Perpetual Provisional Selves: A conversation about authenticity and social media

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On December 4 at Art Basel Miami Beach, I was part of a panel titled "Instagram as an artistic medium," along with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Klaus Biesenbach, Simon de Pury, and Kevin Systrom, the CEO of Instagram.

I gave a presentation about my project Excellences & Perfections [recently presented as part of the First Look online exhibition series], a carbon copy of a talk previously given at the ICA. After my presentation, the talk became pure propaganda and the words "genuinely," "self-expression," "creativity" and "community" were mentioned without further discussion. The panel ended with Systrom saying that the platform he had created was a tool for users to be authentic.

For several weeks before the panel, Rob Horning and I had been having the following conversation on Google Drive, which deals with many of these topics. —Amalia Ulman


Ed.: Perhaps it's a little backwards to make the artist start the interview, but I thought it might work this time. What do you think? 

AU: I think Rob should start; he doesn't know me, so he might have a few questions…?

Ed.:I think that's a good idea.

R: I will do some more background reading today, and return with some questions. Also, I will be this serif font for the purposes of this conversation.

Okay, I will be using this blue one—also printing some of your writings today to read through/ take notes.

Trying to get it together but need more time. I have to finish a few other things today, then I can give this my full attention tomorrow! I think I want to talk about the sort of narcissism that makes it hard for me to conduct interviews, and what that has to do with performing the self on social media—an endless interview with no interviewers and competing interviewees projecting the questions they want to answer onto an audience that may already be largely preoccupied with questions they were wishing to be asked. What keeps interviews from being performances—what can define them outside that sphere, if anything? The tactical presentation of self in social media makes the genre conventions of the Q&A suspect; we don't presume we are getting straight answers, but instead "straight answers"—a calculated pose that evokes the reified sensation of sincerity. Yet the more aggressively one tries to convey sincerity, the more cartoonish one's behavior seems to become. All the old tropes of sincerity can't withstand the foregrounding of self-construction in social-media profiles, and the way these are increasingly used to mediate reputation. Maybe this is why sad earnest types are always pleading for "new sincerity" while seeming to epitomize the ultimate nadir of insincerity. Being boring no longer connotes sincerity (or the absence of irony, which is wrongly equated with sincerity). Danger is the new sincerity. 

Can one write revealingly about narcissism in a narcissistic way, or is that like trying to convey the emotion of boredom by writing sentences so boring that no one can tolerate reading them and instead finds more interesting things to do? Is there an interesting way to be boring? Is that the ultimate goal on Facebook? Is that the end Facebook has been engineered to make users pursue, given that being boring is the safest way to protect oneself from accusations of being craven or narcissistic?

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Life Feed: Webcams, Art, and People

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On Friday, June 24, Rhizome is presenting new projects by Jeremy Bailey and Antoine Catala as part of the New Silent Series. This post elaborates some of the ideas around the event.

Image: Antoine Catala, Antoine according to Dean by Antoine, 2011

The future never comes looking like it used to. Science fiction's universal hallmark of technological advancement was the videophone. While you can buy a device as slick as a Gene Roddenberry prop, most people make video calls with the same thing they do a thousand other things with, using a streamlined version of the computer-camera-modem combo that Jennifer Ringley set up in her dorm room in 1996. Her site JenniCam (now archived) did not stream a live feed of her life. It updated still images— black-and-white, at first— every three minutes. Traffic leapt whenever word spread that Ringley was undressing, or having sex with her boyfriend. But JenniCam was never meant to be an illicit site. As Ringley explained, she was broadcasting everyday life, and in everyday life sex and nudity happen. Her webcam was like a piece of furniture, a mirror that blankly took in the image of the room it faced. It was connected to the line of the telephone, a device that philosopher Avital Ronnell has described as a superhumanizing prosthesis, a machine that empowers the ear and voice to operate across great distances. The webcam's mirror/telephone hybrid— as used by JenniCam and its lifecasting progeny, from Ustream.tv to Chatroulette— is a messy sort of videophone that captures a reflection at its physical location and disperses it to whatever channel that switches the packets.

Rosalind Krauss called video "the aesthetics of narcissism." Her 1976 essay of that name describes Vito Acconci's Centers (1971) as a reflection on art's indexical function: he looks in a television monitor as a mirror and points at himself. One of her other examples was Richard Serra's Boomerang (1974), which locks Nancy Holt in a prison of feedback. She speaks and listens to her own words in a "collapsed present." "[V]ideo's real medium," Krauss writes, "is a psychological situation, the very terms of which are to withdraw attention from an external object— an Other— and invest it in the Self." What do her words mean thirty years later, when video, thanks to webcams, has become part of everyday life as a telecom device? Marisa Olson's remake of Boomerang offers an easy starting point. The webpage juxtaposes a video of Olson listening to and repeating the text of Boomerang with a copy of the old video that she saved on her YouTube account. Serra's tightly constructed frame excludes everything but Holt's face and the audio apparatus. Olson (who did the tasks of both Serra and Holt: the tech set-up and the on-screen performance) lets her webcam show her studio; we can see a doorway, artworks, a bookshelf, the glare of sunlight on a framed print. For Olson, the real "frame" isn't the field of her webcam's lens but the window of the browser, which subsumes both the art-historical past and the webcam's collapsed present in the empty space of default whiteness. She's not only creating a reflection of her own image, but connecting it to an artifact of another place and time by echoing its call.

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