In this essay I suggest how the digital archive might be viewed as a portrait in relation to Alfred Gell’s notion of personhood. I discuss the relevance of portraiture to a practice focused on initiating and then transforming the remnants of social situations.
As a researcher and practitioner, my work explores the production and authorship of cultural knowledge. With a background in social anthropology, I often work experimentally with others, setting in motion collaborative or participatory encounters, which aim to unsettle conventional patterns of thought and behaviour. My work evolves through complex relational processes that unfold over time leading to videos and performances, which play on the gap between events and their documents.
When I use the term ‘portrait’ in my practice, it is in relation to documents, by which I mean documents in the form of traces: left-overs from activity and Documents that I have actively produced for an audience such as video works. I am interested in how documents (of both kinds) can capture the intersubjectivities through which they come into existence, and the extent to which documents can be portraits “of themselves” as a process.
This is my hard drive, a digital archive. If you were to spend time looking through it you would probably get a pretty good impression of who I am. It contains numerous documents; files of artworks that I have made, texts I have downloaded, bank statements, personal photographs, notes, trash etc.
And here’s my Facebook account, another kind of digital archive.
A recent study showed that analysing Facebook ‘Likes’ can indicate personality traits better than actually asking people close to an individual, to describe what they are like.
If, therefore, as the dictionary suggests, a portrait can be “a representation or impression of someone or something” then my hard drive and Facebook both give a strong impression of me, communicating key aspects of my identity. These two digital archives are, however, also very different, particularly in terms of their genesis: a Facebook page is a deliberate and highly edited account, created deliberately as a portrait (albeit one that is constantly evolving) with an audience in mind. My hard drive, by contrast, is a private dumping ground for anything and everything. I did not create it with the intention of it being experienced or described as a portrait by anyone other than myself.
In terms of the status of digital archives, whether they can be defined or comprehended as portraits – intended or unintended – it is useful to think beyond accepted notions of representation.
Anthropologist Alfred Gell uses the term ‘distributed personhood’ to articulate how, “A person and a person’s mind are not confined to particular spatio-temporal coordinates, but consist of biographical events and memories of events, and a dispersed category of material objects, traces and leavings’
At face value Gell’s thesis seems quite obvious. Our actions leave traces. But his point is that the traces and leavings are not separate from us. They are us. Personhood is distributed and material objects and leavings have their own agency. I have experienced the force of this, in the recent experiment I undertook, in which I handed over a copy of my hard drive to another artist, Louisa Love, to ‘use’. This experiment formed part of my doctoral research exploring modes of relationality, in which I was testing out ways for my work to be experienced based on a model of “usership” rather than “spectatorship”, to see how archival modes of encounter would play out in a contemporary art context.
For six months, Love became artist in residence in my digital archive. At the time we’d both started working as part of a collective, Collaborative Research Group in Kent, and, although we didn’t know each other well, we had figured out that we shared an interest in archival practice. I invited Love to become part of the experiment, and in taking up residence in my hard, Love’s brief was open. I asked her to document her process and the residency was to culminate in a public event of her choice. Over the course of the period she had my hard drive Love studied, manipulated and reflected on material and this had a strong impact on me, on my sense of personhood and identity, highlighting, in particular, the lack of boundedness between me and my ‘stuff.’
To reflect on her experience Love started a blog and as I began to see screen grabs of documents from my hard drive appear here, along with images and video clips testing out some of the ideas and techniques I was working with. I began to feel very uneasy, even though Love was only doing exactly as I had asked. Conversations we had only magnified this feeling of discomfort. She stated that she had spent “more time than I could know” looking at material. She also informed me that the project had brought about an entirely different way of working for her, that she had not anticipated at the start, which related to temporarily parking her sculptural practice and making videos.
I began to feel possessed, inhabited, affected. It made me recall James Frazer’s concept of sympathetic magic, a nineteenth-century theory of magical practice in which a copy or representation of something can affect the original to such a degree that representations acquire or share in the properties of the represented. Certainly Love’s research blog felt an effigy of mine, partly because she made the decision to use the exact same template. Here are our templates side by side.
But it was more than this. Her words felt like they could be my words and, as mad as it may sound, I started to wonder whether she was actually becoming me. More than anything I wanted to terminate the experiment. Rewind. Put walls up around myself. I felt as if my identity was leaching away. And all because of someone looking through my hard drive and making a few comments!
The residency ended on the 27th November 2014 with a performance lecture we did together exploring the process that had occurred. I do not know what the long-term effect of this entanglement might be on either or both of us, and indeed whether it is now over. We are separate people, separate artists, with separate practices, yet somehow, during the experiment, even though nothing really happened, boundaries were breached and it felt as if we were in dangerous territory in terms of where one person’s life ends, and another begins and how this is mediated in terms of digital documents, which can of course, be copied and endlessly transformed.
The experiment addressed poignant questions about our individuality and our integrity as artists in a digital age. In the context of About Face: Concepts of Portraiture, it prompts us to question whether archives themselves be defined as portraits? Or do they exist only as latent portraits? Further, does their status as a portrait depend on there being an audience present?