Tag Archives: Jesse Darling

A Selfie Is Not a Portrait

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.

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On Humanisms

In the summer of 2011 I wrote a post for Rhizome’s blog called “It’s Only Humanist,” about the popularity of images of classical sculpture in digital art—a trend that notoriously went mainstream in the fall of 2012, when the visuals of Rihanna’s appearance on Saturday Night Live mixed ionic columns and marble busts with palm trees and Photoshop gradients. “It’s Only Humanist” was inspired by Sterling Crispin’s Tumblr Greek New Media Shit, and also included discussions of works by Nick DeMarco & Nicolas Colon, Oliver Laric, and Aids-3D, with a couple of visual examples from Frank Eickhoff and Sara Ludy; I wanted to consider references to classical imagery across a range of works, with sculpture and installation as well as the software etudes posted to Tumblr. The point I tried to make in the post was that the use of this imagery—and the way it was undermined with software editing effects—suggested doubt or skepticism about the integrity of the human subject within technological networks.

About a year after “It’s Only Humanist” was published Tom Moody wrote a series of posts on his own blog mocking “my” idea that the artworks mentioned in the post continued a tradition of humanist art by appropriating its imagery. That is, of course, a ridiculous idea, and I didn’t write anything of the sort. Perhaps I’m partly to blame for Moody’s misunderstanding because I wasn’t explicit enough; I didn’t want to say outright that these artists ere anti-humanist or “pro-machine.” I wanted to respect the ambivalence of the works, some of which seemed melancholy or nostalgic about the loss of an ideal while simultaneously treating it with humor. (A lack of one-sided clarity is a chronic problem of art writing, because art thrives on ambivalence, and the description of ambiguity often produces bad writing.) But the main problem, I think, was that Moody mistook my post’s title as a literal description of the works I discussed—when it was a joke aligned with the light attitude of the artists toward their source material—and wrote his posts on the basis of that mistake.

The funny thing is that when I wrote the post I had no particular interest in humanism—Joanne  McNeil, who was the editor of Rhizome at the time, was interested in the Greek New Media Shit trend and asked me to write about it—but now it’s become the subject of my dissertation. I’m writing about what happens to humanism in the twentieth century when thinkers feel the need to define the human against (or by) the machine. My central case study is Soviet culture of the 1930s, when vitalism resurged as a reaction to rapid industrialization and avant-garde metaphors of man as machine, but I also want to look at the emergence of anti-humanist philosophy in Western Europe in the 1930s, and try to offer some ideas about what humanism is or can be today. I don’t think the humanisms of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, with their idealization of the individual (male, European) subject using reason as tool to master the world, are viable or interesting now (and this was a problem in the Soviet situation: the disconnect between the neoclassical values that official culture promoted and the values it needed to build a new kind of state; I’m interested in the weird hybrid values in the artworks that this situation produced).

I’m not planning to say much about contemporary art in my dissertation. I think it’s too recent and unsettled to be an object of scholarship. But in my life outside grad school—in my work as a critic and curator—I’m looking at art that embodies these alternative humanisms, work that sees social media and other networks as potential means of expression for a common subjectivity and explores irrationality, abjection, queerness, affect, and other things that humans can do or have and machines can’t, the things that become important when omnipresent technology functions as a prosthesis for reason and calculation—the faculties most prized by the classical humanist subject. Some examples: Jesse Darling’s formless, ongoing online presence/work that ignores distinctions of public and private experience, or of bodies and work; Ann Hirsch’s treatment of networks as means of magnifying and refracting private desires and opening them up into real connections; Body by Body’s fantasies of physical transformation and degradation that identify bodies with digital media. These are all artists I’ve commissioned for Klaus_eBooks, a series of ebooks I’m organizing. What interests me about ebooks is how the device acquires power over the book; the book is formless, and only temporarily occupies the device’s screen. I see this as roughly analogous to how Facebook leeches power from its users over their self-presentation, or, more broadly, how power has passed from individual subjects to corporate ones in governments around the world. (These assertions are contentious and sketchy, I know; I’ll write more about them later.)   The dissolution of the book’s objecthood appears as a companion to the dissolution of liberal subjecthood—and identification with the ebook’s mode of being offers a possible path toward a common subjectivity that defines the human against systems of power. Greek New Media Shit casts doubts on the integrity of the human subject by undermining the imagery of classical sculpture with glitchy pixel decay, or by decentering it amid a network’s web, or by coloring it with the giddy extremes of the Photoshop palette. In other words, it suggests a breakdown of the ideals of classical humanism by cluttering their aesthetic embodiments with a bunch of digital junk. The kind of humanism I’m interested finds the human—or something like it—within that junk.

“i jus like the posi vibes and happy look”

I wanted to talk to Michael Manning about selfies so I email him. “Do you remember your first selfie?” I ask.

“Not really,” he says. He sends me a picture of himself in a room where the light seeps in through the Venetian blinds on the windows behind him. He’s sitting at a computer and holding his iPhone up to the screen—and seen through the phone’s screen the light is liquid and saturates his own image. His face is neutral and obscured by shadows and pixels. Horizontal lines cut it as light and screen striate each other. “That’s the first webcam I ever posted on dump.fm which is probably close to my first selfie,” he says. “I might have posted selfies on my twitter before that, when I first started taking selfies it was mostly for my outfits, cuz i really like clothes, and i mostly jus twitpic’d em cuz i dont think instagram existed yet lol.”

“When we were at the Microsoft Store at Columbus Circle I noticed you going to dump.fm and posting a selfie,” I say. “And since then when I look at people’s dump posts (I don’t usually go into the live chat myself) I notice lots of webcam pics. Is this a way of logging in? or why do people do it?”

“Definitely,” he says, “usually the first thing i do when i want to make people aware that i have logged onto dump is take a webcam, especially a gross one where im like licking a tub of hummus lol.”

A lot of the time in his selfies Michael sticks his tongue out or flashes the peace sign so I asked him why he does that. “for the good vibes,” he replied. “selfies were a big thing for me on dump, but we didnt call them selfies they were jus cams, and i was a pretty big camboy. i learned really early (like after i posted my second or third cam) that people on dump were going to totally do whatever the fuck they wanted with ur cam pix i.e. overlay a flapping cock on them, make ur head explode, have r.kelly piss on you, whatevz. so cuz of that i basically decided i was going to take the grossest and silliest webcams so it’d be like fun for people to use them for those things, and to also basically jus give up ANY possibility of controlling my personal image, cuz you jus can’t it’s jus not possible. below r some links of good examples of what i mean :))) so like sticking my tongue out was kind of something that developed there out of wanting to jus be silly, and i jus give the peace sign a lot so idk about that lol, now that i realized i do it so much ive kind of turned it into my thing, but ya i also jus like the posi vibes and happy look :)”

He sends me some more images. The first one is dark. His neck is bent back and his eyes are rolled up in his head, his mouth open in an expression of pain or indignation. I wonder if it’s really him taking the photo because his arms seem to be down but I guess his arms are long enough that he could be holding the right one out to hold the phone. In the second image he’s leaning against a cushion on a tiled wall, and I suppose there’s a pool or a hot tub nearby because his face is shiny with water or sweat and he’s not wearing a shirt. He’s visible from the shoulders up, eyes closed, tongue lolling out of his mouth—as if he’s overwhelmed by the heat. In the next one he’s inside, shelves of books and a flat-screen TV on adjacent walls. He’s seated at his computer (which I’m guessing is a desktop), leaning toward the webcam, eyes crossed, tongue out, fingers raised in a peace sign. His hair is mussed and spiky. In the last one he’s back in the tiled room, seated against the blue cushion and holding a laptop. This time he’s using his peace-sign fingers to pull his left eye open, yanking the lids in opposite directions and wrecking the symmetry of his crossed eyes.

“i wonder if these funny faces and gestures are ways to keep it “masc” and make it seem like you don’t care about being sexy or w/e,” I say.

“I guess it depends on how you define ‘masc’ like when i think of ‘masc’ i think of like bros in their tiny bathrooms taking pix with an old nokia phone in the mirror of themselves with their shirt off in basketball shorts and they have the most ridiculous pecs and abs u have ever seen,” he says. “I mean i think it’s pretty obvi in most of selfies that i am trying to look cute, and i do care, but idk i cared a lot less on dump, i guess a lot more cute girls follow me on twitter and insta, so im more inclined to be like ‘yo girl’ whereas dump is mostly like weird dudes and a few cool girls mixed in (not that thats bad i luv dump and my dump frans).”

“When you say ‘cam boy’ what do you mean by that?” I ask. “Is a cam boy any different from a cam girl, besides sex?”

“I don’t think I ever really associated cam girls with sex, aside from things like pay cam girls, which is actually an arena where I think a lot of dudes are present just as much now,” he says. “I mean there are implications of sex and like half of molly sodas selfie gifs are her making a sexy pouty face or lifting up her shirt (on the flipside she posts a lot of great selfies of her being jus gross), but i think girls like that are really more the exception than the rule and most of the sexualization of cam girls has more to do with guys being like ‘damn that girl fine i’d hit it’ than the girl being overtly sexually or flirtatious in her pictures. The majority of cam girls I’ve come across (and this applies to girls who frequently post selfies on insta too) are just posting kind of mundane photos of themselves where they happen to look cute. Whether or not they are trying to feed off, or solicit that male recognition I think is a case by case thing and is diff for every girl.

“I think there’s not really much of a difference between camboys and camgirls except perhaps that camgirls are greeted with more overwhelmingly interested male population of viewers whereas female viewers on the whole don’t really give many fucks about cute boy pics (ann hirsch does tho which is cool js). I think camboys and camgirls like to see themselves, I think there is something more interesting about the process of documenting yourself and posting it than whether or not anyone actually sees it or likes it or favs it. It’s like a self affirming ritual or something, not that getting favs doesnt stroke ur ego a bit :)”

“But don’t you think girls do like boy selfies, they just don’t fav or comment so much because they don’t want to seem thirsty?”

“i think that could be a big possibility,” he says. “it’s funny because i dont really understand why a girl would be afraid to admit she likes how a guy looks for fear of being slutty but would then like post a slutty pic of herself trying to get favs from guys u know?

“also i think lately more girls have been like open (if you calling faving cute selfies open) about it, i’ve jus noticed a lot more girls faving my selfies and like some of them are flirt favs and some are like a group of girls ive always been friends with that like selfies like jnet ALWAYS favs my selfies hahaha”

He pauses for a second, then continues. “another thing is that i don’t necessarily think about selfies or cam girls as a sex related thing because most of the pics i end up being into are really more about the attitude of the girl taking them than like her looking really hot in the photo, the fav definitely still comes attraction but its a little bit diff than jus like ‘oh damn she sooooo hot’. Best examples of this are definitely jesse darling and al bedell, they both post a lot of selfies that really don’t hinge on them looking really hot (not that they arent hot, they def are), and in some of them they look down right haggard but like jesse’s attitude is always really strong, almost as if she has jus finished kicking the shit out of someone lol, which is hot to me, and usually Al’s have this insane tinge of black humor that is just fucking amazing and unparalleled.”

“what’s the best selfie you ever took?” I ask.

He sends me an Instagram of him looking into his iPhone and taking a photo in a mirrored Ellsworth Kelly piece, a round thing with a narrow curve at the center, like a palette. Tom Moody is standing beside him, his hands on his hips as if he’s impatient, his body bisected by the indentation of the work. Michael says: “im really proud of this selfie because its def the only selfie in existence that features tom moody.”

To end, I ask: “how does your social media presence (your selfies) relate to your art? if you can think of a simple way to put it, or just some general thoughts.”

“i don’t want to be taken too seriously,” he says. “i mean i like art right, and its cool but people take it way too fucking seriously and i think my overall brand is very lighthearted and kind of jus like ‘fuck it man, lets chill and goto the beach bro’ and i think both my art and selfies reflect that”