The Selfie: The Modern, Digital Self-Portrait
By Erin Whitney
We’ve all done it, whether in a restaurant’s bathroom mirror, while stopped in traffic, or at any time or place we think we’re attractive enough to share our looks with the world. It’s called the selfie, and before you toss your hands up in denial, just accept that you’re guilty. Everyone is.
The selfie sensation first took hold when MySpace became popular and every junior-high schooler (myself included) snapped endless photos of themselves for the oh-so-important default photo . (Remember how we called them “defaults” before they became “profile pics”? Unlike many unexpected and odd digital trends, the selfie hasn’t gone away, and has only gotten more ubiquitous.
Recently, two Brooklyn-based curators placed the selfie in the context of art with their exhibit the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery. (Mind you, these two also sold Vines as art pieces in a New York exhibition earlier this year.) The gallery, comprised of 30-second or shorter video installations by 19 visual artists from the U.S. and Europe, took place at the Moving Image Contemporary Art Fair in London last month. Each installation allowed artists to express their faces through video, ranging from a collage of made up of emojis and the Skype logo to a multi-split screen of one artist posing and singing to Lana Del Rey.
While it may sound absurd to put the ridiculous phenomenon known as the selfie into the same sentence as art, just think about it for a moment. As the exhibition’s curators Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina told the Daily Beast, the selfie is actually a modern self-portrait, a digital rendering of the artist’s face. Vincent van Gogh did it, Rembrandt did it, so what makes your duck face on Facebook any different? Actually, a lot, since your photo with 32 likes is vastly different from such revered paintings (although probably more reminiscent of Warholian concepts).
The most interesting aspect of the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery is that it does not propose the ridiculous notion that the selfie is a work of art, or that the subject in it is even an artist. Instead, it analyzes the technology behind the image (or video), suggesting that perhaps these modern self-portraits tell us more about the constantly evolving digital age and the ways we use it for self-expression. Chayka and Galperina contend that the selfie functions as a sort of digital language understood by people of a variety of different backgrounds, something that anyone with a smartphone can now take part in.
The title of the installation by artist Jayson Musson pretty much sums up the gallery’s concept entirely: The Inherent Problematics of a Technology-Based Portraiture Method Eclipsing the Role of the Subject, Who, Really is No Longer the Subject at All. Rather the Technology Itself is, so Please Don't Be Taking No Selfies With a Fucking Windows Phone. That Shit is Deplorable Son.
Sorry to break it to you, but the most compelling aspect of your selfies isn’t you; it’s what you’re doing with that little bit of technology in your hands. Sure, you’re using it to perfectly craft how you want your Instagram feed to perceive you, but in the end, you’re really just sculpting a brief performance of your projected self via the tools of technology.
As Chayka and Galperina said, “We’re getting used to looking at everyone through a veil of performance,” a phenomenon they also dubbed a form of “digital self-branding.” Thanks to smartphones, filter apps, and social-media sharing, we have now democratized the self-portrait, or more accurately, the making of the self into a subject for constant audience observation (I’ll bet you look at more Instagram photos in a year than you do works of art in a museum).
So does this mean the selfie is an art form, the photographer is an artist, or the subject is worthy of the adoration we give it? Not necessarily. But what this phenomenon does allow us to consider is how digital technologies have, in a way, enabled any and everyone to express the self they want the world to see them as. Tilt your head to the right, fix your hair, put on your photo face, then slap on X-Pro II or maybe Toaster, and you’ve got your own digital self-portrait. Now, don’t go calling yourself an artist; just thank your smartphone and press “Post” already.
Top Photo Montage Courtesy of the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery, Moving Image, London