Role Models and Role Playing
Roles, actors, stages, scripts… a glance at the imagery of these terms reveals society as a theatre. We are all actors playing different cultural, social and biological roles. According to Erving Goffman ("The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life“) life is a theatre in which we perform different roles in order to fulfil social norms and expectations and to present our own “self”. While society depends on a smooth coordination of actors and roles and “spoilsports” are marginalized, subjected to
therapy, locked up or locked out, art deals with problematic areas of friction and breaking points between roles and actors. It reflects our desire to look behind the mask, where we seem to expect “authentic” persons.
Hippolyte Bayard's early photographic self-portraits as a drowned man and as a suicide, the pictures of Duchamp’s alter ego Rrose Sélavy or Christian Jankowski’s video installation, in which he turns the museum staff into actors and instructs them to reverse roles. They all engage in performative games with role models. This can be roles which assume the artist’s ego in the selfportrait or comment on the role understanding of the corresponding time with regard to group or individual identities (social class, ethnicity, gender, age,..) and social power structures.
This is the first exhibition – featuring photographs, graphics, videos and installations - that gives a comprehensive survey of the phenomenon of role playing as a theme of art, from paraphrased tableaux vivants of the 19th century to role-playing games in internet-based social networks. In order to do justice to the historicity and heterogeneity of role-playing, the exhibition subdivides this
phenomenon into thematic fields and follows these fields over time.
Problems and concepts of identity were central themes of contemporary art of the 1990s, which were briefly addressed in various exhibitions. Many works and exhibitions focused on concepts of female identity. This interest is also reflected in the academic field: In 1990 Judith Butler published her epoch-making study Gender Trouble, which no longer describes gender as a biological property, but as the result of the repetition of actions which code the body as female or male.
What has happened since the debate of the 1990s? In which way has our role understanding been influenced by the media? In the 1998 movie The Truman Show the protagonist is monitored by 5000 cameras 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while “everyday life” is simulated with gigantic effort. This was presented as a dark vision of the future at that time. The reality show Big Brother, which was first broadcast in 2000, has changed the distinction between private and public role. A whole generation of casting show – optimized teenagers seem to have abandoned the heavenly ingenuousness of authentic self-presentation. Since the 1968 generation’s demand for spontaneity and authenticity has been unmasked as paradox, we can find a playful approach to roles and an effortless switching between roles today. In their “second life” and in internet forums people Hippolyte Bayard, Selfportait as Drowned Man, 1840 Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1977 Claude Cahun, Untitled (Selfportait), 1928 2 assume virtual identities; in their real life they realize their fantasies by assuming roles as "Cosplayers" (costume play). In this phenomenon of youth culture, which has been imported from Japan, teenagers effortlessly don costumes to represent fictitious characters which they imitate in great detail and play in their everyday lives. The difference between one’s own self and a role is becoming increasingly precarious.
Repetitions and duplication are of central importance for role-playing, a fact which is also emphasized by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble or Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In the field of art this results in a special punchline, as the role as such can be recognized in the repetition of an iconographic model or a specific work of art, which can be observed for example in the tableau vivant or the cosplayers. Self-presentation turns out to be a re-enactment. Here we encounter a central theme of contemporary art: the re-enactment of works of art is a method of Appropriation Art, and sampling and working with images has transformed the phenomenon of karaoke into a method.