Capture 2023 Writing Prize Recipient
My phone’s camera roll is filled with trash. An indulgent spread of under-thought, hot, steaming garbage. Nightscapes that were breathtaking when experienced in the flesh but were (aesthetically) undone by the technical limitations of my phone’s camera. Multiple series of a dozen or so busted selfies that were necessary in order to get “the one.” Images, saved from auction sites and web stores, of objects of desire that I will never buy, but keep stored on my phone’s hard drive regardless. Thousands of accumulated images that seem unworthy of existing; a series of mementos that barely register as meaningful to me. The ease of the camera roll – its electronic ethereality – almost invites accumulation.
Conversations with friends and others suggest that this compulsive act of imaging nearly everything and anything is common. My interest in the excess of the camera roll is prompted by two elements – an art-historical interest in the redeployment of quotidian materials and their value in techno-capitalism. Although collage, assemblage, and the (re)deployment of found objects are techniques that have become embedded art practices since the modern period, histories of filmic and photographic montage offer a fertile ground zero from which to begin a discussion of the camera roll.
Here, I offer three loose sketches of the convergence between art production and the diaphanous space of our phones’ pictorial archive, contextualized through the work of Nabil Azab, Marisa Kriangwiwat Holmes, and Giovanni Fredi.
Illegible Subjects: Nabil Azab
It feels as if the selling point for every new generation of iPhone is centered first and foremost on the camera. Boasting advances in zoom functions and resolution, smartphones are now sold under the guise of optical clarity. For me, what renders Azab’s practice compelling is the interest in subjectivity and non-transparency: his images are unintelligible but bear the unmistakable mark of the maker’s hand. What does it mean to produce illegible images? Are they a celebration of the archive’s excess, in that these photographic subjects are rendered in ways not intended by technology’s promise of crystalline precision? Looking at Azab’s work, I am reminded of Édouard Glissant’s notion of opacity, in which he argues that relationships between subjects are framed not by a need to understand each other but by a recognition of the fundamental impossibility of mutual understanding. The unrecognizable and non-citational nature of Azab’s work refuses the myth of the camera’s scientific objectivity while underscoring the potentially sublime (via formal elements that exaggerate the aesthetic qualities of the actual subject) or ecstatic (via technical errors rendered through the excitement of taking the photograph) nature of what may be considered as technological faults. His images, which may be read as opaque, have a bodily element to them in the sense that we begin to wonder, when looking, what it was about the experience of taking the picture that made it compelling enough to develop further. His recent corpus of work, which includes projections of images from his family archive that are photographed via long exposure, enters the territory of light painting, drawing a byline between the physicality of experience and its ethereality when rendered in photographic form.
Categorical Osmosis: Marisa Kriangwiwat Holmes
A picture of the artist’s brother is swarmed by small stickers and flanked by images of roses (the origin of these may be wholly the artist, or they may be sourced from elsewhere). The two ideas at play in Kriangwiwat Holmes’s oeuvre (and particularly in this image) are the role of commercial imagery in the construction of the self and the illegibility of photographic origins. I use “commercial” loosely, here – not only referring to images used for marketing, but the industry of stock images, and also the way in which photographs are constantly circulated on the web at large, contributing to data extraction and site traffic. In short, any image that wasn’t taken by you. In an era marked by the endless cycle of image reposting – which obfuscates the hand and name of the original maker – Kriangwiwat Holmes plays with this tension by employing imagery so benign, it could swing either way. She doubles down on this effect by leaning into modes of commercial photography, which are, by default, largely anonymous. Her interest in commercial photography harkens back to one of the major components of my camera roll as mentioned earlier: product shots. Her juxtaposition of familial images and stock photography gestures toward the ideas posited by Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle; namely, the way in which media presents commodities (or objects of desire) as things that stand for ideas of things beyond the commodity’s composition of raw material and labour.¹ If the camera roll can be said to be a sort of archive – a chimera of personal photos and saved imagery – Kriangwiwat Holmes draws attention to the way in which these two seemingly disparate elements merge together.
Cloud Rendered Flesh: Giovanni Fredi
In Giovanni Fredi’s first solo exhibition, held at SMDOT/Contemporary Art in Udine, Italy, a series of gestural marks of varying width and colour adorn the bare walls alongside a series of vinyl squares. What appears at first glance to be a series of abstract expressionist throwbacks (which they are, on some conceptual level) are in fact the ghostly traces of his fingertips as they edited and flicked through his phone’s image library. Executed on an app designed by the artist, his gestural images act as an index of his own physical interactions with his photographic archive – a trace of the image as experienced by the body. When mainstream discourse creates an artificial divide between the technological and the physical, Fredi’s practice reminds us that the act of interfacing with the screen is fundamentally embodied, rewiring our nervous system and baking itself into our musculature, our ligaments, and our flesh. Fredi’s practice brings me back to a jarring encounter with my infant cousin, who instinctively understood how to queue up videos on YouTube before she could speak – a pre-linguistic understanding of user interfaces and the visual language that constructs them.
In Martin Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, he argues that technology has no essential essence, but rather, it is an instrument, or means towards an end.2 In a sense, technology (a category I would argue extends toward the camera roll and the art object) entails an ordering of the world’s raw materials, whose ultimate form reveals an essence about said technology.² It is not that the camera roll is a neutral space for memory storage; it ultimately plays to a capitalist ethos of extraction, for which our memories of the world are but another node of value production. The camera roll isn’t merely a tool that sits idly by, waiting for use; it has its own ideological bent, and it inflects itself upon us. What Azab, Kriangwiwat Holmes, and Fredi do in their practices is lay bare the relationship of the camera to the cloud and digital imaging, for all to see. Working off of Heidegger, I read these works as revelatory, a potential speed bump in the process of photographic value extraction executed through lens-based formal language that refuses the branded language of technological process. An eschewment of crystalline clarity and the weightless ether of the virtual archive for the opaque, the messy, and the excessive.