Los Angeles

Pop-Life: From Social Media to Socializing

Crocheted chandeliers by Mimi Jung.
In Partnership with USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism's Engine30 Project
Engine30 is an outgrowth of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism's Master's program in arts journalism that experiments with digital media practices, systems and tools, using L.A. as a living laboratory.

By Chie Davis

The cyclone of cyber culture has changed the way people view, experience, and purchase art. A slowly rebounding economy combined with ease of online shopping has urged creatives to come up with inventive methods to both share their goods on the internet. Digital pop-up "events" have revolutionized this online effort by providing an immersive experience that links the consumers, their social network and a brand within a controlled space and limited time.

The commercial world has embraced the pop-up for some time. California bred fashion designer, Rachel Roy, who generally sells her wares at mainstream department stores like Nordstrom and Bergdorf Goodman, recently teamed up with British R&B songstress, Estelle to launch an exclusive three day jewelry pop-up shop for Facebook fans. Not only did the sparkly trinkets sell out in six hours, but it also boosted Roy's online fan base by 100 percent, accumulating one new fan nearly every second.

Yet deep-pocketed designers armed with a stable of golden marketing reps are not the only ones recognizing the power of social media to influence and mobilize a community. Local curators and fine artists have taken note -- carving out their own space among the bustling online marketplace.

Desk-bound arts consumers graze on images of artwork each day, "pinning" works to their Pinterest page and sharing desired pieces on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. But for artists, does all of the social media attention actually lead to sales? Pop-up galleries may provide an avenue to connect online interest to offline purchases.

For arts critic-turned-social media strategist Su Wu, a pop-up gallery offered a way to support the artists that she blogged about. Wu's site I'm Revolting began, she says, as "a place to dump my interior world online." Seeking solace online after the arts publication that she wrote for in Chicago folded, the spunky lover of avant-garde aesthetics says social media and blogging helped her to "look for ideas that were percolating [and] to think about some emerging thoughts and some trends I was noticing. That just spiraled into an arts blog."

Three years after the inception of her site, a passion project that Wu tinkered with for a year before going public, she has amassed an avalanche of readers, including more than 300,000 Pinterest followers. "For me, blogging and Pinterest have made a case for the pleasure in taxonomy, in making lists and finding patterns, and in this impulse to arrange," she says. "Going at it without any scheme meant that I didn't have to worry about that scheme; that this was totally a pure, indulgent respite." Studying theories on taste, attraction to process, materials and artistic instruments fueled Wu's quest. "I'm really interested in the idea of taste and how it's learned or if it has any other significance," Wu says, "like whether the visual information that we're drawn to says anything more about us. I think it's important to at least try to make sense of our emotional responses."

Mirror by Morie Nishimura.

Admiring the work of visual artists globally and connecting with them through her blog,
Wu unknowingly began to piece together an online community of inquisitive crafters, all yearning to peel back layers and peer into the process of object creation. "The amazing thing about the internet is that you can find your own community," Wu says, "You can reach out to these people across the world, in Australia, Japan, Detroit, New York and L.A. and create your own tribe, with people who love the things that you love. I think we're all just looking for some understanding, especially in those areas that are the most deeply held and difficult to articulate."

While the conceptual complexities behind the work showcased on her blog, such as leather shipping boxes or paper-made clothes, may prove difficult to decipher for the untrained eye, retailers could not ignore Wu's online influence -- a simple presentation of odd yet alluring pieces, attracting page-views. Etsy.com jumped on-board first, asking her to curate a column. Wu curated the "Creatures of Comfort" column for them. The curatorial arrangement melded social media with an in-person social experience, facilitating a 3-week pop-up at Creatures of Comfort's Los Angeles exhibition space/retail store in West Hollywood. Wu immediately recruited talent from her online artist community and brought the "We're Revolting" pop-up to life.

Sculpture by Elyse Graham, rug by Joanna Williams, Doug Johnston basket.

Sculpture by Elyse Graham.

Lincoln Heights-based artist Elyse Graham, a native Angeleno that creates neon-colored geode sculptures out of urethane, sand and resin, says that while she's shown at pop-ups before, Wu's experiment felt different. "Su is an independent curator, so she didn't really have a financial stake in it," Graham says. "She just took pieces from people that she'd never met before and really liked, and put their work together." Wu beams when describing the rush that she received while curating pieces online to create an equally dynamic offline experience. "There's a certain type of relationship that you have with people on the internet, that you admire from afar," she says. "Having the artists here, engaging with one another, going to their studios and having an excuse to visit their physical spaces to touch their work, I don't think that feeling can duplicated, even for all of the wonders and miracles of the internet. Part of the real joy of doing this pop-up is looking at work from artists that I already admired and thinking about new directions that we could go in together."

Joanna Williams, a textile artist who has worked with retail giants including Anthropologie, showcased her hand-woven wool rugs from Mexico at the "We're Revolting" pop-up, seeking to illuminate local awareness about a global movement. She worked with Wu to create new color palettes, specifically for the exhibit. "In L.A., there is a really interesting group of women who are bringing weaving to the forefront of the creative scene," Williams says. "I have seen it spread to other parts of the states as well. Those rugs have been around since the 1980s, but no one has really been giving them the attention they deserve. I want [people] to appreciate a craft that is still thriving. It can be hard to translate that online if you haven't seen the rugs in person. They really are a tactile thing."

Mirror by Morie Nishimura, bangles by David Neale

Bridging the gap between the online space and real life, while exposing emerging artists to a new audience, was key for Wu. "It's not this jet-set art world, of people who are going around to art fairs," she says. "It's a lot of people who are working on a very small scale, sometimes home studios, doing really experimental work." Artists were keen to apply and exhibit ideas that had been long bubbling -- from Doug Johnston, a New York artist that specializes in coiled basketry who created the show's lighting installation using the same technique, to David Neil, an Australian metalsmith who produced both bangles and hand cut aluminum combs for the show.

For Wu, her pop-up was a product of sampling, planning, and the fine juxtaposition of objects, all while observing how they react to each other. It was a delicate balancing act that is not required online. The preparation involved in showcasing and sharing products in a physical space, is far more intimate, she contends. "In this world where there are so many choices, and the price of things is much more removed from the cost of production, so many of the decisions we make are aesthetic decisions [and] curatorial decisions," Wu says. "Taste is more and more an element of social organization. It's not the most important element, and it's bound up in all the other ways we stratify ourselves, for better or worse. It does reach across certain boundaries of time and space and create new communities."

Bracelets by Julie Hung, ceramic piece by Jonathan Cross.

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Top Image: Crocheted chandeliers by Mimi Jung.

About the Author

Chie Davis is a multimedia journalist who began producing international news segments for CBS Newspath. She moved to traffic reporting for Cablevision’s Metro Traffic & Weather and also covered local news at WZBN-TV in New Jersey....
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