Alicia Eler: Internet Ruined the Video Star

Matthew Sprung, Staff Writer

Alicia Eler gave a lecture titled “Internet Ruined the Video Star” on Wednesday that was advertised as an examination of “how the internet has changed art production, consumption and criticism.” Beginning with famed performance artist Marina Abramović’s “The Artist Is Present” and ending with a popular Tumblr about white, privileged teenage girls, Oberlin alumna Alicia Eler’s talk analyzed the idea of performance and how that concept has shifted over time, breaking the barrier between art and the everyday.

Eler, OC ‘06 former writer for the Review, now contributes to and is a staff writer for the increasingly popular art “blogazine” Hyperallergic. Her recent article on Marina Abramović, titled “The Artist Is Not Present But the Brand Sure Is,” explored the moral and aesthetic integrity of one of the world’s most well-known performance artists. The article was shared 1,800 times on Facebook, a point that was relevant to the lecture. Whereas the idea of a performance used to be reserved for professionals with specific goals and direction, today the definition is being broken down by social media and the ability to present constructed identities.

Eler’s focus on Abramović portrayed the artist sacrificing her artistic integrity in her “shift into a brand. I’m more interested in how the art or performance is affected or devalued in a way,” she said.

In an increasingly digital world, artists and everyday people have been lured into the accessible public domain of social networks such as Facebook. This has enabled artists to focus more on branding than creativity. In discussing Abramović’s work, Eler points to the artist’s creation of art that is not meant to raise questions or bring about change but to be “liked” through online videos. Eler questioned the grey area between artist and celebrity, as well as the sacrifice of art for the sake of promoting one’s brand name and recognition.

“I think she crossed a line,” she said, before asking, “Is she a performance artist or a celebrity? I think it’s important to explore what it means for an artist to come into this space.”

The space that Eler went on to illuminate is one that “suggests the individual is the center of their own network rather than participating within the community.” Particularly problematic is the fact that the art community is moving from a defined culture into the universally encompassing internet. In this context, where artists must compete with images of cute cats to engage an audience, the need for accessibility may make some aim for art that appeals rather than challenges. Eler pointed to what was coined a “performance piece” earlier this year by rapper Jay Z, in which the rapper sang one of his songs for six hours and danced with spectators. Abramović showed up at the gallery and acted as a feeble stamp of artistic approval. The event brought a cringe-inducing effect that showed artists using different media to elevate their name recognition as a brand, while lowering the quality and power of the art itself.

Eler went on to tie the sacrifice of artistic integrity with that of moral integrity. Paralleling the notion that big corporations are not the most caring employers, Eler told the story of one of Abramović’s helpers. After going through an intense audition, a potential participant in an event to raise money for Abramović at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles decided to turn down the opportunity.

In an open letter of protest, the applicant said that, “I was expected to lie naked and speechless on a slowly rotating table, starting from before guests arrived and lasting until after they left (a total of nearly four hours).” Most alarmingly, she also recounted, “I was expected to ignore (by staying in what Abramović refers to as “performance mode”) any potential physical or verbal harassment while performing.”

The question of ethics, and what Eler specified as “the objectification of bodies, female bodies and labor practices on any level,” is something she implored the audience to question, saying that it “must continuously be asked of the artist or brand. They need to be held accountable.”