Shirn: Interview on Identity



 25. JANUARY 2016

 In which way has the under­standing of iden­tity (both in legal and in the personal sense) changed in the past 20 years?

In the legal sense we became bound to our legit­i­mate personae (the one in our pass­port) in a completely inescapable way. The control society has attained its horren­dous perfec­tion: pass­port numbers, nurse digital iden­tity tracking, overweight finger prints, DNA … we are now being tracked down to the last trace of our exis­tence, to the last atom of our body, we are who we are told to be by some­thing above us.

In a personal way, it’s just the oppo­site: a crack has opened by which the light comes in: there is a space, a slight distance, a play­ful­ness even, by which we may re-consider who we are supposed to be: gender, age, sexual pref­er­ence, body shape, we can decide, we may choose who we are, or even re-make ourselves. It’s strange how fast the under­standing of iden­tity has changed and forked into two oppo­site direc­tions in such a short time.

When and why did you start to work with iden­tity in an artistic way?

In 1996 I created the personae of Mouchette online. But that’s just a recent story … When I was very young I dreamt of being an artist in a family envi­ron­ment where art didn’t really exist. As a teenager, as soon as I made a few art objects I had to give myself a bizarre name, a fancy artist’s name and there­fore, by renaming myself, I had adopted a new person­ality, an artist’s person­ality. I also used it for being clan­des­tine: my family and my school did not know what I was doing when I was exhibiting. I felt free.

Do you consider our percep­tion of iden­tity part of your artistic mate­rial?

Yes, defi­nitely. The works I did with online personas served as an incred­ible artistic exper­i­ment with iden­tity. I have learned how different a work of art can be when you imagine it was made by a man or by a woman: for “Mouchette” I wanted people to believe that the (anony­mous) author was a man, it would make it into a more exciting work, more subver­sive.

For “David Still”, his sexual pref­er­ence had to be invis­ible. He could either have been straight or gay and I composed his pre-set love messages in a way that could equally be addressed to a man or a woman. I had the surprise of finding out that it partic­u­larly attracted gays because they love to be clan­des­tine, and often find clos­eted gays to be more erotic. No one ever suspected that the site could have been made by someone else than the man repre­sented on it (and certainly not by a woman). I had my share of thrills of clan­des­tinity. I could secretly observe the prac­tices of people using anony­mous email for all kinds of different reasons and I had much fun with it.

I learned that iden­ti­fying the author of a work of art (age, gender and more) makes for a big part of our percep­tion of this work, if not the biggest part. This iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, however, can be shaped, manip­u­lated and indeed become part of the artistic mate­rial.

How did you frame the idea of iden­tity in your work?

I was partic­u­larly careful in omit­ting specific obvious infor­ma­tion. What you don’t say, or keep silent, when framed precisely, can attract curiosity like a magnet. I care­fully designed the blanks in the middle of the story to serve as projec­tion surfaces for the viewer’s imag­i­na­tion. Secrets can attract much love.

What was your expe­ri­ence in working with a mold­able under­standing of iden­tity? 

It opened spaces inside myself that I didn’t know existed, unex­pected creativity, it allowed me to tap into unknown resources, to channel subtle inner voices, to expe­ri­ence certain feel­ings … I’m trying to describe a myste­rious inner expe­ri­ence but it sounds like romantic crap!

It’s hard to hear myself talk as my (normal-person) self. Language is so full of clichés that rob you of all personal expres­sion, being an artist is so full of preten­tion and English is not my mother tongue … But if I was a child, what I say would sound pretty smart. If I was someone else, I would have fun sounding pompous and elusive on purpose.

In this way, an outburst of inner conflicts can be turned into an inner conver­sa­tion with your alter-egos and on which your psyche becomes a stage. It’s a very normal expe­ri­ence to have a conver­sa­tion with your­self, performing more than one person inside. It’s a wonderful expe­ri­ence to have the oppor­tu­nity to give that expe­ri­ence an artistic shape.

Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet, had with his various heteronyms a quasi outer worldly esoteric expe­ri­ence, living multiple poetic lives. Romain Gary/Emile Ajar could be reborn as a new author using a completely new style, clumsy and broken and yet so skillful. For neither of them was it a delib­erate deci­sion: it happened inside of them and they seized the oppor­tu­nity, or they took the risk. I can relate very much to these two authors, not only to their multiple-person­ality expe­ri­ence but also to the sense of life they express in their art: your imag­i­na­tion is your real life.

In the current atten­tion economy, brands, media networks and insti­tu­tions legit­imize cultural or commer­cial prac­tices through social capital – do you see your own prac­tice to be a part of that?

Yes, I’m just a part of that. It’s inescapable. Inside the atten­tion economy I am a mere looser. But a looser can be seen as an anti-hero. I remember the short story by Kafka “Josephine The Singer”, where Josephine, a simple mouse among the mice people is a diva, not because she can sing better or louder, she squeaks just like any other mouse, but her voice is fainter and there­fore she commands devo­tion and admi­ra­tion from her people. In the atten­tion economy there are no artists, only “creative indus­tries”.

Let us be fail­ures and losers.

What do you think about the idea of iden­tity as a quan­tifi­ably commodity?

Iden­tity is a quan­tifi­able commodity when you can sell it or make money with it.

In my fantasy I create online char­ac­ters, I share their person­ality so that people can become them, iden­tify with them, and then I will sell them and I will become rich. That’s just a fantasy of course.

In reality Madonna, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, etc. have already been doing that all along: they sell the made-up person­ality they created. The music, the concert, the shows … that’s nothing, it’s just the wrap­ping around the iden­tity they sell.

Do you think iden­ti­ties are becoming more rigid by the use of social networks/tech­nology?

No, they become more fluid. The legal iden­tity has become more rigid to control and prevent that fluidity. Face­book forbids fake names or alter­nate iden­ti­ties because clearly we all want to have them. They even have created that desire by their inter­dic­tion.

How do you feel iden­ti­ties are perceived online today?

Wow, that’s a big ques­tion! It’s too general. There are a million different percep­tions. It’s like asking about the weather in the world today … The weather here, or the weather there, the weather now or the weather tomorrow?

But now we have climate change. The weather has become an issue. We just don’t agree about the causes. Or the way to deal with the problem. I guess it’s the same with iden­tity. We are expe­ri­encing iden­tity change. We just don’t know why and what to do with it.

Do you believe people have a right to be anony­mous online?

Yes, sure. But talking about a right is one thing and defending it is another.

Who will protect and defend that right? In what court? What country? What insti­tu­tion? In the name of what? In which name can anonymity be protected?

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