As I attended my grad program’s orientation session, the Department Chair informed the room full of new students and new Hamilton residents of this news. To be fair, he was hesitant about it’s validity because it does seems ridiculous – and it is ridiculous because it’s actually a superb piece of parody news originating from this city’s version of The Onion – Hammer In The News.
OMG. I laughed and still chuckle thinking about it.
Luckily, I clarified that this was spoof news (which is very relevant to my communications program) and encouraged my fellow students to attend the event on James Street North in Hamilton – it’s not moving anywhere. I also found out later a couple of last year’s students have installation work happening that night and I am really excited to go see it. Hopefully no one will show up in Ancaster looking for Supercrawl, and hopefully the organizers of this event have learned a lesson about marketing and publicity.
For example, one small signal that they have become more sophisticated is that little old me has finally received a press release for the event after three silent years since asking to help promote it through some of my art news websites. Their previous approach reflected the insular and political nature that plagues much of Canadian arts marketing practices by keeping it in within the community of arts professionals and out of the larger discourse of the public realm. This is akin to a siege mentality which is of course ultimately self-defeating. It is getting better simply because it has to get better to try to keep up with the rest of the world – but this is a whole other post to composed soon.
The lessons here are three brave new forms of media born of digital culture that are crucial for art industry to embrace.
This local parody news website has tremendous value in earned media and shared media because it focuses on very relevant local attitudes and politics. Earned media because people are talking about this spoof news of their own volition – it’s what happened in my above example of a the department chair discussing this of his own volition with the new students. Shared media is passing a brand’s marketing campaign through social media and other channels – it’s what I’ve done by posting Supercrawl’s press release, which goes straight to my wordpress, facebook, tumblr and twitter accounts. Think of it as a net being cast out and capturing more relevant eyeballs, as opposed to keeping inside a sort of walled garden of content where only the same community of people are subjected to the same message over and over.
The third media form I wanted to point out is News Jacking – which Hammer In The News engages in and what I have done with this post. Simply, by posting your own relevant content that mentions, links and relates to large events before or as they happen will result in increased organic search engine results. When someone searches for Super Crawl, or about the rumour that Super Crawl is moving to Ancaster, then this blog post may very well appear. For an artist, you can post about Art Toronto a couple of weeks before it happens and include a photo of your own work. Chances are you’ll get increased traffic to your website as people search for news about Art Toronto as the date closes in, and these people will see your work when they are in a mindset to see the best in world class contemporary art. Best of all for the arts, it’s a free strategy.
Hammer In The News has caused disruption media for Supercrawl’s brand message, and I think this ultimately of great value to the festival though I hear the organizers are somewhat exasperated with the popularity of this parody news and the catalyst it provided for some negative feedback of the festival’s direction.
Speaking of negative feedback, I delivered some in an earlier post about Art Crawl and Supercrawl that I’ll again clarify, as my criticism reflects some of my points above.
First, I only am commenting on the visual arts approach of the events and is not relevant or pertinent at all to other elements present such as music, performance, food, activism, etc. Only the effect on the public’s relation to the visual arts and the compromises that the artists themselves make to their art to accommodate the nature of the festival. It is not a criticism of the artists or even their art – it is a criticism that work, even the “best” work by the “best” artists in the world, are compromised when placed in such a short, temporary location and subjected to thousand’s people shuffling by briefly. It pulls fine art out of it’s purpose of contemplation, challenge and questioning into the realm of entertainment. Fine art is not entertainment, but becomes such when competing with the overwhelming sensory experience that is the entertainment of this kind of festival. This is different than Burning Man which runs for a week and allows for time and space that is not cluttered, or Art Toronto which is only three days but the art is not competing with entertainment or performing arts.
Secondly, these concerns about such festivals are not original or new. It is simply a concern that local visual artists are there to be called upon by a tourism department to “celebrate the vibrancy” of a city’s cultural scene at such brief events and then are dismissed back into a state of toiling and scrounging in relative obscurity. There has always been a bias that visual artists need to volunteer their time and comply with presenting temporary art that is “appropriate” – which means safe, temporary, non-offensive and generally entertaining. This is not a sincere reflection of a serious contemporary artist’s motivations, in my view. My concern is this approach is putting the cart before the horse. A festival like art crawl did and should continue to be the child of a sustained contemporary art scene and not be confused as the end motivation. People should be coming to downtown Hamilton any day of the month because of the visual art, and not associating it with a once a month party.
Thirdly, it’s about ownership and control. By limiting the exposure to Hamilton’s art scene to a handful of a single location specific festivals, we are ceding ownership of our work to a select group of interests who have now taken control of who can show and how – the roots of the scene were firmly placed in a more open environment for artists and this was the engine of its initial popularity. Extended, this is the crucial problem with Toronto’s Nuit Blanche – it’s an onerous application process to be included and is virtually inaccessible by a since art-loving community as it now largely an outdoor drunk fest filled with yahoos and absolutely packed with crowds. It’s turned into a corporate advertising opportunity tightly controlled by a select group of interests. This is not about the sustained development of excellent studio work by a community of contemporary artists. It had the promise of that, but isn’t and should *not* be the measurement of the local art scene. It should be one of many supporting apparatuses of such a scene.
Fourthly, my view of the problem of juries selecting art comes into play here – any jury selecting any work of any medium tends to eliminate the best and the worst applications and you are left with a slate of programming that represents the average of the submissions. Thus, a prestigious festival such as Nuit Blanche attracts some of the best artists from around the world, and you’ll get a high caliber of art but it is still the average of the range of submissions considered. Masterwork, by definition, is the unexpected, unconsidered and unexplored that confronts and challenges us and this is what confuses a jury of experts whose job it is to compromise and select work that is recognizable as acceptable by other experts. This is not a specific criticism of any artist or curator but it is simply an observation of human behaviour and group dynamics, and I am sorry if I offended anyone by applying this concern to Supercrawl. In my opinion, the only way to truly embrace the avant garde, the experimental, the truly best of contemporary art is to open up meaningful participation beyond the specific time, location and control. In this way an art festival can grow and become remarkable and the remarkable becomes the new normal.
Fifth, to be fair, I am not a hypocrite and I do participate with my own work in both Art Crawl and Super Crawl. I have not applied to be part of Super Crawl, and I do believe there is a place for excellent and sincere contemporary visual and performance art in such a setting. Having thousands of people and open streets to work with is a fantastic opportunity, but I will not cede my own standards of a progressive contemporary art scene to a small group of community festival organizers. Myself and other artists will take part but in a real sense the participation will be intrusive, disruptive and guerrilla in nature. I won’t be measuring the success of contemporary art work by how entertaining it is or by how many people walk by it. I won’t judge a work by being on one part of the street rather than a few blocks away . This is a dangerous path to limited arts funding because corporations and local government who will put more of this precious limited funding into a two day event rather than other overall sustained efforts that are ultimately more beneficial to the creative economy. Politicians love a chance for one-off, symbolic support with high media visibility that will carry over to the next election and corporations are the same as they want to appeal to the broadest demographic, and not necessarily the worthiest.
I am concerned that, typical of Hamilton and many other smaller cities, that Supercrawl will become a white elephant project of sorts to the detriment of the health of the larger arts community and to the benefit a few business owners and the careers of a couple of curators.
I understand that the counter-argument will be that such a festival attracts interest in the arts and enhances the health and thus overall funding. I hope this is the case, but my criticism was a challenge to do better, do more and do it all the time. Galleries sit largely empty on James Street North between the art crawls – this is the crux of the problem. If you let them, those who control and dole out art funding will pay themselves to throw a big party with all the money and starve the event workers for the rest of the rest of year.
Does open public debate about these kind of issues have a place in Hamilton, or should I have submitted it to a committee first?