THIS WEEKEND IN LYON there was a streaker. For two hours on Saturday and two hours on Sunday, a man whose stage name is Monico Chiquito wandered the biennial wearing black briefs and Asics and using his iPhone to post selfies to Instagram, Vine, and more. These photos were published on disembodiedselfie.tumblr.com and on the New Museum’s website, where from 7 to 9 AM EST you could also watch a livestream of the photos occurring—“performance art,” by the non-present artist Xavier Cha. Since I wouldn’t open a stall door in a public bathroom, find someone shitting or masturbating, and leave the door open for two hours, I did not watch. (Man is never nakeder than in the seconds before becoming nude; I’m more interested in the nude.)
This weekend in London a streak continued. The National #Selfie Portrait Gallery at Moving Image, curated by Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina, was a collection of short video self-portraits by nineteen young or young-ish artists—including Petra Cortright, Bunny Rogers, Jayson Musson, Kim Asendorf, and Ole Fach. Cortright and Rogers also starred in this month’s Martos Gallery show, “Lonely Girl,” the ad for which featured lo-res selfies by seven female artists and was designed by its male curator, Asher Penn. (In the show itself, the artists’ faces did not appear—was the audience to be reeled in by the ad’s shallowness? So cynical.) Petra Cortright is not to be confused with Petra Collins, the Rookie photographer who recently curated an all-female group show at Four81 in New York with roughly thirty works by artists ranging in age from sixteen to fifty, but who got more attention for an American Apparel T-shirt with a My Little Pony–hued sketch of her own bleeding vagina. If only it had been a photograph, we’d finally have a selfie worth the furor.
Early 21st century: from “SELF” + “IE,” says the Oxford Dictionary Online, and since my generation still remembers Internet Explorer (I.E., see), I want to smile. Then I want to paint, whiten, and Willow-filter my smile on Instagram, except I can’t without making a statement: The selfie is self-exploration. It’s self-ex_ploit_ation. It is harmless, fun. It’s narcissism gone wild. No, it’s female narcissism, which didn’t you know is redundant, unless it’s “feminist narcissism” by which we mean self-love so please go fuck yourself. Or it is neither feminist nor female but rather the male gaze internalized and viral, in which case it is nothing but harm, and also is making us stupid. But what if it’s self-portraiture? Then who’s stupid? You, who cannot draw a simple line from the nose of Picasso to Miley’s tongue.
My problem with this last, ultimate defense of the selfie is the assumption it needs defending at all. We have been depicting cool animals since the #LOLMAMMOTHS of the Chauvet Caves, yet pseudo-historians are not lining up around Greenpoint to place the cats of Instagram in a lustrous tradition of art. Likewise, I have not read twenty-eight minor essays defending Thanksgiving dinner pics as new Dutch-masterly still lifes. The face alone has launched a thousand think pieces. So now the question is not one of basic selfie-justification, but rather, why must a photo of my face be justified when a photo of my bookshelf is not?
In “Disembodied Selfie,” the body may be without organs but it is visible in every snap. In the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery, the artist’s face is featured in every video but one. (Leslie Kulesh did a composite of appropriated face-pics.) It is strange to think that this is all we mean by “selfie,” when even the ODO’s definition—“a photo taken of oneself”—doesn’t specify that “oneself” refers to “one’s physiognomy.” This reductiveness that flies in the face of Being.
Yet when it comes to Being-in-the-world, a face is the most changeable, incontrovertible, sort of torturous fact of existence. Faces are not born; they’re made. Sometimes they’re made up. The face we show the world takes on the characteristics and quality of our relationship to the world, so that if your face is never seen, you are right to wonder if you have one. If you are sure you have one, you are still never sure how it looks. Having a face is like holding the long spoon of hell to the soup bowl of personhood: No matter how we twist, we see our faces not in the flesh but in reflections. The iPhone screen literally flips the gaze, locks it. We can make faces at the faces that we make. We can hold our face at arm’s length and judge it, can like it or stare at it or unsee (delete) it and, in so doing, gain the same power held over us by any dumb stranger on the street. (Which is why I resist correlatives between the selfie movement and hot-girl narcissism: Not only was the first selfie taken by a grown man, but also, all you must do to disprove the collective dads is scroll through the #me, #pretty, #selfie, and #selfienation tags on Instagram to see not a sea of young money shots, but a far wider variety of faces than almost any filmmaker or fine-art photographer or fashion magazine editor would deem worthy of recognition. The faces say, “See?”)
For most of us the selfie isn’t and shouldn’t be art. What makes a selfie a “self-portrait” lies mostly in the pedigree of the iPhone-holder. The difference between @MrPimpGoodGame, the self-made selfie king, and someone like Bunny Rogers is $70,000 a year at Parsons, so while @MrPimpGoodGame has the duration fetish and long-term facial stamina of no less than Marina Abramović, it does not matter, since he doesn’t want to be Marina Abramović. #Selfienation lays no claims to immortality. It only wants the most love and control in a moment.
This cathection was attained by one artist in the N#SPG: Jennifer Chan, in whose paralyzing Glow the dick becomes an iPhone or the iPhone becomes a dick. Either way you’re holding it, and she’s really doing her best, I mean she’s actually sucking with these wet pretty noises and everything. I almost couldn’t watch it, either. Maybe selfies are not always masturbation: harmless, pleasurable, and easy, replacing helpfully a need for physical interaction. Maybe a selfie is also this way of saying look at me, bitch. You better come when I’m looking at you.
Sarah Nicole Prickett is the editor of Adult magazine and a writer based in New York.