The 2011 Review Hive and its aftermath

In March 2010, my VCS senior essay workshop students participated in an experimental writing project called The Review Hive. The project used Twitter and the students’ iPod Touch web browsers to see what would happen if a group of people responded to a single art exhibition with a series of short, on-the-spot responses to the works on display. Three weeks ago, the students in this year’s essay workshop revived the project, with a trip to MoMA to view and comment on the current exhibition “German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse.”

Here is description of what the project was all about, derived from a description that I wrote last year and updated for the current class:

The Review Hive is intended to take art writing out of its traditional comfort zone of presenting structured critique via a single authoritative voice. We are interested in seeing what happens to criticism when it is forced to incorporate several distinct viewpoints at one time.

As the Spring 2011 semester at SVA progresses, we will select one or more artworks or exhibitions to view. The students will check out these works and post comments on the spot, using their iPod Touch devices (the instructor may also contribute occasionally). In addition, some of us may choose to post follow-up remarks later, as our thoughts about the works we’ve seen develop over time. There is no limit to the number of comments that any participant may post, either on-site or after the fact.

In order to keep the responses to the art we’re viewing spontaneous, sharp, and multivocal, we will use Twitter as our platform for posting our reviews. The limitation of 140 characters per tweet (less the inclusion of hashtags to allow readers to gather the tweets into one place) will impose an interesting challenge for our writing. Longer and more complex thoughts will have to be built up from shorter snippets of text, with the constant possibility of interruption from someone else’s input breaking the flow and taking the conversation in a new direction.

Because the project is a new experiment for all of its participants, we have no idea what the results will look like. Readers may discover an unruly cacophony of dissonant voices, or a larger order that emerges from the cluster of opinions. We will be as surprised as anyone else to see what happens.

This year’s incarnation of The Review Hive introduced a few changes. First of all, we dispensed with a separate blog that I set up for the 2010 project. Last year, the blog wasn’t nearly as useful as we thought it would be. Although it included an RSS feed meant to let visitors view new tweets as they got posted, this turned out to be unnecessary, since most of the people who checked out the project did so well after it was over.

In addition, this time we kept the project private while it was still live, since the class seemed to prefer the idea of treating it more like an enclosed think-tank than a pubic performance.

Finally, in addition to allowing students to use their own Twitter accounts for the project, I also created two dummy accounts that could be used anonymously by anyone who wanted to do so, thereby creating two composite participants. I thought it would be interesting to see what kind of voice or personality the dummy accounts would end up having (if any).

As you might expect, the results were more like semi-chaotic babble than a coherent critique. Even so, there were a few interesting insights that floated up. The process allowed the students to comment not only on the Expressionist prints and paintings on the walls, but also on the setting, the museum’s other visitors, and the artworks’ resonance with historical events. There were a few brief call-and-response discussions, and one participant even pieced together a longer comment over the course of eight separate tweets.

Below are a some of the tweets that came through the pipeline while we were at MoMA, curated from several dozen that were posted at the time. (The hashtag we used to gather the tweets was #vcs3; however, since the project went dormant a few weeks ago and Twitter tends to dump tweets from accounts that are inactive for too long, they no longer seem to be accessible online):

First thought: isn’t expressionistic printmaking a bit of an oxymoron?

Marveling at Oskar Kokoschka’s self portrait. his eyes are wide as if I’ve surprised him when really he’s surprised me

Kirchner’s standing girl, caryatid have a similar feeling to his prints. There is something there and then it goes missing

The blue rider book by Kandinsky reminds me of the film Princess Mononoke.

Heinz Fuchs “workers…” lithograph should be front page of the news everyday.

The Kirchner piece about the prostitutes is interesting — I like what it says about all things being for sale in the city.

I bet Kokoschka could kick the shit out of Kirchner, especially with all those dandies walking around.

this show is the missing element in the guggenheim’s chaos and classicism show


Overheard at MoMA, about the Otto Dix war prints: “I guess what I really don’t like is the black frames. They’re kind of annoying.”


europeans see “primitive” tribes as more authentic than their culture.
these tribes when creating art, look inward. There is no “outward”.
and when we think of universal, instead of looking inward, we were thinking about what is recognizable
outward as in geographical knowledge of the ethnosphere.
so when attempted to make something a universal instead of making something meaningful
and that by arts universal definition is not art.
if the approach was the inward search of the universal arts universal definition is simply making something special.
we would have revealed more of who we are.

about looking inward — don’t agree entirely. There are many facets to inwardness, ie the inward of an individual or that of a whole

Must. Make. More. Art.

Expressionism means to Distort the physically seen, then? Appears so, in this show.

Hipbones stealing attention away from breasts in art history

What makes something expressive? Scratches, scrapes, clusters of lines, anything that says a human was here

taking pictures of art at art museums. what does it mean? what would benjamin think?

After watching two versions of The Review Hive play out, I don’t think that this sort of experiment presents too serious a challenge to traditional art writing. The results are probably too chaotic to make for really meaningful reading, even when individual tweets deliver some beautiful bits of insight. Yet I still think it’s possible that this sort of approach might be able to expand art discourse in unforeseen and beneficial ways, though probably only with a lot more time and effort dedicated to building up a regular community of participants.

However, this year’s version of the project proved fruitful in a way that I didn’t expect.

As this year’s string of comments grew and evolved, I began to think that the use of microblogging might enrich future versions of the essay workshop. Reading essays and picking them apart is the foundation stone of the class. A fair amount of note-taking is involved, and students also have to prepare written talking points for some of the reading assignments. As the 2011 Review Hive unfolded, I realized that relocating some of that note-taking to a private group microblog might add depth to class discussions, by exposing students to their peers’ responses in advance of each week’s session. Microblogging platforms like Tumblr encourage concise writing without limiting users to Twitter’s spartan 140-characters; the format seems perfect for facilitating online conversations about the readings. It’s an idea I plan to explore over the summer, as I retool the essay workshop for next year’s group of seniors.

Visual & Critical Studies