Themed Playlist: Our Virtual Selves
About the lists: Calls to socially distance and self-isolate are driving people to look for things to watch. But the sheer amount of options out there can be overwhelming. For this reason, we at the Centre for Screen Cultures are producing themed playlists of film, video, and television so you can organise your own series or festival at home (or home school). They will update here and here: https://screenculture.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/category/media-playlists/
Jennifer O’Meara, Trinity College Dublin, offers the themed playlist Our Virtual Selves:
Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 poem and song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” captured the importance of physical presence to revolutionary practices, in this case those of Black Power movements in the United States. (The song’s title was already a popular slogan among such activists in the 1960s.) The COVID-19 pandemic, by contrast, has been dominated by physical distance, yet virtual presence. The pandemic will be digitized. The shifts from in-person to screen-based interactions has been all encompassing: online teaching, online meetings, online counselling and religious services, virtual museums and gallery tours. The list of newly mediated experiences is endless.
Scholars of screen studies and digital media are particularly equipped to discuss the nuances of this sudden shift. For decades, filmmakers and digital artists have been experimenting with the notion of virtual selves: the ways our bodies and minds are impacted by our relationships with technology. Building on the history of Science Fiction, with the genre’s preoccupation with what it means to be human in a modern world increasingly characterized by modernity’s mechanization, the internet age has led to a renewed interest in the blurred line between the human body and mind, its technological variations, and data-based impressions of our everyday behaviour.
Two of the four classes I converted to online teaching were already focused on digital media. As such, there was a certain awareness that we (both the students and the lecturer) could embrace the meta of studying these particular topics entirely via digital means. The first online lecture I recorded was on the topic of Digital Selfhood—with preexisting references to Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book on how technology means we’re increasingly “Alone, Together” gaining new prescience. In the weeks that followed, I asked second year students to sign in ‘virtually’ in different ways: by posting a meme that most accurately captured their experience of isolation or online classes; by posting an estimate of their screen time; by posting a list of any new apps they had downloaded in isolation. For the week on Digital Selfhood, I asked them to upload an image or video of their ‘virtual self’—encouraging them to manipulate it as much as possible via digital means. It resulted in a wonderful variety of filtered files, from Augmented Reality Instagram avatars to human memes.
Such digital portraits are undoubtedly informed by earlier experiences with screen media. From films focused on avatars and cyborgs to new media trends for ‘deepfake’ pornography and AI-generated ‘people’, as we find ourselves communicating almost entirely via technological means, it is worth looking back to some films and artworks that place virtual versions of the self in the spotlight.
First Person Plural: The Electronic Diaries of Lynn Hershman Leeson (1984-1996)
Long before YouTube vloggers and social media, Hershman Leeson chronicled her life history in a collection of intimate and often provocative diaries. Hershman Leeson’s video diaries are one of many ways in which she has explored the issues of human-computer interaction, with later films including Teknolust (2002); a stylish sci-fi work that examines the evolving frontier of the real and the virtual, with Tilda Swinton playing the scientist Rosetta Stone and her three cloned Self-Replicating Automata.
Part 1 of Hershman Leeson’s The Electronic Diaries can currently be streamed in full on BoilerRoomTV.
Dear Mister Compression and Demolish the Eerie Void (Rosa Menkman, 2010)
For the Dutch artist and theorist, Rosa Menkman, glitch videos help to explore the dissolution of boundaries between technology and the self. Frequently using her own face as the subject to be digitally manipulated, as in Dear Mister Compression and Demolish the Eerie Void (2010), Menkman captures the process of becoming one with digital devices as they record and screen you.
A selection of Menkman’s work can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/r00s
Catfish (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, 2010)
Though its documentary status has been questioned, Catfish’s tale of a man who becomes entwined in a romantic online relationship stresses the ease with which digital media platforms can be combined to present a false identity, or identities, to the world. At a formal level, the film draws attention to various norms of digital visual culture: from grainy imagery and editing via software like Photoshop to our dependence on Google maps and a reliance on the tagging of individuals in uploaded videos and imagery. With COVID-19, more of us are forced to also communicate via screens – but at least with real-world foreknowledge of the colleagues and students with whom we’re now meeting only virtually. The likelihood of being catfished seem much lower, but the potential to visually deceive remains: as with various reports of students, or others, uploading prerecorded videos of themselves to Zoom classes or meetings.
Unfriended (Leo Gabriadze, Stephen Susco, 2014)
Presented almost entirely as though a screen recording of a MacBook, this horror film reworks the teen-focused horror film for the social media age as a group of friends on a Skype call are targeted by a sinister source who begins to kill them off. Formally, the film takes advantage of digital glitches in order to create suspense: time lags and the pixilation of faces due to implied technical difficulties become strategies to manipulate what the audience can and cannot see in a desktop-as-screen mode that otherwise reveals every details of the main character, Blair’s (Shelley Hennig) browser and every click of her keypad. Much as the audience can see everything on Blair’s laptop, lecturers tasked with recording desktop classes should remember that everything on their screen is being captured and shared with students.
PanoptiCam (University College London, 2015-2016)
For many lecturers and students, there is an uncomfortable irony to the lecture recording technology they use being called ‘Panopto’. The term alludes to the idea of the panopticon, as coined by the English philosopher and social theorist, Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, in reference to a type of institutional building and system of control (and further popularized by the French philosopher Michel Foucault). Here, a building could be designed to allow all prisoners of an institution to be observed by a single security guard, without the inmates being able to tell whether they are being watched. With regard to online teaching, the term Panopto is thus implicitly loaded with surveillance fears: that lecturers’ classes could be monitored (or reused) by college administrators, or even uploaded online by students. Students may also have cause for concern, as virtual learning environments like ‘Blackboard’ can automatically record their engagement (or lack thereof) with recorded classes: allowing the lecturer to see if and when they watched each recording, and what percentage was consumed (before they turned off, or perhaps switched over to Netflix). Under Panopto, both teacher and student can be monitored.
At University College London, where the preserved skeleton and a wax head of Bentham is held, they previously decided to combine his idea of the panopticon with his body in the PanoptiCam project: where an online camera streamed what Bentham (or, rather, his corpse) sees while sitting in a cabinet at UCL. The camera captures passerbys’ reactions to both his preserved body, and to their realization that they are beijng recorded.
Videos of various daily PanoptiCam timelapses are available to watch on YouTube.
I Can’t Stop Watching Contagion (Folding Ideas/Dan Olson, 2020)
A recent response to COVID-19 life, Dan Olson of Folding Ideas created this video work of himself watching Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011) over and over again. Scenes from the film are projected over his body, capturing not only the sense of statis that defines our current instructions to ‘stay home’ or ‘shelter in place’, but also our immersion in screen media as a way to numb the associated impact on our bodies and minds. You can view it here: https://youtu.be/ZsSzrVhdVuw
Still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must make do with living much of life through the space of the screen. And, with our virtual selves increasingly the only one who are experienced by the world beyond our homes, screen studies’ representations of the virtual self have become all the more important.