A lively exchange took place in various sections of our class blog about the perceived relevance and usefulness of contemporary conceptual visual arts and curators. In the interest of enhancing the discussion, I started thinking about how contemporary photographers view selfies, whether contemporary photographic artists use selfies as a medium, and if so, how and for what purpose. Photography historian Alise Tifentale argues that “photography can easily be used as a tool for constructing and performing the self. Photographic self-portraits offer ultimate control over our image, allowing us to present ourselves to others in a mediated way” (Tifentale, 2014). She cites art historian and Associate Editor of Oxford Art Online Kandice Rawlings from her online essay on the history of the selfie, as follows: “It seems that from photography’s earliest days, there has been a natural tendency for photographers to turn the camera toward themselves” (Tifentale, 2014). An increasing number of artists are now conceptualizing, taking, sharing and exhibiting selfies as part of their practice. Since art not only mirrors life but serves as a critique of society, some artists are naturally drawn to taking selfies to criticize all sorts of societal ills such as consumerism, narcissism and colonialism, or to make a critical exploration of selfie culture and selfie-taking.
Katie Warfield of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, lead researcher for the Making Selfies/Making Self Research Project, points out that “perpetually-connected mobile audiences are creating and partaking in digital visual phenomena sufficiently and significantly different from analogue and early digital photography” (Warfield, 2015). The selfie phenomenon in itself deserves pointed critical attention. Selfies, or “socially-mediated self-images” as Warfield describes them, “contextual photographic self-portraits” as defined by Lichtensztejn, or “networked self-portraiture”, to use the expression of curator George Vasey, have for some time been and still are on the radar of contemporary artists and curators. (Warfield, 2015; Lichtensztejn, 2015; Vasey, 2013)
When selfies are taken by artists, what makes them works of art? How are they different from more classic photographic self-portraiture or selfies taken by non-artists? These are very good questions, and last year L’Harmattan published a noteworthy attempt by Agathe Lichtensztejn to answer some of them. In Le selfie: aux frontières de l’égoportrait, Lichtensztejn wonders whether the selfie should be considered a specific subgenre of the self-portrait or a new category of images altogether. I will not attempt to respond theoretically to the aforementioned questions and enter into a complex debate on aesthetic taxonomy. I am more interested in introducing the names of a few of those whose images and photographic projects “demand that we critically reexamine our collective notions of documentary truth, social, commercial and media image circulation, stereotypical gender representation, and so on. From an aesthetic point of view, their strength does not reside solely in their evocative power as images, or in the skill with which they were executed, but rather conceptually, in their social critique” (Deneault, 2016, blog comment). In the past, there have been several examples of noteworthy series of photographic self-portraits that do just that. I have in mind here Nikky S. Lee’s Projects (1997-2001), Stacey Tyrell’s Backra Bluid, Geneviève Thauvette’s Beheld and Rosalie Favell’s plain(s) warrior artist. These artists engaged in elaborate staging and labour intensive preparation pre-shooting, which could involve costumes, accessories and set design, and varying degrees of digital treatment post-shooting. The elaborately staged self-portraits in Jaimie Warren’s series Celebrities as Food & Food/lebrities and TotallyLooks Like provide excellent examples.
Pamela Rutledge defines selfies as “the documentation of a passing moment, not a larger expression,” whose role is to “communicate a transitory message at a single moment in time. We are more concerned with the context, the what’s going on than the projection of identity” (Rutledge, 2014). However, there is more here than meets the eye. In his perceptive analysis of the complexity of selfies and their power-shifting potential, art historian and curator Julian Stallabrass argues that in fact “most selfies are pastiche and many tip into parody. With this increase in awareness potentially comes a shift in power: from the paparazzi to their prey; and from the uncles, corporate and otherwise, to their nieces and nephews. Despite appearances, the digital image is much more complex than a snapshot: it is an amalgam of processed visual data, descriptive tags and the particular social network into which it is launched” (Stallabrass, 2014). The works of many artists taking selfies prove him right and demonstrate that there is a desire to produce selfies that are skillfully crafted, meaningful and lasting and that have strong identities. In fact, there are many artists who “are using the selfie as a radical weapon for change,” argues LA-based Huffington Post Arts and Culture Editor Priscilla Frank (Frank, 2015). The artists she introduces, such as Melanie Bonajo, take selfies that a flaunt social norms and are unsettling and transgressive. Other artists use selfies to depict their daily lives, which may to some extent involve staged elements, but their pictures are far from banal. Vivian Fu’s Me and Tim is a stunning series that includes several emotional selfies. In a Huffington Post interview with Frank, Fu comments that “people are using the selfie as a means of claiming ownership of their bodies, identities and lives, and also as a means of exploring and celebrating themselves" (Frank, 2015). This echoes Doug Ischar’s positive reception of Mapplethorpe’s self-portraits. In Criticizing Photographs, Terry Barrett acknowledges Ishar’s “appreciation” of the “representational visibility” Mapplethorpe’s photographs gave to gay men, who had otherwise been “invisible” in traditional portraiture (Barrett, 2000). The empowering potential of selfies is the central argument of the article Browntourage by D.K.A. that was examined in our seminar’s module (D.K.A., 2014). The “art hoe movement” also lauded by Frank inspires and empowers POC (People of Colour) to creatively insert their selfies into works of art. Antwaun Sargent, a prolific cultural columnist who writes extensively on on important emerging culture trends and identity politics, explains how “the Art Hoe Movement is sweeping social media. Using the hashtag #arthoe, throngs of gender nonconforming teenagers are superimposing themselves on famed works of art by notable white artists like Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, to raise questions about the historical representation of people of color in art, and show the art world how they would like to be seen” (Sargent, 2015). There are also hashtag hacktivism campaigns aimed at motivating the general public to engage more widely with works of art (i.e., the #artselfie, an initiative of DIS Magazine) by sharing a selfie taken with one (http://artselfie.com/). Stallabrass provides another great example: “One group of activists in Pakistan has used JR-style portraits of children, greatly magnified and laid out on the ground, to bring home to drone operators that they are killing individuals. When circumstances allow, the digital image can swiftly be turned to more radical uses than recording a night out with friends” (Stallabrass, 2014).
Credit: Vivian Fu, photo from the series Me and Tim. Retrieved from: http://vivianfu.com
Me. Ft. Landscapes (Blue). Credit: Afrospection. Retrieved from http://afrospection.tumblr.com/post/127240303694/me-ft-landscapes-blue
#art heaux #art hoe #arthoecollective #art #edit #art edit #mine #Me #Afrospection #selfie #sensitiveblackperson #2jam4u #melanin #Black girls #black girls killin it #blackout #Kenyan #Kenya #African #africa #POC #wow #woc #landscape #Van gogh
Where are these selfies shown? What tools are used? There are artists whose works are, pass for, or appear to be selfies and can be presented as such on online mobile photo-sharing applications like Flickr and Instagram. Many of these artists work across a variety of social media platforms. Molly Soda’s short bio on Mollysoda.biz reads: “Molly Soda is an artist working across a variety of digital platforms such as videos, GIFS, zines, and tweets. Her work invokes insight on contemporary feminism, perversion, culture, and identity. She is currently based out of Detroit, but you can always find her on the Internet.” The later part of Soda’s bio brings up the question of accessibility. Using social media platforms widens an artist’s potential audience considerably and removes some of the barriers (social, financial, cultural) that might otherwise stand between an individual and a gallery space. French photographer Eloïse Capet refers to herself as a “mobile photographer” and heads up an association of Paris-based photographers who use mobile phones as their sole or primary work device. One can find proof that the web is a place where the aesthetically opposite worlds of Molly Soda and Eloïse Capet can co-exist.
Some photographs or series of photographs are identified as selfies by the artists. Examples include Hobbes Ginsberg’s Selfies, Arvida Byström’s Selfies 2011-12 and Mike Mellia’s A Selfie a Day Keeps the Doctor Away. Yet while some artists make use of the term selfie, some do it in an ironic way or with an overt spin. For example, Melanie Bonajo refers to her work as the “anti-selfie”, while Xavier Cha refers to his photographs as “disembodied selfies”. When artists describe their approach, thought process, influences, motivations, judgments or their definition of photography, selfies, self-portraiture, these observations will naturally involve critical and theoretical dimensions which provide greater insight into the understanding, critique and use of selfies by contemporary artists.
Bonajo’s photographs challenge notions of domestic comfort and conformity. In her own words, her images are “not stylized images designed to appeal to the implied male spectator projected upon us by advertising and mainstream media” and not “beautiful image[s] made for self-promotion or using sexual attractiveness to make oneself visible as a woman waiting for applause” (Frank, 2014). She took selfies of herself crying after a break-up. According to curator Erik Kessels, who included her series Thank You for Hurting Me, I Really Needed It in a group show of Dutch artists at Les Rencontres de la photographie de Arles in September 2014, the recurring theme in Bonajo’s work “is the female body and how it defines itself” and that “by taking a break up as her subject, she touches on universal themes about grief and every day suffering” (Kessels, n.d.). The title of Bonajo’s series may first appear to be sarcastic, but it is much more than that, as we will see with the work of another self-portraitist’s conceptual depiction of sorrow.
Melanie Bonajo. Credit: http://www.melaniebonajo.com View the photo slide-show titles Spleen Selfies, compiled in the French daily Libération. Make sure to scroll down the page. Retrieved from: http://www.liberation.fr/photographie/2014/08/04/spleen-selfies_1075356
Audrey Wollen also took selfies of herself crying, and she shared them on Instagram. In an interview with Ava Tunnicliffe, she explains her theoretical approach to the question of sadness and young women:
“The sadness of girls should be witnessed and re-historicized as an act of resistance, of political protest. Basically, girls being sad has been categorized as this act of passivity, and therefore, discounted from the history of activism. I’m trying to open up the idea that protest doesn’t have to be external to the body; it doesn’t have to be a huge march in the streets, noise, violence, or rupture. There’s a long history of girls who have used their own anguish, their own suffering, as tools for resistance and political agency. Girls’ sadness isn’t quiet, weak, shameful, or dumb: It is active, autonomous, and articulate. It’s a way of fighting back” (Tunnicliffe, 2015).
Credit: Audrey Wollen. Retrieved from https://www.instagram.com/p/BB_fRObMzaL/?taken-by=audreywollen
In 2014 interview with Yasi Salek, Wollen describes the eroticism associated with crying and how much of her past “work has been about sadness as a type of sexual experience” (Salek, 2014).
In our “attention economy”, where selfies and numbers of views and likes contribute to building one’s online popularity, vacuous images are regarded as essentially “cater[ing] to a ‘consumption community’” (Marwick, 2015; Ibrahim, 2015). Self-portrait artists, regardless of whether they use their cell phones or professional cameras and whether they exhibit in a conventional gallery space or on Instagram, have an intimate comprehension of what it means to conceptualize and produce images that will be widely shared and consumed online. They are not strangers to the current aesthetic Zeitgeist. Again, Julian Stallabrass focuses on something essential when he says that we would be ill-advised to believe that the selfie phenomenon symbolizes for everyone a forfeiture to unfettered capitalism and individualism; for many, it provides a chance at perfecting the use of and subverting the very tools of their alienation:
“It would be easy to slip into seeing the instantly shared photographic self-portrait, along with snaps of things bought and consumed, as a register of a complete surrender to commercial image culture: the preening necessary to emulate commodified beauty ideals, the apeing of celebrities, the internalising of values of professional self-presentation, the erasure of experience and memory through an obsession with moment-to-moment recording, and the distribution of the results on websites that mine images and metadata for commercial value. Yet the daily practice of photography gives people detailed knowledge about the way standard images of beauty and fame are produced; they learn considerable sophistication in the making of images and scepticism about their effects. The artifice of commercial imagery is understood through practical emulation” (Stallabrass, 2014).
In her series Excellences and Perfections (2014), Amalia Ulman created a social media persona on Instagram and Facebook to act out an entire fictional narrative over five months. She posted numerous carefully crafted selfies in soft pastel tones that required elaborate sets and costumes to support the story of the transformative journey of a novice model aspiring to fame and fortune. Her character goes through a suffer-to-be-beautiful regime of dieting, breast augmentation and other cosmetic surgeries (staged or real?). Ulman unapologetically posted on social media selfies documenting her plight along with self-promoting narcissistic messages that worried even her own entourage. In a recent review of her latest exhibits since this seminal performance, Erik Morse looks at how Ulman, with conceptual consistency and flexibility regarding the media she uses, continues to “track down and interrogate ideas of the self in an era of rampant global capitalism” (Morse, 2015). Ullman herself situates her work in the tradition of French performance artist Orlan. Her powers of observation and self-examination, the propensity to blur the line between the private and the public, and her lengthy, demanding performances garnered her flattering comparisons to another French conceptual artist, Sophie Calle. Excellences and Perfections emulated perfectly the aesthetic codes of selfie culture. Lauren Cornell reports in Aperture that she “came to understand it as a site-specific intervention, one born out of the mores of self-creation and consumption on Instagram” (Cornell, 2015).
Amalia Ulman. Credit: @amaliaulman/Instagram. Photo: via Amalia Ulman's instagram @amaliaulman
Retrieved from: https://www.instagram.com/p/sj6TkSlV3a/?taken-by=amaliaulman&hl=en
Let’s recap some key findings of this overview of the work of artists who include selfies in their practice. First, what motivates traditional photographic self-portraiture, as well as its new forms of expression, is rooted in a fundamental desire to gain control over the image we project, how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. For the more marginalized, self-portraits become powerful allies in obliging the other to acknowledge them. Many decades later, the Mapplethorpe example is still valid: I am now visible, to you who fought to make me invisible. In 2006, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian held a ground-breaking exhibit called About Face: Self-Portraits by Native American, First Nations, and Inuit Artists, an exhibition featuring nearly fifty Indigenous Canadian and American self-portrait artists, including photographers Rosalie Favell and Jeffrey Thomas. Guest curators, Zena Pearlstone and Allan J. Ryan wrote in the exhibit’s catalogue:
“Silenced for so long, as fourth-world cultures, Native Americans found their voices and produced a multitude of images to reclaim their place in history and affirm their presence in the modern world. They found the power to speak back, to expose the pains of the past, to criticize the dominant culture, and to laugh at cultural collision” (Pearlstone & Ryan, 2006).
The powerful proponents of the Art Hoe Movement speak with the same voice. Social media and the Internet allow artists, amateur and professional alike, to share images of themselves with very few constraints. In a gender-biased society, women are members of structurally disadvantaged groups, since issues of gender-representation are endemic and have been in the historically patriarchal male-dominated art world. Feminist artists produce powerful works of self-portraiture to tell, celebrate and question in their own terms their stories, their bodies and their glories, and thus take control of the narratives told about them.
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