I am Michael Millmore and this is my learning blog for the Open College of the Arts course ‘Digital Image and Cuture’.
I am working towards a degree in photography.
I am Michael Millmore and this is my learning blog for the Open College of the Arts course ‘Digital Image and Cuture’.
I am working towards a degree in photography.
See posts from previous course about Panopticism:
This exercise asks that we read Michel Foucault’s essay ‘Panopticism’ and reflect on the relevance of his theory in regard to digital culture. Rereading the essay and reflecting on this question I was struck by two particular ideas that are relevant – that the metaphor that Panopticism as a system of surveillance and control relies on the citizen feeling that they have the potential to be constantly monitored by a controlling and invisible force (the prevalence and acceptance of CCTV would be a modern real world example) and, the concept that when citizens come to accept the inspecting gaze of constant surveillance they unconsciously begin to conform due to their participation in the ideology of their society:
“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself ; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (Evans and Hall, 1999: 66)
While the idea of the Panopticon remains a fascinating metaphor for control and surveillance, I wonder how relevant it is to our twenty-first century reality. Take for example CCTV – a system of surveillance that seems both accepted and broadly unconventional today. I remember perhaps twenty years ago as systems of CCTV increased in use their placement led to a great deal of concern about how our privacy was at risk and the dangers of misuse. Today however, we broadly accept CCTV as a part of our lives without much consideration. This would appear to suggest that the purpose of these systems to provide a consequence to deviations from accepted behaviour has not had any affect. Or, does this mean that we have come to accept our almost constant monitoring in public areas as something benign and only a problem for anyone who may transgress? (The argument being that you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.) Is behaviour and compliance unconsciously affected by the presence of a CCTV network that may or may not be constantly monitored or is this simply a false form of reassurance?
Mcmullan (2015) asks if the metaphor of the Panopticon is still relevant in the digital/internet age as surveillance and monitoring is not obvious in these systems: “state surveillance on the internet is invisible; there is no looming tower, no dead-eye lens staring at you every time you enter a URL.” Continuing, he argues that the key difference between the Panopticon and data surveillance is the physical sense of exposure in the face of authority:
“In the private space of my personal browsing I do not feel exposed – I do not feel that my body of data is under surveillance because I do not know where that body begins or ends. We live so much of our lives online, share so much data, but feel nowhere near as much attachment for our data as we do for our bodies. Without physical ownership and without an explicit sense of exposure I do not normalise my actions. If anything, the supposed anonymity of the internet means I do the opposite.” (McMullin, 2015)
The key difference between modern data surveillance and more conventional ideas about this is both the way we are unaware we are being watched and monitored and also complicit, albeit naively so. In ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, Shoshana Zuboff exposes the business model that underpins the digital world and aims to ultimately transform human behaviour:
“It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us.
surveillance capitalism depends upon undermining individual self-determination, autonomy and decision rights for the sake of an unobstructed flow of behavioural data to feed markets that are about is but not for us.” (Naughton, 2019)
Biddle, S. (2019) “A fundamentally illegitimate choice”: Shoshana Zuboff on the age of surveillance capitalism. The Intercept_. Available at: https://theintercept.com/2019/02/02/shoshana-zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism/ (accessed 29th August 2020)
Bridle, J. (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshanna Zuboff review – we are the pawns. The Guardian, 2nd February 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/02/age-of-surveillance-capitalism-shoshana-zuboff-review (accessed 29th August 2020)
Foucault, M. (1997) Pantopticism. In pps. 61-71: Evans, J. and Hall, S. (Eds. ) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage.
Green, D. (2005) On Foucault: disciplinary power and photography. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/onfoucault (accessed 5th June 2018
McMullan, T. (2015) What does the panopticon mean in the age of digital surveillance? The Guardian, 23rd July 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jul/23/panopticon-digital-surveillance-jeremy-bentham (accessed 29th August 2020)
Naughton, J. (2019) ‘The goal is to automate us’: welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism. The Observer, 20th January 2019. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/20/shoshana-zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism-google-facebook (accessed 29th August 2020)
Zuboff, S. (2019) The age if surveillance capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. London: Profile Books.
See earlier posts for this assignment here:
I have made all of the images for this assignment using my iPhone which is not something I would normally do for OCA work. Practically, my phone has been ideal for this project – small to carry and not be a distraction and convenient to use so I could take images quickly. The quality of images has been surprisingly good too, especially since I began using the Adobe Lightroom mobile app to take and edit the images and then export to Instagram. Finishing with a total of 3802 images is quite overwhelming, but, this large amount of photographs is in some way the point. For example, it has enabled me to build an index of images that I believe will be of interest when placed together. Throughout the project, I considered the photographs taken as sketches and the raw material that could be transformed into something else in the next assignment. Up until this point, the process has been the most important aspect of the project and I now need to consider how I will develop and progress this into the final assignment.
Looking back over the images and my Instagram posts evokes nostalgia and a strong sense of emotion from the time I made the images – this is something extremely personal to me and I have no idea if it translates to other viewers of the series although I suspect it does not. The brief for the assignment states that what is made here should be a project ‘in progress’ and I have certainly achieved that! I have lots of ideas about how I can use the images I have made in different ways for Assignment 5 are quite exciting. Throughout the project I did not worry too much about the brief which asks us to “develop a project around the theme of identity within the current digital climate.” I am not convinced that I meet these criteria, although there is an argument to be made that as a work that relies entirely on digital tools and devices it is something that would only have been possible to realise at this moment in time. It is also arguable that there is an autobiographical element to the series – these are images taken of an area that I know well and I have been part of all of my life, the way I have taken them could also represent the state of my unconscious mind due to the subjects I have shot and choices I have made.
The aspect of the project that I am most proud of is the organic way it developed and the way I have sustained it over a period of time. The raw materials that I now have in the form of these images has masses of potential for development and experimentation, while at the same time, the work made so far and the way it is presented as a ‘gallery’ on Instagram stands as a separate entity in itself. While I have thought about potential developments for the project throughout the process of making the images, I have not let this distract me from the consistency of my approach at the time of making and presenting the work.
Throughout the course, looking at artists has fired my imagination and I have been inspired by what I have researched. Here are some of the artists that I have particualrly had in mind while engaging in this project:
Developing the project through to assignment 5 I intend to do some closer research into the relationship between place and identity, particularly with digital technology.
See my earlier posts about the development of this project:
‘Daily Walk Diary’ is a 100 day walking and photography project that I conducted between 19th April to 27th July 2020 – from the height of the UK Coronavirus lockdown through to the beginnings of restrictions being eased. The project documents a strange and unprecedented time. Unlike many people who were furloughed from their jobs and were struggling to fill their time, I found myself busier than ever been as a manager for a large food retail store. It was a pressured and trying time and I found myself struggling with the demands being made on me and looking for a way to diffuse feelings of stress and anxiety. ‘Daily Walk Diary’ came out of necessity and developed organically – each day I would take a walk in a circular route from my house and back that lasted just over the government guidelines allowing exercise to be taken for up to one hour a day. On my walk I took photographs of what I saw, stopping only briefly to capture anything that caught my eye. These images were then posted to Instagram along with a screenshot of the app I used to record the route and duration of my walk. Listening to music helped as a distracting accompaniment to the walk and I made a playlist of one song that happened to resonate with me on the day. I honestly did not believe that I would have the will power to sustain the project, especially if I came home late and tired, however, the restorative effects of the process on both my physical and mental health and creative energies were a revelation. Although I have lived in the same area for most of my life in recent years I have spent little time locally and my daily exercise reacquainted me with what I had neglected on my doorstep. I felt lucky to live somewhere so close to countryside, memories began to flow and I gained an appreciation I had lost through a closer engagement with my surroundings. Although the project has now finished (I had to draw a line somewhere) I have continued walking everyday – I hope this will be a permanent change to my lifestyle that will fuel me both practically and creatively.
I have been looking forward to this assignment as it offers an opportunity to develop a project over a long period and experiment widely before refining and reworking for assignment 5. The brief for this assignment (and A5) is to develop a project around the theme of identity within the current digital climate. Early in the course I jotted down a few possible ideas:
Despite these early thought about possible approaches to the assignment brief, I was pleased that what I eventually made came about in an organic and unplanned manner.
About a month into lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic, I began a personal project based around my daily walk which I would document using my iPhone and then post daily updates to an Instagram account. (See here.) I had no grand ideas for this project – it began organically and out of a necessity to try and alleviate the feelings of stress and anxiety I felt at the time, mainly due to pressure at work where managing the demands of Covid were a difficult daily struggle. To be honest, I was not convinced I would be able to sustain the project beyond a few days, so, after a couple of weeks of walking daily, I was a pleasantly surprised with the way I had managed to keep momentum from my initial enthusiasm. As the project progressed, I started to realise that the images, and the way I went about making them, could be the basis for the final two assignments for the course. Last year I had managed to attend a couple of sessions hosted by OCA tutor Ariadne Xenou aimed at L3 students and one of my takeaways from these sessions was the assertion that work should be made through experimentation and development of a methodology. (See my thoughts about the first session here.) It occurred to me that I had arrived at a method of making and then publishing to Instagram and my daily walk project could become my submission for assignment 4. I could then refine and reshape the images made into something separate for Assignment 5.
Here are details of my approach to the Daily Walk Diary project:
Having decided to use this project for the course I was left with the difficult choice about when to draw a line under the process. As I approached 100 days it struck me that this would be a neat number to choose, although having reached such a milestone it was a wrench not to continue. Although I have still been walking daily, the number of photographs I take has dropped dramatically. This is a strange feeling – it is both liberating not to always be thinking and looking at what to make images, but I also have a regular feeling that I am missing opportunities – particularly if I walk past an interesting piece of rubbish!
I was pleased and relieved with the feedback for my critical essay – it was good to hear that Wendy thought the essay was well conceived and laid out as approaching this I tried to keep my references concise and relevant as attempting to encompass too broad a subject was a concern for the critical essay for my previous course. The main point raised by Wendy is that having chosen the work of three female artists I should reference the relationship between gender and identity politics in social media/photography. This was something I tried to include in my essay initially, but decided that I needed to remove because I was not happy with how I approached this at the time. Hopefully, with this first submission now behind me, I will be able to approach this fresh and find a way of including this topic. Wendy mentions how women can feel particularly commodified and judged through social media and along with the fact that there is a larger number of women engaging in social media than men this is an important point to address. The artist Andy Kaisser is mentioned as someone who’s work addresses themes of identity on the online world and asks why male photographers like him are less prevalent. This is another question I could address but one that runs the risk of detracting from the focus of the essay in its current form.
In summary, here are the considerations I need to make reworking the essay:
For this exercise, we are asked to write about the creation of false or alternative identities online. I have chosen to discuss Nikki S. Lee’s ‘Projects’ series (1997-2001), which is cited in the course notes, as although this work is now twenty years old and predates the proliferation of social media, it has a resonance with the style of social media image making and raises some challenging questions about representation and cultural appropriation.
Lee’s ‘Projects’ series is a blend of photography, cultural performance and ethnography in which Lee carefully observes and then adopts the style, dress and gesture of various American subcultures and identity groups. (Examples include the Yuppie Project, Punk Project, Lesbian Project, Skater Project, Exotic Dancers Project, Seniors Project, Hispanic Project and Hip-Hop Project.) Although Lee changes her appearance and mannerisms as part of the work, Sturken and Cartwright (2009: 324-5) argue that the series is not about Lee trying to fool people, but, an experiment in the idea of forging new identities through “cultural performance.” The casual snapshots that are the eventual realisation of the work have a convincing authenticity that is recognisable in the language of social media photography and call into question notions of identity as innate as well as ideas about social integration:
“Lee’s engagement with the production of an identity she does not authentically own or occupy points to the postmodern idea that identity is produced through performance. On one hand, Lee is engaging in a process of imitation through disguise and performance, one that could be said to reduce identity into simple categories of signification that can be copied and reproduced without a lived relationship to their meanings. On the other hand, Lee’s integration into these groups attests to her strong capacity to transform her being beyond appearances. Lee who is Korean-American, states that her performative images are an extension of her own identity.” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 324)
Mark Godfrey (2000) makes the comparison between Lee’s ‘Projects’ and Woody Allen’s mockumentary ‘Zelig’ (1983), in which Allen addresses ideas of the immigrants desire to assimilate and blend in through a character who is a human chameleon, morphing into different forms throughout the narrative. Lee’s images appear authentic due to how convincing they are as ordinary snapshots – clumsily shot and composed with digital dates in the corners which at first add to the amateur nature of the work’s appearance, but could also give it the status of scientific study:
“All of which amounts to a productive and amusing confusion. Lee’s photographs are great satires…But this comedy of stereotypes is not as innocent as it seems. Lee’s project ultimately seems less directed at sub-cultures than at a contemporary art audience. The comedy of the images works because Lee is not a chameleon, but an artist. A shared and secret understanding springs up between artist and viewer: we are not like the people with whom she appears and we can recognise the subtlety of the joke. But while flattering, this complicity lulls the viewer into a kind of snobbery. These photographs reveal a widespread indulgence of stereotypes: lesbian life is all short hair and body building, Hispanic leisure is shouting matches on the pavement. If the work exposes the assumptions of the audience, then perhaps it is the audience who are the butt of the last laugh.” (Godfrey, 2000)
Godfrey concludes that because Lee is of Korean heritage, her work can be interpreted as a critique of her own ethnic identity, with each image drawing attention to her position as ‘the Korean’, evidenced by the way she is still out of place taking the role of a Korean school girl. Wendy Vogel (2020) is much more critical of Lee’s strategies however, asking if Lee’s work is a provocation or a genuine search for connection and if she celebrates the mutability of identity or is commenting on the limits of assimilation. Tellingly, the essay begins with recognition that the political climate has changed dramatically since the work was made and Lee was considered an “edgy shapeshifter” – the politics of identity and debates around cultural appropriation now being heated topics:
“Lee’s work gives viewers much to unpack. Gesturing beyond 90s-era platitudes about multiculturalism, Lee puts herself – or some version of herself – into her pictures. What distinguishes her alter-ego performances is how contingent they are on relationships, on how much she can update her style and affect to those of others…Her work foregrounds questions of cultural assimilation, even though she does not try to assimilate with the groups that she studies. Using this push-pull dynamic of approximation and distancing to imitate stereotypically white styles of dress and mannerisms, she makes a powerful statement about privilege and neutrality. When she emulates the clothing, gestures, and beauty standards of historically marginalized groups, however, she risks reinscribing racist stereotypes – or suggesting that attaining power is as easy as changing one’s clothes.” (Vogel, 2020)
Eunsong Kim (2016) is scathing in her criticism of Lee, describing ‘Projects’ as “deeply racist, hurtful, and at the same time: basic.” Kim objects to the way community members are used by Lee as a way of authentication but remain anonymous, uncredited, unmarked and unnamed before being commodified by Lee in work that commands prices of between $3-5000 per print. Kim is particularly scathing of the way Lee darkened her skin for the ‘Hip-Hop Project’:
“If this series doesn’t remind you of colonial travel photography, I don’t know what will.
There are many layers to “Projects”: there are clear pre-conceived notions to the “identities” that Lee believes she is “performing” and has much to do with the exterior. The “evidence” is crafted and prepared even before she appears visually to be “part” of them. Research, then, is not her existence in the various cultural, racial and ethnic communities, but from her understanding of their archetypes.
Darkening one’s skin to pose for a series of photographs in a community one has no affinity with, does not belong to, and as an entertainment project with ongoing profit plan – this is not an interpretation of blackface. It’s blackface.” (Kim, 2016)
I have been aware of Lee’s work for a number of years but have never really researched it up until this point. On a visual level the work has never particularly interested me, although I can now see interesting parallels with the way it possesses the most prized attribute of social media photography – authenticity. Naively, I have never really considered the problematic nature of cultural appropriation in the work – as a female, Asian photographer I perhaps unconsciously believed that Lee had the right to complete this project. Transforming the work to being made by a white male in my mind immediately makes it quite troubling – once I have done this the fact of Lee’s sex and ethnicity no longer have the same effect.
There is an interesting change in emphasis in the essays I have used in my research here – Sturken and Cartwright, writing in 2009, make a postmodern reading of Lee’s work while Kim, writing over ten years later, is impassioned in her disgust at ‘Projects’ in a way that is commanding and personal. I am unsettled by how the power relationships in Lee’s images are stacked with her rather than the groups she is imitating – her presence is like a cuckoo and I agree with Wendy Vogel that her photographs with groups that have been historically marginalised the effect is one of simplification and stereotype rather than insight. The images in themselves do not mock the lifestyles of the people Lee photographs herself with, but increasingly this is all I can see – a lack of empathy and understanding and an abuse of privilege rather than something that provokes thought about how identity is a construct. This may be true in some ways, but the ability to reinvent yourself seems a privilege that is unattainable to the vast majority of the groups Lee photographs. It is extremely problematic to suggest that race and sexuality are choices rather than facts.
Cruz, A. (2007) Nikki S. Lee. X-TRA. Available at: https://www.x-traonline.org/article/nikki-s-lee (accessed 25th August 2020)
Godfrey, M. (2000) Nikki S. Lee. Frieze. Available at: https://www.frieze.com/article/nikki-s-lee (accessed 25th August 2020)
Kim, E. (2016) Nikki S. Lee’s “Projects” – and the ingoing circulation of blackface, brownface in “art”. Contemp+orary. Available at: https://contemptorary.org/nikki-s-lees-projects-and-the-ongoing-circulation-of-blackface-brownface-in-art/ (accessed 25th August 2020)
Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Vogel, W. (2020) Twenty years on Nikki S. Lee’s shapeshifting art provokes debates about cultural appropriation. Art in America. Available at: https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/nikki-s-lees-shapeshifting-art-cultural-appropriation-1202682096/ (accessed 23rd August 2020)
Yablonsky, L. (2003) To thine own selves be true. ARTnews. Available at: https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/to-thine-own-selves-be-true-81/ (accessed 25th August 2020)
My tutorial with Wendy left me a great deal to consider, most useful of which was something that has been on my mind for some time and incisively identified by Wendy – how to bring work to resolution quicker. Wendy was generous in her praise for the amount of work I had put into the assignment, interestingly however, the image she found most engaging was one of the first I made which showed the background around the mirror and was more documentary in nature than the subsequent images. Her advice was to remake 6-8 images using this simpler technique, something that she felt could be done quickly. This seemed like a reasonable point to make at the time of my tutorial and caused me to reflect on how becoming too close to a piece of work can prevent you from being able to look at it and assess it clearly. (I wonder if it is ever possible for the creator of a piece of work to be able to objectively assess it?) As I thought more about how to rework the assignment, I considered the following approaches:
Artists recommended by Wendy to look at:
I have previously researched the work of John Stezaker (see here) and have a great admiration for the simple effectiveness of his collages. It is a technique that I made a crude attempt to replicate here without a great deal of success – it is something that could warrant returning to however. Wendy mentioned to me how Stezaker experiments making these images physically in his studio, which is littered with attempts that have not worked. While I do not want to spend a huge amount of time on this, perhaps making composites physically could be a way to explore this technique further – it will be interesting to note if I have any more success with this than I did when I attempted the technique digitally.
I have previously looked at the work of Peter Kennard (see here), however Wendy specifically pointed me to his Profit/Study for a Head series. For these works, images of politicians are collaged onto pages from the Financial Times as a comment on their complicity with policies of economic austerity. It is a simple, yet effective strategy with both elements of the collage being immediately identifiable as well as the identity of the politician. The immediate recognition that is achieved despite a lack of distinguishing facial features got me thinking about the possibility of doing something similar with Boris – someone who has a distinctive style that could be easily utilised.
Appointed election artist for the 2017 election. (See here.)
Alison Jackson makes faux documentary style images with look a likes standing in as celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family. The work is witty, irreverent and convincing, as well as controversial and edgy. For example, a piece that imagines Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed posing with their mixed race child. The work causes a double take and a jolt – it is certainly of questionable taste to show a couple who died in such dramatic circumstances and it could be seen as complicit with the conspiracy theories that the Paris crash was actually an execution to prevent Diana continuing her relationship with a Muslim. By being completely convincing however, the viewer is forced to confront their own prejudices and personal relationship with class and race. I was aware of the work of Alison Jackson previously in a superficial way and it is something I will have to come back to again. The work is not immediately relevant to this assignment, however, it has made me consider whether my approach is too mannered – is the injection of an acerbic edge into the work to give an element of provocation a possible way to take it forward?
Appointed election artist for the 2010 election. (See here.)
I have previously looked at the work of Simon Roberts (see here) and his work for the 2010 General Election was mentioned to me by my tutor for my previous course Documentary. Something that particularly resonates with me from this series is the video installation ‘When did you last cry?‘ The video is printed on 3 screens with images taken from during the 4 weeks of the election campaign, mainly shot through the side window of a car, accompanied by a soundtrack of ambient noise intercut with radio interview soundbites. I find the uncertainty and ambiguity of the piece entrancing – rather than providing a sense of optimism there is an uneasy tone of uncertainty about the future present.
For this series, Mayer appropriated female nude selfies from various sites on the internet, including revenge porn sites, and replaced the faces of the women in the images with her own. In an interview, Mayer describes being interested in how the selfie is inherently directed by the person in the photograph and how the majority of nude selfies are not intended to be mass distributed and are therefore not authorised – through her intervention, Mayer seeks to recapture and reclaim the images of the girls she features. (Byrd, 2014) In an interview, she expands on this idea:
“When these girls are taking these nude selfies, it’s interesting because they’re almost empowered. They’re the director, they’re the model, the editor and then the delivery vessel. They’ve created this while thing and then the minute it’s released, it becomes this item of vulnerability.” (Frank, 2014)
Vulnerability is something of a euphemism as the consequences for these women who have their nude selfies published online can be dangerous, far reaching, and life ruining – from public shame and damaged personal and professional relationships to suicide.
Reviewing the series’ exhibition at the 2014 Montreal Biennial, Cait Munro (2014) describes the public dissemination of nude photographs of women without consent as “probably the seediest underbelly of internet culture” but praises Mayer for reclaiming these from vengeance through her intervention:
“It’s a brave action that attempts to assuage some of the pain and humiliation many women have felt when they’ve found themselves compromised online in a way they never intended to be. It also opens a dialogue about the consequences of a culture that disseminates information without consent. Mayer recounts watching visitors approach her work during the opening reception, only to become visibly uncomfortable and back away. Part of it is just the natural response to encountering something sexually charged in a public space, but Mayer posits there’s something else at play too. “Because we are used to seeing nudity in a context where it is being taken from a woman, we feel we’re not supposed to be looking at these images, which in a way harms our [ability to enjoy] sexuality.” (Munro, 2014)
While praising the series for being a comment on visual oversaturation, Alicia Eler (2017) is less convinced about whether Mayer succeeds in reclaiming and anonymising the images from the malicious intent of whoever posted them to the internet:
“In making art out of actual revenge porn, Mayer further participates in the sharing and repurposing of intimate images that were never meant to be seen publicly. Within selfie culture, however, there is always an implied potential publicness, that this image could be shared. Selfies are taken with that awareness in mind. As an artist, is Mayer given leeway to use these images for the purposes of social commentary?
Mayer is both empathic to the women who originally shared these images, and fascinated by the images themselves. There is a certain sadness in all of these images. They are all evidence of betrayal. Once posted on the internet they join the glut of bodies as digital detritus or trash.” (Eler, 2017: 104-5)
Although Mayer states on her website that she went to great lengths to make convincing composites, the images I have looked at appear obviously fake. Aesthetically I do not have a problem with this in itself as it could be read as a comment on the other internet phenomenon where nude images of celebrities are faked. It is also of note that this series was first exhibited around the same time that a number of celebrities had their internet accounts hacked and nude images were posted online.
‘400 nudes’ is a challenging series that raises many issues that are important and deserve to be explored, I am not convinced that Mayer is successful with this however. The use of revenge porn to make art is problematic at best and most accurately unethical – there are strange contradictions concerned with empowerment and the fact that this is removed by the actions of a vengeful partner in an act that is a despicable betrayal of trust. Similarly to much rhetoric regarding rape when the survivor is portrayed as having behaved in some way that meant she deserved to be attacked, the victims of revenge porn are criticised for sending the images in the first place – an argument which fails to address the real issues and the fact that this sort of action is a form of sexual violence in itself. I am sure Mayer had positive intentions about being able to change this by her intervention, but she only adds to the problem by widening the audience. Ultimately I reach the same conclusion as Alicia Eler, and like her, I have chosen not to illustrate this post with any of the images from the series as I do not want to be complicit in showing images that were originally published to the internet with the purpose of humiliation.
Byrd, C. (2014) Jillian Mayer on the nude selfie project. Fresh Art Intl. Available at: https://freshartinternational.com/2014/10/23/fresh-talk-jillian-mayer/ (accessed 11th July 2020)
Eler, A. (2017) The selfie generation. New York: Skyhorse publishing.
Frank, P. (2014) Artist photoshops 400 nude selfies to explore the future of the online image. Huffpost. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/jillian-mayer_n_6064116?ri18n=true&guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAL0a-uK5MU_gYJjkKlUg_H_lfEMDng2_R0ocSAyf9JpWqGl8EGwKxkFZu9wSY02de46WU0ZnSLYfBlyGPepCe0EZvbiXDGWr5T0hq-MSBqmWDWT1rVq3sl-NPtbe2yv0malv-g4lO3BUglUeLZ9p-wr808yi4vHKwSIMLXVibkiQ (accessed 19th July 2020)
Munro, C. (2014) At Montreal Biennial artists tackle sexual politics in the 21st century. Artnet. Available at: https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/at-montreal-biennial-artists-tackle-sexual-politics-in-the-21st-century-141607 (accessed 26th July 2020)
In 2014, Amalia Ulman used her Instagram account to create a five month “performance” in which she blended fact and fiction to present a narrative which commented on the extreme makeover culture prevalent on Instagram at the time. Through a series of social media posts and selfies she created a semi-fictionalised version of herself, the background research for which she describes here:
“I began by researching the cosmetic gaze and the beauty myth, then I prepared a script and timeline that followed the rhythm of social media. I identified three popular trends: the Tumblr girl (an Urban Outfitters type); the sugar-baby ghetto girl; and the girl next door, someone like Miranda Kerr, who’s healthy and into yoga. Part of the project was about how photography can be a signifier of class, and how cultural capital is reflected in selfies.” (Eler, 2017: 242)
Although some aspects of the performance were carefully and elaborately orchestrated, such as pretending to have breast augmentation surgery, other parts were real – Ulman followed the strict Zao Dha Diet, went to pole dancing lessons and moved from London to Los Angeles. The introduction to the work on the New Museum website describes the series like this:
“Through judicious use of sets, props, and locations, Excellences and Perfection evoked a consumerist fantasy lifestyle. Ulman’s Instagram account is a parade of carefully arranged flowers and expensive lingerie and highly groomed interiors and perfectly plated brunches. These images are excessive, but also believable – because they’re so familiar. For many privileged users, social media is a way of selling one’s lifestyle, of building one’s brand. And Ulman went to great lengths to replicate the narrative conventions of these privileged feeds, from the use of captions and hashtags (#simple, #cutegasm), to the pace and timing of uploads, to the discerning inclusion of “authentic” intimate or emotional content (a photo of a lover or a moment of despair).”
When Ulman brought ‘Excellences and Perfections’ to an end in September 2014, many of her thousands of followers who were unaware of her performance, were so emotionally invested in her character that they felt hurt by what they perceived as her deception. Other commentators praised the way her project drew attention to the double standards that allow women to be simultaneously valued and shamed for the way they present their bodies online. Lucy Souter (2018: 103) describes how Ulman was praised by critics as “one of the internet’s sharpest infiltrators” and for “deconstructing the tyranny of smug social media bragging.” She regards ‘Excellences and Perfections’ as an example of parafictional artwork as it requires the belief of the audience to give them a jolt of reality. She makes this analysis:
“Who is to say where the line between fact and fiction lies in “Excellences and Perfections”? For after all, isn’t this the artist’s actual person? Ulman made real physical changes in her appearance for this project, to the point of exercising hours per day and having fillers injected into her face. Might not some of these experiences or emotions depicted also be at least partially genuine? And what of the unguarded responses of her followers? Are those invalidated when she “outs” the project as being staged? Once unveiled as a hoax, Ulman’s project is a fiction that remains provocative in its negotiation between authenticity and commodification as foregrounded by selfie culture. For indeed, we all encounter a degree of contradiction between our experience of ourselves and the way we present ourselves to the world. The internet has merely extended the reach and velocity of our self-imaging.” (Souter, 2018: 103)
In an interview Ulman addresses the controversy that ensued following the realisation that her social media was an art project rather than reality by drawing an analogy with the way people jumped from their seats when confronted with the Lumières first public film screening:
“in a way, everyone knows at that their core, that all reality online is fabricated. Maybe that’s where the bitterness came from (in relation to the performance) because that exposure not only involved me, but everyone who followed and saw themselves reflected in it.” (Horning and Ulman, 2014)
When the interviweer makes a comment about the project being bound with “the ethics of suspending disbelief on social media”, Ulman makes a reply about the construction of media in general:
“I think it is important to offer skepticism about media in general. Even though it is well known, for example, that news networks are manipulated depending on their ideology and that women’s magazines are constantly censored by their advertisers (mainly the cosmetics industry), reminders are always worth generating. This is because they point out hierarchies of power and manipulation, they help the audience to become more analytical about their sources of information. If I generated a fiction, everything else could be a fiction too.” (Horning and Ulman, 2014)
Peggy Orenstein defines Ulman’s series as spoofing the language of Instagram by creating a “commercialized, one-dimensional, infinitely replicated, and, frankly, unimaginative vision of sexiness…[set to] perform rather than to feel sensuality.” (Winant, 2016) Carmen Winant makes this analysis which describes the fine line that Ulman successfully negotiates through the series:
“In a moment in which feminist art is defined primarily by its immediate context and authorial claims (Ulman does not describe practice as “feminist” or ascribing to any other political categorization), [Excellences and Perfections] could be considered incisive or lacking rigor. In any case, by revelling in the exhibitionism she seeks to critique, Ulman’s work gets to have it both ways.” (Winant, 2016)
I find ‘Excellences and Perfections’ a compelling series – completely convincing even when you know it is a construction, and complex in the way themes of gender politics and the gaze of the internet are explored. The series possesses the quality that all social media presentations of this type strive for – authenticity, something which ironically has no relationship at all to reality.
Bennett, J. (2019) Are we all anxious now? Tate.org website. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-39-spring-2017/are-we-all-anxious-now (accessed 11th July 2020)
Bradley, P. K. (2018) Amalia Ulman on her new book and internet performances. Artforum. Available at: https://www.artforum.com/interviews/amalia-ulman-on-her-new-book-and-internet-performances-75471 (accessed 19th July 2020)
Connor, M. (2014) First look: Amalia Ulman – excellences and perfections. Rhizome. Available at: https://rhizome.org/editorial/2014/oct/20/first-look-amalia-ulmanexcellences-perfections/ (accessed 11th July 2020)
Connor, M. (2018) Rest in Peace, Ethira. An interview with Amalia Ulman. Rhizome. Available at: https://rhizome.org/editorial/2018/sep/11/rest-in-peace-ethira-an-interview-with-amalia-ulman/ (accessed 11th July 2020)
Cornell, L. (2015) Self-portraiture in the first-person age. Aperture #221. Available at: http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=2639c33e-ec8f-4d7d-b4c5-0053f80ade3f%40sessionmgr4006
Dazed and Confused (s.d.) Dazed and Confused – Amalia Ulman interview. Dazed and Confused. Available at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Zb0Bdwcs8dCwcIZkcfHA2icgOIruiU5NCPWHbbfJpYk/edit#heading=h.3hj9wmyj1wh6 (accessed 11th July 2020)
Dean, A. (2015) Amalia Ulman – gentle deception. Topical Cream. Available at: http://topicalcream.info/editorial/amalia-ulman-gentle-deception/ (accessed 11th July 2020)
Diehl, T. (s.d.) Inside the cover: Amalia Ulman her body, her self. Cura magazine. Available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1ld0yQIgqA-MGtNMktNbUdMaUs3U096TUVUM3ZDbXdLVjBZ/view (accessed 11th July 2020)
Duncan, F. (s.d.) Escape from L.A. with Amalia Ulman. Ssense. Available at: https://www.ssense.com/en-us/editorial/culture/escape-from-l-a-with-amalia-ulman?utm_source=instagram&utm_medium=social&utm_term=amalia-ulman_collabshare_16_03_2018 (accessed 1th July 2020)
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Kissick, D. (2014) From plastic surgery to public meltdowns Amalia Ulman is turning Instagram into performance art. i-D. Available at: https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/wxejzb/interview-cassi-namoda-artist-mozambique (accessed 11th July 2020)
Langmuir, M. (2016) Amalia Ulman is the first great Instagram artist. Elle. Available at: https://www.elle.com/culture/art-design/a38857/amalia-ulman-instagram-artist/ (accessed 11th July 2020)
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Ruigrok, S. (2018) How this 2014 Instagram hoax predicted the way we use photography now. Dazed Digital. Available at: https://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/39375/1/amalia-ulman-2014-instagram-hoax-predicted-the-way-we-use-social-media (accessed 11th July 2020)
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I am unsure as to whether the normal self assessment criteria should be used for the critical essay as there are a number of headings that would not be applicable. Instead, I have made some notes on how the essay has developed and thoughts about what I can do to change in further drafts.
In previous critical essays I have written, I have chosen subjects that are two far reaching in their scope which has meant it has been difficult to fully explore these within the word count. Writing this essay I have been very conscious not to make the same mistakes, perhaps overly so. It feels like I am left with an essay that needs addition rather than tighter editing – not necessarily a bad thing just the opposite way round than I have normally approached these assignments.
The title for the essay is based on one of the set titles for the course, “What is your understanding of the ‘digital self’ and what is the effect of our everyday use of photography upon it? Discuss using relevant case studies and published research.” From this, I arrived at the title: “The ‘digital self’ and the revolution in everyday photography”, although this is a statement rather than a question, this title encapsulates the ideas I wanted to consieder in the essay.
Other titles I considered but did not use:
I will be interested in what Wendy has to say about my choice of title and whether I should change it. Perhaps changing to a question will force a stronger conclusion and clarity around what I am trying to discuss.
I chose a very simple, perhaps too simple, structure for my essay as I wanted to prevent myself from digressing from the points I wanted to raise. My intention was to demonstrate ways that different demographics and age groups use networked photography to both interact and present a version of themselves to the world. This is perhaps something I could be more explicit about in both the introduction and conclusion. Rereading the essay I note that both the introduction and conclusion are more opinionated than discursive and lack reference to wider research which is something I will need to address in subsequent drafts.
The three artists (and film I reference in the introduction to the essay) are intended to demonstrate different aspects of social media interaction through their practice. Being a film, ‘Eighth Grade’ is out of step with the work of the three photographers. I think it is a relevant reference to include, but worry if it is distracting rather than adding to the piece. ‘The Bully Pulpit’ by Haley Morris-Cafiero is also different to the work of Amalia Ulman and Cindy Sherman who use Instagram as the way of presenting their projects. Perhaps a project that was also based in social media would have been more appropriate.
I was conscious not to include more artists in the essay as I wanted to keep my references concise and focused. Looking back on the essay however, I wonder if the three sections on the artists projects are more like reviews for their work rather than references that support my argument. A change could be using artists to illustrate ideas rather than the other way around.
I engaged in a huge amount of research for the essay in a way that (at the time) I felt was ordered and manageable but know I have missed a great deal of relevant information that could have been included. My strategy was to read books and essays to judge their relevance before going back to them to pick out sections and quoted that would be relevant. The main barrier to the success of this approach was that I only had a general idea of what the essay was going to be about as I did this initial reading – I was interested in the selfie as both a form and mode of self expression but that is all I was considering generally. As I approached bringing firmer ideas about the essay together, I realised that using the selfie as a subject would be too large for the essay – something that feels like the right decision but does not help in terms of wasted research time. In the future I need to make sure my research is much more focused in order to make best use of time. I should also have been better at noting any possible interesting quotes and paraphrasing ideas as I completed my research.
The quotes and references I have included in the essay are relevant to what I am trying to say, but, there is a lack of context in the introduction and conclusion sections. Also, some of the quotes I have used are too long and probably need to be edited in the next draft. I should probably also include more information about how the self is formed and maintained as well as other psychological notions such as narcissism.
At this point it is difficult to conclude what direction the essay will take in subsequent drafts, although I am inclined towards the belief it will require a major rewrite. I need a little time before going back and critiquing what I have written, as well as feedback from Wendy to help with how to develop what I have done so far. Following from assignment 2, I am trying to maintain the idea that any work submitted is only a draft that will require reworking – a strategy that is helping greatly with my struggles with procrastination, but is also pushing me out of my comfort zone.