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Quick Take: Fame, Funding, Art and Narcissism

Thursday's University Forum lecture dives into artistic integrity and social media. Join the discussion with local arts group leaders on the DIY social movement, edupunks, and the fine line between Kim Kardashian and Radiohead.

Arts and Culture  |  Mar 23, 2015  |  By UNLV News Center
Cover of Ad Week magazine featuring Kim Kardashian holding a pair of pixelated sun glasses

How is social media changing the way we think about art? How have Radiohead, Banksy, and Kim Kardashian influenced the DIY social movement?

Education professor Stefani Relles will lead the University Forum lecture, Artistic Integrity in the Age of Social Media, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, March 26, Barrick Museum Auditorium.

The talk will will focus on the blurred lines between Internet innovation and social media desperation -- things like Facebook narcissism and how to make an honest artist's living against the backdrop of scandal and self promotion that pervades what's trending.

Joining the panel will be local DIY'ers Justice Harney of Reclaimed Art Suppliez; Ciara Byrne from Green Our Planet nonprofit; Levi Fackrell from the Cockroach Theater; and Chad and Chyllis Scott, who just started Rhizome Gallery. Lily Gilder will be playing acoustic in the lobby beforehand.

We asked Relles to give us a preview of the discussion.

This lecture seems a big departure from your regular job. You're a professor of education with a research focus on college readiness issues and higher education policy. Why did you take up this topic?

I have always run with a motley crew of musicians, artists, activists, thespians and the occasional skateboarder. Among the kooky DIY things I've done, the most memorable include having plays produced by the Hidden Theater, Apartment A, and Naked Angeles.

Weirdly, for almost a decade, my day job was in television: I was VP of a department called creative writer development at Fox Broadcasting Co. for nearly 10 years. I leveraged corporate funds to identify and support emerging playwrights and filmmakers. The venture was called Naked TV and was produced by the renown NYC theater company Naked Angeles.

So I suppose once a DIYer, always a DIYer. The idea for this University Forum event was to reflect on the state of the activism aspects of the movement. In the 1990s and 2000s, we were constantly trying to balance social reform ideals against basic funding needs -- but that was before the rise of social media. The DIY marketplace seems so bloated with "causes" that we thought it'd be fun to ponder the fine lines between the online activities of, for example, Radiohead and the online behaviors of Kim Kardashian. The idea is to discuss fame, funding, art and narcissism.

How do you think social media is helping new artists? How is it hurting?

I think the Internet is just a tool. Like any tool, it offers affordances and liabilities, which each artist, whether established or emerging, must learn to navigate.

I think artistic integrity announces itself, but I also think the Internet has created space for those without any concept of social equity to participate in conversations that used to be the exclusive space of DIYers. They needed moxie in order to get anything done -- that was the barrier to visibility. Social media has changed that.

But I'm less interested in drawing clear boundaries between activism and narcissism than I am in just asking the questions.

What kinds of case studies will you discuss?

Sonny Kay (Headspaces), Juan Alderete (Pedals & Effects) and Scott Leonard (A.D.D. Marketing) each represent a different social media-based case which will be presented as fodder for discussion.

I'll also bring my experience with Make Something workshops. In 2008, I co-founded the project with the intention to support low-income and minority high school students by exposing them to DIY problem-solving opportunities that were creative and challenging. They got the chance to receive feedback on their work from celebrity street artists like KAWS and Ed Templeton.

But competing with these intentions was a need for funding -- and money has a way of diluting intentions. I'm not painting myself as a saint, but after a decade in Hollywood, I don't have much of a stomach for commerce anymore. As an assistant professor, I get to work for the public good via higher education. It's still an industry, but one shaped by different ideals than Hollywood.

The end of the story (i.e. case study) is that the Make Something workshops became more and more mired in promotional campaigns by our corporate sponsors (brands from Nike to MOCA). The education part kind of fell by the wayside. I'm not blaming Nike or MOCA for corrupting the cause; I think that would be naive. I just want to reflect on some of the issues with which DIY contends and hope to inspire current projects to navigate challenges with integrity.

Your panelists will include representatives from the local community. Why were they chosen?

The discussion will spotlight four current Vegas-based projects as examples of innovative ventures in various stages of growth. Reclaimed is an art supply store that is stirring up gobs of DIY energy via its mission and its open mic nights (not to be missed if you're interested in what indie Vegas artists are up to).

Green Our Planet has been using crowd-sourcing to fund gardens in Title I schools, and I think their model is pretty interesting. They seem to have been able to keep the focus on the education of children and off the promotion of corporations. It's hip to be a do-gooder, but it also requires real commitment, not just lip service in the interest of good publicity.

We're also going to discuss the rise (and fall) of the edupunks in higher education and the manner in which a young writer referenced this DIY group to benefit her career (and its suspiciously neoliberal advocacies). The story ends with the edupunks abandoning the term because of its misuse by mainstream writers. It's sort of like the Dr. Seuss story about Sneetches. As soon as everyone has a star, then the star-bellied sneetches decide stars aren't cool anymore and the pendulum swings the other way.