions of the form.

But along came the Facebook status update, and pretty soon, mainstream culture was embracing micromessaging and microcommunications.

I started playing around with Internet culture in my art a few years ago. It fascinated me as this new public space not unlike what I was seeing, photographing and writing about every day on the streets of Manhattan. This past January, the Brooklyn Museum invited me to kick off their 1stfans Twitter Art Feed, a Twitter feed intended to be used *as* art, rather than to promote art.
 
And that's when I began seriously approaching social media as a platform for art--a fascinating intersection of public art, net art, performance art and visual art.

Marc Lafia
Tell us more about the project and what you were doing.

An Xiao
The commission lasted one month, and during that time, I wanted to explore the history of telecommunications, i.e., instant, gloabl communications technology. The very first truly glowbal telecommunications device was the telegraph. Before that, messages could go only as fast as a physical object like a bird or a ship could travel; this was how ... Leer másthe Romans did it, and this was how pre-telegraph Victorians did it.

The telegraph heralded a new age in which the Queen and the President could relay messages across the Atlantic at the speed of light. Soon came the telephone, and the television, and radio. And the latest pinnacle of this telecom evolution is, of course, Twitter. And what do we do now? Talk about lunch, talk about being sleepy.

So for the project, I used Twitter to communicate "inane" messages in dots and dashes. I wanted to reference the history of the telegraph and to conceptually explore the basic human motivations behind the evolution of instant communications.

Marc Lafia
I very much like the historical knowledge you bring to your work both in terms of forms and the transmission of such forms. A brief story on the telegraph and new media, Greg Niemeyer tells the story in his Berkeley class, Foundations of American Cyber Culture, (http://webcast.berkeley.edu/course_details_new.php?seriesid=2009-D-4939&semesterid=2009- ... Leer máshttp://webcast.berkeley.edu/course_details_new.php?seriesid=2009-D-4939&semesterid=2009-D) of Leland Stanford hammering in the last railroad spike bringing together the track connecting the shores of the continent and forming the intercontinental railroad. While he was doing this, the spike he was hammering was connected to one wire of a telegraph and the hammer to another wire, so each time he would hit the spike with his hammer a telegraphic signal would go out across the united states. The signal was connected to church bells so each time a blow was struck, church bells across the nation were ringing in real time with no delay. Greg calls it a new media experience as labor is converted into information and information is converted into labor again, on the other end where church bells were ringing.

This makes me think of your follow up work, 'The Great Yawn', crowd sourcing and the flash mob. Again, non-events or the 'inane' become the event, coupled with a looking back at older media performing the new media.




An Xiao
Oh, I love that story. I'd not heard it before. That was definitely a new media event! You can imagine it happening today: instead of telegraph signals ringing bells across the country, there would be hundreds of people snapping photos, snapping videos, sending out tweets, all in real time.

The Great Yawn was very fun, and also an exploration ... Leer másof these themes. I asked about a hundred members of @Platea to yawn at the same time on Twitter. It didn't matter how they yawned, so long as they included the word "yawn" in their message. Firstly, I wanted to explore how flash mobs could translate into the digital sphere, but I also wanted to look at the viral nature of social media. It's a known psychological fact that simply reading or thinking about yawns compels one to yawn (or you yawning yet?). In other words, yawns go viral everyday. If over a hundred people yawn on Twitter, will they get others to yawn?

An Xiao
Others in fact joined the yawn-fest, and the digital action (tweeting a yawn) led to a physical action (yawning) back to a digital action (tweeting about the yawn).

Marc Lafia
Do you see this as a situationist action or something more in the spirit of fluxus?

An Xiao
Oh, that's a great question. I just did a workshop with Julia Kaganskiy for Conflux Festival, a festival specifically for contemporary psychogeography, so I have situationism on my mind. I can see The Great Yawn (and @Platea work in general) having elements of both.

Marc Lafia
I would love for you to elaborate on this. Please do.

An Xiao
Ah, I was hoping to be a little vague and mysterious!

In brief, a lot of my social media work involves looking at social media space as a public space, and bringing art into this space. The Internet has become so ingrained into our lives that we have our own habits, norms and preconceptions. Surfing the web these days can be as mundane as ... Leer máswalking the streets. We have standard sites we go to, people we check in on, messages we send out.

The workshop I did during Conflux took a look at how the Situationist derive can be translated into the online space. By playing in this space, by exploring this space, we're breaking through the preconceptions we've formed about online life and are coming to know our online environment that much more.

The Fluxus elements come in through the level of play we bring into our projects, and our openness to possibilities. Although I try to infuse my projects with a strong conceptual groundwork, I also enjoy playing with social media, playing with the space through mini events. In the parlance of Art+Culture, "I'm influenced" by both.

Marc Lafia
I am glad that you've told us this. Thank you. Tell us what you'll be doing for the D.U.M.B.O Arts Festival?

An Xiao
I'm very much looking forward to the festival. We're actually beginning installation tomorrow (Wednesday).

This work is somewhat new territory for me, as it will be my first physical public art installation. What I'm doing is installing an official metal sign on the waterfront that says, "For info, text DUMBOVIEW to 41411". It's a classic ... Leer másinfographic style with the standard type of steel post seen holding street signs around the city. Anyone who sends in the text message will receive a quirky message on their phone about the view. The piece is meant to explore our data-hungry culture and the role mobile phones have played in digitizing our daily lives.

Marc Lafia
I like this very much. I'm excited for you. I look forward to texting in and getting a message from this work. Thanks for the time we spent and thanks for our conversation.

An Xiao
Thanks, Marc, for the opportunity to chat.



An Xiao looks at the Internet and the 21st century using a creative approach that is one part visual/conceptual and one part Zen.  Recently listed in The Guardian’s “who’s who” of the Twitter art world, she has shown her award-winning photography and digital media 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 blogs on art and social media technology for Art21.  She can be found online here and on twitter at thatwaszen


Photo Credit and Thanks to Kevin Sweeney for An's Conflux presentation picture.

“I love this interview. You have both described exactly what I've been trying to put in words on why I love the idea of this mass amount of information flying around everywhere, that, although it may not seem like it, it's all very tangible and real and intriguing. And I really like the historical tie in, the story of the railroad and church bells. ”
Posted over 5 years ago
“Really interesting Marc! One way of understanding art (for me) has always been communication - need to express ourselves and convey a message. Integrating this perception of art into communication on a social level is great idea particularly what An is doing ('digital' communication one might say). I hope you'll keep us posted on the developments in An's project!”
Posted over 5 years ago
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