Artists & Social Media Series: Sabina Ott Discusses the Politics of Facebook Inclusivity and Why Tumblr is Perfect for Artist-Run Project Spaces

Artist Sabina Ott is no stranger to the social web. For more than 25 years, she has been investigating the process and act of painting. The Internet and Gertrude Stein’s prose are two of her major influences. “To me, Stein is the prescient literature to the Internet because her work follows the process of present, lifted, moved, re-experienced, present, lifted, moved, re-experienced,” says Ott. "The idea behind Stein's work mirrors the process of experiencing content on the web, from the layered world of a single Wikipedia page to the rabbit hole of prowling someone’s world as seen through their Facebook profile."

Currently Ott is working with grotesque, environmentally hazardous materials to create life-size sculptures chipped from giant blocks of Styrofoam—the modern day artist’s carving stone, if you will—along with plants one might find at chain convenience stores and swaths of neon spray paint. Her work is a meditation on the convergence of personal subjectivities, manmade synthetic objects, memories of the past and the effervescent landscape of the future. She also runs the artist project space Terrain out of her Oak Park home. Utilizing the front porch, she creates opportunities for artistic interventions in the suburban landscape. Terrain provides artists, ranging from emerging to established, the opportunity to gain additional exposure in a non-commercial setting. Tumblr is integral to Terrain—and sometimes, this artist project space only exists in that virtual form. 

This is the second post in a five-part series about how artists use social media. For the first post about OPP artist Ellen Greene, click hereHave ideas for a topic you'd really like covered on the OPP blog? Email us at blog [at]

Ben Fain at Terrain 

Alicia Eler: When did you first join Facebook? 

Sabina Ott: I first started being on Facebook so that I could reach out to artists I knew all around the world. But I had no filters. I said yes to anybody, because I thought, that's what this was—a global network! This is not about being picky and keeping an isolated community of friends. So I instantly got 1,500 friends. I was like, “Yahoo! Everybody! Yes!” But what happened was I started running the artist project space Terrain out of my Oak Park home. I was using social media to promote Terrain, and as a result I stopped using Facebook to promote my own work. It takes so much energy to do both. Plus when I logged into Facebook, my news feed was just a stream of political commentary and peoples' baby pictures. Right now my main activity on Facebook is hiding people from the news feed. I’m trying to curate it so that I see what I want to see. I can’t deal with another photo of someone's three-year-old doing something completely uninteresting. But on the other hand, I completely understand their impulse to post these photos. 

AE: Tell me about the experience of posting your own artwork to Facebook. 

SO: I posted a lot of my art in 2010 when I started this new body of work. I had stopped making work for awhile because I got really sick. When I began again, I was making these Surrealist eyeball paintings and sculptures—they were about seeing and being seen and about asserting my body or eye into a space. Facebook was a perfect platform for that, because it brings up questions of voyeurism, of who is seeing what, and of how people see in a non-physical space. I just posted tons of this work to Facebook. I would get into conversations about the work, and people would say it was wonderful and be all "Yay Sabina!" And I would say "Yay thank you!" I would just get this high, this incredible high. 

"that" (2011) from Sabina Ott's Facebook page
polystyrene, plexiglass, pigment print on paper, foam, canvas, acrylic and enamel paint
28" x 18" x 10"

People were like, “I cant wait to see this!” At one point I thought, who needs a gallery if the whole point is to have your work seen? Facebook is great for that. It really works. Recently I changed my Facebook cover photo, but on the whole I haven’t been posting my work that much. It takes a lot of attention. But then I posted one piece of artwork and received 30 likes on Facebook. That was really satisfying. Then I thought maybe I should withhold a bit and post less of my artwork; before I had been so out there with my art. I hadn't been doing the personal aspect of Facebook either, and then I started listing my family members on there. So I opened it up to family, not just art people. It was an idea about a personal politic, really. Why can’t I have my husband, dog, nieces, nephews and art students all in the same space?  

AE: Would you consider the Facebook profile a space for political intervention? I am thinking about ideas of the personal as political.

SO: Yeah, I do. It’s important to think about Facebook in this way. It's similar to the way I am doing Terrain, too. It’s like, yes, it’s my house—but yes, you can come over. I think that sort of inclusivity is important. At the same time, when I got like 1,800-1,900 Facebook friends, I kind of overdosed on it. That’s when I stopped doing my personal posting as much. 

AE: How did your Facebook posting change when you hit that number? 

SO: I was just getting a lot of crap on my wall. I lost focus on it as a sort of subversive act of blending my art, personal life and public persona. And I realized I was collecting friends, which I like doing as well…

AE: What do you think of the way New York Magazine Senior Art Critic Jerry Saltz uses Facebook? He’s like the Facebook Art Critic. 

SO: You know, I'm a contrarian—I can't stand the way Jerry uses Facebook. You realize that all these people he is friends with are posting comments for him, but only kind of. People are having conversations on Jerry’s wall on the slim chance that he will look in and say, “That one! That one is brilliant! I'll go to their studio!” Facebook has really worked for him as an artistic presence. It's interesting that writers and curators can have that sort of presence on Facebook, maybe even more than visual artists. 

A post from Jerry Saltz's Facebook page

AE: Let’s go back to how you say you rebuilt your community first through Facebook. Tell me about why this happened. 

SO: I think it happened this way because I moved so much—from Los Angeles to St. Louis to San Francisco to Chicago. Nobody knows where I'm living or where I'm from anymore. I was very much identified as an LA artist for about 15 years of my career. Recently someone asked me how I was enjoying St. Louis. That was 15 years ago, and I was running the grad program at Wash U. Through the Facebook virual presence, I am able to re-establish my physical location and presence.  

"First Eye" (2008)
ostrich egg, plastic rose, ink print, glitter and spray paint
14 x 12 x 6 inches approx.
Private collection, Pasadena, CA

AE: Has Facebook reconnected you with people from your past? Do you use Facebook Lists at all to filter your friends?

SO: No, but I should use lists. It was the strangest thing watching people from elementary school and people I used to sleep with who were like, “Hi!” I have so many old boyfriends that are now Facebook friends, which is hilarious to me. I have much better relationships with them on Facebook than I did in real life. This guy I was previously engaged to twice is a real pontificator on Facebook. He's a philosophy guy and a Jungian therapist. He's decided to take on my work through Facebook. He'll say things like, "Imminence! You've always been about imminence!" And he'll go on and on about my work in Facebook comments and messages. I'll say, "Will you write a catalogue essay for me?" And he'll say, "You're lazy! You've always been lazy!" So there is this kind of distilled relationship that happens on Facebook—it is simultaneously personal and artwork-related. 

AE: How do you use social media for Terrain, the project space that occupies the front porch of your Oak Park home? 

SO: The Terrain site is on Tumblr and Facebook. The Tumblr page is more formal and elegant. The Facebook Group is like, "Bah! Go here! Go there!" I went onto Facebook and put everyone I know into the Terrain Facebook Group whether they like it or not. It's a Group, not a Fan Page. The Facebook Group makes it so that every time I post something, everyone gets a message about it. But I mostly post stuff like, “This is happening here and there.” Terrain has been really successful in a year, and by successful, I mean people know about it, it has a presence and it has an identity. In fact, it has exactly the kind of identity I want it to have—it’s participatory, and people also feel that if they see it on Facebook and Tumblr, they don’t have to go and see the real, physical thing. And that’s perfectly okay with me. 

AE: Really? You don’t care if people actually come out to the space and openings? That’s something I think about a lot when it comes to artists and social media. Sometimes if I see a lot of artwork on Facebook, I’m less inclined to check out the show. Doesn't that bother you, too?

SO: It's different with Terrain—it's one piece, one thing that’s subject to the elements. And it’s in the suburbs of Chicago. A lot of people I know aren't going to get there. They may come to the opening if they are within a 10-mile radius. I truly want people from all over the world to look at Terrain and the work we show. It worked tremendously well for Claire Ashley, who showed at Terrain in April–May 2012.  

Claire Ashley at Terrain

I like that the Terrain Tumblr allows people to know about the space without having to physically be there. Terrain isn’t meant for the social web per say, but it does work well on there. On the other hand, if an exhibition feels like it’s meant just to be photographed and posted on the web, that’s annoying. But in this case, it gives a shelf life to something that’s really impermanent. There are scraps of Terrain—like the space I had at the MDW Art Fair—but they will never be installed that way again. It’s best to have Terrain be a piece within a piece within a piece. Terrain as a concept is a piece, the Terrain Tumblr site is a piece, and then there are pieces within that, which are the artists' works at Terrain. Facebook is the active voice of Terrain—the conversational part of the place, if you will. I don't know how I would do that kind of meta-interplay with my own artwork.  

AE: I was reading the artist statement about networking that you have on your website. You discuss similarities between the act of painting and the digital, virtual world. You write: “So- somewhere in the middle of the textures, gestures and the overall formlessness that makes up painting (that special space within which subjectivity thrives) I form connections to the digital virtual world. Perhaps it’s the permeability, the boundary-less-ness of the web—overflowing with information and simultaneous endless connections and associations—that seems so very painterly. Indeed, one of the qualities of painting is its all-over-ness, because to experience a painting is to escape from linearity and simultaneously experience the past (memory), the present, and the future (fantasy). Experience becomes flat –as in systems theory, where flatness is used to describe non-linearity.” Does this include the social web, or are you just speaking about the Internet as a digital, virtual world?

SO: I think these ideas connect to the social web, because I can’t separate roaming on the web from the social aspects. The Internet is a portal, and so it is a portal to information; but it's also a portal to someone else's mind, and it's very personal too. I surf a lot on Facebook. I'm like the perfect Facebook person—I disappear into the rabbit hole. There might be someone I never sit down and talk to in real life, yet I am following their interests on Facebook. To me, that’s a gift, and I am happy to receive it. I am sure there are people who explore my Facebook page in the same way, following the Facebook path down its trajectory. 

Sabina Ott in her studio with new work

AE: Is there an artist on Facebook who you follow closely? Or are there artists who, through their Facebook presence, influence your work?

SO: Artist Stephanie Barber did a piece at The Poor Farm around the same time I showed there. She cut out a poem that she wrote out of grass turf. Stephanie lives in Baltimore. She writes these weird haikus, and if she lived here, we would definitely hang out. Instead, we are Facebook friends, and every time she writes a poem it pops up on in my Facebook news feed. Being able to see her work and that of other artists I admire but who don’t live nearby, makes my world really big. 

People say the Internet is bad, and they think it cuts out social graces. But I don't think so. I think it makes people better. They learn more. They are exposed to more. They have to tolerate more. They have to be conscious of what they say. And they have to learn how to reach out. I think it's really good, and I like it a lot. I felt really liberated by the Internet. I first got into it when I moved to St. Louis. It was right before there was this open Internet. Like, you could live without an email address. Schools were trying to require email addresses. I had just made this website, and the background was one of my paintings. I was totally into it, but I think a lot of that happened because I moved away from LA and my home and things just dropped into the rabbit hole. Thanks to Facebook, the chances of people just dropping off when you move away are a bit less. 

I went to Australia in 1996, when the country was much more on the web trek than the U.S. You can see the cultural shift that happened there because of the Internet. With the advent of the Internet, they weren't on the edge of the world in the wrong time zone on an island. When they were, it was so much more alive. Australians had a whole alternate universe island before the Internet. So with the Internet, something is lost—but everything is affected and reflected and still has its own identity. That's what's interesting about how the Internet gives exposure. And you still misunderstand it, which is what you want. 

In Australia, there was this artist there named Mike Parr—he was kind of like what John Baldessari is to the U.S. Or maybe Mel Bochner. Parr’s work was almost identical to theirs, but he was not exposed to international artists via the Internet. He developed his work in an Australian way. This kind of thing happens less nowadays, but even so, you still don’t lose that local sense. 

Mike Parr
Hold your breath for as long as possible (still from video, 1972
Image via

To learn more about Sabina Ott, visit her website: