– Autumn/Winter 2014

From Narcissism to the Dialogic: Identity in Art after the Internet

Melissa Gronlund

Liz Magic Laser, I Feel Your Pain, 2011, performance and single-channel video, colour, sound, 1h 20min. A Performa commission. Performance view featuring Annie Fox and Rafael Jordan, Performa 11, SVA Silas Theatre, New York, 13 and 14 November 2011. Photograph: Yola Monakhov. Courtesy the artist and Performa

In 1976, in her influential theorisation of video art, Rosalind Krauss used the prevalence of video works featuring monologues delivered directly to the camera to call the aesthetics of video one of ‘narcissism’.1 In digital work and work that is loosely associated with the post-internet art generation in a UK-US context today, one is struck instead by the prevalence of the dialogue as a format. The high incidence of such a form suggests a shift from how identity was conceived and presented in a pre-internet age: the dialogue implies a mode of extreme publicity — the spectre of a respondent always on the horizon.

A number of recent works using dialogue mimic existing formats, such as that of TV interviews in Josh Kline’s videos Forever 27 and Forever 28 (both 2013), which feature Q&As between dead celebrities and entertainment reporters, or Alex Israel’s As It Lays (2012) series of interviews. Frances Stark’s My Best Thing (2011), meanwhile, re-creates a dialogue in an online sex chat room. Others stage scenes — take Ed Atkins’s two-screen Us Dead Talk Love (2012),

  1. See Rosalind Krauss, ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism’, October, vol.1, Spring 1976, pp.50—64.

  2. Artistic interest in celebrity culture and in its quintessential form, the interview, meets Hans Ulrich Obrist’s dogged transformation of the interview into an art form in a nexus-of-the-universe-like moment when Obrist interviews his own gallery's digital creation in ‘How Are You Today?’ (Hans Ulrich Obrist and AGNES in conversation), Art Papers, March—April 2014. Also available at http://www.artpapers.org/feature_articles/feature1_2014_0304.html (last accessed on 18 June 2014).

  3. See R. Krauss, ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism’, op. cit., p.58.

  4. Ibid., pp.56—57.

  5. Ibid., p.53.

  6. See, for example, Stuart Hall’s summary of the various ways to construct and read identity in his essay ‘The Work of Representation’, in S. Hall, Jessica Evans and Sean Nixon (ed.), Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London and Milton Keynes: SAGE Publications and the Open University, 1997, pp.15—63.

  7. Most articles on this topic stem from anthropology, and, perhaps struggling to keep pace with technology, focus on how the user develops an identity online, rather than on how this online identity feeds back onto his or her sense of self. The best among these is Don Slater, ‘Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline’ (2001), in Robert C. Allen and Annette Hill (ed.), The Television Studies Reader, London: Routledge, 2004. See also José van Dijck, ‘“You Have One Identity”: Performing the Self on Facebook and LinkedIn’, Media, Culture & Society, vol.35, no.2, 2013, pp.199—215; and Kim Barbour and David Marshall, ‘The Academic Online: Constructing Persona through the World Wide Web’, First Monday, vol.17, no.9, 3 September 2012, available at http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3969/3292 (last accessed on 18 June 2014).

  8. Calvin Tomkins, ‘The Exuberant World of a Video-Art Visionary’, The New Yorker, 3 March 2014, p.40. Notably, this is nearly the inverse of Krauss’s characterisation.

  9. ‘Frances Stark on My Best Thing’, video produced for the exhibition of My Best Thing at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, 3 February—15 April 2012, available at http://vimeo.com/38244867 (last accessed on 23 April 2014).

  10. Interestingly, none of the artists surveyed have changed their gender, age or ethnicity online, though this is apparently common practice in chat rooms. The implication is a concern with the performance of one’s real identity, rather than performativeness as a notional construct or with a critique of the construction of identity.

  11. Conversation with the artist, May 2014.

  12. See, for example, Rob Horning, ‘“Surveillant Anxiety” and Exceptional Conformity’, The New Inquiry [online journal], 2 June 2014, available at http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/marginal-utility/surveillant-anxiety-and-exceptional-conformity/; Kate Crawford, ‘The Anxieties of Big Data’, The New Inquiry, 30 May 2014, available at http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-anxieties-of-big-data/; Plan C’s manifesto ‘We Are All Very Anxious’, available at http://www.weareplanc.org/we-are-all-veryanxious#.U49FFSSW_GU; Melissa Gronlund, ‘Return of the Gothic: Digital Anxiety in the Domestic Sphere’, e-flux journal, no.51, January 2014, available at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/return-ofthe-gothic-digital-anxiety-in-the-domestic-sphere/. Some of the artists discussed in this text also participated in the conference ‘The Way We Act Now: Psychology and Behaviour in the Digital Age’, Wysing Art Centre, Cambridgeshire, 14 June 2014, which looked at the ‘anxiety’ of an over-connected age; see http://www.wysingartscentre.org/whats_on/events/futurecamp (all last accessed on 18 June 2014).

  13. Steve Reinke, ‘James Richards’, in Matt Keegan, == (artist’s book), Paris: MFC-Michèle Didier, 2012.

  14. Q&A session at the conference ‘Shimmering World’, University of Manchester, 25 April 2014.

  15. ‘Post-Human’, curated by Jeffrey Deitch, FAE Mus.e d’Art Contemporain, Pully, Lausanne, 14 June—13 September 1992; Castello di Rivoli, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli, Turin, 1 October—22 November 1992; Deste Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens, 3 December 1992—14 February 1993; Deichtorhallen Hamburg, 12 March—9 May 1993. In its representation of a turn to the figurative, ‘Post-Human' largely ignored the way ‘post-human' was used within cybernetics and media arts at the time. Likewise, the notion of ‘feedback' online is here taken to refer to content rather than a formal mode.

  16. Jeffrey Deitch, Post-Human (exh. cat.), Lausanne: FAE Mus.e d’Art Contemporain, 1992, unpaginated. And elsewhere: ‘The fascinating collapse of the border between public and private lives is also explored through[Karen] Kilimnik’s work, evidenced by the new approaches to the private versus public, in everything from the scrutiny of the personal lives of political candidates to the behind-the-scenes revelations of Madonna’s Truth or Dare [1991], our entire understanding of the meaning of private life is in the process of being redefined.’ Ibid.

  17. 'Frances Stark on My Best Thing’, op. cit.

  18. Michael Holquist, ‘Introduction’, in Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (ed. M. Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and M. Holquist), Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982, p.xxi.