Anne Haaning, KhoiSan Medicine, 2014.
It is a question that has bugged untold numbers of artists since time immemorial. You've made a name for yourself (at last), and made a mark that you hope will persist for some years to come, but what will the future really see of you - and make of you? You've succeeded (for now), but how much of what you've done will endure? Ars longa vita brevis, the saying goes (in Latin, a language that hasn't exactly worn too well), contrasting our short-lived span on earth with the transcendent lure of posterity. Ars longa vita brevis: it sounds like one of the eternal verities, but how true is it? We all know the story of those overlooked, outsider artists who only found acclaim after they were dead. But there were many more who were big in their day, and then faded into obscurity; as well as others who started out obscure... and stayed that way.
Today's young artists don't have time for such speculations. Their foremost challenge is simply getting themselves noticed. It's less and less the case that the world won't listen; is indifferent, unreceptive, hostile - interest in contemporary art is arguably at an all time high. Artists today face a different problem of visibility. It's no longer that their audience is looking the other way, or don't know where to look. Far from it. These days, it's harder to be seen because of all the other artists competing for attention... And hard to stand out when the field is getting increasingly crowded.
What to do? You can promote yourself online, of course, and broadcast yourself (your unique identity as individual and distinctive as a snowflake) through social media. But it's not like other people haven't thought of that. You can post your artwork to Flickr or Tumblr or Vimeo, and add to the snowstorm of images that's already there. It's not like others haven't had the same idea. So many images, so little time. The marvel of the internet, which can pinpoint a unique image in an instant, carries a sting in its long tail. Any one thing is always accompanied by a flurry, then a blizzard, of other things, with the danger that visibility becomes impaired.
Something else is bugging us in the online world; or bugging some of us at least. The internet, and social networks, offer a perfect platform to express and extend our sense of self; to display and disport our individuality. Yet, the more we do so, the more that heightened presence is stalked by a lurking feeling that someone else is watching - someone other than whoever we have chosen to share our tastes and thoughts. The Edward Snowden revelations about the NSA are only a part of this. If the 'selfie' is the icon and the symbol of our self-obsessed, self-absorbed age (maybe even its hysterical symptom: Me! Me! Me! I pose therefore I am), it has its alter ego in our shadow self or 'data double', the invisible portrait of us that is built up from our accumulated online predilections, our Google searches, our credit card purchases. No matter what funny or flattering image we put up on our Facebook page, it is these lingering traces, this unseen digital profile, that increasingly precedes us, and defines us, as we move forward into the brave new era of Big Data.
These themes - of identity and visibility, of posterity, of exposure and disclosure - all hover in the background of an exhibition called 'What Will They See of Me?' which I curated, and which is currently at Jerwood Visual Arts in London. The product of the latest round of Jerwood/Film and Video Umbrella Awards, it features the work of four young female artists (Lucy Clout, Kate Cooper, Anne Haaning, and Marianna Simnett), exploring ideas of self-image and self-expression against the simultaneously empowering and encroaching backdrop of technology. From reflections on the 'afterlife' of data, to a spotlight on the female body as a site of many of these developments and changes, these four short video works are a fascinating sample of our contemporary preoccupations. The next few days are the last few days of the show. But it's safe to say we will be seeing a lot more of these four artists in the years ahead.
What Will They See of Me? is at Jerwood Space until 27 April 2014