The Play of Selves
by BRITTANY JULIOUS
I’m looking at my Tumblr dashboard. The first thing that pops up is an image of Cindy Sherman’s A Play of Selves. In the work, Sherman is photographed and styled in a number of different manners: from playful and coquettish to shocked and pale. The photograph was one of many that would show up on my “curated” dashboard of images, text, music, and other media from an assortment of Tumblr users.
After Sherman is Chicago-based photographer Todd Diederich, a man who never physically inserts himself in his images, yet still manages to convey the people, places, and things that define his alternative, avant-garde, non-mainstream existence in Chicago. I was first captured by his images of the underground ball scene in Chicago. A fan of Paris is Burning and an open user of slang appropriated from the film, I was given a glimpse of a world that was only miles away from me both in physical space and everyday social interactions.
After Diederich was Dylan Shaw, a young artist creating hyper-stylized images of broken youth and the technicolor ways in which we see the world. His images - of quick dalliances and the time spent waiting for things to happen in between - are raw, yet familiar. From Chicago, I could recount similar scenes. The art became richer with my personal understanding of it. And later, I could understand artistic practices as a whole. Each executes with their own aesthetic, but underlying their work is the means in which they present it to the world.
Both use the Tumblr platform as a means of organization, placement, and exposure. New audiences are readily available and the easiest way to gain a following is by following back. Tumblr is youth-oriented, and these emerging photographers create works that speak to such audiences.
The Tumblr I know is one that is forever growing. It is deeply complex and complicated. I’ve read numerous tweets and short-form essays reducing Tumblr to memes and incomprehensible sub-cultures. There is no doubt that the site has this, but for someone who has been an active user, it is also more than this. The tumblr of 2012 is different than the one of 2007.
When I first joined the site, I posted new music multiple times a day, occasionally providing thoughts on why something was a favorite, but usually just sharing to share. The music was too good to just keep to myself. I gravitated toward a community of young writers also interested in music and my identity as a tumblr user and my identity in real life became one of a music fan, a connoisseur of things new and old, a devotee to aural pleasures.
But as I have grown, my relationship to and the communities I am a part of on the site have also grown. There are new opportunities for users to find a different community, or a micro community to relate to their new life, their new everyday experiences. Tumblr favors the use of media to captivate its users and its users in turn favor the use of media to better define and refine their ideas of self. My tumblr experience allows for that world to be a part of my world on a daily basis. My dashboard caters to who I am as a person and what I love as an individual.
My tumblr Britticisms will be five years old in December. I’ve been thinking about the critical importance of the dashboard for five years — content posted quickly, easily accessible, with low social cost to following random people on the web.
It is a constant stream of information, both new and old. Users continuously scroll down and through pages in the hopes of discovering new media to consume and enjoy. The dashboard, however – with its dark blue background and uniform white rectangles to contain each form of media – blends each post together.
By utilizing this uniform aesthetic, the Tumblr platform makes each post appear one in the same. The user thus consumes the posts equally. In the interest of something meme-ingful, this can elevate a hazy, Instagram photograph of a field of grass to the same level of “likes” and praise as images of installation shots of Jessica Stockholder’s public art extravaganza Color Jam or Carrie Schneider’s Burning House series of photographs. I posted images from both local Chicago artists and they quickly went viral on the site. A quick reblog to the Tumblr radar ensures audiences of all interests (not just rabid art fans) can view something pleasant or challenging or beautiful.
Media as it is seen through the platform transforms from the original painting, photograph, video, or other object to a succinct image that connects to the user on an individual, personal taste level. Because works of art can be consumed in the same manner as a song clip or a GIF or a short anecdote about life in the city, the art itself takes on a different, more neutered meaning. The art becomes less about what was created and more about how it reflects the person consuming the work of art.
I am part of a community of young black women on tumblr interested in specific aspects of pop culture that relate to our everyday experiences: intricate displays of nail art, aspirational female rappers, the complicated stylings of modern day and mainstream feminists. We’re not official, but I often find myself relating to most everything they post, whether it is a cute blouse or an Audra Lorde quote, a recipe for a cocktail or the latest single from Azealia Banks. Most importantly, when we talk about the things that connect us on the surface (our race, our gender, our sexuality), there is a level of familiarity and family that is instantaneous. As in, this thing happened to you and I understand it because it happened to me too. Or even, this thing happened to you, and although I cannot personally relate, I understand your feelings and confusions and know you deeply.
My greatest fear about a viral collection of images I posted by Chicago artist Adam Ekberg was not that others would hate the work or remove Ekberg’s credit, but that they would lose sight of the fact that I posted it first. I feared losing credit for the discovery, but not for the work itself. Media posted on Tumblr often loses its identification the longer it is blogged and reblogged.
Although the physical works are protected, little can be done to protect what accompanied the work originally. A user can change the source URL for an image, can delete any reblogged text and write their own, and even remove identifying tags. Stripping a work once of its proper credit or caption can strip it forever for tens or hundreds or thousands of users. I’ve seen this happen for works I don’t recognize, for nameless young artists selling their screen prints on Etsy or posting their copyrighted images to Flickr. And I’ve seen this happen personally for deeply personal posts on angst and regret and race and the body. Does the work still resonate the same once it loses its creator? Or has it moved to a different level of consumption, one that flashes bright in popularity, then quickly fades as something newer, more interesting, and more engaging comes along?
For myself, the consumer and blogger and Tumblr user, the art became less the art and more the sort of tangible object I use to define who I am on a daily basis. The photographs by Ekberg were as much me as my collection of rings, my beaded blouses, or my heels. The truth is ugly and self-centered, but true. The more I see, the more I take on and consume as me and only me.
The longer I’ve spent on Tumblr, the longer I’ve known the overwhelmingly present population of teenagers on the site. And with the younger population of users, I’ve begun to understand why the site is so critically valid in the development of self. Tumblr not only helps the individual find him or herself; it also acts as a sort of guide for the things that we would have never found or truly understood on our own. I can pretend that my interest in post-punk music or Lorna Simpson’s work or bell hooks’ writing would have been just as strong, but that would be a lie.
Brittany Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She tumbls here and twitters here. She last wrote in these pages about Lorna Simpson. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
"You're Not Happy" - Sea Pinks (mp3)
"A Pattern Recognition" - Sea Pinks (mp3)