Audience and public in the digital age

For street art and graffiti, the internet has taken works that were local and made them global. As is seen most profoundly with graffiti, books provided initial flashpoints of global inspiration, zines helped to nationalize styles and magazines continued this trend while also starting to globalize styles. But it was the internet that allowed styles to be updated throughout the world almost instantaneously. If a piece of street art appears in Paris, it can influence an artist in Chicago the same day. While some cities still have distinctive street art scenes (like the handmade stickers that currently cover the newspaper bins throughout Philadelphia or the poster tradition of Los Angeles), there is are international trends running parallel to the local scenes. The internet is like books, magazines and flick trading all combined and on Adderal.

As was shown in chapter 1, when street art and graffiti were first developing as genres of public art, the intended audience were people who could come around the corner and stumble across the work. The public for the art consisted of those physically there to see the writing and not many other people. But as people began to photograph the work, things changed. Photographs of graffiti from New York could be seen in London, but the graffiti writers in New York were still doing the work for people who would see it in person. While some artists in the 1980’s realized that they could paint pieces with the intention of having them photographed and distributed worldwide, this was not the focus of most graffiti and street art.

Later, when photos of street art and graffiti began to appear on internet, the situation was similar: Many artists were happy to have their work appear online, and while a few played to the online crowd by putting up work in less risky spots that could be photographed for instant internet fame, most artists were doing work outdoors for a “real life” audience and regarded the digital audience as secondary. But this is no longer the case. The digital audience is now the primary audience for many street artists and graffiti writers.

To understand this shift in how artists who work outdoors see their creations reaching people, there is a distinction to be made between the “audience” for a work of art and its “public.” Michael Warner distinguishes between a “concrete” public of a “bounded audience” such as an audience in a theater, and a more nebulous public, “the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation.”[1] My distinction between audience and public is similar, with the “audience” as Warner’s theater audience and the public as the more nebulous audience. Where I differ from Warner is that I consider even his nebulous audience falling into the concrete category if it is the intended audience for a work, whereas it is that audience plus the unintended audience that make up the public for a given artwork. I came to this distinction by basically reading Warner wrong, so I still think he deserves some credit. Anyway…

The audience for a work is anyone who sees the artwork as intended. In the case of graffiti in the 1970’s, this was anyone who saw the piece in person as it flew past them on a subway car. For early street art like that of John Fekner or Keith Haring, the audience was anyone lucky enough to see the work on a wall as they walked around the streets of New York City. Yes, Haring and Fekner each printed simple books of their work and a select few graffiti writers liked to called up Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant to make sure that their latest work would get photographed, but most street artists or graffiti writers were not thinking, “Today I’ll do some work so that I can put a photo of the work in a book for people around the world to see.”

Broken Promises/Falsas Promesas (1980) by John Fekner. Photo by John Fekner.

Broken Promises/Falsas Promesas (1980) by John Fekner. Photo by John Fekner.

The public for a work is anyone who sees it. By this definition, a viewer seeing the work for the first time in 2013 can be part of the public for Fekner’s Broken Promises/Falsas Promesas stencil even though it was destroyed decades ago. I have seen photographs of the piece, and it has inspired me to think about issues of urban development. While Fekner did photograph the piece, he could not have imagined that, decades later, such an ephemeral artwork would still be relevant, interesting and influential. Similarly, much of the work in Subway Art has found a large public outside of its intended audience, and those decorated trains unintentionally launched a global graffiti revolution.

Since the age of graffiti magazines, people have complained about graffiti being painted for the purpose of getting published, but that trend has never been more popular than it is today. Thanks to advances in both physical and digital publishing, artists now make work with the idea that documentation of the effort will at least be distributed online, and possibly in print as well. With this shift, a work’s public and audience are now virtually the same.  In some cases there is no intention on the part of the artist that people see the work in person rather than online. Thirty-five years ago, the expectation was that street art and graffiti would mostly be seen in person. As recently as 15 years ago, it was typically accidental or, at most, a fortuitous bonus for artists when photos of their street art and graffiti appeared online and exposed their work to a potentially global public. Today, the expectation for street art and graffiti, particularly top-tier work, is often that it will be seen by few people in person and by many more people online. Documentation of outdoor art, and the distribution of that documentation, has become the norm. As they say, “pics or it didn’t happen.” As a result, in the 21st century, the audience for street art and graffiti is pretty much identical to the public for street art and graffiti.

You may think that the preceding few paragraphs are a bit of academic bullshit for any art theorists out there, but the key point is important: Twenty years ago, Shepard Fairey and Revs didn’t spend time thinking about how their pieces were going to look when reprinted in books or on the web. They were concerned with how their work would look to people who saw it in person. Work might end up in magazines or books, but it wasn’t what artists were considering while the work was being put up. Today, every street artist knows that a photo of his or her work is likely to end up online and be seen by many more people as a result. In response, street artists may take this new audience into account, changing the way the work looks and functions.

The problem with the overlap between audience and public is that the audience for contemporary street art is made up of two distinct groups: A local physical audience and a worldwide digital audience. These two audiences do not experience art in the same way. It’s much like how Jon Stewart has both a live studio audience at each taping of The Daily Show and the (much larger) audience of viewers who watch the show online or on television. Stewart knows that both these audiences are going to see him perform, and he has to entertain both of them. Sometimes, Stewart tells inside jokes that only make sense to the studio audience, and other times he includes on-screen graphics and pre-taped segments that are more exciting for the TV audience. Street artists must make similar considerations with their work. What looks good in person may not be the same as what “pops” when viewed through the lens of an iPhone camera and an Instagram filter. Street artists can choose to focus on one of these audiences or try to please both, but when those considerations are made, the art changes as a result, sometimes with no effect on the physical viewer and sometimes with an extreme one.

Who is this new digital audience? Evan Roth pointed me towards Jonah Peretti’s idea of the Bored at Work Network, which Roth sees as the audience for his own work (some of which is street art, some of which is fully digital, and some which is neither but is easily shareable online). The Bored at Work Network is an audience Peretti identified around 2001 as all the people who are bored at work (duh) and forwarding emails around full of cool images and stories and whatever else could get people’s minds off being bored and stuck at the office.[2] I had been thinking about this new audience for street art, when I saw a video of Roth and he hit the nail on the head: Street art’s online audience is the Bored at Work Network.[3] The Bored at Work Network consists of the same people who look at street art on the street, and now they have time to view street art because they can do it from their desks. The Bored at Work Network is the audience for street art in the 21st century. And, by the way, Roth is one of the most accomplished artists when it comes to making art that appeals to both the traditional art world and the Bored at Work Network. More on him later.

Beyond the Bored at Work Network,  many street artists also take into account the gatekeepers to that audience. While street art began as an artform that rejected gatekeepers, segments of the scene have become dependent on them. The new gatekeepers are bloggers, Flickr and Instagram photographers, prolific forum posters, tweeters and so on. Fifteen years ago, the idea of gatekeepers for street art was ridiculous, but thanks to the internet, many people are now initially exposed to street art through sites maintained by digital gatekeepers. Although most street artists may be telling the truth when they say they do their work for the person on the street, they aren’t stupid either. The average street artist today is well-aware that the right buzz online can lead to opportunities with outdoor projects and in galleries. As a result, even some of the most well-intentioned and “pure” street artists email exclusive pictures to bloggers and call photographers to tell them the location of their latest piece. Acting individually, none of these artists or fans is doing anything wrong, they are just trying to spread the word about great art, but collectively these actions create gatekeepers. And when an artist tries to please a gatekeeper, the work may change.

Inevitably, this reevaluation of whom the street artist is making work for (whether that be the digital masses or gatekeepers or gallerists) has caused changes in the look of the art. The goal of this chapter is to highlight some of new the systems that street artists and graffiti writers are working in as well as the changes that have occurred due to the reduced importance of geographic location for artwork that can be distributed online. In chapter 3, attention will be focused on further changes to modern street art and graffiti as a result of the internet, exemplified by artists actively engaging with the Bored At Work Network by creating street art or graffiti that has stylistic elements best suited to being viewed online. In chapter 4, I look at artists who go further to explore how they treat these new online systems as they or others might treat a city street. This reevaluation and how it affects the artwork is ongoing, but we can look at the last decade or so to get an idea of what has happened thus far and where things might be going.

There’s a large amount of street art today that could have existed in 1990, but would not have gotten the same attention despite that the work would have looked just as good 30 years ago. It’s not the work that has changed but, rather, the methods of documentation and distribution are becoming as important as the physical street art or graffiti itself. A lot of street art that would have been impossible or ridiculous to make in 1990 makes perfect sense today. For the artists working in that arena, the online street art community has proved a fertile ground for distributing documentation of work which acts like great street art, but which may not actually be successful in person. Both in person and through photographs, street art today looks and functions differently than it did before the internet. Some of the changes in contemporary street art and graffiti are just part of the natural course of art history and the maturation of the genres, but many are directly related to the internet and the new distribution systems that have arisen.

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  1. Warner, Michael. "Publics and Counterpublics." Public Culture 14.1 (2002): 49-90. Web.
  2. McLaren, Carrie. "Media Virus: How Silly Videos and Email Pranks Created the Bored at Work Network. Social Networking Guru Jonah Peretti Explains." Stay Free! Feb. 2006: n. pag. Stay Free! Web. 12 Feb. 2013.
  3. Evan Roth Presentation, Storytelling, Kitchen Budapest. Perf. Evan Roth. YouTube. Kitchenbudapest, 26 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2013.

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