Martine Neddam created her first virtual character on the internet in 1996 as a piece of art. SCHIRN MAGAZINE talked to her about digital identity today.

In which way has the understanding of identity (both in legal and in the personal sense) changed in the past 20 years? 

In the legal sense we became bound to our legitimate personae (the one in our passport) in a completely inescapable way. The control society has attained its horrendous perfection: passport numbers, digital identity tracking, finger prints, DNA ... we are now being tracked down to the last trace of our existence, to the last atom of our body, we are who we are told to be by something above us. 

In a personal way, it's just the opposite: a crack has opened by which the light comes in: there is a space, a slight distance, a playfulness even, by which we may re-consider who we are supposed to be: gender, age, sexual preference, body shape, we can decide, we may choose who we are, or even re-make ourselves. It's strange how fast the understanding of identity has changed and forked into two opposite directions in such a short time. 

When and why did you start to work with identity in an artistic way? 

In 1996 I created the personae of Mouchette online. But that's just a recent story ... When I was very young I dreamt of being an artist in a family environment where art didn't really exist. As a teenager, as soon as I made a few art objects I had to give myself a bizarre name, a fancy artist's name and therefore, by renaming myself, I had adopted a new personality, an artist's personality. I also used it for being clandestine: my family and my school did not know what I was doing when I was exhibiting. I felt free. 

Do you consider our perception of identity part of your artistic material? 

Yes, definitely. The works I did with online personas served as an incredible artistic experiment with identity. I have learned how different a work of art can be when you imagine it was made by a man or by a woman: for "Mouchette" I wanted people to believe that the (anonymous) author was a man, it would make it into a more exciting work, more subversive. 

For "David Still", his sexual preference had to be invisible. He could either have been straight or gay and I composed his pre-set love messages in a way that could equally be addressed to a man or a woman. I had the surprise of finding out that it particularly attracted gays because they love to be clandestine, and often find closeted gays to be more erotic. No one ever suspected that the site could have been made by someone else than the man represented on it (and certainly not by a woman). I had my share of thrills of clandestinity. I could secretly observe the practices of people using anonymous email for all kinds of different reasons and I had much fun with it. 

I learned that identifying the author of a work of art (age, gender and more) makes for a big part of our perception of this work, if not the biggest part. This identification, however, can be shaped, manipulated and indeed become part of the artistic material.

How did you frame the idea of identity in your work? 

I was particularly careful in omitting specific obvious information. What you don't say, or keep silent, when framed precisely, can attract curiosity like a magnet. I carefully designed the blanks in the middle of the story to serve as projection surfaces for the viewer's imagination. Secrets can attract much love. 

What was your experience in working with a moldable understanding of identity? 

It opened spaces inside myself that I didn't know existed, unexpected creativity, it allowed me to tap into unknown resources, to channel subtle inner voices, to experience certain feelings … I'm trying to describe a mysterious inner experience but it sounds like romantic crap! 

It's hard to hear myself talk as my (normal-person) self. Language is so full of clichés that rob you of all personal expression, being an artist is so full of pretention and English is not my mother tongue ... But if I was a child, what I say would sound pretty smart. If I was someone else, I would have fun sounding pompous and elusive on purpose. 

In this way, an outburst of inner conflicts can be turned into an inner conversation with your alter-egos and on which your psyche becomes a stage. It's a very normal experience to have a conversation with yourself, performing more than one person inside. It's a wonderful experience to have the opportunity to give that experience an artistic shape. 

Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet, had with his various heteronyms a quasi outer worldly esoteric experience, living multiple poetic lives. Romain Gary/Emile Ajar could be reborn as a new author using a completely new style, clumsy and broken and yet so skillful. For neither of them was it a deliberate decision: it happened inside of them and they seized the opportunity, or they took the risk. I can relate very much to these two authors, not only to their multiple-personality experience but also to the sense of life they express in their art: your imagination is your real life. 

In the current attention economy, brands, media networks and institutions legitimize cultural or commercial practices through social capital - do you see your own practice to be a part of that? 

Yes, I'm just a part of that. It's inescapable. Inside the attention economy I am a mere looser. But a looser can be seen as an anti-hero. I remember the short story by Kafka "Josephine The Singer", where Josephine, a simple mouse among the mice people is a diva, not because she can sing better or louder, she squeaks just like any other mouse, but her voice is fainter and therefore she commands devotion and admiration from her people. In the attention economy there are no artists, only "creative industries".

Let us be failures and losers. 

What do you think about the idea of identity as a quantifiably commodity? 

Identity is a quantifiable commodity when you can sell it or make money with it.

In my fantasy I create online characters, I share their personality so that people can become them, identify with them, and then I will sell them and I will become rich. That's just a fantasy of course. 

In reality Madonna, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, etc. have already been doing that all along: they sell the made-up personality they created. The music, the concert, the shows ... that's nothing, it's just the wrapping around the identity they sell. 

Do you think identities are becoming more rigid by the use of social networks/technology? 

No, they become more fluid. The legal identity has become more rigid to control and prevent that fluidity. Facebook forbids fake names or alternate identities because clearly we all want to have them. They even have created that desire by their interdiction. 

How do you feel identities are perceived online today? 

Wow, that's a big question! It's too general. There are a million different perceptions. It's like asking about the weather in the world today ... The weather here, or the weather there, the weather now or the weather tomorrow? 

But now we have climate change. The weather has become an issue. We just don't agree about the causes. Or the way to deal with the problem. I guess it's the same with identity. We are experiencing identity change. We just don't know why and what to do with it. 

Do you believe people have a right to be anonymous online

Yes, sure. But talking about a right is one thing and defending it is another.

Who will protect and defend that right? In what court? What country? What institution? In the name of what? In which name can anonymity be protected?


Martine Neddam is professor at the Rietveld academy of Arts in Amsterdam and teaches masterclasses in UQAM University, Montreal Canada.

Martine Neddam is an artist who uses language as raw material. Speech acts, modes of address, words in the public space were always her favourite subjects. Since 1996 she created on internet virtual characters who lead an autonomous artistic existence in which the real author remains invisible.

Mouchette is the artist and the artwork all in one. Mythical avatar born in the prehistoric times of, she is still alive and creating nineteen years later. Is Mouchette an immortal, an online digital creature of a new type? Or simply the evidence that art on the internet has the capacity to last beyond the obsolescence of technology?Her internet presence and influence are still growing.

2001 David Still:
2005 XiaoQian: