Some attentive Internet users might have noticed banner ads recently popping up in their browsers featuring a blonde-haired, bespectacled man wearing a white turtle-neck and jean shorts, holding text that reads “The You Museum.” That would be “Famous New Media Artist” Jeremy Bailey. The ads are part of Bailey’s recently-launched art and commerce campaign The You Museum, which he describes as “the world’s first and only personalized museum that’s with you wherever you go.”
Like governmental or Google-y watchful eyes, Bailey wanted The You Museum to appear pervasive. To that end, he’s decided to organically place banner ads everywhere through Google’s Adwords display network, as well as via Facebook and Twitter. The strategy, Bailey said, allows him to reach 98% of the Internet. Bailey only pays for the ads once users click on them, are taken to the website, and purchase a work of art. He pays for the ads with the revenues from the sales. So far he estimates he is $250 in the hole.
To deliver ads to people who visited JeremyBailey.net and movingmuseum.com (an Istanbul-based art space where he had a residency), Bailey used retargeting, a technology that every ad platform uses for delivering ads. Banner ads are also delivered to users who visit theyoumuseum.org. And, in the run-up to launch, Bailey also set up a trade shot booth, where people could sign up on an iPad installed at The Moving Museum exhibition.
“I’ve experimented with running ads against Google search keywords. I currently adrank 3.4 for ‘museum’ searches,” Bailey tells me. “I’ve also run ads against hashtags searches for #museum on Twitter and I’ve boosted a few posts on Facebook. Ultimately, though, word of mouth has been the biggest source of traffic—people often tweet the funny juxtapositions of ad and content.”
Once at The You Museum website, visitors fill out a short questionnaire about the type of art they prefer. Bailey takes over from there, regularly selecting the art and delivering it to customers through personalized banner ads. Museum-goers then have the option to purchase Bailey’s artwork.
One of Bailey’s pieces comes in the form of a pillow. Like the ads, and in keeping with Bailey’s “Famous New Media Artist” persona, the pillow features him holding an abstract expressionist-esque sculpture, through which he stares at you, the viewer of the art. For another piece, Bailey sprawls out across a white coffee mug alongside pyramid and spherical sculptures. Bailey holds a curvy yellow tube and, again, stares directly at the viewer. And, on perhaps the most humorous piece, a canvas tote bag features Bailey laying supine and clutching an absurdly large sculpture.
What the viewer might not notice initially is that the sculptures are actually digital creations. With web-based art, many works aren’t tangible. They exist on the Internet, usually becoming physical only when an artist brings the web art into a gallery by way of LCD screens that are simultaneously then aspects of the work. Here, Bailey flips that on its head by slapping the intangible—his digital persona and the sculpture—on common products and selling it.
Those familiar with Bailey’s digitally enhanced art might initially mistake The You Museum for mere satire—an artist taking the piss out of gallerists, artists, and museums trying to figure out how to monetize new media art. As the Paddle ON! auctions and Alexandra Gorczinski’s recent $5,000 website sale suggest, some are willing to buy digital art. So, of course Bailey’s self-involved new media artist person would want to get in on the action, too. But, satirical art is still art, and Bailey tells Fast Company that The You Museum is a serious enterprise. To date he has sold several tote bags and pillows, with some of the latter making it onto customers’ beds (see below image).
“The idea here was to reduce art to the most abstract descriptive terms, scale, form and colour,” says Bailey, elaborating on the comically short questionnaire about users’ artistic tastes. “The art market is currently on fire and the type of art that is selling well are remakes of modernist abstract expressionism.” Bailey cited Evan Roth’s multi-touch paintings, created by performing routine tasks on mobile devices, as an example of this type of work. “The great thing about abstract art is that you can find yourself in it, it can be whatever you want it to be, so it’s the ultimate expression of consumer narcissism,” he adds.
“I built the concept of a personalized museum that follows you, a utopic idea in some ways, but also intensely dystopic,” he says. “To nail the museum-slash-luxury mall point home I feature every personalized artwork in my hands as if it were an upscale perfume bottle. By clicking a banner you can buy the artwork as a print on a variety of homewares–pillows, mugs, and tote bags.”
In this way, Bailey believes The You Museum becomes a part of users’ offline private lives in addition to their online selves. While the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Arts Council grants helped Bailey launch The You Museum, he actually needs people to “buy this stuff” for the project to sustain itself. That the works are equal parts art and commerce doesn’t bother Bailey. In fact, that’s part of the point.
To realize all of this, Bailey had to actually make a good banner ad. As Bailey noted, some ads are so bad that banner blindness sets in, a condition were people consciously subconsciously ignore banner ads. To create a better banner ad, Bailey applied what he’d learned about banner ads as creative director at an online software company.
“I haven’t seen many good banner ads. Most try and fit an entire website in a thumbnail sized space,” Bailey says. “That said our brains are programmed to recognize faces really quickly, and it’s very hard to avert someone’s gaze. It’s actually best practice in marketing not to lock eyes with a viewer because it’s creepy and distracts from the call to action.”
For Bailey, it was important to create a seductive brand for The You Museum. The character Bailey plays is an “over-the-top narcissist and brand,” so despite the museum appearing to be all about users, it’s actually really all about Bailey, who believes that every marketer on the planet prays on this psychological weakness.
“My banners use retargeting to follow you around the Internet so the banner ads start to feel alive, like someone is stalking you,” he says. “Because of the satirical tone, people are willing to forgive the creepiness and laugh at the absurdity of it all—it’s a win win.”
The project originated when he was invited to do a residency at The Moving Museum in Istanbul. “The Ghezi Park protests had just happened there, and in addition to police brutality, the government was locking down Twitter and generally acting worse than the NSA,” Bailey says. “The Ghezi protests started when the government announced that they would take the only public park in the shopping district of Istanbul and turn it into a luxury condo development and shopping mall.”
“To try and alleviate protesters the government downplayed the shopping aspects of the development and raised the possibility of a museum,” he adds. “That a museum might be a panacea for a neo-conservative government’s transgressions was just hilariously tragic to me. The thought occurred to me that it might be interesting to occupy private spaces as public space, and as a nod to Ghezi, that I might create a museum in a shopping mall. The world’s biggest public park and shopping mall is currently the Internet. Banner ads are really storefronts, so replacing them with a museum seemed like a good idea.”
What it also intriguing about Bailey’s project is its nod to NSA surveillance. The You Museum ads carry the subtext of Orwellian government data mining. While The You Museum is certainly about art and commerce, Bailey embraced the surveillance state undertones of the project.
“Everyone’s been so rightly upset about the NSA because they deceived our social contract, but at the same time we seem totally okay with all the world’s web apps knowing everything about us,” he says. “I see very little difference between Facebook and the NSA, or Google and the Turkish Government, especially now that we know they’re exchanging our data.”
Going forward, Bailey would like to see other artists adopt his technique of creative commerce. Several projects have used Chrome plugins that allow people to replace banners with art, or turn banners into art, Bailey notes. Among them, Rafael Rozendaal’s Abstract Browsing and Steve Lambert’s Add-Art. But, as far as Bailey knows, he is the only artist currently using traditional web-based marketing techniques to both inspire and sell the art.
“I’ve definitely had a lot of people ask me why no one else has done this, and I think it’s because I’m using tactics we generally as a society disapprove of—we all wish banner ads didn’t exist,” Bailey says. “You could also argue I’m using public money to support private interests, but personally I feel that I’m co-opting something negative to create a positive outcome, and this of course is a long running tradition that people have used to improve the world many times before.”