Digital Waste: The Sweet Smell of Burning
In 2015, eleven years after the launch of Facebook, a number of news stories highlighted a bizarre trend in selfie deaths – people who had died trying to take a photograph of themselves in ‘memorable’ situations. One tourist fell to her death after a rock gave way on a cliff edge of Northcliff Hill in South Africa. Three Indian students were hit by a fast moving train near Kosikala, India. Another young woman burst into flames after touching a 27,000-volt live wire in Iași, Romania. A man was gorged to death by a bull at the Villaseca de la Sagra Bull Run in Spain. A teenager in Houston, the US, accidentally shot himself in the head.
Readers, listeners and viewers around the world quickly realised that, while reported as genuine accidents, the motives leading to these deaths revealed a dangerous obsession with people’s image on online social media. In the pursuit of capturing a moment to be envied by others, these unnecessary casualties had disregarded their own safety and paid the ultimate price. They were disastrous examples of a new culture fixated on instant gratification through simulated indicators of popularity, support and celebrity: likes, hearts and followers offered in appreciation of inspirational, unique and, sometimes, shocking photographic social media posts.
These tragedies pointed towards the onset of a new type of mental disease, a form of addiction at its most ridiculous, capable of altering brain chemistry to the point of warping how humanity interacted with the world. These unnecessary deaths reflected worrying signs that social media was facilitating a mental disconnect between reality and make-believe, unintentionally forcing people around the world to ignore physical, worldly actualities in replacement of an imbalanced importance put on intangible, online profiles.
Perhaps more importantly, with the benefit of perpetual hindsight, this growing disconnect with the physical world ultimately puts into question our ability to connect with each other. After developing complex language systems throughout the epoch of human history, capable of conveying both the simplest or most intricate ideas and emotions, does the new age of online interaction allow for the same level of communication? How often are meanings misunderstood because they are not expressed face-to-face? Are there not times where abuse would have never reared its ugly head if it were in an environment of human contact? Are we losing our ability to communicate constructively with one another – not to mention connect emotionally? Most worryingly, a large part of online interaction changes our nature as social animals into isolated ones. For human beings, a naturally community-driven species, relying largely on physical contact for spiritual sustenance, such isolation can be tantamount to death itself.
In 2018, photography and the photograph are largely taken for granted – an overlooked privilege viewed as normal, expected, even demanded and required. As a result of exceptional technology, cameras have reached a level of sophistication whereby a relative novice can capture an image with professional results. Top-end digital-single-lens-reflex (DSLR) cameras, mid-range mirrorless cameras, even low-end point-and-shoot cameras are packed with more megapixels, bigger sensors and an army of functions capable of rendering a scene in high-definition, with a sensuous background bouquet (blur), multiple action sequences and image overlays within the device. Versatile Go-Pros can capture still images or video recordings from multiple environments. Smartphones, usually loaded with two separate cameras, allow for photographs to be taken from the convenience of a pocket, easily edited by hundreds of freely available digital filters. All with the single click of a button.
So easy is it to take a photograph, in fact, that many end up unseen, disregarded, and consigned to storage either on a hard drive or in the cloud – more often than not, forgotten. It is not uncommon for tourists to return from a vacation with thousands of photographs rather than fifty. In being so obsessed with capturing a moment, concern arises over whether such instances permit true interaction with foreign cultures beyond surface level aesthetics. How can we, as a species, continue to learn from each other throughout revolving generations when the first – and arguably, last – act of communication is in the form of a quickly taken photograph?
In Digital Waste: The Sweet Smell of Burning, Madhvee Deb primarily focuses on this contemporary phenomenon. The genesis of Deb’s concept came to her fifteen years ago, forcing her to explore the subject more closely in the last three years. Her body of work aims to raise awareness of and incite debate over how an artificial fixation with photography is distorting our nature as social animals. By re-using her own collection of “rejected” photographs taken over the past eight years, images that were relegated to storage-purgatory because of slight technical or compositional issues, Deb questions her own habit of taking excessive photographs. She, like many others, has added to the estimate in 2017 that 3.93 trillion photographs were stored on various storage devices worldwide. Digitally layering the photographs as she has done forces the viewer to consider the unfocused intent behind so many photographs taken nowadays – not to mention the ultimate beauty in these neglected memories when seen in a different light.
As a practicing artist, part of her inspiration comes from late, great pioneers of the photographic industry. When a large part of experimental photography still relied on technical ability rather than a happy trigger finger, photographic artists such as Man Ray, Gjon Mili and Edmund Kesting pushed the boundaries of not only what was possible, but what was also considered beautiful and engaging. As a young man at the turn of the 20th century exploring photography, painting and filmmaking, Man Ray utilised double exposures in tribute to the contemporary movements of Dadaism and Surrealism, often creating portraits that bordered on evoking the supernatural. Developing the double or multi exposure concept, Gjon Mili added the use of stroboscopic and stop-action innovations to create multi-imaged photographs of dancers, musicians and figure skaters. Lastly, Edmund Kesting established solarisation and photograms as fascinating techniques used to capture a moment.
For Deb, these early masters of modern photography provided her with invaluable methods to explore her subject. However, rather than the objective of Ray, Mili and Kesting capturing a moment, Deb invites the viewer to consider the time that has slipped away. This is an important difference: while the masters that Deb refers to put full effort and emphasis on capturing a moment in the best, most aesthetically pleasing way possible, in her use of rejected photographs, Deb suggests re-evaluating images taken without thought and the valuable memories they inherently contain. In short, Deb questions how personal photographs are self-curated, highlighting the existence of beauty where previously it was assumed there was none.
In further exploring photographic intent, and to break from the two-dimensional aspect of the photograph, other rejected photo prints are used to create the “Small Sculptures.” At once playful, invoking childhood memories of families indulging in a lazy afternoon of craft, these objects also suggest another form of digital waste by changing the basic application of a photograph; “wasting” a photograph by changing its nature into something ambiguous. The objects in themselves are open to individual comprehension. However, juxtaposing them with the photograph initiates an interesting dialogue.
As a whole, Deb’s haunting reproductions call into question modern-day communication. On the basis that an alarming amount of photographic intent fails to convey sincere, emotive inter-cultural and/or inter-personal discourse, what does this say about our contemporary methods of communication in general? Relying on social media and messaging applications as predominant modes of effortless interaction has watered down meaning and lessened physical contact – masked under the guise of instant gratification. As a result, older generations are increasingly appalled by the inability of younger generations to hold eye contact in face-to-face conversations. Online vitriol over issues of the day, either as social media comments or in group chats, has called into question the sincerity of concern, as online social activists so often appear “armchair” and “surface level” in the pursuit of gratifying themselves by expressing their opinion. Moreover, what is the value of most information communicated via instant, online connection? Very quickly, many would argue, as information is shared and discussed with as much thought behind it as feeding an addiction, it degrades into speculation, rumour and misinformation... in some respects, the catalyst to the scourge of “fake news”.
By including a short video installation, Deb has cleverly layered the exhibition much like the photography on display. “The F-art of Social Media,” simulates a state of trance, replicating the condition of being lost in social media. As multiple social media platforms generate a zombie-like escapism from the world, so too the video installation transports the viewer from reality and into the superficial, overloaded realm of social media information. Can this excess of information, including but not limited to photographs, instil basic and essential human emotions? – what are referred to in the ancient Sanskrit text, Natya Shastra, by Bharata Muni: love, anger, laughter, sorrow, courage, fear, disgust, wonder, peace? When using artificial, online information as a form of communication, can these emotions react with one another to create an additional, indescribable feeling?... A flavour on the palette of social or artistic appreciation that has no right being there, yet exists as an undeniable result of being overawed by creation.
Finally, Deb’s work leaves viewers considering their own level of control. If we are to kick the drug of instant gratification, self-control is of paramount importance. Like any debilitating habit, addiction to a life online – photographic or otherwise – stunts adult development and has been proven both mentally and physically detrimental, negatively affecting health, wealth and prosperity... need I mention longevity? Deb’s work is a warning to err on the side of caution when falling into the trap of living vicariously through online social media and instant messaging applications – the photograph highlighted as a medium so often used. In her use of inspiring and worldly subject matter, Deb’s message is clear: get out, explore, communicate sincerely and make memories that you will hold dear, especially when taking a photograph.
ames H. Springer received a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom. Having initially embarked on a career in wine as a trained Sommelier, James decided to dedicate his life to writing, falling somewhat into subjects revolving around culture and socio-political realities in the world. His first book, Malaysia’s Canvas, a non-fiction novel, retells the story of Penang’s meteoric contemporary art scene. He is currently researching an art collection of Vietnamese war art, with the aim of retelling Vietnam’s turbulent history through the artists and their works that documented it.