I’m not the first to comment on the selfie-mania that accompanied last summer’s most popular New York art-world event, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety.1 Even the artist felt compelled to respond in the form of a 28-minute film, An Audience. After being herded into the cavernous, defunct, and soon-to-be-demolished Domino Sugar Factory en masse—like a stadium rock concert experience—the amazing sight of Walker’s gigantic white-sugar sphinx soon became secondary to the communal frenzy of photo-taking by crowds of milling viewers. High on something, with camera phones in hand, the audience collectively posed and snapped, seemingly fueled by a massive sugar rush. As we tiptoe around more than 100 years of processed sweetness oozing down the walls and pooling in sticky coagulating messes on the floor, the overwhelming, cloying, heady saccharine scent of decay fills the senses.
Oh god, I think I’m going to be sick.
An Internet search throws up a plethora of viewer postings on Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, and personal blogs. Piles of sugary vomit are everywhere in the work’s digital afterlife: in the syrupy, girlish smiles offered to Walker’s kitsch slave-child sculptures and the lascivious tongues reaching out to lick the sphinx’s sex, in the fingers reaching out to pinch the sweet whites of her breasts. Everyone wants a taste of the sugar, to join in and feast, to participate and connect, to share.
This digital economy of image sharing stands in sharp relief against the older economies of slave labor, unpaid domestic work, and proletarian wage labor evoked by Walker’s staging of the site.2 Just as the sugary materiality of the installation was subject to a gradual dissolution towards some entropic formlessness, the hypermediatized viewer responses suggest a counter-posing temporal movement into a dematerialized closed circuit of identikit memes. Through the repetition of almost indistinguishable images showing different viewers adopting the same clichéd pose, the dissolving sculptures and site are distilled, hardened into an abstraction of viewer participation. This analog and digital world is condensed within the dream-space of A Subtlety, as the elegiac past of embodied labor is thrust into the permanent future of a digital archive. This seeming democracy of images suggests a kind of digital messianism that apes the now empty utopian impulse of the avant-garde.3
The older analog model of proletarian wage labor was once the dominant metaphor for a critical relation to socially engaged art. In his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer,” discovered anew and widely read in the post-’68 moment, Walter Benjamin called for a type of modernist practice that would activate the viewer. Not because of its “correct” ideological message or political position, but rather through the work’s formal staging, the viewer or spectator would become a producer of meaning, and this notion of the critical, participatory viewer involved in the intellectual labor of producing the work was implicitly set in opposition to a passive attitude of consumption.
This analogy of labor and aesthetics need not predictably evoke the figure of the male worker, even though it frequently does. Against this tendency, feminist artists have explored the complex economies of sex work, housework, childcare, and other types of (feminine) affective labor as part of post-’68 imaginings of possible and practicable futures. In this, a political economy was connected to its libidinal counterpart through experiments with new kinds of technology. The liberation of the subject was linked to social and psychic emancipation, which was imagined—dreamed of—through open form, participatory, new media art.
Today the language of digital sharing and instant connectivity has both appropriated and displaced this dream. The constant “revolutionary” innovation of new devices for accelerated consumption promises the digital realization of the democratizing desire for participation. The old dream was to activate the consumer as a producer of meaning and social action. This has now come true in a certain way. The 21st-century viewer is literally and actively distributing her participation through self-produced images that circulate in a networked visual economy.
It’s like waking into a bad dream.
This shift to digital participation is less about the image itself. As Jonathan Crary has put it, we need to understand the “subordination of the image to a broad field of non-visual operations and requirements.”4 The formulaic and ubiquitous banality of the selfie is the perfect expression of this point. Its formal grammar is readymade for data collection and largely irrelevant for visual analysis.5
Walker’s film, An Audience, reinforces this very point. It captures a more nuanced range of emotions and gestures, all of which escape the reduced abstraction of the selfie. While the compulsive image-taking at A Subtlety remains a very dominant feature of An Audience, it is part of a broader set of emotionally charged reactions that are not easy to read. With a particular focus on African-American viewers, this work seems designed to rescue A Subtlety from its clichéd digital afterlife. Yet it clearly cannot, and that’s also the point.
These remarks are not to be taken as a screed against technology as such, but an attempt to challenge the pervasive logic of digital messianism and to offer some thoughts on how it impacts politically and ethically engaged art. As David Golumbia has pointed out, “Networks, distributed communication, personal involvement in politics, and the geographically widespread sharing of information about the self and communities have been characteristic of human societies in every time and every place,” and were not invented in the so-called digital age.6 Critics of digital messianism such as Golumbia find that increased centralization of power and the management of everyday life are outweighing the democratizing aspects of computerized societies. Likewise, digital connectedness produces social isolation and political powerlessness as much as if not more than the emancipation so often promised.7
The growing fluidity between spaces formerly coded as private and our commerce-saturated public realm explains part of this. The American norm for family photography as it was once called—privately collected, modestly shared—has been expanded to include a broader spectrum, and massively increased quantity, of images and textual accompaniments that belong to an integrated public image culture shaped by commercial interests. In other words, photographs of your friends hanging out in contemporary art installations find their way onto online platforms, which deliver your friends to advertisers (when they log on to check themselves out) and ensure their activities will be subject to commercially-driven information mining.
American consumers have voluntarily signed on to this self-surveillance for someone else’s commercial ends. It’s only a low relief that distinguishes this from the sharper end of the state’s involvement in surveilling its citizens, from its persecution of N.S.A. whistleblower Ed Snowden as well as its spectacularly cruel punishment of WikiLeaks’ informant Chelsea (formerly, Bradley) Manning.
Bad dream becomes nightmare.
The chilling effects of this profound mutation in the traditional public/private opposition are central to Eva and Franco Mattes’s photographic installation The Others (2011). Deploying computer software to gain remote access to numerous computer hard drives, The Others is a slide show made from 10,000 personal photographs stolen from anonymous strangers. The Mattes’s approach to this work is utterly complicit with the coercive ease with which digital storage permits access to personal information by companies, governments, and rogue individuals (including artists). In The Others, the artist becomes an avatar of some of the darkest aspects of invasive capitalism, as it connects with state surveillance preying wantonly on unwitting citizens.
This sociopathic aesthetic aligns with the philosophy of instrumental rationality that underpins digital messianism. If the mind is understood as a computer program, then it is only capable of rational processing. Cognition is reduced to calculation. But calculable reason precludes ethical or political responsibility. As Golumbia puts it, “If our decisions are established for us by logical procedures, who or what makes the decision to act ethically or unethically?”8 In The Others, the Mattes did not decide to hack into others’ personal computers, they “by chance…found a software glitch that gives you complete access to some people’s computers over the Internet.”9 And what does one do with such a “glitch?” Exploit it.10 A rationalist computational logic has taken charge.
The rhetoric of digital messianism reached fever pitch during the Arab Spring. Western media, personal blogs, and Facebook postings reveled in triumphal enthusiasm. Not only could the revolution be televised, but live streamed, tweeted, and available in all manner of digital forms. In some quarters it is as if the social media itself creates social change. But the limited successes of these democratic struggles could only have been shaped by the necessarily invisible work of epistemic change at the grassroots level. This slower, non-spectacular effort at social change is eclipsed by the more symbolic, digitally circulated images of revolution. Excited young men waving flags and women wearing hijabs with fingers raised in the sign for peace are ubiquitous in the blogosphere. Such symbolic gestures and public protests are indeed needed, but they also cover over the work of organizing, reform, and activism that makes social change (until of course it fails).
There are a growing number of visually oriented activist projects that work more carefully and critically with the circulation of images through social media platforms. Take, for example, the photographic collective Activestills. This group uses digital formats to provide counter-archives of Israel’s widespread human rights abuses. But their online presence belongs to a broader on-the-ground-activist kind of approach that includes community organizing, intervention, and educational work. Digital forums can only be tools, not solutions.11
The power and controversy of Walker’s meteoric rise as a young artist in the 1990s was built on her anti-identitarian aesthetic. The antebellum world of sadistic sexuality described by her paper silhouettes challenges both sides of the master/slave dynamic. Walker proved controversial among some black artists and writers because her work did not solely explore white racism against the background of black victimhood and resistance. Rather, it suggested a shared contemporary investment in the gendered dimensions of a distinctly American master/slave fantasy, and expected the viewer to project her own shadow within these uncanny scenes.
The enigma signaled by Walker’s sphinx is the condensation of a series of contradictory symbols: slave past, pornographic present, and utopian, Egyptocentric Afro-futurism, all built from a refined whiteness that evokes the chromatic racial coding of master and mistress. Unlike sugar, maybe this riddle is insoluble.
While An Audience offers a range of complex viewer responses, sadly, we only see a fevered dream of infantile domination in the digital vomitorium engendered by A Subtlety. The racial diversity evident in the assertion of the viewer as master over the work is also significant. It suggests a generalized powerlessness that underpins the computer’s interface with the world, which produces a kind of equal-opportunity desire for narcissistic possession and domination. The riddle offered by the sphinx remains intact, but perhaps Walker’s dream for her work—providing a fantasy structure for the viewer—has indeed come true. After all, that dream was always nightmarish.
- Opinion on this phenomenon can be found in a broad range of mainstream media outlets from the LA Times and Washington Post to Artnet, Jezebel, the Roots, Gawker, Huffington Post and Hyperallergic. For one of the more interesting responses see: silviakolbowskiblog.com
- The full title of the installation is: A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the Unpaid and Overworked Artisans who have Refined our Sweet Tastes from the Cane Fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the Demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.
- For a critical discussion of the problem with leftist utopian thinking for our present political moment, see T. J. Clark, “For a Left With No Future,” New Left Review no. 74, II (April 2012): 53–75.
- Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London; New York: Verso, 2013), 47.
- See the project Selfiecity.net
- David Golumbia, The Cultural Logic of Computation (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2009), 3.
- See Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2012).
- Golumbia, The Cultural Logic of Computation, 194. Golumbia draws on the work of Jacques Derrida for this insight.
- Quoted in Trent Morse, “Working the Crowd,” Artnews, September 2014, 88.
- See Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
- See Activestills.org. For an overview of other similar projects, see Meg McLagan and Yates McKee, eds., Sensible Politics: the Visual Culture of Nongovernmental Activism (New York; Cambridge, MA; London, England: Zone Books and MIT Press, 2012).
SIONA WILSON is associate professor of art history at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, the City University of New York. She is the author of Art Labors, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). A contributing writer to Art Review, her scholarly publishing on sexual difference and the political, contemporary photography, experimental film and performance can be found in journals such as Third Text, Art History, Oxford Art Journal, and Women’s Studies Quarterly.