Identity After the Internet: Three Berlin Exhibitions in Search of Commonality

Does anyone write diaries any more? Does anyone learn about themselves through reflexive engagement with their own written word? Or do we form conceptions of ourselves through our Facebook wall, our YouTube channel, and our WhatsApp messages – from the words and views of others? I found myself wondering about these questions after seeing three exhibitions, all handily located near one another off Berlin’s Potsdamer Straße. These are: Ribbons, by Ed Atkins (Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, November 25, 2014–January 15, 2015), Petwelt, by Petra Cortright (Société, October 9–November 22), and a self-titled show by Oliver Laric (Tanya Leighton, November 22–December 20), all featuring video works that offer very different takes – from the graphically mesmerizing to the banal and thought-provoking – on how contemporary technology affects how we narrate the self.

Atkins’s show consists of a fourteen-minute three-channel HD video shown in different rooms. Walking into the gallery is like walking into a movie theater when the movie has already started – the glow of the screens provides the only light and you’ve already missed some of the dialogue. Missing part of the plot is also what happens as soon as you begin listening to the high-quality surround soundtrack made up of songs, orchestral movements, and seemingly random sentences spoken by an onscreen digital protagonist, Dave. The intentionally broken and rambling talk of the computer-generated avatar is actually Atkins’s own voice, and mirrors the random bits of text that flash across the screen or the words tattooed on Dave’s body. Trying to understand his confessional and ostensibly angst-ridden words is frustrated by the fact that they have no context, except the video itself. Dave’s story is syncopated, like the music and language in the video, and is played out in snippets. This is how many of us reveal ourselves online – in parts. Hunched at our computer screens, we watch, we “like,” and we comment on all that we care to comment on, and in so doing disclose our preferences, desires, and fear (of being left out). Watching Dave wallow in his apparently miserable, or at least not fully satisfactory life, we get a glimpse of our own virtual identity as a “troll” – as someone who can ‘like’ and comment without consequence, who lurks behind the scene posting superfluous or extraneous material. We also get an impression of just what an incomplete picture of a person that provides, and only a part of which exists beyond the flat screen. We sometimes think we can know somebody just by observing their digital identity, but we can never really grasp who a person is through online interaction, just like we don’t get the whole story of a film we’ve walked in on.

If Atkins’s work is a story about the dark, troll-like side of how our identity is shaped, or at least affected by the internet, then Cortright’s exhibition demonstrates its narcissism. The show is composed of five videos: When You Walk Through the Storm (2009), Sparkling 1 (2010), Main Bitch (2012), Bridal Shower (2013), and Dot Warp with Door (2014). The last and most recent of these was made with British fashion designer Stella McCartney for YouTube, and in it, Cortright repeatedly walks through a door that opens and shuts in slowly pixelating blocks while wearing one of McCartney’s polka-dot designs. The video is purposely amateurish, and uses simple warping and built-in filtering effects. The deliberately tacky Sparkling 1, at almost two minutes in length, also has the feel of a homemade webcam video. I was struck by the way they mirrored the way many of us put ourselves online for the world to see, without necessarily thinking about the consequences or why we’re doing it. These types of videos portray someone who has internalized a certain type of online behavior, performing an identity for an audience. However, they have done so at the expense of any authentic personality one might have had, creating a hollowed-out shell. Cortright’s posing in these videos does this to some extent, albeit with irony, but they remind me of Baudrillardian hyperreality, where what is “real” and what is make-believe – for instance, acting – are no longer distinguishable. We should want to have some critical distance between our marketed, Web-constructed persona and our offline self; after all, who is going to safeguard our reputational capital – the total of our actions and connections in an online social network – if not us?

More than any other, Cortright’s videos also made me wonder about Melissa Gronlund’s claim – in “Identity in Art after the Internet” – that post-internet art involving issues of identity carries “the spectre of a respondent always on the horizon.” (This observation is supposedly made in contrast to the video monologues of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which are more declarative.) A lot of contemporary video work that might be labeled “post-internet” involves dialogue or pop-culture tropes (like those in Cortright’s videos), but does this necessarily mean that they are communally constructive, rather than egotistical exercises in self-branding? I agree with Gronlund that much of contemporary video art is more network-oriented; many of the political and identity issues that earlier artists dealt with are now seen by younger artists as being non-issues, or at least not the ones that demand the most attention. But I’d add that when it comes to self-fashioning or creating a personal narrative in a digital network, it doesn’t matter if there’s someone to hold up a mirror to what we are becoming or not; it could just as well be some computer-generated reaction ‘liking’ our posts or viewing our Vimeo account. So our online self becomes just another product, whether it’s created by genuine (audience) responses from the Web or those more algorithmic.

Laric’s show is arguably not the type of post-internet video art Gronlund discusses. It’s not as technologically nifty as Atkins’s or as mired in faux wit as Cortright’s either, but it is more intriguing. The only one of the three exhibitions to feature something other than a video work, Laric’s The Hunter and the Dog (2014) is three sculptures treated as one, and modeled on a nineteenth-century work by British sculptor John Gibson. Set on a metal frame in the middle of the main room, just inside the entrance, the pieces are made from polyurethane, pigments, and powdered jade, bronze, and aluminum, whose colors swirl around like tie-dye. The fluidity of the sculptures – an artistic form that Laric has worked with in the past – is mirrored in the other main work of the show, a five-minute ultra-high-definition video, To Be Titled (2014). The video shows a collection of over a century of cartoon characters that have been redrawn and animated so that they morph into one another, creating new creatures. A purple and pink cobra becomes a dancing, veiled woman; a brown, walking donkey becomes a pinkish panther with a unicorn, which then becomes a woman wearing some kind of horned space suit, while an instrumental version of a song made famous by Justin Timberlake, “Cry Me a River,” plays. The video is straightforwardly about how one thing can become another, about the non-uniqueness of identity, yet its comical, direct approach make it the more captivating of the three exhibitions – you can get carried away by the rhythm and smoothness of the video, almost like with a Disney film. Weight is added to this ease of viewing by an eight-page gallery text by philosopher Rosi Braidotti – “Metamorphic Others and Nomadic Subject” – that argues against the traditional binary approach to selfhood, where you are either male or female, white or non-white, straight or gay, etc. We are “subjects-in-progress” on Braidotti’s conception, and are seen as non-fixed, constantly morphing beings, like those in Laric’s film.

The instantaneous mode in which we communicate with others across time zones or just across the street, and the speed with which we can see and hear how others perceive us, allows the emergence of a self at a quicker pace than before. I’m not talking about the philosopher’s metaphysical notion of numerical, or even essential identity, but rather the general way we think of ourselves narratively and socially. The availability of identities with which to cloak and create ourselves has increased with the spread of networked culture, and this state of affairs is addressed with striking clarity in these three video-based exhibitions. Laric’s exhibition and Braidotti’s ideas are a good way to think about the internet and the computer screen’s effect on the individual; recognizing that they are the main conduit of identity circulation makes us aware of their negative side, of the risk of foregoing whatever authenticity we have, and of the need to regulate our own reputational capital. If we lose even this, then we are surely doomed to become just another product in a post-industrial economy, our physical, embodied self perfectly indistinguishable from the one we craft online.

Each of these exhibitions has something to say about the diaristic part of life in relation to the internet and how that relation shapes who we are: Atkins treats it as an opportunity to focus on the “troll” or darker side of who we become online; Cortright’s videos show the clichéd way in which we can perform (our) identity; and Laric’s works aims at a broader, more pluralistic understanding of our contemporary amorphous natures. Like a hundred-year-old diary, whatever surprises or platitudes we find in these works will be just a reflection of who we already are, and the more I think about it, the more I think that the internet is one boundless archive – a diary for our networked reality.

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