Art criticism online, or: Hybrid criticism

At the launch of the latest issue of art magazine Kunstlicht I gave a short talk about online art criticism. Using my own experience in online literary critique and the transfer from paper to e-publishing, I want to introduce the concept of hybrid criticism. (The slides are in Dutch, but still easy to follow I hope. The articles in Kunstlicht are also available in English.)











Together with Daan Stoffelsen of Athenaeum books I started writing an essay in dialogue form, to contribute to the latest edition of Kunstlicht titled Art criticism in the networked age. Due to personal circumstances of the good kind (his child was born) we never were able to finish our written conversation. Being at this launch gives me the chance to share some thoughts I had then. Mostly they are about online literary criticism and what I call hybrid criticism.






Above you see my personal website, I come back to that later. At the INC I mostly work on our publications, which aren’t limited to books alone. We publish titles in different formats: some come out on paper, in a print run of for example 500 or 2.000 copies depending on the work, we work with EPUB more and more, and all publications are downloadable as PDF. But we also experiment on the side of content: short essays, long reads of 20.000 words, Dutch translations especially for the tablet, etc. Nearly all titles are available for free and issued with a Creative Commons license.






For two years now (2013-2014) we have worked on a RAAK research project called the Digital Publishing Toolkit, a collaboration with small, independent publishing houses in the arts and culture sector and book designers and developers. How can we take the step towards electronic publishing, without having to re-invent the wheel and without taking a lot of risk in time and money? A big part of the research went into workflows and adopting a so-called hybrid workflow catered for a hybrid publication output: how to change your workflow in such a way that it works efficiently for many different products.  In other words, if you really want to ‘go electronic’, then it won’t be enough to stick an e-book at the end of the process of making a print edition. Thinking only in ‘digital translations’ of a print book is definitely not going to save you. That means you have to think about and work towards the different products you want to end up with already from the beginning of the workflow. Within the toolkit project we call this hybrid publishing: working with and thinking about the ‘content’ in such a way that it makes possible the production of a paper book, an EPUB, an app, etc. from one source or in parallel. In my view this concept can also be valuable when thinking about online art criticism.

Next to that the INC is hoping to start up a new project for 2015 (this can be seen as a preliminary investigation) together with LAK, Domein Kunstkritiek, rekto:verso and other cultural magazines, researching art criticism and its future by talking to readers, writers, and designers who make up the field or context of these magazines.











For myself, I’m also a practising online critic and have been so for approximately six years now. I started writing and editing for the Dutch cultural web magazine 8WEEKLY in 2008, and now write for and occasional guest articles for different media, for example hard//hoofd. Since January I take part in the Keldercast together with Nikki Dekker and Emy Koopman – a monthly podcast about books. All female, in-depth literary knowledge and a touch of feminism. Another thing I’ve done are video reviews like this one about Karl Ove Knausgård, which I did for the website of Dutch broadcasting company VPRO. By the way, my offline book club Beer and Books – which consists of five online critics (among other things) – might be the best part and greatest inspiration of it all.











So far for the introduction – which was long, I know. Let’s turn to criticism. If you start thinking about criticism it’s important to know what you’re talking about. That’s far from obvious, as the numerous discussions about the role and function of critique show every now and again. I would say for myself that I don’t write reviews to make the audience by a book or not – but to make them understand a piece of literary writing. To put it in context, of tradition and of our contemporary times. Of course I also write 500-word reviews answering the question ‘should I buy or should I go’ from time to time. But what matters most to me is giving readers a point of departure for interpretation, understanding or conversation, after they have read the book. Those people who want to know more, who want to discuss with other voices about what they have just read.

I notice in my own work that something is really changing in the way online criticism is conducted. Previously – in my time with 8WEEKLY – you wrote your review in a Word document which was placed on the website just like that. In a sense it changed from a .docx file to .html. It might just as well appear in stencilled form, or in a magazine on paper. We kept an eye on the statistics of the number of hits the article received, supplied a copyright image to be used on the homepage, but that was it. To understand what is changing I want to give an example of the last lengthy essay I wrote for literary magazine De Gids, Life after death. It was about three novels and an exhibition. (All previously discussed in the podcast by the way, so do not be afraid to recycle yourself, especially when it comes to producing stuff different formats.)

I’ll be honest, I was proud. For someone who has studied Literature De Gids isn’t just some other old periodical that’s willing to print your name, it is the oldest literary magazine in the Netherlands, founded in early nineteenth century by a guy named Potgieter. Should someone want to know in fifty years time what acclaim the novels of Murakami, Luiselli and Kehlmann got in the Netherlands – because that was what my piece was about – they would check De Gids.






But then what happened! I received the monthly ‘books newsletter’ which prominently featured my essay. Better yet! This means that the article would be made available online, so not only the subscribers to the magazine could read it (still pretty much with around 20.000 readers) but literally everyone who would be surfing the Web.







Although I was really happy about this, I immediately saw missed opportunities. The essay starts with a description of the sculptures and photographs of Medardo Rosso, which we’re displayed in Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam early 2014. Something extraordinary happens in the interplay between sculpture and the photograph of it (also by Rosso) that hangs next to it. However, I found it extremely difficult to put this effect into words (well, I am not an art critic, for me it’s easier to write about the art of language, namely literature). But imagine the possibilities had I made the article for the website and not for paper from the start, what could I have done? Probably everyone can come up with three things at once: add photos, videos, and links. But since the essay was written with the idea of print from the start, I had no pictures or videos. Of course I had collected all kinds of online material while writing, but it was not linked to the relevant parts of the text. Not to mention the fact that it’s not allowed to make photos or videos of the exhibition in the first place.

Well, let’s move from these personal considerations to an expert. In a very good article on his website (make sure to read it and check out the design especially!) Craig Mod describes the changes that publishing in times of the network bring along. He distinguishes three stages in the publishing process: pre-artefact, artefact, post-artifact. First is the stage of production – writing and thinking; than the product itself – formerly a book, one-off, singular, materially limited; and finally the stage of reception, of readers, discussions and distribution.











The author, the product, the reception of a work: in the age of the network all three are cracked open, become fluid, networked, hybrid, Mod argues. Readers collaborate on the production process, interfere with the content, and once the book (or critique) is published it can be updated within a minute, adapted and customized or enriched with images and links; afterwards the work is commented on, pieces are highlighted, it can be shared, pirated, remixed et cetera.

Thus the old ‘communication model’ has become hybrid. The roles of maker, producer and ‘user’ aren’t strictly separated anymore: in several of the articles of Kunstlicht it is apparent that the authoritarian model no longer exists. I must say I do not know if I totally agree with that. The best way to get an article widely read in the Netherlands is when Wim Brands, our local king of books, tweets favorably about it; and the website of the Institute of Network Cultures got its all-time-high number of visitors when ‘authority figure’ Lev Manovich tweeted about our books.











Well, I mostly like thinking not so much about the process but about the product: what does qualitative online criticism look like? what content should it have? and how to produce that?

We need to look for a new form. The first things to pop into everyone’s mind are, as mentioned before, interactivity, audio and video. However, if I may play devil’s advocate, is not that an old-fashioned way of thinking? Simply a change of the medium, as you would change a file extension? Writing in a Word document, which is then uploaded to an html environment? It should on the other hand be about truly new forms of criticism, not a one-to-one translation of something that used to come out on paper and that now appears in an online medium. That is like nothing more than sticking an e-book to the end of the workflow once the paper book is finished.

Unfortunately new forms of online criticism suffer from the huge reputation problem the internet is faced with: it is supposed to invite speed and hypes, resulting in short pieces,  copy-paste articles, handing out stars, or what is called the review economy. Whether a book sells does not depend on well thought-through and carefully written responses, but on the amount of ‘comments’ on Amazon. And what should my ideal audience for criticism, the reader who wants to understand a book, do with all those stars and quantifications? It won’t help her a single bit. To give an example: on the biggest Dutch online retailer you can find this 5-star ‘review’ of the latest volume by Karl Ove Knausgård (it says: ‘Very beautiful book, as always with Knausgård’). This is of course a bit bland, but I couldn’t help noticing that renowned critics made but little effort to really understand the worth of the work as well, and rather handed out high appraise without substantial arguments. Is it because they had to deliver something about the hyped book as soon as possible, just to get the hits? I do not know, but it sure looks a lot like it. At least a felt called upon to write an essay trying to decipher the addictive workings of Knausgårds books. (In the slide you see a rare moment when I lose my temper over this).











To rejoice: there are so many opportunities! Space is not a problem – both in text and images – design is not a problem, for example displaying the dialogue form which we chose for our piece could be even better done online – updating is no problem, linking is no a problem. These things are already happening although not always with full use of possibilities this offers for the message, which in some cases lead precisely to the problems of speed, hypes, copy-paste, star-rating etc. I strongly believe they can also work for qualitative criticism. I want to give two examples of what I think is a good direction for qualitative art criticism online – art criticism that can help getting over this reputational problem of the internet. These examples are borrowed from the dialogue I was working on with Daan Stoffelsen. Slide21











First of all: criticism as hermeneutics, going back and forth between the details and the big picture. Above you see an excerpt from an article of Daan on He is always preoccupied with style, word usage, sentence structure. Such a method of reviewing is much more in it’s place online then on paper, because you need the space, should be able to quote extensively, and generally try things out. If you read and see these articles it is obvious a lot more would be possible in the technological layout and design. Moreover, it would also be interesting to have for example short sound clips accompanying the text. Think of audio in which citations are read, maybe even with different intonations or accents – something that might potentially yield different interpretations.










Something like that happens in the second example: this is criticism as the opening up of multiple voices, personalities, visions, like an amalgam of critics. This is an online article from this spring (The Flamethrowers was also discussed in the Keldercast) – which makes an interesting aggregation of various reviews and essays about the book and tries to discover red line in there. How wonderful would it be if a video or a podcast on soundcloud was also included? It would cater for more readers or listeners, and open up even more critics voices, quite literally.

Finally I arrive at ‘hybrid criticism’. Art criticism online should not be: converting a Word file to an html page, but rather aiming for a hybrid production and publishing process (see this talk for more information on hybrid publishing). Text, visuals, video, dialogue, trialogue, do whatever you want and everything at once. This also means you should make and collect different forms of information from the first step on – photos, videos, links, quotes, current affairs. Do you need to know what it is for from that very start? No, it’s about separating your material from your final product(s). Working on your own or better yet with others who have their own expertise, their own voice, and a different perspective.

Let’s look back to the three stages of pre-artifact, artifact and post-artifact: different voices, materials and influences should flow into the first stage of production; take advantage of the ability to update the artifact, to place it in new contexts and have it operate in an amalgam, while adding links and backgrounds in the course of time. The piece stays up-to-date, current, and therefore interesting for readers. (A good question to think about is: how do you archive?)

And finally, something that should really be said at the beginning of it all. The web with all its reputational problems should not be seen as a specific medium, but as a context where different media converge (see also the work of James Bridle). Therefore, the title of this Kunstlicht issue is chosen well: ‘Art criticism in the networked age’ – so not ‘on the web’.











In the end, here is what could be called hybrid criticism. At work I learned to eat your own dogfood, in other words to practice what you preach. So that is also what I try to do myself while experimenting. All these different formats that are available are available for everyone to use in their own way: print, online reviews, video reviews, but also a personal blog about a live encounter. In this case you see again Knausgård and the way I have been working with his books. The different media meet on the web and are collecting in one place, namely my own website. The experiment continues; I am open to suggestions on how to raise it one level further up.

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