a review, followed by a response to that review, of “Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)]” (which will then be followed by questions)

Jen’s Review:

Memmott’s Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)] is one of sixty pieces in the Electronic Literature Collection that easily distinguishes itself against other pieces by its use of combinatorial. Memmott takes 12 very well known self-portraits of artists dismantles them and reconstructs them into an unrecognizable new self-portrait. Each piece comes with a miniature biography of the original artist, which seems oddly out of place when the picture no longer matches its description. Memmott’s use of combinatorial automatically draws the eye to the distorted image making one question the reasoning behind the destruction of a self-portrait. If this is how an artist painted him/herself, why would anyone want to destroy that self-professed image? None the less, Memmott has recreated a virtual image of these dozen artists in an ever-evolving sensation of clicks, so one must take the time to examine whether he has or has not succeeded in portraying a new image of the artist through the use of combinatorial. The message portrayed by Memmott’s work is one of self-identity, self-awareness, and self-reflection. With each new image, the viewer questions the very image that they are seeing, which further emphasizes the actual process of identification. If the original artist’s portrait is lost, how can a new identity be formed? One click may bring the predominant image of Van Gough infused with Gauguin, whereas another click will bring Renoir infused with Goya. All of these complex and convoluted creations leave the viewer questioning Memmott’s use of technique to create meaningful identity. Despite using a technique that is only possible when one destroys another’s work, these misshapen facial portraits do leave a lasting impression and an insatiable sense of curiosity over what would happen if I clicked again?

Jordan’s Response:

I agree with Jen that the author, Talan Memmott, is playing with themes of identity in his piece, Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)], although my approach to the work was far more light-hearted. Instead of seeing an attempt by Memmott to destroy or break down the artist’s self-portrait, I saw instead a playful attempt to restructure the paintings and biographies, using easily accessible images and information to create new portraits and stories. Taking advantage of the electronic format, Memmott allows the reader to change history with each click, to humorous ends, creating a giant art history mash up. In one portrait Matisse was spending time with Andy Warhol, and Degas was the personal painter to the King of Spain in 1786 (Degas was not born until 1834). Van Gogh supposedly painted The Old Musician (actually painted by Manet) and Francisco Goya started out as a junk bonds trader whose “bohemian desires were incompatible with the business world”.

A moment of honesty: due to a personal bias regarding any literature that I have to read for school (even when I helped pick it out), it actually took me a couple of minutes before I caught the misinformation; I had just assumed it would be a few lines of boring facts so I wasn’t actually processing what I was reading; I assumed it was dry, factual and academic. It wasn’t until I read that Starry Night was painted by Renoir that it struck me that most of the information was incorrect. Being outsmarted by a piece of e-literature made me take notice. Fist bump, Memmott. Respect.

Back to business. As Jen said in her review above, if the original artist’s portrait is lost, how can a new identity be formed? I don’t think that Memmott is trying to create new identities for the artists; he is instead just creating compilations of digital information, but mixed up and out of order and randomly generated, to provoke the reader to see the errors in the biographies and portraits. It is easy to see they don’t work, or fit together properly. By seeing how wrong they are, that the portrait is cut and pasted or the facts are incorrect and topsy turvy, we can witness our own process of identification, as we recognize the artist by what he wasn’t rather than what he was.

Discussion Questions:

1. In the author description, Talan Memmott states, “The piece deals with identity in an art-historical context, self-identity for any given artist, and identification as a process.” How does the electronic medium used by Memmott help him to convey this as opposed to more conventional literary or artistic formats?

2. Is there a line between using other’s work to create a new story and selective, or, in this case, “collaged” plagiarism? Are we more accepting of this because it is online? What does this say about the way we judge and value information online as opposed to newspapers, books, paintings, etc.?

3. Do you consider Memmott, the author of Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)], an artist? Is there a sense of artistic skill or craft in this work? Does new media technology change the definition of what an artist is in the commonly accepted sense? If so, how has the definition shifted?



Filed under Blog Presentation

13 responses to “a review, followed by a response to that review, of “Self Portrait(s) [as Other(s)]” (which will then be followed by questions)

  1. This piece really confuses me (But on that note so do a lot of the entries in the ELC1).
    In answer to the question #3, I guess I have to consider Memmott an artist, especially when the dictionary definition of “Artist” is taken into account (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/artist … especially #1 & 3). He’s produced a work in an area of the arts and used his knowledge of web-design to do so.
    Do I think he’s a good artist? No, Give me some scissors and glue and I could’ve done the same thing on paper. Do I take anything away from this piece? Not really, just that we shouldn’t believe everything that’s published on the internet, not all of it’s true.

    • Jen Zimmerman


      I am sorry that you did not enjoy the piece. I can sympathize with the fact that you found it challenging. But on the other had we chose this piece for its carefree and straight forwardness. Hoping that it would appeal to most in the class

    • harbord

      I like the idea that this can be reproduced with glue and scissors. It says something about how we perceive information online. I doubt you mean you would cut up master portraits, but rather print off their reproductions from the internet, and these reproductions are easy to manipulate.

      This has created a bias I have regarding a lot of online arts-based information (whether it is poetry or e-novles or photographs, etc.); it can have a certain “cheap” quality to it, not that it doesn’t have value or use but rather that the user/creator/author is not taking full advantage of the electronic format. The virtual poems seem underwhelming after reading the author’s description, considering the possibilities electronic formats allow; to take a written piece and add moving pictures or hypertext seems sort of 90’s quaint at this point.

      I think this bias is impacting my ability to like e-lit. The internet has so much potential to change literature in so may ways. Maybe my expectations are too high, or I don’t “get” it; I just know I am looking for more than what I see for the most part.

      • harbord

        I will add an exception where the cheapness benefits the work: The Fall of the Site of Marsha (http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/wittig__the_fall_of_the_site_of_marsha.html)

      • chocobunny

        I share this bias and it’s impacting my appreciation of eLit in the same way – none of it seems ‘new’ or ‘cutting-edge’ enough.

        I think this dissatisfaction sorta reflects an imbalance of regulation – production and consumption don’t really occur at an even level on the Internet. Unlike with other analog media, Internet users can see the very best-funded + most professional design as well as the slapdash geocities + angelfire sites of the late 90s. Because we have easy access to the very best, I think we have expectations that are disproportionate to the median of quality/labour-power/skill of producers of digital content. People identifying themselves strictly as artists I don’t think can really find success online – they must complement that identity with skills in design or networking or something.

      • Jen Zimmerman

        I can see where you are coming from, in thinking that many of the pieces in ELC1 appear to look “cheap” or overly simplistic. But one thing that you need to keep in mind is that many of these pieces were created in the late 90’s and earlier peices didn’t neccessarily have some of the technologies that mesmorize the 21st century. I have worked with the ELC1 for quite some time, and the most important thing I learned in working with ELC1, is that you need to just take it at face value. Don’t try to compare it to traditional print poetry, or any other form of literature that you are comfortable with. Once you let go of those feelings, I think you will be able to appreciate the ELC1 for what it is and not what it isn’t.

      • harbord

        I am trying to take it at face value, and not compare to other online media, but I can’t shake the sense that the medium is important, as well as also wondering about intended audience. If someone choses the internet as the platform for a piece, would it not want to take advantage of it fully? It is sort of like someone giving an artist magical laser paints and what they make with it is a velvet clown painting, and then the artist asks the audience not to judge the output based on the tools that were used to create it.

        If some of the pieces are from the 90’s, that’s fine. But some, like Intimate Alice, do not seem that old. If the author(s) want to provoke the reader to see the work involved in the interaction between reader (/viewer) and the piece, then they are actually making a video game, albeit a less satisfying, less stimulating and some what frustrating one.

        It is not like I need to have the literature be easy, or typical, with beginning, middle, and an end. I don’t need it to be linear or logical or clear. But if there is a gimmick (which is how a lot, of the e-lit compositions still feel to me, gimmicky), then make it special enough for the reader not to mind; if there is a place to do this, it is online.

  2. salomeH

    I think that, although he may not have painted the art pieces used himself, there is still an aspect of ingenuity and creativity that goes with his idea playing with different paintings and biographies, and seeing how far one can go in forming different identities of artists that they know, but do not know enough about to take misinformation as truth. There is, then, artistry in the idea he conveys, and the point he wants to make. A writer can be an artist through prose, as can Memmott be an artist in the unique way he wants to disseminate his message.

    • salomeH

      He is not just telling us in words that identity is easily changed and created, but he SHOWS us, by making us discover the truth of our own ready acceptance of the identities of two artists being depicted as one, all the while thinking their bios are legitimate, until we finally see the pattern and our passive approach to the text reveals to us the false identities we have created through Memmotts work.

      • Jen Zimmerman


        I am glad that you were able to see the purpose of Memmett’s piece. We tend to be passive readers, espeically when it comes to the online world. Many people are ready and willing to take a website or Elit work as truth.

        I love your interpretation of Memmett as both a writer and an artist, I think this is really what he was trying to get at with this piece.

  3. Jordan’s second question regarding using other artists’ work as “‘collaged’ plagiarism” I think is a great point. It also made me think of “Patchwork Girl” another piece of electronic literature mentioned in the ELC book. In this piece of literature the author, Shelley Jackson, uses the lines from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Apparently when using electronic literature it opens the door wider to using other people’s work without seemingly creating plagiarism. It leads me to wonder if as electronic literature gains more popularity we will indeed start to see greater restrictions on the use of other people’s artwork.

    • Jen Zimmerman

      I am glad that others see this point of view as well. When it comes to Elit or other online media society takes a very passive approach and sees everything as “art” or freedom of expression. The internet somehow has this magical ability to make people less intune with facts and authenticity.

      But on the other hand imitation is suppose to be the highest form of flattery, so does that make it any more OK to use another artists work to create a new piece of work for yourself?

      It will be very interesting to see where the digital world of literature takes us and what will and wont be accpeted as plagiarism in this medium.

      • Aurelea

        An interesting set of reflections here! I am looking to forward to seeing how these evolve after having had read Ch 2 in ELECTRONIC LITERATURE – in particular, the reflections on the cheap and cheesey and production values in relation to literariness.

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