BY ZOE TUCK with RACHEL KENNEDY |||
Queer selfies of tumblr –
Is Yahoo! prepared to accept the activist imagery of queer Tumblr? Amid the controversy over the indie social media platform’s May 20 acquisition by the web giant, the social value of Tumblr’s little-known subculture of “queer selfies” deserves wider recognition.
The first question today is whether Yahoo! is ready for the activist imagery of queer Tumblr. Last week, as rumors surfaced that the web giant would buy the quirky mini-blogging platform, media coverage often focused on the more disturbing sub-communities of Tumblr users. However, little attention has been given to the aesthetic sophistication of queer selfies on Tumblr, and their valuable articulations of general cultural problems.
Roughly defined, the queer selfie is a subgenre of the selfie that responds to queer issues including gender identity, counter-normative standards and celebrations of beauty, and otherness. The community is composed of diverse individuals with diverse concerns who respond to and comment upon other queer selfies. The queer selfie community is a purposeful ambiguity – it defines itself by individualism and aesthetics, not by manifesto. Queer selfies are usually created by artists in their twenties, give or take a few years.
On Tumblr, queer selfies and fans work together to refine a visual lexicon that “queers” the normative. In other words, queer selfie should be understood as an activity bracketed within the broader history of queer photography that aims to establish a safe social space for queer people to share insights on life and culture. Given the long history of queer folks’ need to develop specialized and secret lexicons, it is no surprise that they are the first to isolate the aesthetics of millennial angst.
The second question is what these selfies can teach us about the economic and social conditions millennials are facing, conditions wherein demographic data built upon their online toil creates economic value. But meanwhile their educations and job skills, developed before social media (and recession), position millennials as financial danglers of the digital age.
The queer selfies on Tumblr take on various forms. Their archive grows daily. While many types of selfie are deployed on Tumblr, queer selfies hold a special status because of the queer community’s history of critical thought and self-reflection when it comes to the most sensitive aspects of fair representation. Yet queer selfies are more populist than their subaltern reputation might suggest because they exemplify the potential of community building based on representations, something the age of social media observes while struggling to pin down.
Tumblr’s queer selfie community has a penchant for expressing the difficult conditions many millennials are facing today: confluence of social media and social value, few and often uninspiring job options, and coping with a new mode of self-reflection largely ingratiated to the social data collection frenzy of the big data era. Tumblr artists Mark Aguhar, Elija Montgomery, and Haley Morris-Cafiero provide aesthetic variations on exactly these issues and their respective emotional scales.
Where do selfies go? Although Facebook, Instagram, and other sites have a vast repository, many subaltern selfies end up on Tumblr. Here the inspiration or exemplar is, for the queer community, the now deceased artist Mark Aguhar. they’re dead, but their webpage is still up. Here’s their artist statement:
Mark Aguhar’s work is a continuous exploration of queer expression and what it means to have grown up gay on the internet. Aguhar collects visual artifacts from queer online communities and uses them in their work to define and redefine who they are and what their body is. Aguhar’s work that combines porn, fashion, textile patterns, optical effects, trans identities, and queer jokes. They not intend to make teaching work, or art to represent the entirety of the LGBTIQA community, they express their situated experience of the spectrum.
The first picture on Aguhar’s site is Aguhar themself, sitting on a floor within a circle of white petals, decked in a pink strapless dress, their right leg jutting out of the circle, eyes downcast. This picture captures one of Aguhar’s typical serious, sultry looks, characteristic of their selfies. As the most recently posted portrait of the artist before their suicide, the above picture is the last on one of Aguhar’s blogs. Prior to this tragic end, Aguhar authored their “axes,” which arguably forms a widely adhered to ethics of queer Tumblr: “1 Bodies are inherently valid 2 Remember death 3 Be ugly 4 Know beauty 5 It is complicated 6 Empathy 7 Choice 8 Reconstruct, reify 9 Respect, negotiate”
In her essay “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco”, Claire Sears discusses the cross-dressing laws that swept the nation from the 1840s to 1900. Sears talks about individuals who would now perhaps self-identify as transgender or genderqueer being caught in a double bind: their performance of gender was criminalized in the street, yet encouraged and even compelled in the context of popular freak shows. In response to this social and political phenomena, the 20th century witnessed a heyday of art photographers engaging with ideas of “freakishness” or otherness. Susan Sontag famously perceived a coldness in Diane Arbus’s engagement with “deviant or marginal people”. Nan Goldin, in the parlance of 21st century journalism, could be said to have been embedded in the subcultural lives she recorded in “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”. Any yet, however sympathetic—these portraits are inherently from without.
In the wake of this history, selfies, like those of Mark Aguhar (whose work includes both selfies and GPOYs) would seem to have a highly positive potential for marginalized subjects.Here I am, they seem to say. Do you find me ugly? Perverse? Look upon the trappings of my identity. I exist, through the power of self-portraiture, broadcast by social media, becomes: I define, I resist.
Elija Montgomery is a student at Toronto’s OCAD and his photography series, I AM A MONSTER, stages portraits in the daily life of a monstrous creature (which looks suspiciously like an anthropomorphized Furby) named Wat. These are not strict selfies, nor is this art studio self-portraiture. After all, accusing queer photographers of aspiring to capture authentic selves might be missing the point (Halberstam, 2005). Furthermore, the argument that “all art is a self portrait” pales when confronted with the internet acronym GPOY (short for gratuitous picture of you).
A GPOY needn’t be a picture of the person who tags it thus. A GPOY is a GIF of an object or a movie star used to humorously comment on a quality of that person. Montgomery’s GPOY, so effective at producing identification and an empathic response in viewers, invites the question: how can a photograph of a body other than mine nonetheless feel like an accurate self-portrait? Here’s Montgomery’s artist statement:
Monsters have always been a way for us to categorize others. Through the use of photographs, the audience discovers who this monster really is, rather than just what. They are given a glimpse of his insecurities, his fears, his hopes, and his accomplishments. The true complexity of his nature is shared with the viewer, who is given permission to empathize with him, and to accept themselves and others as being a little monstrous.
I AM A MONSTER highlights our similarities by exposing them as our assumption of difference. It is an invitation to celebrate the complexities of our humanity.
Montgomery’s Wat not only refers to the longstanding popular image that connects monsters with transgender folks, but also relates to the online popularity of Furbys, which are not exactly monsters but are other than human. On that note, it would be irresponsible to talk about queer Tumblr without talking about fandom Tumblr. Tumblr is rife with blogs, and blog posts on blogs, that devote painstaking attention not only to characters from shows, comics, and video games, but also the techno-cultural detritus of 80s and 90s childhoods. Tamagotchis, Gigapets, and Furbys were many American children’s introduction both to consumer capitalism and to the formation of emotional and even libidinal relationships with technology.
However, in Montgomery’s images, the manic positivity of the childhood encounter has been replaced with a decidedly alienated and depressed figure. Furby’s all grown up, and the technological singularity he augured hasn’t come. Like the rest of us, he must slog through a world filled with inadequate choices: from riding public transit to the glowing screen at home, to an unpaid internship – zones that offer a hope which retreats as steadily as one pursues it.
The activist roots of queer communities are evoked in the queer selfies of Tumblr. These selfies are expressions of political, economic, and social issues that effect queer people today. From social alienation to unequal legal recognition (hello, Proposition 8 at the Supreme Court!) queer folks continue to live within the frustrating trajectory that Claire Sears raised in her essay about freak shows in the late 1800s. Queer selfies and fandom are a crucial, and often therapeutic, resource for people who are socially or politically effected by their difference.
Memphis-bases photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero’s ongoing series, Wait Watchers, is disseminated as a Tumblr. In her artist statement for the piece, Morris-Cafiero explains that she disrupts the experience of being gazed upon by confronting the gazer head-on:
For my series, Wait Watchers, I set up a camera in a heavy-traffic, public area and take hundreds of photographs as I perform mundane, everyday tasks as people pass by me. I then examine the images to see if any of the passersby had a critical or questioning element in their face or in their body language…While I do not know what they are thinking, the gazer appears to be visually troubled that I am in front of them.
Gravity, concentration on a task, introspection—these are affects of Morris-Cafiero within these images. From her spectators: mockery, laughter, disbelief, judgment, disgust, and simple, undisguised—and unsolicited—gawking. It is not possible to make any claims about Morris-Cafiero’s sexual or gender identity, as there is no information available and gender identity is not the concern of the Wait Watchers series. And yet, her project queers the gaze. The normative gazing subject possesses a freedom to look with impunity that startles us when Morris-Cafiero captures it. Morris-Cafiero’s documentation of her gazers gracefully reconfigure power dynamics of the everyday. No doubt her Tumblr fans are dually empowered by this inspiring work.
For Tumblr users, the question is how will the site’s acquisition by Yahoo! affect the many visual explorations of identity that go on there? Nothings being sold there—yet—except a body of evidence which challenges the mainstream standard of beauty from every angle. The aesthetic explorations of the queer selflies of Tumblr can be read as critical guides to millennial identities. Mark Aguhar’s works describe a genderqueer figure, but can also be read as symbolizing forms of satisfaction and longing that arrive with primarily online social relationships. Elija Montgomery’s Monster depicts transgender identity politics, while showing the dashed hopes of a middle class youth stepping into economically vulnerable adulthood. Haley Morris-Cafiero’s photos sit well with academic gaze theory (which is integral to queer theory), but transcends those exclusive bounds to offer a general message about visibility and invisibility in both real life and virtual communities. Tumblr’s value is that it supports works like these and makes them accessible to anyone who cares to look.
Rest in peace and love, Mark Aguhar.
Aguhar, Mark. “Artist’s Statement.” Mark Aguhar. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2013.
Clare Sears. “Electric Brilliancy: Cross-Dressing Law and Freak Show Displays in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 36.3-4 (2008): 170-87. Print.
Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York UP, 2005. Print.
Montgomery, Elija. “I AM A MONSTER.” Elija: Designer – Maker. N.p., 11 May 2013. Web. 11 May 2013.
Montgomery, Elija. “Untitled (Artist’s Statement).” Elija: Designer – Maker. N.p., 11 May 2013. Web. 11 May 2013.
Morris-Cafiero, Haley. “Artist’s Statement.” Website About Page. Haley Morris-Cafiero Photography. N.p., 2013. Web. Apr.-May 2013.
“Tumblr.com Traffic and Demographic Statistics by Quantcast.” Quantcast. Quantcast Corporation, 2013. Web. 14 May 2013.