Artist Brainard Carey is working on his own social network. His methods are old-fashioned, relying on friends’ referrals and outreach over email. Carey connects to five or six new people a week; over eight years, he’s been introduced to over a thousand. The settings of Carey’s private network are distinctively public — every introduction he makes is documented and published online, having been taped for broadcast on WYBCX, the online Yale student radio network.
Carey’s radio show, “The Lives of the Artists,” takes place Sundays at 1 p.m. “The Lives of the Artists” is one of the few shows hosted by non-Yale affiliates on WYBCX. Over his hour, Carey interviews figures from the arts and culture worlds: artists, curators, dealers, gallerists, critics, poets, architects. His advice for interviewing is not to come prepared with questions: Let the conversation run its course. The intimacy of undivided attention, Carey believes, means he and his subjects don’t stay strangers for long: “How to win friends and influence people, according to Dale Carnegie [author of “How to Win Friends & Influence People”] is just to ask them a billion questions and be sincere,” he says. “Be sincere. It’s not bullshit, and they will love you.”
Interview subjects reciprocate sincere interest by helping the project move forward. At the end of each conversation, subjects provide Carey names and email addresses of new people to contact. Writer Chavisa Woods introduced him to a clique of gay literary figures living in Brooklyn. Algerian artists did the same for him in Algeria. Confronting what Carey calls a dilemma of “how do we make more friends that are really interesting people,” the interview series keeps Carey from ever needing to close his social circle.
As (inter)personal as these motives are, Carey estimates his show has around 10,000 listeners a month. A hundred thousand people subscribe to the accompanying newsletter, “Yale Interviews and Resources for Artists.” Nonetheless, Carey almost intentionally avoids the prerequisites for popularizing his work. He does not intend to replicate the success of his most clicked-on interview, which features then-Dean of the Yale School of Art Robert Storr. In Carey’s mind, the interview went viral not just because of Storr’s irreverent takedown of art-world aristocrats like Jerry Saltz, but because it was transcribed. “That’s why The Observer and all the other places picked it up,” he says. “They wouldn’t have listened to that interview and figured out what he said, the interview was just the fact-checking part.”
While Storr’s transcription and a few others made it into his book “The Art World Demystified: How Artists Define and Achieve Their Goals,” Carey feels generally that transcription would compromise the friendly nature of the interviews. “When you transcribe someone’s interview, you have to ask their permission,” he says. “Radio: They talk to me, it’s on, you don’t have control over it anymore, I can do whatever I want with the editing more or less. And I don’t. People say, ‘Could you remove that, I really felt dumb there’ — all right, I’ll remove whatever you want. But you have control. They spoke to you, and I can just air that. … You transcribe it, artists, intellectuals, poets — they want to start pouring over it, and rewriting everything as if they talk like a book … You lose the beauty of the interview, too. You take out all the laughs. All the good stuff …”
Carey and I, by that time, had met twice. Once at G Cafe, once at The Study at Yale. I’d recorded both sessions, adding to hours of documentation. When Carey mentioned the disconnect between speech and writing, I wondered what, if anything, from our conversations might not translate to print. It was, I decided, the many times we were brought back to President Donald Trump. Trump is often what reasoning about the present seems to come down to — where it reaches an end. It is delusional to think Trump affects everything and delusional to not. Neither makes us sane.
These are strange times. Carey and I kept coming back to that. What Carey recognizes through his interviews, however, is that strangeness has resulted in what he calls a “golden age of the arts … [It’s] better than the ’60s for film, for everything. Why? Because of the hard right turn all over the world, including Trump … a flourishing of great art, why does it happen under repressive regimes, I don’t know but … something exciting is happening. … Maybe it’s the seeds of revolution, the impulse to revolution that seems to engage people.”
As an artist, Carey is most famous as half of the collaborative he formed with his wife in 1999 known as Praxis. Praxis had its first major exhibition at the 2002 Whitney Biennial, where as performance art, they offered visitors to their East Village storefront-slash-studio-slash-home either a hug, footbath, dollar, Band-Aid or kiss to make it better. The piece attracted significant media attention, including a review in The Nation that found it a lineage in the Fluxus movement of the ’60s. Carey said inclusion in the Whitney Biennial really made him feel like an “insider” in the art world, relieving “a certain kind of stress.”
Since then, Praxis has also garnered recognition for its project of a “Museum of Non-Visible Art.” Works that go into this museum are composed entirely of ideas; instead of being presented with an artwork, a visitor is presented with a paragraph description of the artwork. Carey associates the project with a complicated affair of art and language. “In a way it’s kind of like the rise of conceptual art. I think where the artists’ statement came from was the ascendancy of words,” he said. Unlike the work that received the institutional promotion of the Whitney Biennial, the Museum of Non-Visible Art went viral through online mechanisms. James Franco became a major celebrity sponsor, slightly misnaming it on Jimmy Kimmel Live! as the “Museum of Non-Existent” art. Regardless of the accuracy of the name drop, clips from the Franco interview provided the museum an explosion of recognition.
Strategies for going viral on social media are a specialty of Carey. Social media is the subject of his upcoming book, “Succeed with Social Media Like a Creative Genius: A Guide for Artists, Entrepreneurs, Inventors, and Kindred Spirits.” This is his eighth book. Six have been for artists; two were self-help guides. Carey’s publications mostly focus on helping artists enter the marketplace, which he acknowledges reflects a “strong capitalist desire for it, which is probably fueled by Trump, and well, every president: earn more, get more, make more.” His advice for social media is based on a model of content generation. Film quality live videos. Post every day. “Be very regular,” he says. “Don’t spam people, but almost.”
At first, I misunderstood this advice to be for a business account and not a personal one. Posting every day on a personal Instagram account is perhaps pushing normal — a perceived convention that is itself extremely subjective and subject to change. Etiquette on social media is not always formally codified, but its expressions are ingrained: Consider “turn-taking” in text conversations, where double-texting unsettles a taboo against over-volunteering without invitation.
I wanted to hear Carey’s thoughts on social media because these days, I am deeply ambivalent. With Facebook I feel mostly fatigue, but with Instagram I wonder how an artist might view socially integrated practices of self-curation and image making. As expressive as the content often is, the platform can also be stiff and unforgiving. Every picture is added to a grid of previous ones, creating an inevitable sense of progression and narrative. Viewed as such, change on Instagram can look like deviation — an inherent contradiction or inconsistency. Even as change happens in real time, the “Like” system creates a system of positive or negative reinforcement, whether or not that feedback is registered as such. The result is a page on which, in most cases, the past affixes stubbornly to the present, even when the “past” is too random and intermittent to be considered representative at all.
Carey, refreshingly, argues with overthinking. I hesitate to delete old photos; to whatever extent it constitutes as self-effacement, erasing oneself is uncannily easy and irreversible. Carey insists I can always start over. Delete my whole account. He says he pulled this off in real life, responding to the social conditions of living on Block Island, a town with a population of less than a thousand. He was The Artist. Everybody waved. He felt an acute social claustrophobia — applicable, we agreed, to the counterintuitive narrowness of online life — and, in defiance, he changed his name from Brian Salzberg to Brainard Carey, radically reinventing himself.
Carey agreed that, name change or not, a daring art project involving footbaths and Band-Aids would have been impossible on an island where everybody knew him. The same is true, perhaps, of the internet, where the past is so dragged into the present that tradition can be hard to break away from. Carey’s biggest concern with the internet is censorship, both in the sense of algorithms deleting Renaissance art for nudity and in the self-censorship created through “Like” systems of validation. In both cases, artists might adapt their practice to suit a medium incompatible with installation, sculpture, long video, large size or anything that isn’t flattered by the shape of a small box. For Carey, it’s become a competition. “Images on the internet, art on the internet, it’s not art you see in a museum for sure, it’s little pictures competing with … Trump?”
In part for freedom from Federal Communications Commission censorship, the Yale student radio station WYBC transitioned exclusively to its WYBCX online platform in 2009. Revenue from selling ads for its FM band gives the station a comfortable lifestyle by most radio standards. For Carey, the relaxed status is what first attracted him to the WYBCX station. “It has a framework for creative expression that’s not so tethered to a bureaucracy,” he says. “Everybody’s so casual … [At] a lot of stations, there’s usually these entrenched community members, people like me, that are sticking to tight guidelines and maybe saying hey, I saw you overrun your slot — there’s none of that [at WYBCX].”
Carey credits WYBCX with breaking him out of his music habits, introducing him to artists like The xx. “We tend to listen to the songs that maybe we got into when we were in high school,” he says. “Maybe in the first years of college. For most people, that’s the music that they listen to for the rest of their lives — or a version of that. Everything is compared against that … How do you find new music that’s actually really good that you can love?”
“The Lives of the Artists” began as an excuse for Carey to interview artists he already admired; in its social networking capacity, the show started serving the same taste-breaking purpose that attracted him to radio stations like WYBCX. His college student listeners perhaps recognize the crossroads that led to his project: Either let music libraries and social circles seal, designed to last indefinitely, or insist on more and more openings.
Carey’s advice to artists, and really everyone, is to live a life of asking questions. “Ask questions, ask questions is the ultimate brilliant strategy if you can sustain it.” He nods. “It’s the ultimate Socratic thing. [Pause.] It will inflame people. [Pause.] It will not work at all. [Pause.] Why didn’t Hillary win?”