Fleeting or immortal glory: Art and Fame in the Digital Age | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU



Our names in Lights: Art glorification and internet fame

It’s late at night in Barcelona and I’m watching the screen on my computer, showing a live feed from the façade of the Australian Museum in Sydney, where it’s already noon. I’m sacrificing a good night’s sleep for a good cause: fame. In a few minutes, and for just 15” seconds I will see my name in lights, in John Baldessari’s installation. My 15” of fame are here.

Toying with the famous quote by Andy Warhol that “in the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes”, John Baldessari offers to people around the world the opportunity to see their name flashing for a few seconds in the art installation “Your name in lights”. All you need to do is send your name and wait to be put on schedule.

As I filled in the application form online, a few days earlier, I was wondering what kind of names people would give. Would it be their own names, names of people who have passed away, names of people they miss? Reading the viewers’ comments, I noticed that some of them considered it as a special moment, strong enough to make them travel to Sydney in order to see their name in lights with their own eyes.

To my surprise, as I saw my name and the other names I’d given flash in the façade of the Australian Museum, I felt really excited. Four hours later I would go to work and another ordinary day for me would start, but at that moment, right at the other end of the world, under a sunny summer sky, somebody was reading my –rather long and difficult to pronounce- name. And not just mine…

Taking Baldessari’s concept a step further, I choose to include in my application form the names of two unborn children, due to be born during the forthcoming weeks. Two unborn babies having their name in lights, before seeing the light of this world. Maybe it’s not common to see an unborn child in an art installation; however, nowadays most babies have their movements and faces captured through ultrasound and digitally recorded in pictures and video. The “digital fame” offered by the new media begins before the day of birth.

As they grow old, they will see most of their life captured in digital images and video. And as they take their first step into the digital universe of the internet, they might see their name or their picture coming first in search results in Google; for the generation that is about to see the light of the day, fame will be an even more trivial experience than it was three decades ago, when Warhol said his famous quote.

Because it seems like “fame” is constantly becoming easier -and emptier. We are all famous in a way; at least for our followers on Twitter, or our “friends” on Facebook –most of whom we only know through their “avatars”. If I follow my social network feeds closely, I get to learn details about the lives of people who I’ve never met, people who lead “ordinary” lives like mine.

Being “ordinary”, however, has ceased to be a barrier in the road to glory for more than a decade now; “Facebook” is somehow the offspring of the “Big Brother” TV program of the past decade. Reality shows have made us familiar with the idea that we can sneak into the everyday lives of others, especially if those “others” willingly put their lives on public display.

Day by day, we have been giving up our privacy in favor of fame: We know that our mails are being read by robots, who register our consumer habits and sell them to advertisers; we know that our quests in the search engines are being matched to our IPs and saved for future reference; we know that our personal data is being constantly scrutinized and recorded. But we tend to disregard it, as we give in to the momentary pleasure of sharing our personal moments with hundreds of others who “like”, “retweet” and “comment” them, in order to show their approval or admiration –expecting that others will do likewise with their publicized privacy.

The meaning of “fame” and “celebrity” seems to have changed drastically: housewives like Kelly Oxford are being followed by thousands of people for their wit and humor, while movie stars see their paparazzi photos smash their image, as their most intimate or unfortunate moments are being multiplied on the Internet.

The revenge of the masses or the unbearable lightness of the Digital Era? In any case, “fame” still seems to be highly respected as a panacea against personal and financial problems.

From the artist’s signature to the public’s art

John Baldessari’s installation simply reflects the existing reality of seeking publicity and glamour; but taking a step backwards into art history, we see that fame and art have always been intrinsically linked.

From the Ancient Greek Potters who were proud enough of their art to put their signature on their paintings, to the signatures of contemporary artists that are worth millions –with the exception of  medieval and byzantine artists, who felt themselves to be “workers” and thus mostly left their works anonymous- many artists have been renowned and respected for their art. In some cases, they came to be famous for their private life also, as was the case with Salvador Dali, who was provoking publicity, Andy Warhol, who was worshipping it or Damien Hirst, who is mocking it.


Sophie Calle, Suite Vénitienne

The act of making the private public is the main axis in the work of Sophie Calle, a contemporary artist known for putting in public display her private life or the lives of the others; in the work “Suite Vénitienne” (1979) she followed a man that she had met at a party and documented his activities through photos and notes that she later exhibited. In the “Address book” (1983) she published details about the life of an unknown person; after his address book had fallen into her hands by accident, she tried to discover and reveal things about his private life – and subsequently was sued for invasion of privacy by the owner of the book. For Sophie Calle her everyday life is an artwork to be shared with the masses –a disregard to privacy that came long before the advent of reality shows and Facebook.

Whether on purpose or unwillingly, a work of art has always had the potential to give fame and prestige to the people projected in it. Mona Lisa is one of the most easily recognized faces today, five centuries after Leonardo Da Vinci depicted her enigmatic face in his famous portrait. Portraiture had always been aiming at immortalizing not so much a face, but a personality. In some cases, these works have managed to turn the face portrayed into an icon; Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn” (1967) or Shepard Fairey’s portrait of Barack Obama “Hope” (2008) are two examples where the face of the depicted person, stripped out of the details, becomes the depiction of an idea.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Tijuana Projection
Krzysztof Wodiczko, Tijuana Projection

But it doesn’t take to be someone famous in order to achieve this; everyday people can turn into icons by having their image projected on a large scale installation, as we see in the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko. In the “Tijuana projection” (2000), videos of “maquiladoras” –women who work at offshore industries at Tijuana - are projected in at the façade of the Omnimax Theater at the Centro Cultural Tijuana(CECUT), 18 meters in diameter. The women talk about the abuse and the violence they are often being subjected to; in contrast to the cinematographic “gros plan”, that would glorify the actors and make their faces widely known, these close-ups by Wodiczko aim at raising awareness on the lives of the least fortunate. On a similar tone, in the “Hiroshima Projection” (1999), the camera of the artist focused on the hands of the survivors of the nuclear bomb catastrophe, as they narrated their experience in a projection under the A-Bomb dome in Hiroshima. Again, the artist’s intention is not to bring the survivors to fame; it is to bring history into life and to project the idea that this history represents.

It is portraiture taken to the next level: now we see more than the aspect and the personality of the depicted person; we can actually learn their most intimate stories.

Or even narrate ours: in exhibitions such as How we are and How we are Now in Tate Britain, the public was encouraged to contribute to the exhibition by publishing content on Flickr, the photo-sharing website. It suddenly seems that the time old distinction between “artists” and “amateurs” is becoming extinct, as museums offer a space where people can exhibit their artworks.

“As museums are often entrusted with safeguarding and shaping our cultural memory, the above examples highlight institutional efforts to engage in curatorial and design terms with what David Harvey calls ‘small heritages’, i.e. personal, local heritage, in comparison to ‘big heritage’, i.e. official, national heritage”[1]

As we register our everyday lives in consecutive images and quotes, “likes” and “shares”, we write our own life stories; a private diary open to everyone and a personal viewpoint with a potential to reach and influence a wider public.

In most cases, this viewpoint will fade out, as other pictures and words will flood our social network feeds.

15 seconds of fame, an eternity of oblivion.

Left: Shepard Fairey, Obama. Right: Andy Warhol, Mairilyn

Suggested bibliography:

Areti Galani, Alexandra Moschovi, “Trans/forming Museum Narratives: The Accommodation of „Photography 2.0“ in Contemporary Exhibitions”, in: Agnes Aljas, et.al. (Ed.), Transforming Culture in the Digital Age, Editions: Estonian National Museum, Estonian Literary Museum, University of Tartu. Available online: http://dspace.utlib.ee/dspace/bitstream/10062/14768/1/transform_book.pdf

Modesta Di Paola, “Krzysztof Wodiczko”, in: … La memoria del otro, Bogota 2009. Available online: https://interartive.org/2010/12/krzysztof-wodiczko/

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author,” Aspen, no. 5-6 in 1967, Available online: http://www.deathoftheauthor.com/

Amy Henderson, “Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture”, OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 6, No. 4, Communication in History: The Key to Understanding (Spring, 1992), pp. 49-54. Available online: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25154085

Sophie Calle, M'as tu vue. Centre Pompidou & Edition Xavier Baral, 2003

[1] Areti Galani, Alexandra Moschovi, “Trans/forming Museum Narratives: The Accommodation of „Photography 2.0“ in Contemporary Exhibitions”, in: Agnes Aljas, et.al. (Ed.), Transforming Culture in the Digital Age, Editions: Estonian National Museum, Estonian Literary Museum, University of Tartu, p.191.