The Art of the Crowd


At a recent panel discussion on the topic of how artists are engaging with social media in their work, William Powhida cited Twitter and blogs as influences in his illustration of insider-ism at the New Museum. He likened engaging with Tyler Green and Paddy Johnson on Twitter to sharing an office, “where you poke each other periodically and make fun of each other, but you’re getting important information very quickly that’s otherwise hard to find.”

Online chatter about the piece, “How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality,” now occupies the top Google returns on the artist’s name, which undoubtedly has an effect on communication and understanding of his work. “I feel like I’m a product of social media at this point as much as someone who uses it,” he said with a grin. (LEFT: JENNIFER DALTON AND WILLIAM POWHIDA, #CLASS PURCHASE APPLICATION, 2010. COURTESY WINKLEMAN GALLERY)

Powhida was one of six artists to speak at the panel organized by New York’s Art, Culture and Technology Meetup group, which frequently puts on lectures, discussions events addressing topics as broad as the changing audience experience, cultural institutions’ new media strategies and social media art experiments. This particular panel was part of the larger Social Media Week conference happening across the city and simultaneously in five other cities worldwide.

After a brief welcome by one of the group’s organizers, Jaki Levy, whose digital design studio in Tribeca hosted the event, the artists gave succinct presentations, pulling up websites, Google searches, Twitter and Facebook pages and digital photos to illustrate how social media has impacted or otherwise inspired their work.

Brooklyn artist Nic Rad is tapping RSS feeds, Flickr images, his Tumblr dashboard and Facebook for subjects for a new series, “PeopleMatter.” The series consists of 99 portraits of media figures ranging from bloggers (Perez Hilton, Caroline McCarthy) to pundits (Sean Hannity, Bill Maher), journalists (Malcom Gladwell, David Carr) to social media savants (Rachel Sklar, Nick Bilton). The small, colorful portraits are inspired by the subjects’ online avatars-in the world of social media, “avatar” refers to the digital image you choose to represent yourself, such as a profile photo or user icon. Often times these images have been playfully altered-the color tint or contrast is adjusted, or the image is cropped for effect.

Rad’s series explores how these succinct, digital bytes stand in for the whole. “People become truncated through all of our filters,” he explained. “We only get little glimpses of people’s lives and [from that we] form a collective picture of the universe.” As a group, the portraits create a physical tag cloud of a given moment’s trending topics. When Rad gives away the portraits at Rare Gallery in Chelsea on April 29, the cloud will dissipate.

Brooklyn artist and critic An Xiao is using social media applications as a platform for performance and public art experiments including @Platea, which she describes as a “social media art collective” that is open to anyone interested in participating in experiments carried out in “the digital mega-city of social media.” The most recent initiative was “PlateaKnit,” a five-day project during that designated “instructors” circulated abbreviated knitting instructions via Tweets. Photos are now being collected and archived on Flickr.

“In social media, people are primed to create,” said Xiao, citing the abundance of user-made videos posted on YouTube and Facebook users’ tendency to glamorize their profile photos. “People don’t just want to watch or engage, they actually want to create the art. … Social media art turns into crowd-created art,” said Xiao. This notion of crowd-created art-that, at some point, you have to give control to the masses-is one of the through-lines connecting the diverse projects discussed at the panel.

In the case of Dance Theater Workshop’s Community Choreography project, the company has created new works based almost entirely on directions and suggestions from Twitter users. Each commission begins with a solicitation for crowd input (also known as “crowdsourcing”) via Twitter. The Tweet launching the company’s most recent installment read as follows: “Community Choreography 20! Part 1: MOVEMENT. Tweet 1 body part + 1 verb at us (ex. arm swing). We’re limiting the dance to 140 seconds.”

The sequence is then enacted and a rough video is posted on YouTube, at which point Dance Theater Workshop goes back to Twitter for feedback and additional suggestions, such as location and lighting.

“We’ve taken a crowd of complete strangers and mashed their ideas all together to create … a dance film,” says Adam Smith, the company’s marketing manager and resident social media junkie (also an ensemble member of the New York Neo-Futurists). “What I love about this is it gives us total room for error. … It could be the worst thing in the world but [at least] we all made it together.”

In his next project, #class (pronounced “hash tag class”), Powhida and collaborator Jennifer Dalton are attempting to channel social media’s collective power to generate a real-world impact.

When #class opens at Winkleman Gallery in Chelsea on February 20, the commercial art space will have been transformed into a chalkboard-lined think tank, hosting events, discussions, performances and more, all with the intention of constructively addressing problems with the contemporary art market.

The #class schedule has been posted on the project’s blog, According to a statement from the artists, not even the schedule is their doing; “participants got involved through our requests on the blog, Twitter and Facebook, articles, and word of mouth.”

A live feed of every Twitter reference to “#class” streams down the right side of the blog. Observing the feed is even more enjoyable because not every Tweet with “#class” is in reference to the show. On Twitter, to put a hash tag symbol in front of a word or phrase is the equivalent of adding a search keyword to your Tweet. So, a fitness club may Tweet about needing a new class instructor and add “#class.”

There’s always a chance though that “#class” could catch a Tweet inadvertently perfect for the program at Winkleman Gallery. One of the wonders of letting the crowd create the art is that you never know when you’ll get a flash of brilliance.