Performing identity.

PSi Conference # 10 l Singapore 2004 l Hanne-Louise Johannesen l
Associate Professor l Visual Culture l University of Copenhagen

This presentation deals with theoretical aspects of ‘self-staging’ and staging the other as strategies connected to the Internet. It aims to point out the conditions of the online human being. I am trying to grasp a contradicting desire of concealment and exposure that is at work at the Internet, and thereby focus on the paradox of erasure and inscription. A paradox that points at least in two directions; one of being your self through a non-manipulated real time media the other of performing the other by building a myth around an unknown identity. The structure of the presentation will develop from the human conditions on the Internet, via the Internet as a space of potential performance to the act of performance itself. An act where I will use the notion of seduction as the element that is able to withhold suspense of the performative act. To clarify my thoughts I will introduce the Internet art project Mouchette.  


But first I would like to frame the human conditions of the internet-dominated era.

Idealising the body is as old as representing the body. The human body has always been trapped in our mind as something imperfect, something that we, ever since the Fall of Man, have to cover up in our every day life and improve at any given occasion. The human being connected to the Internet is no exception but fits perfectly in this history of representing the human body.

We are seamlessly adapting the computer technology in our minds and bodies to enhance our possibilities of success and survival. The ideal body is represented through computer technology. And no doubt this is a unique opportunity for a new and expansible practise of bodily improvement. New social relationships and artificial enhancements are waiting to be imagined and identified in this hybridizing of the human being and technology. A hybrid summed up in the term cyborg which is a “theorized and fabricated hybrid of machine [the computer connected to the Internet] and organism” in the words of Donna Haraway (Haraway 1991)

Cyborg is short for cybernetic organism and was introduced in the middle of the 20th century by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline (Clynes & Kline 1960). The issue then was a unification between man and the precision and repetition of the mechanical machine. With the development of the computer the machine has changed towards virtuality, variation and complexity, and with it the cyborg has to develop life partly connected to virtuality, variation and complexity – but also disembodiment. And with disembodiment you could claim that we loose our inscription in the world – because to inscribe is to write in, to place the mark of one thing within another. The measure of inscription is not visibility itself but rather modification or displacement of a substance. The physicality of digital writing celebrates the loss of inscription by the possibility to remove all traces even from the act of erasure itself. What is undone could be understood as never done. Digital inscription is of another order than any previous inscription, closer to the act of speaking without a witness or drawing in sand.

This raises some fundamental questions: 1) If we loose our inscription as the foundation of being in the world, will our lives be as if not lived? 2) How can we modify the surrounding substance, when any modification is volatile and erasable? 3) Are we doomed to perform disembodiment?

The Performative space – a post-media experience

Now I will place the cyborg in the performative space of the Internet, that besides being performative it is a post-media experience. Post-media because the Internet seems to contain all other medias, and thereby disappears as a media itself.

On the Internet different strategies of appearances are used, not only by inhabitants of virtual communities but also by artists communicating with others or framing identity. Some of these strategies are connected to panoptical power relations, where ‘self-erasement’ has become an active tool or a desire to hide in the panopticon. The art project Mouchette with the introducing text “My name is Mouchette, I live in Amsterdam, I am nearly 13 years old…” À ( is a good example of erasement or blurring of true identity as an artistic strategy. The real identity of the artist behind Mouchette is hidden and always questioned. The artist is thereby building up a myth around the self, sustained by the many surrounding web-pages. Mouchette (French for Little Fly) is supposed to be a young girl on the edge of puberty, who has been raped and abused by close ones. In a coquette way, through images and sounds with an underlying sexual appeal, Mouchette exposes details from her gruesome past and announces that she will commit suicide when she reaches the age of thirteen. The creation of Mouchette is based on Robert Bresson’s film Mouchette from 1967 Ã (which again is based on a novel by George Bernanos from 1937), where a 14-year-old girl, lives a miserable existence in a little French village. Bullied by her father, compelled to look after her dying mother and her baby sibling, she has been robbed of her childhood. It is a harsh story of a young girl’s irreversible descent into misery and self-destruction.

In the Internet version of Mouchette the sadness of the story withholds, and Mouchettes self-destructive theme from the film seems to have been transformed into erasure of identity. What is interesting in the online story is the myth of identity that replaces the actual identity of Mouchette, as the text in one of the links on the web-page supports:

“ I think I understand your motives for pretending to be a ‘middle aged white man’ … or for that matter a 13 year old girl from france living in Amsterdam … than who you really are … A 13 year old black girl from Haiti living in an unglamorous neighbourhood in a metropolis by a polluted great lake; Toronto.”

The artist has on several occasions proclaimed to reveal his or her identity, but the truth has never been stated. Mainly because any connection with the project seems to blur the authenticity of any claimed identity.

This is a ground plan of a physical gallery space where the revelation of Mouchette’s identity was announced to take place in 2002. It was arranged by the artist Anakin Koenig ( at Postmasters Gallery in New York. œ Mouchette is placed in an inflatable space that is composed of three layers of clear plastic. A person at the entrance makes sure that there are only two visitors at the same time inside the entire installation. The visitor will never know if the other is the embodied person behind the Mouchette identity. The visitor becomes a potential Mouchette.

The strategy of concealment has worked as intended in this case because any claimed identity is questionable. Suspense is staged and to sustain the element of concealment and confusion, it is now possible to take over the identity of Mouchette for a period of time. – I could be Mouchette – in fact I am Mouchette, — though I have no permission to age her. Because if Mouchette turns thirteen the consequence will be suicide and the end of story. Mouchette maintains to live in the period of life where identity is formed. Suicide is thereby the end of story in different ways. It is the end of the identity-shaping-process, the end of premature sexuality as well as the end of life.

With the example of Mouchette I am pointing at the Internet as a space of performance – performance of identity, representation, seduction and desire. A performative space is a user oriented or user required space. The inhabitant of virtual space is understood as a participant rather than a visitor, rather using the space than being in space. The implementation of information technology has set out explicitly the understanding of space as loaded with information. Information waiting to be related through the performance of users.

The foundation of space becomes interactive and related to relations. The human body and mind becomes part of this network of relations – humans become cyborgs that have to perform in cyberspace – an information-loaded and non-linear space. You have to perform to use the potential of space. To explore the interactive space of Mouchette you have to participate in her life. Immersed into cyberspace you leave the secure position of the voyeur, and inscribe into this space beyond inscription. You have to invest yourself on a higher level with the risk of failure and vulnerability. The mental inscription might be the one with the highest impact and the Internet or Cyberspace in general seems to be very effective as a medium of mental inscription, because of the immaterial substance and the loss of the comfortable seat of the voyeur.

The performative act of Mouchette is operating at the boundary between presentation and representation. Being in cyberspace is a real-time-based experience that becomes temporary and nomadic – it becomes presentation. The act of presenting forces the inhabitant to immerse the mind in a boundless media that goes post-media in danger of blurring the balance in the panoptic space of power and possession.

Post-media is a practice that knows no boundaries or discipline. It is driven by desire, intuition and curiosity. Within post-media practice there is an intensified redefinition of relationships between individual and collective means, private and social spheres and terms of success and failure. Judging these dualistic values looses its relevance. By the ongoing questionable identity play of Mouchette, the paradox of being the self and performing the other becomes inseparable and the difference seems to be irrelevant to know. Users become producers operating in an expanding physic and virtual space, where no sense of a specific person, group or event is taking the lead. I am able to become the producer of and invite others to join me. The post-media state is a practice of addition without accumulation (Slater 1998).

Post-media is in opposition to the mass media and is characterised by small, diverse, distributed networks of operators who make use of the new, digital means of production and distribution. Post-media practice grows out of the networked activities where former boundaries caused by the use of different media has disappeared from the epicentre. Someone talked about the flesh-eating nineties (Arthur Kroker) – about a sterile and meatless cyberspace. But as I see it cyberspace as media has become invisible and open to embodiment. Even though Cyberspace is virtual it feasts in flesh. “

The boundaries between the acts of Mouchette and her surroundings is blurred by a post-media state where relations of meaning rather than media is the blurring factor. Mouchette’s identity becomes a pre-orgasmic state of mind where the catharsis never occurs, and the fear of the emptiness on the other side of redemption exceeds the lack of purification.

The desire to be seduced

Seduction becomes an element able to suspense the performative act in Internet related narratives like Mouchette. Seduction is a desire for an ever-ongoing storytelling that blends with the hypertext rather than a longing to know how it all ends.

In the case of Mouchette, the dualistic implications of seduction as a performative strategy enchant the user. To be seduced is to explore and maintain the pre-orgasmic situation. Seduction can most easily be seen when things do not try to confuse themselves with the real, but instead use play and artifice to mimic and exceed the effects of the real. The secret of seduction lies in signs with no reality behind says Baudrillard in his book Le Seduce from 1980. In this light I want to se Mouchette. She is seducing her visitor both by sexuality and playfulness.

The act of seduction is able to penetrate the screen that is blinding the real even though seduction is a surface play, says Boudrillard. It offers opportunity to go with the seducer all the way. It is a desire to be seduced, a flow of pure desire. The reality of pure seduction is engagement and immersion in all action, in the ability to spiral out of control and not care.

In the literal and filmic versions of Mouchette, she allows herself to go with the seductive play and loose control – it becomes an escape from her miserable life. The result is death. In the Internet version the desire to be seduced continues to be a desire. She is only playing with death as this example from the homepage suggests. ” With the addition of the identity sharing feature the seductive act becomes more desirable than the exposure of the true identity of Mouchette.

The matrix of cyberspace holds the potential for new performative strategies and the possibility for idealizing our body by merging with this matrix waits around the corner. The performative body choosing to become a cyborg in cyberspace is free of the limiting and defining qualities of time and space one could claim. This optimistic view points at a human drive to idealize our body – a desire to fulfil an ever-present and never obtainable feeling of being insufficient. The illusion of a perfect body maintained by the artificial, is staging an unstable field of desire. It expresses a longing that functions as ground and drive in the production of identity through image, appearance and performance.

For Mouchette the perfect body is the immaterial body that is able to escape the physical assault. She is performing disembodiment. The selferasure that meant death in 1937 and 1967 has now turned into a disembodied life outside the boundaries of time and space. She is able to stay almost 13 years old and thereby stay alive. So maybe we are not doomed to perform disembodiment as suggested, but able to perform different identities, give away an identity for others to perform and choose another one for our selves.


Baudrillard, Jean (1979): Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press 1994

Baudrillard, Jean (1980): Seduction, New World Perspectives 1990

Clynes, Manfred E. and Kline, Nathan S. (1960): Cyborgs and Space, in Gray, Cris Hables (ed.): The Cyborg Handbook, Routledge 1995

Guattari, Felix (1992): Regimes, Pathways, and Subjects, in Crary, Jonathon and Kwinter, Sanford (eds.): Incorporations, Zone.

Harroway, Donna (1991): Cyborg Manifesto, Present on homepage June 10th, 2004:

Kroker, Arthur (1996): HACKING THE FUTURE: STORIES FOR THE FLESH EATING 90S, Present on homepage June 10th, 2004:

Slater, Howard (1998): >> POST-MEDIA OPERATORS <<, in the online organisation <nettime>, Present on homepage June 10th, 2004: