Are We All Anxious Now?

By Bennett, Jill | Tate Etc., April 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Are We All Anxious Now?


Bennett, Jill, Tate Etc.


The all-consuming world of social media has pushed many of us to new levels of anxiety. Add to that the culture of fear perpetuated since the so-called 'war on terror', and we have a toxic psychological brew. How do artists respond to this, and can art provide a means of relief?

Monica Bonvicini's Don't Miss A Sec' 2004 consists of a functioning toilet inside a glass box, giving users an uninterrupted 360-degree view of the surroundings. The view is one-way, the pleasure one of covert surveillance ratherthan exposure. Apparently inspired by people's reluctance to leave a gallery function forfear of missing out (later known as FOMO), Don't Miss A Sec' belongs to the dawning age of 24/7 connectivity - a period shaped both by the aftermath of 9/11 and an era of openness forged in the socially liberal 1990s, when the West perceived itself to be free from struggle and antagonism, as cultural theorist Renata Salecl observes in 2004's On Anxiety.

War and conflict in the 1990s seemed comfortably remote and non-disruptive for much of Western society. There were few limits to selfcreation, whetherthrough the 'just do it' ethos of consumerism, orthe culture of self-enhancement. As the text in the catalogue for the 1992 exhibition Post Human at the Deste Foundation in Athens claimed: 'The matter-of-fact acceptance of one's "natural" looks and one's "natural" personality is being replaced by a growing sense that it is normal to reinvent oneself.' Lingering anxieties were confronted in galleries that exposed what might once have been horrifying: the insides of animal and human bodies (Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn et al) and/or more personal revelations (Tracey Emin's Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 1995). By such logic, 1997's Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy might have left us in a better place, like a cultural course of aversion therapy. But if it did so, the ideology of exposure has given rise to new forms of anxiety.

In the 2010s the psychological cost of total visibility is under scrutiny, as seen in a number of recent books and artworks. Take Hito Steyerl's How Not to Be Seen 2013, which affects the tone of an instructional video with a computer-generated voiceover informing viewers how to remain invisible in an age of image proliferation (the best advice being to remain no larger than the size of a single pixel). Or Dave Eggers's 2013 novel The Circle, in which he satirises the totalitarian consequences of a Google-inspired technocracy that peddles the ideal of sharing one's entire life by 'going transparent'. And Amalia Ulman's Excellences A Perfections 2014-6, which takes the form of Instagram posts delivered to her tens of thousands of followers. Ulman's online performance of body angst, break- ups, bad eatin', bad thoughts and a boob job appears initially to chronicle the real emotional life of an aspirational cute girl until a final post reveals its artifice. Exposed throughout to a real-time social media commentary, it turns the 1990s explorations of identity construction by Cindy Sherman and Orlan into a far more anxious affair.

While social media amplifies anxieties in a public forum, giving rise to new forms of anxiety and antagonistic behaviour (FOMO, cyber-bullying, the initially fictional condition of video-physiognomicdysphoria (VPD) or aversion to one's online video image), and feeds new obsessions and related art forms, the concept of anxiety has been with us for centuries.

Unlike fear, which is a biological 'fight or flight' response to a present threat, anxiety is 'fear without a definite object', as the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard established in 1844's The Concept of Anxiety. Fear subsides when an external threat is no longer present, while anxiety festers internally but may latch on to objects in its path.

In a media age, this makes anxiety a powerful political vehicle, as revealed in creative documentary work after 9/11. Films such as Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine 2002 and Adam Curtis's The Power of Nightmares 2004 and Bitter Lake 2015 investigate the production of scapegoats, demonstrating how anxiety is stoked and redirected through media imagery that gives solid form to the concept of invisible threat. …

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