Contemporary Artist Carla Gannis Takes On The Self...

Contemporary Artist Carla Gannis Takes On The Selfie

The work of Carla Gannis is an arresting blend of Internet culture with classic art and literary references. Her Selfie Drawings Project, along with her recent solo show at TRANSFER Gallery, A Subject Self-Defined, offers the viewer unflinching self-portraits. Not only are these images intimate, they also speak to the unique place of the digital in contemporary art. Art Report sat down with Gannis for an exclusive interview in which she reflects on the concept of the selfie as portraiture, the notion of self in the digital age, and her inspirations from Bowie to Klimt.

"Nude Descending a Staircase," Carla Gannis. Photo: Carla Gannis

“Nude Descending a Staircase,” Carla Gannis. Photo: Carla Gannis

Art Report: How did The Selfie Drawings project start?  What were its origins?

Carla Gannis: The Selfie Drawing project began in January 2015. I was in North Carolina where I’m originally from, visiting my family. I’d recently gone through a break up, moved to a new apartment in Brooklyn, and was sorting out who I was, as a woman and an artist, in this shifted context. One day during my visit I began making iPad drawings of my 99 year old grandmother, Pansy Mae, (she turned 100 this past December 31st!). At some point, I stopped drawing, took a photo of her, and then of myself. I started looking at my own “selfie” iPhone pic, and quickly began to draw it on my iPad. Over the course of a year I completed 52 digital drawings, a kind of hybridization of selfie photography with more traditional self portraiture. After each completion of a drawing I would upload it to several social media platforms, essentially instantiating it as a “selfie.”

I felt vulnerable at first, speaking more directly through my own voice, and in essence performing my identity online. As I continued making the drawings they began to take on broader dimensions outside of personal self-analysis and reflection. I began to weave together art historical and literary references with current technological and cultural tropes, finding collision points for visual storytelling. At some point I was no longer merely playing the “role of Carla Gannis,” I was setting up scenarios to represent different types of women, for example a woman in her bedroom simultaneously channeling cheerleading moves, Wonder Woman and Shiva while wearing an iPhone strapped to her head; a woman facing the implications of post-humanism and artificial intelligence by 3D printing her body as a replacement for her physical body in a Google Deep Dream environment; a “Nude Descending a Staircase” (after Duchamp), this time descending from a spaceship, recording device in hand, as she enters a flooded, stormy environment seemingly on the brink of disaster.

In January 2016, I premiered at TRANSFER Gallery, the solo exhibition A Subject Self-Defined. It is a narrative expansion of the drawings through time-based media. On four 10 x 10 ft screens in the gallery 4 “psychological seasons” were projected as panoramic videos. 12 months of square format videos were also projected, to create an encompassing, immersive physical experience of “virtual video.” Also, in collaboration with Blippar and UNBOX I have released The Selfie Drawings project as a book. This hardcover, limited edition art catalog transcends the parameters of a physical book, as contained within it, released over the period of a year (begun March 5th, 2016), 52 augmented reality experiences are coming to life. It’s a serialized augmented reality “book object.” Using the Blippar app, readers can hover over a static drawing, and a new dynamic experience, combining photography with 2D and 3D animation, appears on their screens. Viewers of the book can follow along as I release a new blipp each week.

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“The Selfie Drawings,” Carla Gannis. Photo: Carla Gannis

AR: Your show A Subject Self Defined just ended at Transfer Gallery (congrats!).  Were there any reactions to your work that surprised or didn’t surprise you? 

CG: Even though there are loads of references in this work to art, film, literature, and pop culture, one surprise was that people found additional references that I had not consciously intended to be there, such as Gustav Klimt, Edward Munch, and one of my favorites, in reference to a drawing, David Bowie.

Also for the closing of my exhibition I co-curated with Berlin-based curator Tina Sauerländer a screening and subsequent online exhibition entitled “NarGIFsus” where artists were asked to react to the concept behind my work, instead of to my work directly. We invited over 50 artists to contribute “selfie-self portraits” as animated gifs. It was surprising and exciting to see the variety in interpretations on the topic. Quite a few of the works subverted expectations we might have about selfies and self portraiture, for example there was an abstracted thumb print and a post-Anthropocene monkey selfie. These responses seemed to lend relevance to my own exhibition about personally defining one’s subjecthood and “self” in the Digital Age.

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“Desmoiselles,” Carla Gannis. Photo: Carla Gannis

AR: What’s so striking about your work in A Subject Self Defined is that you insert selfies, which are often seen as gratuitous and self-indulgent, into classic and revered works such as 16th century tableaus and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.  Imagery culled from modern, highly accessible technology stands in stark contrast to fine art settings you insert them in.  What is compelling to you about this pairing?  What would you like viewers to take away from this jarring juxtaposition?

CG: Context is everything. There may be a day when we view certain facets of networked pop culture from a different perspective — particularly after their absorption into artistic and literary lexicons, such as Fred Benenson’s Emoji Dick, a translation of Moby Dick into Emoji. In the 13th C Giotto di Bondone was painting altarpieces that combined popular vernacular with “more elite” and codified religious iconography. These works are considered masterpieces, but Giotto was interweaving the quotidian with what was considered “sublime” at the time. Likewise in the 20th Century, artists like Andy Warhol and Barbara Kruger “elevated” layout and design motifs from the advertising world to high art, and their more populist approaches have had a resounding affect on artists incorporating internet-based idiom into their work.

In my collaging of noted art historical works (which are also highly accessible as reproductions online) with digital sign systems and selfie culture, as well as super heroine and Sci Fi tropes, I’m looking to reveal convergence and divergence points in our past, present and possibly future representations of the human, and increasingly post-human condition. It is my hope that this visual hybridity will resonate with people as a layered artifact of our cultural production over millennia.

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“The Selfie Drawing 41 – Babel in Wonderland,” Carla Gannis. Photo: Carla Gannis

AR: Your work is not only deeply rooted in art history, it also highlights what’s missing from much of art history: representation of the female form and consciousness by female artists.  Could you talk about this theme in your art, and specifically in relation to your piece Fault Line?

CG: I remember when I was in college, I was always looking for female artist role models throughout the history of art, and I found few until the 20th century. I often wonder in 100 or 200 or 500 years who will be remembered. Will (enough) women artists be recorded then? Most of the works I reference I love as works of art, but I do think my appropriating from the canon of art, particularly a Western male-dominated canon, does involve a feminist, populist and universalist reappraisal on some level. By inserting myself, as a subject, into these tableaus, I am calling into question patriarchal perspectives on who is framed as the genius and who as the muse.

“Fault Line” in essence embodies themes running through out all of the drawings and video works I produced for this project: past and present collisions, identity schisms, and the questioning of biases regarding how women author and appear in their own stories today. Two favorite authors, Marge Piercy and Octavia Butler, have written novels where women travel into the past and to the future to reconcile their identities, to come to terms with their present selves. Both authors deal with a metaphysical and physical fracturing of the body. In “Fault Line” I am visually expressing a similar concept, a past self, at first seemingly complete in her Victorian representation, dematerializes as the film that documents her burns, perhaps a comment on Barthes “punctum and studium” in the context of the repressiveness of that earlier culture. She (me) is replaced by a present/future she (me) who documents, and presumably shares with a networked world, her body splitting in half, becoming alien, and then suturing itself back together again — all forever in a loop.

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“The Garden of Emoji Delights,” Carla Gannis. Photo: Carla Gannis

AR: What’s next?

CG: I’ll take  a minute here to talk about my practice. I really connect with the hybridity of the 21st century, and generally begin with a core idea that I express through one medium and then translate into various other media. Many of my projects have included drawings; digital paintings; animated gifs; printed books & catalogs; interactive applications; 3D printed sculptures; Flash games; Twitter accounts; projection mapped video installations; live performances with audio, video, & interactive enhancements; and currently with The Selfie Drawing book, I’ve added augmented reality (AR) to my repertoire. I generally don’t feel like my vision is complete when it’s expressed through a single medium or media channel. That said, I’m still working on my current project, more than thinking about my next. I have 47 more weeks to dive deeper into producing what I hope to be a very resonant AR experience for “readers” of my book. After (or during) this process, I’m not sure what I might experiment with next, in terms of concept or form(s). I’ve been producing work seriously non-stop for the past 2.5 years, first a project entitled The Garden of Emoji Delights, then The Selfie Drawings and A Subject Self-Defined. I’m looking forward to being a sponge again, absorbing from contemporary culture, future speculation, and past reflections until I find a theme to intuitively distill a new body of work from.

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“The Selfie Drawing 11,” Carla Gannis. Photo: Carla Gannis

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“The Selfie Drawing 13 – Chess,” Carla Gannis. Photo: Carla Gannis

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“Peer to Peer,” Carla Gannis. Photo: Carla Gannis

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Liz is the author of the unpublished novel "Human Eclipse" (shout out to all the publishers out there) and does event coordinating at The Powerhouse Arena in Dumbo, Brooklyn. You can find her trying to write another novel-child on her cell phone during her lunch break and/or appreciating art.