APT: Art in Perpetuity Trust

This review responds to the first iteration of This ‘Me’ of Mine, at APT Gallery, Deptford.

The show also toured the following venues:

12 April – 7 May | Strange Cargo George’s House, Folkestone
12 May – 29 June | Kaleidoscope, Sevenoaks
dates to be announced | Art School Gallery, Ipswich

In her essay accompanying this exhibition, curatorJane Boyer asserts that our identities are set against the context of our physical surroundings and the relationships we maintain. Boyer asks ‘how is the surge in on-line communications and a transient internet affecting this context and ultimately how we see ourselves?’

The accelerated nature of modern life demands from us an increasingly flexible kind of identity. In every personal encounter, including now those mediated by the screens of laptops and smartphones, we must adapt ourselves to the appropriate role. Somehow we manage. Echoing this need to adapt to the new, This ‘Me’ of Mine sets long-established themes of identity and selfhood around and against sociology’s current hot topic: identity in the digital age.

Personal homepages, blog posts, and Facebook accounts have made identity-formation and self-presentation easier than ever, opening up users to a considerably wider range of options than those open to generations past. Kate Murdoch’s ‘It’s the little things’ comprises an assembly of objects that once belonged to her late grandmother; objects that bore witness, over seventy years, to their owner’s character-defining daily life. Seen through the lens of the digital age, where accumulation of experiences includes the virtual, and where images from all around the world can be collected instantaneously, the range of goods from which the artist’s grandmother drew her collection seems stiflingly limited. Well-worn thimbles, some buttons and lipsticks, and a picture of the Queen are among these objects, which reveal less about their owner than about their owner seenthrough Kate Murdoch’s eyes. This piece arouses speculation on what traces might remain of the pastimes of today’s younger generations – what evidence will there be of a lifetime spent online gaming when the person is no longer present to perform it? As more items and experiences are consumed in digital form the likelihood of future generations keeping boxes of their grandparent’s or parent’s possessions as keepsakes and mementos seems slim.

Boyer has pitted this traditional kind of identity-formation against artworks that reflect the transient nature of online communication. David Riley’s ‘Twitter user names: coded and transcribed’ is a backstage look at digital identity in which a user’s Twitter feed – an already coded representation – is reduced to digits and symbols. Bereft of a graphical user interface we are faced with an incomprehensible data stream that bears no physical relation to the person behind it. Sandra Crisp’s digital collage, ‘The Bigger Picture’, invokes all manner of former representations of the flood of information in the digital age, from glitched image files to the behind-the-scenes programming language used in the Matrix films. These two pieces work alongside each other to suggest we have perhaps reached information saturation; a point which the rest of the works in the exhibition either turn away from or work in spite of.

That only two of the selected works directly address digital culture is reflective of the scepticism with which This ‘Me’ of Mine views this fascinating and inescapable social development. Boyer tells us that she finds this development unnerving and that changes in attitude to privacy fill her with apprehension. This apprehension is reflected in Edd Pearman’s ‘Whilst I breathe, I hope’ – a digital print of a maniacally smiling youth – which reads as a comment on the younger generation’s approach to privacy and authenticity. It brings to mind a generation conditioned to sleepwalk into a land populated by dangerous strangers lurking in darkened doorways down the unlit alleys of the internet. In fact, this territory belongs to these ‘youths’; they are the digital natives, born in the 1990s and with a broadband enabled childhood behind them.

Boyer suggests that this generation views their personal identity not as something to connect them with their communities, but something they act out through a persona created for their own ends. Her claim that this ‘takes them far from the places they inhabit’ stands in contradiction to contemporary critical thinking around digitally enabled identities which tells us that online locations are now places we inhabit. Communities comprising the ‘younger generation’ are often found online, particularly on social networking and image-sharing sites such as Instagram and Tumblr where they connect with friends and family on a daily basis. Describing this development in his 2011 book Understanding Digital Culture Vincent Miller points out that ‘It is no longer its novelty or potential to transform life but its mundane nature and pervasiveness that now give the internet its significance’ he adds, ‘it has become enmeshed within the enduring structures of our society. As such, the online sphere is no longer a realm separate from the offline ‘real world’; but fully integrated into offline life.’ In these places we are able to perform myriad versions of ourselves, but the difference between this and the physical is negligible – selfhood has always been fluid, identity has always been drawn from a range of personae created for our own ends.

Browsing the internet reveals much to bolster Boyer’s claim, implicit in her essay though not directly stated, that digital culture is ushering in a new age of moral decline but who is to say that older generations – if presented with the same technological advances – would have responded any differently? Boyer’s essay concludes asking the question ‘can we live in a world which denies a sensitivity to our humanity?’ To this I recommend taking a look at any online artist’s network. There she will find a great deal of new work, and new relationships being formed entirely online, as well as a wide range of practices working specifically for an online audience. John Rafman’s is a blog documenting the weird and wonderful world of Google StreetView which stands alone as a work in its own right, while the Webcam Venus project and recent Tumblr Art Symposium all demonstrate that sensitive, observational art of the kind that Jane Boyer has attempted to seek out is thriving in the digital realm.

Trevor H. Smith