Online Exhibitionism: Exploring the Snapshot Culture and Internet Poetry of Julie Örtegon

Screenshot from the artist's website

Post by Lin VanderVliet

In the world in which URL and IRL realms have become increasingly transposed, how do we negotiate the various facets of online and offline identity? Between the limitless extent of one's image and the limited means of one's body? What part of us is whole and recognizable amidst a seemingly expansive self, and how do we then reconcile ourselves between the (suddenly) interstitial gap of here and there?

The work of Colombian-born interdisciplinary artist, Juliana Oregon (aka. Julie Örtegon) seeks to address such questions. Though not wholly photographic (or specific to any medium), Örtegon's work draws from various social media outlets (such as Facebook, Tumblr and Snapchat) and relies heavily upon the culture of image stills and snapshots as a means of negotiating "digital and tangible worlds." From the artist's website: "Her current research focuses on the transformation of the self, joined by scrutinizing the ways technology and Internet platforms have revolutionized the way we conceptualize truth, communication, and relationships."1

Örtegon's work is steeped heavily in a language of internet colloquialisms, selfies and other forms of online exhibitionism, and her website functions in much the same way—as an integral part to understanding the work itself. The site's interface mimics the same lilting, conversational aesthetic of Örtegon's work—with its menu constructed from punctuated faces contained by parentheses which encourage you to click here and there. It's overwhelming at first, but once your dare yourself to click on whichever little emoji appeals to you most, the website's structure begins to reveal itself. It might take longer depending on where you click from, but in my own search I eventually arrived on a page of image and video stills.

Near the top of this page is a series titled "Visual Poetry," a collection of "digital macro poetry created by collaging photography, real conversations and a large array of apps and social networking platforms."2 Each collage is distinctly different from one another, though a few seemingly group together based upon their visual treatment. The collages incorporate various methods of image and text integration, with themes revolving loosely around interconnectivity; longing; inwards, diary-style documentation; and outwards performance. One, titled "S*D GRL THEORY," references the growing internet trend of female sadness as a form of resistance and empowerment, while another, captioned "February in Paris 2013.," digs at a heavy-handed and nostalgic Paris, France. The collage features a dark, lush bedroom landscape, backlit by a pair of French windows.3 The text, "How did I end up here/happiest day of my life/I wanted it to last forever," mimics the persistent repetition of a broken record. Örtegon's words are exalted to a level of intentional cliché, wrought with a diaristic longing comparable to Sophie Calle's "Exquisite Pain," with its numerous countdowns "to unhappiness." The difference is that Örtegon conducts herself in the language of internet poetry. Images are captioned with excerpts from numerous text message conversations confessing loneliness or longing in place of an absence. The dialogues are mostly shown from a singular perspective, where as viewers, we're not privy to their responses. It is occasionally unclear whose messages we're reading—Örtegon's or those of a presumed lover—and we're left to speculate their context. Many of the collages include selfies, while others feature repeated and fractured landscapes with composite effects resemblant of broken windows or mirrors.

Images from "Visual Poetry" (2014-2015)

Sophie Calle, excerpt from "Exquisite Pain" (2003)

Other projects such as "Snapchatte" and "Tumblr" sample from their namesake social media respectively. The Snapchat images, for example, are grainy and almost garish—where scattered digital noise competes with occasionally shouting text. "FOREVER PLASTIC," reads an image of what looks like a heart shaped make-up mirror wrapped in a layer of plastic, reflecting what appears to be a shrouded distortion of the artist's face. As with much of Örtegon's work, the context is limited - and though in perhaps a separate rendition, her words might read like environmental warning, here they appear more reminiscent of a perceived plasticity of the body or of the plasticity of the packaging itself. Others images are captioned by an abrupt or softly intrusive "hi!" or "hey," and a closer look at the snaps reveals a handful of to be screenshots that have not been sent. We can see how long the timer was selected for as well as options to save or caption the images. They are deliberately revealed to us and yet by way of being partially removed (as unsent messages), become characteristic of a lingering hesitation. Örtegon's description of the work is to "archiv[e] optic conversations. Captur[e] the evolution of relationships that exist beyond the IRL world [and to] Record the uncensored social anxieties (loneliness, depression, aging, sex, fomo, etc.)."4

They're not beautiful by any means but there is something sincere about the eager sentiment that the photos exude, with their bold captions, heavy-handed text and occasionally indecipherable image content. I recall a similar idea I once casually entertained earlier this year, which was to collect a series of fictional snaps and caption them as though sent to an imagined lover. I stopped because I couldn't stand the zealousness of my expressions and the way the images would persistently greet me every time I scrolled through my photos.

Images from "Snapchatte" (2014)

Likewise, I would imagine Örtegon's work speaks most to my own generation. That its familiarity resonates most correspondingly with the breed of internet surfing millennials (myself included) who've sacrificed irretrievable hours of their valuable lives in pursuit of online social media interactions. To those guilty of hovering over laptops with outstretched fingers ready to spring like uncoiled mousetraps or resigned to tapping small opaque punches into their touchscreen keyboards.

Compared to many of my peers, I'd never felt as though I'd "grown up online."  I'd resisted that categorization for years, thinking I could, being notoriously bad at technology and having been so most of my life. When I was 11 and Ask Jeeves was still popular, I used to shrink out of doing online research in class. My hands would get sweaty and my mouth would get dry. My eyes would dart around the room before immediately passing the computer to one of my classmates as though suddenly its involvement marked the extent of my use. I was the same way at home. And when I'd visit a web-savvy, AIM loving friend, my technophobia would shift from confusion to awe as I'd sit back and watch while she'd navigate beyond whatever controls her parents had implemented to siphon off her internet use. We'd eat Fruit Roll-Ups and Oreos as she would gracefully toggle between Cartoon Network video games and DevianArt, casually deleting the emails teachers had sent to her parents. I was the last to get Facebook and Skype because no one could convince me that it wouldn't just be strangers trying to add me or randos looking to video chat.

Those suspicions began to erode by the time I reached undergrad and my sister had started making friends online after our best friend suggested Tumblr as an alternative to Facebook, which she'd recently deleted. In no time at all I'd become just as much an exhibitionist as the Formspring kids I'd condemned as a teen. Eventually, I was on Tumblr myself, expanding my tiny presence radially to other platforms. I'd developed a habit of obsessively tweeting my anxieties at odd hours and posting semi-confessional thoughts online in the form of ambiguously mashed, written composites. I met friends online too, and though still very much separate, my URL and IRL worlds soon began to intermingle—both knowingly and in a way that's perhaps always felt a bit clandestine.

What determines authenticity? And how does a web presence translate to “real life”?

Screenshots from my personal Twitter account

Images and text from "FataMorgana" (2015)

Örtegon's work poses similar questions as she grapples with ideas of existing both online and off. This is particularly evident throughout the excerpts of writing which accompany her photos and videos interspersed with lines like "QUESTION AT HAND: WHERE DO I EXSIT?," "Geographical reconciliation" and "What is it that I search for?/Instant coffee/Instant posting/Instant gratification/Instant intimacy/Instant connection/Instant arrival/Instant butterflies/True luv."5 From one perspective these might appear as criticisms inciting the dangers of living a disembodied life, however their intention seems less decisive and prophetic than that. In fact, Örtegon's theme of negotiating aspects of self through digital performance is one which bears relevancy to larger conversations pertaining to the online exhibition of self. This topic is explored in Julie Levin Russo's 2010 essay, "Show Me Yours: Cyber-Exhibitionism from Perversion to Politics." Though written half a decade ago (somewhere between the advent of Tumblr and Snapchat) and with its centralized focus being on LiveJournal and the popular Webcam site, JenniCam (which spanned from 1996-2003), Russo's argument is applicable to much of Örtegon's work and the sentiment which runs behind it—namely, that in discussing what she refers to as "cyber-exhibtionism," Russo challenges the doomsday prophesies "tied to a dubious faith in the bygone sanctity of the private sphere as the insular and stable domain of healthy subjectivity."6 In other words, where Örtegon's work is rife with details of performative personal intimacies, its authenticity is by no means compromised as a result.

Most exemplary of this is "FataMorgana," which takes its name from the Italian phrase referring to a type of horizon dwelling mirage originally believed to lure sailors to their deaths.7 The image can be inverted, right-side up, or repeatedly layered, most often to the point of being incomprehensible.8 Fittingly, Örtegon's work of the same name mimics this disorientation. The work is a web-based page interspersed with images, text and embedded videos, in which you scroll through a series of numbered parts. At the bottom is a link to a live-streamed compilation and performance of the piece, narrated by Örtegon. She begins by declaring that she is "giving [herself] many lives by reproducing [her] image" before proceeding into a discussion of ephemerality and tangibility.9 She then states "THROUGH YOUR EYES/THROUGH THE RETINAL THRESHOLD/I GIVE SO MUCH/I GIVE SO MUCH INFORMATION/BUT THAT'S HOW I PROTECT MYSELF."10 This is a belief which runs concurrent to that of Russo's argument, which seeks to dismantle an attractive but otherwise pessimistic viewpoint, narrowly dismissive of the ways in which exhibiting oneself online can be subversive.11 According to Russo, such arguments as those espoused by theorist Paul Virilio, while acknowledging of a culture saturated by images and videos,"grossly inflates technological capabilities and the uniformity of their adoption without engaging with existing technologies and their particular uses and discourses."12

Images and text from "FataMorgana" (2015)

That Örtegon herself has had to respond to such criticisms as they might relate to the impact or perceived sincerity of her work appears hinted at within portions of "FataMorgana," which weaves itself into its own manifesto/artist statement in proceeding paragraphs and images. The most crucial is where Örtegon confesses the words of a "wise artist" who once advised her by saying it's common for young artists to be consumed with identity and that "it's critical to 'get it out of the system' to be able to step into an ampler understanding that will facilitate the understanding of one's mind and work."  The subtext behind this advice is that it implies that Örtegon's approach is only a preliminary advance towards the pursuit of the "real issues" worth exploring. But "FataMorgana" is worth more than the mere sum of its parts, which additionally consists of a detailed record of geographic environments “according to FB," a supposedly revealed "current location," and blue and grey poem (shown below) which states that "I feel like I could brush my whole self away with a scowl and an handwave." A few more scrolls and you've reached a reflected self-portrait from an old Sylvania television screen, which reads "I exist in your bedroom eyes." These are more than just self-inflicted incitements of narcissism. They are heartfelt questions of how to exist and behave, not so much posed by, but rather revealed in a world where privacy is no longer sacred and sanctified.

Text from "FataMorgana" (2015)

The ultimate strength behind Örtegon's work lies in its potential to unearth. In its ability not just to display, but to also expose the subtle intricacies, longings and pangs of existential realness that plague the human condition. Örtegon succeeds in communicating those frustrations which live without a name but still persist just as powerfully in spite. In relentlessly providing evidence of her own existence through the distribution of photos, locations and written confessions, and well as repeatedly asking questions of where and how she exists - questions which, frighteningly, yield no answer when asked - Örtegon synthesizes a meeting point - a place of validation, where such anxieties as those pertaining to the self and the construct of identity can legitimately reside.

Lin VanderVliet recently graduated with Honors in Studio Art from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Her work seeks to promote a sense of  underlying anxiety by combining photographs with typed text. Reoccurring themes include: a fascination with performance, absurdity, the uncanny and expressions of personal catharsis. Currently, she lives in New Jersey.

1 http://mjortegon.weebly.com/fatamorganaortegon.html
2 Ibid.
3 Ava Tunnicliffe, "Artist Audrey Wollen on the Power of Sadness," Nylon, last modified July 20, 2015
5 http://mjortegon.weebly.com/fatamorganaortegon.html
6 Julie Levin Russo, “Show Me Yours: Cyber-Exhibitionism from Peversion to Politics,” Camera Obscura 25, no. 1 (2010): 133.
7 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fata_Morgana_(mirage)
8 Ibid. 
9 http://mjortegon.weebly.com/fatamorganaortegon.html
10 Ibid.
11 Julie Levin Russo, 133.
12 Julie Levin Russo, 134.
13 http://mjortegon.weebly.com/fatamorganaortegon.html