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.
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