Whose Bodies 2
So many people telling me about the circulation of images – continuing chat about reproduction/simulacra/dispersion/etc. We think we are so contemporary but the conversation hasn’t really shifted. So many images now, so much Internet. Are all images equal? Are all bodies equal? Imagine you’re about to create an image of someone. What do they look like? what image do you make? What position do you hold when being charged with the representation of someone else? Thinking about representation – thinking about bodies.
The female body is forever online – porn takes up most of the Internet, and the female body is the most imaged in that industry. There are artists who react to this (and many of the additional expectations and stereotypes hurled at women) by employing forms of self-representation in their work that is entangled with Web 2.0 (often made using certain sites/apps, and exhibited on/through them). I am often drawn to forms of self-representation that use the Internet to mediate the self-image, as opposed to art that uses the self-image to show how we are mediated by the Internet.
The early Internet was seen by some as providing a platform that enabled one to ‘escape’ social prescriptions such as race, class and gender: supposedly, one could be whoever one wanted to be online. Yet even the ‘transcendental’ text-based Internet was built on binaries of male/female. Ann Hirsch’s Playground (2013) is a good example that draws attention to this. Playground is a play – two characters sit onstage at desktop computers, the words they type sometimes appear projected on the wall behind them, sometimes are spoken. The play focuses on the young, female, Annie in an early Internet AOL chatroom with an older man (Jobe). Playground revealed that ideas of authenticity and ‘being real’ were still pervasive in the context of this text-based chatroom ‘Twelve’, which was fashioned for the play from Ann Hirsch’s memory of the chatroom she hung out in as a pre-teen (‘Twelve’ wasn’t posthuman, and it definitely wasn’t postgender). Considering discourse surrounding the forever looping and reproduced pixel, and the fact of this as being in continuation from The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Dadaism, Conceptual Art and so on and so on, it is always both hilarious and worrying that the demand for authenticity is placed upon self-representation – particularly online and on female bodies.
The writer and media theorist Theresa Senft knew, saw, the text-based Internet as representation; she knew we had not escaped the body, yet she manifests an innocence in the feeling of there being a space in which we can hide from ourselves. In Spare Parts Senft configured Kant’s sublime with her mother’s death and her existence in ‘cyberspace’, writing:
I can’t see any bodies here, online. Yet words, seemingly attached to bodies in some way, fly past me on this screen. In n-talk (real-time writing) I watch as the cursor key moves back to correct spelling errors of others, transfixed. In the file libraries, there are back-posts from writers who have died. I can read them. This is not to say that the computer defeats death, any more than the library does. Nevertheless, here, in this place that does not defeat death but is itself deathless, that looks like the television and yet is not, where I am playing a part in a drama somewhere, well perhaps not my body, but, nonetheless “me” –where are the bodies?
Fast-forward to Web 2.0 (a web built on social networking profiles of your ‘self,’ or, what you look like, what gender you are assigned, what place you are from and what age you are), notions of ‘authenticity,’ of whose body is present, are of increased importance.
Amalia Ulman’s work Excellences and Perfections is an interesting example of this. This was a performance from April-September 2014, where Amalia (the artist) presented herself online (mainly on Instagram) as what could be described as an ‘Instagram Girl’, without telling anyone it was a performance until afterwards. A sort of micro-celebrity, the Instagram Amalia followed a typical narrative: good girl, moves to city, breaks with long term boyfriend, becomes a sugarbaby, does drugs, gets boob job, self-destructs, apologises, recovers, finds new boyfriend and yoga. The narrative is ‘normal’, and thus believable, because Amalia presents herself in the performance as the stereotypical hot white girl, taking or being inspired by images from ‘real’ Instagram girls.
The main thing that separated the artist from being a ‘real Instagram girl’ was that afterwards Amalia stated that it was an art performance. Otherwise, the way it operated in any other respect was very much in the same vein and through the same channels as Instagram girls. Even the critiques thrust onto Amalia were the same: ‘she’s fake,’ etc. In this, her authenticity was pulled into question, rather than a questioning of the lack of difference in her self-representation. Everyone ‘performs’ versions of their identity online, yet certain identities (which are largely gendered female) are not given the valence of authenticity. This work really highlighted this.
During the performance, people were uncomfortable both with an artist ‘using her body’ (‘for attention/commercial gain’) and with her being ‘fake’ (referring to the apparent boob job). When it became public that the Instagram feed was the artist’s performance, it was uncomfortable for people because of its supposed inauthenticity, people felt somehow it wasn’t performance but a ‘lie.’ At no point was the gendered body considered in control of its own reception. The reactions revealed the need for the work, completing it in their enclosure of a striated, judgmental and oppressive authenticity.
Amalia’s body as much as the images she made were central in this work: the supposed exploitation, authenticity and availability of the artist’s body were what garnered the reaction. Traditional second-wave feminist methodology of self-representation as form of resistance does not work so smoothly under current conditions. For the image to have purchase it has to utilize something more in order not to be instantly subsumed into the male gaze and/or capitalism (perhaps these are one and the same thing). Perhaps with Amalia’s it was its insidious embedded-ness into the platform on which it performed.
Clearly self-representation isn’t just an image amongst other images. To represent the self is to ascribe an image a body. And we must be careful when talking about and representing these bodies, these images – whose images are they? There are hierarchies that are afforded to certain (female) bodies, degrees of agency in one’s self-representation, perhaps at the expense of the visibility of others. The act of reclaiming agency over one’s body – of having control over its image – is not only a well trodden ground, but also exists in a society where that act (both in art and in general culture) has not demolished the gaze. The body needs to do more than simply present itself; it needs to insert itself, so for example we can read selfies as part of the affective labour of communicative capitalism: affective labour is being a labour of care, a social role that has extended to how we nurture our self-image and friendships online, the image does not exist alone – the image, the trace of our affective labour, is part of communicative capitalism as it travels across sites, it gathers likes, shares, etc. (it performs its labour). Firestone wanted reproduction to take place away from the body. I maybe want the body’s representation away from the terms of its reproduction.
It must be said that the notion that everybody wishes to be seen is one of immense privilege. Many people’s identity politics and use of their own body in this involve walking a tightrope between being visible in order to have a voice, and being invisible in order to be safe. Understanding how representations of the body operate within certain frameworks, such as the Web, is clearly crucial. Ann Hirsch, for example, has stated that “whenever you put your body online, in some way you are in conversation with porn.”
With more and more reconfigurations of feminist self-representation, we – with our own image-making – must not forget the power of representation. Rather than the abundance of images provoking image-apathy, representation is currently being rescued from its own failures.
When you image a body think about how that image will exist, what it will do, after it is made, are you aiding or preventing new readings of this body?
I wish to thank Cadence Kinsey for our ongoing conversations, and from which parts of these thoughts have come from.