Selfies may be taken promiscuously and gratuitously but that doesn’t mean that the word “selfie” should be too. A selfie is not any picture of yourself but a picture of you that you’ve taken yourself, with your phone, or maybe looking into your computer’s webcam—the picture is taken with a device that is capable of distributing it on a network almost immediately, and the picture shows the same device (if it’s a phone pointed at a mirror) or at least reveals the body’s relationship to the device through a certain shape of posture: the face tilted toward the laptop’s surface, an arm outstretched as it holds the phone at a distance, or a bent shoulder if the phone is held more closely. This is how the selfie inscribes a body into a network—this is how it asserts a body’s connection to others through a network via their respective devices. “Receiving a photo of the face of the person you’re talking to brings back the human element of the interaction, which is easily misplaced if the interaction is primarily text-based.” Jenna Wortham wrote in “My Selfie, Myself,” a recent feature in the New York Times. The selfie is phatic: it’s an image that establishes immediate contact, by introducing gesture and mimicry—both components of face-to-face interactions—to telecommunications.
A selfie is not a portrait. A portrait is a flat monument. Like a bust or a full-body statue, a portrait (whether painted on canvas or shot by a photographer) partially extracts the sitter from her life. Portraiture asserts the sitter’s significance—it says she deserves to be inscribed in history. A great portrait, whether painted or photographed, conveys its maker’s awareness of his task and the contradictions inherent in it this task: the promise and the impossibility of immortality. A great portrait reveals the ripeness and vulnerability of the sitter’s body, both in the way it depicts his flesh and in the inclusion of a memento mori, wilting flowers, or some fruit about to rot. Time will kill him. His image will outlive him. The same is true for the self-portrait: the artist has to find a distance from herself, to step outside her body in order to think about its mortality.
A selfie is not monumental. It doesn’t inscribe its maker in history; it inscribes him in a networked present. Can a selfie be art? I think so, but it would entail discarding the conventions of subjecthood of the public sphere both for artists and for art—the artist as a singular figure creating singular works of art—and instead thinking of art as an everyday activity. Even as an everyday activity, though, art would still have to retain a certain complexity and openness of relations—the qualities that allow an image to outlive the body in it, integrated in life. I think Jessica Ciocci’s selfies on Instagram are art. Her face and body acquire grimaces, poses, wigs and outfits in in her selfies, and she posts five or six or a dozen of them consecutively; the angles are weird, mirrors and frames cut her off. Charlie Chaplin made his movements stiff and distinct, to mimic the way film breaks reality into many still images and then reconstitutes them as motion—but Jessica Ciocci’s selfies do the opposite, revealing a fluidity of the body against the cut squares of Instagram and in doing so she situates social media in the movement of ordinary, everyday life. Jesse Darling’s selfies are art, too. She tends to take them in airports or airplanes or gallery bathrooms or chain coffeehouses—a liquid embodied presence in the junkspace of the global city, a grim expression and a gaze directed at the phone (not the receiver of the image) speaking to an anxiety about the affective labor demanded of her and her resigned acquiescence.
Jesse Darling was one of the artists included in “National #Selfie Portrait Gallery,” a project organized by Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina for the Moving Image Art Fair in London. I like the coinage “selfie portrait.” It sounds to me like a suggestion of an image that draws its characteristics from both the selfie and the portrait, but isn’t quite either one, or maybe it’s a new kind of portrait, where the conventional signifiers of fleshly vulnerability and fleeting life are replaced by references to the ephemeral, phatic time of social media. And maybe that’s what was happening in the works featured in “National #Selfie Portrait Gallery.” But that’s not how Chayka presented it in his statements about the project. “The concept of the selfie is as old as art history—selfies are simply self-portraits, the same as works created by Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Masaccio and others,” he told the British newspaper Metro. “The original selfies were painted or drawn self-portraits. Albrecht Durer created his own as early as the 15th century. From there, selfies evolved with the different media used to make art.” Chayka’s equation of selfie with self-portrait is as stupid as Blake Gopnik’s identification of Picasso’s Cubism with an Instagram filter, on the basis that both change the way one sees an image, which naturalizes the conventions, respectively, of realist painting and cell-phone photography—but I digress. Chayka’s erasure of distinctions among mediums makes does a disservice to the artists he’s showing—he fails to identify what makes their work special. It’s also a disservice to himself as a curator—why is he showing these works? In Chayka’s explanations, the selfie becomes meaningless beyond its instrumentalization as an engine of attention, a buzzword that draws coverage. Something similar is happening in art magazines, as they use the selfie to leech some of the excitement of social media, and delay their own deterioration as organs of mass media. Art in America recently asked me to submit a selfie for a “mass portrait” of the art world (I refused, rather obnoxiously, because the request didn’t recognize me as a maker or theorist of selfies, they just wanted me to be one face among many), and I heard that Art Review’s upcoming “Power 100” issue will feature pictures of the members of its list with “staged selfies.” Spontaneity is discarded, and what’s left? A plea for attention. Most of the time when you read about selfies in the mass media you learn that every selfie is narcissistic, that every selfie says “look at me.” But that’s just what happens to the selfie when it’s taken out of context.