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Snapchat, the Opera

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I take out my iPhone to start filming us in bed. Turned on my side, with my elbow bent to prop my head up with one of my hands, the other hand holding my phone. Through the screen I can see a close up shot of Adam’s nose and mouth. I pull back to see his entire face. I look beyond my phone to see his full body laying out in front of me. Adam starts to perform:

“Hi Lucy”

“What? [laughter] She’s not going to see this.”

“Isn’t this a Snapchat?”

“It’s not a Snapchat”

“You’ve been making Snapchats all morning and then you go and switch it up on me!”

“You can’t be so presumptuous”

“I’m hiding under here… For forever or until your battery runs out.”

“I brought my charger today”

“Ok, until your phone runs out of space.”

“My phone has unlimited space for embarrassing videos of you.”

“Oh my god… you’re adding this thing to our life. It’s like this wild animal. A barracuda.”

“I don’t understand.  The camera’s a barracuda?”

“Yeah”

“There’s an interesting passage about cameras in this [Immortality by Milan Kundera]. There’s like this whole chapter about being watched and how when you’re filmed your self is taken away from you and put in the control of someone else.”

“You’re stealing my soul.”

“I mean, your self exists in the camera now. It’s fragmented.”

“I don’t know… I think people change when the camera comes on. You’re not the same.”

“I think so too but I think that’s part of yourself. I don’t think that change draws from something outside of yourself.”

“Yeah, but it [the camera] obfuscates it.”

“I feel like whenever I feel obligated to turn on a personality its always based on something I wish I was naturally, or how I think I need to be in the situation, and I don’t think that… I think that the fact that I’m able to draw on that personality and bring it out on command says that its always been a part of me. I’m relying on scripts and commands that I can recall for specific instances.”

“But that’s only if you’re a good actor. I feel like I just shut down. I’m not as good.”

“Yeah?”

‘The part of me that’s not as self-conscious is gone.”

“Oh here it is…

[From Immortality by Milan Kundera]

‘It was a meaningless episode: some sort of congress was taking place in the hotel and a photographer had been hired so that the scholars who had assembled from all parts of the world would be able to buy souvenir pictures of themselves. But Agnés could not beat the idea that somewhere there remained a document testifying to her acquaintance with the man she had met there; she returned to the hotel the next day, bought up all her photos (showing her at the man’s side, with one arm extended across her face), and tried to secure the negatives, too; but those had been filed away by the picture agency and were already unobtainable. Even though she wasn’t in any real danger, she could not rid herself of anxiety because one second of her life, instead of dissolving into nothingness like all the other seconds of life, would remain torn out of the course of time and some stupid coincidence could make it come back to haunt her like the badly buried dead.’

Is that how you feel about this video [laughter]?”

“I mean, I feel like its definitely ruining my life. Slowly.”

“That’s funny. I feel only positive about being recorded and documented.”

“You were like a theatre major! This is like your shit! You’ve got your reading voice on, you’re good to go.”

“Am I doing my reading voice right now?”

“No, but you were.”

“But that’s different. I was reading.”

“Remember when you turned on the camera the other day and immediately went into your recording voice?… Are you still recording?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh no…”

“I think its different though.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean, I’m the one recording you. Not some omniscient, malevolent entity. Its an intimate moment and we have control in it.”

“But its not an intimate moment.”

“Just because the camera is there?”

“No, because you’re holding the camera and we can’t interact in ways that we would normally interact. It’s a completely different experience from just you and I together on a bed because of the camera.”

“Yeah, I guess if I was on camera? If it was not me holding it?”

“Yeah..”

“I agree. I think when I first wanted to record it was because I wanted to take control of the situation and I think in other cases, like when Lucy and I record, its different because we usually just do a voice recording and we’re free to act as we normally would. Our images don’t matter. And I think the recording is empowering that way. We can document our history.”

“But this isn’t how we would normally be talking. We would not be talking about cameras. It changes the dialog as well. It immediately changes the lens we’re viewing everything through.”

“But that’s just because we’re being self-conscious of the camera.”

[Adam takes the sheets to cover himself and me. Muffled voices and kissing can be heard.]

“Remember when you made me buy tampons for you at 1 in the morning?”

 

 

***

 

 

What is the difference between the camera and the eye? Do we not equally perform for a new person the way we perform for a lens?

 

The camera does not mediate between the watched and the watcher. The camera exists as it’s own separate animal, as a sociopathic observer, emoting no empathy or cruelness only reflecting back what it is given.

 

The camera is not the person behind the lens. The camera can be interpreted, to the watched, as a person we are unfamiliar with. We object to direct recordings of ourselves because in them is the objective truth. Our words aren’t filtered through the subjectivity of another person. When we view a recording of ourselves we are watching ourselves as we are. When the memory of a person is taken into account, an unpleasant recollection of our words or behaviors could be attributed to projecting on the part of the observer. I record myself as I am.

 

What I realize is that I am an exhibitionist. I revel in recording. In archiving. Someone must remember me as I was, as I performed that night. The camera excites me, as a new person at a party would; they are both easy to entertain. I do not have to be like myself, only likable.

 

 

***

 

 

I could not describe a beautiful landscape because I was not in one. Wearing all black, holding an umbrella with a curved wooden handle and a slender black body fanned out above me to deflect the rain, I walked on the sidewalk feeling like the fabulously mourning widow of a rich man. The cars driving past me were leading the funeral procession. The people on the street were sympathetic. And I’ve spoken of this before. The performance of sadness. The performance in death. On the Q train, headed home, there was a poster for Anna Nicole Smith: The Opera.

 

Thinking of Anna Nicole Smith: The Opera, and myself and girls that dress themselves up as tragic because those are the only clothes that are handed to them, I remembered watching the video of Anna Nicole Smith’s trial in the wake of her husband’s death. I was a small child, fascinated by people I could see through a small box when I stayed up past my bedtime feigning sleep against my mother’s chest. Anna Nicole Smith was only 26 when she married her 89-year-old husband. Whether it was for love or money no one but the two could ever know. In the courtroom footage, her heavily lined eyes look reticent and her lips barely move above a quiver. Anna took J. Howard Marshall’s son, who received all of Howard’s estate, to court where she had to prove that her husband planned to leave her part of his money. She had to display and perform her steadfast love for her former husband to convince a panel of strangers that she was more than a calculating gold digger. Still images of Howard and Anna looking happy and in love in front of a camera were circulated as evidence. In an interview she smiled slightly for the lens and said, “Howard was my prince charming”  before tears starting forming under her eyes as she said, “I’m doing this for me and my husband. I’m fighting for what he wanted me to have.”

 

Who expresses their ego more sublimely? The dying or the ones left behind. And I know someone has spoken of this before: the funeral as performance for the living. When someone dies it presents the opportunity to express how you knew them, how they played a role in your life, how your life is affected by their death. I can only speak of another person in terms of myself. Sometimes I sit in conversation with a friend and roll my eyes at the fact that they can only speak of themselves. But what else is there to talk about. I guess what I really want to express to them is: Why are they not speaking of me?  When is it my turn to tell a separate, but relatable, story about myself?

 

We have always been good at making tragic stories more tragic. Set them to music and turn them into an opera. Turn them into a night out. I would think that by now, during conversations that happen while walking in darkened atmospheres with a slight rain, there would be an adjacent moving sidewalk that carries a string quartet to heighten the emotion. In a story, to be emotionally manipulative, you could simply mention death or ‘kill your darling.’ What are the consequences? I am interested in moments without heightened emotion, told emotionally. I am interested in a dramatic moment retold from the perspective of calmness and distance. I am interested in a manic woman writing her internal monologue as performance. I am interested in the narcissist who views her internal monologue as performance. I had told Adam this once (while walking through a darkened atmosphere with a slight rain) and he told me I was obsessed with myself; an ego-maniac. But what are the consequences? I can love myself more than anyone else because there are times when no one will be good to me. It is in my best interest to curate a mindset of being alone. Adam asked me why I was laughing and I told him it was because I kept thinking, “I’ve transcended my ego” with minimal irony.

 

“Does that mean you’re like on a Kanye level of ego?”

“I just realized the other day that no matter what I do I love myself, right? For example, If I kill myself it’s because I love myself and I want to do the kindest thing for myself. Even if I hate myself it’s because I love myself and feel like I’m not being my best self.”

“Yeah, I mean, if you make that decision [to kill yourself] then you are accepting of that. The problem is other people.”

 

The problem is other people.

The problem is other people. 

The problem is other people?

 

In the rain, Adam, Lucy, and I sat on the steps of the highline, where you can look out through the glass panes to see the cars driving below, looking distinctly New York. The yellow cabs appeared as a parody of themselves, as most things do when viewed from a distance. I was quiet, as I really am. I didn’t need to perform myself for the two people in the world that I felt closest two. There was nothing I felt particularly compelled to say. I wished I could have loudly expressed my contentedness with the silence of the moment.

 

I don’t think everyone’s meant to be talking all the time. Sometimes it can just be quiet.

 

I held my head against Adam’s chest while I turned toward Lucy to discuss our past and our future together. We needed to get to work, if this was going to be the summer of making some kind of art. Of archiving ourselves for some higher purpose. We all talked of the man that recorded people in their apartments from above on the J train and placed them in a gallery, who faced no consequences because it was ‘for art’ and we talked of the man who recorded a woman in her apartment from the same train platform who is now facing jail time because he was ‘a pervert.’

 

The Supreme Court Justice ruled, in the case of the artist, “Art is considered free speech and is therefore protected by the First Amendment. While it makes them cringe to think that their private lives and images of their small children can find their way into the public forum of an art exhibition, there is no redress under the current laws of the state of New York.” To this the artist said, “ “I am not unlike the birder, quietly waiting for hours, watching for the flutter of a hand or a movement of a curtain as an indication that there is life within.”

 

But we couldn’t get to the root of the difference between these two men. And then how could I even separate these men from myself? I know I am perverted in this. This obsessive recording of my existence and labeling it as art. I know I am perverted in this.

– – –

Gabby Bess is a sometimes performance artist and the author of Alone With Other People. She lives in Brooklyn.

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