Women’s Studies Quarterly asked Johanna Blakley to provide a multimedia piece for the “Alerts & Provocations” section of the June 2012 issue. The theme? VIRAL. The editors asked Blakley to expand upon a TED talk she’d given on Social Media & the End of Gender. In both, Blakley explores the implications of women’s demographic dominance of social media platforms all around the world. The multimedia component of the WSQ piece lives here on Tumblr and on Pinterest and was conceived by Johanna Blakley, Veronica Jauriqui, Sarah Ledesma and photographer Jasmine Lord.
The “Media in Our Image” portraits meld together Renaissance conventions of portrait painting with contemporary visual data mining. The goal was to create augmented portraits of ourselves that tell people more about our taste, values and beliefs than about our demographic coordinates. We used word clouds, which reflect the relative frequency of words within a data set, to summarize social media preferences and profile data from each of the portrait subjects. Inspired by lace veils that both reveal and obscure the subject, we projected each sitters’ own metadata on their physical bodies, creating a veil of revealing data.
Thanks to Kate Feldman and Krystal Garner for revealing themselves to us. You can find the WSQ article here.
When I mentioned the Media In Our Image project to German-born artist Irene Belknap, she said that I must take a look at a series of her paintings that she calls “Dressed in Words.” She mentioned being bemused by the profound difference between her perception of people and the stories they would tell about themselves. These portraits interweave text and image in order to create a “simultaneity of meaning,” as she puts it. She explains:
"In my work there can be no final ‘this means that.’ It is my belief that which sustains in painting is the evocative; that which calls to mind both the artist and the viewer. My aim is to evoke a sense of the unknown where final meaning is withheld, thus the mind is incited to allow a journey beyond ourselves toward that which we sense but cannot explain; that which we know but cannot prove."
The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was very influential in my thinking about the Media In Our Image project. I was a bit overwhelmed by the first gallery, which was filled with stark side profiles of wealthy men and women. I learned that, in the early stages of secular portraiture, painters were constrained by the belief that strict side profiles were the only way to reveal the true character of the subject. By accurately representing the slope of the forehead, the shape of the nose and the jut of the chin, a painter could communicate the ethical and moral attributes of the sitter. Any deviation from the strictest of profiles was perceived as an attempt to hide all manner of sins.
Of course this restriction eventually disappeared (the Dutch, apparently, would have none of it), but in the age of the “social media profile,” we have an unprecedented opportunity to invent new rules for the way we capture, define, and represent ourselves to the world.
Once we settled on creating a “veil of words” in order to express a portrait subject’s interests and beliefs, we started looking around for some good examples. It turns out, you can’t do a Google image search that mentions “veils” and “words” without turning up some fascinating portraits of veiled women protesters. This one (above) was particularly striking because the words appear to be written in blood: they say, “Why are my rights half of your rights?”
In the example above, a protester against Egypt’s ruling military council wears a headband that reads “no god except Allah and Prophet Mohammed is a messenger of Allah” in Arabic. (photo credit: Amr Nabil/AP Photo)