What is self?
It is easy to dismiss the process of taking selfies as a product of vanity, self-obsession—but it’s now a cultural practice of self-shaping and formation, not unlike our understanding and practice of social photography. If mom says we’re taking a group picture by the fountain, we have a socially programmed method of assembling into a posture of now-historical weight, of establishing the proscribed order of presentation, adopting the necessary behaviors for the creation of said social document. We even naturally understand what aspects can be stretched—that bunny ears over a friend are fine for funny moments, but abandoned during the “serious” method of recording presence; visual data as a tangible record of officiated memory, itself constructed and predicted on cultural behaviors.
The selfie is no different. The ubiquity of digital imaging has made the process of repeatedly snapping shots of yourself, your hamburger, your cat, an acceptable and common practice. As someone who generally avoided having their picture taken for years, I became somewhat fascinated with the self as represented to the self, through the mass-snapping of self portraits, made diminutive by the affectionate (yet fleeting) term “selfie,” as a way of identifying the social presence of yourself as being, your body and face filtered by various easily applied affects and social behaviors.
I’ve lately used the selfie to ask myself who I am. Where do I fit? I asked the selfie, “what is self?”
In high school, I snapped endless rolls of film with dad’s flip-top K-Mart camera: friends, locations, events, moments, rarely turning the camera on myself. I recall one shot of the Pep Band admiring a sunset over the College of the Canyons, as a high school football game played out below (the same game in which our quarterback sacked the ref and got barred from all future games). Jose wore his Rush 2112 hoodie. Jen sported her funky Indiana Jones hat. I was there as subtext, purveyor of the lens, recognizer of the moment’s socially proscribed weight on photographic paper. Each roll developed at the Fotomat film hut in the Market Basket parking lot. Each roll printed, tucked in a chronological album with true archivist intention, shared at gatherings.
If I was included in a photo, I allowed someone else to take the reigns in order for me to include myself in my own memory-media record, because I didn’t grasp (or lend import to) the idea of turning the camera on my own face, with my own hand. The process seemed to require an external agent, as if another body could help confirm the formality and importance of the capture. These high school albums are crammed with individuals I sometimes chat with, others yet who have died, are physically lost to me, or emotionally distant, but recorded and archived in a string of now-past moments. To quote Roland Barthes, “whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe,” the endless catastrophe of having-been-there, of endless, interminable passage. Indeed, “whatever its nominal subject, photography was a visual inscription of the passing of time and therefore also an intimation of every viewer’s own inevitable passing” (Geoffrey Batchen on Talbot and Barthes).
These physical documents, in my mind, are “photographs,” yet I now find myself calling all photographs, and all other visual output related to photographs, “images” instead. “Images” as a term becomes diaphanous, embracing paper and digital output alike, separating the visual from the inherently physical.
Much of my work on The Cascade – Moments in the Televisual Desert was a method of engaging the impact of visual (and audio) media on our concept of self and site, memory and spatial distinction, but this was of course connected to me as individual, not based in a randomly chosen location or system, even though I expanded in order to be less personal. This connects to the way selifes (combined with my close-up, cell phone method of extracting a conceptual California through television) has led into a new angle of media-memory portraiture; capturing that much-debated, well articulated concept of the photograph as index of life-in-a-moment, and of the imminent, undeniable and future death of the physical being, as well as the eventual erosion or eventual change of places and things.
For those of us who warp, manufacture and sample imagery, some of which results in images that are not indexical of a physically real event or person, I remind the humble viewer that neither are most photographs truly indexical of anything tangible at all (addressed well by countless art historians and theorists, of course, including Geoffrey Batchen, Roland Barthes, etc.), neither are they completely fabricated–existing in an odd, in-between space that I enjoy.
I recently had excerpts from The Cascade in an all-abstract exhibition, and several of my students attended. One student described my First Responder View-Master reel in a fascinating way. She said clicking through the reel forces the individual image cells together, implying a certain continuity, even though the language of each individual image prevents a clear reading of the total event. Instead they are frozen, oddly linked moments, seemingly extracted from the “before” and “after” of an unclear, yet disturbing, event.
She felt the act of putting images together (on the reel) asks the viewer to consider each shot in continuity, even when the order of events is unreliable and fleeting. The separated images, printed on paper and distanced by a few inches and physical frames, represented a different kind of engagement with the same proposed event. Each framed still became a single, contemplative moment that she could not specifically tie to a continuous string of events, but which gently suggested a relation through presentation (and color palette, characters), in which she could choose to ignore aspects of the moment, where the reel was inescapable. She looked at me hopefully and asked, “did I get it?” Yes, indeed. Something may have happened, but she is unable to determine at true order of events, instead receiving snippets and clues which described to her a sense of emergency, where something terrible must have happened on a highway, but the exact order of events was unimportant. The reel encloses you in a private sense of before and after, the paper allows you to fixate on certain moments and leave others behind.
This rotating reel relates to my process of selfie-taking, and to several new series I’m working on, which behave as punctuation marks and spokes on a bigger churn (Whitespace-Bluespace and Channeling). Lots of things in the works, all turning, turning.
A sampling of raw, real-time manipulations from Whitespace-Bluespace:
I also think of image-cells as life moments or even expectations, in a way. When I’ve heard people describe a “mid life crisis” (really a culturally propagated construction, much like the “seven year itch”), which asks us to evaluate whether our lives are fulfilling a certain, proscribed linearity, we determine whether our circumstances are satisfying (ourselves, society) or failing to satisfy a projected set of needs and understandings, milestones and way posts. Some of this falls into a real field of suffering, realizing one has resigned themselves to a certain quality of existence due to obligation, expectation, denial and repression. Anyone who allows self-analysis can pass through such a “mid-life” crisis, many times, and at any age. The imagined mid-point, framed by expected progression through an average life span, is famously pivotal, as we perceive ourselves to be halfway to the finish line, never taking into account our lives might end well before the first turn–or that we might again live longer than the standardized mid-point, and that all expectations and requirements are manufactured and superimposed. Perhaps it seems we’ve only just begun, or we’ve “frittered away the hours in an offhand way.”
What are the individual image cells in your reel? Do they fit any kind of continuity? Should they? Is there only one reel? Only one View-Master?
What have you denied yourself? What have you indulged? Who are you? Can a selfie suggest what you have, or what you lack? Do we find ourselves in the mirror of the other, even our other halves, as Socrates suggests? Or is this like his attitude toward love: that love itself is an unending quest for immortality, found within the passionate unity of self-and-non-self, the desire to propagate DNA, including the fiber of ideas and concepts. This relates to a bigger philosophical discussion, of course, but I mention it here, as it connects to the emerging bodies of work that are resulting from all of this material.
Thus, I’ve been taking a lot of seflies. At first, I wasn’t sure why, until I realized I am looking at myself as a structured and p(resented) self, then looking at my image as “other.” Looking, seeking, attempting to uncover what it is to be me, through the fabrication of “me” as digital object. Who am I? How does the camera dismantle and rebuild my sense of “me”? Who is Ren? Renee? Why am I “Ren” and not “Renee” here and now? Why have I been so afraid to include myself in photographs in the past, when the images were on film, and why so many selfies now?
It’s as if a string of self-portraits document your humanness, your presence, your flaws and strengths, presented and even polished, your space of being, your stamp of mortality. They ask you to think about where you stand within your physical environments, your society, your sense of physicality, sensuality, both virtual and physical, your broader cultural connections, your sub-cultural belongings, within a point on the planet surface, the sheer disposable joy of repetitive shots, once the luxury of expertise and film roll, now snapped, shaped, delayed, displayed, posed.
Am I cute? Am I ugly? Am I worthy? Do I belong? What will I lose? What do these terms even mean? None of these posed images are me, yet they are all me. Within a string, a screen full of myself becomes severely repetitious, a bold formal pattern, homogenized and dulled. A screen full of me becomes a mass, a distilled rhythmic pattern, digital beats that follow a flow of costume and direction, of pose and misdirection.
In a mass-row faced with my own face, I no longer notice flaws and ridiculousness, instead I see raw prescience, suspended and removed from the flow.
I am also reminded that I have the luxury of taking selfies. I can experiment with displays of the manufactured self, because I am still present as a potential signified, a real and living significator. I am alive.
The time before, the time after
I recall a series of photographs in my parents’ photo box—taken at their home on 70th St. East, in Palmdale, California, then again at my childhood home at 3255 East Ave. S (near 35th St. E, also in Palmdale, on Highway 138; Pearblossom Highway).
They took this series of photos the year my sister was murdered (at night in the desert, outside the house next door). The year they buried her, changed residences, shifted slightly across the Mojave desert, but only a few miles from their shared ground zero.
They took a lot of photos during this time. A time when you might think they would retreat into sheer grief and silence. Instead, they took photos of each other. Of themselves. The white border at the bottom of each picture was clearly labeled:
They never mentioned what the “before” and “after” meant explicitly, of course.
There is a shot of my dad, serious, bending down over a six pack of bottled beer in front of the carport. He is wearing an odd hat, jeans, a T-shirt. He is not smiling. It says “1972 After,” in capital letters.
There is the suggestion that all photos inevitably record and shadow the represented subject’s own mortality, but in these, the photos inevitably bore the presence and absence of a significant being. The signified and the signifier, present and invisible in the same frame. The suggestion of relocation, based on the loss of the distantly signified, was heavy in the yellow dirt, the artificial white borders. I suppose they wondered if they would remember when each shot was taken, that there might have been some passive, nearly invisible sense of completeness in the “before” that was absent in the “after.” Rather than happiness and grief as dichotomy, though, the portraits were quite the same—the words “before” and “after” the only identifier delineating the process of grief that was just beneath the surface.
I would share them here, but none are in my possession, so instead I’ll use entries from my new Whitespace-Bluespace.
So instead of this:
They really looked more like this:
Not much different. Only a subtle shift, with text to guide in the originals, no text here.
I see the same thing, at different conceptual levels, within each digital photo I work with:
before I knew her
before he vanished
after he went dark
before the bag was stolen
before Pants had his ear removed
After my thesis
That all my selfies, in relation to Cindy Adams are
That my newest work is before I am writing this blog post, after I was rejected by you, before I enjoyed tomorrow, after I go down the spiral again.
That my images are definitely “before” things yet to come down the pipeline. That they are all after other interactions, losses, events, recordings, other bodies of work. That it is all a dance of relational interlacing. I think of the term “Relational Aesthetics” and though that’s not what Bourriaud meant, the phraseology seems to apply to this.
After I noticed (but yet before I knew him at all)
So here, in some of my newest work, the selifes led into a deeper spiral of time and associative image-memory, allowing me to revisit concepts of the self in image, the image as time moniker, the image as segment in narrative and non-narrative association. I thus began three new bodies of work: Whitespace-Bluespace, Channeling and Wheel of Fortune (tentatively titled). Each related to the excavation of media, to memory and temporality, and to additional, emerging associations.
Before and after lives and deaths, moments and experiences
before you knew this, after you read the above
Before I knew you didn’t love me, after my brother disappeared
Before you left us without food and we had to sit through an hour-long sermon about how we were terrible, broken people to get a box of peanut butter and margarine
After I watched Miami Vice on the little TV, recorded at Misty’s house on a watery VHS tape because we couldn’t afford a VHF antenna, watched and re-watched because it was a precious capture
After they rebuilt the freeway onramp (after the Whittier-Narrows earthquake made me late for school and broke her windows, after the 1994 Northridge quake knocked down the I-5 and 14 Freeway interchange and killed Officer Dean on the bridge from so many movies and TV shows)
Before the earthquakes, but after Cindy
Before I decided never to do this again
Before we had to steal food and starved in the dark
All of these television programs recorded after mom was born, some before Cindy died, some before the beginning of me, all before the end of me–are all before, during and after my work, they are excavated and integrated and I always seem to live in a desert fused with Hollywood.
Loss and distance, “before” and “after” on the time-stamp of their visual lives, my newly re-emergent and disarmed “heroes” are lost, wandering, on the highway, at various stages of before and after. Like the heroes in The Cascade, they are undermined, human, uncertain, temporary. They move through conceptual and literal environments, they are indexed by image, yet they are neither real nor unreal.
My work is moving more toward the character, still rooted in the land, but now somewhat freed from the bounds of the Mojave itself. More on that in Part 2.
For now, these heroes in my new series borrow from the selfie, the reel, embodying The Cascade, the conceptual distance of event and memory, of idea and placement. Whitespace-Bluespace and Channeling are each grappling with related, yet explicitly different material in this vein, and I’ll be sharing more specific information on each new series in the second half of this update article.
Before Larry killed an innocent man
After Larry was cursed and awoke confused, despairing
After despair, before release
Before Sonny realizes his desires will be denied again
Before Sonny eats tacos and kills a kid by accident
After Tubbs’ girlfriend dies in his arms (again)