Why you should care

Because art’s relationship to technology is changing. 

Alexander Tarrant is surrounded by paintings: the Mona Lisa with rappers, a Mondrian-looking work generated from a Google search for colored squares. His name is on all of them, which is a little odd considering that he didn’t paint a single one. Instead, he and his friends came up with ideas and then hired others to do the labor. Where, oh where, to turn when you want someone else to make your art? A village of painters in China, naturally.

Welcome to the world of modern — really modern — art, defined by robot painters and outsourced creativity. Tarrant, 35, has ties to the wealthy tech world, which has some of the world’s most active art buyers these days, from Marissa Mayer to Larry Ellison. In addition to working with startups to help them brand themselves (what would Picasso say?), Tarrant practically apprenticed with David Choe — Facebook’s graffiti artist, who cashed his stock in for major money — collaborating on projects like helming Reddit’s front page for 24 hours.

Tarrant, who looks the stereotypical part of artist — tall, bearded, beanie on head, white V-neck splattered with black paint — recently tried to hustle an artist program with SpaceX, using “0.1 percent of their budget,” he reasons, to add artwork like murals and to orchestrate meetings between engineers and artists. Although his leads there have nearly dried up, Tarrant is persisting. His tenacity and reach have yielded a diverse, full portfolio that includes music videos for artists in the indie circuit, including provocative South African oddballs Die Antwoord and Portland, Oregon, hip-hop artist and producer Aesop Rock; a video project with Snoop Dogg culminating in a framed blunt; sculptures; and the outsourced paintings, which will hang in Tarrant’s first gallery show in Los Angeles. “He’s enabling the people without the technical skill to paint to enter that medium,” says Alex Benzer, co-founder of Internet video site vid.me and LA art site curate.la.

It’s a funny ploy. Artists like Rembrandt and Andy Warhol had to become famous before they could get others to do their dirty work. But the art world is anything but cookie cutter these days and the definition of “artist” is up for debate. Someone who never breaks out a paintbrush can still be a genius artist — a concept that started with the daddy of Dada, Marcel Duchamp, in the early 1900s when he placed a urinal in an art gallery and called it Fountain. Art historian Blake Stimson ranks Tarrant’s work as “topical”: “It’s about the outsourcing of labor and the division between intellectual and manual labor.” For his part, Tarrant is responding to what’s in the water: advanced technology and the Internet.

Which might explain why his job title these days has more slashes than a horror flick. “Artist / writer / director / producer / designer / photographer / creative consultant / wedding planner / corporate yes-man,” Tarrant calls himself, and that self-description mirrors his upbringing. He moved every few years, from Hong Kong to Boston to Ohio to Los Angeles. As an undergrad, he attended art school in San Francisco, and then held design jobs making video content to sell brands like Audi to the masses. And while Tarrant is now taking some credit for work done by artists in China, in the past he was often the sideline figure whose subjects were more famous than he was. His friends say he connects far-off communities by outrageous stunts — like an email that contained a video of an Indian man reading an email message that a normal person would have just typed.

Tarrant isn’t interested in playing Luddite. To him the question is: How do you market creativity in the 21st century? He has tons of ideas of course. One is to make 20 T-shirt designs a day for two years — if he puts those on on-demand printing sites, he’ll have passive income for a lifetime. And the relationship between art and technology works both ways. His big pitch to SpaceX: Artists could communicate the intentions of tech companies through their “artist algorithm,” as he calls it. “A lot of younger startups realize traditional marketing isn’t enough anymore. Younger users really expect a salient experience,” Benzer says. “[Tarrant is] really clever about coming up with ways to provide that.”

Finding the backing for his ideas isn’t always easy, though Tarrant has hustled better than some. For instance, his dream last year was to shoot a war film in Afghanistan while documenting the entire experience, but costs got in the way. He’s considered bootstrapping the project, but hasn’t yet pulled the trigger and booked it. For some, Tarrant’s work is the opposite of where art should go. While his work embraces technology and consumer culture, old-school art theorists appraise this as the lowest kind of art. Many artists might be “critical” of his work, claiming “it simply reflects and reproduces the world we live in rather than [interposing] some critical distance,” Stimson says.

For his part, Tarrant seems OK surrounded by “his” paintings and gigantic rabbit heads from a video project. He’s just “experimenting,” he says, creating the “abnormal” in a tech-driven world. And besides, what’s normal anymore?

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