#selfie–thoughts on study visit at Bank Street

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It isn’t often that you enter the front door of a gallery to be immediately confronted by the artwork, scattered all over the floor in front of you such that you have no option but to walk on it!  But that is exactly what happens when you arrive at Bank Street Arts to view Tom Stayte’s #selfie – immediate engagement and participation.  I was there on Saturday, with a small group of OCA photography students, for a study visit led by tutor Andrew Conroy and including the opportunity to talk with Tom Stayte, the creator.  The work (see here) was Tom’s graduate show at Sheffield Hallam University; is currently on show at Bank Street; and will be at the forthcoming Format Festival – and rightly so!

Where to start? Probably with a description, I think; though the work doesn’t fit neatly into any formal categories.  At the core, but hidden within a white plinth, is a computer.  It is running some bespoke software that constantly looks at uploads to Instagram that are tagged #selfie. The image is ‘examined’ to see whether it contains a single face, and if it does, the image file is downloaded.  A monitor on top of the plinth relentlessly lists the files as they come down.  On the front of the plinth is a thermal printer – the sort of thing that prints receipts at the supermarket, no ink involved and paper supplied from a large roll.  As the image files are downloaded, it prints each one, low quality monochrome, to a standard size, and then cuts each one, leaving it to fall on the floor in front of the plinth.  (There is potential comparison with 24 Hours, the work in which Erik Kessels printed every image that was uploaded to Flickr on a single day; which I saw in Arles 2013.) Tom estimates that it prints an image every five seconds and it chattered and chopped endlessly throughout the two hours plus that I was there.  The prints from the graduate show have been brought forward to this show and the plan is to take these ones on to Format.  The estimate is around 100,000 so far!  It is only running when Bank Street is open, of course.

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So, one might ask ‘what is it?’ – a piece of research, social comment, political provocation – well, my reading is that Tom’s intention is that it is a work of art, and that is how I would view it.  And art is entitled to ask and provoke questions without providing answers – which is exactly what #selfie does, in my view.  It is a provocative piece, from the moment you enter, as I’ve suggested.  Is it appropriation?  The work uses thousands of photographic images, created by thousands of photographers all over the world, without any formal ‘rights’, so ‘appropriation’ would certainly seem like a word that could be applied.  Is it curation? There is an element of selection (even if it is automated) of printing and display.  And as the image above shows, a degree of participative curation is happening, with viewers encouraged to rummage amongst the output and look for patterns, anomalies, whatever, and pin them on the wall.  So the art is evolving as it is viewed.  Is it, maybe, even, a kind of performance?  Once the computer and printer are in action, there is a kind of hypnotic effect as you watch and listen – yes, sound is a part of it, actually; you can hear it in the video on Tom’s website.  Is it, perhaps, something uniquely digital; a new form of art that could only be associated with ‘now’?  It is certainly an example of an artist embracing what digital technology has to offer as a form of expression and representation; a way of creating potential for meaning for the viewer.

The work does, of course, invite thought and reflection on the phenomenon that has become the ‘selfie’.  It has its own inherent definition of what the term means – an image of a single face uploaded to Instagram and tagged #selfie, for the purposes of the project.  That imposes some inevitable boundaries and almost certainly means that we’re looking at the tip of a very big iceberg of what actually exist as potential ‘selfies’ in internet-space.  On SelfieCity, a project led by digital media writer Dr Lev Manovich, Alise Tifentale’s essay The Selfie: Making Sense of “Masturbation of Self-Image” and the “Virtual Mini-Me”, quotes the Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with smartphone or webcam and uploaded to social media website’ – but Selfie City’s project, like Tom’s work, uses Instagram as the source of its images.  But perhaps the most obvious question that this work raises, whatever the definition and source of the information, is ‘Why?’. Why do all these (predominantly young – that’s clear from a quick scan of the faces upturned on the floor at Bank Street) people want to make and share public ‘selfies’?

Tifentale’s article reviews academia’s response to the selfie, from which she concludes with these phrases – means of self-expression; construction of a positive image; tool of self-promotion; cry for attention and love; way to express belonging to a certain community.  All of those, individually and collectively, could be concluded as one stands amongst the output from #selfie and watches the mounting mass of images.  At the same time, partly prompted by Tom’s understandable choice of a cheap, low-aesthetic method of printing, the utter pointlessness of it all comes across strongly.  These are instant, throwaway images; and surrounded by tens of thousands of them in a small space, it’s actually hard to see the connection with a ‘positive image’ (especially seeing the expressions on some of the faces).  The sharing and belonging makes some sense – after all, it is the existence of a sharing platform, Instagram in this case, that makes the whole concept of the proliferation of the phenomenon possible in the first place.  And, whilst these are all public images available for the world to see, one might propose that they are primarily directed at friends and contacts, rather than the global audience. (Though, as we speculated on Saturday, few of the uploaders can have anticipated that, within seconds, they would be part of an art installation in Sheffield!!)

For my own part, both at the exhibition and in subsequent reflection, I feel most drawn to a comparison with language – both spoken and written.  These small, individual, seemingly insignificant images are like words – spoken or written to friends.  Maybe most like spoken words, in the way that they are created and dispatched into the ether – then often forgotten and ignored.  Sitting with a friend, having a drink, at a bar in sunny New York, Joe says to Anna, “This is nice; I feel really relaxed.” Then he lifts up his phone and creates a selfie, uploads it to Instagram, and a few moments later, their friends Jack and Lucy in London see the image and Jack says “Joe looks happy.”

Of course, as he’s saying that, #selfie in Sheffield prints Joe’s picture and Stan picks it up from the floor and pins it to the wall, with several others of people wearing reflective sunglasses, that have been uploaded in the last couple of hours!

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There exists a potential for some negative reading in this, naturally.  What does it say about people’s willingness to share many aspects of their lives through a media that is open to all sorts of exploitation and control by all manner of other individuals and organisations – corporate, official, criminal, insane?  My own take, whilst certainly acknowledging such negative readings, is that I am mostly drawn back again to these comparisons with casual conversation and social interaction.  The ubiquitous shared digital image seems to me to have much in common with the shared words of language – pictures painting a thousand words etc.

Many thanks to Andrew for leading such a fascinating and thought-provoking study visit – and, of course, to Tom Stayte, for creating such a stimulating & novel project and for spending time with us on Saturday.

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