Essays

Archive of Decline: Social Media Photography in the Anthropocene

By Brad Feuerhelm on July 26, 2017

“We previously considered a future when we made a photograph… Presently, the previous future is eschewed for what seems like a desperate waning of the moment- an anxiety-ridden state with no sense of time, of future or of patience outside of the synaptic collision of physical presence, technology and “present-ness”

We previously considered a future when we made a photograph. Exposure, the impending moments lost while changing the film, the time implicit in using a full roll of film, taking it to be developed and the moment in which we sat shuffling the 4 x 6 inch prints. It was a process that stretched itself out over multiple movements, actions or moments of “time”. We take photographs now in the present and immediately display them as a point of reference for “now-ness” or being “live”. Presently, the previous future is eschewed for what seems like a desperate waning of the moment- an anxiety-ridden state with no sense of time, of future or of patience outside of the synaptic collision of physical presence, technology and “present-ness”. In the economy of the personal photographic image in the age of social media, we have distorted or partially-erased the need for a future, or rather a future image that we are in control of.

What are we looking at when we look at social media images? We are ostensibly looking at images of family life, food, and experiences that are transmitted for the simple purpose of extending experience of being for those whom technology is an able possibility. We are looking at people communicating their lives to family, friends, but also to the world at general. It’s an exercise in committing oneself to the display of one’s existence. It is a cyclical and repetitious display of lives lived. There are more similarities than there are outliers in the visual field of (Rep)presentation. It is empowering to somehow spread one’s life to the world through images, static or video as a returnal sounding board for approval. It is a way to communicate our creative endeavors and thoughts and for better or worse, our opinions. It is a way to also delineate product or a product of experience.

But what else is it? It is a catalogue of a particular time. We live in an unprecedented time of display with uncanny and anxious value as to what comes next, to futures unwritten, undocumented and un-displayed. Images run together with only a small identity marker written under or over a particular post as to the person posting and the image does much to transfer that little tag or moniker through the workings of visual material and relative understanding of what lies within the frame. So and so has posted an image or a video from New York displaying their desire to eat at Katz’s Deli in New York. A friend of their friend happens to be in London at the Underworld in Camden and has posted a video of the hardcore band Nails on their European tour. I don’t remember the person’s name as the video has caught my attention more than the person who has posted it. In Indonesia, a young couple has posted a beautiful photograph of the sun setting off the coast of Sumatra in the province of Lampung. I can faintly see a shape in the distance that I imagine to be Anak Krakatoa. In Siberia, a geologist has posted a photograph of the edge of the Batagaika crater. Again, in America, someone has posted themselves giving the Trump Towers the “bird”. The following post I see is of an infant child in Spain. She has lots of hair and is messy from eating her first spoonful of some sort of matter. In Chile, a close friend is on an artist residency. It is snowing in Chile. The air looks so crisp that I can almost feel my nostrils tense and dry up.

These are but a few things I see in about one minute of looking at one social media outlet. The rest of the day, I check the phone or laptop habitually from my outpost in Slovakia and I cannot help but feel something isn’t right with all of it. Its not the brazen display of close moments. It’s not the uncomfortable voyeurism I feel when looking, nor is it the simple manifestation of seeing food that I wouldn’t eat if I were starving on an island somewhere in the pacific. What strikes me as uncomfortable is that I cannot help but feel that this tirade of daily imagery (excised also from that which I don’t see) is something of what the menu would look like at the imagined Last Chance Saloon. I’m a bit distraught over the archival implications. I cannot help but feel that I am looking at the last catalogue of humanity in all of its ugly, joyous and banal ketchup-covered form.

I wade through enormous amounts of images as part of my work. I sift through the embers of the past looking at fragments of context, images that have no description, images that simply “exist” in physicality. I receive countless publications about photography for which I often review. Quite obviously to the context of this writing, I am bathed in a sheen of Internet imagery as well. I exist in a world of seeing. I also distribute my findings whenever possible on social media. I rarely distribute images of myself, or my food and I do not ever circulate images of my family. That is perhaps an odd lack of gesture given the state of my excavations. I can tell you that it stems from a belief that I feel that it is not my concern to place myself and others close to me in the world this way. They and I are believed to be more than images. I wish to be the ever-present ghost in terms of physicality of my image and I do not feel that I have the right to distribute personal images of other people in my life. I also am not overly prone to sharing the food I eat.

“I often ponder where all of these social media images are saved. I wonder if the social media magnates responsible for these sites of convenience have some sort of bunker somewhere, perhaps in a methane crater in Siberia where they store every image that has ever been posted”

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I often ponder where all of these social media images are saved. I wonder if the social media magnates responsible for these sites of convenience have some sort of bunker somewhere, perhaps in a methane crater in Siberia where they store every image that has ever been posted. We are told that our social media posts are monitored and that posts can potentially be used against us (never FOR us) at airports, in criminal cases or simply to castigate imagined political belief systems. I cannot imagine that a human mind, even perhaps a group of human minds can wonder through all of this flotsam of images and attribute much conviction to their meaning. So, I ask myself, who or what does this collating? It occurs to me in the age of the algorithm and AI that there is probably a cast network of encoded programming that is able to vector certain characteristics of images to find information needed for the above-mentioned scenarios of examination. It leads me to think that these images are indeed collated and stored, perhaps somewhere above the planet in a satellite network conceivably where they may be collected for a categorization of life on earth in the friendly buzz-worded age of the Anthropocene. I imagine that this network is like a time capsule that expands by the nano-second in possibility if not by material base. It has a fixity of course. There have only been nearly 180 years of photography and perhaps 15 years or so in which social media photographs have dominated the cybersphere. It is a really small portion of human existence, and then it is only an existence led by affordable means and not the state of economic impoverishment in which the images would not be possible to be distributed so freely. If the implications are correct, this archive of data will never reach a capacity and that is also something to ponder. What would lie in the void of the imagined storage space? Further pondering suggests a possibility that perhaps images may begin to create themselves based on corollary antecedents. That’s all a bit silly in the present, but images may figure out what is best for them and information does replicate, which is not so dissimilar to breeding or concepts of binary particle possibility. When I embark on a cursory search of where these images may be stored, I am unable to quickly see articles written about the matter. I am instead lead through all the possibilities for personal storage-clouds, image uploading services, etc. What I am not told is where the bulk of our images are stored. This serves to continue the conspiratorial narrative in my mind.

What I am getting at is that I feel our lives are being harvested through our images. Further, I also feel that this harvesting has a purpose outside the judicial or quotidien. It has a purpose that exceeds our ability of daily display or understanding. I am going to suggest that we as a species are being archived. I am going to suggest that this archive is not part of a grand conspiracy of human decline, though I do feel that way, but rather an archive without direction, discretion or deed yet delineated. Its hard, but I need to extract myself from the conspiratorial. I could live in a skynet proxy very easily. I could agonize over quantum physics, Nikola Tesla and time travel and I should possibly preside over more Phillip K Dick novels to decide which possibility best suits my functional consideration of global ecological/Anthropocene/”dystopian seen that movie too” perspective.

I feel we are positively colonizing an archive without our recognition to the fact. I cannot see its purpose outside of a thin slice of human document. It is a salvageable and simulated family album that is de-materialized and encoded by the software of the future-a hyper “Family of Man”. I think of it as something Timothy Morton would describe as a hyperobject-an idea, a concept that is ungovernable, exists in idea, but has a contingency towards a “something-ness” unharnessed by our human ability in the present discourse of our collective and imagined time to elucidate and its purpose or its audience is as of yet also unrecognized. This notion is not such a far-reaching possibility. We live in times of stateless disgrace. Our ecosystem is under opposition. Our ability to willfully survive on historical models of balance between planet and progress has been diminished and images have a place within the hierarchy of decline.

So, and as with all historical spikes of impact-Auschwitz, 9/11, the execution of clergy during the Paris commune, The Challenger explosion, the Munich Olympics of 1972, the IRA bombing of London, the starvation in Biafra, the Tet Offensive, all these punctuating events have small photographic archives within the stream of history that are re-examined due to their physicality in research centers and archives-physical imagery in physical locations. However, what we are encountering now, besides the sheer volume of images made is the question as to where these images will continue to be examined in their de-materialized state. There is simply too much and too little at the same time to consider a strict materialist approach to the images. The images no longer need to punctuate towards the iconic. The potential for this last human archive is grounded on velocity and mass of the non-physical. It is being collated electronically and stored. The questions that remain are the whys and wheres and under whose control they are being collated. If we ponder these questions intimately, if we dare to consider the possibility, we are only left with more questions about the presets of control and accumulation in a world destined towards human reduction. And in this, we are no longer able to consider a physical future for images, nor man. The present now-ness of the image is all that is left. The display culture in which we reside, the slipstream of the daily transmission will continue until point of civilization entropy.

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm.)

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