According to the author Malcolm Miles, viral art originated as a contemporary visual art practice, which used shock tactics to draw attention to environmentalism and the flaws within the concept of capitalism. Amongst established artists in this field were Mel Chin (USA) and the UK based group, PLATFORM. The viral-like approach that Chin and PLATFORM delivered, offered a realizable prospect for radical social change, in which art was the common denominator. In truth, viral art likely started in the streets of New York and London in the form of street memes, self-replicating ideas that grow and spread around us, such as, stickers, stencils, posters and pavement art, such as Julian Beever's, that are copied, mutated and posted again throughout the city streets of the world. In turn they are photographed, documented and placed on the World Wide Web where their popularity and notoriety increases. Essentially, viral art is subversive insofar as it spreads it’s content by unconventional means. It takes the middleman out of the equation, e.g. the gallery owner, the museum curator, and for this reason it can be as original, activist and satirical as the artist wishes. And because it’s cheap, easy to produce, and distribute, it can be accomplished by anyone with a video camera, computer, and active imagination. It opens up art to the widest audience there is, anyone with an Internet connection.
Viral art on the Internet could be seen as an evolution of Viral marketing, which is a technique were a product is advertised in such a way that it spreads like wildfire across the World Wide Web. This is accomplished by initiating a dual positive reaction. The first of which involves the recipient forwarding the item, article or experience to a friend or associate. The second reaction is the recipient buying into the message, whatever that may be. For example, the famous Agent Provocateur ad in which Kylie Minogue rides a velvet bucking bronco wearing nothing but lingerie from Agent Provocateur. This video was originally meant for a cinema audience, but after being judged too explicit it went ‘viral’ and started spreading aggressively throughout the internet. Basically, the short video clip is so compelling that much of an advertiser’s work is done for them when their prospective customers forward it to their contacts quickly building up an audience of millions. Hence the analogy with a virus, a contagious micro organism that invades a cell, takes it over, multiplies and then spreads unchecked to other cells.
However, these days most ‘virals’ are simply still images or short films not motivated by social change or profit, but more likely a vehicle for artistic expression. They are frequently created anonymously, as there is often an element of subterfuge. Nonetheless, they regularly end up with audiences of millions when circulated by e-mail or hosting sites such as YouTube, and some, the lucky artists, such as the UK’s Banksy, become cult figures in their own right despite remaining clandestine. Indeed, the Banksy phenomenon has inspired and helped spawn other emerging viral artists such as the UK’s Iveski and the US’s Mike Schneider, the former using ‘virals’ on YouTube and his own website to show his contempt for convention by smuggling pieces of his own, or four-year-old daughter’s, work into main-stream galleries, the latter, as a method of conveying his artistic accomplishments to a mass audience without going through the aggravation of getting his submission accepted by a gallery each time. Indeed, what gallery in the world can boast one million visitors each day? YouTube can.
- Miles, M. (2001). Viral Art – Strategies For a New Democracy. Journal of Visual Art Practices, Vol. 1 (2), pp 71-79.
- PLATFORM London
- The Accidental Artist, or, Because sometimes art has to be subversive
- Mike Schneider