Atlántica # 56

It seems like a long time now since those heady years of the 1970s when artists like Vito Acconci, Peter Campus, Bruce Nauman, VALIE EXPORT, Dan Graham, Chris Burden, John Baldessari, Dara Birnbaum, Cindy Sherman, and Francesc Torres accustomed us to watching their bodies on screens. They transmuted the direct experience of live performance and the material presence of the artist on the stage, in the street, or in the gallery into an image to be consumed through the media window of a television screen or projection. Ever since then, the idea of the body as machine — the dematerialisation of physical power and its literal transfiguration into image by means of video — has been a constant in the approaches and experiments undertaken by artists of the widest variety of aesthetic inclinations who work in front of a camera, expose their bodies, and incarnate themselves. This role-playing that has transformed the artist into an actor who fictionalises or documents his or her condition as an “artist” has run in parallel to the debate on the very status of the creator as a social agent in the field of contemporary art. At the same time, artists have had to take up the burden of the long historicist tradition of self-depiction in Western art history and the weight of a genre like the self-portrait.

Today, this performativity in front of the camera in order to depict biologicist and organic imaginaries of violence and to deconstruct gender, sexual, ethno-racial, religious, ideological, and other archetypes — archetypes that involve the bodies of artists and that were already present in the works of the neo-vanguard during the second half of the twentieth century — coexists with a repertoire of images in which cultural producers take up discourses surrounding the affects and bio(geo)political traces derived from their condition as immaterial workers in post-Fordist global capitalism and a flexible economy. Underpinning a large part of these new self-depictions is a rethinking of the place and social function of the artist transected by the mechanisms of control of the present-day art institution. Naturally, these representations are not far removed from the explosion — and democratisation — of forms of self-exposure to cameras and screens that has accompanied the exponential rise of digital technologies and accessibility to media for recording and reproducing images. In point of fact, they are the very formats and languages available on platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, video blogs, and social networks, or the distinctive treatment of images in camera framing, the self-serving staple of the selfie, dramatic development, storyline structure, elements that clearly influence the modes of construction of the video image and, in consequence, the rendering of a normalised spectrum of compositions in which the common factor is self-representation.


This narcissistic use of the self-image in the midst of the chaos and saturation of pixels with which the retina is confronted in contemporary society, an impulse that in principle could be viewed as a need for self-definition, has ended up as a pivotal component in the marketing strategies of culture industries in the management of consumerism in a global world. Why, then, are artists putting themselves in front of a camera once again? Is it perhaps to stake out room for a personal voice and to singularise the experience of the producer of images with narratives that often turn into autobiographical statements? Could it connote a discourse of resistance to the homogenising mechanisms of the art institution as a structural entity of the culture industry? Whatever the possible replies to these questions, there are some ideas that could well be inherent to all of them, namely, an understanding of the precarious role of the artist within the art system; the subaltern position of this subject-artist in conditions of heteronomy of the state and the market that rules over the field of contemporary art; the scant mobility of the power relations between the various agents in the field; as well as the geopolitical cartography on which axiological statements are sustained and the landscape of artistic legitimacy and skills is outlined.

Without wishing to draw a map of the attitudes and discourses by which contemporary artists expose themselves in front of the camera, I will here attempt to enumerate some of the symptoms of this exhibitionist pathology that undertakes to communicate with a formerly traditional public or reified spectator in the shape of the user-consumer, with all the alienation and fetishism that colours this relationship. We will look at a few examples that will prove germane due to the appropriation and play that they engage in with visual and narrative codes of audiovisual products coming from fields such as advertising, coaching, telemarketing, or different television formats and products based on a direct, empathic questioning of the spectator or the instrumentalisation of various dialogic environments. In other cases, we will encounter practices that are rooted in a perspective of conceptualism subjected to the scrutiny of the ideological and power structures that sustain the definitions and criteria of “artisticity,” while at once satirising those enclaves in which the normative operations regulating the meaning of “the artistic” take place. In the latter case, we take for granted the creators’ consciousness of finding themselves under an episteme in which an “internalisation of critique” is at play, as Simon Sheikh has argued in his reading of Andrea Fraser.1 As such, what is under debate is not so much the questionable place of the artist within the institution, or the mechanisms of exclusion that it upholds; rather it is the way in which the discourses of institutional critique and its methodologies of disarticulation and deconstruction of the representations of power have produced tools of knowledge for the political agency of certain subjectivities inside and outside the sphere of art. To quote Simon Sheikh,

An institutional critique of institutional critique, what can be termed “institutionalized critique”, has […] to question the role of education, historicization and how institutional auto-critique not only leads to a questioning of the institution and what it institutes, but also becomes a mechanism of control within new modes of governmentality, precisely through its very act of internalization.2

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Raquel Friera, El arte de vender, 2012, video installation: plasma TV, color video, Spanish subtitles, 6 min., dimensions variable. Video still. Courtesy of the artist.


In El art de vender, 2012,3 Raquel Friera (Barcelona, 1974) appropriates the language of marketing, its utilitarian arguments, and the persuasive tone of sales channels with the intention — as the artist herself notes — of underscoring the similarities between contemporary artwork and other kinds of commodities. In making this comparison, Friera waxes ironic on the stereotyped and manipulative character of this type of audiovisual product, one that is destined to be consumed, as well as on the clichés that persist in the popular imaginary about the functions of art. The artist announces a kind of audiovisual curriculum or dossier including statements about her own works in which she lists, for the prospective buyer, the benefits of acquiring them. The video begins with a brief description of her family’s creative legacy, in so doing suggesting a genetic legitimacy for Friera’s skills and talent as an artist, and plays with some of the conventional concepts that affect the classification of aesthetic value in art history: the definition of a style as signature, individuality, and originality; inspiration as a source of art; realism of representation; currency of depicted themes, etc. The whole mise en scène conveys a performativity aimed at the ultimate goal of selling the artwork.

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Raquel Friera, El arte de vender, 2012, video installation: plasma TV, color video, Spanish subtitles, 6 min., dimensions variable. Video still. Courtesy of the artist.

Since The E! True Hollywood Story (2000), one of his early pieces, Martín Sastre (Montevideo, 1976) has placed himself at the centre of his own videographic representations. By positioning himself at the core of the narrative, he constructs a slippery self-referentiality in which biography and fiction are jumbled. The figure of the artist is put under examination, not from the position of sacredness characteristic of theories on authorship, but from strategies of meaning in which the subject artist is carnivalised by means of a series of appropriations of attributes closer to mass culture. In The Martin Sastre Foundation (2003), the artist co-opts the accoutrements of advertising in order to launch a foundation with a mandate to raise funds and finance projects by Latino artists through the direct-funding system in vogue in the humanitarian campaigns of NGOs. Worth dwelling on is the artist’s critique of the almost non-existent and utterly precarious funding system for the arts in Latin America, especially in the field of art production. At one time, by drawing parallels with the intentions of committed projects that fulfil a social mission under the legal guise of foundations, he warns both about the marginalisation of culture within wider economic planning and social expenditure, and about a system of recognition that transcends the simple model based on the existence of a primary and secondary art market. This marketing operation in search of funding — one that could fit in perfectly well with the rise of crowdfunding platforms — comes with a hook that the artist had already deployed in previous works, like the series The Iberoamerican Trilogy (2002-2004),4 which is rooted in a declaration that “Iberoamerican dreams are cheaper.” And this is the key to the delocalisation of the labour force in a global economic system that has supplanted old forms of colonial exploitation, a system in which the artist plays a recognisable role as an immaterial producer.

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Martín Sastre, The Martín Sastre Foundation, 2003, video, color and sound, 5 min. Copyright Martín Sastre. Courtesy MUSAC, León.


In Más luz, 2003, Cristina Lucas (Jaen, 1973) uses a hidden camera to record a “real” confession with various priests, thus producing a video that straddles the boundaries between mockumentary and self-portrait. Employing her own biography as a starting-point, the artist uses the sacrament of confession as a dialogic format in which to interrogate the Church. Her first declaration to the priest explains that her act of confession is based on a spiritual quest and on the reality of not finding a place for herself within the Christian community in her self-definition as an artist. This opening moment, in which the split between art and Church is exposed, is followed by a set of questions in which the artist tries to clarify why, if Western art history is so obviously linked to the Church, art practices and the ecclesiastical institution seem to be totally removed from one another today; the answer is because the Church is no longer a patron of artists. In step with her usual dissections of the mechanisms and structures of power, Lucas confronts the institution of the Catholic Church, to this end employing a compendium of ideas about the function of art, along with historical and philosophical notions of aesthetic categories like “beauty,” and debates on the meaning of representation of reality, in order to initiate a dialogue on her responsibility as an artist and a citizen. The dramatic development of the video, sustained by camera movement that scans the grandiloquent interiors of churches in counterpoint with the diminutive figure of the artist kneeling in front of the confessional, and by a soundtrack that alternates between texts and sacred music in crescendo, leads to conclusions about the displacement of the power relations between art and institution from religious hierarchy to other apparatuses of control like the state and the market.

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Cristina Lucas, Más luz, 2003, DVD 4:3, color, sound, Spanish and English subtitles, 10 min. Video Stills. Courtesy of the artist.

Lázaro Saavedra (Havana, 1964) introduces an alter ego and enacts in front of the camera a splitting of the self that engages in dialogue with himself. Saavedra asks himself questions and responds sarcastically and with disbelief at his status as a mid-career artist. In A veces prefiero callar (2006), he and his alter ego (played by himself) are lying on a bed, discussing the possibility of not making more art, of giving up the profession of artist. In this pre-oneiric pursuit, full of tension, self-blame, and remorse, the creative condition is debunked as a dead-end alley amounting to nothing but the ineptitude of an individual unable to do any other job. Meanwhile in Relación profesional (2008), the artist and his double, this time sitting on a sofa as if in a psychoanalytic session or a work interview, engage in a round of questions and answers regarding the artist’s curriculum vitae. The conversation is cut short when one of the subjects leaves the scene, disappointed with the portrait of failure drawn by the questionnaire: the artist hasn’t taken part in the Venice Biennale or Documenta, and has no works in the collection of MoMA.

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Lázaro Saavedra, Relaciones profesionales, 2008, DVD, video projection, 44 s. Video stills. Courtesy of the artist.

A similar atmosphere of frustration and indignation is conveyed in The Wrong Project (2012),5 a piece by Tamara Arroyo (Madrid, 1972) and Diana Larrea (Madrid, 1972), who collaborate on a video installation in order to construct a generational and gender portrait of the management of the policies of visibility in the field of contemporary art that affect middle-aged women artists. The artists write the script and prepare the mise en scène for the video following a coaching and self-help session. The various questions that arise in the subtitles on the screen reflect the professional and existential fears of these mid-career women artists. The vulnerability and unease of both artists is captured in the overlapping frames of a telephone conversation (hypothetically with each other), as suggested by the dual parallelism of the scenes on the screen. The close-ups of their faces endorse the psychological sensation of risk and fragility, further confirmed by the content of the texts.

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Tamara Arroyo, Sketches for The Wrong Project, 2012, Ink and marker on paper (sketch book), 29,7 x 21 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

To complete this psychological portrait of the anxieties of a generation of artists trapped within the operations of invisibilisation of the politics of difference and the management of biopower in the field of contemporary art, a large neon sign on the screen brings the following phrase to our attention: “The Wrong Project.” Obviously we are meant to ask ourselves what about it is wrong: being a woman, reaching a certain age, or asking questions that cast doubt on the democratic nature and accessibility of the system or the distribution of resources among its various agents?

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Tamara Arroyo y Diana Larrea, The Wrong Project, 2012, video installation: TV monitor, DM poster, LED light, DVD, 1:10 min., dimensions variable. Video Stills. Courtesy of the artists.


The work of Sener Özmen (Idil, Turkey, 1971) situates the artist at the centre of its textuality by means of a gesture of self-depiction in which he is transformed, in Road to Tate Modern (2003), into the hero of a utopian trip to the Mecca of art. In this video, produced in collaboration with Erkan Özgen (Derik, Turkey, 1971), the two artists adopt the heteronyms of the literary figures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, setting off on a hazardous and gruelling trip through the arid mountains of southeast Anatolia in search of the road to the Tate Modern in London. The anachronistic situation, the ridiculous postures of the artists on their respective mounts, and every other aspect of the scenes of this epic film provoke a situation of hilarity. The caricature alludes to new types of cultural relations that are reproduced in the art system in a globalised era. As if we were dealing with a pilgrimage to Mecca, for an artist the Tate Modern is one of the core pillars of his doctrine, a gateway into the institution, an initiation rite. This satirical parallel dwells on the obstacles that make it difficult for art production from the periphery to circulate in the West and gain access to the temples of legitimisation of contemporary art, along with the critique that this implies for the mechanisms of dialogue between North-South, centre-periphery, global-local, and the mirages that are conjured up from the mainstream when casting its eyes over art coming from the Middle East. Utopia is jeopardised by this clownish episode. The choice of the character of Don Quixote perhaps suggests a symbology of the contemporary artist from the periphery as a hero tormented by the agonising journey towards a place in the always elusive and distant “centre,” a geopolitical landscape marked by the legacy of the modern/colonial world system and the conditions in which art practices emerge in postcolonial contexts.

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Şener Özmen y Erkan Özgen, Road to Tate Modern, 2003, video, color, sound, English subtitles, 7:13 min. Video Stills. Courtesy of the artist and Pilot Gallery, Beyoğlu, Estambul.

There’s a common denominator among all of the different variables of self-exposure of artists in front of the camera that we have listed so far: an analysis of the social structure of the artistic field and the identification of strategies, actions, and formulas of insertion into it that entail a struggle for legitimacy and the demonstration of specific skills as agents belonging to the field. The accumulation of symbolic capital vested in the ability to find one’s way inside the field and to strike up social relations with the agents who wield authority and/or power leads to defining arguments about the way in which the artist represents himself as part of that sphere as well as the subaltern or hegemonic position he holds in it. Constructing a hyperbole of these flows of relations and describing the legitimising nature of the affective economy that surrounds them, the Serbian artist Tanja Ostojić (Užice, Yugoslavia, 1972) produced a video pitting the critical capacity of performance against its instituting potential. At the 49th Venice Biennale, the artist cast herself in the role of escort for the curator Harald Szeemann, the director of the biennale, and documented it in the video I’ll Be Your Angel (2002).6 Over the course of four days, employing a documentary format akin to news or celebrity gossip reporting, the camera followed the agreed-upon couple through the activities of the event’s official programme. The futility of the artistic gesture, the acceptance of a servile pose, taking delight in a contrived world and flirting with social relations in this type of event where the edifice of the powers-that-be in the field of art is constructed, are all incarnated in the body of the artist. From the opening scenes of the video, the artist’s body is caught up in a series of rituals in which a young female artist from a peripheral country with an emerging practice ends up as a kind of accessory, a mere appendix to the mythical curator. Here the work of Tanja Ostojić, which insistently involves her body in performative situations and experiences that underscore the violence wrought and normalised against women, introduces an ironic and devastating commentary on a context in which the politics of visibility of difference becomes even more alienating than it normally is when staging the altered representations that accompany global processes of signification in the temporal micro-theatre of the biennale. The artist’s action, the moral risk of simulated prostitution and surrender to a phallocratic system, the articulation of her proposal as a medium articulated in a relationship of subordination that pushes the ethic sustained in her feminist discourse to dangerous limits, are paradoxically situated in a position of visibility within the field, with all the accompanying privileges. For this artist, the act of exhibiting herself in front of the camera, which is somehow a metaphor for the nakedness of gender in comparison to categories of the historical patriarchal order of the art world, is equivalent to negotiating and making concessions, symbolising the alienation and progressive decadence of the creative subject to the extent that it strengthens the relationship with the curator and a professional network. Body and technology are once again exposed in the institutional critique that constructs the videographic narrative.

Taking a much more sarcastic tack, the Polish collective Azorro Group7 undertakes a cartography of the artistic field and the social relations within it through a series of videos that re-enact situations in which they intervene performatively, almost always with humour and with a deconsecrating thrust.

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Tanja Ostojić, I´ll Be Your Angel, 2001, 4 days performance with Harald Szeemann, Plato of Humankind, 49th Venice Biennale. Photo: Borut Krajnc. Courtesy: Tanja Ostojić

Portrait with a Curator (2003),8 examines the Polish art scene through furtive snapshots that the four artists took with various curators, art critics, and gallerists. Following Ostojić’s logic in an attempt to document dealings with certain agents of power in the artistic landscape, these mischief-makers improvised collective photos in the social context of exhibition openings, conferences, and other events. The dialogic strategy was addressed as a device in a non-simulated spontaneous pursuit in which the position in the background or the unframed irruption of the character in question within the composition accentuates the ridiculousness of the group portrait.

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Azorro, Portrait with a Curator, 2002, DVD, 7’39”. Video stills. Courtesy Raster Gallery, Warsaw.

The only ones who pose smiling and perfect in the chain of images are the artists, while the other actors are decentred or out of focus. The group are well-aware who actually holds a certain position within the field and how to question it, although in this burlesque operation of identification a mechanism of dialogic inversion and subversion is at work that always favours the close-up of the artists in front of the camera. At a time when strategies of over-exposure in social networks and the media “posturing” predicted by Warhol with his “fifteen minutes of fame” are fully consolidated, any of these portraits could serve as our own calling card on the Facebook wall.


Finally, we will address a type of self-representation that can be audiovisually translated as a kind of subjective camera in which the figure of the artist emerges from the narration of other agents questioned in the video. The image of the artist is replaced by the words of other subjects in front of the camera who give eyewitness accounts that alternate between mockumentary, interview, and fiction. These characters often relate personal experiences involving the artist and in other cases play a role or fictionalise their status as “eyewitnesses.” In That’s My Impression! (2001) by Carles Congost (Olot, 1970), an actor plays a TV commentator who is reviewing the artist’s recent output. Annika Ström (Helsingborg, 1964) produces an absurd representation of herself by means of absence. In The Missed Concert, 2005,9 friends of the artist talk about missing a concert by Ström and in consequence about the impossibility of having an opinion or judgment on the work. In Been in Video (2002),10 family, friends, and collaborators of the artist recall prior experiences in which she invited them to take part in her videos and in so doing elicits highly varied emotions in the interviewees. There are barely any references to artworks, leaving only an affective landscape that shows the creator as a fragmented, specular identity who is as elusive and as blurred as the memory exercises carried out by the people around her.

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Annika Ström, Vatt på Video / Been in Video, 2002, DVD, 2 min. Video stills. Courtesy of the artist.


Despite their formal heterogeneity and discursive plurality, the proposals described above seem to coincide in a conceptualisation of the artistic practice that oversteps the genealogy of a narrative subject subordinated to a tradition of self-referentiality and self-depiction. These works reveal an evident indifference to such methods of mystification of the artist as allegory, so widespread for centuries in the genre of the Western self-portrait. On the contrary, a sustained critique of emphatic notions on the author as a central cultural sign in the discourse of European modernism is undergirded by a set of representations in which the artist is depicted as an immaterial worker subject to the precarious conditions of an economic system that mediates his or her capacities and productive potential. Even in those parodic constructions where a heroic ideal is maintained as a singular condition of the artist, the attributes of the hero are cynically assimilated from popular and mass culture, and signal, more than anything else, the sacrificial or utopian idea and the ethos of artistic practice, almost always renouncing a quest for freedom that is seen as impracticable. Artists today no longer find any attraction in the romantic characterisation of suffering and pain; instead they complain of the material weight of their work, and therein lies the reason that they choose the intersection between the public and the private as a site for their debates on the construction of artistic subjectivity as a source of self-representation and as an exercise in institutional critique. Labour relations and the spaces they occupy in the system of delocalisation that cuts across public and private realms have become a channel for the transparent exposure of the artist’s body, trapped by the dynamics of immaterial production and the cognitive environments of an historic moment where visuality and ways of seeing are changing radically. Simplified access to digital recording and image reproduction technologies, and the expanded circulation of images on internet platforms and networks, replicating and duplicating themselves ad infinitum on millions of devices and screens, have revolutionised forever the possibilities of representation of subjectivities and the becoming of political agencies.

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Annika Ström, Vatt på Video / Been in Video, 2002, DVD, 2 min. Video stills. Courtesy of the artist.

1 Foster, Hal. The Art-Architecture Complex. New York: Verso, 2011, p. xii.

2 See the companion book: Komarov, Aleksander. Estate. Oslo: Torpedo Press. 2010.

3 An example of this cohabitation is Waldish Screen #2 (2001), a work by Liam Gillick in the EVN collection. It’s interesting to note the way in which these structures “function” — literally, spatially, and metaphorically — in the interior of the idealized abstraction of the white cube of the art gallery and the museum, and also in the spaces of the corporate offices from which they have borrowed their formal qualities. See Aguirre, Peio. “Elusive Social Forms.” in Szewczyk, Monika, ed. Meaning Liam Gillick. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2009, pp. 1-27.

4 See Banham, Reyner. The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

5 Fredric Jameson. “The Brick and the Balloon: Architecture, Idealism and Land Speculation,” in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998. New York: Verso, 1998.

6 Jameson, op. cit., p. 163.

7 Here Jameson cites David Harvey and his experiences to explain the relationships between geography, city planning, and financial capital. See David Harvey, Neil Smith. Capital financiero, propiedad inmobiliaria y cultura. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and MACBA, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2005.

8 It’s no accident that the cover of Jameson’s The Cultural Turn reproduces the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank headquarters designed by Norman Foster and completed in 1986, an instance of high-tech architecture whose cutting-edge engineering would define to perfection the flow of financial capital typical of the period.

9 The texts Jameson studied are Robert Fitch’s The Assassination of New York (London, 1996); Manfredo Tafuri’s “The Disenchanted Mountain,” published in Dal Co, Francesco et al., The American City. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1983; and Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, originally published in 1978.

10 Jameson, op, cit., p. 167.

11 Jameson, op. cit., p. 183.

12 Jameson, op. cit., pp. 186-7.