'It's My Birthday': Aesthetic Considerations On A Piece Of Serialised Multimedia Online Networking Artistic Production
In her book, 'Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting' (2012), Sianne Ngai argues ‘that these three aesthetic categories, for all their marginality to aesthetic theory and to genealogies of postmodernism, are the ones in our current repertoire best suited for grasping how aesthetic experience has been transformed by the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism.’ And if we are to respond to and to examine the response to a contemporary online phenomenon, the aesthetic categories Ngai proposes are much more likely to be of use to us than the Beautiful, or the Sublime. The online phenomenon in question is, of course, the ‘birthday bit’ by citrustwee, alternatively known as Evelien, or Eve. Through her accounts on the Fediverse under the username @citrustwee, she has for the past few months cultivated a habit of, every day, posting a variant of ‘it’s my birthday, give me boosts’. However, as we shall see over the course of this essay, while the late capitalist aesthetic categories of the cute, the zany, and the interesting are all at play in what might be tentatively referred to as a piece of serial art, citrustwee plays with these categories to subvert and reverse them, in an attempt to simultaneously reproduce and expand the field of aesthetic experience permitted by ‘the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions’ of creating as a large-scale account on a social media network under late capitalism. Of Ngai’s three categories, the cute is most obviously at play in the Birthday Series. On the fediverse, the most prominent component of any account’s aesthetic is its avatar, which is repeated next to every one of that account’s posts. Evelien’s avatar (Figure 1) depicts her in a style which is evidently influenced by the Japanese ‘kawaii’ style. This aesthetic, ‘organized around a small, helpless, or deformed object, that foregrounds the violence in its production as such’ is thus highly determining of the look and feel of Evelien’s accounts, and is, in addition, used and repurposed by her in her posts, for example when she uses the emoticon ‘uwu’, which has become emblematic of the kawaii aesthetic. As Ngai demonstrates, cuteness is not merely an aesthetic of the small, or even an expression of vulnerability. Cuteness is articulated within the context of tension between our competing instincts to protect the cute being, and to exploit its helplessness. There is something dark and threatening about every expression of cuteness, and especially about kawaii representations. Citrustwee exploits this tension with her Birthday Series. Her demands for boosts are not dissimilar from the cynical ‘clout-chasing’ associated with the culture of profit-making social media platforms such as Twitter or YouTube. They deliberately evoke a commodified and profit-driven approach to social media, one which prioritises the accumulation of followers or, in this case, boosts, over the creation of socially valuable content or the formation of genuine relationships with other users. However, this cynical, almost instinctively repulsive demand, emphasised by the imperative ‘give me boosts’, is paired with a simple affirmation: ‘it’s my birthday’. What does it mean, in the 21st century, on the internet, under later capitalism, for it to be one’s birthday? ‘Birthday’ is made up, of course, of two words: birth, and day. But what’s is birth, and what is day?
Perhaps it’s time we took a step back.
One of the most popular ‘happy birthday’ songs in the Anglosphere is Stevie Wonder’s appropriately titled ‘Happy Birthday’. ‘Happy Birthday’ was written in order to promote the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday in the United States of America. Today, it is widely listened to and sang to celebrate the birthday of one’s family or friends or self. A song which was written to promote a specific socio-political cause and celebrate the memory of an exceptional activist has become nothing more than another piece of uninspiring background music, just as Martin Luther King Jr.’s own image has been sanitised, and commodified, and put at the service of our hypercommodified world, his speeches cut and pasted onto car commercials, his legacy reduced to a few soundbites repurposed to fortify the values of Western liberal democracies.
Perhaps it’s time we stepped back a little further.
John Cage tells us, in his ‘Lecture on Nothing’ (1959):
What we require is silence; but what silence requires is that I go on talking.
More than any other, the experience of being born is snatched away from us at the first opportunity. The ritualised repetition of the ‘day’ of one’s birth (already one step removed from the event of the birth) is less an attempt to reclaim, reconnect with, or relive this event, than it is a naked admission of the impossibility of such an operation. Birthdays are the days which declare most loudly to us ‘I, too, will pass’. Every single one of our birthdays is marked by this, the fact of both its singularity and its inevitable transience. It is true of every single one of our birthdays, of course, that we will only get one of them. But this also applies to every other day, or moment, of our lives. We will only have one 2nd of February 2019. We only had one 1st of February 2019. It is this paradox at the heart of the very concept of a birthday which Citrustwee reclaims and reverses. Rather than stage for us a performance of a birthday which proclaims its own difference even in the face of its obvious sameness, Citrustwee performs the birthday precisely as a self-conscious performance, and thus something inherently reproducible. For beyond its obvious formal properties, is not the defining characteristic of performance this marriage of uniqueness and reproducibility? Every performance of a play is inherently transient and unique, but it is also inherently a copy of an untraceable original, it is already a repetition.
All of this, of course, has been nothing but beating around the bush.
And what’s in the bush is that every iteration of a repeated pattern is unique. If each of Citrustwee’s birthday posts had been identical (which they haven’t), the thirteenth post would still have been different from the twelfth, by virtue of being the thirteenth post. In other words, the repetition of the joke fundamentally alters the joke. The joke becomes the repetition of the joke. Which is to say that the joke becomes fundamentally autonymous; it signifies itself, declares its own performativity. If the reappropriation of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’, and its incorporation into America’s white culture is tragic, it is a tragedy of predestination. Wonder’s project was always incorporation, normalisation, let us be blunt: assimilation. What is a national holiday if not the flattening out of the features of that which is being celebrated into a universalised opportunity to celebrate the institution that grants the holiday, in this case: liberal democracy. No matter the intention behind it, the demand to turn Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday into a national holiday will always involve the reduction of Martin Luther King Jr. to the single least remarkable thing about him: his birthday. For is there anything more ordinary than to be born? And yet, even this, the one thing all human beings have in common, that regardless of the precise method of delivery, our lives begun, at some point, somewhere, even this most commonplace of events is obscured, its fleshiness, its wetness, its painfulness, disappeared under the poor approximation for a birth that is a birth day. Rather than situate us within a general trajectory of a ‘lifetime’, what our birthdays do first and foremost is situate us within the specific trajectory of the day that it is. Never more than on our birthday do we think, it’s ten hours into my birthday, only fourteen hours of my birthday left, thirteen, twelve, ten…
If our lives are a stream of piss, our birthdays are kidney stones that feel like they last much longer than they really do.
When we boost a Citrustwee birthday post, what are we doing really? Are we obeying an order? Doing someone a favour? Voicing our amusement? Acknowledging recognition? Performing a near-automated task? Mocking our followers in tandem with her? Greeting an old friend? Reaffirming our inclusion in a circle of knowing insiders? Or just wishing her a happy birthday?
The answer is, of course, all and none or one of these at the same time.
The Birthday Series uses time and memory as its medium to create a formal aesthetic event which is startling for both its essential simplicity and the multiplicity of the responses it elicits. Like any serial artwork, it has the potential never to end, and our own ongoing journey as its audience reflects this potential. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Birthday Series, by its very nature, will never end. Its potential for infinity is already realised in its original unfinished — and unfinishable — form.
2 February 2019, The Fediverse, im gay