Here at Hey Art What’s Good? we have taken a few opportunities to express our personal interests in the concept of virtual reality (VR) and how it is used in the context of the arts. We discussed VR technology in relation to 1UP North Gaming Expo, on our Instagram when we stumbled upon Zest Theatre’s street performance ‘Player 1’, and in various other conversations both inside and outside of the recording studio.
In this post I would like to consider how the exhibition ‘FEED’ by Zara Worth, which was shown at Vane Gallery, uses apps and social media to convey some of its ideology. The exhibition is a showcase of work by Worth from the last few years. The artist wishes to use her practice to explore our relationship with hand-held technology, social media and online culture. The show was overflowing with metaphor, so there is a lot to unpack, however I am most interested with the artist’s use of Instagram in her work.
“FEED”, the title of which describes both a social media feed and the cultural phenomenon surrounding food and lifestyle online, span across several rooms of Vane Gallery in the centre of Newcastle. The gallery is a crisp white cube space which added to the somewhat sterile aspects of the show. The work was a mixture of wall baised, 3D and audio visual pieces as this was a collection of various different projects Worth has worked on within the same subject area. This exhibition heavily focused the relationship between the impact social media has on society and culture, and vice versa. The crux of this is examining how ideas and values are shared and spread. A large portion of the work used motifs of food (in particular celery) and emojis. Instagram was featured within this several times, images mounted on the wall, spread on tables and the subject of moving image. Several television sets of varying size, shape and model displayed the same or similar footage of Worth’s instagram feed and videos she had posted on the app. Most of this content involved chopping celery to an obsessive degree, celery being the favourite food of many dieters. Opposite this, there were two rectangular projections, the dimensions of a phone’s touch screen, displaying similar content but to a much larger scale.
At university, I took a module which examined the concepts of landscape within contemporary art. Although I do not doubt that you are familiar with the term ‘Landscape’, these seminars encouraged us to consider the theory that, in the context of contemporary art, landscape is not a physical location but rather a constructed view. This relies heavily on framing, a topic I frequently discuss in Curation Corner. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the act of framing an artwork can completely change how it is read and therefore understood. Framing can take the form of a literal frame but can also include the environment the work inhabits, for example a gallery, a public space, outdoors or indoors, etc.
In the context of ‘Landscape’ and ‘the view’, this theory can be compared to looking through the lens of a camera, looking at the environment through the frame the camera provides. A good photographer knows how to create a successful composition, not by changing their subject but rather by making creative choices that impact how the subject is framed.
A perfect example of the idealised view can be found only 2 ½ hours and 109 miles away from Newcastle in the Lake District. The Lake District is a famous holiday destination in the North West of England. It is known for its lakes, forests and mountains which are so spectacular they have inspired many artists, including poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), artist John Ruskin (1819-1900) and illustrator and writer Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). This is no coincidence. The land may look natural, but this aesthetic is only maintained through strict conservation that does not permit the land to become wild and restricts the buildings that can be constructed on the land. These rules were put in place to create the perfect Victorian resort. It is no accident that whenever rambling along a lake side or clambering to the top of a peak the surrounding view is phenomenal. This is a result of the Victorians (famous for their love of gardens) curating the landscape to create the perfect view. The environment is therefore synthetic, specifically designed to be framed and seen from specific vantage points to create a specific view. For this reason the land can be described as a landscape.
Think of this in relation to Social Media: the most successful posts are often also the most aesthetic. In this virtual landscape, it does not matter how beautiful or brilliant our physical reality is unless it can be successfully translated into the language of the virtual, framed by the platform. A photograph will only make a successful Instagram post if the subject of the photograph can be translated into a ‘view’ or ‘landscape’. A tweet will only gain traction if it can be framed with the correct grammar, emojis, and hashtags. In addition to this, social media posts must then be framed by the social and political climate of the virtual landscape as a whole, which in turn only exists in direct comparison to our reality.
For this reason, I believe that social media is a virtual reality that exists as a landscape. This is the landscape that Zara Worth’s work inhabits in her exhibition “FEED”. Worth included Instagram posts, QR codes and an app which reveals digital aspects of the work in this exhibition. Many galleries now expect their visitors to take photographs of the artwork upon their visits, however, Worth takes this to the next level by introducing technological elements which encourage the audience to have their phones in hand and engage with the work through the lens of their camera phone. By doing this, Worth was creating an additional framework for her work to inhabit. Here the artist is forcing her audience to participate in a digital, virtual landscape and interact with the concept of a view.
Worth has not created this landscape, but is utilising what already exists, bringing it to the forefront of her creative exploration. This encourages her audience to not only no notice what will normally go unseen, but more importantly encourage them to discuss it. This discussion is important as it is only by identifying this landscape can we use and enhance it. So often we hear about social media using us, the users, for its own gain. Whether it be through exploiting our personal data or the ad revenue we provide them with. I, rather optimistically, believe that if one has a better understanding of the way social media works as a virtual reality and its relationship with our physical reality we may be able to combat the issues surrounding this. Art can be the perfect platform to address these ideas. By placing Instagram in the gallery the app was framed in a different light. As Instagram is my favourite social media, I was shocked to find that in the gallery it came across as cold and manipulative in the context of Worth’s work. The heart-icon ‘Likes’ and the ‘followers’ became much less real and much more disconnected than when I have used the app myself. By changing the frame, my relationship with the app became different.
Perhaps simply becoming more aware of the realities that we inhabit and choose to invest our time into, the social media user can become more attune to the frameworks put in place to curate the virtual experience. Now, in the digital revolution, we exist in a duel reality, partly invested in the virtual whilst grounded in the physical. However, the everyday citizen of the social media landscape may be happily unaware of the ‘view’ that is presented and the impact this has on both realities. It is important to be aware of these elements, gain an understanding of how the social media user may be manipulated and question why this may be. Only through doing this can we utilise the ‘view’ of social media.
Worth’s work is thought provoking and engaging. If you did not have the opportunity to see the exhibition at Vane Gallery, you can access the archive via the link provided. I have also included Zara Worth’s socials:
Vane Gallery: vane.org.uk/past-exhibitions/feed
Zara Worth: www.zaraworth.com/about.html