To coincide with Gillian Wearing’s first major retrospective, Whitechapel Gallery organised a series of events, ranging from an open invitation to submit a personal ‘What are you actually thinking?’ image, to a two day workshop in Method Acting. The events also included a discussion entitled What’s on your mind? – which focused on how the internet and social media changed the way both artists and audiences perform their identities – in the artistic and the real world.
The basic premise behind the discussion is modern enough to seemingly detach itself from Wearing. Her best known work, in which random passers-by were invited to scribble their intimate thoughts on a piece of paper and then pose for a photo with it, was created in 1992, well before internet was taken for granted and long before social networks and YouTube became encyclopedias of self-performance. In the early 90’s getting a chance to publicly show your true or staged self was reserved for the selected few; in 2012 most of the first and second world does it on a daily basis, through Facebook, Twitter and similar sites. What’s on your mind attempts to open up a wide discussion about how this significant shift influenced both the contemporary artistic practice and a general perception of confession, privacy and intimacy.
Led by Omar Kholeif, a curator, writer and producer whose work involves a long-term collaboration with Jeremy Bailey, the panel also included David Blandy, a performance and video artist whose career produced several avatars, Sam Rumbelow, Method-acting coach who collaborated with Wearing on her film Self-made, and Jennifer Chan, an artist who largely works with web-based media (and who joined the conversation, somewhat appropriately given the topic, via Skype). As a Method coach Rumbelow is perhaps the least interested in the technological aspects of self-representation, and is instead focused more on revealing hidden glimpses of the unconscious on stage – whether working with actors or amateurs (as was the case in Self-made). He seems somewhat distrustful towards technology in general and so his views, which consider self-representation in more ‘analogue’ contexts, provide a valuable juxtaposition to the other discussion participants.
On the other side of the spectrum is David Blandy who has, over the years, incorporated into his work a series of different avatars. They originated from his attempts to figure out, artistically, where his attraction to video games and films were coming from.This resulted in so many different David Blandy characters that the research culminated in a Mortal-combat style video game, in which various avatars fight each other, with the original ‘person’ being the weakest one. While Blandy’s work is veiled in the comic book and video games references it’s clear all the personas are created with an intention to uncover or even display a version of him that perhaps stays hidden on a day to day basis. Contrary to that Jennifer Chan, the youngest of the three artists, takes on the possibilities of Web 2.0, with the aim of exposing not her own identity, but those of others. She also uses the web as one of her mediums; in factum/mirage she played short, looped, web-cam-girl style videos to random chatroulette participants, to perhaps expected but hilarious and revealing results.
With such a diversity of practices the subject of online self-representation quickly becomes too wide for a short panel discussion. Omar Kholeif attempts in part to provide a more theoretical background to the topic. He introduces the idea of the computer as an electronic mirror in both artistic and everyday contexts – one that places constant emphasis on narcissism (the simplest if not the most interesting example being the general inability of anyone who has ever used Skype to not either stare at or panically avoid their own image on the screen). This is also where the idea of identity-performing reaches a full circle – from method acting to Jeremy Bailey, a self-proclaimed ‘famous new media artist’, whose work relies on technology to showcase self-representational videos made in the most web 2.0 of ways – in his own bedroom.
While opening many interesting doors into potential discussion, What’s on your mind literally lacked the time to reach any, however preliminary, conclusions, or indeed a sustain a structured discussion. It did however prove the topic to be extremely susceptible to completely different interpretations and provided an interesting, contemporary outlook on some of Wearing’s work. Twenty years later, public display of identity has lost some of its exclusivity – and while her famous photographs still have an air of a genuine, unforced and intimate disclosure, the same quotes pasted onto a Facebook timeline would look anything but.