Monday, January 4, 2016

From famous for 15 minutes to famous to 15,000 (or how we got from Warhol to YouTube)

Andy Warhol loved the colour silver. Is silver even a colour? Grey is a colour...silver, I would argue, is a signifier. It’s a shiny symbol, one that creates a mirror that reproduces our image...for us, for voyeurs, for optical illusions.

While recently walking the floor at a Warhol exhibit at Toronto’s TIFF Lightbox it occurred to me that social media is similarly shiny, the shiny object that pulls us in with one thing, often to sell us another.  


And not unlike things silver, social media has the ability to capture the likeness of anyone its in orbit and send it out into the world, for further, yes, reflection. In so doing it makes room in popular culture for subculture.

We live in a time of brand me, in which media production, once necessarily out of the grasp of the general public, is now available to pretty much everyone, the idea that drove the creation of this blog.

When we abstract this idea, we can see the paradoxes of life imitating art and art imitating life turning into media imitating life and life imitating media.  

Just as Warhol’s work, from soup cans to celebrity portraits to films that sat on a single shot for hours detonated the walls between art, life, and media, so do the platforms and apps that have become our everyday tools, and toys. They too often get a highly polarized reception, viewed as everything from waste of time to surprisingly profound...one more interesting analogy to Warhol's moving walkway of media products and personalities.


Instead of stars – Warhol created ‘superstars’ – the paradox of the ordinary engineered as celebrity.


And at the same time, the focus of Andy’s work was often the mundane, which was, somewhat ironically, not at odds with his camera’s interest in drag queens, weirdos, freaks, and sundry attention seekers. 

The ordinary as celebrity, the celebrity as commodity. These ideas resonate strongly in today’s world of social currency as determined by number of Twitter, Instagram, and Vine followers, YouTubers with brand deals, fleeting viral video stars, and bloggers wielding influence


The means of production are now available for hijacking by the masses, not just those in the artistic elite such as Warhol. In these terabytes of data is a cacophony of noise, vanity, and self-expression, and just as Warhol used the denizens of the factory and they used him in an unwritten contract of mutual exploitation, we use the the platforms of the digital world and they use us.

Postscript: For those who want to dig deep into the Warhol mystique, a 4-hour documentary series, in 2 parts, is available online. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2. I've watched both and I can tell you that there are many, many worse ways to spend 4 hours.