INTERVIEW WITH JEN MANN


The Digital selfhood and Curation of Identity: The body, the mind, and everything else.


 


AA00

Let's start with a bit on your background. Where did you grow up?


J.M

 grew up in Canada.



A00

What was childhood like?


J.M

My childhood, in my memory, seems full of perfect things, preserved in a hazy dream. In forests catching bugs, playing with friends making up games and dances, team sports, sleepovers, sparkles, construction paper, making jokes, and laughing till you pee.



A00

Growing up in Canada, what's the best memory you have from your childhood?


J.M

Maybe the smell of lawnmowers and fresh-cut grass, or the smell of summer sweat on the skin, and sailing on Lake Ontario.



A00

Did you paint from a young age?


J.M

I didn’t really paint until after I graduated from university. I drew since I was really small, as early as I can remember. I went to a high school for art and then went to OCAD in Toronto where I completed my BFA with a major in printmaking. I never took any painting classes, but it wasn’t a far leap.



A00

What's your studio like now?



J.M

It’s a live-work studio, it’s my home and also the place I create. I have to have a balance between freedom and cleanliness. It works for me to be around my work all the time, my life and my art are inseparable in many ways.



A00

Do you listen to music when you work?


J.M

Not usually. I’m a freak, I know. It’s usually completely silent and my inner dialogue fills the void.



A00

Before starting your day, do you have any daily routines or rituals you go through?


J.M

Not really...maybe breakfast with my partner. But usually, most days are very different from each other.



A00

Is there any artist you look up to? Inspired by?


J.M

When I was young I loved Renaissance artists, I loved the symbolism and intricacies of metaphorical storytelling. Now I sort of like the concept of ‘no hero's. I am more inspired by our culture and the concept of self and identity.



A00

What sort of role would you say artists have in society?


J.M

I believe artists should be looking at the world from a different angle and creating some kind of release for the viewer or audience.



A00

"Release" is an interesting perspective. Sounds almost therapeutic and medicinal to some extent. Is this something you aim for?


J.M

For me, art making is not therapeutic. It’s a mixture of compulsion, torture, and ecstasy. I approach art as a way to rationalize existence, the absurdity of our lives and try to show the audience these fascinations, jokes, and revelations. If I feel these things and see these things, it’s likely that others feel the same way. This connection is relieving. When you see yourself, or your feelings staring back at you from someone else it’s like a release. Feeling seen maybe. But also work can be awakening which can also be a release in another way.



A00

Living through such a diverse, and somewhat strange era, are there any social or cultural phenomena that you find especially inspiring? or fascinated by?


J.M

Definitely, the selfie culture created by social media.



A00

Let's talk about your work. The notion of self, or selfhood, is certainly an ongoing theme throughout your work. Can you tell us more about it?


J.M

I’m fascinated by the construction of identity, curation of self through our consumer actions and online profiles. I’m exploring the fictions of self and our online lives through an absurd kind of self theatre.



A00

What do you think constitutes the feeling of self? Especially in the modern context.


J.M

I think it’s unbelievably complex. We have been given these tools to curate our lives and disseminate ourselves for others in a way that completely negates any kind of realism, but with somewhat more tangible realism than ever before. I have complete access to and can see someone’s curated life without even meeting a person. The selfie infinity cubes that are our phones, reflecting our own ideas back to us have created a strange space to develop a sense of self, and this is what I’m drawn to.



A00

The entire notion of being able to curate a separate life through online means is such a modern phenomenon. Do you ever feel that the dualism in life (the real and the online) and the fluidity of identity is almost like a side effect of not being able to be who we really want to be?


J.M

Because we are in constant flux, our identities are always changing, but our desire to be loved and understood remains. How someone perceives you are based on their own life experience and perspective. You only really have control of how you see yourself which is always evolving. I think our desire to improve ourselves is part of what continues to push the human species forward, this desire also comes from a lack of complete satisfaction. So yes I think we never feel completely finished, trying to live up to the version of ourselves we see in our heads, the main character in the movie of our lives.

Online is the closest I think we can come to, hearing the thoughts inside a person's head, and seeing someone as they want to be seen...or perhaps how they see themselves. In real life our thoughts are messier, less polished, our faces less perfect, our lives less happy and glossy.



A00

Do you think the feeling of existence is objective?


J.M

We exist, we feel we exist. So it is objective. I can objectively say that I feel that I am existing in some capacity. But our existence and the experience we have while existing is definitely subjective. What my existence feels like, and what someone else’s existence feels like is going to be different and subject to their perspective.



A00

Social media plays a large part in daily life in modern society, at least for many younger generations. Do you ever feel that this is dangerous to some extent?


J.M

Oh for sure, it has many dangers, especially for young impressionable minds. Beauty standards are certainly a big one. With the face-altering selfie filters and apps like Facetune, it’s hard to accept and love the face that’s yours, unaltered. And how does that affect our sense of self outside of our online fictions as we step into a less augmented reality outside of our phones… when we meet people ’irl’.



A00

The glorification of constructed persona, and the rapid overconsumption of imageries and idolization of unrealistic beauty standards. Those are a few of the many topics brought up in the use of social media. Do you feel that the exposure to the cooperate gaze and social media has generated some form of confusion in terms of personal identity?


J.M

The corporate gaze, for me, is an important cog in understanding our identities today. We have become the number 1 commodity and we are being sold through corporations like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, to other corporations. Our identities and curated selves are being cataloged and analyzed to become numbers in some algorithm that determines worthiness. Our online creation of self has become linked to how successful we are as a brand of ourselves, trying to get more likes more follows, where we see ourselves through the corporate gaze that we were raised in. Where people become brand ambassadors and sell things to their followers. But it goes beyond just the paid partnerships. “Here’s me on vacation” “here’s me graduating university” “here’s me getting married” - we are selling our lives to others to buy into, telling them that ‘you too should do these things. We have visual themes on our Instagrams, where we curate our lives like brands, not a hair out of place - our departure from self as a person, to self as a brand, is definitely confusing for personal identities today.



A00

It's interesting that you used the word "departure", rather than treating it like an alternate self-existing online. Perhaps this is how overwhelming and detached one can feel when curating a self-image online. Almost like losing in touch with real life.


J.M

Yes, haha, I definitely think there is almost this devolution of self. Like saying a word too many times makes it lose all meaning. Maybe the selfie culture has lost a sense of self and departed. Haha



A00

Your work, especially in your previous exhibition "METONYMY" and perhaps the ongoing project "Other Sister", challenges the notion of self in terms of amorphousness between what's real and what's not. Can you tell us more?


J.M

I think I'm looking at the self through an absurd level of abstractions. turning the self into an icon or a brand. A celebrity of self, where the truth and fiction overlap. The show metonymy was centered around the idea of 5 movies. For each movie, I created a movie trailer. Each one features me as the main character and looks at different parts of myself and my life. In the last movie, it's a documentary about an artist making movies about herself, this meta trailer integrates real footage of me as a child and creates a curated view of how I want to be perceived. In the show, I made posters for each movie, doll action figures of me from each of the films, and film still paintings from the movies. Paintings within paintings hung in galleries they never showed, and a suite of magazine cover paintings. The films were all written directed edited scored etc by me, the scenes were acted out as abstracted versions of my real-life experience, where I hired friends to play roles of themselves, and real actors intermixed. there is truth and fiction, self and celebrity, and this online existence where a lot of the media is consumed. questioning the reality of even the artist. what is the artist in this online world...



A00

Wow. the concept, the methodology, and the execution are all brilliant. Your approach perfectly mirrors your intention, almost like a well-prepared experiment with a clear hypothesis to test. The self-curated celebrity self, where do you think this comes from? Is it entirely external? Like influenced by other celebrities' beauty standards etc. Or would you say that this is something more internal, like an urge or personal desire?


J.M

I think it’s both. What fascinates me is this urge we have to be loved, and for some people, it comes in the form of power, popularity, or fame. The capitalist society rewards these people. And we are taught these things early. Celebrities are like royalty. We watch movies and learn to see the world as a film, setting ourselves as the main character in our own biopic. I’m fascinated by our culture, documenting it, and the absurdity of it all, while I participate in it.



A00

The ongoing project "Other Sister" has this wonderful glossy girly feeling with a hint of nostalgia. Can you tell us more about this project?


J.M

The other sister project is an extension of my last show. 'Other sister' is a fictional band I created as a central focus of this new project. using myself as the lead singer of a girl pop group I am exploring the absurdity of the corporate gaze, transmedia marketing, and turning the self into objects to be bought and sold. I created music, released a real vinyl, shot music videos, released a line of sweaters and pins, all part of a fictional world where I am in this girl band, which in reality is fictional but then at the same time questions, 'if the music exists, is the band not real?' looking at the creation of pop celebrities and the manufacturing of fame through online media this meta and fictional world crosses into the real world as people integrate parts of the work into their lives by purchasing the hoodies, pins, music, etc. the final show will culminate next spring in Toronto and hopefully tour around to a couple of places. it will include sculpture, painting, sound, video, and even leaps into digital and augmented realms.



A00

Many magazine covers are referenced in your work, ranging from cultural to fashion. What is the intention here?


J.M

The magazines are a nod to this commercial, slick curation of a celebrity. Creating the 'cover girl'. I think with today's social media we all feel like the main character in the movie of our lives, and we are cultivating our own celebrity followings, our profile pictures are like magazine covers, set to sell our brand. Each magazine cover selfie takes into consideration the brand and context of the magazine aesthetic and puts the character of myself into that context in that world. I think the absurdity, and endless loop of ridiculousness, is pretty funny, and I enjoy making myself laugh at least. In my last show 'metonymy', I turned myself into a celebrity, where I was a movie star, an art star, a filmmaker, etc, and thought it would be funny to appear on different covers as those different characters of myself from the different movies I created. This will, and is, definitely extending into my current body of work as well.



A00

Say that there was no social media, no internet, like the old days where people have to meet, engage in a conversation to learn about one another. The relationship builds here would be much more raw and authentic but it certainly lacks the reachability (that gave us the ability to look into other cultures) we have today. So it's a bit of pros and cons here. What do you think?


J.M

I think there are definitely great parts about the internet. It changed culture, news, music, art, even language, forever. But there are also pitfalls. Twitter politics and fake news, Napster and internet sharing changed the music industry, Instagram and Tumblr changed the art world, and emojis and acronyms changed our languages...and communication around the world. When things open up, there’s freedom of information, but it also creates more opportunities to exploit people.



A00

Fashion has a huge influence on selfhood, considering how it dominates the aesthetic of how our physical body is perceived. How the industry affects the consumer's identity (for the good or bad) can be enormous.


J.M

Fashion is a big part of how we are perceived and how we curate ourselves and define ourselves visually for others.



A00

If you were to sum up yourself in 5 words, what would they be?


J.M

Energy trapped in matter: alive



A00

That is perfect. Love that. Contrasting to the notion of self, philosophically speaking, there is the notion of selflessness. Not in the kind and giving way, but instead arguing that the faith of self, existing as a singular independent being, is entirely false. This type of argument is often branched from ancient Buddhism. What do you think? 


J.M

I am of the line of thinking that the self only exists in relation to our physical bodies. whatever life is, it is all the same, one thing I like to imagine it as light. the concept "I am not my body" is wrong, because the idea of "I" is separate, it is the self, and the self is your body. I am my body, and when I die, the life that's in me, this energy (light), will go back to wherever it comes from. I think this is the selflessness you speak of. The ownership of life is not ours, and all living things are connected through this energy (life) trapped in matter. it's all one thing. but these are just my personal existential musings.



A00

It's amazing that you have such a deep understanding of selfhood. "the ownership of life is not ours" yet we're all connected. So in some ways, our selfhood has expanded into 3 separate entities? The all connected origin (the light), the body, and the online?


J.M

Oh, I don’t know if I have a deep understanding, these are just my musings. I think light or energy can’t be part of self as it is truly selfless. And the body of our physical reality and our online lives are probably more connected than being separated. I think they’re overlapping - truth and fiction...like our physical self, constantly contradicting and then combining.




A00

Earlier, you mentioned that the experience of self is subjective. Since the light and the body are certainly real, the third persona created by us via online means, would it mean that we are to some extent delusional?


J.M

We're simply post-internet. Just like the invention of writing allowed us to transcend our physical bodies communicating through generations, the internet, and our online personas allow us to transcend our physical limitations.



A00

The fiction and the nonfiction, and everything in between and beyond, it's brilliant that you have explored it extensively through your body of works. Is there any other topic that has always kept you wondering? Something perhaps you would like to dive into in the future.


J.M

Who knows what the future holds, but like a magnet, I feel pulled forward constantly.



A00

I'm sure there are moments where you feel stuck in the studio. When you are working through problems in your work, who do you talk to?


J.M

My mom, my friends, my partner. I have a good network for support.



A00

Besides art, do you have any secret hobbies? or something you're really into?


J.M

Hahaha, everyone who knows me, knows the answer to this is Korean Dramas. I watch so much Korean tv that I started learning Korean just by watching.



A00

If you had a time machine allowing you to go to the future or the past, but you can only use it once, meaning that you will be stuck at where ever you travel, where would you go?


J.M

I wouldn't go, because I would have to leave my life behind, and I want to see this life through.



A00

If you were to leave a note, or a message, to the upcoming younger generations of artists, what would you say to them?


J.M

You die at the end of your life. You only owe your life to that person, make the best decisions for you, not someone else. Be true to yourself.



A00

One more thing, tell us a secret!


J.M

I don't have many or any secrets. My life is like an open book, and like everyone else, I'm just out here sharing it all for you online every day haha.




 
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