Q&A with Anna Russett
“Anna and the Annas”
by Vasia Rigou
Anna Russett is a self(ie)-declared queen. With 101K followers on Instagram, 30K on YouTube, and 15K on Twitter, her strong online presence and her use of it within her artwork, granted her invitations to co-host major events (surpassing 13,500+ attendees) in New York (Terminal 5,) Los Angeles (Hollywood Palladium) and Chicago, including the Riviera theatre and Lollapalooza. With millions of views on her YouTube channel and immersed completely in the vulnerability in which she exists online, she allows her audience to shape and transform her practice, one “Comment” or “Like” at a time. With her blonde hair and huge blue eyes, she is tiny enough to look like a life-size Barbie doll ready to be played with. By curating her social netstreams, Russett, a recent graduate from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC,) performs her developing online identity through photo, video, and text, forfeiting partial control over anything she produces/posts. Bits and pieces of the self-proclaimed “Queen of the Tweens” herself, lay strewn across the cyber landscape for others to pick up, remold, remix. She’s here to explain how.
Vasia Rigou: So you’re Google-ing yourself every day…
Anna Russett: Yes! I’m always searching my name and different variations of my name. Not only just on Google, though, but also on Twitter and Facebook. While I’m absolutely obsessed with how search engines scrape up info on me, I’m mainly just looking for “appropriations” of my images and/or identity by others.
V.R: Tell me about your online presence. How did it all start?
A.R: Ever since I was young, I’ve been really into putting out a lot of myself online. I connected with netizens, like myself, and was part of various communities creating videos on YouTube and posting content to sites like Flickr and MySpace. Imitating people I admired I started to produce my own videos and content on my own interests and from there, my presence began to hatch. But it wasn’t until I opened an Instagram account in the summer of 2012 that I began to rapidly grow online. I’d share images from my daily life, my Chicago adventures, my art practice, my family. My sister [Andrea Russett] was also putting out videos –we both took off in our own ways, overlapping in some areas and appearing in each other’s content from time to time.
V.R: An insight into social media can force us into a double life. How is online Anna different from offline Anna?
A.R: The only real difference between online and offline Anna is that when I’m online, I can “curate” myself differently than I can offline. I try hard to be very “real” online, and I often feel more like myself while traversing URLs than I do AFK [away from keyboard]. Expression is easier and feels more natural online (laughs) –this is ironic considering how much my online content is reused, remixed and recreated.
V.R: How did you locate your first “fake Anna?”
A.R: I can’t remember my first fake Anna, but I think it must have been on Facebook. I would find fake Anna Russett profiles and instantly report them and have them deleted. Soon I realized I really wanted to explore these accounts and study them within the context of my practice so I have been documenting them for a few months now. I discover them across all platforms. I don’t think I have an exact number, but there have been probably somewhere over fifty.
V.R: Identity theft is a serious crime, how easy is it to handle it without freaking out?
A.R: Well, so far I haven’t found any accounts stealing serious personal information of mine, like my bank account info, so I’m not too worried –not yet. The accounts usually stick to role-playing as me. I’ve only approached a few of them, and always under my own fake account. I just have an intense curiosity to find out the why. I’m interested in how they perform me, what images they use and what aspects of my life they highlight or make up. My intrigue cancels out any potential panicking.
V.R: And you started using social media as research material…
A.R: I’ve been interested in how people use social media (laughs) –how trendy of me– so this seemed like an obvious area to explore once I stumbled upon it. Researching from the inside I could collect and study personal, topic-specific material exploring the online “double identity,” anonymity, pseudonymity and the online persona.
V.R: n a way, you have your very own guinea pigs. Where do you draw the line between respect towards your fans and your natural curiosity to collect data for your artistic research?
A.R: I am invested in respecting and maintaining the loyalty of my fans, so I try to keep my work pretty transparent. Everything I make is available online for anyone to find. I don’t trick my fans into saying anything they would regret -everything put online is open and has the chance to be saved and documented. I want them to realize that. I simply produce content and ponderings from my daily life documenting how people react. I think one of the most important elements to maintaining respect within a group is to be fully involved. We are a community. I don’t view them as test subjects, but rather as a group of individuals who are interested in the same things I am. My pet peeve is when people make work about social media from an outside perspective. That’s why I immerse myself within this community, so that I can speak about these issues sincerely, with the utmost legitimacy and respect.
V.R: hat kind of material do you expect to find? Any idea what you’re doing with it, or how it would potentially inform your art making?
A.R: I’ve been collecting Instagram comments and Twitter replies for a while now. If I see something that strikes my eye, I screenshot them and catalogue them into different folders for later use. I always look around for fake accounts, too. From this material, I’ve created a photo series called “i ❤ instagram” in which I utilized my Instagram comments to create images of myself through the eyes of my audience.
V.R: What is the role of “selfie culture” and transformations in your work/research?
Selfies are important digital artifacts of this era. While many tend to write them off as products of vanity, they actually speak to a person’s self-expression and work as a new way to identify themselves and communicate with others. Alicia Eler, Chicago-based writer at Hyperallergic and selfie advocate, also notices how this generation is “using Instagram to visually communicate with their friends, like older generations did through note-passing and phone calls.” Now that so many people have smartphones and other devices, more people can make their mark in the world permanent. Better than any other medium could do in the past, Selfies say “I was here, I existed.” Then expanding even beyond that, this turned into, “This is how I existed.”