The Self As Subject, Becoming And Form

The Selfie/The Self As Photographic Subject,
Embodying The Female And Becoming
Traversing Technologies, Flusser, Form

In this piece of writing I will outline and expand on how different theoretical approaches have influenced my photographic practice. In order to do so I will be examining my work through three main areas of critical interest, whilst attempting to present a chronological trajectory of my work thus far.
I will begin by examining ideas of the selfie and the self as a photographic subject, before moving on to look at the influence of feminism and the Deleuzian notion of becoming. Finally, I will be examining the role of different technologies within my work; from debates surrounding the digital versus analog, up until my decision to work with Virtual Reality (VR), I will present the vital role of form as a carrier of meaning within my image-making process. Finally I will touch on affect and its potential use in facilitating the debunking of a dichotomy of ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds.

The Selfie/The Self as Photographic Subject

My interest in selfies as a central component of digital culture and image-making today was the starting point of the work I have created in the last year.
                  To date, little coherent or authoritative scholarly work surrounding the cultural phenomenon have been made[1] and there remains, within our socio-technologically driven cultures, a kind of cautiousness surrounding the serious discussion of selfies. As of yet mostly unfounded (Senft and Baym, 2015) accusations of the selfie as a vehicle for narcissism are perhaps the main cause for apprehension towards the selfie within public and some academic discourse. I believe that it is my initial discomfort in attempting to unravel these ideas and my fear of being subject to accusations of narcissism, through using myself as subject, that played an important role in challenging myself and continuing to develop this work.[2]

 Figure 1 Tabitha Carver,  Functionary  [3]    (2017).

Figure 1 Tabitha Carver, Functionary[3] (2017).

As Frosh points out in his essay The Gestural Image: The Selfie, Photography Theory and Kinaesthetic Sociability (2016) , these negative, internalized ideas we have surrounding selfies threaten ‘to block further thought – regarding both the selfie and narcissism – [while] frequently [ignoring] its own gendered assumption linking young women with fickle self-obsession.’ (Frosch, 2016: 258)
This leads into an underrepresented characteristic of the selfie: its potential for radicalism and self-awareness, through challenging this. In exercising a power over ones image through the selfie, ‘the body […] makes itself present in embodied new media practices and occupies awareness in tacit knowledge systems’, (Losh, 2015: 1649) that have excluded those marginalized for example through race, gender and sexuality .
                  Naturally, through looking at this idea of the selfie, I became increasingly aware and interested in the history of self-portraiture, particularly that of those who have used it as a tool allowing for allowing agency and therapy[4]. Within the frameworks of photography we may be reminded of Claude Cahun’s early gender play in the 1920; the paradoxically empowering quality of Marian ‘Clover’ Hooper Adams’ faceless portraits; or Francesca Woodman (Baker et al., 2003) and Cindy Sherman, whose self-portraits have been accepted into a canon of feminist photography.
                  Using myself as the most obvious and fitting subject to discuss the selfie in my practice, I feel I was able to fully unlock the therapeutic and radical properties of self-portraiture, which I will outline further in the next section.
 

Embodying the Female and Becoming

“In the workshop we were asked to look at our vaginas with hand mirrors. Then, after careful examination, we were to verbally report to the group what we saw. I must tell you that up until this point everything I knew about my vagina was based on hearsay or invention.”

— Ensler, 2001: 45

As my practice matured, the selfie did not become less important; instead I allowed for other matters to become more central within the discussion of my work. Although I exercised some liberation of myself as subject[5], my practice of self-portraiture had undoubtedly become an unapologetic therapeutic act of rebellion against historic violations against my body, inflicted by myself and by others, unto me. The two pieces used for the interim show, Upskirt (2017) and Downskirt (2017), represent this shift perhaps most clearly. On an initial aesthetic level the soft pink palette is intended to remind of culturally instilled ideas of femininity, extending to the naïve associations of innocence. My silhouette and attire attempts to subvert these ideas, making explicit sexual desires upon female bodies (i.e. through the PVC boots and satin like texture of my coat) and reclaiming them as my own.
                  Upskirt (see Figure 2.1), is inspired, in part, by my formative experience of reading the ‘The Vagina Workshop’ in Eve Enslers The Vagina Monologues (1996) when I was about fourteen, wherein a woman’s emotional experience of seeing her vagina for the first time through a hand-mirror is described; something I myself hadn’t experienced up until that point. I am using the selfie-stick attached to a smart phone (a nod to the digital spaces we inhabit) to examine my own sex through a front-facing camera, Downskirt (Figure 2.2) is my own celebration of the body as sexual, my body as capable of challenging power structures that have inhibited and damaged my experience as a woman.

   

 

 Figure 2.1 Tabitha Carver,  Upskirt  (2017).

Figure 2.1 Tabitha Carver, Upskirt (2017).

These pieces, and my subsequent work which eventually evolved into my degree piece, are also a direct reaction to a mass media system that at once encourages being sexual whilst chastising promiscuousness. This redressing and examination of my body in a public realm underlines my practice as inherently feminist. In The Ways of Seeing (first broadcast for TV in 1972 before being published as a book), John Berger traces the positioning of women as subjects (as objects) of art. At one point he notes that

“[a] picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality. […] The woman’s sexual passion needs to be minimized so that the spectator may feel that he has the monopoly of such passion. […] Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own. ”

— (Berger, 2008: 55)

It is this tradition that continues to feed into my desire to use image-making as a form of resistance. Whilst my images continue to draw attention to ideas of the digital, it would be a mistake not to stress the importance of feminist empowerment within my work.

 Figure 2.2 Tabitha Carver,  Downskirt , 2017

Figure 2.2 Tabitha Carver, Downskirt, 2017

In this sense, my work is also a response to the tension between radical, intersectional feminism and the softened co-optations of such within our current capitalist culture driven by consumerism. It is akin to the ideas outlined by Angela McRobbie in The Aftermath of Feminism (2008)- a watered down approach to gender equality which dismisses real issues, whilst profiting from radical ideas[6]. The editorial aesthetic of my work,[7] and the use of pink are intended to be a subtle reminder the some of the problems that a neo-liberal approach to feminism has created.
                  I would now like to demonstrate the importance of notions explored through a Deleuzian becoming[8] which link to my experience of my own body (image) which continues to inform my practical approach to image-making, and beyond.  As Coleman describes in The Becoming Of Bodies (2008), ‘empirical and theoretical work is underpinned, usually implicitly and to greater and lesser extents, by an oppositional model of body/image, subject/object’ (Coleman, 2008: 164). Put simply, what I previously understood as fixed and separate, namely my body and an external, fixed, potentially flawed image (photograph) which described it, became throughout my practice loosened and liberated.
                  Sexual assault as well as a history of diagnoses of anorexia and bulimia have all contributed strongly to the painful violence that my body has been subject to, the remnants of which instilled fear at the thought of making myself vulnerable through its public portrayal. Through this mutable concept of constant becoming and change, I allowed myself to be grounded through a kinder, more open way of theorizing my experiences, rather than being bound and judged by any particular image or experience It helped me come to terms with understanding my body (and work), ‘as more processual, indeterminate and multiple’ (Featherstone, 2010: 206).

 

Traversing Technologies, Flusser, Form

Finally, I would like to address the importance of different photographic technologies in the realization of my work. My initial use of film photography to showcase the photographic tropes which appear within digital media were my introduction into understanding the value of using form as a tool to make implicit commentary (see Figure 3).

 

 

 Figure 3: Tabitha Carver,  Selfie Simulacrum  (2017).

Figure 3: Tabitha Carver, Selfie Simulacrum (2017).

 Although this bringing together of what we understand as mostly opposing forces was valuable, and asked questions about current deep-rooted nostalgia that seems to underlie the resurgence of analog aesthetics, I was happy to begin experimenting with the breadth of digital technologies available to us. I began to actively challenge Vilém Flusser’s bleak view of photography in a post-industrial society as outlined in Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1984). He maintained that more and more, the photographer has no agency, instead adheres to a kind of programme as determined through the cameras ever evolving technical capacities. Within the bounds of this programme, he describes the photographer as a functionary, bound to produce images pre-determined by the camera’s programme. (Flusser, 1984) This brief extract gives a clear idea of the tone of Flusser’s arguments:

“Cameras demand that their owners […] keep on taking snaps, that they produce more and more redundant images. This photo-mania involving the eternal recurrence of the same (or of something very similar) leads eventually to the point where people taking snaps fell they have gone blind: Drug dependency takes over. People taking snaps can now only see the world through the camera and in photographic categories. They are not in charge of taking photographs, they are consumed by the greed of their camera, they have become an extension to the button on their camera. Their actions are automatic camera functions. [emphasis my own] ”

— (Flusser, 2012: 56)

 

One could say without doubt that Flusser would describe the selfie as a redundant image, he would argue they exist in multiples for no discernable reason, simply the functionary acting according to a technical programme. A lack of discussion of the actual content and social context of a photograph here, ignores any redeemable facet the photograph may hold- most notably its potential radical properties as outlined above. This idea of redundancy also paints an austere vision of contemporary visual art, as ‘the proliferation of vernacular digital imaging has not decreased, […] […] its manifestations are multiplying.’ (Soutter, 2013: 93) Are we to believe that work made possible through new photographic technologies, all the experiences associated with it (e.g. my sense of confidence, and renewed appreciation of my body), are to be nullified? It is clear, how important it is to challenge those dominant theories put forward by Flusser and others, which belong to a strain of thought that privileges a white, heteronormative perspective.
                  Moving away from the bounds of a static frame, I began to experiment with moving image and immersive technologies, which further challenge and push the boundaries of Flusser’s programme. This was prompted in particular by the works of Felicity Hammond and AES + F (see Figures 3 and 4), who I believe embody an example of the current “post-medium condition”[9] within the art world in general, and photography as a discipline.

 Figure 4: Courtesy of Felicity Hammond,  You Will Enter an Oasis,  2015, Installation View

Figure 4: Courtesy of Felicity Hammond, You Will Enter an Oasis, 2015, Installation View

 Figure 5: Courtesy of AES + F,  Last Riot 2 , Tondo #5 2007  

Figure 5: Courtesy of AES + F, Last Riot 2, Tondo #5 2007
 

I was able to create an immersive environment through editing and compositing moving image in After Effects which continued to discuss the selfie as well as ideas surrounding the body, feminism and identity. The final result of extended research into VR (the full discussion of which is too lengthy for this essay) as well as discovering how these new technologies could facilitate my ideas[10], became A State Of Becoming.
                  Negative space has often been an aesthetic component of my work, and its latest configuration in my work hopes to evoke an uncanny feeling of being lost in unknown space. Along with this, I associate the insertion of my body into this negative space, as a complete grounding within myself and my practice without context or place; this is the most meaningful aspect of the space for me personally.
                  The addition of audio and expansion of the visual[11], helps create what I hope will be a multi-sensorial experience which produces affect. In Body, Image and Consumer Culture (2011), Mike Featherstone discusses the capacity of new digital media to produce affect and an intensity in a spectator’s reaction, in a way that moves beyond what a still image is able to achieve. This recent shift in academia, which embraces the idea of affect[12] moves within a visual arts context to challenge the ocular-centralism of photography, and by extension, much traditional art. I hope to interrogate closer ideas of the haptic and multisensory as they collide with our conceptions of bodies and technology more deeply, as I continue my practice and gain more experience working with different technologies.
                  Through the use of VR technology and the creation of an immersive 360°, voyeuristic video, I hope to actively invite conversation about the future of technologies within art and beyond. I also hope to challenge the binary of the ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ that is often taken for granted within popular discourse- the viewer should experience a work that is open to interpretation and inscriptions of both, neither made possible without the existence of the other.           

Notes:

[1] Notable academic writing on selfies does exist, and is even a focus point for some university modules. See The Selfie Research Network (www.selfieresearchers.com) for more information.

[2] It is at this point important to note, that for the most part I am not showcasing actual selfies per say in my work, but representational images of me taking a selfie/using a selfie stick to symbolise the genre. The camera I am using to capture myself is ‘is not incorporated as part of a hand-camera assemblage, whose […]limitations are […] determined by technical photographic parametrs […] and the physical […] constraints of the human body.’ (Frosh, 2016: 256)

[3] The title is nod to Flusser’s terminology which will be further assessed towards the end of this writing.

[4] It would cause a great diversion to begin unravelling the nuances of self-portraiture across mediums, but James Hall’s The Self Portrait A Cultural History (2015) provides insight into its developments.

[5] To avoid going on a tangent about these projects such as my diaristic approach to the book project and technical work with the large format camera- suffice it to say these were important in that they built my confidence towards moving away from ideas of ‘perfectionism’- but this is subject to further writing which does not belong here.

[6] Today you can buy a designer t-shirt for £490 that reads ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ (Dior.com, 2018).

[7] For the interim show, the high-gloss paper played an important role in adding to this.

[8] The foundations of which are outlined his work A Thousand Plateaus (1980).

[9] See chapter ‘Beyond Photograpy’’ in Lucy Soutter’s Why Art Photography? (2013) et al.

[10] This also describes another way in which Flusser’s argument loses traction- although I encountered technical boundaries, I felt very much as though I was using my knowledge in new ways to create something unique , as opposed to something that was dictated by the programme of Flusser’s apparatus.

[11] I am referring here to the pink material, which adds abstracted, uncanny fluidity to the space. A more abstract, implicit addition to my practice, which I hope to explore in the future, is an attempt to break the dominantly representational work I have created so far.

[12] See Margaret Wetherall’sAffect and Emotion (2012) , which discusses this recent turn to affect in a way I am unable to expand on here.

Bibliography

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Berger, J. (1977). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Classics.

Coleman, R. (2008). The Becoming of Bodies. Feminist Media Studies, 8(2), pp.163-179.

Dior.com. (2018). WHITE COTTON AND LINEN "WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS" PRINT - Dior. [online] Available at: https://www.dior.com/couture/en_gb/womens-fashion/accessories/scarves/white-cotton-and-linen-we-should-all-be-feminists-print-6-39962 [Accessed 20 Apr. 2018].

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Featherstone, M. (2010). Body, Image and Affect in Consumer Culture. Body & Society, 16(1), pp.193-221.

Flusser, V. (2012). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Frosh, P. (2016). The Gestural Image: The Selfie, Photography Theory and Kinaesthetic Sociability. In: J. Zylinska and K. Kuc, ed., Photomediations: A Reader, 1st ed. London: Open Humanities Press, pp.251-267.

Losh, E. (2015). Selfies| Feminism Reads Big Data: "Social Physics," Atomism, and SelfiecityInternational Journal Of Communication, 9, 13. Retrieved from http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/3152/1390

Refinery29.com. (2015). Kim Kardashian's Selfie Book Is A Flop. [online] Available at: https://www.refinery29.com/2015/08/91819/kim-kardashian-selfish-book-sales?bucketed=true&bucketing_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.co.uk%2F [Accessed 19 Apr. 2018].

Senft, T. and Baym, N. (2015). Selfies Introduction ~ What Does the Selfie Say? Investigating a Global Phenomenon. International Journal of Communication. International Journal Of Communication, [online] 9(2015), p.1601. Available at: http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/4067/1387 [Accessed 5 Apr. 2017].         

Soutter, L. (2013). Why Art Photography?. New York: Routledge.