When I was growing up, there were only so many ways to identify. Today, the list of labels and markers is ever-growing, across an array of axes—from gender and sexuality to philosophy and spirituality, across the phases of one’s life. In tandem with the proliferation of ways to define who we are, we’ve also reconstructed understandings of how we do so.
In Document’s Fall/Winter 2023 issue, we examine the horizons of identity today. Can multiple selves be authentic at once? How do ancestries and histories linger, and is it possible to move beyond the weight of the past? Can personhood be self-determined? Does partaking in community—seeking out shared attributes—help or hinder individuality? Where and when does dressing up, or playing pretend, bring us closer to who we really are?
In pursuit of answers, we traverse the globe—from winding Italian streets to the North African coasts, from a city where the dead outnumber the living to a desert oasis. Our reach extends across generations, too. Joan Jonas reflects on her decades-long career and the evolution of her artistic philosophies. Pages later, Juergen Teller and Dovile Drizyte, reimagine iconic works in a portfolio with their baby, Iggy, as its star. We examine the changing moods of identity over time, with artists Paul Sepuya and Ryan McNamara as they interrogate the evolution of performance, responding to new technologies that allow us more control of our image than ever before.
We hear from today’s foremost artists and thinkers, all grappling with what it means to be a person in today’s tumultuous and ever-changing world. The authentic self isn’t always raw, obscured by social varnishes—it’s something more mercurial. Jodie Foster and David Sedaris offer glimpses of their true selves—the ones that differ from the artistic, public-facing versions of themselves. Identities are made from and reflected in our physical world, too. “Arrangements of how things exist also come from somewhere,” architect Sumayya Vally tells artist Alvaro Barrington. “I’m not saying that we should be throwing away all of these forms that we’ve inherited. But there are so many cultures that have different ways of being.” Identity—whether of a person, a community, or a place—is no longer stagnant and innate, but a more amorphous creature.
“Can multiple selves be authentic at once? How do ancestries and histories linger, and is it possible to move beyond the weight of the past? Can personhood be self-determined?”
There are tangible representations of this: McKenzie Wark examines the proliferation of identity flags, which, she explains, “solves the problem of inclusion and exclusion in a way that makes it a fractal—each identity splitting into smaller ones that are different—but still of the same shape.” Conversely, simplifying our identities can be a means of understanding or translating the self. “Narrative structures rely on archetypes. Otherwise, the story gets too confusing…” Martine Gutierrez muses, reflecting on her artistic practice. “That’s my childhood understanding of why everybody on the playground needed to know, Are you this, or are you that?” Perhaps the challenge of contemporary identity is not the task of learning new ways of being, but learning to accept that which we don’t know, finding comfort in a society with less fixed points of reference.
Our fashion portfolios for this issue took the names of self-portraits—visual and written. Creative and fashion director Sarah Richardson arranged a striking array of inspiring fashion for the issue, with the help of stylists Robbie Spencer, Camilla Nickerson, Camille Bidault-Waddington, and image-makers Jackie Nickerson, Larissa Hofmann, Coco Capitán, and Thue Nørgaard. Beauty Director Lucia Pieroni and Mélanie + Ramone portray faces before wider images of the body, exhibiting how we can transmit who we are with the tilt of the lips or a brief gaze. Later, Malick Bodin interprets couture design as a national identity within Paris. Venetia Scott channels visual identity through striking images of Sandra Hüller in Leipzig, a city whose aesthetics straddle classical German architecture and the concrete Brutalism of East German design. Throughout, our artists question the importance of objects and meaning: Can motocross helmets, fruit bursting from a bag, and a car covered with a tarp tell us as much about ourselves as a portrait?
This issue perhaps prompted even more questions than it answered—which is, really, the point of it all. Identity isn’t meant to be solid, stagnant, or easily definable. It’s forever in flux.