From the Archives

The Girl Chewing Gum, and the Perils of Google

Today from the DS Archives we bring you an article written by Michelle Shultz about British film and video artist John Smith’s most recent work. While Shultz focuses on the compulsion to research one’s online presence, the issue of reserving the rights to personal property that has made it onto the web seems a subject worth considering alone. With the onslaught of online privacy issues, we are faced with the potential subjugation of our work on a daily basis. In the two years that have passed since Shultz discusses “unusual Red Cardigan,” the same problem that this John Smith addresses has become one that the rest can relate to.

The following article was origianally published on December 3, 2011 by Michelle Schultz:

Googling yourself can ultimately be a very dangerous, and addictive, thing to do. And with the automation of Google Alerts, this fundamentally narcissistic activity is even less guilt-ridden – just passively sit back and every tidbit of information about you uploaded into cyberspace is sent straight to your inbox. As I recently discovered, you can often find yourself in unexpected and somewhat cringeworthy contexts – however, John Smith has harnessed this power in his latest exhibition unusual Red cardigan at PEER, London, and compiled an engrossing exploration of digital identification, fanatical tributes and the inherent nature of the remake.

John Smith, The Girl Chewing Gum, 1976, video still. Courtesy of the artist.

The East London artist and filmmaker has developed quite a following – one of his earliest works, The Girl Chewing Gum (1976), is a simple, yet brilliant narrative film that has spawned a host of online imitations and tributes. Smith’s version shows a street corner in Dalston, where an omnipresent voice directs the characters on camera – however it very quickly becomes apparent that the voice-over is postscripted, thereby disrupting the chain of cause and effect, and conflating fact and fiction. Laced with his notorious dry wit and anecdotal eccentricities, Smith destabilises the documentary form through his narration, driving our perception of the events through language, and exposing the conditions which determine how we read an image. The humour implicit in Smith’s films is derived from the unapologetic juxtaposition of what we know, and what he tells us – the pronounced gaps between the two rendered as sarcasm.

John Smith, unusual Red cardigan, installation view at PEER, London, 2011. Photo: Chris Dorley-Brown. 

The assortment of homages and bootlegged versions of The Girl Chewing Gum which Smith has compiled over the years are included here within the exhibition, and inspired the artist to revisit the video himself – if everyone else could remake the video, why shouldn’t Smith do the same? Returning to the same street corner he filmed 35 years earlier, Smith traced his earlier movements to create The Man Phoning Mum (1976/2011). Layering the new footage directly on top of the original, Smith blurs the past and present creating a jarring vision of how drastically things have changed, and yet, how some things still remain the same.

John Smith, The Man Phoning Mum, 1976/2011, video still. Courtesy of the artist and PEER, London. Photo: Chris Dorley-Brown.

These individuals featured in Smith’s films – the girl with her gum, the man on the phone – become unsuspecting subjects in the narrative construction, much like the recent object of Smith’s fascination…

John Smith, unusual Red cardigan, lightbox text. Courtesy of the artist and PEER, London.

Smith’s Sherlockian investigation began by trying to piece together digital clues and culminated in bidding, winning and receiving various items from serenporfor’s eBay collection. Now in the gallery,  juxtaposed with the girl chewing gum, they are relics of an individual unaware that their discarded possessions have been recuperated as art. What can they tell us about serenpofor? What can we learn about an individual through that which they toss away? I do believe that Smith’s investigation into this particular case is far from over…

John Smith, unusual Red cardigan, installation view at PEER, London, 2011. Photo: Chris Dorley-Brown.

However, let this be a lesson leaned – when you enter the digital world, you forfeit a certain level of control. The amount of information that can be gleaned online is alarming. But then again, your image can be co-opted simply when walking down the street. Quite literally, there is nowhere to hide. I wonder what serenpofor would think if she googled herself?