At Facebook, Art Becomes A Metaphor For What The Company Wants To Achieve

Jessica Sabogal/Courtesy of Facebook.
Broken mirrors, multicolored string, silk organza, rhinestones, vinyl records, and dollhouse furniture are just some of the less-than-expected materials you'll find in Facebook offices around the world. They hang from the walls, are suspended from light shafts, and decorate otherwise dark corners in 26 of the company's offices.
All of these materials are part of artwork that has been produced by members of Facebook's Artist in Residence program (AIR), a project that began at the company's Menlo Park headquarters in 2012 and has since expanded globally. This year, the program saw its largest expansion yet, arriving in offices in Asia and Latin America. Facebook is celebrating that growth and the program's five-year anniversary with a new book, Open Form, which pulls together 225 of the pieces (the number created as of May 2017) under one binding.
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While Facebook, like almost every other tech company, struggles with the gender gap, its Artist in Residence program is a bright spot. There is an almost equal ratio of male to female artists, with 114 men and 108 women included thus far. When you consider the fact that many museums are still called out for institutional sexism, this becomes even more impressive. While gender parity in one niche program doesn't signal the end of the need for progress, it is still heartening to see.
"Initially, it took work to try to achieve the gender split," Drew Bennett, the founder and director of Facebook's AIR program, told Refinery29. "But as my curatorial team and I have gone deeper, we’ve found we’re only naturally finding women we want to work with. It’s funny to get to that point where we’re like 'Oh, shoot, we should probably find a man.'"
In Open Form, you'll find work by Swoon, a mixed media artist who rose to fame for her street art; she created an image of a woman breastfeeding for Facebook's Menlo Park office. Then there's the colorful creation by Black Salt Collective, a group of four women who address contemporary non-linear identity in their work. Their piece includes various wheatpasted prints, featuring sayings such as "Your Body Your Ship" and "Respect And Protect The Black Woman."
Bennett argues that the art in Facebook's offices is a bit different from what you'll find in a typical corporate space, since the company puts a premium on finding artists whose work and creative process both reflects and challenges the beliefs of its employees.
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"More traditionally, art would come in through a third party person and the artist would never visit the place where the art is," Bennett said.
This is also shown in how the program is run: When an artist is invited to join AIR, they work in the office, alongside everyone else, from the programmers to the janitors. Bennett refers to it as a "social model," with the artist and those who will view the art on a daily basis interacting and seeing each other's problem solving methods. This process is befitting of the social network's ethos, and artists in the program seem to embrace it, too: Val Britton, a San Francisco-based artist who spent hours suspending 600 individually-cut pieces of paper from string inside a light shaft between floors, said the amount of engagement during the installation was the most enjoyable part of the process.
Val Britton/Courtesy of Facebook.
At the beginning of the AIR program, Bennett says he focused on looking for artists who "shared a sense of hacker spirit," by using materials in innovative and expressive ways that mirrored the company's value of experimentation. But as the program grew, that emphasis has shifted. Now, Bennett says he looks for those who "come from a culture or background that is not the predominant one" and will express a unique worldview in their art.
"The greater diversity we can bring aesthetically and in terms of the identities of the artists, the better we can try to promote empathy in our spaces physically and visually," he explains.
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This thinking is in line with the shift in Facebook's mission statement, which Mark Zuckerberg laid out at the beginning of 2017. Instead of simply connecting users with their already existing communities, the company's redefined goal is to build an inclusive "global community," Zuckerberg wrote in a post, where users are consistently exposed to new ideas.
This mission is an aspirational one. Facebook can show diversity on its walls, but the desire to create an inclusive, diverse community still has a long way to go before it is realized online. In the past few weeks the company has reckoned with anti-Semitic ad targeting and the role it played in the 2016 presidential election. As these issues are addressed, the hope is that life will imitate art.
Swoon/Courtesy of Facebook.
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