The selfie is social media Marmite. For some, it means perfect pics all the time with no need for cringey strangers chiming “cheeeeese” at each and every take. For others, there couldn’t be anything more vapid. In their recent video, comedy duo Buddy Bolton and Brett Kline pranked the Internet by severing selfie-sticks with branch clippers on the streets of New York. Although the targets were all actors – and no phones were harmed in the making – the intent to ridicule popular culture was no less a success at shocking bystanders (and keyboard warriors).
Love it or loathe it, we cannot deny technology is evolving to give the selfie inextinguishable power. Phones without front-facing cameras are practically antiques, and, with handy apps like Snapchat stowed away in our pockets, our appetite for photos is infiltrating all walks of life. The art world is no exception.
People take pictures of themselves with artwork day in, day out and, since the selfie is becoming a medium in and of itself, this craze demands closer inspection. What does it mean to take a selfie? Whilst we can see undeniable crossovers with self-portraiture, to group the two in the same historical category is to undermine the selfie’s unique existence. Not only do selfies incite individuals to capture emotions in the moment, they’re also an immediate way to share those feelings with the world online. For people to pose with art suggests a connection between viewer and work is identified in the process, one they feel strongly enough about to share. Despite our apprehensions, can this phenomenon be harnessed to actually heighten our experience of art?
It’s no far stretch to say modern art galleries, with their white-walled mazes and empty atmospheres, are stagnating spaces. Forced to adopt the mundane etiquette of ambling and pausing, ambling and pausing, the physical act of gallery-going tends to leave our heads dizzied and disgruntled. Selfies offer a chance to digest visual sources through technological means we're familiar with, encouraging all-important interactivity that many exhibitions lack profoundly. Instead of idling before artwork, tilting our heads or stroking our chins, cameras prompt us to capture our own creations, thus building a greater sense of audience participation.
Recently, a number of galleries have sought to galvanise interactivity via curatorial processes and installations. A surge in virtual reality artworks this year seems like a sci-fi dream come true; from Bjork Digital at Somerset House to Dreamlands at the Whitney Museum, the aim has been to create immersive experiences that are light-years away from white cube woes. Others have cut straight to our social-media-mania. At the Cleveland Museum of Art, Gallery One' hosts a range of activities that engage the viewer’s body with motion sensors and face-recognition technology. In Strike a Pose, sculptures appear on touch screens for visitors replicate in a photo, then share online. Like the selfie, the activity draws attention how we view art by connecting the viewer's physicality to what they're looking at.
However, unlike Strike a Pose, individuals taking a selfie are doing so on their own volition, suggesting a personal investment with an image. For that reason, snapping a selfie can have the same effect of creating new art, albeit using the term loosely. Whether alongside, in front, or reflected in protective glass, posing with artwork renders your creative mark in the final photo. A moment of inspired spontaneity becomes a statement about the self, even if unconsciously so.
But, where powerful opportunities for creativity are enabled by smartphone technology, the potential is yet undermined by one problem that many nonbelievers insist is at the essence of selfie-taking: vanity. With stock photos and archived recordings of artwork all over the Internet, what makes your snap so special? Well, of course, you’re in it, and by existing in the subject matter you have proven evidence of your experience. At the flick of a switch it earns your profile the “I’m cultured” brownie badge, though at times this has had some unfortunate outcomes.
Problematically, a selfie is often taken at the expense of careful contemplation of the artwork. Even pieces that appears to explore the human image may be misleading. Michael Baldwin’s Untitled Painting (1965) – a mirror mounted on canvas – in Tate Modern’s collection is surely the perfect selfie opportunity; yet our reflected image isn’t necessarily a component in the conceptualism of the work. Baldwin plays with the notion of mimesis by confronting us with our own reflection to state its prominence on the ‘canvas’ is only a consequence of our eyes being attached to our bodies. Everything else in the room is also reflected but largely ignored. Our compulsion to take selfies, again, confirms this dynamic of seeing ourselves as centre of attention, the world, and, indeed, art.
But, perhaps to rule the selfie as vainglorious is to be too cynical? Imitating poses and toying with Snapchat features is, after all, fun. In these ageing halls and silenced chambers, it’s easy to forget what humour can be brought to the art world by the millions of people it serves to impress. Whimsical selfies might not ask the most gripping questions of art, but it’s clear people find enjoyment in them, much like our love of classical art memes. Is the art world really becoming so humdrum, so po-faced to deny such high spirits? Perhaps it is, and perhaps it’s always been that way, but with so many of us tuned in online, accessing art like never before, maybe it’s finally time for a change.
Despite a number of frustrations voiced by the likes of Bolton and Kline, selfies in the gallery could be instrumental to transforming our experience of art. What seems unengaged and asinine at face value is perhaps a gateway to creating, debating, and having fun. Surely that should be embraced? One thing's for certain, for as long as there have been cameras there have been selfies so, whether you're an endless lover or a hardline hater, you can rest assured they're to stay.