The Selfie: More and Less than a Self-Portrait (New York, 2016)

"The Selfie: More and Less than a Self-Portrait," an invited talk at the symposium What Now? 2016: On Future Identities, organized by Art in General in collaboration with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics (May 20-21, 2016). New York City, May 21, 2016.

The talk. Photo: Anne Barlow.

Download symposium booklet PDF and view the video recordings of all talks and panel discussions on Art in General web site here.

I am very grateful to Anne Barlow, director of Art in General, for inviting me to be part of this exciting symposium.  

My talk was included in the panel "Technology and Presentations of the Self," excellently moderated by Soyoung Yoon.  I had the pleasure to discuss my research with two inspiring co-panelists, Daniel Bejar and Sondra Perry. We were joined by Evan Malater.

The panel discussion. Photo: Anne Barlow.

I am thankful to Carin Kuoni, director of Vera List Center for Art and Politics, for co-organizing and hosting the symposium. I wish to thank also Kristen Chappa and Lindsey Berfond of Art in General for making this happen.

My talk was based on a critical revision of some of the methods and findings of my co-authored research projects on social media photography such as Selfiecity (2014), Selfiecity London (2015), and The Exceptional and the Everyday: 144 Hours in Kyiv (2014) as well as subsequent research articles written by me or co-written with Lev Manovich.

See a short summary of the talk on the news section of this web site.

For a theoretical background, see my article "The Networked Camera at Work: Why Every Self-portrait Is Not a Selfie, but Every Selfie is a Photograph" published in the catalog of the 2016 Riga Photography Biennial.

Excerpt of the talk:

Selfies belong to what Vilém Flusser calls the universe of technical images. As such, these images have functions and characteristics that are different from traditional images such as paintings or drawings.

According to Flusser, the traditional images were observations of objects, whereas the technical images always are computations of concepts.

It follows that the technical images are not reproductive but rather they are productive. In other words, technical images are not a mirror of reality, but rather a projection, a constructed and produced image.

Therefore we could say that selfies are tools of production or construction of a self, rather than a representation of a pre-existing self.

Then what do selfies mean?

But to ask, what any photograph - a technical image - means, “is an incorrectly formulated question,” Flusser wrote in his book Into the Universe of Technical Images. “Although they appear to do so, technical images don’t depict anything: they project something. To decode a technical image is not to decode what it shows but to read how it is programmed.”

And furthermore, “We must criticize technical images on the basis of their program. Criticism of technical image requires analysis of their trajectory and analysis of the intention behind it. This is because technical images don’t signify anything: they indicate a direction.”

I would argue that the direction that selfies indicate is more away from reflection of the self in an art-historical sense and more towards the interaction with the apparatus of image-making and image-sharing which includes not only the image, but also the devices and software.