In the age of the #selfie, will the viewer always be a part of the picture?

By Leah Brown, FATVillage

Take a look around any art opening these days and you are sure to see this scene: the audience standing with their backs up against the work of art they are (supposedly) there to see, arms outstretched in front of perfected smiles, thumbs pressing the button on their phones’ cameras to capture their own image with the art as background to their personal narratives.

This, it seems, is the new way of looking at art, necessitating the insertion of one’s self.  It is like the highest form of postmodernism in its attribution of authorship to the viewer, with each work being defined by the onlooker’s presence and symbiotically defining the onlooker in his/her own terms: I am cultured; I am edgy; I am having fun; this is _____(insert adjective) and so am I…

Across the world, art museums and galleries are struggling with what to do with this trend. The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC has banned “selfie sticks” and the David Zwirner gallery has hired a team of docents to urge against the “epidemic,” which does tend to have the side effect of carelessness around artwork that is fragile by nature.  But Katy Perry’s selfie at the Chicago Institute with Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting brought waves of new attention to the work and the facility. In Manila, a museum has even been created just for the selfie taker, with reproductions of famous works of art altered in such a way to allow for the viewer to become akin to a guest star in the otherwise familiar scenes.Gone is passive reverence for a singular human creation. What we have on our hands is an active audience that demands inclusion. This is not the realm for work that is subtle in line or form. This is the land of the spectacle, suited for work that screams “look at me” and a viewer who screams right back “now look at me”.

Selfies with art is a trend especially rampant at The Projects Contemporary Art Space in FATVillage Arts District, a 2015 recipient of the Knight Arts Challenge, to promote the creation and exhibition of experiential work. Part of this task is to take on the undeniably sheer size of the venue. At 8,000, uninterrupted square feet, with soaring 30-foot ceilings, The Projects could almost have been an airplane hanger in a previous life. This is not the place for subtlety. And perhaps because of the space’s assertive presence, its audience tends to be just as assertive – or should I say, insertive?

Independent curator Lisa Rockford spends a lot of time looking at art, artists and art viewers in South Florida, and in response to the selfie trend, will be debuting her newest curated exhibit, Possessed, at The Projects Aug. 28-Oct. 17.. She asks the question, “Is this behavior simply a way to relate to or be enthusiastic about the artwork, or are contemporary viewers unable to appreciate the original object without inserting themselves into the work?” To help her answer this larger societal question, she has invited 15 plus artists to create new works that creatively respond to ideas surrounding narcissism, backdrop, posing, self-promotion and self-documentation. Each installation will include an “X” where the viewer is invited to stand and will provide suggested poses and specific hashtags (i.e. #SelfiePossessed #Fatvillage) to use when posting online.

One of the featured artists, sleeper, will be conducting a premier performance called “Reflections” from the “I think I love you” series.  According to sleeper, “Reflections is calling on the spirit of the sacred clown to highlight our culture’s relationship to new media. The sacred clown is a satirist. Sacred clowns function as a mirror. Their behavior, in most cases extreme in nature, forces others to examine themselves… The piece acts as a sort of ritual, the screens bringing the entranced figures from the darkness in a partially choreographed procession. The figures are drawn unwillingly to the glow of the monitors and struggle in its embrace. The performance culminates with the performers breaking free only to be caught by a different beast. “Reflections” playfully responds to surveillance and self-documentation. The double standards we have created to cope with new media by outside forces have ultimately transformed us into the greater propagator.”

The exhibition opens as part of FATVillage’s August art walk on Aug. 29, shows again for the September Artwalk on Sept. 27 and closes in conjunction with the Annual Art Fallout event on Oct. 17. A preview and panel discussion with Lisa Rockford and a selection of exhibiting artists will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Aug. 28.