Barbara Kruger, Untitled, (You Thrive on mistaken Identity), 1981

The Real Me

“Thinking about my own sense of identity, I realise that it has always depended on the fact of being a migrant, on the difference from the rest of you.

So one of the fascinating things about this discussion is to find myself centered at last. Now that, in the postmodern age, you all feel so dispersed, I become centered. What I’ve thought of as dispersed and fragmented comes, paradoxically to be the representative modern experience!… It may be true that the self is always, in a sense, a fiction, just as the kinds of ‘closures’ which are required to create communities of identification – nation, ethnic group, families, sexualities etc. – are arbitrary closures; and the forms of political action, whether movements, or parties, or classes, those too are temporary, partial, arbitrary. I believe it is an immensely important gain when one recognises that all identity is constructed across difference and begins to live with the politics of difference… Ethnicity can be a constitutive element in the most viciously regressive kind of nationalism or national identity. But in our times, as an imaginary community, it is also beginning to carry some other meanings, and to define a new space of identity. It insists on difference – on the fact that every identity is placed, positioned, in a culture, a language, a history. Every statement comes from somewhere, from somebody in particular. It insists on specificity, on conjuncture. But it is not necessarily tied to fixed, permanent, unalterable oppositions.It is not wholly defined by exclusion.”
Stuart Hall speaking at the ICA conference ‘Identity: The Real Me’, 1986

“I think it’s important for viewers to understand the rhetoric of realism – how it is a depiction of what is real, and that it is not real. That this rhetoric permeates the pictures that we see whether they are still photographs, whether they are filmic, or whether they are broadcast for television. And just to say as a reminder that in fact what you are seeing is not me but a representation of me, which is being framed and photographed and edited and inserted within a larger narrative of which I have very little control… I think to label something political within culture today is really to disarm it in a way, and I think that it tends to ghettoise particular activity. I think that there is a politic in every conversation we have, every deal we close and every face we kiss, and that sort of ordering and that sort of hierarchy permeates every social construction, and I read that as a political arena.”
Barbara Kruger speaking in the Channel Four series ‘State of the Art:Ideas and Images in the 1980s’, 1987

‘The Real Me’ sounds like a feature article from a lifestyle magazine: perhaps an article about ‘me-time’ or individual self-expression. It’s hard to believe, almost twenty years on, that this was the title of a conference, organised by the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in the autumn of 1986 to explore the question of identity. When lifestyle magazines today talk about identity, they are invariably talking about individual lifestyle choices. Everywhere you look in print and broadcast media, private and individual identities appear to have eclipsed any notion of a collective or public identification. While the question of a shared identity is largely seen as the preoccupation of a marginal few whose race, ethnicity or religion sets them apart from mainstream society and culture.

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Published in Photoworks Issue 5, 2005
Commissioned by Photoworks

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