This is an essay about how to use the media to gain mass consumption for art by creating a spectacle.

Art, Spectacle, and the Media
By Nate Hill
8/2011

Most people do not care about art. They watch TV, they fuss over their cats, they drink with their friends. As a result, artists who want their work to reach those outside the art world usually need to do a lot of legwork on their own. [Figure 1.1]

Figure 1.1

Art has to come to people, because people have shown they’re not going to come to art. Presenting artworks only to the already-defined art world assumes art needs that context to affect people, but that’s not true. Good work speaks with a clarity and force that doesn’t need to be framed by the art world, and should be spread to as many people as possible. One way to appeal to the non-gallery going population is to create a media spectacle – it’s a proven way to draw attention and distinguish oneself from the competition. With so many artists working today, it would be dumb to ignore the spectacle’s possibilities.

My Experience

In 2001, I dropped out of college in Florida to move to Brooklyn. I was spending more time in artists’ studios than in my classes, anyways, so the move made sense to me. Before packing up the U-Haul, I stocked up on all the salvageable road kill I could preserve in jars of rubbing alcohol. I’d been doing a lot of hand-sewn taxidermy, so my pantry was pretty grisly: I had deer ears, raccoon legs, falcon eyeballs, indeterminate parts of pets, bits and pieces of nearly every Southern animal, all sitting around like puzzle pieces that didn’t quite fit. I thought I was a great artist, but arriving in Brooklyn I soon learned that just being a great artist (if I was one) wasn’t enough. With no art friends, no critic friends, and no dealer friends, I was lost. I found an apartment, but it was with normal people, and I had to literally hide my art in the closet. Later, a good impression was made with the lease-holder of a quirky, DIY live/work loft, but after the housemates learned of my taxidermy, they didn’t want me living above their kitchen. Eventually, I found a roommate who was sympathetic to my work, so we came to an agreement: I could cut up animals, if I did it on the fire escape, just as long as I kept the window closed.

Craving new bodies to work with, I started rummaging through the fish markets of Chinatown on a nightly basis. Through trial and error, I learned how to methodically identify which boxes and bags had animal parts in them because they are always prepared in a certain way by the fish market, and always in the same place every night. It became a routine, and fueled my work, but while I was doing a lot of art with these fish and frog parts, I still couldn’t get into a gallery show. I didn’t know how. I walked into random galleries and dropped off slides, because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I’d come to New York to be a great artist, but so far I was a college dropout with a shitty bike messenger job, digging through the garbage for rotting fish to sew together on a fire escape.

So I turned that life into a spectacle. I started advertising monthly public “tours of the Chinatown garbage” with any New York publication that would run the event, and started transforming my solitary trips for art supplies into something else. The art was downplayed, and the novelty and spectacle were played up. I distributed latex gloves to participants and wore bizarre period costumes while showing them where to find the most fruitful fish market garbage. Many participated, but most importantly, I was able to strategically show off a lot of the art I had made on the fire escape years before. The New York Times covered it in January 2008, and commented on its “self-conscious eccentricity”. I wasn’t offended: Everything about the tour was odd, and there was always a lot of offhand humor too. If you keep people entertained, they will put up with anything.

As it shifted from supply run to spectacle, the tour also became more personal. It began as a venue for exhibiting artwork, but became a place where I could just be my weird self with people and receive positive feedback. It was an outlet that was important to me: I was an outsider in the art world, but I was also an outsider in the real world, in New York. I never made a dime off the tour, the fans and friends I gathered were my reward.

Taking Advantage of the Media

The Taxidermy Tour’s attendance ranged wildly – from two fellow taxidermists and my girlfriend, the first night, to more than two dozen, on nights when it tipped towards a circus. Regardless of my self-promotion and spectacle, the printed “point” of the tour was to teach people how to make taxidermy from the garbage, something that got tough when mobs showed up. Whatever the number, though, a quarter of the crowd was always made up of bloggers. Bloggers being bloggers, the number of people who read about the tour far outnumbered the people who actually attended, and that was the point: People love spectacle. So long as I gave the media what it wanted – material to sell ads next to – the media would give me ink. It works to everyone’s advantage: the more spectacle you can drum up in your art, the more media exposure you will receive. [Figure 1.2]

Figure 1.2.

This should be important to artists because the fastest way to share an art idea today is through online media: blogs, online newspapers, Twitter, whatever. Harnessing that media energy is part of an artist’s job, just as attracting gallery exposure has been for decades. The media gives artists a platform, and artists give the media content. It’s a symbiotic relationship that should be exploited.

In terms of spectacle, be careful not to make your art look too much like art. If it does, you’ve already lost. People will run. Artists have to trick people into getting interested in what they’re doing. (This is how art becomes “digestible”.) To grab an audience from the real world, artists can’t cater to too many of the aesthetic interests of the art world: if the two had similar tastes, the art world wouldn’t be so tiny. [Figure 1.1] For example, make your spectacle funny. Unfortunately, the art world may find it too silly to take seriously.

Artists have to get people talking. It doesn’t matter what your work is trying to say: if no one’s listening, there’s no point. Only a fraction of any audience is going to look into the work to see what it really means, so a logical way to attract more committed viewers is to simply attract more viewers, total. It’s a numbers game. Sometimes, I don’t even think of my audience as people when I am working on promoting a project in the media. I see them as numbers, and it’s only when I perform or display my artwork that they become people again.

A final note: If you create a spectacle and the media still isn’t interested in your art, do it again! Everyone can succeed through perseverance.

A Word of Caution

Exposure in the media could become a curse if you don’t have traditional training. Once art world professionals see that the media is covering you widely in the real world, and people like it, they may dismiss you for being an outsider without any of the standard art world qualifications. Like the church, they want to bestow their own accolades. But don’t worry. Very few people make it in either the art world or the real world, and even fewer make it in both. If you even make it in one, you’re already out of the ordinary.

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Edited by Paddy Johnson and Will Brand