[image] Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, ca. 1826. View from the Window at Le Gras [Direct positive image on bitumen coated pewter plate 19.685 x 16.51 cm]. Austin TX, USA: Gernsheim Collection, Harry Ransom Center.
The subject of cameras and surveillance is widely written and commented on both in academic circles and in popular culture. It’s a duopoly of mind which tugs at our notions of privacy and identity, security and comfort. As technological and manufacturing advances increasingly move into the nano-space, not only are we able to capture every second of our daily lives, but we can also instantaneously ‘transport’ ourselves into the lives of others in different location on the planet.
In a recent talk by Eleanor Heartney, author, art critic and international guest assessor for the 2014 MFA seminar at Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design, she described the artist as “having a lens on the world” (Heartney, personal communication, January, 2014). Artists not only observe and interpret on what is focused on the here-and-now, but they also comment on that which encompasses the periphery, those events, attitudes and perceptions of what is happening on the boundaries of an increasingly changing world. Through this lens the artist can question and observe what life might be like, not only on the fringes but into the future as well; a germane metaphor for the digital age. From the Hubble telescope and CCTV cameras to mobile devices and endoscopic cameras there is very little these days that is not being observed, not being monitored, not being scrutinized and not being recorded through the lens.
Ever since that moment circa 1826 when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured light and fixed an image onto a substrate, our relationship with the camera has evolved into an obsessive alliance akin to a codependence, where the camera has become a tool for almost everything humans do. Through our fascination with the capturing and recording of events, of measuring time and space, of watching ourselves and each other, the camera has re-defined our notions of self and our relationship with each other. Today, the world is an interactive space which is driven by technology, science and knowledge and we are just starting to understand how these advances continue to define us as the world becomes a much different place. The camera acts as an intermediary tool or device between subject and viewer capturing and recording our understanding of the world we interact with. It can have a powerful and revealing role as it captures evidence that can either confirm realities, offering a sense of justice and validation, or the ambiguity of truth as it reinterprets only a fraction of an event, “photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (Sontag, 1977).
This fractured view of the world mirrors how technology allows us to gather vast amounts of data about individuals and groups so that we can categorize and identify them without actually knowing or understanding them. In a similar way to Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle, our collecting of digits, bits, bytes and pixels is how humans amass information in order to understand ourselves and attempt to integrate into the digital world we live in today. We have been collecting photographic images since its invention, but at no other point in time as now has the camera been so prominent yet concurrently so obscure. We no longer print pictures of our events and share them around the coffee table, the sofa, the office or display them on our mantle pieces. The print has instead evolved into a hybrid of polymers, glass and silicon which we call a mobile device. Today we capture, collect and archive our memories and fantasies on these digital devices, and as the nanotech industry expands, the camera is becoming an omnipresent tool capable of recording our every living moment. Where we once gathered in the village square and the city halls to discuss and debate the issues and concerns of our daily lives, today we use our mobile devices to record and selectively transmit carefully chosen and highly personalized bits of information to our circle of friends and families, and as they re-broadcast them these in turn get passed on and reinterpreted by our wider peer groups and eventually to society as a whole.
These shifts in technology have changed the way our connections occur, the way we do things, the interactions we have and the social and cultural references we use. Dr. Hans Geser, quotes Judith Donath in his work Exhibited in the Global Digital Cage where she describes the way humans are redefining their roles and the way they interact within society:
Building a shelter is no longer a communal effort requiring an extensive network of close personal ties, but rather a commercial one requiring only a good relationship with a bank. Acquiring information about current events or how to do something no longer requires maintaining social ties and engaging in conversation, but instead simply watching the news or typing a query. Markets and commercial services have in many ways replaced cultivating connections. It is perhaps ironic that at the point in history when people have the greatest ability to stay in touch with each other, they are the least dependent on personal relationships for daily survival. (Donath as cited in Geser, 2008)
The move to a highly customizable and personal existence coupled with our reliance on mobile devices to communicate and observe alters our perceptions and our senses. These changes will inevitably affect our relationships with each other and could possibly gives credence to multiple identities, false expressions and fractured expectations. Where technology once promised us a paradisal view of interconnectedness, a global village of pluralist communities, sharing in a common goal the reality is that we might be disjointing ourselves as our communities get smaller, where we find less to connect with and our “hedonistic propensity leads towards a conformity of extreme individualization” (Linger, 2006). As we progress, will things continue to fracture as our technologies continue to evolve and humanity tries to keep pace with the accelerated changes occurring in society? Or, have the outcomes become less defined, more open and does it matter that they are not formalized, is this not part of evolution?
One of the camera’s original intent was to record memories and to create reference points for us to compare ourselves against in a linear fashion. As the digital world changes our concepts of what memories are and how they are made, do our markers and reference points change as well? As physical objects begin to lose their value, their personalities, and their cultural significances, does the digital space increasingly becomes the repository for our visual memories of objects from where we can reference, call up our virtual senses instantly and replicate any moment or event in our new technological existence. The digital space now acts as an extension to our reality and can broaden the boundaries of convention. As we continue to push technologies into the realm of our senses and continue to extend our field of vision might this alternative view of the world provide humanity with a new approach that could take us beyond the boundaries of societies taboos and cultural norms?
I recently noticed a young child playing with a mobile device in a store. She instinctively reached for the camera icon on the device and when the display came up, an image of me was on the screen captured from the front facing camera while I observed from behind. She was surprised to see me on the screen as if I had appeared from nowhere, and she turned around to look at me, smiled a bit embarrassed a bit mischievously as if she had done something wrong. As I pondered what life might be like with the dexterity of 360º vision and as new 3D structure sensing technologies become more common, it prompted me to ask some questions about how different things might be if we no longer relied on our periphery vision to orient us or allow us to censure certain realities while including others. Could it help societies to define their hopes of an utopian existence, or could it possibly just leave us with our ambiguous perceptual fields? The front facing camera and 3D sensing are relatively new concepts and humankind is just starting to explore its possibilities and to reveal its full implications.
In a recent MFA orientation session, discussions revolved around the changes which are occurring in society, culture, art, and how our systems and structures are beginning to redefine themselves. We now live in a world of alternative realities, modified environments, genetically altered green rabbits, surgically enhanced personalities, galleries without walls or even without paintings, sculptures or photographs; our traditional notions of what art is and what its role is in society are being challenged (Eccelston, personal communication, January 2014; Heartney, personal communication, January 2014). These new notions are morphing to redefine our sense of place with-in our existence and we should question what role they take in controlling and defining our societies and how the benefits of these unfolding consequences express our desires and needs.
Our ability to connect, to disseminate and to retrieve information is what has spurned the new ‘knowledge era’ that we live in today but increasingly it has become a policed and controlled environment which operates as a commodity and ignores the social implications it might create as it defines new systems and structures unlike anything we have imagined.
Geser, H (2008). Exhibited in the Global Digital Cage: On the Functions and Consequences of Social Net-work Sites in Complex Societies, p. 3. Retrieved February 7, 2014 from http://socio.ch/intcom/t_hgeser20.pdf
Linger, M (2006). The Culture of Taste. Retrieved February 3, 2014 from http://www.artneuland.com/article.asp?aid=29
Niépce, J. (ca. 1826). [Image] Retrieved February 12, 2014 from http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/permanent/windows/southeast/joseph_nicephore_niepce.html
Sontag, S (1977). On Photography, back cover. Retrieved February 8, 2014 from http://www.susansontag.com/SusanSontag/books/onPhotographyExerpt.shtml