On Building the Public Self through Expressive Media. A Case Study: The New Media Artist's Public Image


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date17 Jan 2022


The urge to understand the self is an eternal and ever-progressing human endeavour. In this thesis, the new media artist’s public image is used as a new case to explore the public self. Artists see exploring the self as their mission, while new media artists take this mission to another level in the contemporary digital era. Based on existing literature from five major fields – including dramaturgical theory and information boundary theory from sociology, the semiotics of art from semiology, the “encoding and decoding” model from communication, emotion and facial expression studies from psychology, and digital promotion, self-branding, and art economy from marketing – interdisciplinary practice-based research is conducted in this thesis, with the goal of investigating how new media artists use expressive media to build a public self.

To that end, mixed methodologies are applied in this thesis: autoethnography is used to analyse my artwork Voice in Void; case study is used to analyse five new media artists and their artworks (Tamas Waliczky and “Imaginary Cameras,” Lu Shan and “Samsara Ethics,” Max Hattler and “Serial Parallels,” Eugenia Kim and “Mu,” and Lin Xin and “The Order of Bugs”); experimental design from the field of HCI (human-computer interaction) is used to analyse thousands of online images returned according to different search queries; and cognitive analysis of practice-based research is used to analyse my research-inspired artwork Dream of Happiness.

The major findings of this thesis can be summarized into four sections: 1. Major findings directly connected with public self building, including channel usage characteristics (four for artwork and three for social media), building strategies (intentional actionlessness and conflictive growth), the six characteristics of the ideal public image (authenticity, loneliness, coolness, balancing publicity and privacy, the invisibility of artists vs. the visibility of artworks, and self-construction over pleasing audiences), two layers of reasons (artists and new media artists), and the relationship with emotions; 2. Six new theoretical proposals, including two models (the “Emotional Flow” model and “artists as enterprises”) and four concepts (the emotional statement, media as filters, intentional actionlessness, and socially-constructed happiness); 3. Two artworks (Voice in Void and Dream of Happiness) are presented and analyzed; 4. Noise design is one major revision to the “encoding and decoding” model of communication when it is applied to art discourse.

Based on this analysis of new media artists, the contributions of this thesis towards understanding the construction of a public self can be summarized into three perspectives: a psychological perspective, an economic perspective, and a communicational perspective. From the psychological perspective, the “Emotional Flow” model lays the foundation for the classification of emotions related to art , revealing a new way of building public self using emotional traits, which is identified in this thesis as the emotional statement. Facial expressions translate internal emotions to the external public self, while a unified image like socially-constructed happiness is condemned. From the economic perspective, within the envisioning of an economic model that proposes “artists as enterprises,” the public self can be considered as a product being sold, and the incorporation of company branding and self-branding is made possible. From the communicational perspective, two major revisions, media as filters and noise design, are added to the “encoding and decoding” model of communication. Additionally, the concept of Intentional Actionlessness is put forward as a way to describe the situation of intentionally not building a public self. This paradoxical way of seeing the public self is artist-specific.