Thumb Cocked, Waist-Height: Smart Phones, Art-Viewing, and a New Collecting
What am I doing when I walk and pause constantly to take pictures? If I’ve been late to meet you this year, stopping to take photos with my phone is at least one of the reasons why. Walter Benjamin is trending, but let me get away with this reference (there’s more to follow): I stop repeatedly to snap and zoom because I am collecting images, as Benjamin collected books—and the collecting mentality is a strange, obsessive one. “Every passion borders on the chaotic,” Benjamin writes, “but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” And, as he notes, it’s not just a neatly chaotic collection of memories, but the chance circumstances of living them: it is, as he says, “More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books.”1
Replace “books” with “photos on my phone”: the circumstantial items in my digital collection permeate the past and attune the chaos of my present. Collections are “accustomed confusion,” but also mediate that confusion. Walking, taking a picture of every blue thing I see on the street, I have a record of micro-moments of chance, and a consciously curated meta-memory organized chronologically and time-stamped in my photo stream.
Part of the beauty of collecting is that the desired encounters can be sought, but not controlled. Seeking the encounter requires a form of attentiveness that is an endurance practice throughout every day. Every image in my collection is evidence of past heedfulness. Sometimes, in certain scattering emotions, I can’t bring myself to the place of attention, and what helps is that my collecting device, my constant tool, is always in my back pocket or already in my hand. My little smartphone is a persistent prompt in my project, just as it is tool and archive.
And further: this prompt, tool, and archive has changed how I see. The ability to record (and, if I want, to immediately publicly post) initiates a new way of looking: instances that would be overlooked can now be looked back on. The three seconds of walking past a lone blue glove two months ago can now be accessed and re-assessed. I can see what and how I saw.
I didn’t know how the blue thing started—it wasn’t Maggie Nelson, or color theory, or even a particular love of the color—until I scrolled back through my photos, to the very beginning of the blue. I discovered, through the place and time noted by my phone, that it was outside the gallery where Hilton Als had curated a show of Alice Neel’s portraits. The show was divided into two main rooms: early work and later work. And in Neel’s later work, she outlines everyone in a crisp cobalt blue. I had taken a series of photos at the show, noting moments of when the blue outline appears alone, without the skin or clothing filled-in; how it interacts with the features of the faces; gives way to looser lines and freer backgrounds.
When I look at art, I’m the millennial viewer with phone in hand, thumb poised to take the photo, looking at each work with my eyes, then with my phone, then later, on the train home, looking at the work on my screen. In the gallery and on the sidewalk outside, my phone camera is a viewing prosthetic for close-looking. Photographing is a form of heightened attention and agency: I can frame and record and note what I’m attuned to. Then I can take literal ownership over my images, which I carry in my back pocket and scroll through with my finger.
Here, in this collection, my attunement is to blue.
In 1966, Eduardo Costa showed his piece Señal de Obra (Sign of a Work) in Córdoba, Argentina, and attuned his audience to green. He placed a green wooden board inside a gallery, “signaling the existence of the work.”2 During the opening, he painted the same color on a display window across the street from the gallery. This activated an awareness of the code in the viewers, and when they left, they could notice that certain architectural elements of the city had been painted that same exact green. Costa writes that “there are two moments of reception: one, the moment of noticing the code; another, once the code is apprehended, the moment of moving through the painted elements.” In this way, he says, the place and time of Señal de Obra are “purely in the mind and reside in awareness of the code.”3
Of course, the work isn’t “purely in the mind”—there were physically painted elements and signs. The viewer became the viewer through recognition of the repeated color. If a passerby didn’t notice it, the work was still there, but unrecognized. Costa created a code that allowed a new way of seeing the city—with a green indicator, the entire urban architecture became either part of or conspicuously apart from the work. By signifying with the specific green on already-existing architectural objects, the objects were given “aesthetic meaning,” Costa wrote, because they were “removed from their context” and “recuperated from chance.”
What does this “chance” mean? It’s different from Benjamin’s chance; it’s rather that a city’s architecture isn’t unified by a single signifier or code, or by a consistent viewer or collector. One’s vision can glance off of it, because it isn’t connected or continuous. When Costa says that the green-painted architectural objects were “removed from their context,” it’s that the objects were made distinct from their context, visually pulled out and into a different system: that of a color, the sign of the work.
If Alice Neel’s show wasn’t arranged chronologically, you could still pick your way through the rooms, attending only to the later works with blue. When looking for signs, an encounter with one feels both like an affirmation of the code, and a piercing of the present.
Punctum, “that accident which pricks,”4 is a mainstay term in photography coined by Roland Barthes. He writes of punctum as an element within the image which points, pricks, or disrupts the basic study or human interest of the photo. It can be a little boy’s crooked teeth, or a surprising figure in the background. Often, punctum is an accidental element, or one that the photographer can’t control—only notice. This noticing can happen after the image is made, or in the taking of it—or, I think, it can be just a way of seeing: punctum can be a starting point for directing (or developing) attention to specified particulars.
The attention could begin with a specific color in a gallery: a green-painted board, a blue outline. As a puncture or punctuation, each instance of noticing the color disrupts the normal flow and texture of experience. It begins to feel less like chance, and more like a matter of tuning in. I’m looking, fingering the phone in my pocket.
Reformulating punctum as a practice, rather than a given element within the photo, we can consider punctum as a moment that pricks and sparks the desire to make an image, to crystallize an instance. And in the image itself, the punctum may no longer be present. The photo—the representation, which is the crystallization of the moment-that-pricked—operates in time differently than its referent. It’s an index of an impulse, and carries that punctum into the future and to different viewers. As a digital image, the representation lives in time differently because its space is different: unlike its referent, the photo can exist in many minds and places at once, be altered by varied screens, and sent with divergent purposes—I take the photo, and text the instance of blue to a friend to say hey.
In her recent book Nonhuman Photography, Joanna Zylinska writes that photographs are “becoming modes of communication, or forms of ‘digital touch,’ rather than continuing to serve primarily as objects of visual appreciation.”5 I take and send and post so many photos, most of which I never intended to be “good photographs”—with Instagram filters, computational photography, Photoshop, etc., a technically-good photo has, in a way, become deeply boring. There are so many other experiences a photo can provide—like a greeting—that are more exciting than “visual appreciation.”
So: smartphone photography can prompt attentiveness, function as a visual archive of punctured/punctuating moments, and also extend as a form of correspondence and “digital touch”—I send a selfie to let my family know that everything’s ok. Sometimes a texted photo will be informational (“look, your package came”), but more often they are phatic, a form of communication to establish and care for social bonds—it doesn’t advance an exchange, but maintains it, like our habitual greeting and response of “How are you?” “Good, how are you?”
We text phatic photos, and also post them online.6 The positioning of social media in our daily lives (personal accounts, not corporate/political ones) seems to implicitly cue the question: “What’s up?” And we answer that phatic question, posed by the medium, with a form of “Not much, just—” and post a photo from the day. Instagram stories of blue things on the ground, or close-ups of art at the museum don’t communicate much information but are a form of social upkeep; they signal interests, perspectives, and align a profile (a proxy self) with others.
Imagine if Eduardo Costa had his show now, in 2018: would viewers move from identifying the code to feeling punctum and photographing the work? Would there be pleasure in documenting and posting the moments of his color? Would viewers feel an impulse for a code of their own?
In these images of a blue code, there are rules. The object must be on the ground. My phone must be in my hand while I hold my elbow at my waist. Then I open the camera, my thumb poised like a trigger ready to tap the screen.
After seeing a show at the Whitney, Emma Horwitz wrote me an email about all the people she saw taking photos of the art. She typed:
I am totally floored by the amount of people holding their cellphones out and up. Basically everyone! . . . Are they seeing the art, or saving to see it later? I say Art Safari: a trip to observe & hunt, and I think to myself: what are we hunting in this museum? What awe are we allowing ourselves when we capture the lion in a picture, instead of standing bare at its fang.7
I can think of a few reasons for these gallery scenes (including social media, and the not-quite-phatic posting of one’s museum visit to indicate a cultural capital), but I’m most interested in three possible explanations:
1) Art is a lot of punctum, and viewers want to experience the puncture by partaking with their own image-making; or, we want to mediate the puncture with a transference of sight to screen—looking with a phone is like using a pair of sunglasses through which the bright art object can be safely seen.
2) Museums are strange, sometimes foreign places which resist familiarity and ownership, and as Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, taking pictures can be a means to “take possession of space in which they are insecure.”8 To take a picture of something is, in some ways, to “take” one’s own version of it. Sontag writes, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.”9
3) Art objects, if you’re attuned to them, can assert great presence; and while we don’t know quite how to attend to them, taking photos is one way to interact with the inanimate. I’m not referring here to the artist-centric “aura” of an artwork, but more the possibility of a work’s inanimate ability to act-upon. This is the explanation I am simultaneously most dubious about and excited by. Political theorist Jane Bennett argues for the active participation of nonhuman forces in human events in her book Vibrant Matter, exploring the “capacity of things—edibles, commodities, storms, metals—not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.”10 A tendency isn’t quite an agency—this isn’t a claim that objects are all alive—but it is a force. Bennett calls this force “thing-power,” working with the writings of Baruch Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and Henry David Thoreau to give voice to a capacious and vibrant materiality.
Her concern for the specifics of materiality began with an encounter on the street that shook her; she noticed a large black work glove, a dense mass of oak pollen, an undamaged but dead rat, a white plastic bottle cap, and a smooth stick. There wasn’t a code or visual practice that prompted Bennett’s awe at the vibrancy of these objects; it was just “stuff that commanded attention in its own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meaning, habits, or projects…[this] stuff exhibited its thing-power: it issued a call, even if I did not quite understand what it was saying.”11
Visual art, while intense with human intention, is often still a material object at the end of the show: it is returned to its crate by the art handlers, and moved back into storage. But as material, it exerts a power; if attended to, it can puncture the flow of experience. By taking a photo, a viewer can create a “temporary stabilization which signals a cut in time”12—and within that cut, an interaction is possible.
Photographing blue things on the street has begun to feel like a necessary social encounter, or a kind of phatic greeting of the object. I’ve begun to feel a responsibility to the blue things on the ground; I feel badly if I don’t stop to take the photo, which acts as a kind of interactive maintenance, like a “Hey, how are you?”
When I’m home I wonder about the fate of the sweet blue comb I saw a few blocks from my door.
I was telling a friend about my phatic blue greetings. I explained my photos compelled by the inanimate encounters; the Benjamin-ian collecting mentality that calls for a practice of attentiveness; and the recognition of a blue code, and the punctum that accompanies the experience of signal, and my friend said, “You mean you take pictures of litter?” And it was the first time I had considered that all the blue things weren’t, by societal measures, supposed to be there.
Crystallizing moments of the world doesn’t undo the fact that we’re surrounded by the world. I hold my phone like a divining rod that points back to Alice Neel’s paintings and forward to a code. My screen allows “a perceptual style open to the appearance of thing-power.”13 The day swings open into facets of awareness, the invention of new greeting practices.
It’s not a collection of images, but a record of attentions and encounters.
- Benjamin, One-way Street, 161–2 ↩
- Costa, Conceptualism and Other Fictions, 13 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Barthes, Camera Lucida, 27 ↩
- Zylinska, Nonhuman Photography, 167 ↩
- For further reading on phatic online posts, see: Radovanovic, Danica and Massimo Ragnedda, “Small talk in the Digital Age: Making Sense of Phatic Posts.” #MSM2012 Workshop proceedings, available online as CEUR Vol-838 at http://ceur-ws.org/Vol-838#MSM2012. April 16, 2012. ↩
- Emma Horwitz, email Wednesday, March 28, 2018 at 10:37 AM ↩
- Sontag, On Photography, 9 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Bennett, Vibrant Matter, viii ↩
- Ibid., 4 ↩
- Zylinska, Nonhuman Photography, 23 ↩
- Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 5 ↩
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