Christopher Knight and Social Media as a Private Public Space


Christopher Knight at the Los Angeles Times recently wrote a little about my work after reading the ARTnews “Social Revolution” article: “Social media art involves ‘seamlessly blending the online and offline worlds,’ in the words of L.A. artist An Xiao Mina.” That he called me a Los Angeles artist is an honor, especially right now as I’m based in Asia and wishing I could be swimming in Malibu right about now. He also cited my “widely read” essay on social media art in Hyperallergic.

Knight brings up a good point that I think very few people, if any, have really discussed when it comes to social media art:

A potential limitation: Like the space in a shopping mall, social media sites create the illusion of being public places, when in reality they’re corporately owned and operated. On the up-side, the tension between public and private often provides fertile ground for creative exploration.

This is an important distinction to make, and it’s a tension that I think is hardly touched on in the growing practice. Except for one artist whose work has been censored and shut down on a regular basis, many artists haven’t yet acknowledged that the public sphere of social media is actually very easily controlled and managed. This is part of what makes social media different from previous net art; it’s based in large, corporate-owned spaces, rather than the relatively free, wild wild west of the 1.0 Internet.

As Knight explained in an email to me, it’s all part of a larger trend of privatization. He pointed me to this Politico article by Matt Stoller, who starts with a story about the publicly-founded Hoover Dam and then points out that

The real infrastructure trend in America today is privatizing what is left. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica has been holding hearings on privatizating Amtrak’s Northeast corridor – ostensibly because private capital can more easily bring in high-speed rail.

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback just turned over arts funding to the private sector, making Kansas the only state without a publicly funded arts agency. Cities across California, meanwhile, are trying to outsource nearly all municipal functions. Chicago famously sold its parking meter revenue to a consortium headed by Morgan Stanley. The Arizona Legislature sold and then leased back its state capitol.

With regards to the privatization of the Internet, and the responsibilites therein, Ethan Zuckerman wrote about this issue brilliantly. His post is focused on politics but it applies to anyone engaging with contemporary mainstream social media:

Hosting your political movement on YouTube is a little like trying to hold a rally in a shopping mall. It looks like a public space, but it’s not – it’s a private space, and your use of it is governed by an agreement that works harder to protect YouTube’s fiscal viability than to protect your rights of free speech. Even if YouTube’s rulers take their function as a free speech platform seriously and work to ensure you’ve got rights to post content, they’re a benevolent despot, not a representative government.

Whether in China or the US or any other country, it’s important to remember that art engaged in the public spheres of Twitter, Facebook, Skype and others is art in a private-public sphere. The Internet may have started out as a government project, but today this private-public space is subject to unique norms and regulations that don’t fully apply to private or public separately. My social media art collective, @Platea, touched on this for a week with Co-Modify, a performance in which we pretended to be sponsored by companies for a week. But I think there are more, interesting tensions in this arena that haven’t been explored too deeply yet.

You can read Knight’s full post here. Image above is my own, from Sanlitun Village Beijing.

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