Modern Portraiture

The Art of the Selfie

Nineteen artists provide insight into the concept of the Selfie in a new video installation at the Moving Image Art Fair in London. Erin Cunningham reports.

National Selfie Portrait Gallery

Self-absorption or self-expression? is the question Brooklyn-based curators Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina seem to ask through their new video exhibit, The National #Selfie Portrait Gallery (NSPG), opening this week at the National Portrait in London.

In March, the duo collaborated for the first time, curating 22 six-second Vine videos for an exhibition entitled the Shortest Video Art Ever Sold, at the Moving Image Contemporary Video Art Fair in New York.

The exhibition features 30-second or less video installations by 19 artists from both the US and Europe, each providing a unique look at the highly-popularized concept of the "selfie.” Chayka and Galperina aimed to approach the long history of self-portraiture – as established by artists including Courbet, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh – through a modernized lens – read: snapping photos on one’s phone.

The National #Selfie Portrait Gallery is on exhibit at the Moving Image Art Fair in London through October 20. Chayka and Galperina talk to The Daily Beast about the installation, whether a self is considered art, and why the world is so self-obsessed.

Where did the idea for the exhibit derive from?

Following the Vine project, we knew we wanted to theme our next show around a formally constrictive, popular social medium again, and realized a lot of emerging artists we like use, subvert, and play with the idea of selfies.

They all approach it differently -- Bunny Rogers confronts her audience with a post-performative darkness, Alexander Porter uses three-dimensional imaging to turn his face into a landscape. It’s a varied group.

How did you commission the artists to participate in the exhibit?

We encounter many artists who work online in new media as curators and online journalists. The Internet also made it easy to find the work of artists we like in the UK and Europe. Since these artists are already at home working digitally, many of them have encountered the selfie format and created their own spins on it already. Selfies often get a bad rap, but this project puts them in the context of video art in the contemporary art world.

The full title of Jayson Musson’s piece in the show is: The Inherent Problematics of a Technology-Based Portraiture Method Eclipsing the Role of the Subject, Who, Really is No Longer the Subject at All. Rather the Technology Itself is, so Please Don't Be Taking No Selfies With a Fucking Windows Phone. That Shit is Deplorable Son. That pretty much says it all.

So what do you think defines the concept of a selfie?

A selfie is a modern self-portrait. The medium is as old as art history -- starting in the 15th century, everyone from Albrecht Durer to Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh created selfies in the form of painted self-portraits.

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The artists in this show are responding to the democratization of the self-portrait that has happened through new technology. That technology can also expand the concepts of traditional self-portraiture and of selfies. For example, Alexander Porter’s video uses 3-D imaging to abstract the artist’s face into a landscape.

Would you consider taking a selfie its own variation of art form?

The selfie is not a unique art form. This is not the first exhibit to ever take on selfies, nor the first examination of portraiture. Rather, we want to talk about selfies as a kind of visual language that many diverse groups of people -- artists and not -- are using to communicate visual and conceptual ideas.

Perhaps there’s an art to taking a selfie that everyone evolves for themselves, but this project is not about the selfie image itself; it’s more of a meta-commentary on digital self-branding. Selfies aren’t always art, but these artworks are selfies.

The selfie is such a one-image idea. Why did you choose to have the exhibit presented through video?

The artists we selected already create amazing videos -- Jayson Musson, Petra Cortright, and Angela Washko focus on video and self-portraiture as performance in their studio practices. We wanted to tie this to something current that’s being criticized as a challenge to the individual pieces and how they stand up against mass culture fascination with and the prejudices against selfies, and short form video seems to be the best. It’s much more engaging and complex than a simple, posed still -- but the short, addictive quality of the videos -- all 30 seconds or less -- make this a fun experience at an art fair.

Do you think the increase in taking selfies has changed the way photography is both taken and viewed?

There’s a transparent self-authorship to selfies. The photographer looks exactly the way they want to be seen, or at least, thinks they want to be seen. It inverts the audience into itself. We’re getting used to looking at everyone through a veil of performance.

It seems like your piece is a sort of a satire of the self-absorption and self-obsession of humans.

Yes and no. The really interesting selfies are those that reveal more or something other than the person. Some of the works in the show are satirical, some are not. Others are critically self-aware, like Jayson Musson’s piece. His video makes fun of the selfie-taking process.

The selfie has become such a worldwide phenomenon. Any thoughts on why?

People are obsessed with themselves. Autobiographies are self-involved too, but they can be exciting if they’re well written. The selfie trend is driven by social media and viral content sites, and is perpetuated by endless “millennial” think-pieces. And the flirting selfie Starbucks guy. Remember that? Awkward. Artistically, the subject is fascinating because it has such a long history but, takes place in a very contemporary format -- the smartphone.