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WeTransfer: Mediating the Mediated Self Carson Chan on Britta Thie's "Translantics"

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A web-series in six parts, Britta Thie’s “Translantics” is a mini-drama full of dispersed selves – a condition to which anyone with a Skype account or more than one simcard can no doubt relate. And yet even as technology has topologically collapsed timezones into a common dreamspace – the setting, essentially, of this show – our physical bodies and currencies and mother tongues are creating a kind of productive drag, which Thie’s characters, like her actors, like us, must continuously and collectively negotiate. Here, writer Carson Chan shares here his thoughts on the circulation of identity that Thie’s piece explores.

The Latin prefix trans has become an emblem of recent times. As transgender people become evermore accepted through their visibility in popular culture (e.g., Caitlyn Jenner), new conversations begin about transracial and transethnic identities (e.g., Rachel Dolezal), and digital media has all but made transnationalism the status quo. Imbuing any condition or concept with the ability to surpass itself, trans dislodges fixed meanings, bringing our perception beyond, across, and through established categories. Britta Thie’s “Translantics” (2015) is a six-part web series co-produced by Arte Creative and presented as the inaugural project of Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt’s Digital Art Zone, an initiative to present artwork “that would not be possible without the invention of the Internet and digital technologies.” Following in the path of the Whitney Museum’s Artport (2002), and Serpentine Gallery’s Digital Projects (2014) – platforms dedicated to commissioning and exhibiting art online – the Digital Art Zone signals both a desire to expand Schirn’s artistic remit beyond what it can physically show in Frankfurt, as well as perhaps an acknowledgement that, for many, the computer screen has become a primary site for worldly interaction. As a form, the web series – as with any television series streamed online – evokes a dispersed audience, not connected spatially in a cinema, gallery, or theater, but through commonalities of interest, social attachments, and cultural ties.

“Translantics,” written, directed, and starring Thie (b. 1987), brings us into the lives of three young women working in Berlin’s creative industries. The on-screen characters are close variants of the actors’ off-screen lives. A Berlin-based model and artist, Thie plays the series’ main character, Bibi, a Berlin-based model and artist. Julia Zange, meanwhile, an actress and writer IRL – known for her well-received debut novel “Die Anstalt der besseren Mädchen” (Suhrkamp, 2008) – plays Yuli, a writer. And producer/writer Annika Kuhlmann, as Annie, acts as the series’ “startup hottie,” epitomizing the Berlin creative millennial: she complains about being dragged to gallery openings (but acquiesces in the end); she waxes assertively about robot intelligence and cloud governance in bed with her artist lover. The three switch unconsciously between German and English as they encounter others in their social network. Their world is one that purports to value the transcendence of national identities, sexual orientation, professional hierarchies, and perhaps the most pedestrian of categories, language. Their success or failure in achieving this as they negotiate seemingly conventional gender and social codes, set in relief against the post-Internet aesthetics of the show, creates a productive tension that, in part, comes to define it. Of all of these aspects, however, it is language that seems to depart most significantly from the standard fair: metered verse appears now and again in the dialog or voiceover, while slogans and catchphrases are interspersed with improvised exchanges. At the same time, the main characters are white, middle-class, and conform to conventional gender codes. Embodying the shorthand for normative in pop culture, these characters, however wittingly, seem to propose that in a world of hybridity, there is, in fact, a marked pressure to self-minoritize, to be trans.

Loosely speaking, “Translantics” is an impressionistic rendition of Thie’s personal account of being a young artist in Berlin, taking as its narrative material the tensions that arise from social, personal, and professional networks, as they are mediated through their respective technological structures. “Active three minutes ago,” Bibi tells Yuli in the second episode, as her iPhone notifies her of Annie’s online activity. “But she should be on the plane by now,” Yuli replies. Did Annie miss her flight? Does she have WiFi on the plane?

Lived reality and its representation collapse into each other in the characters’ professional and personal lives. And Thie, since childhood, has taken acute interest in this ambiguous divide. We know this because, in her work, she frequently integrates recordings of her younger self, testing the limits of staged subjectivity. For example, clips appear in her 2012 video essay “Hi HD” of a pre-teenage Thie welcoming viewers to her talk show (called “Britta”), adopting the tropes and mannerisms of mid-eighties televisual culture. Life, in these instances, appears as something to be performed to the point of a spectacle, ideally gaining an audience in the process. Since 2004, Thie has also worked as a professional model, lending her signature porcelain face and long red locks to a spectrum of brands, ranging from Louis Vuitton to Chevrolet, Vodafone to Stolichnaya vodka. It’s worth noting that, on her artist website, Thie provides a link to her modeling portfolio, where she appears, chameleon-like, adorned to promote one product or another. Back on her artist page, “GTA V Selfie” (2013) – an inkjet print of a screenshot from the PlayStation game “Grand Theft Auto 5,” featuring Thie’s CGI-rendered face grafted onto the body of a figure in the game – gestures at the artist’s acknowledgment of the disjunction between the various self-fictions one offers up in the digital era. Thie accepts the conditions set out by commercial photography and video games at face value. Saliently, her practice poses no resistance to the larger processes in which it often finds itself.

This logic is also evident in Special Service, the modeling agency that Thie, Zange, and Kuhlmann started in 2013. To advertise their venture, the three produced a set of top-view images of themselves luxuriating on a bed, recasting, through the image regimes of commercial fashion, the agent as model, and vice versa. If the selves we present in media constitute versions rather than fragments of our persona, Special Service calls forth not what an alternate talent management business could be, but rather another way to conceive of (or model) our conception of artistic, if not individual, agency. For Berlin-based artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas (who, incidentally plays Annie’s aforementioned lover in the series), art is endemic to the system it has traditionally sought to resist. In a short text about Special Service, he has written that “art here is understood as always already instrumentalized,” adding that the real challenge is no longer that of authorial autonomy, “but of negotiating networked flows of power and capital, within which Special Service exists as a model of agency.” Thomas sees the commodified image, be it a selfie or an advertisement, as a site of interaction between the human and non-human. More James Franco than Cindy Sherman, Special Service is a self-leveraging practice committed to and unashamed of mobilizing its own commodity. We might think, here, of Donna Haraway’s formulation of the Cyborg, which, more than just a human-machine hybrid, she has described as “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” Social reality, she noted, is “our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.” [2]

In the first episode of “Translantics,” Bibi enters an electronics department store. We see her ascend the escalator and wander down aisles of home appliances, her fingers running across coffeemakers and kettles like they were stalks of grass. She arrives at an array of flatscreen televisions, and, peering into one as if looking into a mirror, a commercial appears in which she stars. Bibi is mesmerized and enamored with her own image, her face flickers between longing and obsession. Indeed, Thie’s own image appears in almost every piece she has made, and this moment seems to disclose the relationship between the artist and her represented selves: Bibi the shopper encountering the Bibi in the commercial, Thie as the author of “Translantics” portraying herself as Bibi, as well as Thie’s inevitable recognition of the relationship between herself as Bibi, and herself as the Bibi in the commercial.

For another example, take Thie’s 2013 work “The Emotional Mobility Editorial,” a series of six photographs portraying the artist, styled and photographed like fashion editorial. Platitudinous slogans are emblazoned across each image (“The Cooling Desire,” “Anxiety Hits,” “Mild is the New Jaded,” etc.), lending a modicum of emotional content to the generic images. There’s also “Shooting – Arrogant Suffering” (2009), a two-channel video that exemplifies the split self. Both screens feature closely-cropped shots of Thie’s face, her shoulders bare. From one channel, commands are barked as a photographer might to a model, “Look here. Look there. Look fierce. Stronger chin. Arch your shoulders…” while a figure (Thie) on the other screen complies accordingly. The mediated self is a replicated self, embodying, if not Haraway’s “world-changing narrative,” then perhaps a self-changing one that spawns a semi-autonomous, programmable clone. In “Translantics,” Bibi is Thie’s avatar in a narrative of her own making. Wearing her face like a costume, finding company in the variously commodified versions of herself, Thie intimates that the cult of the self is a lonely, self-scrutinizing place. Escaping Cartesian logic, trans-, as both a process and a condition, appears to be at once progressive and regressive.

In contemplating the word “Translantics,” a portmanteau that nods at the niche milieu of Berlin’s young and more or less bilingual creative class, I’m reminded of the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite launched jointly by NASA and CNES, the French space agency, in 1992 to monitor the world’s oceans. It scans the Atlantic, and by measuring the distance between it and the water surface, it translates the ocean’s height into an estimate of its temperature. The conversion algorithm is based on calculations, but its fine-tuned calibration is open to interpretation, manipulation, and political framing. Key for weather forecasting, the interpretation of the satellite’s data is also crucial for socio-economic systems like the charting of shipping routes, and the planning of offshore industries. Being transgender or transracial today is not only a matter of reassigning one’s sex or race, but it’s also implicitly accepting that society and its scrutinizing gaze will be assessing and interpreting this deeply personal change.

As in Thie’s life and work, personal transformation in “Translantics” is given an audience: us. The condition of living between languages, between the immediacy of digital communication and the presence of the physical, between personal and professional goals, and between the private and the commodified self, is presented as a narrative, and thus necessarily held at a distance from the viewer. Yet deep relationships are often formed between viewers and serial dramas. The longer we watch something, the more our lives take on elements from the lives represented. In the fourth episode of “Translantics,” Bibi returns to her hometown, Minden (which is also Thies’s hometown), to visit her family, played by Thie’s own relatives. What unfolds is a failed communion of her past, present, on-, and off-screen selves. Fashionably dressed, an alien figure amid habitués, Bibi’s attempt to meet up with childhood friends finds her alone and stranded at the bar. What use does Bibi’s past have for her present? What use does one version of one self have for another? In “Translantics,” perhaps what Thie exhibits is the confrontation between cultish hyper-individuality and the self-multiplying contemporary desire to affect or trans the other. At the same time, the series affirms that the space separating fiction and reality is an imagined one, useless to people who contextualize themselves comfortably in limbo between established categories, perpetually in transition. To paraphrase writer Victoria Camblin, fiction is not the antithesis of reality, it is its most vibrant part. It is not a threat to truth, morality, or perception; rather, it constitutes their necessary condition. [3]

Carson Chan

Britta Thie, “Translantics,” web series, hosted by Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt/M. From April 28, 2015, six episodes appear in monthly intervals on www.Schirn.de/Transatlantics.

Notes

[1]All images: Britta Thie, “Translantics,” 2015, film still
[2]Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in: David Bell/Barbara M. Kennedy (eds.), The Cybercultures Reader, London 2000, p. 291.
[3]Victoria Camblin, “Fantasy: What We Believe,” in: 032c 28, 2015, p. 72.