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Un Magazine 11.1

Looking at you looking at you: performance and its documents in the internet age

Amelia Wallin

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Kate Blackmore, <em>The Glass Bedroom</em>. Produced by Felix Media. Commissioned by ABC Arts and Screen Australia, January–April 2017. Photograph: Olimpia Dior

The Glass Bedroom is a documentary mini-series made by artist Kate Blackmore for iview, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s online video-on-demand service. The six-part series takes as its subject six young Australians who use their own image, alongside original memes and staged shoots, to amass huge numbers of followers on the social media platform Instagram. The Glass Bedroom transforms these Instagram feeds from document to documentary, each episode working with and through the archive of the individual Instagram feeds to make a document of the present. This is the contradiction of documentary, as theorised by Philip Rosen; it is retroactive in that it is tied to the field of the past, but it also contains a ‘liveness’ that connects it to the present.1 Instagram as document is equally tied to the past, despite seeking to be in and of the moment; as Carolyn Duchene states in one episode of The Glass Bedroom series: ‘I would never take a photo and upload it two days later, because it feels stale, because it’s a reflection of that moment in time.’ The Glass Bedroom faces the same issues posed by the documenting performance: how does one record ephemera and make present that which has already past?

Documentary is currently being reconceptualised across various mediums.2 Recent years have seen documentary films proliferate contemporary art spaces, exhibited as both visual art and cinema.3 As a visual artist, Blackmore often works within documentary methodologies to produce films for contemporary art festivals and institutional exhibitions. The Glass Bedroom, however, is the first time she has produced a film for what is conceived of as a non-art space: the realm of online digitised content created with a broad audience in mind. My interest in The Glass Bedroom can be summarised as the doubling of content and context though the author and subject. Both Blackmore as director and the Instagram users Amy Louise (@ilovebrucewillis), Rowan Oliver (@everybodysdaughter), Lexi Laphor (@femmeasfuck), Damiano Dentice (@y2kangel), Carolyn Duchene (@carolynduchene) and Giselle Stanborough (@lozein_official), move fluidly between artist and documenter, expanding the boundaries of each discipline. Simultaneously, online dissemination is the subject of the documentary and a means by which the documentary itself is accessed.

The Glass Bedroom borrows its title from a phrase coined in Erika Pearson’s essay on the performance of identity in social networking sites. As a metaphor structure, the glass bedroom educes tensions of display, exposure, and intimacy, as well as the politics of looking central to Instagram as the documentary medium more broadly. Pearson also employs the analogy of the ‘World Wide Web’ as a stage in order to visualise the ways identity is performed online. The dissolution of the public and private within mediated environments is further articulated through the blurring of the front-stage and back-stage spaces: the audience is everywhere- and everyone. I want to further extrapolate from this by casting Blackmore as dramaturg within the space of her documentary, which is perhaps a fitting portrayal of what it means to be simultaneously an artist and documentary filmmaker. Blackmore uses dramaturgy to provide a structure and a context to the series. Drawing inspiration for her considered art direction from the aesthetics of the different feeds, each episode exists with a distinct visual tone. Ultimately, Blackmore gave each subject control over their own image: being skilled content creators and marketers it makes sense, ethically and economically, to collaborate on the final content. Thus Rowan, Lexi, Damiano, Amy, Carolyn, Giselle toggle between author, subject, artists, just as Blackmore toggles between documenter and artist.

Kate Blackmore, <em>The Glass Bedroom</em>. Produced by Felix Media. Commissioned by ABC Arts and Screen Australia, January–April 2017. Photograph: Olimpia Dior

Blackmore and cinematographer Bonnie Elliott’s beautifully constructed visuals detail the exhaustive preparation, posing and filtering of each subject’s photos. Multiple methods of image production are at play here: the subjects take selfies that are interwoven into the production of the documentary shoot, and we are no longer sure of whose image is whose. The footage from the production shoot is interspersed with tracking shots of scrolling Instagram feeds, close-ups of hands and smartphones, post-production editing, overlaid with self-reflexive interviews with the artists. Each of the subjects reflects on what their level of visibility means to them and their networked communities.

The unobtrusive cinematography produces the feeling of looking at a portrait in development: the subjects pose, but rarely for the camera of the documentary crew. They pose for their own images, meeting the blank gaze of their smartphone’s front-facing camera, or carefully instructing photographers on angles and the use of props. The smartphone is ever-present, which serves to highlight the invisibility of the documentary team’s camera. Just one instance of when this is disrupted: Rowan pauses at the beginning of ‘Bedroom Take 1’ to ask Blackmore to photograph her with the production slate, the following shot shows this image uploaded to Instagram. The back and forth between looking and being seen continues, as does the oscillation between documents and documentary. In creating digital content for broadcast television, Blackmore is working towards a very different audience than she would normally present her work for, and acknowledges the content would need to be reworked to function within a ‘IRL’ art context.4 The digital realm not only generates more exposure for her work, it mirrors the temporality of her subject by nature of its distribution through iview.

Cindy Sherman’s inventive performances for camera, that began with her 1977 series Complete Untitled Film Stills, which saw her transform her face and body into different female stereotypes, may have paved the way for artistic interactions with Instagram. The most infamous example being Amalia Ulman’s Instagram performance Excellences and Perfections (2014), but the absurdity of the charade is less pronounced in The Glass Bedroom. The subjects manage and manipulate their own image through the use of costumes, props, staging, airbrushing, and after-effects, to compose and complete their photos. Amy Louise articulates the power inherent in this:

throughout history the mode of taking a portrait has changed. It’s more accessible now. It’s not just for rich people who can hire someone to paint a portrait of them or have a photographer take photos of them.

Although their Instagram feeds and constructed online identities may be intertwined with their creative practice, this is ultimately a performance of self. Giselle Stanborough is the exception: she has created a fictional online dating company born out of the pressures of the contemporary artist as entrepreneur, and her feed is a trail of lo-fi branded imagery and corporate marketing aesthetics. She states ‘none of the technologies we use are neutral’; the algorithms of Instagram, dating apps and Google shape our register of reality.

The concept that we perform our identities is not new, and to those who have grown up with social media, the allure of anonymity makes it the perfect platform to perfect this performance, as Rowan Oliver comments: ‘Everyone can feel watched, because that’s kind of what they’ve been promised their whole lives’.5 Instagram has an indexical relationship to looking, like the relationship between performance and the photograph articulated by Rosalind Krauss:

By index I mean that type of sign which arises as the physical manifestation of a cause, of which traces, imprints, and clues are examples… It speaks to a literal manifestation of presence in the way that is like a weather vane’s registration of the wind.6

Reliant on the multitudes of signs and symbols contained within each uploaded post, the Instagrammed image indexes different and nuanced social identities as well as the act of looking and being seen.

Performance has an enduring and complicated relationship to photography and its archives. Amelia Jones has written extensively on the subject and has theorised that there exists a ‘mutual supplementarily’ of performance art and its photographic record: ‘the body art event needs the photograph to confirm its having happened; and the photograph needs the body art event as an ontological ‘anchor’ of its own indexicality’.7 Performance from the 1960s onwards developed a dependence on ‘documentation to attain symbolic status within the realm of culture’.8 Today this is even more acute: Rowan and Carolyn elevate themselves via their images to ‘symbolic status’ by indexing a Kardashian aesthetic; big sunglasses and paparazzi style photography.

Archives are commonly understood as systems of power and knowledge that organise and classify multiple temporalities. Virtual archives have a different relation to presence and the past than material archives, which functioned as repositories of lived experiences that preserve details of the past for unknowable (future) audiences. Virtual archives are tasked with preserving ephemera; what Wendy Hui Kyong Chun refers to as ‘a battle of diligence between the passing and the repetitive’.9 Originally conceived of as a synchronous or ‘instant’ platform for sharing photos, Instagram now functions as a deep archive where material can be accessed on endless circulation through hashtags. #regram and #TBT keep older data swirling around, an example of what Hui Kyong Chun describes as the ‘nonsimultaneousness of the new, the layering of chronologies’. As a result, Instagram is a jumble of temporalities, which means that ‘an older post can always be ‘discovered’ as new; a new post is already old’.10 The Instagram archive is exhaustive, mundane, and incomprehensible in its scope.

As with so much networked new media, both iview and Instagram operate under the logic of ‘always-thereness’ that has come to define our relationship with social media. As Giselle comments: ‘the fear is not that everybody is watching us; the fear is that no one is watching us’: digital media promises a constant and continual audience. The iview platform is a virtual archive of data which, unlike Instagram, only shares content for a limited time and to a specific geographic location, before it becomes ‘archived’ within digital memory: ‘If things constantly disappear, they also reappear, often to the chagrin of those trying to erase data.’11 Lexi Laphor makes mention of the fact that Instagram owns her images, ‘these corporations that own these platforms — what do they do with your information?’. It is important to consider the non-visual information ascribed in the metadata of content that has ‘forever transformed how and what we learn from photographs’.12 Metadata gives online content a quality of forever-ness, and thus the virtual archive is less about physical protection, more about storage and memory.

When talking about ‘documentary’ and ‘visual art’ ‘we have to face the fact that we barely know what we are talking about’, states Hito Steyerl in her essay ‘Documentary Uncertainty’.13 In the realm of networked global youth culture, the concepts of ‘art’, ‘documents’, ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are treated as content and data. Working laterally across disciplines, both Blackmore and her subjects ‘interrogate the processes by which we transform lived experience into meaning through representational practices’.14 The chronology of digital media and its relation to the past is particularly muddied.

To return to Pearson’s phrase and the title of the series, The Glass Bedroom evokes both looking outward and looking in, and dormant within it is the adage ‘people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’. As a proverb that warns against hypocrisy it seems fitting — The Glass Bedroom draws careful parallels between its own content and context and that of its subjects, acknowledging its implicit position within digital memory and networked image production.

A companion piece to this article is available online as part of un Extended 11.1.


  1. Philip Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2001, p. 240. 

  2. There has been much recent interest in the documentary methodologies within the visual arts; publications such as Documentary Across Disciplines describes it as the ‘adoption of essayistic, ethnographic, archival, and observational strategies that extend the traditions of documentary cinema in a new institutional context’. Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg (ed.), Documentary Across Disciplines, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2016. 

  3. See Maria Lind, Hito Steyerl (eds.) The Greenroom, Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2008. 

  4. Conversation between the author and Kate Blackmore, January 2017. 

  5. ‘That individuals perform their identity is not a radical concept. Developed by Goffman (1959), identity–as–performance is seen as part of the flow of social interaction as individuals construct identity performances fitting their milieu.’ Erika Pearson, quoting E. Goffman, The Present­ation of Self in Everyday Life, in ‘All the World Wide Web’s a Stage: the Performance of Identity in Online Social Networks’, First Monday, 14, no. 3, 2009, http://firstmonday.org/article/view/2162/2127, accessed 17 January 2017. 

  6. Rosalind Krauss, Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America, Part 2, ‘October’, 4 (1977), p. 59. 

  7. Amelia Jones, ‘Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation, Art Journal, 56 (1997). 

  8. op. cit. Jones, ‘Presence’. 

  9. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, ‘The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory’, Critical Inquiry, 35 (2008), p. 167. 

  10. Ibid., p. 170. 

  11. Ibid., p. 167. 

  12. Op cit., Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg, p. 17. 

  13. Hito Steyerl, ‘Documentary Uncertainty’, Re-visiones, no. 1, 2011, http://www.re-visiones.net/spip.php%3Farticle37.html, accessed 16 January 2017. 

  14. Op cit., Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg, p. 15.