Digital Identity
“I Document, therefore I Am”

Alain Bieber
Alain Bieber | Photo: © Alain Bieber

The “Ego Update” exhibition at the NRW-Forum cultural centre in Düsseldorf is devoted to the mass phenomenon of the Selfie. The exhibition’s curator, Alain Bieber, explains the impact the digital portrait is having on the development of our own identities.

Mr Bieber, do you also take selfies yourself?

Every now and then I take a few self-portraits, but mostly for private use. I don’t get into sharing the photos with others on the social networks. I did not do the exhibition because I am a selfie fanatic. The phenomenon appealed to me, because quite a lot of artists are getting into the subject and that is why I decided it was time for an exhibition. I do use Facebook privately. Or to be more precise, I pretend I have a different identity on it. You can have a lot of fun with profile images. Sometimes I test people’s reactions. On my current profile image you will see me wearing a unicorn mask.

How do you explain the fascination of the quick-fire, digital self-portrait that has to be shared immediately on the social media?

These days everything is so incredibly fast-lane. Selfies are a way of documenting and immortalising things that happen in our lives, a kind of affirmation of ourselves. The focus is no longer on “I think, therefore I am”, but more on “I exist, therefore I am”. People want to leave their mark on the world – the traces of their identity. Years ago when I was a journalist, I worked with some Chinese on a travel documentary. In front of all the tourist sights they took pictures of each other. They wanted to have proof that they had actually been to those places. We used to laugh at tourists who did this, but today everybody is doing it. People are looking for some kind of anchor and – to take it a step further – it has something to with the fear of death. They want to leave something of themselves behind on the social networks.

The compulsion to be constantly renewing yourself

Critics see this trend towards virtually portraying ourselves above all as a compulsion to optimise ourselves. Is this what the term “Ego Update” is inferring in the title of your exhibition?

Yes, that’s right. In my opinion, it really can be compared to the updating process we know from operating systems or smartphones. After a year a smartphone is outdated, you have to get a new one. It is the same with the way you portray yourself, you have to be constantly renewing yourself. On the social media there is enormous pressure to be part of it all. It all started with selfies in status messages on Facebook. My new hairstyle, my new boyfriend, my new car, it is all shared with others on the social media. It is all based on the concept of updating, too.

“I think, therefore I am” has turned into “I photograph, I document, therefore I am” – this is part of the preface of the exhibition catalogue. Are we losing the ability to think?

After all the many talks I have had with all kinds of people I have now come to the conclusion that the way we reflect on the action we take is in fact becoming less and less important. The trend being – just do it! It is, however, also a generational issue; young people do not think so much about what they do, ignorance often has a hand in this. One has to become aware of things again and give some thought to one’s own digital identity and to one’s private sphere, otherwise it could in fact lead to such dangerous developments as cyber bullying.

The consequences for the collective identity

Is that because we now know, ever since Edward Snowden, that there is no private sphere on the Internet?

I don’t want to put it all down totally. Technology in itself is not dangerous, but it is what people do with it that can be dangerous. The consequences this might have for the collective identity are still anyone’s guess. There are people who are delving into the subject of digital dementia and who rate the development as something negative and there are then, on the other hand, also the euphoric optimists. That is why the time is rife at the moment to become active, in order to be an instrumental part of these developments. Ego Update is being staged in cooperation with the Streaming Egos – Digital Identities project of the Goethe-Institutes in South West Europe. The exhibition has been designed as an ongoing process and in January 2016 it will culminate in a conference entitled Identity Convention that is being held in collaboration with various Goethe-Institutes.

What is “Streaming Egos” going to be about then?

The various groups of countries will present their findings at an international convention. They will identify issues that are relevant for the future and which will then be further processed on a transnational and digital level. The project also focuses on the collective version of the question “Who are we?” – as a social group or also as a nation, as Europeans.

Transnational perspectives

Is the way digital identity expresses itself in Germany different from the way it expresses itself in other countries?

That is exactly what we are trying to ascertain at the moment. The plan is to encourage some kind of discourse, along with certain ways in which digital identity can be artistically expressed – and then to creatively develop this, examine it and then present it. The national discourses initiated in individual countries will then develop into transnational discourses that will bring about a European perspective on both individual as well as collective identities and show us how this can be further developed in future using the potential digital culture has to offer.

The exhibition catalogue mainly provides a platform for scientists and artists from the English-speaking world to have their say. Does this imply that digital identity is not such an important issue for German scientists?

In conjunction with the exhibition our aim was to produce a catalogue in the form of a reader – as a kind of theoretical building block. We carried out a lot of research in the run-up to the exhibition. It is in fact true that most of the contributions came from the Unitd States. Germany has always been a little slower in these things. In Germany a huge skepticism towards technology seems to prevail. Many scientists do not keep track of all the latest developments. These issues are much more prevalent in the USA, that is why a lot more work has been done there on the theoretical level.

In November 2015 the NRW-Forum is to host the world’s first cyborg fair. Is that the future of digital identity?

Yes, absolutely. In the old days cinema screens were ten metres away from the audience, then television hit the scene at a distance of only one metre from the viewers, virtual reality glasses are even closer, right on our very noses, and the next step will be inserting a chip into the human body.

Since April 2015 Alain Bieber has been artistic director and general manager of the NRW Forum in Düsseldorf. “Ego Update. Die Zukunft der digitalen Identität” (i.e.: Ego Update. The future of digital identity) is his first exhibition there. Its doors are open until 17th January 2016.