Looking a Pigeon in the Eye on a Window Ledge


You might be reading this article in a hardcopy of VAN, but chances are you’ve read more articles online this morning than you’ll read in this entire issue. Every artist that isn’t strictly using traditional media could benefit from knowing how to make an artwork for the internet. Even if it’s not the primary place you want to locate your work, it can be an easy, fun, quick and a satisfying way to express the smaller ideas you might have been saving up while waiting for your next big gallery show.

Last summer I was invited by Lindsay Howard, curator at creative publishing platform newhive.com, to create a piece of work for the site. I already had a number of deadlines at the same time the piece was due to be launched. In a panic I thought of turning down the opportunity – I wasn’t convinced I wanted to take on another commission. Once I was told the artist’s fee (which was more generous than the production budgets I’ve been offered for most gallery shows) I said: “Yes, of course”.

I really wanted to work with Lindsay. I first met her in 2010 when I took part in a group show at 319 Scholes, a Brooklyn-based gallery with a focus on technology and new-media art, where she was curatorial director. She’s been consistently involved in interesting net-based projects, and gives a lot of her time and support to female artists in the genre.

So how did I deliver a commission while juggling deadlines and chronic anxiety? I broke the process down into five steps.

Step 1: HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU GOT YOUR FIRST COMPUTER [Using the internet to choose titles]

I knew I wanted to make a large series of works – NewHive works that way, like a book you can flick through – and I knew that each piece would need a title. The internet can be a busy place, attention is precious, and a good headline produces clicks. So first I set out to choose my titles.

I thought of those clickbait articles we all find when we end up searching the internet for an answer to a question. Searching is a quest, and the internet is based on questions and searches: Yahoo Answers, eHow articles, OkCupid, personality tests, security questions. Everywhere I looked there were quests for knowledge, big and small. When I listened to people speak online it was all questions. Even when there was no actual question there was ‘upspeak’, making everything sound slightly unsure. I took all the questions I was coming across and I removed the question marks so the upspeak became rhetorical and zen-like. Sometimes all those questions don’t even need an answer; it’s enough to know that so many questions are being asked.

Step 2: WHAT KIND OF LIPSTICK GOES WITH LIGHT BROWN HAIR [amassing content – animals, numinous images]

Amassing content was easy. I keep several collections online and offline on my computer: banks of images I find that resonate for unknown/mysterious reasons, playlists of short amateur videos on different themes, .txt files full of ideas, concepts and now some questions.

One of the main elements of the work I made for NewHive is the inclusion of videos from a YouTube playlist I’d been working on for a few years. The playlist is called Animal Research and the criteria for inclusion in the playlist is: 1) there are very few or no humans visible on screen; 2) the non-human creature is interacting with human-made objects or environments; 3) the shot is well composed, preferably accidentally/subconsciously; 4) the being is not performing for acclaim or attention.

Sometimes it feels like my reliance on technology has ‘urbanised’ my mind. Scrolling through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds multiple times a day, consuming content, it’s easy to feel really busy even if you’re not actively producing much except advertising revenue and analytics for others. Gathering materials and ideas during this daily time-wasting has been very productive for me.

Step 3: WHAT IS MY DEFAULT SETTING [using intuition]

So, now we’ve amassed a bank of content we can draw on. How do we know which content to use? What will it look like? How will it feel? This is where intuition comes in.

When I was first setting out to make Is this a test for NewHive[i], I had already planned to use some of my collections of images, videos and text. I knew I wanted ‘the artist’s hand’ somewhere in there too, so I looked to the floor of my studio.

At the time of working on the piece for NewHive I shared a studio space with artist and experience-designer Mark Durkan. We were hoarding materials for years, so the studio sometimes felt more like a shed, a dump or a treasure trove (depending on the mood). One day in the treasure trove I came across a big old bottle of red fountain pen ink. Red has never been my colour, but some unknown combination of factors meant that this particular red seemed to be the most exciting colour I’d seen in a while. The colour started to feel like Sriracha sauce as I worked with it – something you might think you don’t like (“too spicy”) but once you get into it, it can become addictive. There were big red permanent markers too, and they had the same aura of immediate, pigmented importance as the ink. So I got into making these big meaningless red ink drawings on paper, just for the joy of it.

Something I’ve learned from the internet is that if it’s joyful for one person, it will be joyful for others (as they say: “if you can think of it, there’s porn of it”). So I translated the red on red on red drawing process to the NewHives drawing tool. I used the colour #FF0000, a very ‘default’ red.

Step 4: IS THIS A TEST [making intuitive decisions quickly]

Once I had the structure down, and chosen the content/theme, time was getting tight. How could I turn it all into a deliverable work quickly and without being overly literal or obvious? As above, intuition was key. I needed to pick the title, get the feeling I wanted from the drawing, and then choose the content elements.

When I was growing up I used to watch Frank Clarke’s Simply Painting and he had a mnemonic for landscape painting: Have Some More Fun – Horizon, Sky, Middle, and Foreground. I subconsciously followed something similar as I made the pieces: title/question, red drawing/expression, animal action and decorative elements. NewHive makes it simple to place and move content around, so it was really a very painterly process. And like painting, when a piece was done I just knew.

Step 5: WHAT IS THE ULTIMATE SUBSTANCE OF ALL REALITY [putting it all together]

So the hard parts are done, and you’re putting it all together…

You have to accept when making art for the internet that some people just won’t get it, like all art. Haters are always going to hate and slow-coaches will eventually catch up. Disregarding the audience is often an important step in ‘getting things done’. It means I only need to worry about what works for me. I like it better when I don’t fully understand my own work – it means I can appreciate the work as an outsider with intimate knowledge.

On NewHive you can create individual ‘expressions’ or pages, and you can also create collections based around tags. I tagged 20 of my favourite expressions ‘quest’, and the work was done. Next I emailed Lindsay to let her know that the piece was finally finished. She sent out the PR. I took a day off in bed and then I moved on to the next deadline.


It’s the sharing of knowledge that progresses our species. I can’t see any reason to try to keep an idea to myself anymore.

[i] http://newhive.com/eilis/collection/quest

Image: Eilis McDonald, HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU GOT YOUR FIRST COMPUTER – Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.52.20, 2016

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