My marriage crashed and burned in 2012, I moved out of the house we’d built and into my studio in 2013. Seven months later I agreed to produce ten to fifteen pieces for a show at Gallery de Boer in Owen Sound. Crazy. I had all but stopped painting while building house and living in chaos, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I was dealing with some significant trauma from the past decade. I said yes anyway, began my online research and community discussion, then painted ten pieces in 21 days before the opening in June. Cathartic, and a surefire recipe for burnout, which happened by the fall. I’m really glad I did it though.
The rule was that I had to take images of myself, to use as reference for paintings which would relate to social media behaviours, trends, and blog-post responses from an online community that ‘gathered’ for this purpose.
What follows are excerpts from the social media pre-opening research I did for the Selfie Project.
#Selfie 1 (April, 2014): Right, Then
It’s difficult to admit to intolerance, but I do. I admit it with the caveat that if I’m intolerant, I’d better damn well be prepared to dig in and articulate exactly WHY I so resist and revile … the selfie, in this case. By producing and publishing my own.
…Many indigenous peoples have felt, when faced with the cameras brought by apparently benign foreigners that a photo contains part of the soul of the person photographed. Some Mayans still refuse to have their image copied and used by anyone. Mississipi artist James W. Bailey believes this too, and addresses his internal conflict thus:
I hold a religious belief, probably inherited from my paternal Mississippi grandmother, who was 1/4 Choctaw Indian, and who was extremely distrustful of photography, that photography, more than any other art form, has the ability to capture a living element of life, a flashpoint of the soul if you will. … When such photographic images are taken, the only thing the photographer can do to make the universe right with what he or she has done is to place the photograph, which I believe to be a living organism, into a context of positive growth….
The great photographers, whether they know it or not, are photographers who have taken stolen elements of life and have placed those living substances into a context where the photographically captured life force has been encouraged toward positive growth.
Are we as careful with our own images of ourselves as he is on our behalf?
From #Selfie 2: Pilgrimage
by James Franco (The Meanings of the Selfie, New York Times, December 2013) who rationalizes his recently acquired selfie habit thus,
a well-stocked collection of selfies seems to get attention. …hell, it’s what everyone wants: attention. Attention is power.
Maybe for James Franco it’s power, but I truly don’t think that’s at the core of our collective behaviour.
Selfies have steadily been on the increase since the first use of the term (Australia) in 2002 & became universal in 2012. Oxford English Dictionary made the term it’s “word of the year” in 2013. Could this be a barometer for the increasing divide between people because of a kind of culturally cultivated distrust of intimacy? We are also experiencing the increasing dissolution of traditional forms of relationship and partnership – both personally and with the institutions we once trusted (govt, banks, corporations), which may have created a vaccuum at the personal level. Maybe these cultural shifts have also changed the questions we’re asking ourselves on a personal level…
To address my own discomfort with what I perceive as other people’s ‘selfie behavior’ (now also mine, which makes me my ‘other’), I read Eric Fromm,
“We should free ourselves from the narrowness of being related only to those familiar to us, either by the fact that they are blood relations or, in a larger sense, that we eat the same food, speak the same language, and have the same “ common sense.” Knowing men [and women] in the sense of compassionate and empathetic knowledge requires that we get rid of the narrowing ties of a given society, race or culture and penetrate to the depth of that human reality in which we are all nothing but human. True compassion and knowledge of man has been largely underrated as a revolutionary factor in the development of man, just as art has been. It is a noteworthy phenomenon that in the development of capitalism and its ethics, compassion (or mercy) ceases to be a virtue.”
Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology
My conclusion after week 2: Selfie is self-examination, which is not comfortable, if one goes there with intent to be honest. It requires courage to truly look at yourself, shoot yourself, then publish yourself without armour or packaging. But art is risk, and always has been so.
If we are to see this in the context of this culture we are in that changes itself from the ground up, we are engaged in an artistic making of self-image that says with it’s public/private gaze: I am here.
Is there also an echo question: “Where are you?”