Year 5, Piece Nineteen: 17. Yellow Yellow

Autobiographical Art and the Attention Economy

Usually when I draw the week’s color card for Rainbow Squared I try to clear my mind as much as possible. This week though, I felt compelled to ask the cards a question.

My question for the cards was more like a field of inquiry. I asked something like: “Other people. This project and other people. The internet and audiences and followers and attention and approval and me and this project and other people. Do I care? Discuss.” 

The cards answered: Yellow Yellow.

In Rainbow Squared, I consider the double color cards as especially significant, like the major arcana of the Tarot deck. Out of 49 combinations, there are 7 double colors in the grid: Red Red, Orange Orange, Yellow Yellow, Green Green, Blue Blue, Purple Purple, Black White Black White. When one pops up, it tells you to pay special attention. 

In addition to a color card, each week I also pull a Tarot card, and this week it also happened to be a major arcana card: The Sun. I associate Yellow with the Sun already. Double Yellow, double Sun, during this week’s solar eclipse. Okay. 

Hello Sun. Hello everybody under the Sun. Hello Yellow. Hello Yellow Yellow. Hello Power, Will, Yes, Energy, Endurance. Like the power of the Sun, infinite power to feed and fuel all living things, along with the power to burn them. Colors fade in the Sun so fast, unless they belong to a thing that lives and grows. Like leaves, like you.  

The internet is another resource with a twin power to fuel and to burn, specifically from its sheer capacity to expose us to more people than ever before. Sure, this includes strangers across the globe, but also everyone we have ever met. People who wouldn’t otherwise remain in our attention streams like old schoolmates and distant cousins and hookups. It quite changes the game of who we interact with, who can be part of our communities, whose activity we can passively monitor and who can monitors ours. And the internet also transforms exactly what that activity is.

To be an artist in this age, it isn’t enough just to make work. You also have to market that work, market yourself. You and your work are a package that becomes your brand, that you constantly repackage and market in order to build an audience for that work. Which sometimes feels empowering, but more often feels, well, dirty.

But why? For other businesses, there is nothing shameful about building a brand or a customer base. And hell, I’m not even trying to get anyone to buy anything. But maybe commerce is the thing here. Money creates a shame trap around art. Money somehow taints the enterprise of artmaking which “should” be done for its own sake, while simultaneously deeming a failure anything that doesn’t have commercial success. I thought making animated gifs might keep me out of the commercial art market altogether for a while, but now there are NFTs. Which are truly, hugely empowering for a whole class of digital artists who can finally be remunerated for their work! And also require the same brand-building as any other current artistic enterprise, if not far more. 

I suppose I have also been socialized to judge others who seek attention. Personal brand or not, my work is wrapped up with my life, so asking people to look at my work feels like asking them to look at me, look inside me even. But why does that feel bad? Is it because it is icky or because it is vulnerable?

This week my mom is in town for the first time since before Covid. It is wonderful and wild for her to be here in many ways, including the unconscious validation from having her finally witness my now full blown motherhood of two fully mobile, verbal humans. It makes it feel real in a different way, not that it wasn’t real before. It also means that I have a little bit of daylight time alone to get other things done, as well as listening to things while I do those other things. Like binge-listening to the podcast "Under the Influence" by Jo Piazza, which is about mom influencers on the internet, a multibillion dollar industry. It. Is. Fascinating.

Do I want to be an influencer? No. Do I want to be an artist working from the material that is my daily life and sharing that work on the internet? Yes, and in fact, I would say that I am currently doing it. But like with anything else, I want to be successful at it. How do I measure success for a project that is still unfolding? Well, measuring success on the internet means eyeballs and engagement, means followers. What I do online isn’t exactly optimized for social media. Instagram is just not designed for sharing or reading long form essays, which is why I switched to sharing via Substack and am happier for it. But I still have a nagging feeling that it needs more followers to be valid. This nagging doesn’t dictate my practice, I still show up each week creating exactly what I want to create, commercial appeal be damned. But the more professional side of my brain keeps telling me that I need to build a bigger audience. Or is that a different side of my brain? Either way it feels shameful because seeking attention is shameful. 

Fuck that shit, though. We love to hate femmes who seek attention and especially on the internet. It’s wrong in so many ways, but especially how it puts moms especially in a bind where they are judged or ripped off either way. These people, these women, should not be the subject of anyone’s hate. It’s a system that pits us against each other and doesn’t compensate caretakers or creators or arguably most people for the work that they do to contribute to society. So go out there and shine your goddam light. I can’t promise I won’t judge you, but I can promise that if I catch myself judging you I will name it and give you and myself some grace.

I was thinking about all of this as I used my own face as the subject of an animation, a first for this five-year project. While E napped, I hung some yellow fabric in the front window and sat in front of it painting my face with a yellow crayon. This window is perpendicular to Justin’s desk, so I was perched right behind his giant computer monitor while he was on a call with an aspiring internet storyteller. As “perhaps the founding father of personal blogging,” Justin takes calls like this occasionally. I could only hear Justin’s end of the conversation as he gently guided another white male toward thinking about whether his work actually benefits society. Does it need to? Either way, unintentionally listening in while I sat there with my shirt off taking pictures of myself, the moment felt poetic. The trajectory from sharing your life on the web in the 90s to sharing it now is weird and getting weirder. I guess I’d like to keep it as weird as I can over here. While still being accessible enough to grow an audience, of course. 

Yellow. Yellow Yellow. Power, Sunshine, Attention. Attention is unwieldy, especially in the conglomerate. Be mindful of where you put that attention, and also of how you seek it. But don’t be afraid to seek it. Do whatever the fuck you want.