clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

When art goes viral, it's not an accident. This is how it happens.

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Luke Turner is too modest to say it outright, but he might have broken Vimeo.

That's because the video-hosting platform is where he and his collaborators, Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Shia LaBeouf, released their piece "Introductions" earlier this year — the one that includes Shia LaBeouf yelling in front of a green screen. It's a scene that's been repeatedly parodied, riffed on, and remixed by fans who may not have even realized it was art in the first place. When it debuted, the flood of traffic brought Vimeo to a stutter.

That viral sensation is by design. They released the video with a Creative Commons license that, ideally, allows creativity to flourish. "The network is part of the content of our work," Turner told me.

That attitude is typical for a current class of artists doing digital work that's optimized for being seen, even when it means less credit.

Optimizing distribution has taken the place of the art gallery

Jacob Bakkila is part of an art collective called Synydyne, which has created bizarre internet projects like the web experience Bear Stearns Bravo and the popular YouTube channel Pronunciation Book, which since 2010 has featured an anonymous voice telling you how to say an unusual medley of words. That feat alone has earned it 100,000 subscribers and more than 70 million video plays. But Synydyne might be most well known for a Dada-like Twitter feed that most people thought was a robot.

@Horse_ebooks captivated 187,000 followers with tweets like these:

Synydyne's work bridges the gap between apparent content farm and art (as Bakkila explained to Susan Orlean after his role in @Horse_ebooks was revealed in 2014). Its work is entertaining, but it's also less accessible than a viral Tumblr blog. Bakkila told me that figuring out distribution is a key step of the process.

"Most of what Synydyne has created thus far is either designed to spread as quickly as possible — @Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book being the obvious examples — or to be as difficult as possible to access."

Turner agrees that it's important to create the conditions for art to flourish. "In the internet age," he says, "you're planting a seed."

"We don't have a gallery," Turner says of his collective. "You have the whole PR machine associated with that, and that kind of disrupts your flow as an artist. Having hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter and millions on Facebook allows you to plant a big seed."

Personal fame can be secondary to being seen

Cassie McQuater's art for Danny Brown
Cassie McQuater's art for Danny Brown.
Cassie McQuater

Cassie McQuater's art is a colorful and trippy depiction of a video game universe. It's not made for the internet alone, but that's where it often winds up, since her visuals accompany singer Danny Brown on his current tour with A$AP Rocky and Tyler the Creator. The tour is a cross-country, stadium-filling extravaganza with imagery that's flooded social media. McQuater sees the concert format as a great way to reach a new audience, even as her work circulates without a "© Cassie McQuater" attached.

"I don't think my authorship is less conspicuous just because my work is not in a museum or traditional white-wall gallery," she told me. "Work like this, outside of the institution that is the art world, has always been made and will continue to be made regardless of placards. It's important to grab onto and develop your identity as an artist no matter what medium, online or irl."

For these artists, the compromises of the internet — often shoddy attribution and the divorce of context from their work — are worthwhile risks for the sake of broad reach and the creative opportunities that come with technology.

Bakkila sees that democratic change as productive for the art itself.

"If you are willing to forgo having your work attributed to your real name, ever, or even better yet, if you are willing to make art that seems completely authorless, that's where it gets fun," he says. "Authorless art objects are hardly a new idea, but the notion is more and more relevant as we consume more and more information and entertainment and art every day without thinking about or caring about where it comes from."

"Eventually I'll probably release some more traditional art and writing with my actual name on it so people will know who to blame," Bakkila says. "But for the time being I'm very happy to be completely out of the equation."

Of course, there are numerous pre-internet examples of artists who've sacrificed credit for access, whether it's Keith Haring's subway chalkings, Jean-Michel Basquiat's pseudonymous graffiti, or Banksy's "street art." And artists have always used anonymous work to support themselves, from Andy Warhol's catalog drawings to Willem de Kooning's store window designs. In one sense, internet artists are following an age-old strategy in trading fame (and remuneration) for audience. But in another, they're embracing a new standard of credit for their work, simply because it's the only way the internet works.

Internet artists cultivate a new — and often better — relationship with their audience

There's something fundamentally different about how these artists think about art. Each one I spoke with had a personal and intellectual justification for how viewers encounter their work. Bakkila invoked theorist Roland Barthes's Death of the Author as an inspiration, noting that good art should be able to succeed without the crutch of context (or a conspicuous creator).

Turner's aware that LaBeouf draws attention to his collaborators' projects, but he doesn't have illusions that those viewers will necessarily know everything about the art they make. "I don't expect the 1 or 2 percent who clicked on it to have watched the whole thing," he says of his #Interview project. "But for the people who did watch the whole thing, it becomes quite moving."

McQuater told me about another, less abstract joy of being an artist in 2015: seeing people enjoy her work. "I love amateur phone videos of the work," she says. "I love finding them all over the place, because it means that people are enjoying it, and that's why I make it. People will always have the opportunity to 'miss the point' no matter how the work is released — regardless of the medium. I don't think that's a new phenomenon that was born with the internet."