Editor's note: Last year we decided to look back on Tumblr’s history by publishing an open call for artist-made Tumblrs to be accessioned to the Rhizome ArtBase, our archive of more than 2000 born-digital artworks. The accessioned works, announced in January, represent just a few traces of the many artistic practices on Tumblr, where users have built rich communities and subcultures that developed distinct ideas and aesthetics with bewildering speed, and often disappeared just as quickly. Digital cultural memory is difficult to sustain, but it's a crucial resource for the present and future. Now let a thousand vaporwave spinoffs bloom.
My junior year of college, deep in the midst of finals season, I downloaded an app to prevent myself from logging on to Tumblr. It was so addictive, so beguiling, and somehow so essential that to get any work done, I had to block it. More than a blogging platform, Tumblr felt like the place where my life—intellectual, emotional, social—was concentrated. Tumblr was where my friends were. It was where art was. It was where new aesthetics were declared and social justice terminology was shared with an earnestness that feels nostalgic now. On Tumblr we were all connected, networked through reblogs and replies; at times, the platform felt like a living, breathing being, a viral post surging through its body like a fever, or a quake. In the six years I regularly used the platform, I saw microcultures, art projects, and the lives of strangers all blossom and evolve. That was what Tumblr was for, or perhaps what it turned out to be for: a place to watch things emerge, shift, and articulate.
The Tumblrs gathered in Rhizome’s recent ArtBase accessions represent some moods and modes within a wildly diverse landscape of blogs, projects, and archives, many of which no longer exist or exist only in fragments. Some are “single-serving Tumblrs,” in the parlance of the day, like Jack Madden’s SlurpeeBlog and Vincent Charlebois’s dailywiki, posting within strict parameters of concept and form, allowing poetic meaning to form within and between the posts’ accumulation. Others take opportunity of the platform’s customizability and free hosting to build web-native art pieces, like Chiara Moioli’s REAL_DANCING_GIRL, an analysis of (and homage to) the dancing girl gif, and Celine Lassus’s Neighborly Action, a networked series of Tumblrs that tell a story about entitled white women’s bad behavior. And yet other Tumblrs accessed are longer durational projects, like Vivian Fu’s eight-year photo diary and Pamela Council’s BLAXIDERMY, which alongside visual documentation offer views into the artists’ personal lives.
“Originally, BLAXIDERMY was my Tumblr evidence board for connecting the dots between our culture’s love for/derision of Black aesthetics combined with a lust for Black death porn,” writes Council in their artist statement. Scrolling through BLAXIDERMY, Council’s key interests emerge. There are the #tumbleweaves, stray braids and tufts of weaves spotted on the pavement; acrylic nails and nail art; snapshots of contemporary art on view; and found sculpture, moments where the city’s landscape speaks to the visual language of Council’s archive, like a flag made of sequins, waving in the wind. “#Harlem is hard to quit cuz there’s so much sculpture around,” Council writes, captioning a phone photograph of a shopping cart, reinforced with what looks like painted masonite, filled with milk gallon jugs. Council’s Tumblr—and should these be called Tumblrs, blogs, websites, or something else?—also contains selfies and short, off-the-cuff missives on topics like artistic practice and problematic satire. Together, the archive of posts invites the viewer into a way of seeing.
In cybertwee’s artist statement, the collective notes the project was an effort to identify and moodboard “a thematic similarity that always existed, but didn’t have a name.” It was a way of identifying something that is happening, an inquiry that always brings a certain urgency with it. Making a Tumblr—and anyone could make a Tumblr, with tremendous ease—was a way of iterating upon, documenting, and figuring out that something in a movement toward naming. Sometimes it was external, like cybertwee’s documentation of the sweeter—even saccharine—side of technofuturism. Other times, it was internal, bloggy, confessional, a person learning about herself. Often it was both. At its best, Tumblr bred intimacy and trust. The psychic distance between artist, publisher, and viewer felt on the level of skin contact: finger to touchpad, finger to touchscreen.
On Tumblr, you rarely ever saw someone’s work in isolation; the point of entry was the dashboard, the posts arriving in a stream, contextualized by the rest of the feed. Yet the browser view, the way a blog looked from the outside, was like an outfit, presenting the visual you wanted others to see. This container, endlessly customizable with HTML and CSS, offered one way to present a self. With one account, you could make as many side Tumblrs as you wanted; if you were tired of your persona on main, all it took was tapping a button to start a new blog. The digital self could be split into distinct parts, offshoots to be developed and styled at any time. Before personal branding became de rigueur for even casual netizens, side Tumblrs offered a place to play with—and learn through—the performance of various selves and projects.
In 314rritz, the artist Bia Rodrigues gathered glitchy, GIF-centric self-portraits on a Tumblr that served as an artistic hosting hub. The blog was also home to the project “Reblogada,” which reclaimed Tumblr’s reblog function, the ability to share another user’s post on one’s own blog, with or without additional commentary. Reblogging was key to Tumblr’s networked nature; it also enabled gross acts of misinterpretation and nonconsensual sexualization. When a self-portrait by Rodrigues began circulating on porn and fetish Tumblrs, the artist compiled screenshots of the reblogs, appropriating back the image. Presented in a 2 x 3 grid, the titles of the blogs (“Natural Girls Lover,” “Haarig-Hairy”), side-by-side, gain a kind of absurdity; they also demonstrate the ways in which Rodrigues’s image is exotified and categorized. The project Reblogada was captioned: “(it’s not me, it’s the internet)”.
This intersection of performativity, sexuality, race, and gender encapsulates Tumblr’s ethos in the mid ’10s. Tumblr was the home of selfie culture—starting with the hashtag #gpoyw, or “gratuitous picture of yourself wednesday,” later shortened to “#gpoy”—which developed in tandem with a burgeoning body positivity movement and the embrace of fourth wave feminism. For many users, especially young people of color, Tumblr was an accessible academic space outside of the academy; quotes from feminist writers were widely shared, such as excerpts from Gloria Anzaldua’s This Bridge Called My Back and bell hooks’s All About Love. The platform provided a space to discuss intersectionality, politics, queer theory, and social justice, outside of the primarily heteronormative, white media landscape. And its intimate environment, paired with its progressive politics, offered a safe harbor for the sharing (and perhaps conception) of strikingly vulnerable work. In Vivian Fu’s photo diary, she shared film and digital pictures from her daily life, self-portraits, and images of her and her longtime partner, Tim. The intimacy depicted in the photographs—their glasses resting on red sheets; their limbs tangled on a couch—is unguarded, though the images are formally composed. In the same way, though both are aware of the camera, the narrative of the relationship doesn’t feel performed for a social media gaze. What performance exists is triangulated in a narrower way, between sitter and camera; between image and artist.
A similar kind of portraiture exists in Madeline Zappala’s gif face, the moving face of the artist repeated in a grid, often exaggerated, sometimes expressionless, once smeared with blackberry juice, as if bloodied. One senses that a major investigation is between the artist and their own body; another investigation, between the glitchiness of the gif and the blank landscape of the screen. Many of these Tumblrs include technological slippages, honoring the poor image, the janky website, the distorted gif. Tumblr wasn’t made for web hosting, but an enterprising artist could break it, even coding a custom theme so completely it eliminated all trace of Tumblr’s presence. At its freest and most independent, the platform allowed a user to supersede it, using it for whatever weird project one could dream of.
I realize that I’ve written this in past tense, as though Tumblr is dead, though Tumblr still lives. In gathering these Tumblrs to preserve them, the very act of archiving and accession has also surfaced the digital patchwork left by corporate censorship—a kind of inherent vice. When the platform, then owned by Verizon, instituted a stricter content policy in 2018, posts, whether truly pornographic or not, were flagged and censored, then unceremoniously deleted. Artist Christopher Clary’s archive, FkN JPGs, was a log of Clary’s webcam performances, themselves inspired by images from his porn collection. Many of the blog’s posts were censored and removed; later, public access to the Tumblr was revoked, meaning a viewer could only see Clary’s content on the dashboard, while logged in. At the moment, Clary’s blog is impossible to archive in its original form. Clary is currently working with Rhizome to reconstruct a version of the blog that reflects his artistic intentions. Paradoxically, porn has returned to Tumblr, in the form of bots, inhuman interlopers in what was the internet’s most human landscape.
Seeing these Tumblrs, gathered, serves to illuminate some of what we were thinking and feeling from roughly 2009 to 2020. We can’t see those connections now, from the outside, but there remains an aura of an era. These Tumblrs represent a snapshot—not only of a platform, but of a mode of thinking, making, and creating. Some Tumblrs persist into the present day: animated-text endures, posting about life’s cringes, crushes, and horrors. Others have perished to corporate intervention, frozen in time, like Solo Jazz’s investigation of the ubiquitous, iconic cup design, a project which itself mined 90s nostalgia. Time is an actor in all of these pieces, and time is an actor in how we access them now. In the next waves of the changing internet, how will these Tumblrs reflect what we once thought was possible?