Going Viral

It has been eight months since K-pop sensation Psy’s Gangnam Style overtook YouTube, and more than 1.4 billion computer screens. The most recent cultural pandemic has been producer Bauer’s Harlem Shake. Arm-deep into 2013, it may seem that nothing in the world, much less in the art community, is projected to be of eternal consequence if it doesn’t operate on viral terms. But that thinking couldn’t be more ill-fated. Though artists should embrace a world of viral fits, they must understand that lasting work will strike a viral nerve in due time.

Gangnam Flash Mob in Canada / Via GoToVan, Flickr.

As silly as it sounds, there were moments when I watched the Harlem Shake take on increasingly creative bounds to the point where I thought a cultural revolution might be in store. But I soon got over my minor fit of euphoria to realize that that was far from the case. In fact, something else stuck in my mind: increasingly, the effect of cultural movements will be determined by their viral impact, which in a world dominated by hyper-inflated capitalism will mean that culture could become a numbers game. Perhaps even more so than it already is.

Granted, the point has to be made that Gangnam Style and Harlem Shake in their own right are fun pieces of culture, some might even think of these videos as art. But let’s not get things twisted: cultural events are not instantly definable as movements just because they take on a viral sensibility. For example, as Washington Square News points out, Egyptian activists have modified the Harlem Shake to protest against the Muslim Brotherhood. But Mexican peasantry didn’t need a YouTube sensation to wage an untold shift of power some 100 years ago. The French Revolution did alright without page views. Even now, the gay marriage debate exists within a paradigm influenced by viral measures, but the fight for rights began decades ago. And the only reason why the tide has begun to turn in the right direction has been because of determined pockets of participants making their presence known across the real world. That notion of using viral behavior as a new tool for creative participation is one of the things that makes socially engaged art today so exciting.

LGBT Social Movement (2008) / Via Chad Magiera, Flickr.

Viral content responds to an express need for people to connect to each other through community engagement. Spanish artist and activist Leónidas Martín is an example of the great heights socially engaged art can reach when it taps into a viral component. Usually working in collaboration with Barcelona collective Enmedio, which translates to “in between” or “among” in English, Martín has set off artistic actions that have been viral successes.

His Fiesta #CierraBankia campaign came after the Spanish government cut 20 billion Euros in health and education funding to support the giving of 23 billion Euros to recently bankrupt bank Bankia. To protest this initiative, last year Martín and his supporters used social media to set up parties in local Bankia branches whenever customers closed their accounts. As he puts it, what better way is there to get rid of some anger than by staging a party?

Enmedio, Fiesta #CierraBankia.

In the U.S., one of artist Olga Koumoundouros’ projects also recently became a viral hit last October. After contemplating squatting in her neighbors’ abandoned house, citing difficulty to pay her mortgage in a foreclosure-ridden neighborhood, Olga instead decided to turn it into an installation. Dubbed A Notorious Possession, Olga built off the history of the possessions left behind by its former owners to honor their memory and to further explore themes of social mobility she focused on as a professional artist. Herself struggling in a nation where the notion of social mobility has been incrementally disappearing, her work brought up important issues of property rights, ownership, and economic double standards.

As expected, the project caused quite a stir. The art community, as well as a nation ravaged by foreclosures, took an interest in her work. And, like Leónidas Martín, Olga Koumoundouros struck a chord on a grand scale without compromising her project’s social impacts. The work took off after it was covered online by KCET Television and after Koumoundouros posted pictures of eviction notices on Facebook. Though she put herself in a potentially legally risky situation, the timely themes of her work fostered a community dialogue that perhaps had been non-existent until that point. She was eventually removed from the premises but not before organizing performances in the house, leading discussions with activists and victims of foreclosure regarding the social pandemic, and stirring a pot of civil dissonance.

That is why when UN-Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon calls a dance craze like Gangnam Style a “force for world peace,” he is not only undermining the work of actual peacekeepers and peacemakers, but also the work of artists like Leónidas Martín and Olga Koumoundouros. It in turn creates a dangerous precedent for artists, even those who choose not to get caught up in viral pursuits, to make all art a ticking time bomb of social infection. Art has the power to impact the mind of a viewer, but the world needs to have conversations beyond what a viral campaign can muster.

As we saw with Kony 2012, even when a viral sensation has the express interest of spurring civil action the work can be misconstrued and ultimately prove inconsequential. The campaign sought to have Joseph Kony arrested by the end of 2012, but here we are in 2013, with no Kony in the International Criminal Court system. One of Kony 2012’s purported actions was to “cover the night” with posters, fliers, t-shirts, and buttons in an effort to make Joseph Kony “famous,” so as to reveal his crimes to the world. But the actual turnout was pitiful. Its most impactful event was the nude streaking of its founder on the streets of San Diego.

Kony 2012 Flyer / Via William Murphy, Flickr.

Though not strictly an art project, Kony 2012 might serve as the best cautionary tale in regards to the potential pitfalls of making art for the sole purpose of creating a viral sensation. Most artists must understand that their work can be impactful, and ultimately more effective, if targeted to local communities.

Take YAK FILMS, for instance. Now an international production team documenting urban and youth movements across the globe, that boasts over 113 million views on its YouTube channel, it started from a much more humble and bittersweet beginning. After Darrell Armstead lost his god-brother in a car accident, he and his dance crew, Turf Feinz, made a spectacular dance video on the corner where the accident took place. Just the morning after, at that.

YAK FILMS, Rich D Dancing in the Rain on Oakland Streets.

YAK FILMS, started by Yoram Savion and Kash Gaines—a teacher-student duo that met while Kash was studying at the Youth Uprising Community Center in East Oakland—was there to record the dance commemoration. 6 million views later, the video had revitalized and revolutionized dance culture. Perhaps more emotionally impactful is that some months later, Darrell Armstead, known as D-Real, lost a brother to gang violence. A former gang member himself, and someone who spent six months in jail for armed robbery and assault, D-Real decided he was done with violence. He used dancing as his catharsis, saying: “You can’t search for justice and happiness at the same time, you’ll drive yourself crazy. So, instead, I search for happiness and pray justice comes.”

Even in the face of untold success, YAK FILMS remains committed to its beginnings. Its central mission is the following:

Since its inception, YAK has been dedicated to emerging multimedia production as a voice of resistance and an alternative to the mainstream. At its core, YAK is a visual wrecking crew that uses multimedia to share the talents of young people around the world – and elevate and inspire the masses.

It would be unwise and counterintuitive to oppose works like Gangnam Style, Harlem Shake, and Kony 2012 simply because they’ve served as incredible examples of the power of communication amplified by the Internet. But as the work of Leónidas Martín, Olga Koumoundouros and YAK FILMS highlight, we live in a time when some viral component is almost integral to an artistic initiative.

The important part is not to frame art as something that is only worthwhile or has value if the whole world is discussing it via hashtags. Though, it may seem like the internet is the purveyor of all things, cultural movements and art pieces should exist beyond its acreage. Because we live in a changing world, it makes sense to embrace new technologies in the furtherance of culture but they should never stand as its replacement. After all, “going viral” is nothing more than a cheap attempt at simulating the propagation of evolving forms. Art projects should have viral elements, if necessary, but never viral goals.

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