If the role of the artist is to respond to the society and the times they live in, Man Bartlett is probably on the right track. The young Brooklyn-based artist carries out much of his work through social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. These days, we spend a lot of our lives on our computers or smartphones, and interact more and more through social networks. But precisely because the changes associated with these new technologies are so wide-spread, it is difficult to judge what impact they have had on our lives and psyches. That’s where art comes in.
Through his virtual projects, performances, and lively online interventions, Bartlett acts as a critical voice, provoking his audience into rethinking how they engage with their favorite Web sites. He is also a leading practitioner of what has come to be known as “social media art,” a genre which gathered some momentum in recent years with Hyperallergic editor Hrag Vartanian’s 2010 exhibition “The Social Graph” and a comprehensive feature in ARTnews magazine, as well as countless articles and essays.
Social media art, according to Bartlett, is art that “uses social media as a function of its existence,” taking advantage of the possibilities of the online social space but also pushing its boundaries. For “The Social Graph,” social media artist An Xiao performed “The Artist is (Kinda) Present,” a riff on performance artist Marina Abramovic’s piece of a similar name in which Xiao interacted with her audience solely through Twitter while sitting across from them. For his part, Bartlett has turned New York’s Port Authority bus station into a platform for an interactive online experience with #24hPort, translated tweets into sculpture with “Kith and Kin,” and documented himself spending a full 140 hours in a Berlin gallery wrapped in an American flag and hanging out with a turkey — a riff on German artist Joseph Beuys's famous piece "I Like America and America Likes Me" — on his Tumblr with #140hBerlin.
For such a technology-savvy artist, Bartlett’s studio in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood is remarkably low tech. Wide windows overlooking the industrial landscape cast light on collections of vintage magazines, a massive minimalist drawing in progress, and an incense burner turned into an altar for used-up pens. The flip side of Bartlett's digital creative process is that he continues to get his hands dirty, making collages out of travel ads clipped from ‘60s lifestyle periodicals that reflect on the presence of technology in culture.
We sat down with the artist in his studio to talk about the definition of social media art, what it means to live an artistic life, and why we need to more actively challenge the online platforms that we have come to rely so heavily on.
Click on the video below to watch ARTINFO and Tumblr Storyboard's video profile of Man Bartlett.