THE BLOG

Facebook as an Artistic Platform: An Interview With PE Sharpe

09/20/2013 08:15 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2013

This is the third of an ongoing series of interviews with artists who have specifically used Facebook to expand their artistic practice. The first was with Jennifer Reeves. The second was with Judy Rifka. This one is with PE Sharpe, photographer, writer/curator, professor, and, now, painter.

If you scan her 2013 Wall in chronological order, it reads like a novel that, mid-story, has undergone a shift in focus, practice, and exposition. Her Wall's back-story, part of which is included below, explains not just her shared, almost-daily paintings but the transformation in her approach to art as well. It's a fascinating read, watching this all unfold on Facebook. If you wonder whether she uses Facebook as a scrim to reveal her true thoughts and feelings on matters artistic and otherwise, the answer is an emphatic No. She is as funny, opinionated, and iconoclastic in person (well, on Skype, at least) as she is on her Wall. In other words, there is no disconnect between what she posts, what she makes, and who, at any one particular moment, she is.

Part 1. GENERAL

How long have you been on Facebook and why did you join?

I joined Facebook in 2007. At that time it was by invitation only and limited to college and university students. A group of my students had covertly created a Facebook group (SHARPED!) as a support mechanism for a third year photo course that I was teaching. There is no question that I had a reputation for being a tough professor who insisted that my students rise to every challenge, to risk all in search of their authentic means of expression. Success in my classes required the greatest of integrity and a willingness to lose the inner censor/stylist on their part (and the loss of being the ultimate authority on mine).

They had created the FB group to allow them to communicate outside of class time. It was started with a subtext of group therapy but after a period of time they invited me to participate, which was rather remarkable. I always viewed the relationship with my students as intensely symbiotic, I received as much as I gave, and I doubt I would be on Facebook without their invitation. There have been many shifts in my use of Facebook since 2007, needless to say. I no longer teach and my personal network now comprises my peers, including some former students who went on to become professionals in the art world.

How do you conceive of your Facebook wall? A glass walled studio/study into which all your friends can peep? A hermetic cell? A bar at closing time?

My Facebook wall is an extension of my studio. As such it encompasses all aspects of my daily life, from personal events to exhibitions I've seen, links of interest, opinions and philosophies and theories related to being a full-time artist. I love the idea of a peephole, since I myself am an inveterate voyeur and have made work about the variable dynamics of looking/seeing/witnessing. That being said, I am somewhat of a hermit, an introvert who appreciates being able to be extroverted on my own time. I wouldn't go as far as to say my wall is a bar at closing time; I'm not generally a fan of free-for-all interactions and try to limit the numbers of brawls that can result when the fur-lined teacups start to fly.

Have you participated on other social media platforms? Which ones? What did you like and dislike about them?

Speaking of bars at closing time... I did take an extended hiatus from FB in 2010 during the height of OWS. I closed down my account and moved lock, stock, and barrel to Google Plus. I was initially drawn to Google Plus for the clean lines of the platform as well as their stated User agreements and ethical stance with regard to posts and content posted. That being said, there is an enormous gap between a platform and the users of the platform and for me G+ evokes a library with benefits rather than a coffee shop filled with like-minded people talking to each other. Despite being an exquisite piece of technology built on a research network and a far more aesthetically pleasing platform than FB, Google never managed to attract a critical mass of professional artists. The number of followers I acquired on G+ as an engaged proselytizer for creative practices didn't hold any interest for me other than as a measurement of numbers themselves. I could never figure out where they were coming from or why -- they were a very significant mass with little or nothing to say.

In any case I gave it my best shot for two years and it was Sisyphean to the very end. It turns out that for me the conversation amongst artists and the extended art community mattered more to me than the platform. I am far more interested in a many-to-many relationship (cf FB) than a broadcast mechanism that is one-to-many (cf the asynchronous nature of G+) and so I returned to Facebook full time in 2012. I also took Vine for an intense test drive but it fell to the wayside in much the same way that I could never really find much satisfaction from Twitter or Tumblr. They all have potential but I prefer my social media experience to be more conversational in tone and practice.

Works and comments wise, your wall is so lively. You seem to use it as a visual diary. Almost daily you post scrumptious images of anthropomorphic globules of paint. Judy does the same thing with the daily barrage of small collages. Jennifer does the same thing with her image/narrative series. Do you conceive of these as studies, as doodles? Are you using them to work something out, are you just exploring?

First of all, let me say that I don't believe anything is ever a doodle in the conscious exploration of being an artist. I don't believe in the myth of the unconscious guiding the hand and mind into prompting a discovery. I do believe that Artists, in general, are hyper aware, and hyper attenuated to the analysis of the world and the prompts that we receive. My current explorations with those anthropomorphic globules of paint are scientific, process based, and repeatable. The difference is that I am not limiting them by describing what they are, or what they represent, other than sharing images of the tangible results of those explorations. I'm flying without a safety net of an artist's statement for the first time: it has been incredible to make this work for the sheer pleasure of making. A visual diary is as accurate a description as any, but the conversations with my peers that occur in tandem with their explorations take it into a whole other realm, similar to being in Westbeth or any global artists' compound, visiting each other as we work.

What do you like best about Facebook as an artistic platform? Has it helped or otherwise the expanded your practice in anyway? To speculate would your work be the same now without it?

As I said, I am using Facebook as a social extension of my studio practices; posting on a daily basis is a way of keeping myself both motivated for my own benefit, and to engage in dialogue with other artists, be it visual or written, online or in real life. Being an artist can be an intensely isolating and introverted pursuit, Facebook allows me to pursue moments of extroversion with an amazing group of people -- gallerists, critics, consultants, artists, professors, philosophers, connoisseurs of art, collectors of art, the list is truly endless -- of all levels of accomplishment and engagement in thinking about art.

Everything I post, from links to random YouTube videos, historical artworks, tracts from philosophers, to images of my own work, is about the conversation as well as a representative slice of the stream of conscious thinking I happen to be pursuing on any given day. My own response to the responses of others is essential to my sense of growth/potential. I am searching for points of resistance and of failure in addition to positive comments in order to find my personal constituency in my own process as an artist. It sounds self-absorbed, and in some ways it is, but by being open about what I am doing I also find that it's okay to fail. We are learning from each other, my fiends and I.

Do you find yourself thinking or working any differently because you know it's going to be posted and discussed on Facebook?

Absolutely yes, and absolutely not. The yes part of my response is that I wouldn't be making the work that I am making had it not been for the encouragement and the sharing of personal practices that I have been privy to over the past several years and at a very critical juncture in my own trajectory of interests. The no part of this answer is that I have always cherished my autonomy (much to the dismay of certain inhabitants of various art communities -- traditional academia, I'm looking at you). I can be generous to a fault -- I love sharing information about technique, process, science, chemistry, concepts, the whole ball of wax. That being said, when it comes to what I am making of all of those elements of the work of being an artist, my job is a solitary one and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Because of Facebook, Judy met and later collaborated with Daniel. Has anything serendipitously similar ever happened to you?

Yes indeed! There have been many collaborations that have arisen over the years, some which were generated by me and some which have been generated by others. The most remarkable happened this past spring and was fully the result of an exchange on Facebook. In brief, a photo of Jennifer Lawrence falling at the Oscars was posted by a fellow artist named Trey Speegle; I was mesmerized by the photograph and challenged my fiend list to turn it into art. Peregrine Honig replied within moments with a beautiful gouache study, which led to my response of a small oil painting, which Trey then posted on his profile page on Facebook. It couldn't have taken more than an hour for all of this to have transpired. I went into the studio the next day and started working on these representations of a falling figure - it was compelling. Imagine my surprise several days later when I was approached (via Trey) by James Danziger, the well-respected Chelsea blue chip photo dealer. He offered me an opportunity to work with him on a project for an upcoming art fair in LA.

I truly loved every moment of what we were able to achieve in that collaboration. His challenge (completely without restriction or guidance wrt what I was already making) aligned perfectly with what I was doing in the studio; a month later he took the drawings and paintings I made to LA where it promptly became the buzz of Paris Photo LA and sold out on opening day. It takes a particular kind of genius to take drawings and paintings to a photo fair, and the absolute trust James placed in my capacity to bring my fullest integrity to his proposal was in keeping with my own way of moving through these Art Worlds that we inhabit. It really doesn't get much better than that. It exemplified all of the trust and integrity that I have come to expect from the professionals working at all levels and on both sides of the table who also happen to congregate on FB.

Do you ever want to just take a holiday and just log off for a while from social media?

Every day when I go to the studio! My studio is an Internet-free zone. Other than that, time spent on social media translates into dog years for me - I find that taking a day or two away from social media feels like the equivalent of a week or two. When I find a particular platform wearing thin, I love jumping around to see what's new elsewhere; it feeds the technology geek in me that was formerly fed by photography.

I love what social media offers me. I don't make any apologies for it, and I miss it when I have to leave it behind.

Part 2. COMMENTS

You're very active with comments. Why? Conversely do you find comments on your postings (works, observations, third-party sharing) significant or otherwise useful?

I'm not entirely sure what 'active with comments' means. Do I engage in conversation on my Facebook wall? Yes. It really is that simple. If somebody with whom I have elected to associate takes the time to speak to me, it is my way of being to want to reply and engage with that person further. This probably goes back to the reason other social media networks have not worked as well for me. To return to an earlier question, my way of using Facebook is based on mutual interest as well as a desire to interact with the people with whom we agree to consort. If I'm not interested in pursuing conversations with any given individual, chances are they aren't part of my network. I keep my wall private for exactly that reason.

One of the critical differences between my experience on Google Plus and Facebook is that they are both research networks for me but Facebook is a network of living experience shared from one artist to another. G+ on the other hand is a network within a network in which people will primarily provide links to something they found on Google when a question is asked about a process or technique. The responses of both communities are quite diverse, as are the communities themselves. My communities on Facebook are in sync with my interests in art as concept and lived history in addition to aesthetics, process and elements of style/authenticity. I find it to be enormously helpful to have found my people on FB, if you will. I value my fiends greatly for the collective wisdom and friendship that they represent.

Have you had any bad experiences with social media, on Facebook or elsewhere? If so what were they?

Yes, and the less said, the better. I've acquired some wisdom along the way that can be summed up quite simply: when people show you who they are, believe them.

I didn't think to ask this of Jennifer and Judy but are you active on the walls of your friends? (I love that you call them fiends.)

Of course, they are fiends! I expect a certain amount of badass quotient in my coterie of artists and our ilk, otherwise what's the point in claiming this as our métier? We certainly aren't in it for the money so we may as well pursue our individual pleasures. As to whether I am active on the walls of my colleagues, I would suspect that I am although I can't say I've ever taken a poll...

OK, I just went and did a little research to better answer that since you piqued my curiosity, et voila: today I posted one photo of my own, I shared one link originally shared by somebody else, I made 13 comments on photos and posts made by others, I liked one image and one update posted by others. Five of those comments were in a conversation on somebody else's wall, three comments were made in the conversation on my wall that related to the photo that I posted. The rest were spread around one to one. That seems like a low to middling average kind of day. Whether any of it bears any significance to others is a whole other question. Ha!

How do you decide whom to include in your coterie of friends? What does it take to get excommunicated?

Boy howdy, that's a tough question. Artists and others in our shared communities are the first in and the last to go. As to excommunication, I'm not really looking for blind devotion to what I make, what I do, what I say, or any of those markers of being someone whose shit don't stink. I'd like to think that my best defense against developing an overweening sense of self-importance is to remove people from my sphere if they demonstrate tendencies toward fanboi-ism. The one thing about online and social media communication that I have discovered over the years is that we can easily be led into thinking we are far more important than we actually are. I'd like to think that I have personal importance to my family and friends, but there is a chasm in social media that needs to be guarded against very carefully: I am not a guru, and I can't help anybody who is looking for a personal saviour.

The worst thing we can do is to fall into the trap of believing too much in the strengths that others reflect back to us. When I see somebody coming at me who demonstrates that kind of neediness, I cut the ties pretty fast. Next in line to go are those who demonstrate an overweening sense of self-importance. See how that works? Hilarious! Other than that I have one basic rule of engagement that I call into play: people on my wall can attack my ideas as much as they want, but if they attack other of my fiends, one or the other of them is going to be ousted pronto. I'd do the same thing to a badly behaved guest at a dinner party, and if an analogy could ever be drawn about preferred interactions on my wall, it would be a very relaxed dinner party that is slowing down over dessert, too much scotch has been consumed, and people are starting to get frisky. Being rude crosses the line.

One can't help but play armchair historian with your wall. Do you ever wonder if people will read landscape, topography, and weather into your current, cool photographs of Newfoundland? Do you even care?

I think you just answered that question for me. Clearly you've been paying attention!

I love to hear what others read into whatever I make as an artist. I learned a very long time ago that forcing a certain level of didactic intention onto others about my work is the worst thing that I can ever, ever do to my own work. This extends to all aspects of the work I have been making over the past three years or so, whether it is relating to explorations into painting and drawing, or the return to a certain kind of playfulness with photography. What I would hope people would read into the photographs that I have taken recently in Newfoundland and shared on FB is that this is a place that I love, a place where my roots run deep, a place where melancholy, pleasure, and the sublime can coexist to great effect.

To be quite honest I would be far more interested in the armchair analysis of the paintings that I made while in Newfoundland, since I think they inform the photos and vice versa, with all elements of a limitless existence coming into play. I haven't figured those out for myself yet, or if I have, I'm not willing to commit to a limited reading of them contextualized by what I have to say about them. There is this sensibility I am uncovering in my life as an artist: that I am somehow finished with the need to be the authority on the work I make. I am electing to unknow what I know. It's very freeing to deny myself the role of know-it-all.

Part 3. CONTENT

Your postings are topical: Tilda Swinton napping in a glass box at MOMA, Jennifer Lawrence falling down at the Oscars, Newfoundland weather, labiaplasty. Were there no Facebook, would these be the sorts of topics you would otherwise discuss?

I'm laughing at this question. The answer isn't just yes, but Oh Hell Yes, and with more cursing! I am an introvert in order to save others from my endless curiosity and extreme loquaciousness. I have always been omnivorous when it comes to information, both intake and expression of ideas. Popular culture is part of that for me. It helps that I have taken a hiatus from writing my PhD dissertation, but at some point I'll have to corral all of the information I've let fall away and return to posting about research and development of The Serious Business© of philosophy and thinking. Art is the backbone of all the tangents regardless, whether it informs the work I am making or the work I am seeing from others.

You seem pretty open about what you post. Recently I read your exhortations since deleted by Facebook (the bastards) for people to drop everything and have sex! Is there anything you wouldn't put on Facebook?

First of all I have to mention that the software I used for this interview just changed exhortation to exultation and then expectation. What a wonderful triad!

Yes, for the record I said everybody should drop everything and have some sex. Facebook didn't delete the post in question but they did tuck it away under my August 5 timeline. Sigh. In my opinion, fucking alone doesn't cut it, it is such a narrow expression of what sex can become in the same way that art must demand great risks. Go beyond the censor that says it's time to retreat from the unknown. Experiment! Be willing to lose it all. It's part of the job description. Ask any painter, any artist of integrity, what goes on in their studio when the work lets them know that they are on track to something ineffable...

So, let's see, is there anything I wouldn't post on Facebook? Let me think about that for a minute. I would have to say I apply the same rules of discourse on Facebook that I do in my private life, which is to say that my private life is private. I don't talk about family very often and when I do I seldom mention the culprits by name - they are entitled to maintain their distance. My sex life falls under that same rubric; I'm not naming names or telling anyone what I do or don't do or when I do or don't do what ever it is that nobody needs to know that I do. Or don't.

I post all kinds of images, knowing that they could be censored by Facebook, but because I maintain a small and select list of fiends with whom I share my content, it's not likely to happen. I probably would think twice about posting some of the images I have in my midcentury archive of 'anonymous vernacular nudes', but that's only because I don't want to alarm or arouse anyone over morning coffee without their permission. I believe firmly in celebrating and discussing all of the pleasures we are afforded as humans, from birth to death and everything in between, including but not limited to thinking, feeling, seeing, sensing, all of it. That being said, it's pretty unlikely that I'll be sharing any insect photos, or any visual form of human or animal effluent anytime soon. Why do people do that??? Brrrrr.

I've often wondered this: artists tend to post current work, discuss current thinking. For those of you artists whose careers predated social media, would you ever consider archiving older stuff there as well?

Why would I do that? My advice to anyone considering using social media as the sole dissemination platform for their work or storage of their work would be to read the Terms of Service and then run as quickly as possible in a different direction. Elders know better than to put their work at the mercy of a cloud or a platform that has a stranglehold on your access if they decide you aren't who you say you are. My current method of disseminating my work is really limited: low resolution, low dpi images best suited to screen viewing, shared on Facebook to a closed audience. It has worked for me until recently.

My website hasn't been updated in three years, in large part because my experience in curating the work of others has proven time and again that a period of significant transition in an artist's practice is not the time to be looking for exhibition opportunities. Now that I am firmly ensconced in what I have named 'The Dixie Poindexter Years' I am ready to open up the door to public online access to the work that has unfolded and will update my website to reflect the addition of this new work. 'Look for it, coming soon to a theater near you!'

Do you post stuff for feedback as well as for exposure?? Do you censure comments? Why or why not?

I post my work for the same reason I ever elected to have my work exhibited: the ensuing discussion. It's always been about the discussion. I am hungry for the exchange of thinking and the experience of sensing that comes in the face of the workings of art, including the naysayers who are driven to negate the work - I can and have said and thought worse things about what I am doing during those dark moments of despair in the studio. What artist hasn't? All of it is grist for the mill. Bring it on! I love what I do, even when nothing is the end result.

I am quite happy to leave the business of The Business of Art to those who are equipped to do the job. After a three-year stint sitting a curator/director's chair I can say that more than ever I respect the passion and know-how of those who choose to pursue the business angles of our shared interests in art, be it for love or lucre. My job as an artist is to hold my finger on the pulse of the subject matter that I find most compelling and summon it into my core in order to continue making work. The rest is gravy.

Links

Website (in process of being updated)

Artist interviews conducted by PE Sharpe

PE Sharpe interview