Visual Culture Consortium’s Undergraduate Art History Symposium
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 2013

Delivered paper: "Networked Spectatorship"


The manner in which the gaze effects and alters a work of visual art has long been of importance to artists and theoreticians. Typically the gaze is theorized as following a consistent pattern. The artist looks upon the subject, presents that subject to the viewer, and the viewer receives, but does not return that gaze. The origin of this exchange is embedded in the unique work of art to which the viewer responds without altering the prescribed direction or challenging the authorship. However, the distinction between the artist and the viewer has over time become less clear. I would like to analyze the changes in the spectator’s gaze as a result of the interactivity of online visual databases. The Internet gives artists and their audiences access to a staggering archive of images and shared ideas. Within the frame of the computer screen a photograph can lose connection to its maker in an instant. Digital editing, or an added caption of text, can extend an image’s life through unlimited duplication, re-interpretation, and repurposing.

Artists who are concerned with these issues of reproduction and the loss of the original referent increasingly act as mediators of images rather than as their creators. With conventional notions of authorship under assault it follows that we should expect a corresponding change in the way we look during our experience of artworks endlessly mediated and replicated. The straight line from viewer to piece has been rerouted through multiple platforms of participation. As a result of this interruption of traditional viewership there is a need for what I will call here a ‘networked’ gaze. In other words a way of looking that can successfully follow the fractured paths of Internet based art.


 Penelope Umbrico, Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr, 2006-present

Exemplifying this notion of a networked gaze is the work of the American artist Penelope Umbrico. She deals with the rhizome-like (Rhizome to be understood as a mass of roots) quality of the contemporary experience of image production and reception via the process of categorizing online image searches. Her work consists of a large number of appropriated images acquired through a site like Flickr. Whether they appear in a grid on a gallery wall or on a computer screen, these found images represent only a fraction of the search results. Umbrico does not attempt to make a singular work out of countless sources. Instead she examines the very impossibility of this task. Umbrico’s images navigate, unhinged, between consumer and producer. To view her work means we are also viewing ourselves through this shared activity. Umbrico turns a mirror on the spectator in such a way that her work shatters one’s illusions about what constitutes public verse private experience. The spectator’s attention is bounced throughout a network of connections, reflecting and fracturing social identities and spaces that would not have been possible within a linear gaze posited by pre-networked culture and old-camera photography.

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