On Digital Documentation: The Circulation of Images in Social Media and Their Reception

7 Jun 2016, 4:48 pm

(by Tobi Maier)

In recent years, the world of contemporary art blogs has multiplied dramatically. There are not only the web pages of the traditional magazines such as Artforum, Frieze, Texte zur Kunst or Spike, that have focused on and extended their content presented online. In addition, Contemporary Art DailyArtnet or Terremoto are providing regular columns and reviews that discuss the work of singular artists or entire exhibitions. In Brazil, where it is relatively difficult to get hold of the print versions of the above mentioned international journals, students, artists and other art world professionals heavily rely on accessing information in the form of text and images through the web.

We often judge work by viewing it online and many works produced nowadays circulate more on different online platforms than in the flesh. They are produced and consumed immediately, disappear in a private collection or gallery storage after being shown in an exhibition or art fair. Consequently installation views of exhibitions and documentation of particular works are highly structured and orchestrated. What we look at on the screen might not correspond to the experience one could have had when actually visiting an exhibition. The image we look at has probably been reworked on Photoshop to make the works and the arranged display look more appealing. Yet as seductive they may seem on first sight in slick hd resolution, they are also deceptively flat.

A new generation of artists that came of age in the 21st century – millennials, as Douglas Coupland has coined the term – have urned into sign collectors. Following blogs and gallery pages, they might sit at one end of the world and create works that are mixtures of two other artists observed from far away. One could argue that some curators work the same way, assembling exhibitions with works selected from exactly the same sources and pdf portfolios, without making the effort for entering a dialogue with the artist or visiting him/her in the studio.

Together with the proliferation of blogs, social media has played an important role in disseminating and promoting artistic production as well as installation views from exhibitions. Here I am not talking about the abundance of selfies taken by visitors to blockbuster exhibitions, though I am aware that institutions measure their quantity to weigh in on visitor experiences. I am also reluctant to discuss Richard Prince’s recent venture, appropriating other people’s Instagram posts without prior warning, printing them on canvas, and putting them up for sale. What I am looking at are artists regularly posting images of their life and work. In the globalized world we live in, this provides for instant access to the (social) activity and artistic production of someone close or far away. This comes with an underlying desire that the attention generated might result in exhibition participation or a review of an already installed show. While magazines are still in the position to commission texts that underpin and critically examine an artist’s work, the individual images posted on Instagram and Facebook remain solitary gestures that mostly have a very brief lifetime.

However, as the critic Claire Bishop argues, these voices cannot always create real agency because “in a world where everyone can air their views to everyone we are faced not with mass empowerment but with an endless stream of banal ego. Far from being oppositional to spectacle, participation has now entirely merged with it”.1 Yet some presentations stand out as their image worlds transcend into critical discourse: two artists I’m following are @ex_miss_febem (Aleta Valente, from Rio de Janeiro) and @cibellecibelle (Cibelle Cavalli Bastos, who divides her time between London and São Paulo). Their photographic work has spurred debates around female body hair, abortion, menstruation, post-gender discourse, the role of the single mother and precarious lifestyles at the periphery. As the numbers of likers go up (some followers have even started contacting artists for advice on real life problems), so do the numbers of haters and the instances where providers censor posts.

While these and other artists’ works (consider K8 Hardy or Amalia Ulman) evolve around technology, power and experience, the stream of images they produce can be considered a single body of work. The frame of Instagram is thus employed for the generation of a narrative, a timeline that reflects and documents a particular movement of action that can generate agency beyond the mere spectatorship.

How does this impact on the way we exhibit or collect? If works become public domain (consider Francis Alÿs’s films which are available to view on his website), they loose their exclusivity and pose challenges for collectors and museums alike. Perhaps one way to look at it is that the creation of value is intrinsically interlinked with life and biopolitics. By deciding to acquire a work of a particular artist over another, the institution or collector also supports a production that is available for all, a production that is collaborative or performative and stems from life not unlike the object that changes hands, from the studio to the gallery to the collector. In that respect, collecting is also an ideological activity whose effects on the production of discourse and meaning within a wider community cannot be neglected.


Tobi Maier is an art critic and curator based in São Paulo. He worked as a curator at Frankfurter Kunstverein, in Frankfurt am Main (2006-2008), at MINI/Goethe-Institut Curatorial Residencies Ludlow 38, in New York (2008-2011), and at the 30th edition of Bienal de São Paulo (2012). He holds a ma Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art (London) and is currently undertaking PhD research in the department of Visual Poetics at Universidade de São Paulo (USP). He frequently contributes to a variety of journals. In early 2015, he co-founded the exhibition space SOLO SHOWS, in downtown São Paulo.


Note: (1) BISHOP, Claire. Participation and Spectacle: where are we now? In: THOMPSON, Nato (Ed.). Living as Form, Participation and Spectacle: Where are we now?. New York: Creative Time; Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 2012, p. 40.

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