Fillip 17 — Fall 2012

Open Call Art, Democracy, and the Culture of Consensus
David Geers

Consensus: (noun) general or widespread agreement (esp. in the phrase consensus of opinion). [from Latin, from consentīre to feel together, agree]1

Imagine a typical day of online activity. You may, for instance, communicate with strangers and friends; share media via a number of sites and platforms; conduct research on Wikipedia (and, if ambitious enough, add to an entry); read articles and comment on them; shop for products that (once customized to personal tastes) arrive at your doorstep just a few days later; or play video games with others miles away. The same interactivity that contours this consumer information experience increasingly governs relations in the field of culture and knowledge production as well. More and more, we are asked for our input and our vote, whether in a collaboratively produced encyclopedic database (such as Wikipedia), in our shopping practices, or in electoral entertainment programs such as American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.

While much of this communication has had transformative social and cultural effects, it is more convenient than intrinsically good. For instance, with the unavoidable advent of “truthiness” in mass-circulated news channels, Internet buzz, and online commentary, we enter an epistemological space where information is evaluated less through critical analysis than by ritualized circulation, repetition, and consensus. Increasingly, we submit to the rule of the aggregate, to a faceless mass of “likes,” ratings, comments, and silent approval that involves us without directly involving us and represents us without ever actually touching us. Are we constructing, however passively, a culture of consensus—a culture predicated on interactivity that promotes an atmosphere of democracy while it, in fact, subdues us with the illusion of choice and collective agreement? How does this interactive society manifest in politics, nascent social movements, popular culture, and art? From Occupy Wall Street to open-source technology to museum exhibitions, there is a call for direct participation that is transforming our expectations as stakeholders and spectators, citizens and consumers. Yet, while new technological developments (online platforms, social media, etc.) open things up culturally and politically, cross-stitching the public and private spheres as never before, they also usher in a narrowing of politics and culture through isolationism, groupthink, and the re-inscription of class affinity and social segregation. These are the two faces of interactivity that I would like to explore: the open network and the gated community.

The Social and the Network

For those of us involved in new movements facilitated by social media like Occupy Wall Street (OWS), their rhizomatic social formations, swarming and recombining constituencies, and efforts at horizontality offer a liberating immersion into a progressively organized collectivity. With its promise of direct democracy, non-hierarchical participation, and innumerable access points into a hive-like community, it is difficult not to see in the Occupy movement a social and physical embodiment of the Internet itself. Indeed, some protesters and commentators have referred to OWS as an “open source” movement, citing its “wiki” mentality and its complete openness to outside contributions and problem solving. At least superficially, it has also been associated with the hacker/online-activist group Anonymous, whose smiling Guy Fawkes mask has become one of the most recognized faces of the movement. But can the social and the network be mapped onto each other?2 How can we articulate the continuum between direct and online political engagement? Furthermore, how does one coalesce into the other, and what channels does it use to take form?

Consider these questions in light of Michel de Certeau’s conceptualization of everyday practices that reroute, reuse, détourne, and, in short, “occupy” imposed structures, spaces, and established social scripts. In his 1980 book The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau articulates these tactics as invisible, aleatory forces that infiltrate and alter an imposed, static, and totalitarian architecture. As if writing about the Internet and new social formations like OWS, de Certeau contrasts these invisible practices to the mapped and visible strategies of the dominant social and political order that serve as their counterpart: Although they use as their material the vocabularies of established languages (those of television, newspapers, the supermarket or city planning), although they remain within the framework of prescribed syntaxes (the temporal modes of schedules, paradigmatic organizations of places, etc.), these “traverses” remain heterogeneous to the system they infiltrate and in which they sketch out the guileful ruses of different interests and desires. They circulate, come and go, overflow and drift over an imposed terrain, like the snowy waves of the sea slipping in among the rocks and defiles of an established order.3

While de Certeau located these swarm-like everyday practices in language, cooking, reading, or walking, he could not have anticipated that the most commonplace daily practice today would involve some version of online activity. Drawing on this analogy, media theorist Lev Manovich points out that unlike de Certeau’s invisible tactics, our everyday online practice is in fact often highly visible and narcissistic.4 We share information and online content, often reusing and remixing the products of consumer culture on many of the platforms that profit—via advertising—from such display. Moreover, companies, such as video game manufacturers, often eagerly supply consumers with the tools to remix, adapt, and customize their technologies, understanding that this inspires greater investment of time and energy in the product in the form of customizable features such as maps and characters. Tactics in this sense have become indistinguishable from strategies and those imposed have become intertwined with those adapted.5 Additionally, both are now raised to a point of transparent visibility where one advertises and promotes the other; supply seamlessly merges with demand.

While this exchange between producer and consumer alters traditional top-down marketing, it also hermetically seals the consumer in an insidious circuit where desire is continuously placated and fanned through potentially endless customization. From build-your-own sneakers to app-fuelled tablets, customized consumption generates its own silent consent as it contours the highly adaptable product to seamlessly express uniquely personal tastes.6 At the same time, while this merger of tactics and strategies in the product sphere and in online marketing closes the circle of consumption, I would nonetheless insist that there remains a kind of immanent invisibility—a hiding in plain sight, a relationship of parts to wholes—that has allowed certain practices, especially insurgent political thinking, to foment within the very spotlight of consumer culture and then to explode in the past year’s revolutionary fervour. Manovich, writing in 2009, already anticipates this possibility in citing the ambiguity of many online gestures—posts, gifts, clips, etc.—that cannot be associated with their explicit content in any straightforward way.7 As an example, Gabriella Coleman traces the emergence of Anonymous from a disorganized group of Internet “trolls” or pranksters on the controversial site 4Chan to an activist force waging campaigns against the Church of Scientology and NATO while in support of the OWS movement.8 Oppositional, “tactical” energies thus incubate within and through the most banal, fragmentary practices and in the most seemingly unrelated forums. These energies travel and live within channels of consumption and political complacency, waiting to be activated in order to coalesce. The image might be that of a swarm or fragments of discourse coded and embedded in so many banal conversations that suddenly combine into directed political consciousness; the same online tools that were devoted to narcissistic self-display become nodes for agitational streaming, unreported news, and political organization.9 How else to explain this global revolution’s sudden eruption? #OccupyWallStreet, a hashtag spread virally around the world, ignited energies that were as visible as they were unacknowledged.10

Furthermore, it is the same commercially motivated tools that now recast the very basic terms of production and consumption, realizing, however unevenly, Walter Benjamin’s model of the author as producer—and this producer as activist. Foreshadowing today’s profusion of bloggers, remixers, and fan culture “pro-ams” (professional-amateurs), Benjamin writes: The determinant factor is the exemplary character of a production that enables it, first, to lead other producers to this production, and secondly to present them with an improved apparatus for their use. And this apparatus is better to the degree that it leads consumers to production, in short that it is capable of making co-workers out of readers or spectators.11

For Benjamin, this model of productive-consumption was embodied in the newspaper and film, which cultivate the public as experts readily participating in the press and critically evaluating images on screen. “At any moment,” Benjamin writes, “the reader is ready to turn into a writer.” In the case of film, the average citizen turns into a critic, and in the case of newsreels—a precedent to our augmented reality shows—one even transitions “from passerby to movie-extra.”12 Critically, what Benjamin saw in these extensions of mechanical reproduction was the ability to radicalize the public. The very same masses revolutionized and engaged by film and the press become exami­ners, spectators, and producers, and in turn use this newfound position and technological enablement in the service of social transformation; the same technologies of self-regard used to further capitalist hegemony also carry the potential for its radical realignment. Is it not logical to speculate that this very convolution of production and consumption seen in so many online practices, reality television, and political formations like Occupy Wall Street lives out Benjamin’s vision? As the past year’s political awakening clearly shows, the strategic channels for social transformation already exist. Lying dormant in commercially utilized outlets, they simply wait to be tactically deployed towards political ends.

As Manovich points out, today’s productive consumption of online content has to be rethought and cannot be conceived in terms of straight speech or traditional novelty—instead today’s Internet pro-sumers often communicate in terms of ambiguous “tokens,” a call and response of posts, re-posts, media, or commentaries that quickly drift from the post that occasions them.13 It is, most often, a splintered and distracted discourse that populates many online forums (a fact that may be echoed in the absence of a single, reduci­ble “message” of OWS). As Benjamin presaged: “The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.”14 But what Manovich also highlights is how today’s Internet communities create opportunities for sharing cultural production and training with those who otherwise would not have access to them. As a small portion of these offerings, I can cite major universities like Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, MIT, and others that now offer free classes online, and sites like Open Culture, LibriVox, Project Gutenberg, Instructables, Pirate Bay, etc., that offer myriad educational resources (e.g., just look up “oil painting tutorial” on YouTube and you can get free demonstrations from 5,220 results). These developments and opportunities not only educate, entertain, and train people, but can also make anyone with some ambition enough of an expert to compete with those who are institutionally and professionally accredited. While this trend has fomented debate around the so-called “cult of the amateur,” it has also made people competent producers who can contribute to an industry and, even more, it has made them active participants in the political process, where a blog can actually influence political opinions and a YouTube video gone viral can make or break a candidate.15

In addition to wrecking the careers of prominent politicians (e.g., one can think of the comical Weinergate here), such personalized access to media, countersurveillance, and sousveillance has also been used to great effect by Occupy Wall Street. Who at this point has not seen the pepper-spraying footage from UC Davis or the tear-gassing attacks in Oakland? Today’s hyper-televised revolution has consistently incriminated the state and whatever policing agencies it engages by faithfully documenting the state’s betrayal of the public trust and virally circulating the footage of the movement’s suppression. This ability, more than anything, reverses and confounds the traditional vectors between sovereign power and subjects, while simultaneously making of the revolution a neighbourhood scandal inflated to global proportions. In this restructuring of the panoptic regime into a polyopticonic labyrinth of streaming representations, it is the prisoners—now armed with cellphone cameras—that shame and surveil the warden.16

But then, this collapse of political boundaries also has its counterpart and reactionary dimension. Interactivity’s other, less egalitarian face emerges precisely in the contraction and divisiveness that it calls into being. This is especially the case with so-called “filter bubbles” or “information cocoons” produced by search tools such as Google and “content-farming” companies that track the user’s browsing history and expose him or her to an increasingly narrow, ideologically comfortable or commercially profitable field of information.17 It is more dangerous still when social media becomes an accomplice to violence. To be sure, while the circulation of media, globalized acts of witnessing, and shared public consciousness help galvanize a wave of democratization across the globe, these acts can also realize the “irrational...plundering, ferocious, bloody and tyrannical democracy” seen by Edmund Burke in the mobs of the French Revolution.18 The mob can suddenly rule (now with tools enabling a globalized technological reach); the same social media that can revolutionize oppressed populations to rise up against their dictators in the Middle East can also be used to organize flash mobs of rioting teens in Philadelphia and London. The same tools that organize OWS’s democratic actions can also instigate swarms of misdirected lawlessness, vandalism, or worse. In Rwanda, Hutu extremists used cars with loudspeakers and the radio to organize mass killings—are we still awaiting a Twitter genocide?

Physical and virtual engagement don’t always align, either. Indeed, as direct participation and interactivity infiltrate more of our daily lives, tensions naturally arise in the mapping of the technological onto the social, as if the network of one were somehow commensurate and symmetrical to the properties of the other.19 As an example, Malcolm Gladwell has described the “weak-tie” relationships that networks such as Facebook and Twitter cultivate—relationships that succeed “not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”20 Gladwell contrasts these to “strong-tie” relationships that motivate actual, high-risk activism such as that of the pre-Internet Civil Rights Movement—relationships afforded by physical proximity, sustained face-to-face dialogue, and a sense of shared responsibility. Media theorist Evgeny Morozov has also pointed out that online collectivism—represented in part by Facebook’s effort to automatically broadcast each member’s online cultural consumption to his or her “friends”—can turn into a form of tyranny.21 For Morozov, this enforced sociality and public display marks the disappearance of the “cyberflanerie” that once made the Internet a boulevard for private browsing and contemplation.22 Indeed, in such “frictionless sharing” one tacitly consents to a collectivized exteriority as to a regime of involuntary advertising.

But if the herd-like collectivism of Facebook represents the right wing that is often maligned by Anonymous, what of Occupy Wall Street’s own culture of consensus? Informed by anarchist models of direct democracy and acting as a human-wiki answer to majoritarian politics, consensus here is also not without its challenges. Artist Mark Read, responsible for 2011’s signature 99% “Bat Signal”—an animated sequence parasitically projected onto New York’s Verizon Building—has written that the consensus process, when applied to large heterogeneous groups such as OWS, can actually stratify people and elevate the most aggressive and privileged voices.23 Consider also the movement’s attachment to the physical space of Zuccotti Park, whose political advantages could not be mirrored or met by OWS’s enormous online community. Is this not nostalgia for the “strong-ties” of proximity and the friction of actual sharing?24 The physical sense of the social is quite different, it turns out, from the open network. It is, in fact, the unique achievement of the physical Occupations that they presented a fragile and fleeting union of the virtual and the actual—a long-sought public forum whose ideational and social dimensions extended into a global map of utopian communities.25

Art, Technology, Participation

Contemporary art has also felt the effects of an exponentially intensifying interconnectivity, registering its Janus-faced character. We can see this impact manifested in the material and formal focus of many recent practices that react to the increasing mobility and dematerialization of aesthetic experience engendered by online tools.26 On the level of marketing, too, there has been a technological facelift to the way art is trafficked. For like the average consumer’s experience of shopping on Zappos or Amazon, many art collectors today shop via JPEGs. As a kind of turning point, at the time of this writing, James Cohan Gallery has organized the second annual VIP Art Fair, the first of its kind online. Bogged down by technical glitches in its first incarnation, the fair is likely to be just the beginning of a new and virtual form of aesthetic consumption in which galleries and collectors from around the world can participate in the buying and selling of works regardless of geographic distance. When considering the paradox of why one would want a virtual art fair when most artists now have Web sites, it is clear that the gallery continues to play a significant role as a filter and mediator. Given the volume of online information, it is simply too daunting for the collector to conduct his or her own research—to go directly to the kitchen, thus bypassing the maitre d’—even though this would be financially advantageous. More critically, the psychology behind acquiring art is rarely about buying it wholesale, but rather about the adventure of the purchase, which often combines the mysteries of a cult with an art safari. One doesn’t simply buy art, one buys into a network of prestige, hidden knowledge, and social alliances. Thus, the gallery’s role as the primary educator of its clientele is once more cemented in the online milieu as something that simultaneously generates value as it selects and ratifies a set of practices out of a vast field of production. We therefore arrive at the image of the gated community that carefully screens its members. And its chief product—given the increasing online access to many artists’ studios—is exclusivity itself.27

As a complement to these new forms of aesthetic and physical consumption via online platforms such as Google Art Project, VIP,, etc., the artist has also seen a technological enablement of different working procedures. A fully equipped (and funded) interdisciplinary studio may now partake in digital scanning, 3D printing, and communication with and employment of fabricators in different parts of the world, not to mention a complex division of management and labour. However, although this technological shift produces substantially greater outsourcing and diverse communication and production patterns, the figure of the high-tech “post-studio” artist (e.g., Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick) ironically recalls a medieval European paradigm in which the patron (now the artist employing so many anonymous “craftsmen”) receives the credit for the work. Moreover, what determines the artist’s “arrival” (or productive capacity, in this case) is his or her access to technology and hiring power. This determinant generates a particular type of deskilling of artists in the traditional sense of studio craft but inaugurates a reskilling of them as rhetoricians and business managers. As more work becomes outsourced, the notion of expertise becomes dismantled as well, so that the artist is simply someone who chooses to be in the discourse and can (hopefully but not necessarily) command certain rhetoric. The field, in other words, becomes defined through voluntary participation as opposed to a set of manual skills or talents. This gradual restructuring promotes openness and divisiveness at the same time; it opens up the field to promiscuous experiments, to new forms of expertise, and—as technology becomes cheaper—to other actors. Yet, it also generates a field composed of ambitious amateurs whose status is established by a managerial and promotional skill set, social ambition, class advantages, and, most of all, means.

These technological shifts reflect in the social structure of the art world as well. On the one hand, new interactive technologies threaten its closed system and hierarchies: it becomes increasingly hard (though still not impossible) to keep the information in, the doors closed, and the gatekeepers monopolizing knowledge and aesthetic experience. An artist can now engage with his or her collector directly, through many online tools. Likewise, as the production and distribution of images has become more affordable, he or she is less beholden to the gallery for marketing and promoting work. This burgeoning autonomy in turn allows the artist to function less as a serf tied to a gallery “stable” than as a travelling migrant worker in charge of his or her own production and income—no middleman, no percentage or taxes paid to the local lord. As this redistribution of commercial channels slowly evolves, it also transforms the art world into another marketplace whose edges become fuzzy. We see this development now in the phenomenon of smaller art fairs and in the art world becoming defined through globalized lines of commerce and a particular type of social space rather than through a discrete discourse.28 We also see this in other commercial platforms like Etsy or 20×200 that attempt to bring handicraft, or in the latter example, photography and prints, directly to the consumer. Can one imagine an Etsy, or even an eBay, for contemporary art? Such may be the inspiration behind and similar online enterprises that are now only emerging. Google “crowdsourcing and contemporary art” and see what happens.29

However, while these shifts facilitated by interactive technology allow for border-crossing practices and engaging pro-amateurism of all kinds, they also reinforce a conservative structure that demands some role for expertise and pedigree given the sheer immensity of “talent” and information. Such is the key paradox of this moment: that now, during a time of unprecedented interconnectivity, when every artist has a Web site, we also witness a rise in the art consulting profession and increased focus on education as a seal that ratifies a set of “legitimate” practices.30 The exponential growth of MFA programs and recent push to have PhD programs for artists are perhaps the greatest symptoms of this reactionary contraction. Though this development allows for a deepening and specialization of artistic research, it nonetheless extends the growing business of academic accreditation as yet another profit-motivated industry.31 Moreover, it also reinvigorates a traditional divide between the accredited aesthetic producer (now ratified by tuition expenditure and elite educational pedigree) and the manual fabricator who often works as a common, skilled labourer for a daily wage.

Interestingly, the difference between the “common” and the “legitimate” appears most clearly when the boundaries interlace. Indeed, the art world has embraced populism and audience participation of late, as witnessed by the entertainment-based nature of recent museum shows like the Guggenheim’s relational aesthetics showcase theanyspacewhatever (2008–09), MoMA’s Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (2010), and Carsten Höller: Experience (2011–12) at the New Museum.32 Consider, too, such phenomena as the recently instituted ArtPrize (where viewers vote to award $550,000 to exhibiting artists) or even reality shows like Work of Art, which brings a diluted version of contemporary art to the Bravo network’s mass audience.33 In these latter examples, the worlds of the popular and the insular collide. At the same time, the controversy around the legitimacy of this work and judgment criteria points to the closed system of the art world trying to protect a discrete structure as well as the economic asymmetry that subtends it. Granted, there have been many tragic attempts to let the people “be the judges of their own art.”34 For example, the many faces of totalitarian art have appealed to the taste of the people by placating them with heroic figuration, scale, and sentimental motifs, while our market champions, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Damien Hirst, utilize the same idioms of scaled-up kitsch in a baroque celebration of capital. As Andy Warhol once said: “Russia is doing it under government. It’s happening here all by itself.”35 Yet, as the art world mirrors the mass, participatory culture at large, the illegitimacy of venues where people get to vote for their art reveals something else. In the end, the art world is structured along class lines and class aspirations, and though it may bear the rhetoric of democracy, it actually shuns every confrontation with it in action. The image of the mob once again reappears in the culture of aesthetic populism where it provokes a base anxiety. What, after all, is to separate our Takashi Murakamis from the Peter Maxes, the Damien Hirsts from the Martha Stewarts? The Warholian model that advances business as art also generates these unlikely bedfellows, who all rely on assembly line production, mass distribution, and popular, often infantile motifs appealing to a notional common denominator. Our art world cannot think these contradictions at once and must segregate as it reaches out; it must insist on economic distinction in the very gesture of aesthetic inclusiveness.

Popular Shopping

Given these configurations and cultural patterns, it is hard to make predictions for the future of this industry, but I am too curious to see how they evolve not to venture some now, since, even if (or when) they are wrong, a rough and tangible sketch of the field is better as a baseline than nothing at all. My conjecture is that as technological penetration into culture intensifies, the art world will in fact become more polarized and diluted at the same time. Picture, if you will, a solid, more isolated core with a significantly larger orbit that is conventionally populist and that eventually dissipates into the regular marketplace. The distinctions between these strata will not be discursive, but simply established by financial access. Galleries will resemble shops more and more, and the discourse will have to contend with a significantly more interactive and populist sphere—yes, the sphere of the 99%. Some of it will be high culture, and much will not. The basic layout as well, already decentralized and dispersed across the globe, mirrors our online experience of, say, Amazon—perhaps no longer a gaseous planet with a solid gold core but rather a galaxy with hard-to-get-to regions. Perusing an art fair and an online shopping site, one experiences the same scanning practices, ocular fatigue, inattention, and reliance on convenient filtering devices. Indeed, as the VIP Art Fair makes vividly clear, the difference between the two is mostly terminological, and exists in the end (or for us in the profession) to protect value.

Caught within these gravitational forces we find the contemporary art academy that now torques between the business pressures of tuition-farming, faith in an anti-commercial discourse, and a renegade field of mercantile practice that it inadvertently feeds. The academy certainly plays a role in this scenario (in part by churning out new producers for the industry), but as it better fulfills its role as the gatekeeper of the marketplace, so too does it intensify a negative theology to buffer the passage of the student from critical thinker to savvy business person. So the art world unconsciously transforms into a mirror of its alleged enemy, into the mass culture of consensus—a vast shopping network where it is up to the viewer to choose his own adventure, not according to the primacy of a discourse, but simply according to predilection and means. In the language of Amazon: viewers who like Tim Hawkinson might also like Tom Friedman; collectors who bought Eberhard Havekost might also buy Wilhelm Sasnal. But, of course, this is not the future but the present, and such marketing is common practice to any art dealer who knows his client’s taste and budget range.


Having painted this picture of the current landscape, how do we, especially artists, grapple with the seismic shifts wrought by interactive technology? The most interesting practices for me are those that straddle both popular and “elite” spheres and thus lead the discourse of art towards greater interpenetration with other fields of knowledge. One may call this a kind of critical kitsch or progressive populism—but it does rely on a “naive” (read: idealistic) faith in the cognitive and creative abilities of a “public.” This area is perhaps where the crowdsourced, aesthetic-tactical interventions of the OWS movement—already informed by so many artists—can lead the way.36 Consider the freely shared and downloadable products of Occuprint or OWS’s many quasi-Situationist actions uploaded to YouTube or its makeshift engagements with public space as just a few examples. These interventions may admit expertise in one field but amateurism in another and open up the circulation of aesthetic experience to many different audiences.37 Such multiple positioning is the equivalent of Duchamp trying to sell his rotoreliefs at the toy fair, but now open to a larger, collective, and viral dimension. The art world examples may be obvious: Seth Price, who has virally disseminated his texts and sound pieces online; Ryan Trecartin, many of whose videos can be readily found on YouTube; or relational practices, like those of Rikrit Tiravanija, Liam Gillick, Francis Alÿs, and others, that engage the public as collaborator but all too easily aggrandize the artist instead.38 But what about the everyday practices barely visible within the contours of our biennales and glossy magazines? What of those visible but unacknowledged practices that have a viral but effective life, that make or break candidates, that are shared via Facebook and downloaded onto smart phones? What of those “invisible” tactics that de Certeau talks about—practices invisible to the art industry but hiding in plain sight?

These are practices that may not be considered art (yet) and so escape its terminological snare. They are the “unofficial” remixes of fan culture and fan fiction, such as that of the Star Wars “Phantom Edit” that reconceives the film along popular demand, or photoshopped memes, like that of the infamous “Pepper-Spraying Cop,” that channel politically subversive energies and casual yet unbridled forms of creativity. They are embodied in the Yes Men–style Whitney Biennial Web site, which, among other acts of conscience, convincingly announced the Whitney’s break-up with Sotheby’s over the auction house’s protracted labour dispute with its art handlers. Consider too the recent Telethon for the 1%, organized by the fictional FIPCA. This twelve-hour, live-streamed telethon hosted by artist Guy Richard Smit satirically appealed for money for the wrongfully vilified and economically threatened 1%, so they can in turn keep buying art. Punctuated with artist William Powhida’s venomous “apologies” to all the people he has satirized or insulted, this carnivalesque performance bridged the gap between the oasis of the art world and an anonymous viewership of onlookers tuning in on an illicit critique. More artists should (and many do) enter this populist, heterogeneous, and communal sphere, not as missionary work, or plebian slumming, but as an act of translation that has the goal of being humbled, recombined, and shared. They should appeal, that is, to an expanded audience composed of other productive consumers, composed, respectively, of other experts.

Art institutions and galleries could partake in this process, too, by embracing the democratizing effects of technology as something that can bring new forms of collectivity and cooperation and thus offer a mutually transformative encounter with the public. They should not shun the culture of the “mob,” but make good on their open calls and extend the field to human stories in an attempt to make it more meritocratic and less feudal. Is this appeal an attack on value? Perhaps. But it is also a reframing of it ethically, along the lines of inclusiveness and equally enriching, spread-out aesthetic experience.39 Galleries, collectors, and curators could, for instance, take a chance and get in touch with artists directly, given the technological availability of most everyone’s work online, rather than rely on a culture of matchmaking that is buttressed by costly academic validation.40 This effort would demand the cultivation of a real eye and the self-assurance of individual taste that demands no outside expert to justify. Often, this process is started and aborted for fear of some uncontrolled access—as if once the gates to the castle were opened they would never close again. But fortresses also make prisoners of their inhabitants. The technology at hand is one that can be implemented to facilitate the democratic process; we, however, fear putting it to use. But only this untried and unthinkable excursion into populism (into feeling together) will make the field competitive as a structure of democracy and, yes, more American than American Idol. There is an open call in the broader culture, and if we don’t apply, we risk falling into irrelevance or into our own discrete mob.

  1. From the Free Online Dictionary.
  2. See Alexis Madrigal, “A Guide to the Occupy Wall Street API, or Why the Nerdiest Way to Think about OWS Is So Useful,” Atlantic, November 16, 2011,
  3. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 34.
  4. Lev Manovich, “The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production?” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (Winter 2009), 319–31.
  5. As a succinct explanation of these terms: “But what distinguishes them at the same time concerns the types of operations and the role of the spaces: strategies are able to produce, tabulate, and impose these spaces, when those operations take place, whereas tactics can only use, manipulate, and divert these spaces.” Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 30.
  6. The key point here is that the “customer dissatisfaction” implicit in top-down marketing also provides a critical space outside of perfected consumption. For instance, if I don’t “love my phone,” it intimates that I can never be satisfied with a commodity, and the vacuum-seal of customization is not total. (Compare this to Apple’s pitch that with the new iPad “Nothing comes between you and what you love.”) Moreover, as we uncritically embrace the benefits of customized marketing, we also scotomize the harsh realities of outsourced labour that makes this new economy of individuation possible. The performed freedom of the emancipated, neoliberal consumer has as its counterpoint the hidden unfreedom and abuses of developing-world factories. See Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, “In China, Human Costs Are Built into an iPad,” New York Times, January 25, 2012,
  7. Citing media designer Adrian Chan’s analysis of social media, Manovich claims that much communication online is more like a semaphore of gestures defined by ambiguity, social and emotive interest, and commentary that can drift off topic and redouble meaning. One might think here of the many signs of approval, “likes,” ratings, or reconfigured media that perpetuate coded conversations and group solidarity as well as the splintered discussions of many online forums that lead to other topics, posts, and reposts.
  8. Gabriella Coleman, “At Least Our Weirdness Is Free,” Triple Canopy, January 13, 2012,
  9. Echoing this image, Gregory Sholette interestingly calls OWS a “swarmchive”—a swarm-like, viral formation animated by an archival memory of past oppositional efforts. See Gregory Sholette, “OCCUPOLOGY, SWARMOLOGY, WHATEVEROLOGY: the city of (dis)order versus the people’s archive,” art journal, Winter 2011,
  10. For a history of #OccupyWallStreet and its viral circulation, see Ben Berkowitz, “From a Single Hashtag, Protest Circled the Globe” Reuters, October 17, 2011,
  11. Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” New Left Review I/62 (July/August 1970),
  12. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 231–32.
  13. According to Adrian Chan, “All cultures practice the exchange of tokens that bear and carry meanings, communicate interest and count as personal and social transactions. The token gestures common among social media are a form of language and belong to a kind of social interaction.” They are “accompanied by ambiguity of intent and motive (the token’s meaning may be codified while the user’s motive for using it may not). This can double up the meaning of interaction and communication, allowing the recipients of tokens to respond to the token or to the user behind its use.” See Adrian Chan, “Social Media: Paradigm Shift?” Gravity7, accessed on March 8, 2012 ,
  14. Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 241.
  15. See Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
  16. For an example of this practice as it is manifested in the critique of art institutions, see footage of Occupy Museums at MOMA on January 27, 2012 (, or Arts and Labor at the 2012 Whitney Biennial (
  17. See Eli Pariser, “Beware Online ‘Filter Bubbles,’” TED, posted May 2011,
  18. Edmund Burke, from “Speech in the Debate on the Army Estimates in the House of Commons, on Tuesday, February 9, 1790,” excerpted in Reflections on the Revolution in France: A Critical Edition, ed. J. C. D. Clark (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 66–67.
  19. See Adrian Chan’s paradoxes of social media: “Social = anti-social; Communication = non-communicative; Self = Self Image; Other = Imagined Other; Presence = Absence; Identity = Changing; Personal tastes are highly social; Utility can be useless.” Adrian Chan, “Social Media: Paradigm Shift?” Gravity7, accessed on March 8, 2012,
  20. Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” New Yorker, October 4, 2010,
  21. Evgeny Morozov, “The Death of the Cyberflâneur,” New York Times, February 4, 2012,
  22. For Morozov, “cyberflanerie” describes a casual and speculative surfing of the Internet that, in its early days, was a “virgin territory, not yet colonized by governments and corporations.” He contrasts this to the new, rationalized, app-centered Internet that, “transcending its original playful identity,” is “no longer a place for strolling—it’s a place of getting things done.” Morozov, “The Death of the Cyberflâneur.”
  23. “The consensus process, when applied to large heterogeneous groups such as the one at #occupywallst, yields hierarchies at least as persistent and pernicious as other forms of decision-making, probably more….In the current context, the consensus process favors those that feel comfortable addressing crowds, and feel entitled enough to argue endlessly for their point of view. This does not describe most people, and these traits are most prevalent in people that come from privilege, particularly educational privilege….So, in practice, the very people that are intended to be emboldened and empowered by a consensus process, are in fact marginalized and silenced.” Mark Read, “Notes on How the Mo(ve)ment Talks and Learns from Itself during the American Autumn,” Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, October 2011,
  24. It should be noted that while the movement looks to historical prece­dents like the Civil Rights era and May ’68 for inspiration, what was also particular to at least the physical Occupation in New York was the economy of gift exchange as evidenced in the Free Network Foundation’s Freedom Tower, which provided free Internet to the encampment; the People’s Library, which afforded free access to books, newspapers, zines, and other printed materials; and Liberty Plaza’s kitchen, which fed Occupiers and visitors for free. In a society structured around extracting profit from all things, this gift economy—literally a “free lunch”—acts as perhaps the most uncanny and powerful affront to capitalist exchange by casting this system’s extortive nature into stark relief. It is no wonder that J. Edgar Hoover saw the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast as the group’s most dangerous program. In the same way, the gift economy of the Occupation makes vivid the system of greed and exploitation that surrounds it. This exemplary ethos of altruism was and continues to be the Occupy movement’s most “dangerous” recruitment tool.
  25. One of the key attributes of the Occupation at Zuccotti Park, and those like it, was that it reanimated the idea of a public square—a civic space where citizens and strangers could engage in political conversation and discuss the course of their society. As a counterpoint to this attribute, reflect on the overwhelmingly commercial character of every public square and forum in New York City. OWS’s attempts to occupy privately owned public spaces (POPS for short) are thus an attempt to reanimate their civic function and to merge it with a broader public sentiment; each “occupation” functions as a node, a beacon, and a prefigurative colony.
  26. For a discussion of the neo-formalist dimension of this impulse, see David Geers, “Neo Modern,” October, no. 139 (Winter 2012), 10–14.
  27. This segregative mentality is borne out most recently in Frieze Art Fair’s decision to stage its inaugural New York incarnation on Randall’s Island. Secluded away from the general populace, rejecting union labour, and charging an exorbitant admission fee, it represents, literally, the art world as an island destination.
  28. For more on this, see Ben Davis, “Speculations on the Production of Social Space in Contemporary Art, with Reference to Art Fairs,” Artinfo, May 10, 2012,
  29. For more on crowdsourcing, see Jeff Howe, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing,” Wired, June 2006,
  30. See Shane Ferro, “The Ascent of the Art Advisor: 5 Things to Know about the Growing Taste-for-Hire Industry,” Artinfo, August 2, 2011,
  31. For more on the mercantile motives behind this educational expansion, see Okwui Enwezor, Stephan Dillemuth, and Irit Rogoff, “Schools of Thought,” Frieze, September 2006,
  32. For more on this trend see Jerry Saltz, “The Long Slide: Museums as Playgrounds,” New York Magazine, December 4, 2011,
  33. Inspired by the ArtPrize and the tradition of neighbourhood-wide open studios, the Brooklyn Museum is also instituting an electoral project called “GO: a community-curated open studio project” where “studio visitors will be empowered to nominate artists for inclusion in a group exhibition to be held at the Museum.” For more on this project see
  34. For the artist does not create for the artist, but just like everyone else he creates for the people. And we will see to it that from now on the people will once again be called to be the judges of their own art.” Adolph Hitler, “Speech Inaugurating the ‘Great Exhibition of German Art,’” in Art in Theory 1900–1990, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992), 423–26.
  35. Andy Warhol, “Interview with Gene Swenson,” Art News, (1963),
  36. It should be pointed out that the largest working group of OWS is Arts & Culture. Additionally there are art guilds, thematic groups like Arts & Labor, and many affinity groups and collectives that are often composed of artists, art workers, and other art professionals. The movement has thus always been informed by the art community with which it forms a complex matrix of participation and influence.
  37. Consider also experiments such as the Public School (, or YouTube’s “Expert Village,” or the whole culture of the free online tutorial.
  38. For more on the problems of many collaborative, relational practices see Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and It’s Discontents,” Artforum, February 2006. Available online at
  39. For this ethical call and more of OWS’s relation to contemporary art, see Erin Sickler, “Art and the 99%,” Art in America, January 2012,
  40. The VIP Art Fair did in fact hold an open call and awarded a prize. The competition, however—though it was online—was only open to a list of “over 50 of the top MFA programs in the world.” As the prize money is split with the institution, it also sets up a complex and problematic relationship between the art academy and the art market/art fair where one seamlessly bleeds into the other.
About the Author

David Geers is a freelance writer based in New York. In addition to writing, he frequently collaborates with artists. Since 2011, he has worked closely with groups affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

You Might Also Enjoy
Folio EOut Now