The English-speaking Internet woke up in a bad mood today after Susan Orlean, the New Yorker contributor and author of The Orchid Thief, revealed the two heretofore anonymous creators of a Twitter feed called @horse_ebooks. It wasn’t the identities of the feed’s writers that shocked everyone (though one of the two writers works for BuzzFeed, which really pissed people off). Rather, it was the fact that they were human in the first place. @horse_ebooks, which had more than 200,000 subscribers before disgusted users started unfollowing today, passed itself off as a spambot, spitting out glancingly amusing phrases—“another place would tell,” or “anybody through clothes,” or “decline, where”—that were usually more banal than epigrammatic but would be endlessly retweeted all the same. Turns out it was all a hoax, and the pseudospam was being written from Brooklyn.
The hoax of humans posing as machines is not a new phenomenon. Think, for example, of the notorious Mechanical Turk of the late eighteenth century, a wildly popular chess-playing “robot” that was operated by a person crouched in a box and hidden behind counterfeit gears and cranks. Think of Enigmarelle, the creepy bike-riding “automaton” that entertained fin-de-siècle vaudeville audiences for years before she was exposed as an amputee in a costume. But the hoaxers of @horse_ebooks apparently do not think of themselves as such. They don’t even think of themselves as tech employees having a little fun on the side. Oh, no: The @horse_ebooks hoaxers are artists. Orlean, in her reveal today, glossed the Twitter feed as part of “a suite of conceptual-art pieces,” and at the small Fitzroy Gallery on New York’s Lower East Side, the two creators are performing lines from the Twitter account at a phone bank. A text next to the phone bank calls @horse_ebooks a “conceptual art installation.” Designating this wheeze as “conceptual art” is not the worst of it; revealingly, they seem not to know that the word “installation” correctly refers to a three-dimensional intervention in a gallery space, not an account on a social media website.
I’ll leave it to more technophilic observers to unpack just why the only marginally interesting @horse_ebooks account became such a phenomenon (regurgitating its nonsense was, for me, one of the fastest triggers for me to unfollow someone on Twitter). But I am intrigued—disturbed, really—at the instant inscription of a prank into the language of art. It has to do, I suppose, with a misunderstanding of conceptualism. Conceptualism completed the radical restructuring of the category of art that Marcel Duchamp set into motion, opening an avenue to appreciate art beyond sense experience. In Michael Craig-Martin’s 1973 work An Oak Tree, for example, a glass of water sits on a ledge, while an accompanying text explains that the glass is, in fact, an oak tree. This “demateralization of the art object,” to borrow the title of Lucy Lippard’s landmark study, greatly increased the philosophical and intellectual demands required of viewers. Conceptualism also upset a lot of people, who found its strategies frustrating or unworthy. “Conceptual art” became, for those who don’t really like art very much, a kind of joke: something for snobs who couldn’t see that a glass of water is just a glass of water. And it’s in this jokey sense, rather than in any sense linked to the history of conceptualism, that the @horse_ebooks boys seem to have dressed their imposture.
I’m certainly not opposed to jokes and pranks as the stuff of art—Duchamp for one was hilarious. But a prank doesn’t become conceptual art, or art of any variety, just because it’s taking place in a gallery. Art is a rendezvous between form and content, and in both categories, this imposture is decidedly lacking. If we were really to believe that @horse_ebooks was art, we would have to find some meaning or importance in its central conceit. Yet the indistinct border between human and machine is about as clichéd as it gets these days, and the hoodwinking of hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers is not a sign of some digital sprezzatura, but of the meaninglessness of the distinction in the first place.
Neither of the two creators of @horse_ebooks seems to have had any history as an artist before this, and while I suppose it’s possible that this is their first step into a brave new career, it seems more likely that they’re using the language of art as a safeguard against criticism from everyone they fooled online. Have they run to the gallery because they thought that everything is permitted within the white cube, that nobody could call them out for bad behavior or lack of sophistication? That’s my guess, though, then again, @horse_ebooks itself was always a little dull and behind the times. Lyrical nonsense as a form of art? I saw the poet and Warhol superstar John Giorno recite much more interesting material a few months ago, and Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara were already there in Zurich a century ago. Art as a deluge of data, modern media as an unstoppable flood, advertising and poetry hopelessly mixed up? As if that weren’t one of the central conceits of Modernism—T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Ernst Toller could teach these guys a thing or two. The poetic fragment, a seemingly random string of two or three words from an ungraspable source? That is twenty-five hundred years old, and Sappho, I assure you, holds much more water than a soi-disant spambot. This put-on is either bad art or not art at all—who can say? But either way, the truly pathetic thing about @horse_ebooks was that it was so drearily old-fashioned.