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Gemma San Cornelio: «Digitalization has empowered us as audiovisual creators»

Rubén Permuy
Interview with Gemma San Cornelio, a researcher from the MEDIACCIONS research group in communication and digital culture

What is your academic background?

I have a degree in Fine Arts from the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV). I specialized in three broad areas: audiovisual media, design and, finally, conceptual art, which is the subject of my artistic work related to identity and gender issues. I did my final academic year at the Australian National University thanks to a grant. I also spent some time at the Department of Photomedia of the Canberra School of Art, where, as well as expanding my knowledge of photography, video and audiovisual media, we studied a specialization they called Interactive Multimedia that involved creating websites, CD-ROMs, etc, things from the ’90s, which introduced me to the world of art and digital communication. Later I was given a grant to work at the Department of Audiovisual Communication, Documentation and Art History at the Faculty of Fine Arts. I got my PhD by combining different research grants with applied projects on design themes and also completed a postgraduate course on Digital Communication. In those years I combined my work with art, design and research with some of the topics that I’ve gone on to develop in my later research. The doctoral degree was part of the Audiovisual Communication programme and included communication contents in the different branches; I did my thesis by mixing art and digital communication topics focused on representation and identity. In the 1990s there were many theories that talked about identity as a mask, about how you could be another person online, when internet was textual. There was also a series of theories related to art, contemporary theories that experimented with different identities. Based on this I came up with a highly interdisciplinary and eclectic proposal for my thesis.

What have you done at the UOC?

I’m a professor at the UOC Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences, specifically courses in the bachelor’s degrees in Communication and Digital Design and Creation. My specialization concerns the issues related to creativity, aesthetics and visual culture... in other words, the courses that form part of a more creative field.

I’m a member of MEDIACCIONS, an interdisciplinary research group that includes research professors from the Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities. Elisenda Ardèvol is the principal investigator. We work in the field of digital culture and have created different projects over the past few years.

Among the recent projects we’ve developed with the research group are SelfieStories and personal data, funded by the BBVA Foundation and completed almost a year ago. However, we’re still processing the results because we’ve accumulated a great deal of data, partly quantitative, based on extracting some from the Instagram app, and the rest from the ethnographic field. Using the selfie as a resource, we carried out methodological experimentation using mixed methods to explore personal narratives.

More recently, we’ve finished a project called Caçadors d’històries del futur (Hunters of Stories from the Future), funded by Barcelona City Council. The PI is Toni Roig. In this project we set out to create a board game to create stories dealing with the future, using narrative and storytelling as a creative tool to speculate about what it will be like. We’ve tried the game out in different schools in Barcelona and will be presenting it at the Science Festival. The idea of speculating about the future was the main theme of another project that has also just been completed, D-Future: Prácticas de futuro: espacios de creación digital e innovación social (D-Future: Future Practices: Digital Creation Spaces and Social Innovation), funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness, and focused on narrative. There are also other dimensions to how we think about the future through technology and other case studies carried out by other colleagues in the group.

Do we take selfies out of narcissism?

The idea of narcissism is one of the clichés we wanted to avoid in this project. Firstly, no one has provided data-based evidence that this is the case and, secondly, it’s not part of our field. This is something psychologists are concerned with, but it’s not something we pursue in the project. We wanted to study why people decide to take a selfie or how the selfie forms part of personal narrative, because the selfie alone says nothing – it’s part of something greater. And it’s not as widespread as we think because when we’ve analysed it quantitatively there haven’t been that many, nor are they that important. It’s important in a few specific moments when people decide to take a selfie. It has a lot to do with the idea of recording a significant moment, which is one of the traditional functions of photography. Most selfies are taken by young people and some studies have found that more are taken by women than men, but we haven’t found this in our data. There is a related and unproven argument that links the selfie with the idea of superficiality, banality and narcissism.

With today’s technology, are we all audiovisual creators?

Yes, and we’ve also worked on this, especially in past projects: collective creativity or the day-to-day creativity of users, quotidian creativity. There is a kind of empowerment, a certain command of the technological tools used to record, a mastery of the image. On social media networks like Instagram you can see a high level of visual quality in the pictures there, and we’ve been evolving to this point.

What books in your field would you recommend?

One of the books I recommend is L’esthétisation du monde (The Aestheticization of the World), by Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy, which talks about how we live in a world where the aesthetic image is very important. It adopts a critical but also provocative perspective. The authors argue that capitalism, characterized as having made everything “ugly”, may have done some good: prioritizing the aesthetic experience, for example. They use the concept of transaesthetics, which is not only part of art but also crosses different spheres of cultural production. The book covers design, architecture, fashion and how all of this has in some way been shaping a taste for beautiful things.

Another book I recommend is called The Invention of Creativity, by Andreas Reckwitz, which links this obsession with aesthetics to creativity. We are very interested in everything being beautiful, and this development has resulted in creativity becoming extremely important in social and institutional fields. This more sociological book also highlights other issues related with creativity, such as creative work, insecurity and how the conceptions of creativity as something linked to personal enjoyment mean that in the end we accept precarious conditions simply to be able to do an activity we like; somehow, it has this trade-off.

I think these books are interesting because they bring together all the obsessions we’ve been working on.