Selfie vs self-portraitby Jaimie Warren, photographer and performance artist, 12 January 2017
Born in 1980 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, photographer and performance artist Jaimie Warren creates works both independently as well as collaboratively with youth and community groups. Living and working in Brooklyn, New York, she is co-creator and co-director of the community-engaged and artist-led fake television show Whoop Dee Doo. Brightly coloured, playful photos; inspired by pop culture and featuring numerous incarnations of 'self', we asked Warren to discuss her work.
As an artist working in self-portraits since the early 2000s, I am often asked about my perspective on the ‘selfie’. I have usually left the question unanswered or awkwardly avoided.
It seems to go hand-in-hand with your thoughts and feelings regarding a youthful obsession with social media and internet culture, which it is so hard not to have mixed emotions about. As an artist in my mid-thirties, I feel that I am often hovering between communities fiercely dominated by social media and those who adamantly avoid it completely.
Since the self-portrait has been a focus of mine before owning a cell phone, and many years before a ‘smart’ phone, the ‘selfie’ has never been on my radar as a tactic in my personal work, though I am aware that it is actually something I think about constantly without admitting it to myself. In general, ‘selfies’ seem to be meant to make you look and feel desirable, the exact opposite of which I pride myself on doing in my work.
In the early 2000s, I used my first digital camera to document myself in motley-coloured, nonsensical costuming, plunging myself into an often mundane American Midwestern environment. This was where I lived and worked for many years, and part of the challenge of daily life – both a blessing and a curse – was to create your own entertainment. I was inspired by a vibrant, very old-school drag community in Kansas City, Missouri, that eagerly welcomed young people to participate (as their audience, not as new performers, mind you). The energy and the sheer creativity and vigour behind their performances fuelled my artistic process immensely.
After five years of constant experimentation and photo documentation in my own mini-performances – which would happen solo, with friends, or using innocent bystanders – I dropped this practice completely to focus on a very different exchange with communities – a fake public access television show that is a huge focus of mine still today, ten years later, called Whoop Dee Doo. Working beside children to create giant installations, sets and costumes put me in touch with my ability (or… inability?) to make art objects. I received a free, gargantuan studio space and I cut myself off completely from social media. The disconnect from these online outlets, however, made it hard for me to keep up with the current dialogue, jokes and viral videos that inspired both myself and my work. I was also missing the selfie onslaught almost completely.
Instead, my newfound outlets were horrible websites boasting Photoshop contests and celebrity mashups (i.e. Lasagna Del Rey and Pretzel Rod Stuart), which inspired the first years of this new body of work. I was recreating these found Photoshopped images and re-working them into self-portraits without digital manipulation. To me, these works represented a sense of humour that was completely in tune with my own, and there were so many that I could hand-pick the ones that truly resonated with me, my childhood, and moments in pop culture and art history that had inspired me.
Self-portrait as woman in 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' by Pablo Picasso/Online Deceptions by MommaBird. © Jaimie Warren
But this brings me back to the selfie (and/versus) the self-portrait. Of course these new works are indeed self-portraits. Of course it is me in them, and I feel like they express who I am, my past, my humour, and inspiration. I suppose that is what a real self-portrait should feel like. It is also the opposite of what I consider a ‘selfie’, a word that often makes me cringe, as I relay it to sorority girls and selfie-sticks and never-ending narcissism. I think this slight repulsion actually ignites my desire to look more unflattering and confusing in my images.
Self-portrait as stripper in Birth of Venus by William Adolphe Bouguereau/ Disco image by anonymous. © Jaimie Warren
Perhaps as a result of the overabundance of self-documentation I am intentionally and unintentionally viewing daily, what makes me feel more comfortable and satisfied in my work is to look as undesirable and unrecognisable as possible. I guess I see myself, or rather, my body, as this weird lumpy object I can manipulate. I feel more like a living cartoon than a (gasp) ‘woman’. I am embodying a specific history, and things and people I love, and would rather try to be GG Allin or Michael Jackson or a cartoon or Yoda or ice cream than have any revelations about what I really look like… (IRL)… (LOL).
Overall, the self-portrait is a huge part of my background; the amazing artists I looked to in school such as Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin obviously paved my path in life. Almost two decades later, the depth in the self-portrait to me is more in line with gut-wrenching reality shows like The Search for the Next Elvira and the beautifully honest untrained actors in episodes of Bronx Flavor with Baron Ambrosia. Projects like these are where the mortifying and the shamelessly real unite. They are portraits of contemporary reality – my favourite form of selfie – that endlessly provide a thrilling, brutal honesty.