Wake up. Drink Coffee. Update Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. These are contemporary man’s daily rituals, often conducted multiple times a day like the prayers of certain religious groups. And don’t forget to Pin, Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, and all the other companies-cum-verbs that the average American chooses to participates in to connect, however tenuously, with others—and that the average artist or writer must participate in to promote his or her work, connect with the better-connected, and so on.
At best, this instantaneous communication loop is fun; at worst it’s harmful to one’s psychological well-being. Typically, however, it’s merely a tool for procrastination, and a big fat waste of time. So how best to circumvent the necessary evil that is social media? If you’re artist Mark Flood, you outsource the damn thing.
For his recent show Facebook Farm at beta pictoris gallery, Flood amassed a small army of Birmingham’s finest young artists and hipsters to manifest a Facebook fanbase in real life (“IRL”). [May 3-June 14, 2013]. Cue Flood’s promotional video, in which crudely spray-lettered LIKE paintings are mass-produced, strewn with maggots, and irreverently tossed about.
A redubbed version of Bob Dylan’s stick-it-to-the-man song “Maggie’s Farm” plays throughout, with “Facebook” replacing “Maggie.” The dour-looking assembly workers wear LIKE paintings as placards around their necks while walking in circles as if on strike. Eventually a stripper poses erotically and dances lasciviously with a LIKE painting; cut to the next scene revealing three young men sitting in a row, masturbating with LIKE paintings over their genitals for privacy.
These scenes of exploitation and over-exposure insinuate that Facebook presents us with the opportunity to overexpose ourselves, moreover the appearance of an opportunity to promote ourselves—yet with no discernible payoff. Flood suggests that we end up slaves to the system, just another number in their user-list, and inevitably this appeals to our most base sexual desires. The whole production is tongue-in-cheek but smacks of Neo-Luddite conservatism. But we’ll come back to that—first, the art.
The exhibition features what are essentially three different bodies of work, juxtaposed to achieve an intended ironic effect. Black and white coarsely spray-painted canvases with stenciled block text reading “UPLOADING PLEASE WAIT,” “CONNECT TO FACEBOOK,” and “FACEBOOK FARM →” hang in the first room alongside Flood’s Lace paintings, canvases of iridescent puddles shimmering amid a ‘shore’ of colorful ombré layers and lace patterning, creating a result that can truly be described as decadent. Stacks of the aforementioned LIKE paintings are placed in rows on the floor in front of the wall-mounted Lace paintings, ostensibly indicating the popularity of each. The gorgeous Lace paintings have proved unpopular with the imagined Facebook-crowd, receiving none to only a few likes each, while the text-based works have received sizeable amounts of likes. One UPLOADING PLEASE WAIT garnered an unbelievable 147 likes, yet another practically identical painting only attracts 12 likes, accentuating the arbitrary nature of Facebook popularity.
Value and rank have many determinants, not the least of which is price. The prices of the LIKEs range from 11 paintings for $15,000, 19 for $15,000, and two for $10,000 (and so on) evincing the possibility of any determinable formula or hierarchy in place. What monetary worth can we place on strong social media presence? According to Flood, these values are only physically limited by sky and floor, and could be anything in between.
Flood easily renders value meaningless with this scattershot approach to pricing, creating a risky but effective gesture. But a more interesting polemic is presented via contrasting the Lace paintings to another series flippantly entitled Another Painting. The Lace paintings represent in-your-face beauty, comprising undulating ripples of mesmerizing iridescence and sumptous colors layered in rich lace patterns that form images of grapes and ivy—symbols of wealth and bounty—as well as rather princely floral patterns. The Lace paintings are integral to Flood’s career—they afford him the ability to make art fulltime—yet the Another Painting series, which feature those words in neon block text and sprayed in the same manner as the LIKE paintings, are priced at $24,000, a few thousand higher. It’s as if Flood, after catapulting to fulltime Artist status with the Lace paintings, grew resistant to market pressures to produce more, and thereby created paintings someone would be a fool to buy.
Once viewed in person, one realizes the joke extends even further because the Another Paintings, despite the immediacy and dominance of the name, are quite good. These paintings bridge the uninhibited beauty taken from the language of the Lace paintings with the crudeness of the LIKEs by combining the stenciled text and spray-paint aesthetic with subtly rendered layers of color (whose subtly shimmering effect is rendered almost indecipherable due to their aggressively neon nature). In short, they allow for both conversations—beauty and sarcasm—to occur, perfectly encapsulating both poles of Flood’s artistic practice. It seems Flood’s collector base would agree as well. By the time I saw the show towards the end of its run both Another Paintings sold, as well as one of two Laces and a few LIKEs. As Flood would have it, the Facebook vote proved irrelevant in terms of predicting financial success.
One question remains: why attack Facebook at all? In our current moment of apps and shared media platforms, all arguably morally compromising in some way, critiquing Facebook—practically ancient at almost 10 years old—seems behind the times. Yet this attitude and ethos works when taken in context with Flood’s sarcastic tone. One can imagine him saying, “Facebook’s bad enough—no way am I fucking around with the new stuff!” all the while calling attention to our beleaguered acceptance of It, still the granddaddy platform of them all.
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