Mobile art is everywhere. Some of it is wonderful, exceptional, excellent. In December 2011, I was in Paris for the inaugural exhibition of an art contest which I had conceived and produced.
Open to all comers, Prix Mobile recognises and rewards excellence in the field of mobile art. I wanted to to enhance public awareness and appreciation of mobile art, and to showcase the best artists in the field.
In Prix Mobile’s first iteration, shortlisted artists were allocated themes suggested by the judges, and given ten days to complete images, singly or in sets, for their contribution to the exhibition. These were judged, points were tallied and the winner was awarded one thousand euros.
The judging panel are fine art experts, professional curators, media and arts practitioners. This was intended from the outset to make a double point to contestants.
First, to the world of mobile image makers: seriousness. This is not about winning a car or a pair of shoes. This is Art.
Second, excellence. It’s a two stage contest. The judges are recognised as experts in the field of art. If you’re shortlisted, this already is a major endorsement.
Finally, Prix Mobile offers cash prizes as rewards. They are intended not only to provide incentive to take part, but also to be sufficiently valuable to underscore the prestige of the prize.
Not all selfies are equal
In 2011, I simply wanted more people to recognise that some of the art being made on these Trojan horse handsets is as good as art made anywhere, by any means. And since Prix Mobile exists to reward excellence in mobile art, the question I ask myself is did it achieve that?
When Prix Mobile kicked off, there were 40m people using Instagram, the first big popular image sharing mobile app. Two years later, Instagram belongs to Facebook and has 150m users, with a few dozen app-based competitors adding millions more people, and diversity. An lucrative eco-system of creative apps revolves around image making. But has mobile art now become an established art form? There is of course intellectual resistance to the idea that people with phones can make things with abiding value, but it happens every day.
Art institutions have occasionally added camera phone art by established artists to their collections, but in most cases, artists working with lowbrow mobile devices are attempting to create some meaning, rather than simply using mobile devices as their preferred means of creation. This is a subtle but important difference, as it maintains the distance between gallery art and mundane art, the standard self-conscious irony of the modern artist vs. the naivety of the uncultured person, and it reinforces the distinction between the art of the elite, and the art of the masses.
There have been ‘democratising’ mobile art exhibitions in public spaces, all entries shown unless imagery is challenging in terms of ‘taste’ and so likely to be inoffensively bland. There has been a spate of tech (Apple) store exhibitions which work with local enthusiast groups. These come closer to valuing the artists’ skill, but they produce in the main decorative, derivative works. There have been some notable commissions for household name photographers (David Bailey) to shoot with mobile devices (Apple, Nokia, Samsung). These exist primarily to show off the technology, but the results even from respected photographers still tend to be viewed by the art world with patronising curiosity, as if concert virtuosos were being asked to play toy pianos for our amusement.
Communication continues to evolve as mobile technology and always-on internet changes everything from personal habits to political regimes, but the question remains: is art is improved as a result of this activity? Are our views of what constitutes art expanded, or contracted?
As more and more people make ever more technically sophisticated art, are art’s many powers, to move us, to illuminate us, to shock, disrupt, to educate, to celebrate, to soothe, to give courage strengthened or diluted?
This askance attitude that the art world has shown towards mobile art is not just because digital art, which is how mobile art begins, cannot easily be bought and sold. Mass populations in the rich countries now enjoying easy access to technology, the ubiquity of mobile image making makes mobile art seem too commonplace to have rarity value in an art market. The creative use of mobile handsets to make and remake art is being widely overlooked.
The technology in the hands of artists removes the barriers to entry to both artist and viewer, thus cutting the entire dealer, gallery, institution-based system out of the picture. The establishment doesn’t like it because it blows the lid off the persistent myth of the artist as rare, exceptional, special.
Either way, the fine art world looks uneasy with the prospect of 200 million new photographers, mass populations in the rich countries now enjoying relatively easy access to technology who do not need their established structures to reach an appreciative, sizeable and sometimes lucrative audience, digitally spray painting on their blank, white walls.
In 2013 brands and celebrities seeking transactional relationships still do not dominate social media. The vast majority of this kind of activity is straightforward marketing, direct appeals to action, boosting brand presence, sponsored posts, swag – disposable marketing material, nothing new here.
Still there’ve been some cracking examples of how to do more interesting things with media recently. Banksy’s New York exhibition which took art both to the real and digital high street ran a Facebook page, a YouTube channel and an Instagram account to good effect. Benedict Cumberpatch’s subverted paparazzi shots, holding up written messages questioning media focus on celebrity rather than serious issues such as the atrocities of war, was a bit of a cracker, and engaging in a frank Reddit AMA to promote his role in the film The Fifth Estate sealed his geek credentials.
Feature films have been made using mobile phones. I don’t know if this helped them sell any more phones, but, made inevitable by the tech companies’ need to boast of technical achievement for marketing purposes, the gimmick served to confuse. For all its advances, mobile is low tech, not high.
Mobile really does not need to pretend to be what it isn’t. It’s already producing excellent and distinctive art, and has advantages over older, or bigger technology – its spontaneity, its portability, the miniscule gap between execution and display, and its growing ubiquity.
We have come a long way since it was necessary to force old media to accept that mobile technology had come of age by paying for a film director, actors, a script, and expensive post-production.
The importance of art lies not in tools, but humanity. People love to scorn the activity of making ‘selfies’ (self-portraiture) which is greatly misunderstood. Making images of self is certainly not all about vanity. It’s much more about self-identity, and recognition. We find fascinating the handprint in a cave made the other side of the last ice age. It is an I WAS HERE statement, made 10,000 years ago and still readable. We carry the same instinct not to pass unrecorded.
This revolution in image making is not just about the quality of technology or the quantity of images uploaded and shared – it is also about the quality of art. Important though it is, technology is simply the enabler, merely the means to an end. And that end is always communication. In and around mobile images, we tend to say the same things over and over again, and this is part of being human.
These endless repetitions, the standard behaviours produce disposable images, but the selfies, sunsets, and cat or dog pictures are more than just background noise. They are part of a contemporary currency of images and may after a big step back say meaningful things about contemporary life, if not very flattering ones. Yet, from the loud grumbling about society’s sad decay into superficiality, anyone would think that the revolutions of modern art in the 20th century, which did so much to acknowledge and celebrate popular image making and to incorporate it into artistic practise, had never happened. Had it not, we wouldn’t have collage as we know it today, and art would be the poorer for it.
Lowbrow culture has good in it, ask any music fan. Ask Rauchenberg, Schwitters, Leichtenstein, Johns, Oldenburg, Warhol. Artists should be glad of this and rejoice, for it is one of art’s living roots.
For the serious artist, the barrier to entry has dissolved, but biggest change is not the democratisation of art this has caused, which has been happening for over a century, nor the explosion of art-making talent in the working classes, which we can trace back to the 1960s. It is the activity around the art, the communication, the conversations, amplified by the ocean of reach offered by the internet.
We ask our audience to be our friends, to listen to our story – and people do listen, and they react. This is a big part of mobile art, perhaps its most defining difference. All of human interaction is there.
We say: look, how wonderful this is/we are. I feel happy/sad/excited/bored. I am alive/dying. This is funny/sad. This has to change/this must stay the same. We respond to each other, we converse, we say, it moves me/bores me. I like/hate your cat. I want/would never eat your food. I hate this. I love you. ROFL. though Shakespeare it is not, the culture is creating new dialects.
We’re not just artists, we’re critics. We appraise art all the time. We curate our pocket galleries, looking at thousands of other galleries. We judge haircuts, shoes, the new team logo, as well as photos and drawings and street art. We pass opinion, we share, we debate. We’re creating context for our lives with our commentaries.
Art is everywhere too, all the way from the most simple, private, uncomplicated ways of using these networks, to the most publicity-seeking, celebrity-driven brand campaigning approach, there is art. Art from top to bottom. Good, excellent, remarkable art. Also bad, and never look at again, I wish I hadn’t seen it art.
In other words, along with cats, dogs, selfies and Batman, #art is everywhere.
Dean Whitbread, November 2013.