Tom Estes: Art Takes Times Square

At twilight on Monday the 18th of June, something new lit up The Times Square billboards. 'Watchers' a work by artist Tom Estes, displayed at 23 stories high, replaced advertising.

Since the dawn of civilization, humans have wondered what transcendent intelligence could have created the universe. For some, religion is merely a superstition or an irrational belief that future events can be influenced or foretold by specific, unrelated behaviors or occurrences. The earliest religions were created as a way to deal with ignorance and fear of the unknown. Religious belief can therefore, be seen as one way of attempting to regain control over events in one's life. But whether we believe in a god or not, whether we identify ourselves as theists, atheists or even anti-theists, our world is profoundly influenced by concepts of god and the divine. The human pursuit to bring oneself in harmony with collective worship as a means to find protection, solace and happiness also maintains social relationships and relationships of power as old as humanity itself.


For artist Tom Estes, fantasy and illusion are not contradictions of reality, but instead an integral part of our everyday lives Estes has strived, not to break down these introverted, often self-imposed boundaries, but to look at how dataflow impacts on the significance and symbolism of real-world human senses. His work 'Watchers' has introduced a new kind of artwork that functions more as art proposal for a partially realized exhibition; a document of visual and spatial modes of presentation that theorizes a different approach. But in doing so Estes has begun to generate unexpected questions about how art might be able to inscribe itself on the surface of reality- not to represent itself on the surface of reality –not to represent reality, nor to duplicate it, but to replace it.

In his practice Estes has focused on conditions that shape both production and reception of art. At the core of Estes' work is an attention to the paradox of using intervention and history as meta-narrative devices. In 'Watchers' Estes has appropriated the Sci-fi image of ancient and highly advanced alien civilizations- and literally projected them directly onto a Bible open at 'Genesis'. By merging these two existing narratives and their related ideological fictions (alien super-beings alongside our own cultural beliefs in an all-powerful creator) the artist transforms both narratives, giving rise to a host of new associations.


The work recalls some of the most outlandish and wild claims of conspiracy theory: that alien astronauts genetically engineered us from apes and placed us back on earth as a new species. However, by projecting directly onto the page Estes over-rides the Biblical text. This act of usurpation alludes to an even more unnerving comparison which emphasizes sex and the reproductive system. The authors of contemporary ‘Alien abduction’ stories often describe being subjected to complex physical and psychological procedures. These involve claims of humans being subjected to forced medical examination, and are described subjectively as nightmarish but real memories of being taken secretly and/or against one’s will by apparently non-human entities.

By merging the common and the absurd, Estes alters not only our perception of Christianity, but also highlights our obsession with tabloid sensation and web fuelled social activity. So putting aside the question of whether abduction reports are literally and objectively “real”, their popularity and their intriguing appeal are easily understood. Conspiracy Theory is compelling and fascinating- but it is also as old as the world itself. Hitler was a master at weaving conspiracy tales and brought the Nazi party to power by blaming the Communist for the Reichstag Fire. Nero concocted one to shift the blame to Christians for the burning of Rome. However, Conspiracy Theory is more than just the belief in an occasional conspiracy. Simply put, it is a whole belief system that asserts that world events are being controlled in secret by a group of ultra-powerful puppeteers behind the scenes. So conspiracy theories that, for example, involve alien abductions project its fictions onto real-life people, families, groups, and organizations that purport it to be actually true. In the post-modern age, tales of abduction are intrinsically absorbing and it is hard to imagine a more vivid description of human powerlessness in the form of a shared delusion- other than ones found in religion. And like religion, the science fiction genre itself has long served as a useful vehicle for "safely" discussing controversial topical issues and often providing thoughtful social commentary on potential unforeseen future issues. Presentation of contemporary issues that are difficult or disturbing for an audience can be made more acceptable when they are explored in a future setting or on a different, earth-like world. The altered context can allow for deeper examination and reflection of the ideas presented, with the perspective of a viewer watching remote events.


An allegorical interpretation of Genesis is a reading of the biblical Book of Genesis that treats elements of the narrative as symbols or types. But even those who favor an allegorical interpretation of the story claim that its intent is to describe humankind's relationship to creation and the creator.The polar opposite would be 'Biblical Literalism': the belief that the Bible, or at least large portions of it, should be read literally, not allegorically. To some extent, literalism is a matter of degree, since not even self-described literalists claim to believe that everything in the Bible is literal. But by literally projecting an image on to the top of the Biblical creation myth of ‘Genesis’ Estes transforms these two narratives and their related ideological fictions. But Estes not only supplants the Christian text, but calls into question the process by which its authenticity as a literal text is propagated. And while religion offers a spiritual answer, it offers very little in the way of tangible proof. However, much of the 'fiction' in science fiction is based on real-life science theory or scientific fact.

But of course criticism of religion is nothing new. The culture of belief itself is contested by numerous scientists, historians, psychologists and ethnologists – those who reject any form of religion, irrationalism, superstition or pseudo-science. In past decades many lobbied instead for a world that is dominated by rationality and intellect in lieu of irrationality and religious hatred. Religion is according to Karl Marx, "the opium of the people" and according to Friedrich Nietzsche, one can reach a higher level of humanness through completely stripping away western Christianity with a "transvaluation of all values". Likewise, for many scientists our Galaxy should be full of advanced alien civilizations, but when they’ve looked the Galaxy appears to be quiet and lonely. Where are all the alien civilizations they ask? Many people would of course argue with this, pointing out that aliens have visited us; that they created the pyramids, Atlantis and humankind itself. By paying homage to the imagined and fictional, Estes has supplanted one grand narrative or ideological fiction for another.


But Estes takes the concept behind the work one step further through the works means of display and the context. The work 'Watchers' displayed at 23 stories high on The Times Square billboards has replaced advertising. By intentionally leaving the project unrealised, Estes’ closed circuit of illusion mimics and merges with the mass media desire for immediate novelty. In the work, Estes anticipates the online reduction of his 'installation' to a single image. By creating an art-world-as-fiction, the work raises the question of whether this project should be understood as an online representation – using fictional space to comment on the ‘real’ world - or as intervention- actually reordering the real world. Estes work recalls the little known ‘Conquest of Ubiquity’, by Paul Valery which makes prognostications that works of art are designed with their reproducibility in mind. It is therefore neither uniqueness, nor specificity, but the potential for ‘ubiquity’ that yields the value of work made for new media. As we said earlier for Estes, fantasy and illusion are not contradictions of reality, but instead an integral part of our everyday lives. But Estes' work has also begun to generate unexpected questions about how art might be able to inscribe itself on the surface of reality; not to represent itself on the surface of reality, not to represent reality, nor to duplicate it- but to replace it. Just as the movement of commodities presupposes a demand, a work of art must conform to an established, shared protocol. But if we are to judge the latest shift, then it could be said that the language of representation has even superseded the role of the exhibition space in the presentation as art.

In his practice, Estes approaches the theme of 'reality' by engaging with the variety and fidelity of sensory information found on the internet. Estes strives not to break down this introverted, often self-imposed hall of mirrors; instead his theatrical interpretation looks at how dataflow from the virtual realm impacts on the significance and symbolism of real-world human senses. Many artists have now joined Estes and others in feeling that a capacity for lateral, horizontal movement has had a flattening effect upon not only their production, but now also the physical world. This realization makes it all the more interesting to begin to perceive the shape of something else on the horizon—something that will follow the convergence of new forms of popular expression that do not deny, but include the economic realities that have allowed advances in symbolic exchange, but that can also be taken further.

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Artists Wanted
Artist Wanted is not a charity but a business, one that hopes to make a profit identifying artistic talent and connecting it to an audience. Investors are pouring millions into it and similar start-ups and social networks like and, which cater to the growing cadre of people who consider themselves creative and think there’s a market for their work outside the network of galleries and dealers who dominate the commerce in art and design. Users and founders of these sites talk not only about making money but also about democratizing culture. As these platforms proliferate, they also raise questions about the nature of art and creativity, the distinction between professionals and hobbyists and what it means to call yourself an artist when anyone with a cellphone can be a photographer, anyone with the right apps can be a designer, anyone with a Facebook page can amass a following, and anyone at all can dream up a concept and find a place to pitch it. “The value of the creative industry, the value of creative talent, has become more appreciated over the past few years,” said Mukti Khaire, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. “The fact that the Web creates opportunities for discovery and showing that nothing else could on that scale — I think it does change who gets to be an artist,” added Ms. Khaire, who studies the creative fields. “It may not change the definition, but it widens the funnel.” William Etundi Jr., a founder and chief executive of Artists Wanted, is banking on that mass tech-enabled populace. “As technology has made it easier for people to create things, more people become creators,” he said, offering a sort of company motto. He started the site four years ago, with Jason Goodman, a founder of Third Ward, an art and design collective in Brooklyn, where Mr. Etundi, 33, planned events. They hosted artist calls and competitions, partnering with other businesses. As 60,000 users registered and remained engaged, Mr. Etundi sensed a larger opportunity. In February they raised $1.5 million from investors including OATV, which backed and Foursquare, and Founder Collective, which invested in and Vimeo. The ethos, Mr. Etundi said, “is to inspire creative people to make works they wouldn’t otherwise create, to give them an audience, to give them connection, to give them deadlines within competitions.” In its venture-financed expansion, Artists Wanted, which now has a staff of 14, plans to run four competitions a year, letting the site’s community pick the best contenders in art, photography, fashion and more but retaining the right to name the winner (as it did for Times Square). Its business plan is a mix of free and paid services, allowing users to post their work free but charging for deeper usage — $25 to get your portfolio on the home page during a contest, say, or perks like after-party tickets. Its visitors quintupled from 41,000 in January to 208,000 in April, according to Nielsen, and it already has revenue — $1.3 million last year, although it’s not yet profitable, Mr. Etundi said. Artists Wanted also has deep cultural connections. For its event on Monday unveiling the billboards in Times Square, Mr. Etundi enlisted Questlove, the drummer from the Roots, to host, from the pedestrian plaza on 43rd Street and to D.J. the after-party nearby. Through Chashama, the arts nonprofit founded by Anita Durst — a scion of the Durst Organization, the developer that controls some Times Square real estate — he got access to three major digital billboards (on the Nasdaq, Thomson Reuters and Port Authority buildings). Through the Times Square Alliance, which also had ties to Ms. Durst, the Times Square Advertising Coalition is in talks to donate space on a dozen more, for a month. Also thanks to Ms. Durst and the real estate firm Rockrose, Mr. Etundi has a 4,800-square-foot office space in Long Island City, Queens — complete with a gallery for his site’s artists — rent free for a year, with subsidized rates to follow. “I believe Will — his philosophies — they help build the arts community in New York,” said Ms. Durst, who met him a decade ago, when she frequented his loft parties. “He really cares in a very heartfelt way.”