Sarah Hromack / Writing / I Was Here

I Was Here

An investigation into the social role of gallery sign-in books as physical relics of experience in the digital age

Brian [redacted]
Adam [redacted]
Kathy [redacted] “Brilliant work.”
[redacted] “Great show!”
[Illegible, and therefore redacted]

These names have been redacted in order to protect the not-so-innocent. Admit it, gallery-goer: On any given Saturday you, too, sidle up to the desk, feigning interest in the list of works on view while sneaking a peek at the black leather-bound album waiting there, displaying the signatures of recent visitors. You, too, studiously avoid making eye contact with the desk attendant (who studiously avoids returning your fleeting glances) while quickly scanning the list of names. Throwing caution to the wind, you might even flip a page or two—nonchalantly, though, lest you appear to be idling or, even worse, genuinely interested. Admit it: You, too, are curious to see who’s out and about.

But why do we bother with these anachronistic gestures—scribbling your name in a book, checking out the others there—at a moment when the New York art world is mostly tracked online? The strategic perusal of just a few websites can replace hours of fieldwork in Chelsea and the Lower East Side. The gallery sign-in ritual might seem as laboriously outmoded as writing a check. And yet, old habits die hard. It turns out that the gallery book has been around—in essence, at least—since the 16th century or so. Its likely precursor, the autograph album, became popular in Germany and Holland when university students took to inscribing one another’s Bibles; blank pages added to the Good Book eventually led to entire albums designed specifically for the signatures of friends. Though these books, or stammbücher, also recorded important data (such as genealogical charts and sports statistics), academics primarily used them to compile the names and correspondence of colleagues—thus establishing the same sort of professional street cred a well-known critic’s signature might afford a burgeoning artist or gallery today. Even Beethoven carried an autograph book.

As photography became more widely accessible in the mid- to late-19th century, the yearbook succeeded the autograph album as the chosen memento mori for young adulthood. With its title invoking a premature sense of nostalgia for days not-yet-gone by, the yearbook is a social proving ground. Fervent hallway yearbook exchanges are rituals of friendship; the signatures left behind, relics of performance.

Mercifully lacking the painful portraits that relegate many a yearbook to the deep recesses of parents’ basements, the gallery book more closely resembles the autograph book in form. In function, however, it is the yearbook’s undeniable bastard child. It also reiterates the yearbook’s true message, belied by the latter’s most time-honored inscription: “Never change.”

But change, as another adage forewarns, is inevitable. Let us return to the Web then, where an ever-shifting constellation of Google hits, blog comments, and Facebook missives maps the social (and by proxy, financial) network that really makes the art world go ’round. By now, commercial galleries know to make an artist’s CV, press clippings, and images readily available for download by prospective collectors and critics alike. Email blasts and rich media campaigns have all but replaced snail-mailed press releases. “You Are Your Analytics” is a slogan as likely to be spotted on the t-shirt of a code monkey in Silicon Valley as exhorted earnestly by the public-relations firms tasked with soldiering flagging arts organizations through dark economic times.

Indeed, “social networking” has evolved from a quotation-marked neologism bandied about suspiciously by the mainstream media into a tried-and-true method of disseminating information instantly and widely. As companies capitalize on the phenomenon, social media strategists and similarly titled wunderkinds spend their days pushing products across the digital divide, one status update at a time. If any sector has arrived late to the Web, it is the art world. Those in doubt need only log on to Twitter to observe that tweens and senators alike have mastered the form, while cultural institutions still struggle awkwardly to find their “voice” in 140 characters or less. Yet progress has been relatively swift: Twitter feeds, Facebook fan pages, and blog entries have gained traction as powerful marketing tools that do double-duty as sites of instant public engagement.

For a field categorically invested in objects and spaces, making the most of the internet’s possibilities has taken time and concentrated effort. Yet coaxing a disembodied, online audience into the gallery isn’t an easy task; much is lost in the space-time continuum between the virtual and physical worlds. As it is used now, the gallery book is an emblem of that passage, where smudged graphite and mottled ink stand as physical testaments to a single month—maybe two, if it’s the summer season—or even a breakneck weekend: I spotted them everywhere at last year’s Armory Show, where such conspicuous displays accompanied dealers’ shifty eyes and nervous titters. Like its distant cousins, wedding and funeral guest albums, the gallery book serves as an attendance record. Weddings and funerals are largely private rituals: warm wishes are left for the happy couple, notes of condolence for those suffering a loss. In the gallery, however, these modest gestures of goodwill are transformed into a subtle, yet very public spectacle—a “Who’s Who” roll call of any given Saturday in New York: “The gang’s all here, and here’s the proof.”

Sometimes we do need to see in order to believe. We need to touch, to take stock of our holdings—to flip through a stack of bills, or thumb through some old photos. To stare one another down, hard. We need an object, a keepsake to stash away for that “someday” when our Facebook friends go the way of the Fail Whale, when the rhizome’s roots grow too tangled to unwind. That day won’t likely come—not in the apocalyptic sense, at least. But if it does, you will have left your mark.

Updated on March 28, 2019

As a critic, I have 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 my interests are manifold, much of my 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, my 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. My work has been supported by a Creative Capital|Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

Since giving birth in 2017, I have been writing about more personal and honestly, more pleasurable subjects including (but not limited to) motherhood — material that I haven't yet decided to publish and may never do.

Some Essays

An Idea for Interview

2018 Frieze
A memorial op-ed on Interview Magazine (1969-2018), "an enduring symbol of downtown cool, even as downtown became Disney"

Narcissism in the Digital Age

2017 Frieze
A review of Kristen Dombek's "The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism"

Sign on the Dotted Line

2016 Frieze
An op-ed in support of W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy)'s efforts at New York's New Museum

It’s Complicated: The Institution as Publisher

2016 Superscript Reader, Walker Art Center
An op-ed on the politics that govern institutional publishing, written by invitation on the occasion of "Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age" at the Walker Art Center

What is Metahaven?

2015 Frieze
A feature on the Dutch design studio Metahaven

Another ‘C’ Word: On Content and the (Techno) Curatorial

2015 Red Hook Journal, Bard College
An essay on digital, linguistic, and curatorial intersectionality that begins with Raymond Williams's "Keywords" and ends at the NSA's XKEYSCORE

The Real Power of Open Innovation

2014 Mousse
A conversation with New York-based artists João Enxuto & Erica Love about the critical intersection of technology and institutions

The Museum Interface

2014 Art in America
A conversation with Rob Giampetro, Creative Lead, Google

Safety in Numbers

2014 Frieze
I and others including Laura Poitras, Trevor Paglan, Jordan Ellenberg, Martha Rosler, Mercedes Bunz, and Shoshana Zuboff responded to a question posed by editor Jörg Heiser: “Algorithms, Big Data and surveillance: what’s the response, and responsibility, of art?”

Douglas Davis (1933–2014)

2014 Artforum
In kind memory of artist Douglas Davis (1933-2014)

Beyond the Scene and Herd Effect

2013 Artpapers
A consideration of the social web's impact on art magazines' websites and editorial strategies over the course of time

Off the Page

2011 Frieze
A profile of Paul Chan’s new publishing venture, Badlands Unlimited

A Thing Remade: A Conversation with Paul Chan

2011 Rhizome
A conversation with artist Paul Chan

I Was Here

2010 Paper Monument | N+1
An investigation into the social role of gallery sign-in books as physical relics of experience in the digital age

Collective Collections

2010 Print Magazine
A homage to art collective Group Material’s seminal work from the 1980s and 1990s; in collaboration with Project Projects

What It Is: A Conversation with Jeremy Deller

2009 Art in America
An interview with British artist Jeremy Deller on the occasion of his solo exhibition at the New Museum, "It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq"

A Theater of Absurdity: Parody, Power, and the Politics of Display at the 4th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art

2007 California College of the Arts
Graduate Thesis in the MA Visual and Critical Studies program at the California College of the Arts, San Francisco, CA (essay version)