A few weeks ago here on the blog, I wrote a post about portraiture in the age of Facebook. At the conclusion of the piece, I said this:
“To whatever extent our online selves reflect our offline selves, Haugsjaa and Moore’s portraits make it harrowingly clear that our online profiles and virtual personas have, in a very real sense, escaped us. They/We are up for grabs, ready to be data-mined, added, followed, memed, and retweeted. The opportunity to have one’s portrait painted was once available only to a select few: typically, the very rich or the very poor. Social recognition used to be a privilege. So why does it now seem more like a punishment?”
After writing that paragraph, I kind of laughed at myself for being so hyperbolic with my prose, but for some reason I still didn’t want to change it. Over the weekend, I read an article in the business section of the Chicago Tribune that was pretty horrifying, and I felt that it kind of confirmed my suspicions that nowadays, having one’s photo taken might be more of a punishment than it is a privilege.
I can’t help but think that vile websites like People of Public Transit exist partly as an offshoot of virtual hangouts like Facebook, My Space, and Flickr. I find it more than a little disturbing to think that not only are our images and personas are up for grabs in a social media sense; a lot of people now apparently think (probably because of this) that it’s totally okay, and not at all morally problematic, to snap a stranger’s picture on the subway train and post it Facebook style for their own and others’ amusement.
Read the Trib’s article about what happened to CTA commuter Jennifer Fastwolf and tell me you don’t agree with me just a teeny bit. (It’s okay if you don’t though).
“But saying no to the internet is not a simple exercise of willpower. The encroachment of the internet into our everyday lives often seems irresistible not merely because we like it “too much” but because we palpably risk social exclusion if we can’t keep up, if we lack online presence. It can make us seem vaguely suspicious, as though we have something to hide. Thus the vaunted network effects that the Web harnesses begin to come at the expense of our autonomy: We have to maintain a Facebook page. We have to shop through Amazon.com. We have to Google ourselves to check up on our reputation. We must get a smart phone. We must yearn for unlimited data plans.” — Rob Horning, “Children are our future: Resistance, Addiction and the Digital Natives.” The New Inquiry.
Rob Horning’s essay for The New Inquiry is one of the best (and scariest, of an already scary genre) I’ve read lately on social media identity. Although I’m not part of the generation of “digital natives” that Horning is writing about, I recognize that acute sense of pressure that Horning describes, one that says if we’re not participating in social media, we’re invisible, and thus irrelevant. I think for writers that may be doubly true, since so much of social media involves the written word, albeit brief snippets and truncated chunks of it.
Social media is above all a performative act, and it can be fun to think of oneself (or those aspects of ourselves we want to project publicly) in terms of characters that we construct and subsequently play-act. That character is you, but of course it’s not exactly you. It’s the You that you want to project to others. For example, the written voice, the “I” that I project on this blog, or as a (god help me) Twitter user, or on my Tumblr (which I am kind of obsessed with and into which I have been pouring way too much energy lately) is a version of me that I project for you. It’s a version of me that I feel fairly comfortable with, but of course it isn’t really me. It’s a tougher and bitchier and snarkier and generally more self-confident version of me.
Sometimes I think my husband has a crush on Internet Me. Poor guy. He has to come home to harried, neurotic, still in her pajamas and bitchy-in-a-not-funny-or-even particularly smart-way Me.
Such are the sweet lies that social media tells.
When we do try to swim in the stream of social media–when we carefully choose our portrait pictures and avatars and monikers and privacy settings, when we decide who we want to follow and who we will allow to follow us–we’re constructing a falsely unified picture of ourselves. In this, social media simply re-iterates the fragmented identities and fictions of a cohesive Self that all those post-structuralists were rambling on about decades ago. As Horning observes: “We think we are presenting a coherent picture of who we are online, only to recognize suddenly that we are not so sure of that identity ourselves.”
I’ve been thinking about how online portraiture is particularly reflective of this phenomenon. As I was reading Horning’s words, for example, an image suddenly popped into my mind: that of a close friend, her face blurred almost beyond recognition, her upper body momentarily frozen in a pose that suggested she was either dancing, looking at herself in a mirror, or in the midst of a brief, catlike stretch. The image started out as a photograph, but it became a portrait, made by an artist named Ryan Haugsjaa.
My friend was startled to learn that a stranger had, unbeknownst to her, chosen her photo randomly out of the hundreds of thousands of Facebook users out there and painted a portrait based on it. She told me she thought it was cool, but also sort of creepy. When she went ahead and posted the portrait on her own Facebook page, I was fascinated by it, largely because I thought Haugsjaa had somehow chosen just the right photograph to represent her — an image that, to me anyway, contained the essence or punctum, as Barthes put it, of my beautiful, free-spirited friend. But of course, Haugsjaa had no way of knowing that. Do strangers see what I see when looking at Haugsjaa’s portrait of her? Probably not. On Haugsjaa’s Facebook page, my friend is just one in a series of named yet ultimately anonymous subjects, an illustration of a concept that Haugsjaa has been exploring for about a year now: “the proliferation of images on the internet, internet privacy and how it will affect our lives in the future,” as Haugsjaa explains in his artist’s statement.
Haugsjaa isn’t the only artist to have drawn from Facebook’s enormous pool of images as subject matter for art. Paul Campbell and Matt Held of “I’ll have my Facebook portrait painted by Matt Held” fame have also made portrait paintings based on Facebook profile pictures.
But whereas both Held’s and Campbell’s Facebook paintings tend to radiate an air of sunny whimsicality, Haugsjaa’s are more off-putting; they are purposefully strange and estranging, too. I find Haugsjaa’s portraits to be especially compelling when viewed in thumbnail size and stacked in one long grid, as they are on the artist’s album page.
The fact that Haugsjaa’s use of these images is unauthorized (and in a few rare cases, unwanted) adds a sense of illicit voyeurism to the process of looking at them. Arguably, there’s something slightly aggressive both in the way the artist searches for and selects his subjects, as well as in the way he alters their carefully constructed photographic personas into images that shimmer somewhere between the monstrous and the familiar.
This is amplified by the fact that Haugsjaa’s paintings aren’t paintings in the traditional sense of the term–they’re more a kind of mash-up of digital photography and painting. As Haugsjaa explained to me in an email, he’s actually “painting into” the existing photographic images, rather than representing that image via painted renderings of his subjects. He prints the Facebook image using a standard inkjet printer and photo paper and, while the printout ink is still wet, he “modifies” it using acrylic and oil paint, which mixes with the ink in a single layer. The resulting images appear to be dripping off the carefully designated, postage-stamp confines of the square, as if the subject’s carefully constructed identity were literally melting–or slipping away from–our gaze.
Artist Dominic Paul Moore, who lives in Chicago and co-directs ebersmoore, has also made a series of graphite drawings based on social media portraits. His “my(death)space” series is based on the My Spaces pages of young people who have died, which Moore found through the website MyDeathSpace.com (and which is a kind of a conceptual art project in and of itself. Spend some time clicking around in there and tell me it doesn’t start to freak your shit out after awhile).
Moore’s carefully rendered graphite drawings are like tombstone rubbings of virtual grave sites — both the web page and Moore’s drawing of it are a type of repository for an identity that will henceforth cease to be updated. Doesn’t it seem like a million years ago when only movie stars got to have their “selves” live on forever through celluloid? Nowadays, we all can, through the magic of our preferred social media network. In fact, we can’t get rid of our pesky Internet doppelgängers even if we want to. Even after we’re dead.
To whatever extent our online selves reflect our offline selves, Haugsjaa and Moore’s portraits make it harrowingly clear that our online profiles and virtual personas have, in a very real sense, escaped us. They/We are up for grabs, ready to be data-mined, added, followed, memed, and retweeted. The opportunity to have one’s portrait painted was once available only to a select few: typically, the very rich or the very poor. Social recognition used to be a privilege. So why does it now seem more like a punishment?
Thanks to everyone for coming out to the “Social Media Strategies in Chicago’s Art Community” panel hosted by Art Critic Alicia Eler and Chicago Gallery News’ Ginny Berg at Art Chicago today. I loved talking with Karla Loring, Museum of Contemporary Art; Crystal Pernell, Hyde Park Art Center; and Carrie Heinonen, Art Institute of Chicago about all things tech & strategy and hope that it was useful or atleast entertaining for those of you in attendance. Every group on that dais has my upmost respect for the work they do in the Arts day in and out and it is an honor to have Bad at Sports counted among them.
As promised in the talk there is a program that is quite useful in Twitter to let you know who starts following you and more importantly who drops your account. At the time I was trying to think of Chirpstats and couldn’t get the word out but the great Crystal Pernell was kind enough to remind me of Qwitter which does more then Chirpstats by working to tie the drop to a specific tweet. This can be extremely useful if at times a bit misleading but a great alternative to Chirpstats which is only a weekly update but less taxing on an email account.
The net is a wonderful place to meet, share, promote and wallow in all the things you love or cherish and social media for me is a great tool to help accomplish & magnify those desires. I still say though the most important thing is to service the end users like they are your boss, anything less is putting the cart before the horse. Feed them data, facts, images & yes even sugar and rumors some days but remember that twitter, facebook, digg, stumbleupon, and whatever is next are only a means to that end. It’s something that even we have to be vigilant to keep in perspective and doesn’t come easy for anyone especially when you have to answer to a comittee; I have deep sympathy there. I look forward to the next time we can get everyone together and have honest and open talks about how we go about trying to promote and grow this thing we love called Art.
Thanks again for coming out!
This week New City published an essay by its arts editor Jason Foumberg on the state of art criticism amidst the rise of blogging, online websites, and other forms of interactive media titled The State of the (Visual) Art. I didn’t read this as a piece on the status of art criticism in Chicago per se, as I think some may have, but rather as about the difficulties of defining (much less practicing) this thing called ‘criticism’ at all in online, social-media driven contexts. Foumberg’s essay is part of a larger series of articles at New City that are exploring the state of criticism in the age of Yelp!, Amazon book reviews, and other online social feedback devices. The other pieces can be found here, here, and here (this last one is about Yolp!, a Jersey Shore parody of Yelp that’s really funny). The comments that ensue are interesting, but there aren’t a lot of them and there’s not too much back-and-forth…yet. But today Christopher sent me a link to Michael S. Thomas’ blog Stagnant Vowels, in which he’s posted a response, of a sort, to the New City article, which immediately bumped Mr. Foumberg’s piece up to “hot topic” status in my mind. (Thomas’ response might itself almost qualify as a good old-fashioned Rant, and as I’ve said before, I am to rants as a moth is to a flame….Jason, in contrast, doesn’t rant: he muses.).
In his post, Mr. Thomas, who was the director of the well-respected and now defunct Dogmatic Gallery in Chicago, calls us out over here at Bad at Sports for basically being slutty opinion mongers on a par with t.v. talk show pundits. He writes:
“The flux or crisis isn’t with experts or authority per say, its in the distribution of opinion as though it were reasoned discourse. It’s in the ongoing creation of model’s for the dissemination of hyperbole without rational checks or balances. Whether it’s Glenn Beck, or Jon Stewart, or Bad at Sports these models can do much to obfuscate legitimate dialogue if not entirely cripple its formation.”
I have to assume he’s talking about our blog in particular, as the podcast’s one-on-one interview format is pretty much the antithesis of opinion journalism. But I want to know — where is all this ‘legitimate dialogue’ (emphasis on the word ‘legitimate’) that we in particular are guilty of obfuscating? Tell me where it’s happening, and I’ll gladly get the hell out of its way!
In all seriousness, though, I don’t at all disagree with Thomas on his larger point. In fact I think most of his post hits it right on the mark, particularly in his assessment that lack of editorial oversight might be precisely what makes online art criticism so problematic (I’m paraphrasing his argument, but that’s what I took away from it). Thomas finds fault with the recently launched Chicago Art Magazine for precisely these reasons, and although I shall remain neutral on the matter of his specific target, I tend to agree with many of the larger arguments he’s making. Such as this one:
“But I would argue that without editorial oversight or a progressive long term vision for growth, an endeavor such as this one is hopelessly mired. After all criticism and opinion are not the same. Amateur criticism is little more than the ALL-CAPS and bold fonts version of a comment roll, and paying said amateur is in no way a transformation of this reality. So what makes a misinformed critic not, a knowledgeable and, or an opinionated amateur? Time, energy, condensed thoughts, research, an apishly large library surrounded by lovely black and white photographs of water fowl, and other bric-a-brac? No its constancy and persistence in the pursuit of understanding and conveying the qualities that define the arcane and metaphorical reality of objects and their surroundings.”
Does the Museum of Modern Art’s live feed of Marina Abramović’s performance “The Artist is Present” defeat the purpose of the piece, or enhance it? “The Artist is Present” is the title of both Abramović’s retrospective, which opened at MoMA on March 14th, as well as her new live performance, which takes place in MoMA’s Marron Atrium throughout the run of the exhibition. In her performance, Abramović sits on a wooden chair in front of a wooden table. The chair across from her is occupied by different museum visitors, who are invited to take a seat across from the artist and gaze at her while she gazes at them. Visitors are allowed to sit in the chair for as long as they want. (One man stayed for seven hours). MoMA’s exhibition website notes that the retrospective as a whole endeavors to “transmit the presence of the artist” by including “live re-performances” of Abramović’s works by other people, along with this new durational performance by the artist herself.
I couldn’t find any mention of how live streaming the performance fits into the exhibition’s overall attempts to “transmit the artist’s presence,” however. Ideally, of course, viewers will experience Abramović’s performance in a more direct fashion, either by sitting across from her or watching from the audience as other people share her gaze. But the existence of MoMA’s live streaming “marina-cam” (my nickname, not theirs) is downright puzzling. What’s the purpose of streaming a performance–one which purportedly explores what it means to “be present” in this particular historical moment — for the benefit of anonymous internet users who can engage with it only by staring at their computer screens for a few seconds at a time?
For a work of art that necessitates ‘presence’ in all the multivalent meanings of the term, I find it curious that Abramović agreed to the livecam broadcast in the first place. Read more