Tuesday 2 February 2016

On visibility and invisibility

Over the weekend I started listening to a new podcast, For Colored Nerds, beginning with this long interview with Kimberly Drew, who started the Black Contemporary Artists tumblr and now works in social media for the Met.

The podcast starts slowly with some well-trodden observations about the changes wrought by social media. (I've read that post and sat in that conference room and given that interview answer myself far too many times to be able to engage with that topic with anything more than weariness.)

It got interesting, to me, when Drew started talking about why she founded the Tumblr account. She had interned in the office of Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum, while at university and that had opened her eyes to the world of black contemporary art. She started the tumblr as a place to store and share her own process of seeking out black artists. When it comes to platform of choice, Blogger was the past and Instagram didn't exist. As she says in the podcast, she wasn't aware of other channels where this was happening, so she struck out on her own: she would learn of an artist, search tumblr for them, repost images if they were available, and create original posts if they were not.

The fact that Drew took her content from across the internet and then shot it out through this channel (which with time became very influential) speaks to the fact that the documentation was out there - she just wasn't able to see it. And to her mind - validly - if it was visible on Tumblr then wasn't visible to the 'creatives'. It was when I started thinking about this that I reflected on the fact that we have to make art and artists visible over and over and over again. A show or a catalogue or a newspaper article or a Wikipedia page is not enough. For example, I have no idea what's going on in Tumblr. I tried to use it - unsuccessfully - years ago, and it is totally invisible to me (and most of the search-based internet as well, as like Pinterest, it doesn't flag up well on Google). I consider myself reasonably well schooled in the art world / social media intersection, but this is the dark web for me.

In fact, Drew came to my attention via the Lenny newsletter, which is a channel I don't enjoy, exactly, but follow because it brings to me a worldview (a particular brand of young, successful, motivated American women with a concern for social justice and fashion and twee illustration) that I don't pick up in my other sources. (Or possibly filter out of them: I really am not a fan of twee illustrations.) I have started listening to the For Colored Nerds podcast - and the About Race podcast - for a similar reason. All the podcasts I listen to are hosted by white (almost all straight) Americans. Most make an effort to bring in more diverse guests, especially when talking about topics like the current #OscarsSoWhite debate, but the podcasts hosted by people of colour, speaking to people of colour, and locating 'white people' as 'other', helps me see things that are invisible to me.

And I appreciate the Tusk website, run by a small group of early career New Zealand arts workers, in much the same vein. Through their eyes I am seeing my field afresh, and palpably noticing some of the changing concerns between me, in my mid 30s and fairly advanced in my career, and them, in their 20s and finding their strides. Through Tusk I'm seeing the social justice motivations of this generation - and also the playfulness, the ability to move between different timbres, that I find to be quite different from the irony of Gen X, which I tried to emulate but never quite felt part of. (Poor little old me - not quite Gen X, not quite Millenial, most accurately categorised by the notion of Generation Jordan Catalano.)

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