Friendster, the social network founded by Jonathan Abrams, launched to the public in 2003, a few months after I assumed my first professional post as a curatorial assistant in the contemporary art department at the Carnegie Museum of Art; Myspace and Facebook followed soon thereafter. At night—which is to say, during my lunch break and on slow afternoons, especially in the summertime—I published my first art blog, called Forward Retreat, a discrete web page that I eventually migrated onto Movable Type and, later, WordPress, Twitter, and eventually Tumblr. As a young person situated approximately 380 miles west of New York City, I found that the emergence of the web 2.0 blogosphere granted me a digital window into a world that remained largely beyond my workaday purview.
Visiting colleagues and artists ferried gossip through the department; The Baer Faxt squealed its way through the department's ancient fax machine; but the digital realm—namely Artnet.com and Artforum.com, as well as a small constellation of blogs and email listservs—really bolstered this trickle of information. I didn't blog about my job per se, but my work definitely informed my blogging. The socio-professional impetus to perform for an online audience hadn't yet emerged in popular culture; online privacy wasn't a common topic of conversation yet, either. The true implications of watching and being watched—in the world, on the web—weren't fully known, yet we were already jockeying for positions within a digital panopticon of our own making.
The social web transformed the Internet from a specialist's hobbyhorse into a layman's entertainment source: many of the people I first encountered online as independent art bloggers now work there professionally, as web editors or otherwise, using their recreationally won expertise to source that entertainment. Publications are the products of social exchange. Editorial strategies, policies, and the very nature of art criticism itself began shifting over the past decade to accommodate blogging and social media as accepted journalistic tools.
Newspapers were some of the first publications to embrace the Internet's capabilities for real-time information dissemination; when the Western world started dialing up in droves during the mid-1990s as webzines such as Suck.com and Salon.com began publishing independently reported essays and news items, websites became business requirements for newspapers hoping to maintain a broad general audience. In a few short decades we went from daily arrivals of black-ink-on-paper to constantly updated news delivered in real time through endless RSS streams of words and moving images.
The aesthetic proposition made by the networked mainstream media is so obviously distinct in its brashness from that of the refined art magazine in its most earnest self-conception; the dynamic, interactive, and in some ways, comparatively limited nature of website design—especially in its earliest days—largely served to nullify those perceived differences. Over the years, I have been consistently intrigued—and often amused by the various ways art magazines have so readily abandoned the pretense of print in adapting their websites and social media presences to suit this new world order.
Artnet.com was launched in 1996 by downtown Manhattan gadfly Walter Robinson as the self-proclaimed "first online art publication." Digitally produced publications long predate the public-facing World Wide Web, however, and Artnet.com certainly wasn't the only web-based, art-focused venture at the time, either. Artist Wolfgang Staehle's Bulletin Board System (or BBS, a precursor to the web), The Thing, had launched from his basement studio in 1991. Staehle's system connected the technically inclined in New York and, later, in UK and other European cities through a series of "temporary autonomous zones," a term coined by writer and anarchist Hakim Bey that same year to describe the tactical creation of temporal spaces that elude the formal mechanisms of control (a particularly relevant way of considering the practice of building and using networked technologies—now, more than ever). Email listservs such as Rhizome, nettime, and e-flux also filled the art world's inboxes with announcements and commentary (Rhizome and e-flux were eventually developed into full-fledged websites; their editorial, archival, and curatorial programs continue to drive physical publications, exhibitions, and face-to-face interactions between actual people, myself included). Still, Artnet set a popular journalistic standard that many since have emulated.
Robinson and his cadre of writers (most notably and controversially acerbic amongst them, Charlie Finch) adopted a chatty, casually self-referential tone in their reports and reviews—one diametrically opposed to that of the reigning academic journals or listservs, but nevertheless genuinely reflective of a moment when the general, Internet-using public began to find its own voice on the web. The first crop of art blogs that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s responded to—and in some cases, against—Artnet.com as a model of self-comportment. Even the bloggers who resisted the fray—Newsgrist editor Joy Garnett was and still remains a personal favorite—maintained a distinctly conversational pitch. Blogging once truly felt like "speaking" to a small community of likeminded people.
From its earliest days onward, Artnet.com also published photos of art world social gatherings, a practice that began publicly documenting the collective aging process of New York's gallery goers while establishing a kind of "entertainment imperative" in the digital space that art magazines—American publications, in particular—still seek to fulfill.
Artnet.com ceased publication in 2012, after 16 years. Although the magazine's website remains accessible online as an archive, Artnet.com's true legacy was established long before its demise: for better and for worse, Artnet.com set the form and tone—or content strategy, as it's now known— for the print-to-digital transition that traditional art magazines would undergo in the following decade.
Artforum, to take the most prominent example, launched its first website in 1997. The magazine's online diary, which willfully upped Artnet's ante with a photo-rich social column called Scene & Herd, became a source of intrigue, ferrying the art world into an age when social media—in the forms of Twitter and Facebook—have since proven how fast gossip really can circulate.
"The Scene & Herd effect," as I like to call it, references a particular blog on a particular magazine's website, but the compulsion to pursue and privilege social reporting seems to drive many art magazines' online editorial strategies. When I worked briefly as an art magazine web editor for Art in America in 2009, I dreaded the prospect of covering openings and usually assigned them to freelance photographers, rather than go there myself. I simply felt uncomfortable impinging upon another's privacy or personal space with a camera.
Besides crashing parties, the Scene & Herd effect means art magazines, like other web-based journalistic enterprises, practice their own form of "linkbaiting": editorial strategies specifically designed to attract web traffic in the form of clicks, swipes, or "shares," which help drive the sales of online advertisements. Practically speaking, Artnet.com, Scene & Herd, and every blogger who has crossed a behavioral boundary line might be thanked for reflecting the art establishment back upon itself in the real-time mirror of the social web. After all, what else does the art world have to cash in on, in terms of impulse driven "clickability," but the fleeting curiosity of those drawn to its exclusive gossip and elusive wealth and beauty?
I appreciated—and even empathized with—Editor at Large Jack Bankowsky's revelation in Artforum's 50th-anniversary issue, published in September 2012: the magazine did indeed hope to simply score more web traffic in launching its first blog, even if Bankowsky's own editorial aspirations were attuned more closely to form (he cites Bob Colacello's Out, a diary he kept for Warhol's Interview magazine in the 1970s, as an inspiration). Fifteen years later, however, this story bears repeating more as a cautionary tale—a reminder that editorial risks should be taken, but also aggressively reassessed.
And so, we find ourselves in an age of websites devoted more to news about art than to longerform criticism or formal polemic exchange, hallmarks of the printed art magazine that have suffered in the digital space. And it's not just Artnet and Artforum. Here in New York, the launch of The New York Observer's chatty Gallerist NY column brought the Scene & Herd effect to the local level. Art in America has also increased its arts reporting exponentially in recent years, expanding on the purview of its monthly print news column. Nearly manic in tone and frequency of publication, Artinfo.com and the dizzying array of internationally based, subject-specific websites published by Louise Blouin Media are in clear pursuit of world dominance within this space: Blouin Artinfo.com Modern Painters is the official title of its print publication—a curious, if very awkward, nod to digital in the printed space that bespeaks a desire to keep the website on readers' minds.
If the tone of magazines has gotten more gossipy, direct, and conversational, the post-2.0 web has been characterized by a general sense of passivity and indirection in the way people themselves write and interact online: we don't talk to one another anymore so much as talk at or around one another through an endless series of taps and swipes. Some of my dearest friends and colleagues are people I first encountered online. Where we once held heated written exchanges in streams of comments whose audience I could count on both hands, now we "endorse" one another's professional skills, tweet, retweet, "like," and "favorite." We lurk now more than we ever did, watching vigilantly but failing to say much more than 140 characters will allow.
Reading online presents its own set of problems. Bloggers (still!) bear the brunt of the blame for this vernacular shift, but in reality a range of factors contributes to the overwhelmingly frenetic, superficial countenance of the current web. Think about the experience of navigating through a website designed to maximize the amount of "sticky" content—videos, buttons, blinking ads, links, or other interactive elements— regularly encountered by readers. This particular kind of digital interaction couldn't be more opposed to the relative peace of flipping through even the glossiest art magazine. And yet, in a bid to bombard the reader with clickable information, news-centric art websites often present platforms that willfully obstruct the basic act of reading itself. Doing so is "just business," I suppose—but it's also a reproachfully poor choice of graphic and interactive design.
All is not lost, however. Tablet computers and electronic reading devices have introduced a new and fairly dynamic range of possibilities for digital magazines. Tablet usage is growing in America: a 2013 Pew survey found that 34% of adults own a tablet device, double the number from 2012. Digital magazines are a beacon of hope for art magazines and art publishing because they reopen the possibility for more focused, contemplative reading experiences without negating the Web's ability to deliver rich, interactive visual content.
For some reason, European art magazines embraced digital publishing much more than their American counterparts. Published by Milan-based Giancarlo Politi Editore, Flash Art proclaimed itself as the first art magazine to launch its digital edition in the iTunes store. That was in 2011. Others have followed: UK-based frieze, The Art Newspaper, and Milan-based Mousse all produce digital editions with subscription models that vary between the ostentatious (at the time of this writing, The Art Newspaper digital edition costs $124.99 per year) and the reasonable (Mousse costs $5.99 per issue, while frieze has a $34.99 yearly subscription that includes a free two-month trial and other free samples).
Artforum, for its part, also publishes a digital edition, a replication of its print version replete with myriad advertisements (at $5.99 per issue, 10 issues for $49.99). Digital magazines needn't be simple duplications of their printed counterparts, even if relative technical ease of reproduction suggests otherwise. I envision a future in which the magazine's formidable video archive, alive and well on its website, is incorporated into its tablet edition. I wonder how some of Artforum.com's strongest web features—500 Words most priceless among them—might also fare in that space. It's time to rethink the rubric.
Magazines haven't yet cracked the code on digital edition sales or online advertising (frieze has come closest, in my estimation). It's the tablet's radical upgrade in user experience, however, that should be of interest to those invested in publishing projects with high visual value. Economic value may seem a far way off, but it's simply a matter of time.
In the end, I hope the Scene & Herd effect is just a collective, and temporary, bad habit— something that needlessly limited art magazines in the digital space at a time when creative publishing possibilities extended well beyond the web. Magazines (as well as institutions and publishing houses, for that matter) should look toward independent digital publishing operations— artist Paul Chan's publishing house, Badlands Unlimited, has been the leading innovator in the art-focused publication space for years now. By pushing creative, technical, and political boundaries—the company's publications have been rejected by Apple for sale in its iBooks store—Chan and company have actively interrogated the form while suggesting that a full-scale program might consider publishing smaller, more experimental titles alongside fullscale catalogs. While museums have been exploring various forms of digital publication in recent years, galleries are better positioned to take bigger creative risks: Klaus_eBooks, a series edited by critic Brian Droitcour for Klaus von Nichtssagend gallery, is one such recent example. Although its titles aren't specifically artsbased in nature—The Awl, The Rumpus, and Paper magazine are clients—New York-based 29th Street Publishing is one of the newest operations to help editorial websites and blogs craft their content into digital magazines. Finally, a perusal of online publishing platforms such as Issuu.com reveals a vast array of visual publications that range from auction house catalogs to self-published zines.
These developments suggest that the digital art magazine isn't the technological (or for that matter, financial) behemoth that many still fear. Rather, it is a chance to further the traditions of electronic literature while ushering in another paradigm shift in independent, arts-based publishing— a possible exit strategy away from Scene & Herd toward a definition of "digital" that might feel more closely akin to the art magazine in its most deliberate form. Let's suspend disbelief and find out.
As a critic, Sarah has written for publications including Frieze, Artforum, Art in America, Red Hook Journal (Bard College), Mousse, Print, Paper Monument, and Rhizome, amongst other websites, blogs, and print publications. While her interests are manifold, much of her published writing has considered the social mediation of art institutions and publications through digital media.
First launched as an art school thesis project and now long offline, her blog, Forward Retreat (2000-2008), was part of the early cohort of American art blogs that bore initial influence on then-emerging digital publishing practices in the arts. Sarah's recent work is supported by a 2016 Creative Capital|Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.
— A series of essays on the visual culture of motherhood
— A collection of short stories
— "@Artist: Performing the Digital Self," an ongoing project awarded support by the 2016 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program