Read the audioguide to the Learning from eBay exhibition

1. 49,309,225 Suns 

As you descend the escalator toward the K1 Gallery, you are riding beneath a digital collage comprising 1600 individual images of the sun from my project titled Suns from Sunsets from Flickr. I began this project in 2006 when a search on the then popular photo-sharing platform Flickr resulted in 541,795 hits for “sunset”. In 2006 that seemed like a huge number of images, but just a year later, there were 2,303,057, and as I write this, there are 49,309,225 sunsets on the site. For each installation I title the work with the number of hits I get searching “sunset” on Flickr at that time and the date--the title itself becoming a comment on the ever-increasing use of web-based photo communities and a reflection of the collective content there. And since this number only lasts an instant, its recording is analogous to the act of photographing the sunset itself.

I think we all know how many images of sunsets there are – we all take them. Perhaps part of the beauty of taking a picture of a sunset is that while you are doing it it’s likely that a million other people are doing it as well – at exactly the same time. I love this idea of collective practice, something we all engage in despite any artistic concern, knowing that there have been millions before and there will be millions after. While the intent of photographing a sunset may be to capture something ephemeral or to assert an individual subjective point of view–the result is quite the opposite - through the technology of our common cameras we experience the power of millions of synoptic views, all shared the same way, at the same moment. To claim individual authorship while photographing a sunset is to disengage from this collective practice and therefor negate a large part of why capturing a sunset is so irresistible in the first place. 

 

2. Screen-light replacing sun-light 

A few years ago, I realized that most of my studio time is spent “in screen” and that perhaps the most profound aspect of my project Suns from Sunsets from Flickr, is the fact that when viewing images of the sun online, one is actually experiencing screen-light, not sunlight. I wonder what it means to live in screen space, where sunlight is replaced with electronic signal, where time has disappeared, and images have no fixed place.

This replacement of sunlight by screen-light seems especially significant to photography, given its historical reliance on sunlight, and its traditional output on reflective medium (paper) rather than projective medium (screen). In this context, the screen replaces paper; the image replaces the photograph. And in this context the more common or invisible the technology is, the less we are aware of them.

My video, Screen Sun, is an animation using images of the sun found online. The slow dissolves between each image create moiré patterns as the various pixel resolutions of each image conflict with the next, resulting in a sun which seems to appear and disappear within the screen.   

 

3. Materiality of the screen 

As the substrate on which one sees images, the screen is invisible until something goes wrong. On consumer to-consumer websites such as eBay, Craigslist there are thousands of screens for sale in various states of disrepair. Broken and sold for parts, the sellers of these screens turn them on for the photograph to show that the electronics inside them still work. In these images, the screen that normally projects images, talking heads, histories, and drama, is mute. In some, liquid crystal and signal meet creating abstract modernist compositions. In some the seller has indicated with arrows or circles where the flaw or damage is – in these, the hand of the seller is forever embedded in the flawed screen. In some the screens are so compromised that no light is emitted from them at all - they are dark, cracked or peeling, the light that illuminates these screens is the flash from the seller’s camera. 

Ironically the incidental beauty of these screens is derived from the failure of their own promising technology. By focusing on these failed screens, I draw attention to their physical materiality. Printing their images directly on broken screens I disassembled, these ephemeral images of material damaged objects land on the actual objects they depict. And they become as material as those objects they once represented. The photographic print fixes the transient image and gives visible presence to the material surface of technology and photography - whose common goal is to be as invisible as possible.

In the installation these disassembled screens slip apart and come off the wall extending into the space, their polarizing films interfere with light that flows through them, activating and animating the images printed on them, and layered between them. Here, instead of the action taking place behind a screen with a fixed sedentary point of view (as we normally view a screen), the action is created by the viewer moving through the space, as the screens affect - and are affected by - light,  

 

4. Procession of light to dark  

Inside the galleries, the installation comprises 1852 individually printed images on the middle and outer walls, 5 videos (which comprise another 763 images), 75 used ceramic cats bought on eBay and tori.fi sitting on the boxes they were shipped in, 3 sculptures comprising used ceramic cats and disassembled broken laptops, and 24 disassembled LCD, monitor and laptop screens sourced from various e-waste warehouses. On the middle walls the prints are an assortment of collections of images of used objects for sale I’ve found over the last 10 years on eBay – things one can buy on screens. The prints along the outer walls are all the images of broken or otherwise unwanted screens I mentioned in the previous audio. I arranged these prints through the space, in order, roughly, of those that had light coming through them, to those that had no light inside them. The installation begins with light screens and ends with dark screens - a movement from the sun on the screen to night-time flash. 

There’s another movement as well. Every screen we own presents a threshold. In the process of crossing this threshold images shift from local to global, from singular to multiple, from individual to collective, private to public.

The darkest screens in the installation are from images of TVs for sale I’ve found on Craigslist. With hints of the seller’s interior space reflected in them, they function as self-portraits of the sellers, offering inadvertent glimpses of intimacy. Interestingly, as smart-phone technology gets better, and sellers are able to take pictures without using flash, we find more revealing details in these dark images.

And although these images are purely utilitarian - taken only to sell a TV - they all have embedded in them the subjectivity and individuality of the photographer/seller. Here we see gestures of intimacy, private bedrooms, piles of clothes, dirty laundry, couples in conversation, individuals in various states of undress–all accessible to an entirely anonymous public who happen to be looking for a TV.

It’s likely that the sellers have no idea that they are pictured there – on Craigslist the images are the size of thumbnails. But thinking about the promise, and ultimate absence, of intimacy that the internet fosters, I can’t help thinking there’s a subconscious undercurrent of exhibitionism in this picture - a sort of plea for attention or communication. Going from city to city on Craigslist in search of TVs has sometimes felt a little voyeuristic. But in these pictures, I am willingly invited into people’s living-rooms and bedrooms to look at the TV they want to sell. And there they are, with unmade beds, sometimes completely naked, reflected in the surface of a TV they no longer want. It’s sad, really – at one time the center of the family room, now rejected, the last picture of the TV that will exist holds on to a little ghostly image of its owner…. Or, the ghostly image is forever stuck in the machine its owner doesn’t want. 

 

5. A frieze, a fugue, or a fugue state 

In these representations of screens and things seen and sold on screens, there’s a kind of abstraction – both formal and conceptual: Everything on screen is a simulation, except for the concrete material of the screen and its light. Maybe there’s kind of an abstraction through all our experiences right now – feeling connected, but not really connected. I can’t help thinking that there’s an alienation here born out of Modernist industrialization. There’s something interesting to me about the fact that the screen’s breakdown mimics the formal aesthetics of it’s modernist predecessor. Screens are windows, when they are working, they tell us stories. But everything that comes out of a screen is made up of horizontal and vertical components— resolution, pixels, numerical code. Breaking the screen down is like seeing the DNA of modernism. 

Descended from modern industrial order, now out of order, I’ve been thinking that these screens are the epitome of where we are now – something invisible haunting us, something we always have to negotiate whether we are aware of it or not. It’s a threshold, yes, but also a point of implosion, where all spaces or identities collapse, break down and, hopefully, regenerate. Every aspect of the screen can tell us a story about who we are. The screen is an object we have the closest relationship to, that many of us engage with most of our waking hours. It might be the first thing we look at when we awake and the last thing we see before we go to sleep.

I created a frieze, and like all friezes, mine tells a story. This one is about light, surface, and reflection through the abstract elements that are the components of industrial technology. In these images light is either in front of, inside, or behind the screen. It’s a contemporary tale of our experience right now. As the screens proceed from light to dark and then back again, I am also thinking about the recursive quality of a fugue motif, with multiple layers that play in dialogue with other parts. And also, the psychological sense of a fugue state, a disorientation, loss of identity, and wandering about. For me, this disoriented state-of-being aptly describes our current experience – the replacement of sunlight with screen light, and the experience of nature subsumed to the patterns of web platforms and screen space. It’s amazing how quickly we adapt to new things, but there’s a cognitive dissonance, I think, in experiencing everything online. 

 

6. Exchange  

To the sellers, the objects in the pictures they take of them have some sort of value, but the pictures themselves have none. To me the objects in the pictures have no value, but the pictures of them do. I like this  

Juxtaposition of the art world with a consumer market - it asks a consumer public (that is all of us) to consider the value of an art object made from its own visual vocabulary, and it asks an informed art audience (also all of us) to consider a thing made form a familiar consumer object to be worthy of value. 

It would be interesting to follow the trajectory of these objects, from production to trash; to look at the material sources - minerals from Africa, shipped to China, consumed in the U.S., then shipped back to Africa or China as waste. -  another recursive fugue! But this one is so invisible on so many levels, and especially to most consumers. 

In most cases the original object will end up (at some point) in a landfill; my prints of images give them a new life - they end up in museums.

So even though much of my work points to the commonness of these photographs, and objects for sale, and the failure and obsolescence of technology, I have also found a certain beauty in these forms and in the new life I am giving them. Here the “poor” image made only for the purpose of quickly selling an unwanted or broken object gets a second life, with completely new meaning. In the process of their disoriented wandering, and losing identity, they gain a new identity: they coalesce into works of art, animated by acting upon each other, and by observation of the viewer. 

 

7. Cool cats 

Cats, in general, seem to have a ubiquitous presence on the web. They show up at unsuspecting times, in unexpected places. They entertain us with their pouncing, flying and dancing gifs. They stand-in for us as emojis. And they do all this by no agency of their own. This seemingly endless entertainment meme is all the more amusing in its total lack of self-awareness, and unwillingness to play the game. Dogs don’t possess the same disinterest—they love the attention. Cats couldn’t care less. Perhaps it’s because of this that we find the cat so amusing on the web - its composure is a foil for all our jokes. 

Seen through our glass and plastic screens, the cat provides none of the positive attributes it has in the material world – no warmth, no satisfaction of touch. This semi-domestic animal (which mostly just tolerates us) becomes something entirely different on the web, something onto which we can map our own ideas about what/who it is. Like an indoor cat, the cat on the web has no place to escape, wander off, or hide—it’s confined in a bubble of our own cultural values and exchanges. 

On eBay there are countless numbers of “used” ceramic cat figurines for sale. These cats are pictured in various domestic settings, often lovingly photographed, sometimes “looking” straight into the camera. Some seem to pose for the shot, not as the cold ceramic objects they are, but uncannily looking lovingly back at their owners/sellers. Some turn their backs on us, as though turning away, rejecting, or refusing their owner/seller as well as their potential buyers (and in my installations, the viewer).

What I find intriguing about this site of exchange is how the owners describe these cats: “Very Sweet” “He has a paw up and is looking so lovable” “He's very cute and in need of a good loving home”; “so lovable”; “warm your home with these two cute love cats”— an emotional register that can never be reciprocated. Our connection to this non-empathetic, unresponsive object seems the epitome of social abstraction: the ceramic cat is literally opaque, reflective, cold - it doesn’t show you anything of itself, it refuses to respond or to reveal…. And yet we still project emotional value onto it… these unwanted cats can’t just be thrown out.

I started collecting the white used ceramic cats on eBay - white being the most opaque pigment, most reflective, and ghostly. They come from all over the world and, here, they sit on the labels on the boxes they come shipped in (like sitting on little squares of sunshine): the box as container (like a room, or a screen) of exchange, and of location - each has the sender’s and my address. In this last room in the installation, I am thinking about a dialogue between the sun and the moon, where the sun is projective, and the moon is reflective of the sunlight. The cats here are like the moon. They are cool and inaccessible, not romantic like the sun during a sunset. They are nocturnal.  

 

 

 

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