Art & Design

She Said, She Said: The Pace Gallery’s Exhibition on ‘Social Media’

Art & Design

She Said, She Said: The Pace Gallery’s Exhibition on ‘Social Media’




Ten years is the equivalent of a light-year in cyberspace. Back then, at the turn of the century, we were simpler beasts, content to watch Survivor contestants battle it out in Borneo. Somewhere, our Darwinian path took a drastic detour due south. In recent years, we’ve become a species of hunched shoulders, abbreviated lexicons, fat asses, and disproportionately agile fingers. Natural selection has been highjacked by a group of twenty-something techies.

David Byrne wholeheartedly agrees. “It’s a weird way for people to connect that isn’t quite human,” he says of social media networks. “Part of what we are is that we smell one another and we see what one another looks like. [Social media] has created this kind of third interaction between people.” The perennially youthful (seriously—he’s still smoking-hot at 59) virtuoso was recently joined by a group of innovative artists as part of the Pace Gallery‘s Social Media, an art show inspired by Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google, and the ever-growing blogosphere. 
Last week the Chelsea-based gallery hosted a panel discussion as part of the show’s opening, where Byrne was joined by the equally quirky, cross-genre genius Miranda July, and several others to answer mostly unanswerable questions: What exactly is social media? Can art about social media be effective when it’s not online? How has social media influenced creativity?

Trying to define social media is like trying to explain Heidegger to a 4-year-old kid, or, to quote July’s attempt: “Well um… I mean… well, jeez.” With most of the artists approaching their 40s (or having surpassed them long ago), tweeting, poking, and blogging are activities beyond their years. “I don’t use Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn or,” Byrne confessed. July was more blunt. “I mean we’re all kind of old. The whole concept of this panel must seem very slow if you are a lot younger and don’t know life without the internet,” she said. “For us, we didn’t foresee that this would be our path. We had a whole time where we were sure we could live without this.” Mexican conceptual artist Emilio Chapela Perez added, “We keep failing to grasp what [social media] really is. It’s too dynamic, too big.” 
One wonders, however, if social media’s sociological effects could even be explained by a generation like mine, for whom it has become second nature.

Byrne took the sarcastic route, highlighting the utter ridiculousness of iPod apps and their attempts to improve our everyday lives. “Invisible Me” answers your emails and texts for you in a range of personalities, like the “new busy, agitated, distracted, and sexy modes,” while “Weasleface” adds “snark and satire to any written text— including the Bible!”

New York-based artist Penelope Umbrico explored social media’s use of images by compiling two separate collages, one of every sunset photo posted on Flickr on August 21, and the other with the images of sideways televisions posted for sale on Craigslist. July, who “continues not to be interested in the internet, but interested in people,” contributed a piece from, the site she designed to use “the web to rebel against the web,” by giving people art assignments that forced them to leave the computer.

The pieces on display eclipsed the trivial panel, ultimately delivering an optimistic message about our current “virtual” state of being. While we live in an age where we friend rather than befriend, post rather than call, and download rather than develop, creativity will continue to find its way out of our murky, over-stimulated minds and allow us, as Byrne put it, “to make something with our hands.”


Late last week, BULLETT stopped by the Pace Gallery for the opening of their Social Media show and its accompanying panel discussion. Here’s the dispatch:

The panel consisted of David Byrne, Miranda July, Penelope Umbrico, Emilio Chapela, and Aram Bartholl. Unfortunately, it was so poorly moderated by Artlog that the evening got off to an awkward start.
 We suffered through the host’s expected but vague questions directed at no one in particular—and of course, got answers so obvious that we could’ve all stayed home. Case in point: Byrne revealed that he doesn’t actually use social media, a point he emphasized with a grandpa-style mispronunciation of as “,” while July (who tried the hardest to turn this into a real dialogue) explained that  her interest lies in exploring the personal experience of the individual, rather than that of social media or the internet in general—familiar territory for anyone who knows her work. It went on like that for about 30 minutes, with the artists trying their best to respond to questions that may or may not have been written on the cab ride over.

Fortunately, the work speaks for itself, if only because it’s made up of everyday images. As for the theme, it feels both of the moment and long overdue, and to the Pace’s credit avoids falling into the celebration of teenage exhibitionism it could easily have flirted with in less capable hands. Still, the show as a whole is not without its problems, the most glaring of which is an uncomfortable generation gap. The most serious offenders on this front were Umbrico and our beloved Byrne, whose outside-looking-in approach revealed a lack of understanding about the motivation behind social media usage. Take, for example, Byrne’s two contributions to the show: the first, an installation of framed, rotating digital images of international parliaments in battle; the second, a series of fictional iPhone apps, which promise to do everything from up the snark in your writing to help you to coordinate an extramarital affair. Byrne is too disconnected from the medium to be able to make relevant jokes about it.

Similarly, Umbrico’s study on the ubiquity of certain online images, which included large scale collections of actual (though digitally altered) Flickr photos of couples posed in front of sunsets, and depressing shots of used TVs for sale (courtesy of Craigslist), speak disappointingly little to the generation who most frequently use social media outlets, and instead echo Byrne’s question: “What on earth has become of us?” The nostalgic implication here is that life was so much better before the kids all went crazy for that damn internet.

On the flip side, Jonathan Harris (who, unfortunately, was not in attendance at the panel) and July (whose collaborator Harrell Fletcher was also absent) displayed the strongest work in the show. Harris’ “We Feel Fine” attempts to “measure the ‘emotional temperature’ of the world in real time” by tracking blog posts that contain “I feel… ” or “I am feeling… ” statements. The piece centers on photographs, original charts, and graphs, and includes The Geography of Emotions, a color-coded guide to the emotional landscape of Americans. (New Yorkers, for the record, aren’t “feeling God”; they’re “feeling kinda drunk.”)

July and Fletcher’s project, a collection of captioned photos uploaded to in 2008, makes the political personal by bridging the gap between the daily lives of average individuals and famous politicians. The photos were posted as a response to a public art assignment that instructed participants to “choose someone from the news who made an impression on you. Imagine that you are them, and act out a moment of their day today.” The best of bunch was the simplest: “February 7, 2008: After conceding his bid for the Republican nomination this Thursday, declaring that, ‘In this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror,’ Mitt Romney awoke in the night, to remove his socks.”

I left the gallery feeling half-satisfied, with the nagging impression that the Pace played it way too safe. With such an exciting theme, the exhibition could’ve been so much more—bigger, for one, but also bolder, more innovative, and, well, younger. It could have explored the distinction between internet artists and art inspired by the internet. It could have sparked a real discussion between generations. It could have been a lot of things.

If you’re interested in seeing Social Media, it will be on display until October 15. Or you could just stay home and update your Facebook page, you know, depending on how you feel.