A New Age of Literacy

A New Age of Literacy, Zach Gage 2015 - Given at the SFPC welcome event.

Thanks for the nice words Taeyoon, and thanks so much for inviting me to talk here. I really love what The School For Poetic Computation is all about, and it’s always great to come in and talk here. For this opening event, Zach asked me to come and give an inspiring talk of some kind… I don't know that I can actually do “inspiring”, but I can definitely talk about something that I find to be really exciting.

Ever since i was little and my mom started bringing me to museums and exposing me to art theres a realization that has been slowly dawning on me, and that realization is that art, these days, is primarily the domain of the cultured and elite. (this is not the exciting part)

It’s not to say that art isn’t accessible to those without money, but I think as artists we need to be real with ourselves about who is actually consuming the work we create. Obviously when I look around this room I see a lot of excited faces, but I think our common operation within a community of artists is inadvertently shielding us from the truth—that the role fine art plays in culture has been ever shrinking throughout the past half century, and that things have become especially dire as of late.

Speaking to Amit about why this has happened he reminded me that back before Modern Art, the mainstream used the literacy afforded to them by their faith to discuss art. Paintings and sculptures were work for God. When Modern Art came around it was the first time that artists decided to take literacy into their own hands, make their own language. And it worked for a while, but the longer you speak in your own language, the further you get from mainstream culture, and nearly two centuries in on Modern Art I think the mainstream has completely lost the thread.

Looking up the wikipedia entry on Art Periods here’s what the bottom of the list looks like:

The only thing on that list i’ve even heard of is “Digital Art” — and wow what a catchall. And also, that list stops before the year 2000! No mention of the weakly named ubiquitous New Media Art? and where is net art?! Sure some of these things show up on wikipedia’s ‘Art Movements’ page, but apparently they’re not substantial enough to be considered periods. So where are we these days? At least according to Wikipedia we're in no-mans-land... Or maybe Digital art... or Toyism, great.

And that’s the point really.

Fine Art is just straight-up missing from mainstream culture these days.

This isn’t to say the mainstream isn’t getting it’s artistic sensibilities tickled every once in a while, after all they have music and television and movies — it’s just not typically us that’s doing the tickling anymore.

And solving this problem isn’t just a matter of marketing.
As we’ve separated from the cultural discourse, we’ve abandoned any shared-literacy we might have once had. Simply put, culture at large hasn’t had a way to think or talk about contemporary art for a long time.

I remember years ago when I was first starting out as an artist, I literally had no idea how to explain to people what I did. Even to my friends. “I make weird’ internet things? Software Art? Internet Sculptures? Even once i found the terminology, nobody could actually understand what I was saying. What a relief it has been to be able to tell people I make video-games. You guys seriously can’t imagine what it’s like to tell someone what you do and hear them actually get excited.

But actually, this is my point (this is where I get excited). All of this stuff is changing. Right now—I think—is the most exciting time to be involved in art that I’ve been a part of in my admittedly pretty short lifetime, and it’s entirely due to a little thing called the internet.

The internet has revolutionized a lot of businesses to be sure. From Etsy, to Kickstarter, to Indie Videogames, the internet is providing new ways for people to reach other people. For the little guy to act like the big guy. But the internet is doing something extra special for artists.

See, the thing with the internet is that it’s a whole new place. It's not just a tool for people to use, it’s a new space for people to inhabit. As artists we’re used to scrutinizing the world around us and the experiences we have in it, and using that scrutiny, that literacy, to make art—Modern Art. But people in the physical world, they don’t scrutinize much anymore. They just live here. We no longer share a literacy with most of those people.

But online, the world is so new, and so weird, and so technical, that everyone scrutinizes. And if they don’t scrutinize, a blog they read, or a podcast they listen to does it for them. Of all the things the internet has supposedly democratized, I think one of the biggest is that it’s finally democratized social literacy. Gone are the “people who think about life” and the “people who don't”. Nobody just lives on the internet, everyone is constantly thinking about what it means to live there. Internet users have a powerful active role in creating the culture of their spaces.

I like to think of the internet as an alternate history version of the physical world — one where street art has taken off and become the law of the land, and everyone has the literacy for it.

Memes, ‘First’ing, rickrolls, photoshopping, instagramming, twittering, snapchat, even pinteresting! These are all creative acts, and they’re the bedrock of the internet experience, because the internet experience is about sharing. The thing with sharing, especially sharing in public, is that everything you share becomes culture, intentionally or not. And constant public sharing gives people the time and space and participation to build a deep, complex, and nuanced culture. And everyone who participates in these large services gains this intense literacy in the rules and structures of that culture. And we, as artists, can tap into that literacy and subvert it, or explore it, or celebrate it, in the same way that we do in the physical world, except online, that literacy is pervasive. It’s not the domain of the select few who have chosen to explore it, it’s the property of the masses, who are just as invested in tracking it as they are in creating it, and being a part of it.

And this literacy fundamentally changes how art can be a part of culture.
I want to look back at a few of my projects as an example.

Way back in 2007 I made a piece called Thought Crimes. It was one of my first interactive pieces, and it was a relatively simple one. It was a hallway which when you walked through it, it would project a thought bubble over your head with a thought in it. The thoughts had all been written by my classmates and I had over a hundred of them. Some were funny, or passive, or embarrassing, and they would simply be assigned to people at random, and noted by passerby.

The work was about how fungible information is, and how sticky it is. It was about how the tiny bits of privacy we give up can be used to construct stories about us that may or may not be true, but will regardless stick to us, potentially dangerously. I didn’t know it at the time, but the work was about metadata tracking, and also about internet-mobs and dogpiling, and harassment. To sell that angle, I created a very hokey video presenting the entire work as a government checkpoint machine. It was a bit heavy handed, but it was ultimately pretty necessary just to even frame for people what they were looking at and experiencing. Keep in mind this was way back before the social internet. Facebook only existed at a handful of colleges, and Twitter basically did not exist.

Now you might say "Sure Zach, of course it was complicated and involved to explain the work, you were talking about structures that had only recently been put in place." But I would counter with: at that same senior show there were fantastic abstract paintings that talked about just as complex structures, except they didn’t even attempt to convey themselves, they couldn’t, it was too much. Comparitively, my work was actually pretty straightforward.

It was an entire show of complexity, the history of Modern Art is complexity.

I’ve shown the piece more recently, and when I show it now, I just scrape the thoughts from Twitter in realtime, and include “public tweets” in my materials list to clue people in on whats happening. I ditched all the other presentation. It’s definitely a lighter message now, but look at how much structure and fanfare I was able to drop from the work! It’s so much simpler now. Of course though, people still have to go to galleries to see it, so it's not quite available for mainstream consumption.


So lets look at another work, something closer to the present. It’s a very recently released piece of mine called #Fortune, and it’s release was on the AppStore.

#Fortune is a small fortune teller about how we present ourselves online, and how we use presentation to socialize with each-other.

#Fortune does a few things that are irregular for a piece of art:
First, it presents itself as a utility.
And Second, It has ads. Yep! Art with ads. It's okay! We can do this now!

It also does a few things that are irregular for an app:
First, It has a placard denoting it’s status as a piece of art

And Second, it has a short and beguiling description:

I worried when I launched it that people would slam it for being “pretentious art” and someone did! But only just one person, and actually many people have written me thanking me for including the placard.

I worried its audience would be small, and it is small! But it’s engaged, and more importantly, it’s diverse across age and interest. About 50 new people download the piece each day, and about 200 images are shared each day of fortunes.

I worried it wouldn’t make much money, and it doesn’t! But it does make 30cents to a dollar per day, which is actually more than I can say for most of my artworks.

So is it a great success for an App? Is it my new SpellTower? No way! But, for a piece of art, these numbers actually aren't so bad!

An accessible work, complex in it’s depth, primarily engaged with by a diverse range of non-art connoisseurs, that generates audience, money, and conversation — I'll take it.

And most importantly, when I tell people I’m an artist now, I can say, download my app, or talk to my twitter bot, or visit one of my internet sculptures. Or I can just pull my phone out of my pocket and show them.

And that to me is incredibly exciting.

And of course here I’m not saying museum or gallery art is bad. I love physical art. I’m just saying when courting mainstream culture our options now go beyond partnering with Louis Vuitton. (Thanks Toyism)

The art we build today can all be public art if we want it to be.

It can all be part of the public discourse.

On the internet, all art is street art, and theres a rich short history to be built upon there. People can encounter the things we make not just in museums, but in their daily virtual travels, on blogs, on twitter, through facebook, in their videogames, and visiting their malls. And not only can they see our work, but they already have the built in literacy to understand it. Viewers no longer need to rely on a studied art history, or a museum docent, or a privileged upbringing.

Where once we had wall-text, we now have our bios, our headers, our app descriptions.

Our works can be utilities, they can be people, they can be memes, they can be tumblrs, and they can be games.

Our art can not just be above and around culture, it can be a part of culture, it can drive and create culture.

Literacy is so powerful and pervasive in the digital space that we don’t even have to rely on people actually being interested in the general subject of art at all, because people online are interested in culture, and that’s what art has a path to become, finally, again: culture.

And we get to be a part of making that happen.
And that’s awesome.