My final year students are in the process of conceptualizing in order to create a body of work for an exhibition at the end of the year. One of them is dealing with social media and this resulted in me reflecting on my own troubled, ambivalent history with this post-modern form of interaction. I thought I would share with you an excerpt from my own proposal essay to my supervising lecturers and the gallery owners. I have also included some of my (never before seen) experiments for my Proof of Life (2013) exhibition:
In November of 2011, ascribing to Jacques Lacan’s fundamental tenet, “that the self is an Imaginary construct” (Sherman 2006: 19), I created an artist persona for myself whom I named Swany. As a scholar-artist I had encountered Giorgio Vasari’s (1511-1574) Lives of Artists and Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author during the course of my theory studies. I found the conversation between the two premises when juxtaposed extremely interesting, Vasari centralised the creator while Barthes went as far as to deconstruct him. Catherine Belsey claims that Poststructuralism’s “key term is difference” (Belsey 2002: 12). In other words, meanings develop through the conflict of differences. “The language that poststructuralism advocates is useful to ask uncertain things, and not useful to give a final answer” (Belsey 2002: 107). In very simple terms this means each is illuminated by being compared to the other, their differences quantify them.
I find myself in some sort of middle ground between the two points of view. I believe that both the artist and the viewer/reader share the creative process in the creation of an artwork. It is, in my opinion, a symbiotic relationship, and it is with this collaboration in mind that I created Swany, and the www.swanyart.com site. There I placed all that drives and influences me as an artist, my states of mind and emotions. This is where the viewer/reader can be informed on the artist, to find clues and information which will further develop the creation. I like to think of this as my own little statement to be added to the Postructuralist discourse, a reaction to the modern (or is it postmodern?) times we find ourselves in. It should be kept in mind that Modernism, expressed at its simplest, is a reaction to modernity; democracy, capitalism, industrialization, science and urbanization. Postmodernism in turn reacts against Modernism, and is anti-modernist, if you will (Barrett 1997:17). Formative of Postmodern thought are “two competing intellectual movements”, Structuralism and Poststructuralism (Barrett 1997:18). What all four disciplines share is this confrontation of the modern world, and their, our, attempts to come to terms with it by quantifying it, or merely reacting to it, or even both.
All of the above reflect my thematic concern for this year, and have informed my choice. My title, Proof of Life, is, in simplest terms, a commentary on contemporary existential angst. My personal watershed moment was when I removed myself from the modern (post?) phenomenon of the social network. I was haunted by this quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night:
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
Essentially I committed suicide. It was a digital one, but a suicide nevertheless. I deleted myself; closed my Facebook account and took back my person, my spirit, my soul that was pinned to that social media wall. There is a certain voyeuristic-exhibitionistic hue to the way we interact in our modern society these days. It twists and maligns our relationships, both with others and ourselves, leaving ghostly, malformed, diseased essences floating in the ether and within our minds. We wail and rail, grasp at and grunt at, in lines of digital code instead of in each others’ faces and each others’ arms. The irony of the ease with which we can get in, and stay in contact with anybody anywhere is that we are no longer close. The same social constructs that we think bring us together, in fact separate us, distance us. We remain to each other, pictures in a book, catchphrases and captions…empty and shallow. I wrote this poem as a way of explaining my disappearance from Facebook, which I posted on www.swanyart.com
Today I committed
I’m no great loss.
I left no
No corpse to rot.
Veins, blue veins
No bloody crimson shower.
Throat, scarred neck
No black tongue protruding.
No splat of meat, no shotgun blast.
No palour, no final medicated slumber.
Not icky thump,
Not pumpkin squish.
Today I committed
I won’t be missed.
I took back
Pinned to social wall.
No more comments,
And status to update.
No list of friends’ recent stories.
No ghostly acquaintances on glowing screen.
I trust you see,
Digital that it was.
In my opinion, Facebook and other similar social network interfaces such as Instagram, certainly reflect our desperate need to quantify and define ourselves, as well as to reach out to others. I think these words of Calvin, addressing his toy tiger, Hobbes, encapsulate the essence of what I am trying to say, “I wish I had more friends, but people are such jerks. If you can just get most people to ignore you and leave you alone you’re doing good. If you can find even one person you really like, you’re lucky…and if that person can also stand you, you’re really lucky” (Watterson 1991: 16). However, and I return to where I began this essay, the cruel irony of our existence is that in order to quantify/define and position ourselves we need other people, even if only to compare and contrast ourselves with them.