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Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Rise of the Interactive Artists

This article is not about the art of artists. Instead its about their ability or lack of ability to interact and communicate with their audiences and how that intimately relates to their art.

There is a silent revolution taking place in the art world that doesn't involve technique. Instead it involves something that most artists do not even grasp yet. Interactivity. How do artists interact with their audiences?

Even the best of artists with the largest teams of assistants still face a barrier. That is that they can only produce great art at a certain pace. If an artist relies solely on production to keep their name in the public eye then there are large gaps of time between each creation where the artist remains a relatively unspoken entity.
But a new world of artists is changing that. At the top of that list is Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Ai has become a master of interactivity with his audience. He is in constant touch with his viewers and supporters around the world and he's not doing it for popularity. He's doing it because of the message he is trying to say to the world. In other words, he's interactive for the right reasons, not the wrong.

So what does Ai do that is different from what other artists do? Well lets look at a typical artist first and compare them to Ai. There is something I call the "lag effect" with most artists. Lag effect takes place when we are in studio creating. Human beings have a short attention span, our fans are waiting expectantly for that next piece of art but they wander off and they get caught up in other things and they forget. "Oh yeah! I liked his work but I'd forgotten he existed" is a common thing in the art world.

What does Ai do differently? 

He never lets you forget. Through a constant interaction both online and live, Ai's and his team strive to keep you updated on his presence.

I think perhaps that Ai did not come about this directly, but it was part of a method of survival for him. During his time trapped in China without his passport, he risked being locked away forever in a dungeon of non-communication. Every time he could communicate with the outside world was a chance for him to say "I'm here! I exist! My art exists!" It was a habit he did not let up on even when he was finally allowed his freedom.

Believe me, others helped. They got his messages out, they continued to tell his story. And the Chinese government finally realized that they could not shut him up. He's not stopped since.

I think this method started much further back in history. Take Gandhi for example. During his years and years of imprisonment by British authorities and before that by the South Africans he never stopped communicating with the outside world. He wrote letters to great people, he spoke constantly of the plight of his people. He kept journals. Prison walls refused to stop him and they refuse to stop Ai Weiwei.

So you may think, "well I am not a famous dissident like Ai or Gandhi. So how does this help me as an artist?"

Interactivity does not have to happen because you are locked in a prison and you are trying to save your country. It happens because you make it happen. Your art speaks to others, but ultimately your art comes from YOU the artist. No matter what your message is as an artist, there are lessons learned about not allowing the "lag effect" to occur. Ai Weiwei is teaching us as artists that we should never go silent.

We have the worlds greatest tool for doing this. The internet and the rise of the social networks is not just about playing games online and wishing your aunt Susie happy birthday. Its about communication. Its about reaching out and touching our audience and allowing them to touch us back.

Ai's fans are the most informed group an artist could ever wish for. Whenever Ai Weiwei does something, whether its traveling to one of his shows, wearing Lego's in his hair or speaking out about the turmoil of immigrants, there is an intricate web of interactivity that takes place. Messages go out. Fans are alerted. News services pick it up. There is rarely any downtime in the interactivity of this artist even though he sleeps, eats and creates like any other artist does.

This is the key to building and holding an audience.

Some know that I have a ton of news services that bring me information every day on the art world. After years of monitoring these news services its allowed me to see patterns in the shifting of information. What constantly amazes me is the wealth of daily information about the movements of Ai and the correlation between that information flow and his popularity. If I compare the information flow of Ai to other famous artists such as Anish Kapoor or Jefferey Koontz, I see an immediate difference. For every ten pieces of information daily about Ai, I may see 2 for other famous artists. This says to me that these artists are functioning in the old system that artists have relied on for years. No offense to these artists, they are well known, but they have not yet grasped the interactive flow in the way that Ai Weiwei has.

So lets bring it back home for a moment. What can I as a relatively unknown artist do to take advantage of this paradigm shift?

Lets take a moment to look at a successful artist who does not have as strong a name as Ai Weiwei does. This artists name is Leonid Afremov. Leonid is well known for his painting style and is some of the most beautiful work I've ever seen. Why do I choose him for this example? Because he's not a dissident. He's purely an artist, but...he's an artist who functions in the new paradigm of interactivity.

For those of us who watch the trends of the art world and how artists receive name recognition, Leonid's name comes up constantly. He (like Ai) has an intricate web of social networks that he functions within. I see his name daily because of this. Name recognition is crucial. If you can make the audience stop perceiving you as "that artist" and start thinking of you as "the artist" then you've taken a huge step as both as both a successful artist and as an interactive personality.

You see, the mistake that most artists make when trying to function in this new interactive universe is that they become frustrated. They find it difficult to know how to maintain the interactivity and still be dedicated to their work. To some, artists like Ai Weiwei are super beings who must not sleep or eat or function like a typical human. This is false. He is every ounce as human as everyone else, but he has learned to channel his energies in a whole new way and he uses his team to broadcast that. He picks his battles wisely, but that he picks them at all is what sets him above other artists. Most refuse to fight. Most refuse to champion causes. Most refuse to use their art to make the world a better place. 

If you channeled even one percent of your artistic energy into such causes you'd have tons to talk about and would instantly become more interactive. 

I am a relative unknown in the art world. But I have learned some valuable lessons from artists like Ai Weiwei and Leonid Afremov. I've learned that the artists journey is a unique one. We think differently and we interact with the world from a creative viewpoint that I think most others don't understand. They crave to understand it though and they pay attention to our journeys. 

For me, teaching other artists is the prime motivation in my life. When I can learn something new (such as this article) and share it back with others, I've taken a thousand steps into that interactive universe. I may never be a well known artist, but I can be as an interactive. 

I started out simply. I started writing my thoughts in this blog. I didn't just create it to share my work. I created it to discuss my journey as an artist. I watched people like Ai. And rather than say "I can never achieve that level of notice" I instead said "what steps can I begin taking to enter that interactive world." Now I teach with everything I create. Almost no piece of art is left behind as a teaching tool. 

Its not an easy path toward this interactive universe. It won't happen overnight, nor should it. We must learn and grow just as Ai has done and we must take time to understand ourselves and then share that understanding back out to the world. If we live as hermits in our studios then we are no better off than if Ai Weiwei had sat in his prison sell in China and never uttered a word to the outside world. We create our own prisons. Interactivity allows us to break out of that prison no matter how strong its walls.


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