Ironically enough, that is a snapchat screenshot and it’s a silly little thing I did one early spring afternoon while I was at VCU. I was walking down the sidewalk and saw some trees and thought “this is a nice feeling, I’ll take a picture and have fun with it. I’ll say something absurd like ‘I don’t believe in the internet’.”
When I went to VCU, I slowly became aware of this very recent movement (in art history terms) called “internet art”. I won’t spend time or words explaining the work or the artists that do it, and I hope by the end of the this post you’ll understand why. I’ll simply say that it is work which primarily engages the ideas surrounding our internet obsessed, image saturated, instant information culture. It is important work in contemporary culture and thought, and I hate almost all of it. I am done trying to argue against its worth as art, and I’m growing far more comfortable in the idea that even if work is good or important, I don’t need to like it. I am, however, believing more every day that it’s far more gratifying to simply think about and do things which I find more substantive.
So, the internet.
I can’t even tell you at this point why I labeled a picture of trees as such, but the phrase “i don’t believe in the internet” stuck with me. It seems absurd at first blush. It feels so matter of fact, similar to how atheists will say “I don’t believe in a god.” As I thought about it more, though, it seemed to gain at least a shred of sanity in the face of the absurdity of the statement. The internet almost feels like a deity, especially if you subscribe to the whole “the medium is the message” argument. What is said or done on the internet is basically irrelevant to the fact that we have a conduit of information, a simulacra of our friends, masses of anonymous individuals which serve as an echo chamber for any opinion possible, usually in our pockets at all times. The medium being the message, the internet is the god of globalization, of unceasing connection and the slow evaporation of privacy and substance. The internet is the god of post-modernism, the god of faces buried in phones.
So I sort of playfully adopted it, trying to be dead faced serious about it when I mentioned it. It ended up being sort of a “fake it til you make it” situation because it’s ended up helping me clarify my feelings about internet art, my feelings about the internet, and especially how it relates to my own work.
On a practical level, of course I use the internet. I’m using it right now. I’m having a conversation with a friend on iMessage. I’m listening to streamed music. I have Facebook open in another tab. Maybe in another world in which the internet simply ceased to exist, where we just collectively decided to flip the off switch, people would be shocked and then things would go back to normal, albeit internet free. But I don’t exist in that world, and completely ditching the internet after using it for over ten years at this point would be a toss-up with “cutting off a leg” in terms of functional impairment. In fact, seeing as a lot of necessary aspects of things like college (grades, financial information, class announcements/email, materials) is run through the web, a strict no-internet policy would reduce me to almost grade school “he said she said” ridiculousness of “hey I can’t use the internet, it’s a thing, could you check my school email for me?”
I can’t even quite bring myself to cut my tethers from social media, either. I’ll keep up with a forum or two pertaining to my interests for entertainment and use Facebook as a method of passively updating others on my life and keeping updated on others, and communicating with friends. However, I’ve more or less decided to try and let the wave of social media pass me; I don’t keep an Instagram, I let my Tumblr die, I’d tried multiple times years ago to get with Twitter but it never stuck: My sincere intent is to let Facebook remain the extent of my social media and let whatever other ‘new thing’ happens float on without me.
“I don’t believe in the internet” isn’t a statement of protest or anger or upheaval, it is simply a statement of what I care about, or in this case, what I don’t care about. Many atheists will say “it’s not that I necessarily inflammatorily seek to destroy other people’s beliefs, I just couldn’t be bothered to spend my time thinking about a god because I don’t believe such a thing could exist.”
I’m going to sort of appropriate a concept from Christianity to help explain this, and that’s the two kingdoms idea. In the New Testament, Paul, one of the most important early thinkers in the Christian church (handful of years after Jesus early) advises the followers of Jesus to whom he is writing to not conform to this world, but rather seek the tenets of the Kingdom of God while still functioning in this world. Living in an internet world, what does it mean for me to have chosen to focus on things more substantive?
Belief, Art, and Photography
This was originally the post about why I haven’t really been posting photographs, and I’ll get to that! This phrase just popped into my head as a good thing to help understand the thoughts underlying the reason why you haven’t seen a new photograph of mine on this blog, or if you’ve really been looking for them, really anywhere for the past two months. Because it had “believe” in it, though, I figured I’d first address some of the religious undertone, because in some sense, the experience I strive to achieve in my own art making process is a sacred one. I feel that if I were to make art which strayed from the path of trying to explore the full space of the most sacred and righteous aspects of the human experience, I’d just be wasting my time. In other words, trying to make work which explores the depravity/brokenness of human existence feels infinitely worthless beside trying to find Beauty and Truth and fulfill that nagging spiritual longing I think all humans have.
I believe that that is an important part of understanding why I haven’t posted pictures, and you can believe that or not.
Here is the simplest way of stating why I haven’t posted photographs: It feels like I’m muddying the significance of my work by posting it online.
In the past I’ve basically posted photos online for feedback. I’d post the photos to critique forums, I’d post them to Facebook to share them with my friends seeking praise. I started posting them on this blog to ruminate on technical aspects in order to refine technical craft, then I pondered over ideological points to refine conceptual craft. Then I suddenly realized that the experience of taking photographs, the significance and the joy and the reverence that that brought me would never, ever begin to be expressed through a photograph on a computer screen. I didn’t let this bother me for a while, but then it go to the point where it even felt useless to make photographs with the end product of the internet.
I don’t want to place mental stock in the internet- I don’t want to try to build up a reputation as an outstanding landscape photographer among strangers on online forums because I know that those small digital photographs on their small digital screens will never represent more than a “wow that’s neat” and an “internet nod of approval” before moving on to something else. I don’t want that for my photographs because it’s my sincere intent that every photograph I take be a representation of a small piece of something I cherish, something I aspire to understand and love to spend time with. In short, I take photographs of things that I love, and posting them online feels like robbing them of potential significance which could be expressed in a physical medium in favor of trying to garner some insignificant internet presence.
Which brings me to this photograph:
This is a print I had made for a friend. I’ve been waiting to see her to give it to her, and it’s been sitting on my desk face up. Not to be vain, but there have been several times where I simply stop what I’m doing to look at it and appreciate it. The photograph, besides being a picture of an incredibly beautiful place taken on a very joyous family trip, is just a well made photograph. I edited it meticulously such that everything was just so, everything is sharp and tonally exactly where I want it to be. By being printed, it became a beautiful object. Between being charged with nice memories and being a well crafted thing, it is simply something that I’m proud of, something that I love in a small way, something I feel is a part of me. It would bring me joy to be able to share this, to have money to print and make more photographs like this. If I could invite everyone that I would want to see my photographs into my living room, and they could all look at them and say “I understand and accept you, how you see and feel about the world, and I am so happy that you’ve shared this piece of me with you.” Then we could sit around and talk and laugh and share stories about the things we’ve done and what we think about and feel. Then maybe we could all eat some home cooked food and laugh some more.
That would just be damn fantastic. That has got to be the best way possible to share my photographs, and what would I be doing if I didn’t do everything possible to work towards that end? Editing photos is hard. It’s time consuming and mentally taxing to try to slowly and gently nudge a photograph into striking formal order. Why should I spend that effort towards an end product that I know for a fact will be disappointing? Tumblr reblogs don’t make me happy, Facebook likes don’t make me happy, upvotes on Reddit don’t make me happy. Two things pertaining to photography which absolutely make me happy are being out and making exposures, and working hard on creating a finely crafted, physical, finished object.
Prints are beautiful and exciting things. Photo books are lovely to sit down and read and enjoy. Working the dark room will never stop feeling like arcane magic and I grin from ear to ear, still, when things are going great in there. The internet does little to nothing to excite me. It’s not the franchise of art I choose to like. It’s not the final destination for my photographs. It’s not a satisfying stand-in for face to face interaction. It’s a sinking ship in light of the Beauty and Truth which is out there to seek, and I choose not to think about it, not to let myself be swept away by it, and engage it as little as possible. I don’t believe in the internet.