CLEVELAND, Ohio — It’s something we look at constantly, and almost never see. With Surface Tension, photographer Tabitha Soren (yep, that Tabitha Soren) has populated the walls of Transformer Station with an installation that brings into sharper focus the surface quality of the omnipresent touchscreens that deliver a great deal of our daily information and interaction.
While some images in the exhibition stand alone, the majority of them cluster in flocks along the walls, climbing the staircase balcony that overlooks the main gallery. These cascades of images physicalize the multi-frame scrolling of smart devices, mirroring Soren’s attention to the whorls and smudges that form the physical trace of our virtual meanderings. Each image is a hybrid of content and surface, like an oil slick floating on the surface of the ocean. This metaphor becomes literal in the case of a large-scale image of the Arctic Ocean and glaciers, obscured, eroded, and smeared by the evidence of human intervention. The feeling of a transgressive greasy touch shattering the fourth wall of the screen permeates, particularly among some of the more explicitly sexual content; the stairwell is lined with a suggestive mélange of images of women and cats.
Center stage in the gallery is a triptych of images on blackened glass, which evoke the surface layer of devices, to underscore the emphasis on the touchscreen over the content. This is the only glassy surface in the exhibition; all the images on the wall, whether framed or unframed, are presented without glass. The choice makes sense — a protective layer is already represented conceptually, and a further one would feel redundant. And though the lack of glass avoids superimposing the reflection of the viewer onto the images, the oily tactile façades nonetheless implicates 100% of internet consumers.
“The [appropriated] background images in the exhibit have been chosen because they all relate to the sense of touch,” said Soren, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “I wanted them to mirror the haptic language made by touching the iPad with our fingers. This way the image content/background and the concept/foreground are linked.”
Soren further groups images by type of touch: “compassionate touch,” “lack of touch,” and “harmful touch.” Her Instagram profile links to a Spotify playlist titled “Please Touch Me” — an eclectic rotation of songs connected to the idea of physical contact (and an extremely satisfying detail for those of us sufficiently aged to recognize it as an echo of her work on MTV in the late ‘80s). For the artist, human touch and connectedness — and the existential threat posed to them by our increasingly digitalized interactions with other humans — are a deep wellspring for this body of work.
“Human beings are all so naturally at odds with the chilly detachment and objectivity of the information that flows towards us,” said Soren. “It’s unrelenting. There is an inherent tension there, and I don’t like the way it affects my mental state.”
The struggle in the work comes down to warring necessities: we need to feel connected on a human level, but we also need the devices that insidiously contribute to a climate of virtual, rather than physical, connection. The large-scale images are uncomfortable because they highlight the place where our sweaty human fingers reach toward each other and slide ineffectually across glass. As the blank plates in the center of the gallery show, we are touching nothing at all, connecting with no one, and leaving behind the damning evidence of this shortcoming.
Tabitha Soren: Surface Tension continues at Transformer Station (1460 West 29th Street, Cleveland, OH ) through January 26. “Only Touch,” a conversation between Tabitha Soren and writer Nora N. Kahn, takes place on Thursday, January 16. The exhibition was organized by the The Davis Museum at Wellesley College and Transformer Station. The Davis Museum presentation was curated by Lisa Fischman.