Erica Scourti’s So Like You, Part 1

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 first 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.

So Like You_Scourti_2014

Frozen Smile, shared with permission, by Karel Donk, came up as a similar image to my young selfie from 1997. ©Karel Donk

So Like You begins with a simple premise: putting my collection of old photos, flyers, love letters and other ephemera through a Google similar image search to find a whole other set of near visual matches. Out of the hundreds of images returned, I traced a few back to the original posters and got in touch by email. I asked them to reply with an image from their own archive that was similar to mine, and to supply some tags to describe it. The resulting video and the blog similarselves.tumblr.com capture this refraction of my personal biography through the eyes of strangers, connected to me only through the arbitrary sampling of a visual search algorithm. While the blog and some of the press images document my original photos and some of the search results, the video version exhibited at The Photographers’ Gallery Media Wall and Brighton Photo Biennial presents only the images I received through this process of exchange.

“Perhaps… now it’s not just the image industry but increasingly our personal network connections, mediated by the ‘infrastructure industry’ of social media platforms, that shape who we are”

As with much of my work, I wanted to use myself as a test subject to explore the relationship between personal and collective experience in a fully mediated, hyper-connected world, foregrounding the idea of a subject aware of herself as situated within a system of techno-social (since the technical is social) representations. Drawing on the increasingly valuable field of visual search – originating, like most widely-adopted technologies, in the military – I wanted to investigate how the proliferation of images online creates an anxiety about ‘authentic’ experience and shapes the way we picture, frame and share our lives. By finding comparable versions of my personal photos, and therefore life experiences, across the network, it was possible to make literal an oft-repeated cliché about sites like Instagram and Flickr: that everyone’s posting the same pics of their cats, coffees, etc. while trying in some way to stand out as an authentic individual exhibiting difference. By asking others to find or create a reflection of my life in theirs, this project also touches on another cliché regarding social media: that it makes us narcissistic, vain and dependant on the approval – and perhaps even emulation – of others.

insta
My feed ©Erica Scourti

For me, this tension between similarity and difference, singularity and multiplicity, authenticity and faking (not to mention early-adopters and hipsters) is one of the hallmarks of socially-networked existence. Users are connected to a dense matrix of influences – including brands, frenemies, celebs, fictional entities, games – while being encouraged to understand themselves as unique, singular subjects. This could be described as the Facebook paradox: on the one hand stipulating authenticity – being the individual author of one’s identity – as a condition for participation, following Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that ‘having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity’, while at the same time requiring users to define themselves through a community of likes, shares and clicks supplied by friends, that is by others. This reflects Zuckerberg’s other observation, and the reason Facebook is a profitable enterprise: within a user’s personal profile ‘almost all the fields that define them are in some way commercial’[1] that is, existing and authored exterior to self, in relation to one’s network and, obviously, of value; representing capital.

For writer Rob Horning, discussing the ‘data self’[2], authenticity is a fiction that oils the wheels of consumerism, where ‘consuming authentically could seem to prove fidelity to our “real self”’, a self that just needs to find the right haircut, music, holidays or whatever as the perfect outward expression of an inner essence assumed to be unique, coherent and singular. He suggests social media heralds instead a postauthentic self, aware of its identity as constituted through exposure to, connection to and influence by others, and signaling a multiplicity at odds with the authentic self capital has thrived off.

be yourself

©Erica Scourti

Writing in the early 2000s about the commercialization of personal experience, cultural theorist Jean Fisher asked whether ‘the image industry [has] colonised our psychical worlds as thoroughly as the physical world so that, we are always dreaming someone else’s dream, playing out someone else’s phantasy’[3]. While her question assumes an interior ‘psychical’ world, it also betrays an anxiety over who reigns, or dreams, within it. Perhaps, following Horning’s claim for postauthenticity, now it’s not just the image industry, but increasingly also our personal network connections mediated by the ‘infrastructure industry’ of social media platforms, that shape who we are. I see this as supporting Judith Butler’s notion of identity as a performative process of iteration and citation, implying a self that is inextricable from collective experience rather than being constituted as a pre-existing entity with an unchanging interior essence. Many of my previous projects, like year-long algorithmic diary Life in AdWords, explore this idea and the part increasingly responsive technologies play in helping to construct this entangled subjectivity.

Life in AdWords- FB timeline

Life in AdWords – Facebook version ©Erica Scourti

Notes 

[1] From David Kirkpatrick The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World (2011)

[2] Ron Horning, Google Alert For the Soul, originally delivered at Theorizing the Web 2013 conference, New York City

[3] Jean Fisher, Truth’s Shadows, Vampire in the Text (2004)

Erica Scourti was born in Athens, Greece and now lives in London. Her work in text, video and performance has been shown recently at Hayward Gallery Project Space, Munich Kunstverein, Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, Banner Repeater and The Royal Standard. Upcoming exhibitions include Group Therapy at FACT, Poetics and Politics of Data at HEK Basel and a residency at Wysing Arts Centre.

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