Visual arts critic Alicia Eler turns her attention toward selfies in new book
It turns out there’s a lot more to those quick photos of yourself you take on your phone. Or so says Alicia Eler.
Whether you love the word “selfie” or hate it, Eler thinks you’ll glean something about the cultural phenomenon in her new book, “The Selfie Generation.” Inside, the Chicago native and Star Tribune visual arts critic delves deeper into how these self-images interact with big topics like privacy, sex, activism and art.
From activists recording themselves through what Eler calls “sousveillance” to artists exploring how social media users craft their own self image, “Selfie Generation” uses these images to explore the boundaries of the Internet and the physical world, along with questions of consent and copyright. Through interviews with both professionals and friends, Eler toes the line between a personal essay and a scholarly resource.
We spoke with Eler to see how she defined selfie — it turns out it’s also a verb — and how she views the images as an art critic. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
ELER: It was 2013 and I was writing for Hyperallergic and selfies were becoming a thing that people were having opinions about. In the art world, it was like: Self-portraiture has been around for a while, what’s the big deal?
I kept seeing all these stories that were really sensationalizing the selfie — as if a trend could totally ruin the world — like really catastrophic types of critiques. I thought that was interesting, so I said to my editor that I’m seeing all these stories and he asked me if I wanted to do a regular column. Every week we ran a column, part selfie stories and part analysis on what the selfie meant as a cultural trend. We paired it with reader submissions of selfies and a couple sentences on why they shot the selfie.
That column ran for about a year and the word “selfie” became [Oxford Dictionaries’] word of the year.
How do you define a selfie? How do you view it through your arts critique lens?
It’s a form. It’s visual. I don’t think the selfie in and of itself is art, but it can be used as part of an artistic practice or critique. It’s really a meme. A selfie is really a meme at the end of the day.
The question is: Are memes art? No, memes are memes, but they can be considered art in context.
That’s the thing that fascinated me about the selfie. Everything about it depends on the context and where it ends up or doesn’t end up. There’s a selfie that someone takes with their phones and it stays on there forever. There are selfies that become viral memes like with Kim Kardashian. There’s an artist who takes selfies every day to think about: “What does it mean? How am I presenting myself to the world?”
Are selfies different from self-portraits?
I think so. I think it’s really the aesthetic. I have not seen a self-portrait that’s taken with a long arm. The aesthetic form is one thing that separates it. A selfie is a mirror.
With a self-portrait or a printed photo maybe it would be assumed you could consume it in a gallery space or while looking at a photo album together. A selfie happens any time, anywhere. You might catch it while you’re sitting on the bus on the way home from work or on a plane or you’re checking your phone at a stoplight or while waiting for a friend. So it occupies a space of distraction that would otherwise be a quiet space. It’s being able to just control the image of yourself that you’re putting out into the world.
People assume I have a strong opinion that someone should selfie or shouldn’t selfie because that’s how the topic is. It’s such a polarizing topic. I’ve not met someone who doesn’t have something to say about the selfie.
How do you define the selfie generation? Who is the audience for the book?
The way I think about the selfie generation is anyone who actively participates in using the selfie in social media, even people who hate social media. People who are ready to say that there’s more to this than just some picture that some random person took or Kim Kardashian takes. I feel like I wanted to reach people who do selfie, people who are fearful of the selfie, people who are queer and people who read my journalism already, people who want to read about the selfie as a broader cultural trend.
“The Selfie Generation: How Our Self-Images Are Changing Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent, and Culture” by Alicia Eler comes out Nov. 7 via Skyhorse Publishing.
“The Selfie Generation” Events
Where: Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave.
When: Wednesday, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m.
A conversation with Alicia Eler and Nicole Soukup, Mia’s assistant curator of contemporary art
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, Wells Fargo Room, 2400 3rd Ave. S.
When: Thursday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.
Where: Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul
When: Friday, Dec. 1 at 7 p.m.