Tabitha Soren Exposes The Intersection of Touch and Technology
After seeing these ripped-from-the-headlines images, you'll never think about your phone screen the same way again.
pbs.org/nova/earth/greenland_is_shrinking/, Tabitha Soren, courtesy of Davis Museum.
People touch a lot of items throughout the day, but the most frequent recipient of our fingerprints is—naturally—our touch screens. Artist and former MTV News reporter Tabitha Soren has immortalized these swipes in a series of photographs of her iPad screen that drape an entrancing patchwork quilt of smudges and whorls over images sourced from news articles, social media, personal text messages, and more.
Rather than being small and pixelated like we’re used to, Soren’s images (on view at The Davis Museum at Wellesley College starting this week) are huge, high-quality film photos, measuring an impressive five by eight feet. We chatted with Soren ahead of her opening about her process, politics, and the Stone Age.
Could you walk me through your process for the creating the works?
I use a view camera, which is a camera that takes a 8x10 negative in the back, so a very old Deardorff analog camera. I let people work on my iPad, and I work on the iPad, and I let the grime accumulate. Then I pull up a background image and then take a picture of it. I use a very harsh light from the side.
It's important to explain that, but in my mind, what I'm thinking about when I'm taking the picture is very far away from grime and bacteria, and much more about handprints on the inside of Stone Age caves or just how different human beings are from machines.
When documenting the fingerprints, were you ever tempted to swipe in certain ways to ‘design’ them?
When I’m shooting, because of the light and the slow exposure, I can’t actually see the way it's going to look, so I don’t think that occurred to me for that reason. It's really lovely getting the contacts back, it's like opening a present, it's a surprise.
What was your process in selecting the background images?
What I did was try to have the background image connect with the surface and process on top. I have evidence of people's fingerprints touching a device, and behind that you see people as they are being touched. Either in a harmful way, or the landscape eroding because of tourist touch—I have a picture from the coral reef that's been bleached beyond repair by scuba divers, there are images from the Ferguson protests, that in my mind connects to the harmful and actually fatal touch done to Michael Brown from a police officer. By connecting the 20 images by the sense of touch, I felt the project was really able to take shape.
You’ve mentioned that you “didn’t intend to create art that makes value judgements,” but find yourself now doing so. Was there a particular event that made you start?
The last thing I wanted this project to be seen as is some sort of anti-technology, let's all be Luddites approach. That said, I think there are very good reasons to have authentic, real experiences with other human beings instead of just having their virtual selves on your phone in your hand, or a photograph of them on Facebook.
I don’t think technology’s bad. I just like to question the amount of absorption we have with these screens and our devices. They're very different from us, and that's what I like about the fingerprints. Because it's sweaty and messy. Human beings, we have tears and saliva, and machines are just these perfectly shiny, completely smooth, oleophobic devices that have none of those qualities. And to show the difference in a single photograph, that made me very excited as an artist.
It's interesting you interpreting that question specifically about technology, as I was referencing the political nature of the background images.
I didn’t intend [ Surface Tension] to be a social justice project, but the politics of the moment that we live in right now are such that I’m outraged by a lot of things, and I feel helpless by some things, and I think that art helps me process what's going on in the world. So yes, there are a lot of criminal justice reform images, there are a lot of global warming 'What are we doing to the planet can't somebody stop this' kind of images.
There are so many talented, compelling activist artists out there, i would never put myself in the same group as them. But that doesn't mean I'm not a political person who cares very deeply about particular topics.
I know a lot of these images people are bombarded with on a daily basis, because that's how news consumption works. Do you think isolating these images and displaying them in a context removed from the news can make people pay attention in a way the news cannot?
Absolutely. I think that’s one of the main focuses of the art world; it’s certainly not about decoration for me. Especially with this particular form of art. In photography, you’re able to freeze the ephemeral. In this case, I'm blowing up something you normally see 8x10 at the largest. These are 5 by 8 feet. So, there's a ton more information there and a ton more opportunity for an emotional response to the material.
Art is definitely my antidote, making art is the way that I slow time down. I didn't feel this when I was 20, but I definitely feel now that I am pulled in too many different directions, nothing gets the attention it really deserves. It's very hard to make the time to go deep, and galleries and museums are a wonderful sacred space in which to do that.
In media, the pressure to be constantly churning out content at all hours of the day is always present. Does working in fine art have less of that urgency, or do you still feel obligated to always have something that you're working on?
[laughs] I was a reporter very long time ago, and I didn't have most of the pressures writers and reporters do now. I'm not sure my brain would be able to function in as many different directions as people are required to now, posting all the time... As a visual artist, it's pretty necessary to be on social media and have a presence there. It is a way for me to connect with curators and people who wouldn't normally get to see my work. So I relish the opportunity, but at the same time it's a poison arrow in the middle of what could be a very creative day. So I plan all mine in advance.
In the larger sense, we’re all just trying to grapple witch our mortality. Having a virtual self allows us to process that. I think that’s how it connects to the cave paintings in the Stone Age. I read the work of this writer named Judith Thurman, she's been writing about art for decades. What she said is the artists of the Stone Age were palping the rock with their hands to summon the power of someone outside themselves, or reach beyond it. In my mind, the fingerprints on the photographs that I'm making are an example of those cave paintings, it’s a contemporary version of the Stone Age.
What motivated you to title the works using URLs?
The Ferguson image, it's super painterly. In the museum it's the size of basically a Jericho painting. I wanted people to feel they could walk into the landscape. I'm a little hesitant to take something so tragic, and have it—I mean, I didn't do anything differently to the image, but it’s a very painterly, beautiful image. I felt like by including the URL in that case, to have Ferguson in the title, it would inform, oh, all that smokey beautiful stuff is actually tear gas. It gave the images an extra level of information, that if the audience wanted it, it was there.
I used to be a journalist and probably I haven’t shaken it entirely. It nods to the background image coming from a particular place, it being an appropriated image. There’s that whole aspect of being respectful to the source.
What's your relationship to consuming the news online?
I still get the New York Times paper version. I probably rely on the New York Times more than other things, but I also spend a lot of time driving around in a car, so I get news through interview shows like Terry Gross and always try to read the whole NYT on Sundays, but it gets hard.
I'm definitely not immune to checking Twitter and seeing what the Moments are, but I would say I'm more of a traditionalist in terms of where I get my news.
It's probably for the best, Twitter is so much at once.
I do think there is a part of digital culture that encourages that impatience. At what point do things slow down? I've only noticed things speeding up.
I think technology really in general can outrun our expectations of what it does to us. There aren’t actually studies that have thoroughly examined every aspect of how it affects our brain, because it hasn't been around long enough for solid evidence to accumulate. However, there are tons of little studies that are not super encouraging. I'm addicted to my phone just as much as everybody else, but this sort of information does help me behave better towards technology and use it less.
In addition, I think historically technology has outrun our expectations, like the nuclear weapon, or Facebook's capacity to influence an election. When I first heard that, I was like, come on. Russian bots influencing how people voted? Give me a break, that's something out of a sci-fi movie. But it's not.
Do you have anything else to add?
I don't know if anyone looking at the pictures will think about this, but the science of touch really does convincingly suggest that we are wired to connect with other people on a basic physical level. There are changes in our chemistry that happen when someone first squeezes your knee, or gives you a hug. We've all felt that, we've all experienced it, and yet we're all spending increasing amounts of time touching technological devices, specifically screens, instead of each other.
Tabitha Soren’s Surface Tension is on view at The Davis Museum through June 9.
This interview has been edited and condensed.