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DENVER — When I was young, 11 or 12, the farm fields in my Minnesota town started to convert to cul-de-sacs, signaling its transition into an affluent suburb. In the summer, my mom and I biked to the new homes for sale. We enjoyed riding on the freshly paved sidewalks, and being outside, but mostly we delighted going into big, new homes. Usually, the residences were unfurnished, only occupied by a large center island and at least one enviable — albeit useless — feature, like a backyard fireplace. My mom said we were looking for ideas, but it registered as judgement to me. As we shuffled along in our shoe-cover booties, it felt like we were getting away with something. Our risk-free trespassing illustrated how I lived in contrast to my own changing community. Armed with a mental inventory of private spaces, I learned to appreciate and critique my own. Now smart phones and social media encourages everyone to peek in on the lives of others. Making Art / Making Community, a group exhibition curated by Lauren Abman at the University of Denver’s Vicki Myhren Gallery, includes installations by Liat Berdugo and Frankie Toan that look at the ways technology bridges the crease between public and private experiences.
Toan’s “This is How I See Your House” (2018) is a plush and heavily patterned living room that no one lives in, though it bares the traces of many inhabitants. Complete with a stuffed chair, plant, and a window, the installation is a composite based on content from 32 Instagram followers of Vicki Myhren Gallery and the artist. Framed photos on the walls show Toan’s infinity mirror, in which real living rooms are cut and pasted into virtual ones, and recast into a physical space again.
“I began this project by looking at how Instagram is serving a similar role as traditional home tours,” Toan told me via email. “It is a curated, doctored look at someone’s private space that you wouldn’t normally see … until we all started putting pictures of our lives on the internet.”
Sharing experiences and finding common interests is how trust is established and communities are forged. But do platforms like Instagram offer fellowship or an abstraction of it? For example, communities — especially in the arts — benefit from multiple perspectives. However, Facebook and Instagram’s engagement algorithms can streamline content to a singular vantage point. Anything that might challenge your opinions won’t likely grace your screen because it does not fit the parameters that you already signaled you would enjoy. There is no grand narrative to “This is How I See Your House.” The source materials and their producers are real, but the result is hollow. It is the empty suburban home without the summer bike ride.
The second component of Toan’s project was conducting real tours of the homes of two Instagram followers whose images are included in the installation. The homeowners selected the parts of their residences accessed and publicized on a live Instagram story. “I wanted to challenge the snapshot mentality of social media and have an extended conversation about how we use social media profiles to interface with our communities — more and more through ‘smart’ devices,” Toan said.
Artist Liat Berdugo is interested in the so-called “observer effect,” as it occurs when people refuse to overtly acknowledge the presence of the camera but nonetheless behave differently because of it — by posing, for instance. The power of our devices is the power to shape an image, even if it goes hand-in-hand with our own surveillance. The camera phone humorously translates loiterer into community archivist, recalling Toan’s meditation on public space made private and reintroduced to the world with a new author, replacing the original moment.
In Berdugo’s piece “My iPhone is Everything” (2012), six mounted iPads play video clips of people doing a range of activities: lifting weights, sleeping, cleaning laundry, gardening. Except in Berdugo’s version, the iPad takes the place of the objects that make those activities possible, its screen displaying a photo of the weightlifter’s barbells or the gardener’s shovel. As a large wedge of parmesan glides up and down an iPad screen displaying a photo of a cheese grater, I wonder: is my phone a tool or a companion? It tracks choices and movements. It is locked to prevent use by others. Its expiration, due to a great fall or drowning, means lost memories and connections to others.
Evidence indicates we find it hard to disconnect from our devices or social media because that is where so much of modern life occurs. A recent Pew Research report found that 7 in 10 Americans, across all demographics, use some form of social media. Paradoxically, 59% of users stated it would not be difficult to give up social media, despite a majority of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram users visiting multiple platforms multiple times a day.
This exhibition focuses technology as the dominant mechanism through which we move in the world and construct, study, and present our identities. Social bodies require not just an audience, but a dialogue. Toan and Berdugo’s installations are conceptually compelling because they satirically manifest the personal and embodied echoes of online communities.