• Social Media and artistic responses to tragedies and current events



    A tragedy occurs. An artist creates an artwork in response to the event. They post the image on social media. The image gets ‘likes.’ What do you think of this trend? I think that it’s always important to have artistic and creative responses to difficult situations in culture. Artists can help us navigate and understand complex issues in critical ways when other more institutionalized facets of culture may not be able to. The fact that it’s possible to post and disseminate artistic responses on the internet in ‘real time’ or immediately after an event happened can be an important way of indicating the severity, seriousness, or impact of a particular event. It’s meaningful for people to see that citizens have empathic and sensitive responses to tragedies – whether we’re talking about police shootings, human rights abuses, refugee crises, bombings, etc.

    The fact that some social media only allows for ‘likes’ and not other kinds of responses is can be an odd and limiting factor when it comes to posts that you support, but may not actually ‘like’. I think that by now we all understand that just because you click ‘like’ or give something a thumbs-up, doesn’t mean you are necessarily in favor of the content of the post. Someone may post an important article about rape, for example, and I might ‘like’ it because I think it’s a topic that people should be reading and talking about, but not because I ‘like’ rape. To be able to like, or give an emoticon response at least functions as a way to indicate that you have seen and acknowledged the post.

    I think of artists as being akin to an amplifier or a megaphone – through their responses and artwork, they can help spread awareness and visibility for ideas and issues. Of course it’s important for people to be conscientious and I hope that when artists respond to an issue it is out of compassion and not self-promotion. I think that artists can be a moral compass, a barometer of social consciousness. Sometimes its necessary to use art to translate things into metaphorical terms – to help people see things from a new or different perspective.

    I think that spreading things online virally, or as a fortified meme, can lead to many more eyes and minds considering an issue than if the news was spread through old-school, physical media such as newspapers. I can post a video online, and get thousands or tens of thousands of views in a week (and imagine the viewership that celebrities can get!), whereas the attendance at a gallery might be only a few hundred at best. It’s also possible to reach a much larger and more diverse audience online – a work of art might be shared and viewed by people who would never go into a gallery otherwise.

    Images also get shares and comments. They can incite conversations and expand awareness and dialogue. I also think it’s important to pose the questions or statements in ways that allow for an expanded dialogue – and not just a statement. I tend to think of work in two categories – declarative and discursive. Declarative work is a statement that simply ‘puts something out there’ – without necessarily asking for a response. It’s simply sharing, like a version of show-and-tell. Discursive work, on the other hand, leaves the audience with something to do – an invitation to join the dialogue, to enter the conversation, work through a problem.

    It’s important to remember that art and creativity don’t always occur as visual manifestations, but can be linguistic or strategic, too. I think the use of hashtags can be an artistic strategy, for example. Or an artist posting things sequentially, at specifically timed intervals, to create an experience over time. During the Iranian revolution, people around the world changed the time zone on their twitter accounts to be that of Iran, so that it would be harder for censors to find and silence the citizens in Iran who were fighting for revolution in 2009. People were very creative in using social media (mostly Twitter) to facilitate and broadcast revolutions during the Arab Spring, or the Ukrainian revolution, or civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter. Lebanese Flag: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Lebanon

    What is gained and lost by the immediacy of this process?

    Being able to post and disseminate responses to tragedies immediately can be instrumental in spreading the word about the event and of subsequently gathering and mobilizing resources to help citizens in need; to alert oppressors that their actions are being ‘seen’ and that the people around the world disapprove and are demanding change. This happened with the Pussy Riot trials, and the fact that there were eyes from around the world watching and responding to their arrest meant that the courts that were trying them were aware that they were being watched, and that there would possibly be massive rioting and protests in response to the government’s decisions (regarding incarceration and punishment of the Pussy Riot members). Article about the pussy riot trial: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-absurd-and-outrageous-trial-of-pussy-riot

    On the negative side, hasty reactions to tragedies can lead to superficial or generalized responses – which may risk missing or omitting some of the complexities of an issue. People have limited attention spans online (though we often forget that they also had limited attention spans in print, too. The whole paradigm of ‘above the fold’ as in a newspaper, translates to webpages, too, where people are generally unlikely to ‘scroll down’). We still have ‘armchair activists’ in the age of the internet, and I think that some people feel that it is sufficient to simply share a profile picture or status update in solidarity with victims of tragedies. Sometimes this kind of simple, superficial action ends up precluding any real activism or engagement. People might overlay a certain country’s flag atop their profile picture to communicate that they are aware of the event and are offering ‘solidarity’ with the victims – but if there is no action beyond that, what help are they really providing? And there is no doubt that social media platforms are biased in the types of image filters or safety checks that are provided (after the 2015 bombings in Paris and Beirut, Facebook offered a Parisian flag filter, but no Lebanese flag filter).

    It can be important to respond immediately to an event. The persistent and rapid influx of information on our social media feeds means that it can be easy to forget about something fairly quickly after it has happened, if there has not been a significant media response to it. It can also be easy to miss something entirely if it just pops up in a feed and then is pushed down your feed (and off screen) by successive posts. Immediate and amplified responses to a tragedy can help solidify that event in our memory (particularly for the times when we hope that history will not repeat itself). I think of a lot of these artistic responses as relying heavily on the visual economy of good graphic design. To summarize a devastating event in a single image, usually one that is small and square or rectangular – and in such a way that is internationally legible and impactful – is quite a design feat. The most successful responses are ones that are easy to read and understand, and that capture the essence of the tragedy, but that are also potentially modifiable, allowing people to contribute their own perspective and creative voice to the conversation. When the marriage equality laws were up for debate (again) in 2013, the emblematic meme was a red square with a pink equal sign. Numerous friends of mine posted albums full of variations of this image – versions that had been designed by artists, or that had just been devised from found objects and images. It was a design that was brilliant and fun to play with, and that quickly and easily engaged a huge population of people. Buzzfeed collected some of them: https://www.buzzfeed.com/adambvary/21-fabulous-red-marriage-equality-profile-photos-on-facebook?utm_term=.yuK6OlO8e#.nulvYpYXL

    (The 2011 “Pepper Spray Cop” at UC Davis is another example of this: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/casually-pepper-spray-everything-cop)

    What pieces of art, that were created and shared after a tragedy, have you had a strong reaction to?

    I love and am fascinated by social media, memes, movements, all of it. I must admit that I have more often had reactions to projects in the art world (in galleries, museums, or communities) than online, but that is changing as more and more contemporary artists are using social media as a platform.

    One piece that I had a negative response to was artist Ai Wei Wei’s recreation of the image of Aylan Kurdi, the young Syrian refugee boy who washed up dead on the beach in Turkey in September 2015. It just struck me as going too far. Ai Wei Wei does have a history of being activist, and he has done many great projects and has been philanthropic and humanitarian in many ways. This image, however, struck me as narcissistic and opportunistic, and just left a really bad taste in my mouth. I was also disconcerted by the fact that more people seemed to know Ai Wei Wei’s name than Aylan Kurdi’s name.

    The original photo, by Nilüfer Demir and an interview with her: http://www.vice.com/read/nilfer-demir-interview-876

    The image by Ai Wei Wei: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/feb/01/ai-weiwei-poses-as-drowned-syrian-infant-refugee-in-haunting-photo

    LA-based artists Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz Staurus made a few historic artworks in 1977 called “In Mourning and in Rage” and “Three Weeks in May”. These works have impacted me for years, and I frequently include them in my curricula for college classes. These were community-engaged projects (prototypes for collaboration and crowd-sourcing in art!) which addressed an epidemic of rapes and femicides in Los Angeles, and specifically the very mysoginist, victim-blaming manner in which the news reported these incidents. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Weeks_in_May


    Andrea Bowers is another LA-based artists who does incredible work about women’s rights, civil rights, labor unions, rape culture, transfeminism, and more. She recently completed a body of work that helps re-imagine contemporary trans activists as historic radicals fighting for human rights (because the pioneers of trans-rights activism are often left out of history entirely, and especially out of the history of civil rights activism). Bowers also made a whole body of work about the much publicized rape of a young woman in Steubenville, OH. This woman (who remains anonymous, for her own safety) was raped and assaulted repeatedly while unconscious, and the incident was broadcast through video, images, and texts online. Bowers made a drawing and documentary video about this incident which helped ensure that the injustices that Jane Doe suffered will not be ignored or forgotten (https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/investigating-steubenville-andrea-bowers-sweetjane)

    I was very moved by the video that Diamond Reynolds posted of her boyfriend, Philando Castile as he was dying after being shot by police. I know that she did not create this video as an artwork, and I am not trying to mis-contextualize it as such. I do think it was a radical and courageous gesture of activism, however. Reynolds knew that the only power she had in that moment was to broadcast the injustice that was occurring literally right in front of her. She spoke her truth. She spoke the truth about the race war between black men and cops in America today, and it was a devastating but important message for us to see and hear. http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2016/07/07/graphic-video-minnesota-police-shooting-philando-castile-ryan-young-pkg-nd.cnn

    Since 2007, Reno, NV-based artists Joe Delappe has been running a project called “Iraqi memorial”. In this project Delappe invites creative members of the community to design and propose memorials for civilians killed in the Iraq wars. In another project, “Dead in Iraq”, Delappe performs an intervention in a video game, America’s Army (one of the games used to recruit soldiers) and creates characters with the same name, age, service branch, and date of death as one of the more than 4500 U.S. troops killed in Iraq. http://www.delappe.net/project/dead-in-iraq/

    http://www.iraqimemorial.org/ **

    Do you respond to tragedies artistically? If so, how?**

    I generally don’t respond to tragedies that are single, discreet events – such as a bombings or mass murders. I do respond to systemic tragedies or tragic conditions (things like genital mutilation, human trafficking, homophobia and transphobia, for example). In my perspective, the pervasiveness of patriarchy and misogyny (online and throughout culture) is a humanitarian tragedy, and much of my own work is responding to those kinds of things – to the omission of women’s voices from history; to the persistence of cissexist, binaristic views of gender; to the undervaluation of labor by women and people of color; to the ubiquitous influx of media that judges, shames, and assesses femmes for their body and appearance; to laws that not only don’t protect women, but at times actually sanction the abuse or murder of women. So, that said, I do create art for social media that responds to issues that are important to me. Do you respond to tragedies on social media? If so, how?

    I do most things on social media (ha!). The ways in which I respond to tragedies are usually to post reliable news and information about the incident; provide information about how community members can help; pose questions to encourage people to think critically about what happened and how it is being reported. I never use the flag filters on my profile picture – I don’t personally subscribe to that kind of ‘activism’, primarily because I think it’s not actually activism, but also because I think that such profile filters are really just a thinly disguised way for social media companies to collect more data on their users in order to ‘personalize’ the ads that they flood user sites with.

    Should artists always respond to grief by creating?

    I don’t think anyone ‘should’ ‘always’ do anything-I don’t feel comfortable with that kind of prescriptive thinking. But I think that freedom of speech, civil liberties, and human rights are essential for a peaceful and healthy society. Artists can carry dialogues forward and encourage engagement and questioning in ways that others may not be able to. They can provide a model for a positive reaction to negative events. Creating art is a much better way to respond than to become angry, violent, or vengeful. I think that creating can also help us process the events, and work through grief, fear and confusion.

    Posted by mhebron on 8/26/16 | Permalink
All Images © Micol Hebron, 2016