"On View" Takes a Sardonic Look at Selfie Culture

Artists Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti discuss "selfie stages" and "data doubles" in celebration of their new installation, on view at SCAD Museum of Art, through Aug. 25.

Artists Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti discuss "selfie stages" and "data doubles" in celebration of their new installation, on view at SCAD Museum of Art, through Aug. 25.

On View,” a new site-specific installation at SCAD’s Museum of Art, documents a pivotal point in our relatively short yet eventful digital history: one in which we, as digital producers and consumers, can no longer claim willful ignorance in participatory data mining. (The contemplation couldn’t be more topical—just the week before last, Hudson Yards’s much-discussed Vessel quietly amended its over-broad intellectual property policy following rightful outrage over usage rights.)

The brainchild of artists Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, “On View,” which the artists themselves call “performance installation,” is in itself a metaphor for the benefits and deficits consumption culture provides us. The installation is a direct result of convenient social media connections: Storm Janse van Rensburg, head of exhibitions at SCAD, first saw the artists’ work on a mutual friend’s Instagram story before connecting with—and ultimately commissioning—Catherine and Ti to create a work for SCAD’s annual deFINE Art festival. The artists were given free rein, ultimately resulting in “On View,” which was produced by the duo’s Operator art house.

“It brings attention to aspects of our digital engagement that we often ignore or try to suppress—but that increasingly are taken for granted,” Janse van Rensburg says. “I love the fact that Dejha and Ania’s practice also incorporates the human body—of both audiences and performers—in all its fragility and power as a central aspect of their practice.”

Stylized in a monochromatic palette, “On View” shows that when it comes to critically examining the sinister nature of consumption culture, all too often, we’re glossing over the fine print. Below, in their own words, Catherine and Ti take us through their performance installation.

The "Terms and Condition" room, which serves as the foyer of "On View." The performance installation is composed of three distinct rooms. (Photo: Courtesy Djeneba Aduayom)

Dejha Ti: There is that sort of play on words that you have with “On View”—[that we’re] artists who are not only creating works for cultural institutions but are also creating commissioned work for commercial purposes. And generally, [the latter] will present themselves in the guise of solely an art function, but really as we’re seeing with Vessel, it’s a Instagram backdrop that has a sort of consumerist intention behind it. And the motive behind that is a lot different than a piece of work that you would see in a museum. Now however, because we’re artists who literally, whenever we’re pitched, [the potential client  always says] “I don’t wanna say it but… you know, something Instagrammable.” We’re like, we know. In that way, we’re very in it. We’re very guilty of it. We contribute to it.

Ania Catherine: Which is why I think we can talk about it. We’re not outside being like, we don’t understand it; we’re literally in this.

DT: We’re also, first and foremost, artists. So we’re at a time where art is being co-opted for the use commercial purposes in a very blatant way. We know the references at this point. So we said, let’s create a work about that. Let’s create a work about us grappling with our engagement, our hesitations, and our skill and craft, having mastered the technique of [commercially bent art]. Coagulated together, let’s see how we feel about it.

AC: And admitting and being honest about the blurring line between art and the selfie backdrop in 2019.

(Photo: Courtesy Tommy St. Clair)
(Photos: Courtesy Djeneba Aduayom (L), Holden Ramage)

DT: That’s how we got to “On View,” the whole idea of are you going to see what’s on view, or are you going to see yourself on view? And just with the [parallelism] with Vessel, how do you ever start that process of giving up your data and—

AC: What is the incentive behind it all? They’re not philanthropic, ever. It’s a very blatant way of showing what your selfie is worth, what it’s worth in front of Vessel, in front of this wall, in front of that step and repeat. People are spending millions, even billions of dollars building selfie stages for people.

And, still, [the selfie stage] is for you; it’s for the person standing in front of it [to enjoy]. [But, all things considered] it’s really not for you.

There’s a market and you’re participating and selling and being sold at the same time—most of the time without your knowledge. It’s bizarre that people always want to interact with and stand in front of [our art] instead of look at it.

So it started with how people are engaging with our art, and then it took us into these totally other areas we didn’t expect to get into like, data brokering.

All these selfie stages are coming up, but then people go to a museum and think it’s a selfie stage. What’s the underbelly of this phenomenon? What’s causing all of this? We got into this kind of serious territory, the terms and conditions with privacy, the selfie as currency, and being an advertisement under the guise of giving you a fun experience.

Artists Dejha Ti (L) and Ania Catherine. (Photo: Courtesy Bex Gunther)

DT: We always had the idea of photographing the subject and the audience participant essentially being the subject of the work. Just like social media literally does nothing unless you push content and human energy into it. An art exhibition is the same thing. It does nothing without a person inside of it. That is one parallel we made, and the other is the first thing we do when we download an app, how many times do we mindlessly agree to a terms and condition we never read? [So we thought] instead of having that be a subconscious click, let’s make an immersive contract once you’re inside that is disproportionate to what we usually experience. Something that shows you it’s a real step.

That’s how we intended this piece. It starts out with you agreeing to be the subject. Ania Catherine and Dejha Ti, the artists, will take your likeness and use it in the art. But we are not Cambridge Analytica. It’s more of a social contract.

AC: A lot of people looked in the space and were like, I’m not doing this. It felt intimidating in the same way as if someone handing a huge agreement or contract to you that and you don’t really understand. No one is scared of the tiny checkbox. They are scared of the room, but not by giving data to who knows.

With Vessel, there’s no contract you’re signing. They skip that step altogether.

DT: It’s theoretical, like parallel to the phenomenon.

AC: Agreed capture distribution.

Signage for the "Data Body" stage. (Photo: Courtesy Operator)
A wide-angle view of the "I Didn't Sign Up For This" stage. (Photo: Courtesy Operator)

DT: We based the design of “On View” off of the selfie stage phenomenon, which is essentially agree, capture, and distribute the image. “On View” is not actually selfie stages—it’s meant more as commentary—although people turn them into that. There’s two mock stages, and we named both of them. One of them is called “Data Body,” which references our data double as we exist online. We all have a data double. The other mock stage is called “I Didn’t Sign Up For This,” which we kind of pulled from the name of the document of our terms and condition is “On View: What You Were Signing Up For.” And so that kind of like parallel.

And then the last space is called “The Golden Gallery.” It’s sort of the central function of the piece in where you can see yourself on view and, because we used facial recognition to encode your facial data into the images that we take once you arrive to “The Golden Gallery” at the end, only the subject of the art photograph can recall the image at the art case.

AC: You are only on view to yourself.

"The Golden Gallery" room through the eyes of a viewer. (Photo: Courtesy @oh_iamcrystal/Instagram)

DT: Which is counterintuitive to this incessant daily sharing of our lives. There’s no other way that you can get the photo; they aren’t distributed. I was in there opening week, and we had just mulled through the space.

AC: People were asking where to get the photos.

DT: The “Terms and Condition” room is manifested by a performer in the entry room who is trained specifically to be a human form of the contract. I mean this is when it turned into experiential black comedy; his performance really had a dark humor to it.

AC: Right, it was almost like he would just take fragments of what was on the wall and repeat it with a smile and this really funny, welcoming kind of way.

Which was also, I feel, [tangentially tied to] the friendliness of technology and [exploitation of] gender as a whole: technology uses ideal women qualities to make people put their guards down. A lot of people wouldn’t let a machine named George sit in their living room. And so it’s almost like a fifties housewife put into a tech device to make you feel comfortable and loved and like it’s serving you… and it’s almost like, wifey. It’s that way to make people share more. You’ll notice [most all virtual assistants] are girls… Erica, Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant.

DT: The entire installation also has this nod to ubiquitous computing. I’ve studied human-computer interaction [HCI] and always really enjoyed working within the physical computing medium. “On View” is extremely technical, but you hardly see any technology. That is, and has always been, the goal of ubiquitous computing.

AC: You don’t know you’re interacting with technology, and you are.

DT: So that your day-to-day experience is one that is human, rather than one that is digital. As a society, we’re moving toward that, and we have been for decades. “On View” kind of ties into all of the layers we just discussed. It’s a big layer cake, this project.

AC: That’s a good summary. It’s a very layered cake.

“On View” is on view at SCAD Museum of Art through Aug. 25.

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