Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The @Platea Concept, by An Xiao

Empire State Bldg - Bowery
Up the Bowery, New York City

Intellects and the City
The development of the city was a major turning point in human history, an economic and cultural milestone that altered the way we relate to each other. With the advent of concentrated urban life came a rapid exchange of products, services and, importantly, ideas. The large number of individuals under one civic roof increased the likelihood that those of like and complementary minds would come together in the pursuit of a common goal, thus furthering collective human achievement at a pace faster than might previously have been possible. Think, for instance, to the development of philosophy in Greek city states, the rise of poetry in Heian Japan, the explosion of contemporary art in downtown Manhattan.

Until recently, while communications technology could allow for a dialogue amongst creative intellectual minds living far from each other, it could never come close to approximating the effectiveness of geographic proximity. Namely, one of the unique powers of cities lies in the greater number of chance encounters they allow for, and the possibility of casual intimacy thereafter with a greater number of people. When we meet Jill Artist at a party, we can keep in touch, run into her at coffee shops, meet up for drinks with her and other circles of friends, and just generally get to know her on the level of acquaintanceship. In the city, these chance meetings can happen quite frequently, and they help fuel broad networks that foster creative collaboration and dialogue.

Crisscrossing freeways, Los Angeles

The Digital Megacity
In the 21st century, online social media and microblogging have made manifest the late 20th century idea of a global village. As in a physical village, it is now possible, like never before, to maintain relationships both active and passive with people we rarely see or may never have met, whether they live in another borough or another hemisphere. Thanks to technologies such as WiFi broadband and 3G smartphones, the Internet has evolved from a mere tool into an extension of our lives. Indeed, our online social activity can often feel like a walk down a familiar street, composed of friends, acquaintances and the occasional stranger, as intimacy and familiarity build up over time. Social scientists refer to this as "ambient awareness":
This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating....

“It’s just like living in a village, where it’s actually hard to lie because everybody knows the truth already,” [sociologist Zeynep Tufekci] said. “The current generation is never unconnected. They’re never losing touch with their friends. So we’re going back to a more normal place, historically. If you look at human history, the idea that you would drift through life, going from new relation to new relation, that’s very new. It’s just the 20th century.”

Clive Thompson for the New York Times
With 160 million people on Facebook and just over 6 million on Twitter, the world of microblogging media has created a veritable megalopolis of individuals, a stream of miscellany not unlike 5th Ave. or Oxford St. A quick glance at the Twitter public timeline or a popular Facebook user's status feeds makes this readily apparent. Most of us, of course, have learned to filter this stream of information, just as any sane city dweller has to, but, as in any large city, this overwhelming activity brings the potential for a great exchange of ideas, a global cultural marketplace limited only by language. It exists in concert with our own geographic dwelling space, both a part of it and extending past it, with its own rules, habits and practices.

Cloud Gate - Gull
Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, Chicago

Remain Tweeted During the Performance
During my work with the 1stfans Twitter Art Feed, I was so taken by the fact that the project, initially designed as a conceptual one, quickly became a collaborative performance piece. As I was directly managing the feed in January, I expected a few @replies, but I underestimated the enormous creativity that 1stfans members would send back. In fact, I retweeted almost all of them, so their responses would become a permanent part of the @1stfans feed for other members to enjoy.

The feed, part of a new Brooklyn Museum membership program, was private to members, but I soon started to wonder if social media like Twitter and Facebook might serve as a venue for public art, particularly (but not limited to) performance art. A microblogging-based performance art project could displace and activate this online space in a fashion not unlike street performance art. To borrow from the parlance of the Twittersphere, it would be art on the "stweets", taken outside the confines of the white box and even physical geography and embedded within the daily routines of digital citizens' lives.

Ya! - Spotted in midtown Manhattan

@Platea: A Stweet Art Collective

That said, I'm putting together @Platea, a stweet art collective consisting of artists and non-artists who share an interest in the power of public art carried out in the digital megacity. "Platea," from the Latin for "street", came to signify in medieval theatre a neutral space on stage. It morphed and changed as necessary, depending on the actors' actions and the assumed setting. I find it a fitting analogy for the swiftly-evolving, redefining nature of social media, whose tenors change with the tide of user activity but whose effect--discussion and connection--remains overall the same.

I'm excited by the potential of stweet art. The timing here is key: in this difficult economic time, the business world has turned its eyes toward alternative, low-cost methods of marketing, the art world is calling for a new dialogue around the role of art, and people in general are looking for leisure activities that cost very little. Much of us, then, have turned to social media for answers, and, in the past year, Twitter has emerged as a rising star. Its deceptively-simple concept--bursts of text limited to 14o-characters answering the question "What are you doing?"--makes it a highly malleable and engaging form, useful for everything from business to socializing to information sharing. As more people join and embed it into their lives, more potential exists for public art projects.

Art Parade 2006
Performers during Deitch Art Projects' Art Parade 2006

@Platea Projects
So what would @Platea look like? What would public art carried out in the digital megacity do exactly, and how would they parallel and differ from physical public art pieces? To be honest, I'm not sure! I'm excited by the opportunity to explore this with you all and to invite other artists to head up @Platea projects. Online social media are ripe for artistic experimentation. I suspect that some of the projects can be subversive, tucked away in hidden locales in online space for only the most dedicated to find. Others can be overt (but not obvious), causing most daily users to pause and take notice. Some can be playful. Some can be serious. Some "local", some "city-wide". Almost all, I hope, will challenge members of the digital city in the same way the best public art does.

I plan to more formally announce details in the coming weeks, but first, I'm eager to gather "performers". For the first project, I want to focus solely on Twitter. I think it will be important to bring together a critical mass, both as an exciting first act but also as a large-scale online performance, gathered for effect. I suspect 300 would be sufficient, but I want to shoot for 1,000 (why not, right? :), if not more. As with many performance art groups, the group itself will be private but not anonymous, though I suspect it doesn't even have to be private (I'll write more on that later).

For the first project, I'm thinking in particular about two apparently-conflicting stereotypes of Twitter: (1) That it's a place for sharing mindless minutiae about one's life, such as lunch habits and the weather and (2) That it's a place for talking about issues of great importance in a viral and rapid manner. In many ways, Twitter as a whole is a mega-conversation, a public space of millions of users talking at one time, sometimes about diverse topics, sometimes about singular topics. I want to explore this phenomenon further and how it intersects with concepts of ambient awareness and the practice of sharing inane life details.

Stay tuned for more info on how you can join and participate :)

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