Saturday, March 05, 2011

A Simulacrum Of My Self

"Art exists because reality is neither real nor significant."
– J.G. Ballard
I've been intrigued by the web as an art medium from the moment I first experienced it, late at night, at a Queensland University computer lab in the latter half of the '90s. I barely knew how to turn on a computer then but I understood that even at a modem speed of 28.8kbs per second, it was going to be a great way to reach inside a lot of people's heads.
My ideas about how that might be done were pretty conventional. I figured everyone would understand each other more easily through words enhanced with pictures, without the distracting 'personality' of individual wetware. I couldn't wait to 'transmit' – how anachronistic that verb sounds now – my art and writing together so that others might understand exactly what I was trying to achieve.
Of course, I was overlooking the fact that individual interpretations of words and images vary wildly according to the disparate, complex factors that affect an individual context of understanding (and identity): from upbringing and education to local culture and belief systems. Roland Barthes described this in his short essay Death Of The Author, over forty years ago, now such an art school theory favourite that you can read it free here. He argued that a creator's role is to produce and neither to explain nor to try to control the response to their work. It's the reader (or viewer or istener) who gives it meaning through their individual interpretation, which will only ever be a skewed reflection of what the creator had in mind – if that.
Even if people understand the concept of a work, their interpretations and deeper, emotional responses are always at a remove from the creator's. Technology has enabled us to replicate and synthesize at the touch of a button, resulting in a popular culture in which appropriation and 'sampling' are the norm. We can adapt and reinterpret an 'original' work – or mash-up several at once – then 'curate' an individual experience of the result. We have begun to do much the same with the personas we assume online: elemental to social media is the opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to choose what bits and pieces we like best then repackage them in a new 'identity', which is really just a psycho-social avatar, no more real than the thumbnails people choose to 'personify' themselves.
I used to think that making art was about controlling an individual's experience of a work – largely through their 'real world' impressions of it. Now I think it's about providing the context within which an individual can evolve their own imaginative experience of both the artwork and the artist. I can control the making of the artwork, I can craft my public persona, but once both are 'distributed', either online or off, it can and will be reworked, reconfigured and re-distributed, often as a by-product of someone else's online presence.
In recent years, as my work and my persona became widely distributed, I started to fuck with both myself.
I don't think anyone really bothers to reconcile the disparities between our online and offline personas. Social media has changed the web from somewhere we go to explore the world to somewhere we go to explore the alternative possibilities for ourselves, to experiment with new identities and once we find one we're comfortable with, to promote it. We want our online personas not to be an extension of our 'real world' lives but something different, something infinitely more absorbing – for ourselves and others – and sexy.
We are now answerable to our online personas – we are loved, loathed, celebrated, derided, partied with, fucked, fired, married and divorced, sometimes even murdered because of them. We are also increasingly obsessive about them. We want to craft and distribute our own online personas (then reinvent them from time to time) and we want to control others' perceptions of – and interactions with – them. We also want to appropriate what we experience and like of others' personas. But while fucking with one's online identity IS a kind of liberation, it empahsizes that whatever we see and experience of each other online is not actually reality. Ultimately, in social media, stability, predictability, understanding and control – the sense of knowing who we are and with whom we're interacting – are illusory.
The documentary-like photographs I've posted on Tumblr might be excerpts from my daily life or simply staged to resemble them. Unquestionably, they are 'real' – as opposed to digital artifice – but does that make them authentic? Or rather, more precisely, authentic as what? As excerpts from a visual diary, as works of art? Even the reality of my sexuality as 'evidenced' by my photographs is elusive (yes, I have fucked women but my long-term relationships have all been with men). Posted haphazardly in small groups, in no chronological or narrative order, there is too little information for the images to be 'read' accurately beyond the somewhat lurid information each contains.
Nothing will dissuade even the least imaginative viewer from making stark assumptions about them – or me: hell, it's impossible to avoid when confronted with photographs of a woman who is a well-known artist fucking (and being fucked by) another woman. But as an artist, what I'm really fucking with is my self, or, rather, my online self. I've cut myself loose from the cautious, conforming impulse to self-censor (the new method of societal control) and at the same time, cast-off any sense of 'responsibility' to portray an online persona that is 'accurate', let alone socially viable.
Taken together, the writings and images I publish online are an early experiment in a new form of performance art, which interrogates, almost hourly, the evolving and possibly confounding split between an artist's real self – and real work – and their virtual edifice. It challenges the viewer - who might also be a 'follower' or 'friend', depending on the particular jargon of the platform – to figure out which is which. This is, in part, the challenge of a forthcoming group exhibition, later this year: titled Dreaming Hazel Dooney, it will focus on various artists' perceptions and interpretations of my virtual persona. Ironically, the exhibition will only further skew, obscure, complicate or reinforce the murky relationship that persona has with reality.
As J.G. Ballard once put it, "I treat the reality I inhabit as if it were a fiction—I treat the whole of existence as if it were a huge invention."


Jay Burton said...

While many of us recognize intellectually that what you say about art and perception as well as online personas is true, few have the courage or the audacity to put these ideas into practice, particularly in way that is so free and absent of apparent editing. The ramifications of your new form or performance art are extensive and reach in many directions. Your efforts are to be applauded.

Ohio Economic Development said...

This is an enlightening post. You've provided new ways for me to look at all art I see. Thank you.