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Features / April 10, 2014

6 Lessons from Net-Art Talent Jennifer Chan

Jennifer Chan, <em>New American Classic</em>, 2011. Video, 2 minutes. Jennifer Chan, New American Classic, 2011. Video, 2 minutes.

In the past few years, the Toronto- and Chicago-based Jennifer Chan has become one of the most noted artists of the post-Internet generation. In video, GIF and installation works, Chan melds early web kitsch (think Comic Sans, dance music remixes and swirly animation effects) with pointed critiques of gender, sex and corporate culture. This month, she is featured in a Canadian Spotlight screening at the Images Festival, which runs April 10 to 19 in Toronto. While Chan’s maximalist approaches are—like the Internet itself—challenging to summarize, here are six key points gleaned from her recent phone and email conversations with Canadian Art.

Geocities aesthetics can still be avant-garde—perhaps now more than ever.
In her art, Chan often uses imagery, fonts and motifs that hearken back to the early days of the Internet–namely, the Geocities era of the mid to late 1990s, a time when web users coded and customized their own pages in a way that is rare in our heavily templated moment. (Hello, Facebook Timeline.) “I think it’s really important to address the history and the social and economic determinants of popular technologies we are using today,” Chan says. “There’s a lot of corporatized social media platforms and microblogs like Tumblr where the layout, the system, and the politics behind using it are already defined for the user.” And while Chan still uses a lot of these kinds of platforms, she also wants to pay homage to the concept of “digital folklore,” which, as articulated by Olia Lialina, views early homepage kitsch “created by users and for users” as “the most important, beautiful and misunderstood language of new media.”

Selfies, reactions to them, and social activity are important forms of digital labour—even if we’re not the ones making money off them.
In presenting her work Cam Twist on Rhizome in June 2013, Chan made the cogent point that self-portraiture today is often the emotional labour of young women. She has since expanded her view to note that “anything that requires feeling or produces feeling in someone else can be considered work in a networked environment. In basic terms, childcare, acting and teaching are examples of emotional, affective labor. With selfies, it’s overlooked as labour because it’s so abundant or ‘low-brow,’ but posting and socializing is what media-sharing websites like Facebook capitalize on.” Such companies—which also include Twitter, Tumblr and Google, are “commodifying our social activity”—activity that, in itself, “is a kind of invisible, immaterial labour.”

Creating diverse identities online is less possible—and often less desirable—now than it was five years ago.
One hallmark of the Internet is the way it allows us to filter identities into different email addresses, OKCupid profiles, or other streams—or even create new identities altogether. In artworks like Grey Matter, Chan has drawn upon some of her own online profile pictures and writings. But she notes that those early days of diverse identification are being compromised, because “what we might think of as a diverse and distributed sense of self on different networks is really returning to a very small number of companies owned by Internet moguls.” She points out that Facebook now owns Instagram, Whatsapp and Oculus Rift, while Google owns Blogger, Youtube, Gmail and G+, among other platforms. Also, there is a growing trend to use social-media logins on other online apps and websites—like using Facebook, for instance, to log into Soundcloud or “Maybe we’re thinking we’re making a lot of fragmented or diversified kinds of updates on these different social networks, with the contexts of those identities being very separated,” Chan says, “but at the same time that information goes back to these very few sources as market research.”

The Internet is a gendered space, sometimes incredibly so.
In works like LOVE FIGHTER, Chan says, “I’m really thinking of the Internet as gendered space… I’m interested in how people negotiate masculinity and femininity online.” That particular video grew out of Chan’s research into various sources: YouTube videos where teen boys teach each other how to rip shirts by flexing their muscles; other clips labelled “muscle worship,” in which men show off their bodybuilding prowess; forums on and Yahoo where “people ask questions like ‘How do I ask a girl out on Twitter?’ or ‘How do I gain more muscle faster?’”; and even sites like “where a community of men are trying to figure out how to be more comfortable in approaching women”—at the same time as they might get quite reductive about female psychology. Chan says that when she experienced these videos and forums, she “thought about the pressure to be masculine, as well as idealized images of masculinity and how much it is tied predominantly to athleticism, and a kind of soldier figure.” In this and other pieces, Chan hopes to look at what masculinity is online and put her own “personal commentary or critique towards that.”

Having complex reactions to what’s happening online is normal—even if it is challenging to represent in art.
Part of Chan’s art practice, she says, is “about having a multitude of feelings at the same time, and trying to convey them in a sincere way”—with some ironic flourishes, too. For example, in her video **.*XXX* EXTRA CREDIT ***a TOTAL jizzfest*** *, Chan manages both an an homage to and a critique of computing’s “original gangstas”—all of whom happen to be white men, from Steve Jobs of Apple to Sergey Brin of Google. She says the video was partly a response to the ongoing gender distribution problem in new media art (think: a lack of female artists in major video-survey exhibitions) and in technology (viz. the small proportion of female coders in the industry). It’s also about “thinking about where I fit in, both as a fan of Internet culture and as a female user—how can I be critical within that, and talk back to that existing structure?”

Don’t give up hope.
Though there are many problems with the Internet—from increasing corporatization of identity to the exacerbation of rigid gender roles—Chan remains hopeful about its possibilities. “In terms of Feminist practice,” she says, “I think it gives people the opportunity to create an image of themselves that is as full-bodied and multifaceted as they prefer—to talk back to or respond to dominant images of women in the media, or to present themselves in a way they would like to online.” She also thinks the hype around selfies, or alarm about their narcissistic quality, is overblown. “The selfie is one aspect of one’s online identity,” she says. “But perhaps not the only defining or demarcating thing about how one is in the world.” Ultimately, Chan says, she’s “optimistic about people being media literate.”

Jennifer Chan will be present at the Images Festival Canadian Spotlight screening of her work that takes place at Jackman Hall in Toronto on April 19 at 7 p.m. Chan will also give a related artist talk with Brett Kashmere on April 17 at 3 p.m. at the Urbanspace Gallery.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via