An archive can be defined as “a collection of records that contain information and provide evidence of some or other action.”In the digital era, technology increasingly captures information about our daily activities. Advances in computing power and data storage over the last fifty years have enabled us to gather and keep records of our virtual lives. In this way, our identities can be entirely rendered as computer-generated or -aggregated data. With all of our digital information managed in the cloud, we ourselves become archives. The self as archive is prevalent throughout the latest exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Toronto. Age of You proposes that we—that is, our digital interactions and data—are the most valuable resource in the twenty-first century. The show is predicated on the hypothesis that the Internet has changed our sense of self and that we are no longer individuals in the traditional understanding of the term.

Through thirteen chapters of meme-like formatted panels or “pages,” the curators articulate what it means to be what they call the “extreme self” and how this new version of our self will live forever. Punctuating the chapters are twelve artworks, including films, installations, photographic works, and sculptures. A large vinyl version of a hole emoji is installed at the beginning of the exhibition, perhaps to suggest that we jump in and begin our journey of self-discovery.

Stéphanie SaadéDigiprint (2019)
Installation view Photo: Tom Arban Photography Inc.
III Installation view, Age of You (2019)

Portraiture as Surveillance

One of the prominent themes explored in Age of You is contemporary portraiture in relation to collected data and surveillance. Wallpapered throughout the exhibition is a newly commissioned work by London-based Yuri Pattison (b. 1986). Untitled (iOS emoji content aware fill) (2019) is an AI-generated pattern created from a row of eye emojis from different platforms (Google, Apple, Samsung, Whatsapp, and Facebook). The resulting effect is cute but an unsettling reminder that something as innocent as emojis is being used to track and profile our online behaviour and emotions for marketing purposes. The exhibition posits that the face has become a dominant data metric, increasingly surveilled by companies and by governmental, military, and other institutions. This reality is emphasized by Trevor Paglen’s Behold These Glorious Times! (2017), a ten-minute montage of image grids sourced from machine-learning libraries used by computer systems to learn to recognize objects and automate human emotions and expressions.

Age of You offers important cultural commentary about the impact (mostly negative) of technology and the Internet on society. Although the predominant text is delivered in a cryptic or, perhaps, even pretentious tone and voiced from a privileged socio-economic position, the ideas explored in the exhibition are poignant. This sentiment was most apparent during introspective moments created by more contemplative works. Digiprint (2019), by Lebanese artist Stéphanie Saadé (b. 1983), is an unconventional self-portrait: a large-scale photographic print of a smudged mobile phone screen. The painterly white strokes on the darkened screen seem ethereal or spectral. The intimate acts of speaking on your phone, holding it close to your ear and lips, the swiping and caressing of the screen are all recorded. The relationship between the user and the device is captured by the camera’s refracted light. In this work, the instances of intimacy with and enabled by technology are illuminated, fostering a thoughtful reflection of the self in the digital age.

Age of You proposes that we—that is, our digital interactions and data—are the most valuable resource in the twenty-first century.

The Exhibition as a Book

Specific curatorial intentions shape the exhibition layout of Age of You. Working closely with graphic designer Wayne Daly, the curators paired their text with visual contributions from over seventy artists, photographers, designers, filmmakers, musicians, and thinkers. The curators imposed a rule on the design of the exhibition and corresponding text: every page had to operate within a 2 to 2.5 second frame, a seemingly arbitrary number that I will expand on below. The rule also stated that the text should not make sense to a person from a decade ago.2 This criterion resulted in statements such as “you are a deleted comment,” “feelings now legitimize lies,” and “democracy needs morning-after pills.”

Age of You is a preview for a forthcoming publication in 2020 titled The Extreme Self, co-authored by the curatorial trio: art curators and writers Shumon Basar and Hans Ulrich Obrist and Canadian novelist and artist Douglas Coupland, known for his novel Generation X (1991). This publication follows their previously co-authored The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present (2015), in which they suggested that new technology has rewired our brains so that we perceive time as being faster. According to neurologists, 2 to 2.5 seconds is roughly the amount of time during which we experience the present.3 Age of You is formatted with this number in mind, elucidating why the entire exhibition is teeming with readymade social media posts.

Installation view, Age of You (2019)
MOCA Toronto
Photo: Tom Arban Photography Inc.

Whereas The Age of Earthquakes explores the book as exhibition, Age of You is an exhibition curated as a book. As it is organized in chapters, gallery visitors are guided by numerical signage and encouraged to follow the pages sequentially as they weave together a guided narrative.

The idea of book as exhibition has played an important role in art history. A seminal example is Seth Siegelaub and Jack Wendler’s Xerox Book (1968), an art exhibition that existed only in book form and featured work by conceptual artists. Photocopied in an edition of one thousand, the publication was an experiment and a desire to subvert the traditional modes of making and presenting artwork. Notwithstanding its substantial present-day financial value, the project was intended by its creators to circumvent traditional gallery and art market systems.4 If we acknowledge this legacy, we are provoked to question the format of Age of You. What is the purpose of presenting a book as exhibition? It seems antithetical to adapt a forthcoming publication that is being designed as an exhibition for a traditional gallery context. Despite this and in consideration of the archive, Xerox Book as an artist book partook of archival practices such as collecting, combining, and constructing out of fragments. Age of You as an exhibition can be regarded as taking a similar archival approach. The curators and designer have collected the visual contributions of cultural producers and their understanding of the self in an attempt to reveal patterns in society and offer insights about the future.

 Sophia Al-Maria, Mirror Cookie (2018)
Installation view
Photo: Tom Arban Photography Inc.

Between chapter one, “Am I?,” and chapter two, “Fame and the Face,” is the seductive work of Qatari-American artist Sophia Al-Maria (b. 1983). Mirror Cookie (2018), which features the face of Chinese-American actress Bai Ling, is a film-based installation that consists of a six-foot portrait- oriented screen, centred between and flanked by several floor-to-ceiling mirrors, creating a space of infinite reflection. A dressing table and cushioned stool clad with mirrored surfaces insinuates that the screen is both vanity mirror and smartphone. In the film, Ling delivers an improvised monologue of positive and loving affirmations, which she calls “cookies,” from her social media account. The jarring audio and visual editing of Ling’s performance creates a haunting effect. A steady flow of white heart icons floats up from the bottom of the screen, signalling the act of “liking” or approval by an anonymous crowd watching a live stream.

Within the context of the exhibition, Mirror Cookie raises interesting questions about the perception of celebrity and the self. In his book Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture, P. David Marshall posits that the celebrity figure represents a site for processes of hegemony.5 In her work, Al Maria condemns the media’s misogyny and racism as well as the anonymous social media crowd and its toxic impact on self-image. She also demonstrates how the celebrity—in this case, Bai Ling—is a site of hegemonic negotiation and the harmful impact on that person.

In thinking about the self as data and therefore as archive, I am reminded of Jacques Derrida’s essay “Archive Fever,” in which he writes, “There is no political power without the archive, if not of memory.”6 Derrida argues that the efficacy of democracy can be measured by the public’s participation in and access to the archive. If we, the public, are the archives, then, more than ever, we must ensure that their composition —the data collected and interpreted—are transparent and made available to us. We must also remind ourselves that gathering data is not effective analysis. Though the self is increasingly imagined and interacted with as data, people are more than a stream of bytes. l

(1) Boris Jardine and Matthew Drage, “The Total Archive: Data, Subjectivity, Universality,” History of the Human Sciences, 31, no. 5 (December 2018): 8.

(2) “‘Age of You’ Curators’ Talk: Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland, Victoria Sin and November Paynter,” YouTube video, 1:20:57, posted by Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto Canada, September 23, 2019.

(3) Barry Dainton, “The Specious Present: Further Issues,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta.

(4) Chris Rawcliffe, “THE XEROX BOOK: The Book That Was an Exhibition That Became an Artwork,” Ambit, no. 214 (2013): 80–86.

(5) P. David Marshall, “Conceptualizing the Collective: The Mob, the Crowd, the Mass, and the Audience,” in Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 49.

(6) Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression,” trans. Eric Prenowitz, Diacritics 25, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): 11.