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ICYMI: Inner selfie

A new interactive art project by artists Hanif Janmohamed and Maria Lantin takes over AGO’s Community Gallery on the Lower Level.

Hanif Janmohamed & Maria Lantin. Inner Selfie 2

Hanif Janmohamed/Maria Lantin. Inner Selfie made with the Inner Selfie Generator.

The AGO’s Community Gallery has reopened with a new interactive art project that invites everyone to look at their #innerselfie! In this new installation by Vancouver-based artists Hanif Janmohamed and Maria Lantin, people of all ages can imagine and express their inner selves in Inner Selfies, on view now in the Community Gallery in the Weston Family Learning Centre on the Lower Level (Concourse).  

The art work features a selection of reimagined MRI-style brain scans and five floating images of portraits from the AGO Collection. Visitors are encouraged to create their own inner selfies, inspired by Janmohamed’s imagery, with recycled materials from the Dr. Anne Tanenbaum Gallery School Gallery School. Through the artist project website, visitors can also create their own custom versions of Janmohamed’s reimagined digital brain scans. 

To learn more about the project, we reached out to Janmohamed and Lantin for all the details. Here’s what they had to say:  

AGOinsider: Can you tell us how this project began? 

Janmohamed & Lantin: The original notion of an Inner Selfie began with a self-portrait by Hanif Janmohamed, titled Cranial Cosmologies, created in 2013 – coincidentally the same year that the word “selfie” was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year. The self-portrait employed the vernacular of medical imaging as a ‘scan of the self’. The MRI contents and medical annotations were replaced by a composited image and anecdotal data about the ‘patient’ – echoes of personal history, characteristics and geography, the sort of things that inform our sense of self. It was an exploration of the nature of contemporary portraiture and was the first Inner Selfie. The Inner Selfie project has emerged from this initial seed, and it continues to be marked by an emergent nature.

AGOinsider: What is your take on #selfie culture? What do you think it reveals in people? 

Janmohamed:  We are completely obsessed with our self-image and identity, and their representation! This is a granular fallout from ‘the Century of the Self’, which is marked by consumerism and the commodification of everything. #selfie culture gives us key insights into the way people see themselves today. It telegraphs the superficiality and all-conforming nature of a mass-consumer society, whose growth is running on the rocket fuel of social media. 

It also reveals how little substance there may be here. The self is a construct and the project’s guiding principles stem from an exploration of the ephemeral qualities that make up this sense of self. What is it? Where is it located? Are we our feelings? Our memories? Our impulses? Is it no more than a call and response? Is the self even a thing? Do we really need it? Could we do without it? 

We have to ask ourselves how such an all-consuming self was created, by whom, and with what interest – who does it really serve? 

We want to facilitate bringing poetry back into our sense of self – and in its expression and representation in our online social context. We want Inner Selfies to reflect who we are and how we feel, rather than mirroring and propagating the self-imaging behaviour that serves an extractive consumption model.

Lantin: I'll wager that more than 90% of people have grabbed a phone and taken a selfie. It's one of the first things I did when I got a smartphone. Turning the camera on ourselves was a curious act. We could now control our own image in a way it was difficult to do before. But much like we can't see our eyes move when we look in the mirror, the selfie lacks a sense of outside perspective so it becomes performative (we become the outside perspective). It's not all bad. With each new camera lens and real-time software filter, we get a sudden burst of creative self-portraits. So lovely! But if we give the self(ie) image more saliency than it deserves in our sense of being, it creates anxiety-inducing claustrophobia. How much of our lives should be performative? Some of it needs to be and some of it should be -- for fun and profit! It takes skill to stay in touch with the full depth of being while performing much of our lives. First of all, it takes awareness that we are performing. For me, this project is bringing awareness to the performance of self. Introducing a creative and meditative element (both in drawing and capturing a moment of introspection in text), slows things down enough to maybe get a glimpse of what it means to perform our own self(ie) image and how playful it can be when we know it’s a partial and yet beautiful truth.

Hanif Janmohamed & Maria Lantin. Inner Selfie 1

Hanif Janmohamed/Maria Lantin. Inner Selfie made with the Inner Selfie Generator.

AGOinsider: Why did you choose to use MRI brain scans as the main background for this project? What about them inspires/attracts you?

Janmohamed:  The Inner Selfie Project has its origins in another body of work – The Brain Terrains Project, which explores the recursive nature of the two realities we actually ‘inhabit’ – our inner and outer worlds. This series plays with technologically mediated observations of the duality that gives rise to any experience of self. The medical imaging of our inner domain and the satellite imaging of our shared exterior domain reveals a remarkably convergent visual lexicon. As it is above, so it is below.

The MRI became symbolic of an act of scanning to search for a trace of this invisible self. What if we could look into this abstract, liminal inner/outer world that the self/no-self inhabits?  What if we had some technologically mediated means for this kind of investigation – what would we see? What convergences might we reveal? Perhaps if we lost our differentiators we would reveal our commonalities – which are far more present. Same, but different – as opposed to different.

Lantin: Because of the primacy of the visual sense, we (especially sighted people) often have an impression of being in our heads. We lead with our eyes, and everything seems to be positioned relative to our head. Yet we've never seen our own head. As a matter of perception, it's a felt space but blank in terms of form. This is partly why selfies are interesting. We get surrogate eyes to escape the head-centred perspective. As an aside, one thought experiment is to think of constantly having an overhead camera on our movements like a video game (seeing ourselves on Zoom approaches this). How would this extra sensory information get integrated over time? Would there be any use for it besides self-performance?

For me, the MRI as another kind of surrogate eye further brings the absence of the head into sharp focus. Our brains are a major source of sense-making and self-making. My father has Alzheimer's and I've experienced what is lost when the brain loses coherence. Yet the brain is not the self. That is anchored somewhere that an MRI cannot reach. We can feel it, but we'll never gain an outside perspective on it; as soon as we do it slips away into a flat image of itself. The brain MRI is not the selfie we may think it should be. Aside from remedies to brain pathologies, we gain very little actionable insight from it even as we segment and attempt to understand the brain's working parts.

For me, the feeling of drawing in the MRI is about that contrast between what can be imagined and what is unfathomable. As I'm drawing, I can feel the dance of the imagination and know that besides the traces it leaves, I am the sole witness of the experience.

AGOinsider: How do you want people to engage with the project in the Community Gallery and online? 

Janmohamed: We would like people to think about and reflect on the concept of self for themselves, as something beyond a typical surface representation of an externally mediated marker of identity. What is it made of? What are its qualities? Can we find ways to express what it is or what it feels like? There are three areas we would love people to engage in, and we look forward to seeing reflections on these.

Inner Selfies as a personal voyage of discovery and investigation – an invitation to turn and look within, to remember deep feelings, to identify powerful emotions, to distill stories - who are we really? Inner Selfies is a reflecting pool where quiet contemplation rules over instantaneity.  

Each of us experiences life as a journey that is unknown and unseen by others when they look at us. What people see are external markers of identity, interpreted in the present, without reference to the interiority of experiences that have deeply shaped us. How might we express this interiority – through an act of making things in the Community Gallery, or by creating images and using words – creating inner selfies.

Inner Selfies seeks to offer a glimpse into the inner selves of others, through the Community Gallery and the online public gallery – a communal space for Inner Selfies that invites us to explore the fragments and contours of the other selves that shape the collective experience our own sense of self is immersed in.  We hope participants will create and share their Inner Selfies, and view others in the gallery to discover commonalities and celebrate diversity. 

Lantin: First and foremost, I would love for people to have fun creating a beautiful trace of this moment. We sure had fun creating digital Inner Selfie collages as we were creating the tool. It became a way to capture moments in a poetic way. I would go to the Gallery every morning and on most days, there would be a new selfie by Hanif. A little gift! When I create my own Inner Selfies, the questions have become a way to reflect on what they mean for me today at this moment. I especially like the middle pause of looking around and documenting what's happening.

Sharing a little bit of where we're at with each other within a creative container is healing and surprising. Seeing all the digital Inner Selfies together is a kind of collective portrait. At this moment, it's a collective portrait of the process of developing this project. As it grows, we hope it becomes a collective portrait of who we have become after a strange kind of pause. We will keep collecting bits and pieces from the text of the selfies and intersperse them throughout the online gallery, so the text-based creations are highlighted too. We hope that some who visit the site decide to create collections (individuals or collectives!) and post more than once, giving a sense of transformation and lightness of being. 

Whether it's pausing to make a physical collage or a digital one, we hope the moment brings a little bit of insight about what it feels like to just be, and of course a lot of enjoyment too!

Interested in learning more? visit AGO.ca/events/share-your-inner-selfies-opening.

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