Lead image: Teresa Dillon "ADIP" 2009
In 1993, The New Yorker cartoonist Peter Steiner published a comic with two dogs sitting in front of a computer. One says to the other: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
Over 20 years later, it still stands as one of the more memorable early works of art about the internet. Playwright David Perkins created a namesake play from the cartoon, numerous cultural essays followed, and now a net art exhibition tackles it.
You Might Be a Dog, opening May 16 at LEAP, showcases how internet identity has evolved from anonymous to broadcast. According to the curator Teresa Dillon, the 16 artists take “the classic selfie" and use it as a springboard for a myriad of contemporary portraits, chock-full of commentary and reflections of our online lives. Ironically, the group show started as a dinner party conversation showcasing hilarious selfies among friends.
The works in the show date back to 1999, including one piece by Dillon (an artist and curator) which archives over 150 self-portraits sitting at the computer, and Gordan Savičić will also show the first documentary around his controversial Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, which deletes online profiles for those who want to erase all their social media accounts (though it is blocked by Facebook).
The exhibition digs pixelated vanity and creatively extrapolates on what it means to be able to take an instantaneous self-portrait and share it with the entire world. After all, our laptop screens are not mirrors. Dillon spoke with us about the artists in the show, the broadcasted self, and life beyond vanity.
The Creators Project: Since the show is a throwback to an old New Yorker cartoon, how has the selfie changed in 21 years?
Teresa Dillon: The cartoon comments on how online interaction in the mid-nineties was essentially anonymous, you didn't really know who you were talking too at the other end of the line. Of course technically you could figure out some elements, which could identify who were talking to at the end of the line. However, at this time there were no social networks, no YouTube, or online photo albums. Essentially, how we broadcast ourselves—our identity—had a particular form and privacy, control was very much in the hands of the user themselves. Within the last 21 years, this has radically changed. How we represent ourselves online is now also very visual, we have profile pictures, photo albums, videos etc. This visual broadcast of the self, along with myriad forms of other identifies (date of birth, location data etc) changes how we see ourselves and our relationships with others. The show focuses on this notion—the visual broadcast of the self—over the last 21 years. One key point in the show is how the self-portrait reshapes our sense of self. How are these works more than just expressions of vanity?
The exhibition complements a wider body of work, which strongly resonates with my formal training as a social and educational psychologist. For example, relationships between the construction of self and how this is informed by our cybernetic attachments and relationships [is vital]. In this way, I don't see the selfie as a form of vanity but as a contemporary artifact of our techno-worlds, which enables us to immediately capture our image and broadcast it online. This action itself is less to do with vanity and much more a snapshot of our current state of play. However the action itself, leads to multiple behaviors, one of which influences our sense of vanity.
But the artists are not always present in each picture, right?
The exhibition is best read as a contemporary portrait gallery, focusing on the representation and presentation of ourselves online. The works focus on the poetic, critical and humorous understanding on these online representations. This balance of poetic, critical and humorous approaches along with the form of the works was essential. It’s also very important to state that the show is not about selfies, it's about wider representations of the "broadcasted self"—this has more than one form. This is why Czech photographer Daniel Poláček's work is included because it comments on online chat rooms and how in these spaces, we represent ourselves and our desires, need for sex and intimacy online. This is why Gordan Savičić's Web 2.0, Suicide Machine is present because its address our online 'death.'
Can you tell us more about the pieces where the artist remains behind the camera and why?
Kim Asdendorf presents his portrait in the form of a font, as our signature remains one key way of how we are identified. Heath Bunting presents his portrait in the form of a network diagram relating to a variety of attributes, abilities, status or positions he holds. This portrait is part of Heath's online 'Status Project' which deeply explores the construction of our 'status' within a country or place and how this informs who and what we are 'legally' able to do.
Danja Vasiliev and Sofia Mavzalevskaya’s portrait from 2003 is hidden within an interface, while Joseph De Lappe's self-portrait references the original dog cartoon and includes his name in the joke between the two computer mice. So although it initially may seem that the artists are not present in these works, this is not the case. It is just that the form their portrait takes, as it provides an alternative reading to the topic. This is something I was very interested in exploring, particularly in relation to this idea of a contemporary portrait gallery, which is based on comments, reflections of our online lives.
Rollin Leonard has photographed other people for his Cell Bodies series. What’s the story there?
The exhibition is not focused just on the idea of the 'classic' selfie. Leonard is present in his work, Arm Ball Rollin, which is included in the show. I was also interested in the back story of how we found his subjects for the Cell Bodies series, which is normally through an online call, through forums where he invites strangers to take part in the work. This invitation and response to participate introduces an interesting aspect of offering yourself up to others, giving them our image to play with, and seeing what comes back.
What about the Summer GIF by Olia Lialina?
This is great piece of net art, which for me also resonates with this notion of the construction of the self and how it is informed by our techno-networks. Essentially the GIF doesn't exist unless the 24 other people who essentially compose the image are online. What is beautiful about this idea, is that it reflects on how our sense of self. The image cannot exist, not move, without everyone else being present. This links a variety of concepts within the psychology of our sense of self, how our identity is formed and co-constructed through our social relations and interactions: I am who I am because of my network, the people who I'm connected with. I cannot say if this was the explicit intention that LiaLina set out to create, but aside from its net art elegance, this reading of it, I find quite beautiful.
Gordan Savičić is bringing back his Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, which caused a lot of controversy in 2009. To be clear: It isn't about committing suicide but rather deleting your online presence. How will it be different this time around?
Much of this work has been lost in time, so the piece presented will be a video documenting in part the project as well as the elements which have disappeared. This is what remains of the project. I've purposefully selected works from different periods over the last 21years, which represent spikes in our thinking on this topic—and Gordan's very articulation addressed the issue of how we 'kill' our online identities. It’s a very powerful piece. But as with some of the works, due to the nature of how they are made and their preservation, only elements of them now remain. Can anything new be said about selfies at this point? If so, can you sum it up?
I'd really like to ensure that the show is not just contextualized in relation to selfies—otherwise the point of the show is lost. Selfies are one form (and the most in vogue) of how we represent ourselves online.
Kim Asendorf TTF via