The Colonisation of Social Space for Arts Promotion.
15th May 2016.
I’ve always been a bit slow on the uptake. I nearly always just about begin to ‘get’ something when it’s on its way out. Hence it’s taken me a while to catch on to the way in which arts promotion has co-opted my online social space. I am also a bit naïve at times … not so naïve as to not realise that Facebook isn’t to varying degrees and in different ways often about promoting something, but it feels to me like in the last couple of years something has shifted as regards the degree to which my FB feed has been co-opted by people doing a PR job for their arts work.
It’s a fine line, I know, between letting people who might be interested in knowing what you’re up to and giving them the opportunity to join in enjoying it and moving into PR / image management. I know and have worked with a lot of people who do arts stuff; I’ve also taught a few generations of dancers and I really enjoy being kept up to date with what they’re up to. But … there’s something else that goes on more and more, maybe it’s to do with difference between sharing information or things that might be of interest to people you know and promotion and advertising.
I often fantasise about a world where advertising is made illegal and people are limited to the simple conveying of information that allows others to know about and access stuff that they might want to access. In such a world a TV or billboard advert would be limited to putting across information about a product and how to access it and whenever the advert moved too far into the territory of selling an image or ‘lifestyle’ rather than the product itself they would be prosecuted for committing ‘Public Relations’. Yeah I know – dream on dreamer.
So, I think the thing that I’m finding hard to negotiate in the last couple of years is the way in which arts PR has invaded my FB feed (I don’t really bother much with other social media, so it’s primarily FB I’m talking about, but I would guess it’s pretty much across the board). It feels like there has been a shift from artists letting other people know about what they’re doing and how to access it, to the maintenance of social media public relations campaigns, which, much in the way that advertising tries to get us to buy into an image or lifestyle, sells a brand image of an artist’s or a company’s work.
My FB feed is quite often full of images of smiling, ‘talented’ people doing ‘great’ things in ‘amazing places’. These people are always so full of energy and positivity and if there’s a frown, then it’s a stage-managed one for comic endearing effect. If I want to, I can get see ‘deep’ into their rehearsal process and their travel arrangements – I can truly get to engage in the highs and low, (oh no, sorry, just the highs) of the process of making and presenting art. I can truly engage in the brand and lifestyle that my favoured artist represents. Only of course, I have no interest in doing that, because, in a shockingly old-fashioned (or maybe it’s forward-looking) way, I am interested in the art people are making rather than the image, brand or lifestyle people seem increasingly to sell their art with. Of course lifestyle, image and art have a long history of entwinement (I’m sure there have been lots of books written about it), but it’s something about the balance of it for me … the idea that the art should be the central thing (even if that art is about image).
I didn’t realise until last year that funding bodies actually stipulate when you get money from them that you have to maintain a social media campaign around the funded work. I was talking to one dancer who said that their efforts in this direction had been checked and judged lacking and needed to be improved upon, although of course there was no funding forthcoming for this to be achieved – just another unpaid job for ‘funded’ artists to have to do in the masses of free time they have – a little hobby on the side.
Although I don’t know for sure (I stopped applying for arts funding back in 1996 because the whole system messed with my head, my resources as a human being and my ability to make any kind of art), I think the funding conditions must stipulate that you have to share parts of your making process, give regular updates and stuff. Of course if you have to do that, you’ll always want to present the positive side of your process – it’s a selling tool after all and you won’t want to post stuff that might lead people to think you’re lost and clueless or terrified that you can’t do what you said you would on your funding application.
‘Day two in the studio. Really early on in the process I’m realising that I haven’t the slightest idea of how to work with this arrogant arsehole I’ve brought into the project. What a mistake that was! The rehearsal space is freezing and the co-funding organisation providing it say they’ll only put the heating on when the public are in. All the ideas I had seem to have evaporated in the face of real people in the room and I really think I’m not up to this. Why the fuck did I put in that bloody grant application.’
Wendy Houston has written a fantastic series of FB posts engaging with this whole thing.
There’s something about the sharing of my process as it happens with other people that feels profoundly wrong for me. It has always felt like a deeply personal space, one that I don’t really like to talk about except to trusted friends. I don’t even really like talking about it much after I’ve finished something. It feels a bit like jokes – if you have to explain them, then its clear they’re not funny to the other person … clarifying the elements that contribute to the intended humour isn’t going to get a laugh (unless of course you do it in a way that makes that the joke, like the brilliant Stewart Lee). I think for some people sharing process can be a good thing, but it feels like it’s required these days – part of the ‘branding’ campaign – part of ‘including and engaging with your audience’. This latter point is important, because I think it can be a great thing to really engage with the people who want to engage with the stuff you make, but it feels like that positive, inclusive, democratic urge has been co-opted by a kind of corporate, image promotion imperative and twisted into a bland self-aggrandisement tool to sell units in a highly cynical and calculating way. Except I don’t feel like the artists who engage with this PR / image stuff are mostly really that cynical, it’s just that’s how things are done and how we’re told to do things these days. I think most artists want to do what they do well and it’s quite hard to live in an environment where this branding approach is seen as part of ‘doing the job well’ to become a PR refusenik.
Finally, one of the things I notice is the effect it has on me. Much as I know that everyone has their difficulties in surviving as a maker of art, seeing this near-constant stream of shiny, happy art-production specialists living a charmed life of international travel and smiling arts success, I find myself feeling discouraged. I see myself swinging from one financial crisis to the next, barely managing to get by, not really having much of a profile as an artist / musician and the relative success of having just about survived doing what I do for thirty years and having produced some work I feel pretty good about, can start to feel like ‘having failed’. I know that may be partly a personal thing, I’ve always been very easily disheartened, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one for whom the arts social media PR machine has this effect. I worry too the effect that this airbrushed, photo-shopped version of life as an artist is having on people younger than me; what it promotes in terms of ‘playing it safe’ as an artist, about not taking risks, about being scared to fail or to not come up with the ‘right kind of marketable product’ about not saying stuff with your art or your life that runs in a different direction to the mainstream.
Yeah – I know- time either to limit my FB usage, or cull my newsfeed contributors, but that doesn’t really solve the overall problem and actually, I really do want to keep up with what friends and ex-students and collaborators are up to and to feel happiness when they get to do something great or enjoyable, but I want to be able to do it without that sneaking suspicion that I’m being ‘promoted’ at or feeling resentful at people who are ‘actually really, really nice’ (in the words of James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem), but who are caught up in a demand to PR or die.