Streaming Egos The Digital Campfire

Making it real: Streaming Egos aims to find not just artistic but also experimental approaches to the topic of digital identity. © NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
Making it real: Streaming Egos aims to find not just artistic but also experimental approaches to the topic of digital identity. | © NRW-Forum Düsseldorf

“Who are we on the web?” The Streaming Egos project by the Goethe-Instituts in the region of southwestern Europe are grappling with this question. Artists from six nations discuss virtual ideals, new forms of belonging and country-specific traits with cultural professionals and web experts. They present their results at the Digital Identity Convention in Düsseldorf. The project curator, media researcher and founder of the Slow Media Institut Sabria David reveals that selfies are not a new phenomenon, the advantages of online and offline communication and what national identity means in a virtual space.

Ms David, what’s different about a selfie today compared to those of the past?

If you do an Internet search of the words “painter” and “self-portrait,” you’ll learn soon enough that the selfie was not invented in the 21st century. There are a number of reasons that selfies have become such a phenomenon in our digital society. First of all, everyone can now be an artist, a poet, an author and a producer and therefore are potential self-promoters. Secondly, selfies give us personal affirmation and confirm our existence; they prove that we are here. So the selfie phenomenon can also be interpreted as an expression of an insecure society seeking bonds and affirmation.
The project focuses on the artistic exploration of the theme of digital identity. Why did you choose this approach?

Researchers, artists, media researchers, journalists and theatre people are participating in the project, people from theory and from practice. So it’s not only an artistic, but a discursive, experimental approach to the topic of digital identities, from different angles.

The artists come from France, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Spain and Germany. Are there country-specific differences to how people present themselves on the web?

At the convention we want to look at both the differences and the similarities. This will be the basis for the second phase of the project: How can possible country-specific differences complement each other to form a common European view? And how can the digital cultural environment help us to come together across borders in an exchange, begin a conversation? For this, we need to identify possible country specifics and the common ground we can build upon.
What role does the issue of national identity play in Streaming Egos?
When we consider from what perspective we are looking into the future, this is the first step towards an intercultural dialogue. National identities can play a role in this. Country-specific differences don’t always mean opposition; they often complement each other well. It will be interesting to see if in fact countries of origin account for the largest difference or perhaps rather the distinction whether one is an artist or a thinker, a man or a woman.
The exchange takes place online, but also offline in the participating countries, just as at the convention in Dusseldorf. Does personal dialogue offer something that virtual meetings can’t?

The research project is about exploring what form of media is most productive for what kind of dialogue and how the different media formats can best be united for fruitful discourse. A personal meeting is great, but it requires physical presence and thus excludes a large number of people from the process. We are testing how participation in social discourse and identity formation can take place for as many people as possible, even across borders.
Marshall McLuhan spoke of “retribalization” in the digital era. In the digital cultural space, people speak with each other as if they are sitting around the campfire together without having to be physically present. Societal identity-forming processes do not need to be based only on personal meetings. This works on a small scale: in the neighbourhood, among colleagues. But what can we do if we want to involve more people in the conversation? People who have physical limitations and cannot travel? People whose social background impedes them? Or people – and these are the majority – who don’t have the time for a personal meeting?
Can you already tell us something about the results that will be presented at the convention?
It was delightful to observe the different manners in which people approached the subject matter: in the Spanish circle as a very physical experience, politically in the French circle, purely digitally in the Portuguese, salonesque and discursive in the German, complexly curated in the Italian and quite experimentally and performance-oriented in the Belgian national circle. And all of them are working together on the question of how our idea of identity takes shape under the influence of digital media, how it changes, how it evolves.

By Teresa Niessen