What It’s Like to Be an Artist in Residence at Facebook
Kawandeep Virdee, Boston. Photo by Simone Schiess. Courtesy FB AIR.
Earlier this year, the New York artist Lala Abaddon embarked on an ambitious, room-sized multimedia installation. She plastered walls in technicolored vinyls, covered the floors with broken mirrors, mounted a light sculpture, and filled the space with a sound piece. The project was not for a museum or gallery, but a rather more inconspicuous venue: an elevator bay in Facebook’s New York headquarters.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Those familiar with the social media giant’s history with contemporary artists will know that it all began somewhat legendarily, back in 2005, when Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker traded painter David Choe stock options for murals.
Choe’s paintings of people and disembodied faces set the tone for the company’s first offices on Emerson Street in Palo Alto, California, and in the years since, artists have similarly shaped the visual experience—walls, hallways, lounges, conference rooms, you name it—of the social media empire’s Menlo Park campus, and its flagships around the world.
But it was in 2012 that the company made a formal commitment to creatives, with the establishment of its artist residency program FB AIR. Through this initiative, artists are invited to create site-specific artworks in Facebook’s offices around the world—from Menlo Park to New York, São Paulo, Dublin, Johannesburg, and Singapore. Six curators working across the world research local artists and invite them to participate in FB AIR. Now, five years on, the residency has supported over 225 projects globally, allowing artists to carve out a place in Facebook’s physical footprint to create boundary-pushing, large-scale artworks.
Lala Abaddon, As Above So Below, New York, 2017. Photo by Luis Ruiz, via Facebook.
“The local graffiti and mural artists who were invited in to create tricked-out murals at Facebook’s original office––among them John Maddas, Jet Martinez, and Ian Ross––were the spark that ignited a much more fundamental idea,” writes curator Natasha Boas in the opening essay of a new book on FB AIR. Namely, that concept was “that artists, working in situ, could make a positive mark on Facebook’s corporate culture by embodying and performing creative dialogue, a core company value.” From those early days, she continues, Zuckerberg, Parker, and Chris Cox (who is now chief product officer of the company), saw visual art as a conduit between virtual and physical realms.
At the helm of FB AIR is San Francisco-based artist Drew Bennett, who had his own momentous start with the company back in 2007. Cox, a close friend of Bennett’s since high school, brought Zuckerberg on a visit to the artist’s studio. The next year, Bennett was charged with painting murals throughout the company’s second headquarters, a four-story building in Palo Alto.
Bennett recalls the experience coming at a pivotal moment in his career, as he was moving between representational and abstract, material-based work. “The four months I worked at Facebook really allowed me to push and pull on that transition, and take risks I had never had the opportunity to do otherwise,” he tells me.
Working in stairwells and hallways, he remembers feeling “a little gun-shy” as he pushed himself artistically—creating murals with oil, acrylic, and latex paints, as well as glitter, and stencils, and working in full view of the company’s employees. But he was also inspired.
Michael Conrads, Hamburg. Photo by Michael Pfisterer. Courtesy FB AIR.
“I felt really fortunate that Facebook gave me that space to work and opportunities to expand and develop my practice,” he offers, “I was really empowered to explore and be bold, and really trusted to realize my own vision.”
The experience was a success—so much so that, in 2012, Bennett was invited to work with Facebook’s leadership to develop the company’s official artist residency program.
The FB AIR program was designed for artists to realize projects that they could not make otherwise. Bennett emphasizes that Facebook is not calling the shots. “I think it’s important in leading real visionaries to make sure that you don’t come up with a vision for them ahead of time,” he explains. “The biggest thing was to hold that space open for them to make those decisions.”
For the first three years of FB AIR, invited artists would arrive at the Facebook campus, explore, ideate, and develop their projects under Bennett’s guidance, before hitting the ground on physical artmaking. During that time the program engaged around 8 to 16 artists per year. But since then, the FB AIR has shifted to a commission-based model; that means that, across Facebook’s international locations, the company can accommodate around 100 artists in a single year.
Swoon, Menlo Park. Photo by Robert Divers Herrick. Courtesy FB AIR.
“We’re in the process of doing some more site-specific commissions where we find artists we’re interested in working with, invite them into our space, let them uncover what is most curious to them, and allow them to decide what works they would want to make,” Bennett explains. With this model, they build specific contracts around individual artists and the piece they create, so that once the residency begins, the artist is off and running. (Facebook covers the cost of materials and pays the artist a healthy fee; one noted that they were given a $10,000 stipend for their project.)
Facebook’s curators invite artists creating work that either reflects or challenges the company’s values, Bennett explains. “In the first years, we were mostly looking for artists who shared a love of hacking, making, building—who would reimagine materials more than be experts in oil painting,” he offers.
He gestures to Abaddon’s elevator installation in New York as a strong example of an artist embracing the company’s values. “That’s the kind of spirit we love,” he says. “It’s great to see more meditative, subtle pieces as well, but when an artist can really take over a space, it shows a kind of tenacity and boldness that is a big part of the Facebook culture.”
Though there are several artists who have unleashed social practice works and ephemeral installations in the offices in the past few years, Bennett admits that, five years on, the program has produced a large quantity of murals. “We do have a lot of paint on walls,” he says, “but there is still a really wide range of materials, practices, and visual languages that are expressed through our walls.”
Yulia Pinkusevich, Menlo Park, 2014. Photo by Matt Harnack. Courtesy FB AIR.
Oakland-based artist Yulia Pinkusevich, for example, chose to paint a 360-degree mural in a lounge area of the Menlo Park campus in 2014, inspired by the salt flats located nearby. “Facebook is a particular kind of architecture; it doesn’t have a lot of windows that look out, and it works like a large, open, sprawling space—you see a horizon of people,” she tells me. “I wanted to dissolve some of these walls and let the people in the buildings working long hours see outside, in some way.” The commission, which took some three months to complete, saw Pinkusevich pushing herself not just in terms of scale, but also palette—she didn’t allow herself to use the color black. The result is an ethereal, circular vision enlivened by washes of deep purple.
Val Britton, who creates sculptural works from cut-paper, similarly carved out a space to explore and experiment at Facebook. She created a web-like network of over 500 individual pieces of paper connected by string, which occupied a two-story space beneath a skylight, visible from various floors and vantages. At the time, in 2013, it was one of the biggest installations she’d ever made. “It gave me confidence that I could handle different kinds of spaces,” she offers, “and really challenged me to think more ambitiously about how a piece could occupy the space.” Britton notes that the tech environment also inspired her to try out new technology: While at Facebook, she began working with a laser cutter and equipment in the wood shop.
Val Britton, Menlo Park, 2013. Photo by Robert Divers Herrick. Courtesy FB AIR.
Among those artists who have chosen to engage more directly with the company culture—through its employees—is David Wilson, one of the first FB AIR participants back in 2012. He’d planned to spend time in the salt flats to draw en plein air during his residency, and he wanted to encourage the Facebook team to visit the outdoor site where he would be working; he also decided he would make free prints of his drawings for any employees who asked for one. He used Facebook’s Analog Research Lab to print announcement cards, and then spent two weeks hand-delivering them to each employee—around 3,000 people—from the folks at the security desk and the laundry service, to the legal team, engineers, and Zuckerberg himself.
“I interacted with the company as whole, one person at a time,” he recalls. “It was my first time on any kind of tech campus, so I enjoyed seeing how it worked—and providing this mini-interruption, a confusing, alternative presence. That gesture created some relationships.” Certain staffers were elated by the prospect of being offered a print, while others were baffled. Others responded with unsolicited advice—noting “how much easier it would be if I just posted a Facebook invitation online to everyone,” he says. At least one person fully comprehended what Wilson was up to: “They said, ‘Oh, you’re analog social media!’”
Zéh Palito, São Paulo. Photo by Flavio Samelo. Courtesy FB AIR.
And while FB AIR artists don’t typically engage with the Facebook team in the way Wilson did, they are essentially embedded with the employees, working beside them, passing them in the halls, taking meals together at the company’s various eateries. (Many of the artists I spoke to dwelled over the myriad, free-flowing dining options.)
Though as Wilson experienced, it can be a jarring experience. “The community here, at first, is always taken aback when an art installation is getting set up,” Bennett explains, “but as the Facebook community gets to see the artwork unfold in front of them, it gives them a really strong connection to it.”
Some artists, Bennett says, form such strong and sincere relationships with the Facebook employees that it becomes a distraction. “We’ve had some who have chosen to start to work nights and weekends,” he says, “not because they were timid of the audience, but because but they became too popular and were having a hard time getting work done because everyone was so enthralled with them being there.”
It’s clearly not a typical artist residency scenario. “It’s certainly different because you don’t have a personal studio, and it’s a commercial office you’re working in,” Pinkusevich offers. “You’re on display while you’re making your work.”
Marc Andre Robinson, NYC. Photograph by Luis Ruiz. Courtesy FB AIR.
Pinkusevich took from the experience a renewed understanding of the ways that tech companies can support artists, particularly in the Bay Area. “It’s a good opportunity for artists and it’s a really good way for the arts and tech sectors to try to mutually understand each other a little bit better,” she says, “and to appreciate what the other does. The arts need that kind of support from large corporations that are in this area.”
For his part, Bennett is enthused for the future of FB AIR. He’s currently planning the art that will fill the company’s forthcoming buildings in Menlo Park, which presents a fresh opportunity for engaging with artists. “We always were very focused on local artists, but in this particular headquarters space we’re expanding our reach to invite artists from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, to create work,” he explains.
In some ways, this diversity mirrors Facebook’s staff, which hails from across the world. “It’s a really exciting opportunity for art to not just be something that inspires and emboldens people to think more creatively,” Bennett says, “but also to have these artworks that are specific expressions of a unique vantage point of the world that I think we need.”