By now, this hardly registers as experience. That we prod our phones from morning to evening, reflexively seeking love and terror, is such a given that it has ceased for many of us to generate active meaning. It is already difficult for me to imagine anything other than this—anything other than grabbing the pocket-sized Internet to assume the vantage points of a god and a serf, simultaneously, anything other than constant confrontation with the systems that both demand our action and dwarf us into utter inconsequence. After eighteen months in which the physical world has been more or less swallowed by digital mediation, I find it hard to remember, some days, that I am capable of accessing a myriad of emotional textures aside from the one I fall into almost any time my fingertips are moving across a phone screen—numb exhaustion, dull anxiety, near-automated desire.
But I’ve parsed this state of mind a hundred times and I still behave as if I want it. Part of this is pure compulsion; part of it is born out of a sincere form of care. We return to our screens in the interest of bearing witness. We have absorbed the fact that to look away from suffering is to be complicit in it. Who are we if we don’t see the wildfires, the infant passed over the barbed wire, the convenience store burning, the armed mob invading the Capitol, the police officers assaulting the people protesting police violence in the streets? Who are we if we’re not looking at ourselves? And who do we become when we are?
The photos in “Surface Tension” metonymize the collective reality of millions of anonymous human bodies—on lunch break, at the bus stop, in line at the grocery store, under the covers—turning repeatedly toward our screens. The streaks provide proof of our mundane bestial reality—our hormones, our lunch, our particular whorls and spirals. Yet they also document a space of psychological estrangement, of blinking awake every morning to a stream of hallucinatory images a few inches from our faces.
The state of bewildered swiping conjures the viewer as a passive bystander. But “Surface Tension” is haunted by the increasingly common vantage point of the observer who is in some way part of the scene. The fathers and grandmothers and friends and lovers of the people who have been murdered by police have processed these stories through their phones, too; they have tapped on screens to see the familiar face wreathed in digital flowers, everything devastatingly intimate and horrifically distant at the same time. Protesters have swiped through photos of their own faces dripping with milk, in a cloud of tear gas, sirens piercing the dark. Families who have watched their homes burn under Mars-red skies have seen these images enter the great stream that terminates under our fingertips. This is my world, my story, some of them must think. How dare anyone look; how dare anyone stop.
“Surface Tension” provokes in me both sorrow and gratitude: a sense that Soren has seen our longing, that she has mapped an invisible atmospheric condition of contemporary life. I fear, some days, that these passing marks are all that we’re being trained for—that our desire to grasp and remake the world that produced these images is hitting the screen and melting away. But Soren has rendered visible the desire that exists despite and because of everything. We want desperately to be human in the face of our cold inanimate translator. We keep touching the surface in the hope that the act of witnessing will make us more human, and not less.
This piece was drawn from the introduction to “Surface Tension,” published by RVB Books. “Surface Tension” will be on exhibit at the Mills College Art Museum beginning September 18th.