Are Selfies Art? #cellphoneMFA

Cellphone MFA is a digital art project that I have been nurturing for a little under a year. The work arose out of my curiosity in, and observations of, the social media landscape. I am something of a social media outsider, a statement with which I am sure my friends  would agree. I have never been anything resembling an early adopter, and created my Facebook page under duress from friends who I met at camp that desired to keep in contact with me after our time together had passed. However, through my time on social media, if I have not necessarily been much of an active participant, I have had the occasion to observe. One would truly have to be blind to be unconscious of the rise of the social media culture and all of its associated idiosyncrasies, especially that of the “selfie.”

Perhaps discussing the selfie is now a bit passé… but it is still an important feature in day-to-day existence, having attained a level of normalcy and widespread adoption across generations and social groups worldwide. It is a strange confluence of pop art and celebrity culture. (Just take a look at Kim Kardashian’s book Selfish for an example.) The selfie, along with social media, has created a platform for self-expression, which the average person is able to harness, with the hope of facilitating the potential rise to personal internet celebrity and stardom. It is a democratized form of the self-portrait and is at turns both narcissistic (Google “selfie” and “narcissism” and see what pops up) and an affirmation of self-worth (as exemplified by the body positive movement.)

I’ve existed outside the realm of the selfie for the majority of my time as a social media participant. However, I would be lying if I said that the idea of the selfie and taking selfies was not strangely fascinating to me. One day, I decided that maybe it was time for me to foray into this photographic form, but within the conceptual framework of a work of art, the intention of which was to provide a critical examination of the selfie as a mode of self-expression and legitimate art form, questioning: Are selfies truly art? As soon as I begin to create them, do I manifest my personal narcissism heretofore cunningly concealed and internalized?

Going into the project, my greatest concern was that I would enjoy it too much. If I began to seek out the self-validation and self-affirmation of the selfie, mainlining the social-media induced dopamine straight into my system, would that invalidate my premise, identifying it instead as a flimsy excuse for self-indulgence? Am I truly creating artwork, or descending into self-aggrandizing vapidity and vanity? I am enjoying the creation of these pieces. I downloaded a new photo-editing app on my cellphone specifically for this purpose, and if I were to be completely objective, would now consider Cellphone MFA to be one of my primary hobbies. How can I say that I am not now a participant in the selfie culture? I cannot.

But, is there not an artistic precedent already set for Cellphone MFA? What separates this work from that of, say, Petra Cortright, whose entire career is based on web-cam videos in which the artist parades around in front of the camera in displays that even fall shy of Lena Dunham-esque exhibitionism. The haphazard intentionality displayed in her work (a visual analogue to that of the Instapoets) is legitimized as art through clever branding and orientation within some high concept, which is easily commoditized as innovation.

So, I am left sitting in front of my cellphone, diligently tweaking various visual parameters on a photo editing app— engaging in hobbyist photography all under the auspices of fine art. (One of the few disciplines that allows for technical craftsmanship far below the accepted level of professional work in that particular field (film, sound, etc.), but that is an essay for another day) Like many artists before me, I’ve developed my conceit, and I will stick with it.

I say that Cellphone MFA is art, but does that make it so?

What is art? And who makes it so?

Leave your thoughts below.


What Poets & Writers Magazine Taught Me About Writing Today


I recently concluded reading my first issue of Poets & Writers magazine (the March/April 2017 issue). As I let the last page fall shut, I paused in reflection, struck by a great many things about the publication and my experience reading it, some good and some bad. On the exceptionally positive side, reading anecdotes by successful authors about their daily writing habits reaffirmed to me the importance of writing consistently, no matter the fruits of that labor. These writings could be fragmentary thoughts joined together in association only by the shakiness of one’s penmanship after a tall cup of coffee, or exercises that seek to broaden style, or any other wild ruminations that should surface to the mind during the writing…

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“…All organisms, including us, are embedded within a living ecosphere, a supraorganism, not superorganism. Moreover…it is the only truly creative force at work in the world.”

 —Wes Jackson


We must interact with the environment, asking questions and listening to the answers.

Quote from Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture (Wes Jackson, 2010, Counterpoint Press)

Creative Earth

The First Max Experiment: Virtual Synth 01

I made my first virtual synth using the BEAP modules in Max today. I’ve been away from a modular system for so long; it was a good way to refresh how signal flows in that particular context. I was even able to use my iZotope DDLY plug-in as an effect in the Max patch, which was a completely new experience for me. I wasn’t sure how it was going to work, and merely through chance happened to click on the right button to open up the interface that I was familiar with. It was easy enough to patch into my signal chain, and produced some interesting results that you can hear in the experiment above.


While it is not particularly inspired musically, I think I did okay for still being in the process of re-familiarization and learning in the program. Unfortunately, I lost all of my settings in an attempt to update my software. I’m going to have to look up how to save/load presets again.

Additionally, I’ve found that working within the higher-level Max modules (like BEAP or Vizzie) helps you to determine the direction you wish to go in your personal patching. As an example, the BEAP modules do not always allow for as much modulation capability as you might desire. Working with them, it is easy to identify where the modulation and customization falls short, and use it to help guide your own personal creation. Next up on my audio list? A delay with modulation parameters up the wazoo.

But before I try to tackle more complicated audio-related things, I would like to try my hand at live visual manipulation. My plan is to start simply: altering parameters of a still image. After I can grasp that, I will move on to generate imagery and processing video.

Until the next experiment!

Musings to the Max: Bring on the Interactivity!


The blank canvas that is an empty patcher window

Yesterday, I purchased Max 7. I’m pretty excited to have finally been able to get my hands on the program! While an undergraduate, I had the good fortune to have the opportunity to take a year-long course in electronic music. While the first half of the year was devoted to electroacoustic music, the second half focussed on interactive works using Max  to create

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A Musical Journey of Self-Discovery Begins: Landscape | Soundscape at UPenn’s Arthur Ross Gallery


Today is the opening reception for the exhibition  Landscape | Soundscape at University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery.  The exhibition pairs sound artists with photographs curated from the university’s art collection. I feel very honored to have been selected as a participant amongst many other sound artists whom I admire. (It is pretty surreal to have my name just two below that of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith.)

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