Man Bartlett

Writing

The Real Fake Man

"@manbartlett is dead! long live @manbartlett!" -Man Bartlett, 7/12/2012

“In which we all learn that Twitter is actually just the new AIM for journalists.” -Nicole Perlroth, 5/14/2014


In the summer of 2012 I almost deleted my Twitter account. 

Or, I should say, the nine people controlling @ManBartlett may have almost deleted my Twitter account. I had turned myself over to nine artists in the hopes of reinvigorating my relationship to the service, and as part of a "social media artist residency" with Residency Unlimited. The idea for the takeover came about through a conversation with RU’s Sebastien Sanz de Santamaria about subverting artistic and organizational identity.

But how did it come to that?

Since joining in 2007, Twitter has provided a wellspring of inspiration, introduced me to scores of interesting people (both online and off) and jump-started my art career in New York. But by 2012 I just had this sour taste in my mouth, a palpable "blegh." Over the previous year I had become less interested in the projects I was conceiving, many of which I never allowed to come to fruition. This is partly because I ran pretty hard for a while, creating around 20 projects that involved Twitter in some capacity between 2010 and 2011. So I was burned out.  The audience for these projects seemed to be pretty spent as well. But their fatigue also coincided with a larger shift on Twitter, and with changes made by the company in how the service is structured, particularly with regards to its monetization strategies. At the time I found those changes worrisome to the future vitality of the community. But quite frankly it was clear to me that scalability was a serious issue. There were, and still are, so many people, organizations, businesses, and entertaining parody accounts worth following that it's hard to know where to let the radio dial rest (even if you have lists to help you stem the flow). In other words: 

A lot of the content coming from the 1,100+ people I follow is truly compelling. But, with a few exceptions, all of it is to be found elsewhere, not within the tweets themselves. And there is a LOT of it.

And what does it mean when you can buy thousands of bot followers for $5.00? I did it multiple times back in 2012, to subvert the model and to challenge my own relationship to it, and as part of my studio practice during my residency with RU. But I also did it to try to understand the external value of other people's perception. What I discovered, unsurprisingly, is that most people seem to immediately assume you're important if you have a lot of followers. In turn you believe you're important. As many, many people have pointed out, this is a problem. Not to mention, you know, a lie.

Screengrab of a search on fiverr.com for "twitter followers," 2014

Screengrab of a search on fiverr.com for "twitter followers," 2014

What excited me most when I created my first Twitter "performance" in 2010, inside of a Best Buy store, was the underdog status of the service as a place to do/say anything "meaningful." Since I joined Twitter in March of 2007, the joke had always been something along the lines of, "why would anyone care to know what I had for breakfast." But as the service grew, so grew the potential to artistically subvert, and sometimes exploit, these exchanges. By creating durational performances centered around hashtags I was able to interact publicly with people all around the world in real-time, along a loosely outlined experience. I had a ton of fun doing this for a while, as did a lot of other, mostly non-art world folks. It was exciting to engage strangers who had no knowledge of contemporary art but had found the hashtag through various seemingly random or incidental means. Some of these projects were nurtured by really great curators and arts professionals at Creative Time (for a performance in Port Authority Bus Terminal), Alpha-ville festival in London (presented at the V&A Museum) and Freies Museum in Berlin (where I performed for six days with a live turkey), and more. Others were undertaken on my own initiative, in places like my studio, and the tiny, windowless bedroom I lived in for a few years. All were an attempt to connect a simple action to an online audience, and occasionally, simultaneously to people in person. In their simplest form, they involved an awareness of time and duration that attempted to transform the experience of "now" into something something reverent, resembling, even, a form of meditation.

But as I mentioned, I was exhausted. Literally and artistically. So I gave nine people I trusted access to my account, with no rules except to not change the default email on the account and to not read my DMs. And they sure did have fun with "me" for the week and half they ran the account. You can see all the glorious madness in a Storify here.

It was supposed to be “at least” a two week experiment but I freaked out when I thought the deletion of my account was imminent (an ominous countdown had started), so I took it back over and outed the project in a tumblr post. Around the same time someone decided to harass/pester/troll me, sending over 60 tweets in less than an hour and leaving a vaguely threatening voicemail on my Google Voice. This was presumably under the guise of art, and "I" wanted to respond, which is partly why I took the account back early. That was a mistake, not to mention a disservice to the nine people who had dedicated various amounts of time to "being me." Surprisingly, it was the first time anything like that had ever happened to me. Today I see it as a sort of badge of honor or rite of passage, but at the time, there was no distinction between Man Bartlett the human and @ManBartlett the online persona; they had effectively merged into one person. I couldn't distinguish personal attacks from artistic ones. The loss of control was too great a loss. To battle this I had created a Fake Man Bartlett account (@FakeManBartlett). I joked at the time that Fake Man Bartlett was "better than the original."

Screenshot of @FakeManBartlett, July 2012

Screenshot of @FakeManBartlett, July 2012

The account became a new iteration of my self. One that I felt freer in. Less inhibited by social and implied aesthetic constraints. We change. We need to shed. Sometimes, we need to burn everything to the ground. We are more than our names. We are more than we tweet. Now I just have to figure out how to put that back in the work...


When I first drafted the bulk of the words above way back in 2012, I was struggling to come to terms with some major changes in the way I approach making art. A lot has happened since then. Twitter has gone public, journalists and celebrities have widened their dominance of the platform exponentially, and writers are lamenting the loss. In my own life, I got engaged, married, moved, worked on a huge project as a social media editor and focused almost all of my time in the studio on one drawing. And while I've kept an eye out for interesting projects and have followed recent trends in technology, I haven't produced many major online works of my own. I've produced some videos, a lot of gifs, and been named to TIME's “Best 140 Twitter Feeds." I currently have a yearlong anti-project going on called T/W/O/W/O/R/D/S/. It is a daily tweet as stream of consciousness for an entire year, each signified by two words in all capital letters, each letter separated by a slash. Occasionally the tweets draw connections to each other over a few days, but more often than not they are independent, abstract thoughts, with only loose associations to the larger world they inhabit. There is no hashtag, no dedicated account with a witty/artsy avatar, no intellectual or even conceptual framework to hide behind, and no way to experience them all together at once. They are simply tweeted from @ManBartlett and left on their own. There is little immediate reward in an endless sea of messages, but if you follow them over time I think/hope they offer a sort of slow satisfaction. A puzzle with no apparent resolution. The piece draws inspiration from the slow web movement, poetry and durational performance. It has a small but engaged audience of mostly people who have been following me for a long time. I've said very little about it, allowing myself instead to quietly try to understand why I'm taking this path at all. It's a harder route, with little immediate reward. It's a little thankless. But it's real. And right now, that's more than enough for me. I'm also busy putting the finishing touches on a show that encompasses two years worth of work, including collages, drawings, gifs, assemblage, painting, video and performance documentation. More on that here.

And as for @FakeManBartlett? He's been pretty quiet lately.

You can find me elsewhere on teh internets:

Man Bartlett