by Zachary Rawe
Fry: “I just saw something incredibly cool! A big floating ball that lit up with every color in the rainbow, plus some new ones that were so beautiful I fell to my knees and cried.”
Amy: “Was it out in front of Discount Shoe Outlet?”
Fry: “Yeah …”
Amy: “They have a college kid wear that to attract customers.”
Fry: Well, I don’t care if it was just some dork in a costume. For one brief moment, I felt the heartbeat of creation, and it was one with my own.
Amy: Big deal.
Bender: We all feel like that all the time, but you don’t hear us gassing on about it.
–Futurama, “I Dated A Robot,” Season 3, Episode 11
Identities aren’t fixed, they’re fluid. In addition, social media allows the presentation of the self to be increasingly edited and manipulated. Who has access to seeing your curated self becomes of increasing importance, but there are tricks. Fake names, private profiles, requests to follow allow you to shape the individuals who have access to your circle. Are you private, or private? Once people enter your circle you control what they have access to: where have you traveled, who you have dated, what excited you (8 minutes ago, 4 months ago, when you first joined.) E. Jane is a web-based artist who floods these online platforms (tumblr, twitter, etc.) with selfies, custom objects, and status updates. She regularly works with these differing technologies to produce an online identity that revels in incoherency, taking advantage of the inherent quirks of the platforms she chooses to work upon.
Her web-based-performance piece titled E. THE AVATAR produces an online identity that operates in two primary ways. The first is a set of seven short webisodes available on YouTube where E. speaks directly to the viewer for a few minutes, seemingly about whatever is on her mind. Topics include net neutrality, enjoying traveling via google-maps, and what it is like being an avatar. A second element to this work is a set of clothing articles she designed that are available for custom printing online. Her clothing items include dresses, t-shirts, and bathing suits, all of which have an image of E.’s face or body designed on the surface of the clothing. Both of these gestures, be it her webisodes or fashion-line, extol the virtues of being a web presence. She consistently suggests that the viewer should become more of a digital person rather than a physical one.
Each webisode of E. The Avatar has an opening sequence where a capital ‘E’ is placed across nature footage while ethereal music plays in the background. After the opening sequence, there is a fade into a stark white room where E. The Avatar is seen sitting at an empty desk. In each episode she wears the same outfit, a tight-fitting black shirt with studs across the sleeves and a large thick silver necklace. The webisodes are short, usually a few minutes, and they operate as little opportunities for E. The Avatar to speak directly to the viewer. Generally, she romanticizes being a web presence. For example, in Episode 3, E. states, “whenever I’m really bored here, which is really hard, y’know, because it’s cyber space. There is tons to do. But whenever I do get bored, I love to go on google maps.” She snaps her fingers and the camera, rather hokily, switches to google maps, where she travels to Japan and Italy and uses street view to look at the city. Although her character’s words claim enjoyment, her delivery is less-than-excitable. The voice registers as affectively depleted and unmoved by the tools and technologies available online. Her unimpressed, consistently deadpan tone runs through the entirety of E. THE AVATAR, and the viewer registers sarcasm when she discusses the potentialities of web-based tools.
The Fashion line is an opportunity for any fans of her webisodes to purchase E. The Avatar’s face and body emblazoned across clothing. Many articles of clothing have E. Jane staring at you, sometimes with text, and usually one image comes in a few forms (hoodie, t-shirt, bathing suit.) My personal favorite is the E. Travel Adventure Crop Top, which depicts a landscape, presumably from her travels via google maps, and a hazy image of E. faded into the landscape. She stares out from the crop top with a somewhat emotionless look that seems the opposite of her claim in Episode 3 that she is rarely bored. This pattern, of excitable language mixed with a monotone delivery, takes on many forms throughout E.’s work. It sets up awkwardness for the viewer, who is asked to locate when she is striking a model face and when she is striking a bored face. Consistently E. The Avatar rests in an ambivalent space, acknowledging the internet’s dual nature as both a space for possibility and passive consumption. Rather than letting this work be a critique, however, E. Jane turns passivity into a fashionable possibility, and asks what might be the latent politics behind internet surfing, following, and liking.
It’s worth considering her fashion line alongside novelty airbrushed T-shirts that you can buy at the beach or mall. Specifically, the shirts that depict a muscular figure or a bikini-ready bod, the joke of course being that the person who buys it usually lacks the same physical features that the shirt asserts as virtuous. Some of E.’s clothing articles utilize the same trick, showing E.’s body across the surface of a shirt, her neck lining up with the prospective wearer’s. It’s worth mentioning here that E. Jane’s is self described on instagram as, “both the projection and the Black woman (they/her) behind the curtain.” This quick quip allows the word ‘projection’ to trip over the phrase ‘black woman,’ rendering the idea of race as an image placed upon a surface. At a moment in history with Sandra Bland’s death and the subsequent #sayhername campaign, Rachel Dolezal’s awkward outing, Apple introducing emoji of different races in the name of diversity, and the seemingly endless cases of police brutality coupled with #iam campaigns, how might we return to E. Jane’s work? Even before these events, queer and feminist theory has sought to decentralize the idea of any real normative body. E. Jane carries this further in her subtle references to the privileged white body on novelty t-shirts, displacing it with another option, mainly her own likeness, opening up possibilities for plurality of identity that is unpacked through niche markets and commerce. Her fashion operates on the wearer, placing the projection and the Black woman onto another, but not under the shared solidarity existent in wake of cruel situations. Rather, E. Jane’s work occupies mundane moments as she superimposes her identity onto others. What does the sharing of an identity mean, as a specific political gesture, during moments of mundaneness? Is there a separation between being a projection and not, if so, where is that line? I’m going to leave these questions unanswered, as I believe one point of E. THE AVATAR is to escape definition in favor of customizable and plural identities.
That a viewer could purchase an image of E. Jane’s body to define one’s own makes the individual a site for multiple identities. This is where the strength of E. THE AVATAR exists. As stated previously, identities aren’t fixed, they’re fluid. But E. locates fluidity by collaging one body (hers) onto another, radically different from the idea that individuals adjust their personalities freely. Setting up this subtle roleplay is how E. Jane, in this work, embodies the purchased, liked, and shared personal identity. This reality in her work, in turn, begins to leave identities broken-open, their surfaces understood as an opportunity to see how collectively fluid we are within the readymade norms we inhabit.
Zachary Rawe is an artist, curator, and writer based in Philadelphia, PA. Rawe creates anxious objects and texts that animate the dissolved relationship between work and leisure.