The New Narrative Portrayal of Women: Artist Carla Gannis interviewed by curator Tina Sauerländer

Nude Descending A Staircase – Season 4 from Carla Gannis on Vimeo.

Carla Gannis, Selfie Drawing 42 “Bunny”, 2015
Carla Gannis, Selfie Drawing 42 “Bunny”, 2015

In the course of one year, Brooklyn-based artist Carla Gannis made digital drawings of herself. 52 complex images come into existence, that embeds the virtual self of the artist into different narratives, reflecting contemporary topics of the Digital Age and art historical references, drawing up a fresh rebrand of women’s depictions in today’s selfie culture, that now have been published as a comprehensive and neat book The Selfie Drawings.

TS: Carla, what is the difference between your Selfie Drawings and the selfies by females all over the Internet? 

CG: I’m very interested in examining the way we communicate day to day via digital networks. For some years I’ve been taking selfies, but before incorporating them into my art, I needed to find an element of selfie vernacular to re-contextualize. Drawing, usually the first phase of any series I begin, became the vehicle for me to embark on this project. 

Unlike the immediate action of selfie photography, I have “re-represented” myself, a mediated self, reflexively through a slower, more traditional process. And in doing this I have detached myself from the direct reference of the photographic, i.e. the seemingly “true” representation of a person. As I continued making the drawings over a course of one year, they began to take on broader dimensions outside of personal self-analysis and reflection. I began to weave together references from the past with current topics, finding collision points for visual storytelling, and I became more of an actor within these stories.

Carla, Gannis, The Garden of Emoji Delights, 2014
Carla, Gannis, The Garden of Emoji Delights, 2014
Carla Gannis, Selfie drawing 46 “Zelig”, 2015
Carla Gannis, Selfie drawing 46 “Zelig”, 2015

You drew yourself over the course of one year one time each week. How did the Selfie Drawings change over time? 

The first works have a very graphic novel like feel, and were very exploratory. In the last works in particular, the environments in which I juxtaposed myself with technology, or “as technology” became more elaborate. Also, I began to appropriate quite a bit from art history, primarily a history of male artists, and I inserted myself as a subject within this realm of canonized art.

What types of women occur in the Selfie Drawings?

The emphasis on identity performance, in relation to our constant uploads of “self” via social media platforms also evolved. Over time I was no longer playing the “role of Carla Gannis” really, I was setting up scenarios to represent different types of women, a middle-aged woman in her bedroom trying to channel Wonder Woman and Shiva, a woman facing the implications of post-humanism and artificial intelligence by 3D printing her body as a replacement for her physical body, a “Nude Descending a Staircase” (modernist classic as we know), this time descending from a spaceship, recording device in hand, and entering a flooded, stormy environment seemingly on the brink of disaster.

With the title of your current solo show A Subject Self-Defined (until March 19 at TRANSFER Gallery, Brooklyn, NY), in which you present large animated versions of the Selfie Drawings, you refer to Joseph Kosuth’s neon piece “Subject and object self-defined”. Why? 

Yes the exhibition takes its title from Joseph Kosuth’s 1966 neon sculpture that spells out and is eponymously titled “A Subject Self-Defined.” He belonged to a group of artists involved in stripping down the art object, reducing it to ideas and information that were detached from personal meaning. Fifty years later, when we find art in the age of networked identity and digital dematerialization, I am perplexed by subjecthood and self-definition in relationship to the “personal” when performed publicly. 

Plato’s Cave – Season 1 from Carla Gannis on Vimeo.

In one of your works you refer to Plato’s Cave and his Theory of Forms that values the Form – that is the Idea – higher than the material of the world, because forms create the meaning and not materiality. Is this why you did choose Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to be the prelude (or starting point) for your show?

Carla Gannis, Selfie Drawing 52 “Powers of Ten”, 2015
Carla Gannis, Selfie Drawing 52 “Powers of Ten”, 2015

How does Plato’s idea link to the Self-Definition and Self-Perception of today?

Yes, the story of Plato’s Cave, which has influenced modern stories like The Matrix, is about the realization that the shadows on the cave wall are not “reality” that, from the philosophers’ point of view, enlightened perception can be achieved by looking beyond the material world.

Many of the works in this series seems to be an inventory of how a self, both the physical and virtual body, can be perceived in the Digital Age. Using 2D and 3D elements in my work, fragmenting the body, attaching it to, or intertwining it with digital augmentation devices all seem to be about my desire to express the state of existing simultaneously IRL and URL. The internet is a virtual, dematerialized space where we have greater access to the collective conscious than ever before, but “to be” we still have to operate in “meat space,” in our physical bodies. Our current technologies are pushing us to renegotiate the mind/body dualism that has been a fascination of philosophers for centuries.

In Plato’s Cave you compare the figurative symbols of the cave paintings to our language of emojis, that you also used your monumental work The Garden of Emoji Delights. Why are emojis so important for you?  

There are comparisons being drawn between Emoji and earlier sign systems like hieroglyphics. As we spend more and more time communicating in mediated ways, via devices, there is an urge to have a visual shorthand for human emotion. Emoji have emerged as the most popular form (perhaps outside of selfies) for doing this. Unlike earlier visually oriented languages however, there is no codified grammar for Emoji yet. As a visual artist, that leaves a lot of latitude for expression using these “cute” little symbols. I’m interested in orienting them into the lexicon of art and ideas, however I can’t predict if Emoji will evolve into a future “ official language” or not. Their cuteness reflects a predominant theme in many cultures today, particularly American, which we need to be “happy” all the time. Even the sad faces and devil faces are cute and entertaining. Time will tell if Emojis will be capable of expressing a broader range of human emotion in a compelling and comprehensive way. 

Carla Gannis, Selfie Drawing 44 “Golden Shower”, 2015
Carla Gannis, Selfie Drawing 44 “Golden Shower”, 2015

Why is it important for you to quote art history, as you do in many of the Selfie Drawings and in the Garden of Emoji Delights? 

I studied quite a bit of art history, so many images are pretty much laser printed on my brain. I remember when I was younger, I was always looking for female artist role models throughout the history of art, and I found few until the 20th century. I often wonder in 100 or 200 years who will be remembered. Will (enough) women artists be recorded then? Most of the works I reference I love as works of art, but I do think my appropriating from the canon of art (*because I was raised in the west, primarily a western art history canon is what I was taught) does involve a feminist reappraisal on some level. 

Carla Gannis, Book Cover (front), The Selfie Drawings, 2016
Carla Gannis, Book Cover (front), The Selfie Drawings, 2016

For the Closing Event of your solo show at TRANSFER, you and I prepare a huge screening with works by 50+ artists that we invited to send us GIFs of their “Selfie Selfs”, that we call Nargifsus. Which role does the Greek myth of Narcissus play in your Selfie Drawings? 

Selfie culture is often maligned for its narcissism, so in entitling the show NarGIFsus, I think you and I are both having some fun with that interpretation.

Regarding my own work, clichés exist because there is always some grain of truth in them, and in looking at the prevalence of “self-images” across networked culture, it is easy to assume we’re a culture obsessed with our own reflections (like the myth of Narcissus). However, I think there are other subconscious issues, (in addition to our having access to technology that makes it very easy to share our image), that underlie our need to tell our stories with photographs of our faces, for instance the threat of climate change that could eradicate our “collective human face” from the planet; artificial intelligence and machine development that could eventually replace us as the most intelligent life forms on the planet; ever increasing global population that makes it more difficult to concentrate on the affect of a single human life.

I’m not saying that a person taking a “casual selfie” is consciously thinking about any of this, more likely she’s interested in controlling her own narrative and having a bit of fun with it. But I do think these underlying threats to human existence permeate through culture and affect how we, as humans, lay claim to our lives, our identities, and desire to imprint something of ourselves on the walls and pages of communication networks. 40,000 years ago we felt a necessity to imprint our hands on cave walls with the technologies afforded to us via nature, and now we want to assert our individuality via the digital technologies that have been built, consciously or not, for that purpose.


New Book:

Carla Gannis, The Selfie Drawings, 2016

Buy the hardcover book or a digital edition




Closing event of ‘A Subject Self-Defined’

Saturday March 19, 2016 from 6 – 10PM

Event on Facebook

at TRANSFER Gallery, Brooklyn



From Sunday March 20, 2016


Artists participating in NARGIFSUS:

Alfredo Salazar-Caro, Angela Washko, Ann Hirsch, Ann Schomburg, Anna Frants, Anthony Antonellis, Antonio Roberts, Carla Gannis, Cecilia Salama, Christian Petersen, Claudia Hart, Domenico Barra, Elena Garnelo, Emilie Gervais, Emilio Vavarella, Erica Lapdat Janzen, Erik Zepka, Eva Papamargariti, Everet Kane, Faith Holland, Federico Solmi, Gaby Cepeda, Giselle Zatonyl, Gretta Louw, Guido Segni, Helena Acosta, Jacky Connolly, Jennifer Chan, Jonny Star, Joshua Weibley, Kate Durbin, Katie Torn, LaTurbo Avedon, Laurence Gartel, Leah Schrager, Lisa Levy, Lorna Mills, LoVid Hinkis-Lapidus & Dia, Man Bartlett, Mark Dorf, Mathieu St-Pierre, Michael Mallis, Nicholas O’Brien, Niko Princen, Ole Fach, Patrick Lichty, Paul Hertz, Rafia Santana, Ray Tee, Rollin Leonard, Savannah Spirit, Shamus Clisset, Shayna Hawkings, Stefano W. Pasquini, Sung-Ah Jun, Susan Silas, Vince Mc Kelvie, Will Pappenheimer, Yuliya Lanina

The Eccentric – Season 2 from Carla Gannis on Vimeo.

Carla Gannis, Selfie Drawing 43 “A Cut Piece”, 2015
Carla Gannis, Selfie Drawing 43 “A Cut Piece”, 2015

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Tina Sauerlaender

Tina Sauerländer is an art historian, curator and writer based in Berlin. With her label peer to space she has been organizing and curating exhibitions in different fields of contemporary art for several institutions and galleries since 2010, e.g. PORN TO PIZZA—Domestic Clichés (2015), Dark Sides Of… (2015), Across the Lines (2014), Visual Noise (2014), Money Works Part 2 (2014) or Entering Space (2013). She is the author of many texts on contemporary artists for catalogs, magazines or journals, e.g. Taryn Simon, Alicja Kwade, Carsten Nicolai or Anselm Reyle for the Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst. Her website is

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