Bruce Asbestos: Tiny Canvas Friday


Talking with Bruce Asbestos about his recent Tiny Canvas Friday project on Facebook and the notion of entrepreneurship as a creative practice, social media as ‘form’, inhabiting online spaces, A/B testing and soliciting interaction from potential audiences in social spaces.

Bruce Asbestos (2014) Tiny Canvas Friday [screenshot]
Bruce Asbestos (2014) Tiny Canvas Friday [screenshot]

For some time now, I have been interested in entrepreneurship as a creative practice. I’m interested in the idea of artists as trained (and untrained) innovators – generating ideas, being inventive in using existing infrastructure or materials, offering something unique or novel, open to risky and uncertain outcomes, responding to opportunities, harnessing modes of temporary organisation, moving quickly and extrovert in approach (but not necessarily personality).

And what I am talking about here is not necessarily artists becoming business people, or turning their arts practice into a ‘business’ as such but the intrinsic relationship between creative and entrepreneurial processes – a creative to-ing-and-fro-ing between states, where each heavily informs the other to create something new.

Over the past few weeks I have been a silent and accidental viewer of Bruce Asbestos’ Tiny Canvas Friday, where the artist auctions the opportunity to commission a tiny canvas (roughly the size of the palm of his hand) to the highest bidder amongst his Facebook friends over a two hour period on a Friday lunchtime.

Bruce joined me for a LONG CONVERSATION over skype…

Rachel Dobbs (RD): How did Tiny Canvas Friday come about?

Bruce Asbestos (BA): I’ve been working a lot with different types of Social Media over the last few years and I also make paintings too that I have been selling directly to people, and I wanted to see what would happen if I mixed the two things together. I’d also been making performances and doing Youtube videos and I put them together to make the Social Media Takeaway, so I guess it was the same process really – of putting two things together in a new way or a slightly different way – I’d been selling my paintings through Facebook, and I have an online shop that I have also used to sell works. I liked the risk that the Tiny Canvas Friday has – what if no one wants one?

RD: Yes, the risk of no one bidding and the idea of fulfilling some kind of desire in the audience for this seems to be kind of integral to the ‘event’ nature of Tiny Canvas Friday. I’m also interested in its relationship to the way in which we are increasingly ‘living’ online – operating in the online space, working out how social spaces like Facebook work (by using them). How important is the idea of creating an ‘event’, something that happens, to the way in which Tiny Canvas Friday works?

BA: Yes, I think that is very important, as I know I can make more money offline – or by other means, so the main reason for doing it is to have a social event. In that the value is that once a week there is this thing that happens that is interesting and funny, and you don’t really know what you are going to paint or who will be interested in having a piece of work. I liked also that it had some weird feeling a bit like a stock market in that it is worth as much as someone in this group is willing to pay. So it also adds in a bit of randomness.

RD: And interaction between bidders, I guess?

BA: Yes, you can see sometimes people colluding with each other but also I get personal messages from people, who haven’t won but want to buy other work. So there is a marketing incentive to run it too.

RD: So, in this way, maybe its event-ness is generative in a number of different ways, not only the paint-on-demand setup but also in a commercial sense, and in the sense of generating relationships between people (by-standers, you, friends-of-friends on Facebook etc) and a relationship with your arts practice?

BA: Yes I think It tries to push those elements, it is nice to have these new connections to people. I’d also been thinking about the idea of what was possible in this space, what do these social media/s provide? What can I do, that other people couldn’t or wouldn’t want to do.

RD: Intervening into the online space that we inhabit (usually in a non-questioning way) I suppose is a kind of extension of experimental arts practice in general, isn’t it? I’m thinking a lot at the moment about the modes in which people connect with each other, support different kind of endeavours and build long-term relationships with others online and the way that this has started to be facilitated financially through schemes like Patreon (micro funding for content creators) and Kickstarter… the movement towards reward for content creation and productivity – what are your thoughts on this stuff?

BA: I think I prefer systems that don’t already have an artiness subscribed to them, I prefer Youtube to Vimeo (generally speaking). Kickstarter perhaps has this artiness – I’ve been trying to make a work with Simon Raven on Kickstarter, and it hasn’t quite got there yet. It might be shelved. I think it is more attractive to undermine an intended function, there is a little bit of a thrill you can get by seeing these things as a challenge. How can I make this interesting? Both for me and other people. And what is particular about this arrangement of software – and arrangement of people that could do something that feels in someway new? I’m certainly not against kickstarter – I paid money to the Solar Roadways kickstarter. Not that I think it would work for every road in the US (like the headline said), more that I thought it was a valuable idea, and it at least seemed to be doing something inventive. I was paying to be entertained, and supporting an idea. A friend of mine has just completed an insanely popular Kickstarter for tarot cards under the pseudonym Robert Holcome, it made more than double what it set out too, and I think that shouldn’t be underestimated for an art project, as the number of options you have as an artist is limited. But then there is a difference between making a kickstarter project to make art or as art.

RD: Yes, the buy-in to be part of something entertaining shouldn’t be underestimated! I think where Kickstarter campaigns work best are when they really encourage this element And not necessarily in the ‘Potato Salad‘ way…

BA: Ha!

RD: … but in the sense of community building in some way, like the way an audience to an event works.

BA: Yes, I’ve been thinking about this tangent of the community.

RD: And I know what you mean about avoiding the spaces that ‘aim’ to be for art and the preference for using the spaces that have something more down-and-dirty about them, a bit more everyday and used by many (rather that slightly rarefied or codified as art spaces). I think that’s what I’ve been enjoying so much about Tiny Canvas Fridays – it is an entertaining event, and that’s part of what people are ‘buying’.

BA: That is interesting and I think I will try and consider that more once the project is over, I’ve been thinking a lot about how our sense of community has been changed, and it takes a lot to resist the idea of community = numbers.

RD: Yes, community = numbers idea is dangerous

BA: A friend of mine said that she takes her little girl swimming on a Friday and checks into see how much the bidding is on when they are getting changed to leave the pool – the regularity of it starts to become infectious in someway.

RD: I think when I’m talking about community, I’m referring more to the sense of the verb ‘to commune’ – to share, communicate, be in contact with. Maybe she’s picking up on the infectiousness of contact, you know, in the way Facebook itself does?

BA: On a personal level it has been great to talk with people again in a way that I haven’t done for a while. Almost works as a business card or something. That it has given a reason to re-contact people on Facebook who I might otherwise not have.

RD: A way to break out of what Eli Pariser would call ‘the filter bubble’, perhaps? He’s talking about how the software used in our daily lives (FB, Google etc) operates with a series of non-obvious algorithms that filter the contact we have with the world, creating echo-chambers, where we end up talking to or interacting with the same people all the time, who share our point of view and interests.

BA: I don’t think I have read that. But, yes, I can imagine that you make choices and then you are offered up choices based on previous choices, so you start to have a limited field of view. I got so bored of my Facebook news feed I just liked about 50 skateboarding magazines so I get videos of young americans skateboarding in my news feed – I needed something random, unfiltered in a way. I am sure I should be able to insert a truism here about travel expanding the mind, and spaces like Facebook are no different, you have to mix it up.

I’ve been looking at skateboarding a lot because it has its own rules when it comes to videos and once you start watching them you can see people are playing off each others new videos, and then going back to older style of videoing to mess things up. There was one recently, Fancy Lad –  House ii profiled in Vice magazine, and it was being praised for being shitty looking, which for this person writing was a relief from all the HD manicured stuff. I think there is something in there about being surprised or generating surprises and Youtube can sometimes offer that. As you say Vimeo is codified in a different way.

RA: I’d like to round up with a question about the new videos you posted the other day – A/B Testing. I know this is something that is probably really early in the process of making, but I’m interested in whether you’ve started to frame up your way of working / methodology that is about understanding ‘new media’ things (and I’m going to use that cringe-worthy term here to induce cringing as much as anything else!) through ‘doing’?

BA: Of course I am using Youtube a lot because it means something, same way an auction on my Facebook profile means something. It says something about your cultural attitude and values, and being selective about which art codes to take on and which to drop or ignore. The A/B testing work is really interesting for me. A/B Testing is an interesting thing – I am trying to make a new work that is in the stages of being ‘improved’ by taking on conventions and norms of online marketing, using the analytical tools and trying to work through what it means to make an artwork like that. If you are a big business, you might use A/B Testing to see what works for a small selection of your audience, for instance email A makes you £1000 and email B makes £3000 then that slight change in how something is invented / designed / written about becomes incredibly important.

Knowing the parameters for each subject is really what great art does, you have to know the ground before you can do anything interesting, I think that goes for music or sculpture or whatever. With social media, I always feel I am about two weeks from completely changing course, and that I’ve exhausted my interest in it. And then a new thing pops up or a new opportunity, or technology.

Bruce’s last Tiny Canvas Friday will happen online on Friday 12th December 2014 at and you can find out more about his work on

I’m on the lookout for artists using social media, Web 2.0 and crowd-related ways of doing things for future LONG CONVERSATIONS, so if you know of someone doing interesting things online, please give me a tweet or leave a comment below. Read more in the LONG CONVERSATION series

Rachel Dobbs is one half of LOW PROFILE, an artist, educator, tinkerer & freelance boardgame art director with Grublin Games… currently based in Plymouth, UK.

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