By SARAH STONE, core faculty member in the Department of Writing, Consciousness, and Creative Inquiry
Our seat companion on the long flight to Paris was French, I think, though he didn’t talk to us and looked away as if we weren’t there, except for sideways glances. He wore a perfectly fitting turtleneck and high-collared expensive jacket; he was handsome, in his late 20s or early 30s, with an elegant, nervous, secretive face and big dark eyes, and he seemed restless, playing almost constantly on his computer or handheld video game. For most of the trip, he pressed a fashionably fringed coarse cotton plaid bandana to his lips, the kind one might buy from a stall in an open-air market. At first I thought he might have a cold, but in fact he was hiding his thumb, which stayed in his mouth for most of the trip. This explained his glances—perhaps he thought we might not see what he was doing, was checking to see if we did. Maybe he felt that by willing secrecy, he had achieved it, even though his personal relationship to airplane trips had to take place in public, the way most of our personal lives have become documented and displayed.
A friend said before we left, “I look forward to seeing your photographs on Facebook!” But apart from 30 or so pages of emailed letters to our immediate families, we took the trip in private. With no digital connections in our phones and finding ourselves unexpectedly unable/unwilling to navigate the questions of self-exposure, we photographed nothing and posted no status updates. (Another friend had said to someone else, “But these photographs of Cuba look exactly like the photographs anyone would have taken of Cuba!”) We went only to well-traveled places: Paris, Milan, Florence, Venice, Paris. And what we saw and felt was very like what thousands of people around us were seeing and feeling (here, for example, is the kind of shot of Venice I would have taken. And here’s a photo that’s quite a bit like the view of the Promenade Plantée from our Paris studio—though we were only on the fifth floor and not in mid-air, of course.)
The trip was not newsworthy in any way, though we’re expecting it to be useful in our current writing projects. Why would anyone be interested (apart from aging parents, who will never again take any trip that isn’t virtual and who could use some distraction from, for example, the disheartening process of losing one’s cognitive abilities while being chewed up, slow mouthful by slow mouthful, by Parkinson’s disease)? It’s a question most artists struggle with: Why will anyone care what I have to show about these people or places? What is it I have to add to the sagging shelves of the world’s writing? In my teaching, I work with fiction writers, memoirists/poets, dramatic writers, sometimes visual or performance artists or filmmakers, quite often writers or artists working in multiple cross-genre or interdisciplinary forms. Everyone has different tasks, but one shared job is getting past the photographs—real or metaphorical—that anyone would take under the same circumstances.
This may be on my mind because of a fascinating, troubling show in Florence at Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina, the contemporary section of the Palazzo Strozzi: “Virtual Identities." From the English translation: “The exhibition presents works and installations by international artists designed to trigger a reflection on the political, social and cultural implications—but also on the impact on personal life—of the new relationship between man and technology under the guise of the 'virtual identity' with which we increasingly confront reality, at times without even realizing it.”
The show tackled the effects on us of our technologies, the mysteries of data collection and data mining, the ways information is magnified and distorted online, our own multiple efforts to be heard. Just a few examples here, not enough, because every artist was doing something rich and provocative. In “I am Neda,” Diana Djeddi worked with the CCC Strozzina to document the complicated misunderstandings and mistaken identities in the murder of Iranian protester Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009. Photographer Evan Baden captured zoned-out internet-junkie kids, lit only by screens in a beatified blankness—bodies in front of us, minds in another world. Robbie Cooper put cameras inside TV and computer screens to show an unadulterated view of teenagers playing violent video games or watching horror movies, their discomfort or avidity, one child crying, other kids scarily aroused. The Italian conceptual group Les Liens Invisibles organized a (later suppressed) Facebook mass “suicide” complete with fake profiles of famous suicides. Nicholas Felton had a couple of years of his catalogues of every action and consumption of his life (including an atlas). Christopher Baker’s “Hello World! Or how I learned to stop listening and love the noise,” a multi-channel video installation, collaged 5,000+ YouTube and Facebook video blogs to create a whole wall of tiny faces, their words an indistinguishable background hum.
Video artist Natalie Bookchin created the most purely delightful piece (though I also found it sad), a wall-sized medley of split-screen dancers in their rooms, culled from FB, YouTube, and MySpace, and “choreographed” to “The Lullaby of Broadway.” Her website links to a tiny version. In “Mass Ornament,” after a series of empty bedrooms or living rooms, multiple dancers, each in their own video, perform eerily similar moves—undulating, gymnastic, or mockingly childlike—the same gestures at the same times from strangers in similar rooms, all performing “a dance that is both utterly private and extraordinarily public.”