By Hannah Tyler
We’ve been living on screens for a long time.*
* Just a note that this post is going to focus on the visual aspects of using the internet, but its a totally accessible medium through which people interact using a number of senses and is fairly accessible for this reason. Being the internet, I learned that screen readers can’t read text that has been separated (s e p a r a t e d) through a post about a Facebook group where people pretend to be a colony of ants.
To the point that things that happen on the internet seem like another layer of life that it’s impossible to function without. Half the stories we see between people exist in their phones; whole narratives, dramas, that never get spoken out loud. But at the moment we really do live almost wholly on the internet, for now anyway. While many people continue to go to work, our social lives—our way of existing as social beings—happens almost solely on devices. Zoom funerals, videochat raves, photos of your friend’s cooking. We think of these as real, and they are, but they’re also an interpretation of your image, just like everything else. How do you photograph the internet?
“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”—Brian Eno, “A Year With Swollen Appendices”
One of the recent ‘covers’ of The Cut magazine involved a photographer taking Chloe Sevigny’s picture over Zoom. In it is the slight distortion, the pixels on pixels, through which you can see the medium. We all post the now ubiquitous photos of chats with everyone in their little boxes, celebrating birthdays, or just Wednesday night. The aesthetic is going to frame our memories of this time.
In high school science class, my teacher asked which colours were primary colours. I, a painter, raised my hand confidently and said “red, blue and yellow”. He laughed at the artist and corrected my yellow to green. I remember being wrong, but I didn’t remember why these things were different.
In your eye you have three types of cone cells, the receptors for light: one for green, one for red, and one for blue. White is a combination of all of the colours. (All of the colours are present in that light, which is why I’ve never found white peaceful, but anxiety inducing. It is simply too much.) The colour you see is the only wavelength that surface reflects back, all other colour wavelengths are being absorbed by that surface. A red table is red because all other light wavelengths are being absorbed by that table. Black absorbs all of the colours (it is the absence of colour). Every colour, to your eye, is a combination of this blue, red, and green. If you add green and red, you get yellow. You add more colours, the thing will get lighter.
In art you are adding colours. In printing this is called CMYK (cyan magenta yellow and key) which is essentially blue, red, and yellow (plus black) dressed up slightly fancier. Experiencing something in print is slightly different to experiencing something on a screen.
When I was growing up we had a TV that was from the 80s and because it was from the 80s, planned obsolescence hadn’t been built into it yet. It kept working until the early 2000s and if you looked up close to the screen you could see little squares of blue, red, and green making up the Simpsons or the war in the Balkans on the news or the tennis or Friends.
Does the platform you view art or a piece of culture on change the way you view it? Does watching the Simpsons on my ancient TV change the experience from streaming the same episode now, on Disney+? I don’t really think so. I think it just situates you in a point in time.
Have you heard about the game where you get dropped in the middle of Google Streetview, and you have to get to an airport? If you click stealth in the options on Mapcrunch, it will drop you at a random place in the world, on the street with only your surrounding features to give you any idea where you are. The process of getting to an airport takes forever, but I usually at least want to work out where I am. In writing this, I’ve been dropped on a hill in a forest somewhere in Europe. I keep slowing down to look at the road signs but unfortunately speed signs are fairly similar wherever you are (I was in France).
I can think of very few other experiences like this, the whole world open to anyone with a device that can load street view and connect to the internet.
Despite various companies who want to sell you things using the term ‘unprecedented’ a lot throughout this lockdown, people have been using Streetview to make art for years now. People have been having to ‘work from home’ due to various conditions for a long time, and for many people it’s normal.
Streetview.portraits is an Instagram profile started by someone for whom agoraphobia and anxiety affects their ability to travel. Their art is no less their art because it’s already been captured by Streetview. Streetview is an organisation of that information, rather than a comment on it. Artist Jon Rafman also uses Streetview to take photos of things that are odd or unusual that have been captured on the program.
So when the photographer behind the Zoom portraits won’t tell The Cut how she has made her images her own, I find it bizarre. Zoom, like Streetview, is a tool—a window into another world—and you making a choice of what and how to frame something makes a portrait. Just because it’s a screenshot doesn’t stop it being yours.
Plus, everything you see is upside down anyway. I wouldn’t trust your eyes.