Art After Social Media in Cambodia

Image posted to Facebook by Pen Robit.

An artist finishes a piece, snaps a selfie in front of the work, and uploads the picture to Facebook. Although there is no curator or gallery mediating the art, many of the artist's friends are quickly liking and commenting on the work. It's a typical postinternet art practice that I've seen countless times, only now I'm in Cambodia, a country where a mere 26.7% of the population claims they've used the internet. The work is a self-portrait oil painting, and the artist borrowed his friend's smartphone for the picture.

Postinternet art is an umbrella term for a range of artistic responses to the widespread adoption of the web—specifically social media and networked smartphones—in and around the contemporary art world. It explores and exploits how these technologies have affected the ways art and culture is shared and made. Online conversations and web surfing become the raw materials, Photoshop and screen grabs the tools, and YouTube and Instagram the platforms.

In his seminal blog "Post Internet," Gene McHugh described the condition of postinternet as "when the Internet is less a novelty and more a banality." The lack of any sense of banality around internet access here in Cambodia, where I've spent the past several weeks researching and interviewing contemporary artists, has forced me to question two major underlying assumptions about postinternet art: A. Everyone is online, all the time. and B. Everyone has access to the computational power of something like a MacBook Pro, which are both statistically egregious assumptions. Roughly 58% of the world is offline, and many of those online are only accessing the web through basic feature phones. 

One key characteristic of postinternet art has been the avid use of social media to build audiences outside of art institutions. In their text "Redefining Exhibition in the Digital Age," published on Tumblr in 2010, the Jogging collective argued that

Not only does information move through networks and evolve faster than ever, but smaller group identities of splintering interests produce products that are validated by their subculture, leaving behind the need for institutional accreditation. Contemporary art cannot be defined in readily canonical terms because the notion of "contemporary" changes so rapidly.

In the context of Cambodia, though, it feels like social media have done little to destabilize existing cultural hierarchies and institutions, and have even reinforced them. This critique of postinternet has been articulated by others; as Jennifer Chan aptly wrote last year, "In 2014, the internet is not so democratic and neither is the art world." In this article, I delve more specifically into the reasons for this, using the example of the Jogging (even though its Tumblr has gone quiet) simply because it was a widely influential example of artists in the West embracing social media as an alternative to the institution.


Part of the problem in Cambodia is simply that the lack of widespread internet access limits the growth of active online subcultures that could act as an alternative source of validation. In 2014, Cambodia's Open Institute found that while 94% of the country owns a phone, only 28.4% were smartphones, and 26.7% of Cambodians use or have ever used the internet–more highly educated, male, and urban Cambodians being by far the most likely internet users. 

However, even for those who have access, there are numerous barriers to translating the validation of their peers into broader awareness of their practice. In his 2012 text "Art After Social Media," artist Brad Troemel (of the Jogging) wrote that "the majority of views an artist's work gets is not through her own website, but through the accumulated network of reblogs, links, and digital reproductions that follow it." While this is true for users who share content with friends or build followings, it assumes a saturated networked media context that is not present in Cambodia. There isn't yet the ecology of art blogs, curators, and critics looking at, commenting on, and sharing artists work here. Artwork shared online in Cambodia rarely travels far beyond the artist's Facebook page and geographical location.

Another ingredient is simply digital proficiency. Also from "Art After Social Media": "today's seventeen-year-old creative has a better handle on advertising techniques she can use to direct traffic to her Tumblr than our presidential candidates had access to seventy years ago," but this is less a universal condition than a description of a very specific demographic. All of the artists I've met in Cambodia have the relative privilege of having used the internet, and they all have a Facebook account, but many are by no means as fluent in the language of digital marketing as Troemel's seventeen year old. Photographs are posted to Facebook sideways and the rare meme is made on Powerpoint or MS Paint, instantly identifiable as not being part of the Photoshop-wielding postinternet art club. This sharply contrasts with the landscape Troemel paints of hyper-fast remixing by tech-savvy users. While Facebook has offered a quick means to connect and share among one another, artists in Cambodia are put at a disadvantage when engaging with international social media because of their limited access to digital tools and skills.

Furthermore, as Eli Parser's idea of filter bubbles show, while artists in Cambodia can, in theory, enter a postinternet art conversation (by say, adding the Jogging posse as Friends on Facebook), participating on equal footing in that network remains surprisingly difficult. Parser found that language, race, education, sex, and much more create barriers between different groups, even if they are only one friend away from mingling. This has profound consequences for who receives attention (and capital) in a world where these networks are increasingly relied upon by Western curators and collectors alike.

Chov Theanly, a Battambang painter, told me at a cafe, "a few of us here might speak simple English but we still don't have the ability to connect with galleries and markets around the world. Talking across cultures and languages is still a huge challenge for us." Theanly is one of the better English speakers in the Battambang arts scene, but he still relies on a dealer for contacting galleries and helping craft his artist statement in English.

Even for those who are able to negotiate these obstacles, the incentives for Cambodian artists may be very different than those for Troemel and his peers. While Troemel rightly comments on how bad a commodity a networked digital artwork is, he still assumes that the artist works in an attention economy that can translate attention into capital through lectures, art shows, teaching jobs, etc. This is not yet possible in Cambodia (as well as much of the world). This goes back to who can afford access, but also to the network you have access to. Troemel writes:

In this sense, posting work to the Internet with no social network readily in place is synonymous with the riddle "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" For young artists on the internet the answer to this question is "no"—their work will easily go unnoticed, making their participation as a social brand an a priori necessity to contextualizing what they do as art.

I couldn't agree more, except to add that the market your network operates within matters more than the size or level of engagement of your network. A Like or a Comment from non-internationally or market influential friends has a fundamentally different market value than a Like or Comment from a notable blogger, curator, dealer, or gallery owner. Cambodians and Cambodian Artists with internet access are quick to engage with each other's Facebook pages, but that attention doesn't transcend their living in one of the poorest countries in Asia.

I first thought of this argument when I noticed the relative absence of vibrant internet culture in Cambodia when compared with Vietnam and China, despite heavy legal restrictions in the latter two countries. The World Bank lists China as having a population of 1.3 billion, Vietnam with 89.7 million, and Cambodia with 15.1 million, so the number of users able to speak to each other in their native languages and alphabets (Vietnamese has a Roman alphabet adapted to their six tones) is far larger than in Cambodia. World Bank also lists China as having a GDP 613 times as large as Cambodia's and Vietnam as having a GDP 11.4 times as large. This means there are many times more people online, sharing the same language, and with access to better tools and more money in Vietnam and China than Cambodia.

Troemel was right to argue that fluent use of the internet is now a crucial ingredient for access to contemporary art, but the problem of access is more fundamental than just technology. I interviewed Srey Bandaul, an artist and one of the founding teachers at Phare Ponleu Selpak, one of Cambodia's few art schools. When asked about the largest barriers for Cambodian artists' success, Bandaul echoed Theanly, focusing on money and language: "Everyone here has Facebook, but many people here can't read what is being discussed. You can't understand conceptual art without context; most of us can't get that without a translator."

If, for Troemel, social media offered a possibility for artists to sidestep traditional gatekeepers in order to connect with audiences and circulate their work, this possibility is not available in the same way to Cambodian artists. While internet access amongst Battambang artists is high, education in contemporary art theory is not; nor is high-level English or French fluency, digital proficiency, or access to networks of cultural capital. Thus, there are a handful of Western curators and patrons* in Cambodia who act as unchallenged gatekeepers to Cambodia's contemporary art scene and market, and art after social media appears to function very much as it always did.

* I do not mean to criticize the efforts of these individuals—really, I cannot speak to their impact—only that in Cambodia, the kind of mediation between artist and audience has remained largely the same before and after one quarter of the population was introduced to the internet.