Tamsyn Challenger to bring new show Monoculture to the 2014 Edinburgh Art Festival

This article is from 2014

Tamsyn Challenger to bring new show Monoculture to the 2014 Edinburgh Art Festival

British artist explains the influence of the selfie on her latest work and why we should be wary of the internet

Tamsyn Challenger believes the internet’s democratic nature is largely a myth. She tells David Pollock that we are all capable of changing our online lives for the better

Since it was named the Oxford Dictionaries word of 2013, we’ve been witnessing the death of the selfie. Or, more accurately, that kind of cultural limbo where an idea flashes brightly in the collective consciousness for a while before its ubiquity makes it all-too mundane. Regards the selfie, advertisers do it, your grandparents do it and upmarket newspapers report on it in jolly quotation marks.

When Tamsyn Challenger first originated her project Monoculture, nobody knew what a selfie was: she had to keep explaining the word’s meaning when it appeared in this show’s debut staging back in early 2013. It was in 2010, when the Cornwall-based artist took over the administration of an online page for her 400 Women project, that she first became aware of such things.

‘In the two years I had my own profile on Facebook, I became increasingly uncomfortable about the prevalence of what’s considered to be the “digital face”,’ she says. ‘I started to notice the same submissive image largely, but not exclusively, taken by young women: an almost blanching of features, often making sure body parts were exposed. It seemed to me that despite the overwhelming desire to be seen and leave a mark behind, everyone was attempting to erase themselves.’

Created during a residency at London’s Beaconsfield in 2012, Monoculture is a multi-media exhibition which engages with this new strata of social interaction, including, says Challenger, ‘ideas of societal homogeneity through social media and the selfie portrait, questioning the level of control being wielded by a supposedly “free” environment like the internet’.

What will be on display sounds, if she’ll forgive the pun, decidedly challenging, including ‘large Cornish steel and timber sculptures that are based around pseudo-sexual torture devices painted in the trademark blues of Facebook and Twitter, which come together in a utilitarian playground. The installation is also made up of participatory experiments, skin suits, YouTube grabs, original video and stills of Monoculture “pop-up” events, and a small farm of the “cash crop” oilseed rape.’

She says the title is an agricultural term that identifies the industrial farming of a large scale single crop, in this case our own human identity. ‘Ideally I’d like people to leave this exhibition with a renewed sense of awareness in terms of their online activity, and to maybe even make other choices when they’re taking a self-portrait. It would be a sorry day if the only image left of humankind was the unnatural portrait that is the selfie.’

In her view, wariness about the supposedly benign and democratic nature of the internet and how we behave on it is essential. ‘I don’t think it is democratic,’ she says. ‘The reality is that the internet makes a lot of money and inevitably it’s now in the hands of people that can afford to control it. There’s a short Chomsky clip in the show in which he highlights the dangers of seeing the internet as a “free” environment. During my research I became uncomfortable about whether we’re wholly complicit as the user or just typing with a blindfold. I think the best thing all humans can do is question, and if we stop questioning we probably deserve to die out.’

Tamsyn Challenger: Monoculture, Summerhall, 0131 560 1590, 1–31 Aug, 11am–9pm; 1–26 Sep, 11am–6pm, free.

Tamsyn Challenger: Monoculture

Installation that links themes of digital culture – such as the 'digital face' typically used in selfies – with large scale cultural homogenisation, such as the cultivation of oil seed rape with pesticides linked to Colony Collapse Disorder and pseudo-sexual torture exerted on women attempting to express their…