10 Jul, 2009

The birth of Twitter art

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

In a Manchester parade and on a London plinth a new era in British culture is taking shape

In the past seven days two extraordinary events have taken place that define a new way forward in British cultural and artistic life. The first was a parade commissioned by the Manchester international festival from Jeremy Deller, who won the 2004 Turner prize. Deller – whose art is characterised by his enabling, rather than authoring, pieces of work – was no Pied Piper, leading the people through the streets of Manchester. Instead, this was a procession created (notwithstanding the fact that Deller had spent a meticulous year working with its participants) by the citizens themselves. This was a procession that gave dignity to individual creativity in places where it is not usually recognised, whether from the teenage goths and emos who paraded glumly down Deansgate, or the impressive Hindu piping band from Bolton in full Scots regalia.

The second event will probably prove even more epoch-defining. This is One and Other, Antony Gormley’s 100-day work that launched on Monday and sees ordinary members of the public occupy the empty plinth in the northwest corner of Trafalgar Square. Anyone can apply, and be selected by computer, to take their hour on the plinth; and, within reason, they can do what they like when they are up there.

Gormley talks of creating a composite picture of Britain as we are today. He has no plans to appear on the plinth himself, and this is a work that has been colonised by its participants and observers in a way that I suspect even Gormley would not have anticipated. Speaking with Sir Nicholas Serota at the London School of Economics on Tuesday, Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, called One and Other “Twitter art”. He is right. Not only does the form of the piece share characteristics with internet social networking in its creation of public personae for private citizens, but, in a quite unprecedented way for a work of art, One and Other is being documented online on sites such as Twitter – where its popularity as a subject for discussion this week effortlessly outstripped that of Big Brother.

The idea that a work of contemporary art – and it is notable just how few people seem to have questioned its status as such – should have attracted public enthusiasm on this scale would have been unthinkable 20, even 10 years ago. Among the crowds gazing at the plinth on Monday morning, a Russian woman turned to me and observed that the British must indeed trust their citizens “not to go up there with a gun, or something”. Well indeed; One and Other, it seemed to me that morning, could happen only in Britain. It seemed impossible to imagine it happening in Washington or Paris, Beijing or Moscow.

Why? The answer, as Serota and MacGregor pointed out, is partly down to the unique place of the arts and culture in British life. Take museums: in no other country is the idea of their ownership by the public, their status as a part of civic life, their role as the places we go to examine ourselves and the world, so strong. It is the deep-rooted idea that our national museums and our arts are the property of the people that has led to the widespread embracing of One and Other. Woe betide the government that attempts to introduce arts spending cuts.

Cultural leaders and policymakers need to grasp the mood that One and Other is heralding. Bill Ivey, who ran Barack Obama’s transition team on culture and whose intellectual background is as a folklorist, is the key contributor to Expressive Lives, a pamphlet published this week by the thinktank Demos. In it, he lays out the notion that ideas about culture could usefully be rethought in terms of what he calls the “expressive life”. Part of this is about according dignity to the everyday creativity of ordinary lives; in political terms, its corollary could be to angle policy away from how institutions grandly “provide” arts and culture to the masses, and to think about how citizens exist in a cultural ecology in which their own expressive gestures take on new importance.

It is not only about museums rethinking their relationships with audiences and, as Serota and MacGregor predicted on Tuesday, becoming more like multimedia publishers or broadcasters. One might also think about what the sociologist Richard Sennett has discussed in his book The Craftsman, which charts the “enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake” – celebrating the often overlooked, pain- staking, creative jobs of hand and eye, once the province of guildsmen’s workshops, now as likely to be found in software designers’ offices. Just as important as the web is individuals valuing and taking control of their own expressive and inner lives in other ways, whether that involves stitching a shirt, learning to play a musical instrument – or spending an hour on the fourth plinth.

Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief arts writer; she blogs at guardian.co.uk/charlottehiggins

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