In autumn last year, The Photographers’ Gallery presented the exhibition So Like You, a new work by London-based artist Erica Scourti, commissioned by Photoworks, #temporarycustodians and The Photographers’ Gallery, for the Brighton Photo Biennial 2014. Here, in this third and final part of a series of blog posts, the artist discusses the project and her influences and thinking around the idea of identity in the age of the internet. Part 1 here and part 2 here.
So Like You, 2014. Erica Scourti. Installation photograph © Kate Elliott
My role as content-handler, primarily providing a framework for other peoples’ images rather than creating or showing my own, implies an exchange of cultural or other capital that recalls the way social media platforms relate to their users. In my role as the designer and facilitator of the video and the blog, I stand apart from and arguably co-opt the content generated by the multiple contributors into a singular (artist’s) framework, mimicking the way Facebook benefits in real terms from users’ postings. And, just as President Obama and my tweenage cousin have the same profile templates – dictated by Facebook – in the video iteration of So Like You, the layout and duration for each photo is the same, regardless of their formal qualities. Similarly, by retaining overall authorship, the cultural capital remains with me, my position predicated on the greater leverage and visibility assured by institutional backing. Prosumerism promised equality of access to the means of production and dissemination of content, but mostly denied access to infrastructures, including PR and publicity networks.
Image: Erica Scourti
Likewise, everyone can be on Instagram, but in an age of maxed-out eyeballs and ever-increasing volumes of content, not everyone will get the same slice of the attention-pie, no matter how wonderful their photos are; images don’t possess an intrinsic value but one that is borne of their visibility and connection to other bodies of value. If, as Boris Groys has argued, we are now living in a spectacle without spectators, where everyone can produce and share the images, videos, texts and other content that have traditionally been artists’ specialism, what role remains for the artist? One strategy might be honing attention – seeking skills rather than crafting singular objects and images (the becoming-brand approach); another, as So Like You proposes, would be to give, rather than attempt to receive, attention.
Image: Erica Scourti
With this attitude of giving attention in mind, the similarselves blog details the respondents’ identities and professions, with linkbacks to their websites (where desired) providing real web currency; names and logos are faithfully reproduced when possible, attributing respondents’ authorship of their photos – if not of the work as a whole – within the piece and also as it circulates. Unlike strategies of remix, appropriation, quotation and so on, their work is fully presented only in ways that have been explicitly approved/consented to. Every snippet of conversation quoted was run past them prior to publication, with wording and links checked. Some, like surface designer Carol Eaton (US) saw it as an opportunity to support another artist’s work, while blogger Samantha Johnson (Zimbabwe) reported that her son was thrilled to have a photo of him appearing at a London gallery; some of the photographers were pleased their work would be seen in an institutional space and in related online sites. More cautiously, photographer Troy Marcy pointed out the absurdity of her denying me permission to use a photo of her child which is freely available online, and asked for assurance that the project was not ‘untasteful’ in some way before taking part. Her hesitation suggests a sensitivity to the way that framing, or context, changes the meaning of content and makes clear that by participating, the people who responded to my request not only granted their permission but by extension their approval of the project as a whole. Institutional backing undoubtedly helped to banish any lingering fears about my intentions and trustworthiness, as did my openly visible and identifiable online presence. Both act as silent guarantors of my identity, and therefore accountability, echoing the way the sharing economy of Uber and AirBnB is based on a ‘trust’ borne of access to social media profiles: you’re less likely to trash someone’s flat if they can find you on Facebook.
Image: Erica Scourti
The collection of free content in this way could be seen as a calculated leverage of my cultural capital, but on a less cynical note, I wanted to propose a different model to the usual practice of artists’ appropriation of online content. Users are rarely asked for permission, despite in many instances being fairly easy to identify and contact. Instead, material found online is often treated as fair game for re-use and re-contextualization without considering the ramifications for the original poster or the politics of re-framing someone else’s images (especially self-representations) as one’s own. Richard Prince’s recent Instagram series, New Portraits (2014), for example has been lambasted for its blatant sexism but is one of many similar projects premised on the ethically dubious appropriation of content, usually produced by less socially-privileged people.
Image: Erica Scourti
Even when permission is sought, problematic assumptions of entitlement can still linger. For example, Cory Arcangel’s book of quoted tweets, Working on my Novel, was seen by some as a co-option of the labour of thousands of amateur writers by a high-profile professional artist. While maintaining the primacy of the single artist, many of these crowd-sourced works rely upon the existence of a ‘crowd’, which by its nature implies the submerging of individual identities and subjects into a mass. By choosing the time-consuming, laborious and potentially limiting route of requesting permission, I wanted to acknowledge the identities and labour of the people who responded, as an attempt to foreground that ‘found’ text and imagery usually belong to someone, and probably a someone without the luxury of expensive lawyers. Moreover, seeking permission has traditionally been synonymous with bland, consensus-driven art, or with playing it safe, accusations leveled both at collaborative or socially-engaged practice and public art. As artist Ed Fornieles put it at a recent talk at the Chisenhale gallery ‘if you ask permission you lose a huge amount of impact’ presumably by having to restrict your creative choices according to another person’s agenda. The notion that the gesture of seeking (or not seeking) permission could be as important as the actual content is not usually considered, perhaps out of a belief in the freedom of the artist to work with whatever material is available ‘out there’ in the wider culture.
Image: Erica Scourti
In contrast, So Like You posits permission as the main task (and the most time consuming one) on which my artistic labour is spent. From the 150 people I contacted, only 22 eventually completed the exchange, which involved hundreds of emails back and forth throughout, as well as staying in touch via Facebook and Twitter once the project was completed. While it is important to point out that this does not necessarily result in morally ‘better’ or more ethical work, for reasons of exclusion and privilege discussed earlier, I was nevertheless interested in what form of artistic labour and value this approach implies. More than simply a question of time, I found that liaising with total strangers over email and social media represented a particular form of intimate labour, which required paying attention, feeling responsible for and building trust on a personal level with a varied group of people with no connection to each other except through me. Perhaps this labour of caring can be traced back to the traditional (and still current) role of women as carers and maintainers of familial and social bonds, as explored by feminist artists such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles, whose ‘maintenance art’ projects were predicated on long-term care for her environment and for her collaborators. In the final video version of my project, this vital, time-consuming legwork is all hidden, as a gesture towards maintaining the intimacy of this labour and suggesting that in an era of diminishing privacy and overshare, perhaps what is hidden and not shared with others is what has value.
Some emails between me and the contributors to the project. Images: Erica Scourti
Screenshot of conversation with Simone. Image: Erica Scourti
Within the video and in press shots, the images I received are marked with both my ‘logo’ (actually my Flickr for iphone avatar) and the respondents’ names or logos. However, they are also framed and partially obscured by unattributed metadata: tags, titles, dates, camera brands and even in some instances, locations, representing information that was embedded in the photos, often unbeknownst to the senders. Instead of helpfully annotating the images, this metadata is often contradictory and obfuscatory, with conflicting dates, and apparently nonsensical keywords and phrase tags that point back to the original, absent photo with which I began the similar image search. The tags were co-authored by the respondents as well as myself and by friends who appeared in the original photos (where possible), while some were generated using (still fairly rudimentary) auto-tagging software, though no distinction is made between them. While in this essay I have not focused very much on the subjective, autobiographical aspect of this project, it is through the tags that my personal investment in the photos becomes apparent, as markers of passages in my life that are both specific to me and in some way generic: falling in love, childhood birthdays, teenage adventures and so on. As it is hard to assign authorship of any particular keyphrase, my voice mingles with the other human and non-human taggers to make impressionistic clouds of meaning, emulating the style of folk taxonomy hash-tagging popular on social media.
As Kate Crawford has argued, the ‘mythology of big data is that with more data comes greater accuracy and truth’ and yet more data can make it easier to overlook minor, but important connections, and to mistake correlation for causation. In So Like You, rather than claiming any accuracy, the tags become unreliable narrators of the image, offering an ambiguous interpretation based on subjective responses to it. Crowding and superimposed on the photo, the positioning of the metadata also recalls the way that digital images are never seen alone, but are always framed by their context and connection to other bodies of information. This obliquely points to what Crawford calls the ‘surveillant anxiety’ of Big Data, particularly after the NSA revelations, which made clear that personal data like location, shopping habits and biometrics can be linked together to build up a fairly accurate portrait of the specific person it relates to.
Image: Samantha Dugan