Bit of a delay in putting this up so I apologise. This is an article I wrote for the current issue of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet (Mar/Apr 2010) on Irish art blogging. The hard-copy news sheet is distributed to members of VAI and to galleries and arts centres around Ireland where it can be picked up for free. As stated in the footnotes section, several of the blogs and sites covered in the article are posting their thoughts and responses to my interview questions for the article online at the moment, so I would encourage you to follow the links to some of the sites and continue the discussion.
TWEETS, BLOGS & ART
Damien McGlynn on the recent upsurge of on line forums & discussion sites addressing Irish contemporary art
Passion is often said to be the driving force behind one’s decision to create art. That desire to produce something even if you are the only one who ever appreciates it, that drive to keep doing what you’re doing even with no remuneration and little or no praise. The same can be said of online blogging. While it is true that both artists and bloggers can and do earn a living, as well as praise, from their respective output, it is their passion that seems to bind them together. There is a certain respect garnered by those who dedicate themselves to something without expecting anything in return and those that pursue these ventures for the right reasons usually produce the best work.
Despite the fact that many have attempted to pronounce blogging “dead”, the art of blogging – as with most online culture – can still be described as being in its infancy. Every time I type the word blog or blogging, Microsoft Word 2003 helpfully decorates the underbelly of each word with a red line to suggest a spelling correction. Clearly this is because the software’s dictionary pre-dates the boom in blogging around the world in 2004 and 2005, though I can not swear that this has changed in newer versions. Simple blogging websites and software enabled anyone to produce and publish content with relative ease, allowing virtually everyone to have a platform for their views in the increasingly democratic world known as Web 2.0. This new dynamic for the online world focussed on developing interactivity, connectivity, mobile internet and applications to facilitate user-generated content. As the choir became the preachers the levelling of the playing field radically altered how discussions of many issues evolved.
Other industries and areas of interest such as music, sport, politics and technology, have been transformed by the growth of blogging in recent years. In 2010, a record label’s first port of call when promoting bands is not radio or newspapers but music blogs. The latest rumours, breaking stories and territorial arguments in sport first creep up online. The same can be said about most scandalous rumours and even more scandalous truths in the endlessly entertaining world of Irish politics. However, for whatever reason, the art industry has yet to fully embrace this model. The major players online, both in Ireland and internationally, are the established magazines and journals of old and the take-up of blogging has been a comparative crawl.
One of the names synonymous with critical art writing in Ireland over the past few decades is Circa Magazine. While producing their magazine over the past few years, the team behind Circa has also been carefully building up a nice little website on the side. In years gone by the site contained impressively comprehensive listings for exhibitions as well as the ongoing archival of articles and online-only exhibition reviews. In late 2008, the site began hosting a series of blogs, first from the editor, Peter FitzGerald, and in the following year, several more artists, curators and writers who were invited to post their own thoughts and musings on a Circa-hosted blog. The topics have ranged from funding issues and exhibitions to industry restructuring and the recent posts on the redesign of the magazine and attempts to lure people to the site with nonsensical celebrity gossip. While Circa may have been slightly ahead of others in their field by embracing the internet and subsequently blogging, they have inevitably felt the pinch of these modern times as most in the printed media industry have.
While publishers and magazines try to find ways to make free online content financially viable, many bloggers are taking a more structured, professional route and mimicking the magazine format online. Greg Baxter, Editor of Some Blind Alleys, says he added visual art coverage to what was originally a literary journal because “publishing stories and exhibiting art was somehow a more complete conversation about what is happening, and what is possible, in Ireland.” The site’s audience has been growing steadily and Baxter believes the variety of input from a team of contributors is key to this.
Niamh Dunphy, of the recently begun Paper Visual Art Journal, saw a need for coverage of work by lesser-known artists who may fall between the cracks. “I felt that there was a lack of dialogue and critique for emerging artists – between graduate and established art practice. There is a lot of good work happening out there that doesn’t get seen.” The site features articles and exhibition reviews as well as a Focus section which showcases artists’ work. Similarly, SuperMassiveBlackHole magazine sought to present the work of photographers who were not getting exposure through the limited options available to them in Ireland. Founding Editor Barry W Hughes says “I wanted to build a platform for introducing Irish photography to an international community and vice versa”. Hughes believes that maintaining an international outlook and focus with their downloadable PDF magazine will help them to grow and develop their reputation abroad. Regarding traditional media’s woes, he says “I think there has been a failing on the print media sector to identify what would give them the edge over the internet, but in the end there should really be a symbiosis in order to survive.”
We have more recently seen the somewhat overdue embracing of social networking by the art industry as many galleries now use these as promotional tools. At the height of MySpace’s domination of social networking, it struck me that they included tailored facilities for people to register not only as musicians or bands, but also as comedians and filmmakers. It seemed that artists were not as eager to climb aboard the bandwagon of 21st Century self-promotion. There were, of course, numerous attempts to get a social networking site specifically for artists up and running, but none of these efforts ever came all that close to grabbing serious attention.
Blackletter was a project initiated in 2004 by Alan Butler, Clíona Harmey and Niall Flaherty who saw the potential value in a centralised hub for Irish art activity online. When I spoke to Butler, he explained that their plan was to create a kind of communal resource that people could log into and contribute news and information. After building a suitable site using open source content management programs, Blackletter.ie was used regularly by those seeking either to promote a new exhibition or event and those looking for information and listings on such matters. They later utilised Google Maps technology to create ArtFinder, an interactive project which archives temporary public projects. As part of a major revamp of the site last year, new features allowed the site to act as a kind of aggregator, as well as becoming more integrated with other sites. Aside from retaining the useful ArtCal, allowing users to actively participate in Blackletter’s features using their Facebook accounts – as well as linking posts on their site to the Facebook fan page and Twitter – have helped to bring the process of engaging with Blackletter to other sites. The revamp also saw the addition of ArtDigest and ArtTweets as ways of collecting online art activity in Ireland into a stream of updates. ArtDigest takes over from a similar service on the old site and compiles the recent posts from a collection of blogs by artists and designers through their individual RSS feeds. ArtTweets recognises the rising influence of Twitter and presents a real-time feed of tweets from artists, institutions and websites relating to the arts in Ireland.
Whether Twitter is an incredibly useful communication tool or merely the latest service for the dissemination of banalities is a debate that is still going on today. If you have been reading any of the major newspapers, you may believe it must be the latter. The attitude of the mainstream media and traditional publishers towards the micro-blogging craze of Twitter has largely been similar to their negative attitude to blogging in the past few years. In the past year however, quite a few galleries and institutions as well as artists, sites and blogs have recognised the huge value in the instantaneous mass distribution of information that Twitter allows. Those that adopted the service early, such as the RHA, have learned to use the technology not just to promote a new show once every month or so but to take part in a dialogue with others in the industry – responding to queries, promoting other art ventures and worthy causes to their audience. With more and more people joining up to the site and figuring out its many mobile applications, the relevance of Twitter to the industry is only likely to grow in the foreseeable future. If the people behind the site achieve their goal of having one billion users by 2013 and becoming “the pulse of the planet”, the art world could hardly afford to be excluded from such a network. If nothing else, the dispersal of news and information regarding calls and opportunities for artists would surely be suited to the medium. Create have recently begun advertising opportunities from their InRes initiative while the National Gallery have been promoting free and family-friendly events through Twitter.
“To be honest, if I knew of really well-written, controversial, independent, take-no-s**t art bloggers (not linked to national newspapers), I’d be there all the time.”, so says Greg Baxter of Some Blind Alleys. Few though they may be, there are a number of Irish art blogs out there that are worthy of at least a tiny bit of your time. As is befitting for the blogging world, each caters to a somewhat different area or angle of the art world and their style of discussion and coverage is unique in its often personalised manner. One of the troublesome issues for many artists attempting to begin blogging is avoiding being caught between the stools of self-promotion and critical discussion. Of course, many happily marry the two and provide an interesting insight into the art, films and books that inform their own work, such as artist Jonathon Mayhew’s blog, Faint. Sara Baume’s schizophrenic introduction page displays her original post with all the Who, What and Why one would expect from an art blog mission statement but also includes the more recent, confessional post which retracts much of what she had originally purported. Her explanation of why she no longer felt comfortable promoting herself as an artist or critical writer is interesting reading for any artist who has questioned what it is they want to do. Self-Interest & Sympathy has been running since a few tentative posts in the summer of 2007. The collection of links, essays and documentation of interesting work from around the world are shared as “a kind of experimental, public notebook”. This kind of method is popular as it can serve as much of a purpose for the artist/author as it does for the potential audience. Philip Kennedy started producing Fieldwork – a kind of monthly blog magazine – as a way of keeping his artistic thoughts ticking over. He explained to me that setting this monthly deadline also encourages him to maintain a “work ethic” or level of involvement with cultural practice. His monthly dispatches are slick and well written guides to the art, architecture, design, music and cities that are currently putting a smile on his face. Kennedy says he is more interested in writing about things he loves – curating, in a way – rather than delving into the world of critique and scathing reviews. This area may well be the void that Shower of Kunst was aiming to fill when the group appeared from the Galwegian mist last year with a more cut-throat style to their writing and the tagline “Let’s Get Critical!”. The writing here is not immature or amateur though, rather excellently researched and thoughtful responses to exhibitions in the Galway area and beyond. The group of writers are refreshing in their clear intent to question everything from curation and the hidden meanings of artworks to arts administration and government policy.
A quick scan of the Irish Blog Directory will show you that art is one of the most popular tags used in the nation’s registered blogs ahead of sport, music, literature and travel. A significant number of these may not be blogs in the truest sense but rather artists who have used the simple software to bypass a web designer’s fee in making their own portfolio website however it maintains a place at the forefront of the public’s consciousness. It is likely though that in time we will see a further and greater uptake of blogging and Twitter in the Irish art world and hopefully, as Blackletter’s Alan Butler said, “This is a really, really good opportunity to break open the visual arts to audiences that wouldn’t have had a doorway into what was going on beforehand”.
(Several of those interviewed for this article plan to post their thoughts in full on their sites, listed below, around about the time this piece is published. Hopefully the discussion surrounding the purpose and future of Irish art blogging may be continued there.)