Do I Own You Because I See You?

By Jacob Lillemose

Life online is fascinating and seductive. It serves up a new world of seemingly endless possibilities on a silver screen right in front of you. You do not even have to budge to experience it. All you have to do is type and click – and it is all there, “for your eyes only”. Comfortably seated in your chair you watch your wildest dreams come true. From this perspective, reality outside the screen seems trivial and limited. This is virtual reality at its best, in its essence, and you are smack at the centre of it.
Kristleifur Björnsson’s work series My Girls (1996-2005) originates in this ‘use’ of the Internet as a private alternative reality. The series consists of larger-than-life-size photo collages of four famous actresses (Winona Ryder, Natalie Portman, Shannyn Sossamon and Parminder Nagra). The images are all found on the Internet, printed on Björnsson’s studio printer and pinned to the wall with four nails, sometimes with a frame around them. Each collage is made up of hundreds of A4 prints that, put together, create the four images of the actresses. The presentation does nothing to hide the production process. Rather it accentuates the unsophisticated do-it-yourself style and the inexpensive, homemade quality to say that although the works are exhibited in gallery spaces their true place is on the walls of a private room alongside other fan posters. They really belong to the room of the guy who calls the actresses “my girls”.

The images look like snapshots that have caught the actresses casually, lovingly smiling at, say, a boyfriend, not at the kind of anonymous public celebrities usually pose for. It is needless to say that they are not private photos, quite the opposite actually, but that is the feeling you get when you see them. It is you and the girl(s) sharing a moment, with the public out of sight and out of mind. My Girls captures the ambivalence of this feeling; the viewer is trapped in a digital no-man’s-land between romantic intimacy and illusion.

In a way My Girls brings the concept of the Cartesian ego up to date with the Internet era, so to speak. René Descartes’ ego famously proclaimed, “I think, therefore I am”. The Cartesian ego, according to the most common interpretation of this dictum, believes itself to be the centre of the world and in a way that is true of course. Yet the Cartesian ego is not in control of the world around it. Actually it has no certain knowledge of it; after all, the main thrust of Descartes’ argument is marked by an extreme scepticism. All the ego can do is to create its own world by thinking.

Similarly, the ego indirectly portrayed in My Girls is at the centre of its own world. “I surf, download, print etc., therefore I am”, it says. But like the 17th-century version this kind of egocentric existence involves a detachment from the outside world. For Descartes the detachment was a philosophical question, for Björnsson it is a question of psychology and of technology. Or more precisely, of the interplay between the two and the emotions and ideas that this interplay creates.

Usually technology is believed to be psychologically ‘neutral’, in the sense that it is perceived as a tool that enables you to get practical jobs done in the world, whether online or offline, without emotional involvement or abstract reflection. Whilst this may hold for the use of such archetypal tools as a hammer, it is a different story with the technology we use today. Friedrich Nietzsche warned us that the “tools of our writing are also working on our thoughts”. He was referring to the typewriter’s (negative) influence on his thinking, yesterday’s technology, but the essence of the statement nevertheless still has validity and relevance in relation to ‘the digital typewriter’, the computer, and even more so to its extension, the Internet. Like every communications technology, the Internet is inextricably twinned to ways of feeling, thinking and interacting with the world. It defines the user, practically as well as conceptually. Although most users believe they are free to invent and express themselves as they like, their activities and movements are in fact predetermined by the general program run by the Internet.
The same goes for the ego in My Girls. Rather than expressing individuality, it is an expression of the power that the image flow of the Internet exerts on individuals. The ego is caught in a world of images, or what Jean Baudrillard calls “simulacra”, images with no reference to the world outside themselves. These images have absolute authority and all the ego can do is reproduce them, pin them to the wall and worship them. Karl Marx would add, “with a false consciousness”.

The love story that unfolds through technology in My Girls is not exactly a happy one. The adequate description would probably be bitter-sweet. For one thing, it is one-sided. Like a virtual voyeur the ‘narrator’ eyes ‘his’ girls in secrecy, hidden behind the screen. None of the girls can see him; none of the girls know what he is up to. Those are the conditions in which the love story is told. And that is what makes it so simple, so good and beautiful. As opposed to offline love stories, My Girls does not require the parties involved to be in physical contact, that might only result in quarrels and confusion anyway. It is a relationship in which there is no place for mistakes and disappointments. Who could wish for anything else? It even allows you to see more than one girl at a time without cheating on the others!

Of course, the downside to this lack of contact is solitude. However, not exclusively in a tragic sense, because the end of solitude would mean the end of the relationship. That is the irony of it. Thus, the narrator has to love his isolation as much as his loves his girls.

One of the assumptions of so-called queer theory is that the male gaze reduces the female to an object of desire in order to take control and possession of her. At first sight you might think this is the case in My Girls, if it were not for the fact that Björnsson overstates the point only to disclose its true premises, its “hidden reverse”, as Slavoj Zizek would say. Here the male gaze does not own its object of desire. On the contrary, the object of desire represents that which cannot be owned, least of all by the gaze, and as such it reflects a dispossessed male. So rather than being about possession proper My Girls is about the obsession to posses. The male uses all the technology he has got to make the girls his girls, only to realize that this is impossible. He blows up the images far beyond life-size to give them a strong presence, but that only makes them more alien, more distant. The bigger the collages are, the more unachievable the goal seems.

Thus My Girls tells about colourful possibilities as well as the darker sides of online life and confronts us with the hen-and-egg question whether our solitude leads to an obsession to possess or whether our obsessions to possess lead to solitude.