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On this side of the looking glass: the screen and its power


02 April 2012

On this side of the looking glass: the screen and its power

Two exhibitions about screens and technology, in the same city but in different institutions, mean an opportunity to reflect upon how to embody the imprint of technology within an art centre. The comparison is tempting, and even more so if we analyse the value of the discourse and its dangerous approximation to a propagandistic apology.

We have all at some point in our life seen ourselves reflected in a switched off screen, reflected like discoloured ghosts, like an apparition in the middle of a gelatinous darkness. For a moment we were on the other side of the looking glass. This looking glass that for a while now, although not as long as it may seem, has become an almost constant presence.

Supplied in multiple formats and sizes, and even a variety of conceptual changes, the screen is an object that accompanies us, sometimes as a point of reference for the angle of our sofa, and at others as a small box that contains our whole existence. However, its reach extends way beyond what one usually contemplates. As a concept, it is manifest even when we are not conscious of it. It follows us from the beginning to the end, from the ultrasound monitor to being in charge of registering our last heartbeats.

Its omnipresence is where its attraction lies. It is not strange therefore, that as occurred in the social sciences, the analysis of its complexity, little by little, has become an intrinsic component of exhibition discourses. In fact, by being the central element of an exhibition, it presents an opportunity for reflection and critique charged with a huge potential. Within this context, the screen as a phenomenon, as a reflection and component of society, requires a carefully and responsibly constructed analysis.

Faced with this panorama, the question that arises is, how to deal with the complexity implicit in its nature and at the same time map a coherent discourse? In Barcelona two public centres, the CCCB with “Pantalla Global” (Global Screen) and the Arts Santa Mònica with “Mòbil-U”, have confronted this very challenge from two very different perspectives.

“Pantalla Global” has as its objective to show ‘the power of the screen’. In a macro-analysis, that extends to the terrain of the web not restricting itself to the physical montage. The exhibition presents the screen in all its formats, through the images produced and transmitted by the mass media. Centred almost entirely on public and semi-public screens, such as film and television, it aims to show the impact of mass culture on almost all aspects of life.

“Mòbil-U” takes a different direction. The exhibition is focused on the ambit of the private screen, the one found in mobile devices, and specifically the smartphone. However, the true protagonist is technology that derives and constructs the surroundings. The analysis, of the transformation that it has represented for communication and social changes, almost seems to disappear in favour of an exhaustive explanation of the marvels of mobile technology.

Picking up on the idea of the power of the screen, we should recognise that it is dealing with a forceful and striking concept. Gilles Lipovetsky, Jean Serroy and Andrés Hispano, curators of the exhibition at CCCB, analyse the numerous disguises adopted by the authority of the screen, from its most cunning to its most controversial side: its innate magnetism and seductive capacity, its vigilant and predatory side, its decadent obsession with displaying a hypnotic fatalism, its playful and interactive nature and even its consumerist and persuasive side.

“Pantalla Global” aims to show us the spectre of the screen, as we have never seen it before, crudely exposed, to be contemplated in all its splendour and obscurity. As an exhibition proposal it has great potential, which it manages to exploit to the full in some areas. However, covering all the necessary viewpoints in order to carry out a reflection of such calibre is not an easy task. Even more so if one aims to add to this a framework of conclusions that incite the exercise of critique, which ends up being almost impossible if done while beating around the bush. If the show is considered as a whole, the combination of the platform of digital content and the exhibition, it acquires a very interesting internal coherence, although it plays dangerously with an excess of information.

A prior visit to the digital resources, which were conceived before the physical exhibition, presents us with a huge amount of preparatory material. A bibliography, videos, interviews and various articles that help us to explore the hypotheses proposed by the curators. Here the exhibition takes on a life of its own, presenting various reflections on the benefits, deformations, inconveniences and abuses of the screen. In order to be able to appreciate the discourse, that given its magnitude is hard to deal with in its entirety, it is recommendable to follow this path of action. In this way, the exhibition presents itself as a continuation or a showcase, which reflects the texts and the videos consulted a priori. If not, the exhibition runs the risk of presenting a timid discourse that is not very explicit in its reflections.

The discursive timidity is provoked by the limited reflection upon the impact and value of the images, or at least in any direct manner. The sequences of video seem to limit themselves to retransmitting iconic images of different typologies: war, violence, poverty, film stars, publicity, sports images … However, as we said before, the potential comes to light in some key moments, such as in the ‘Political Screen’ and the ‘Surveillance Screen’, where the installation, the images chosen and the text accompanying them seem to take the analysis one step further. Here the timidity disappears giving way to a solid and daring discourse, where the reflection made by the institution is evident. This is true above all for the ‘Surveillance Screen’, where the ensemble is spectacular, presented like a game of mirrors that introduces the spectator into a surrealist honeycomb screen that seems to multiply ad infinitum. The visual metaphor that it constructs is the perfect complement for the representation of this type of screen and directly incites reflection upon its existence and impact on our lives.

Where in “Pantalla Global” we find the changing nature of the screen and even its darkest side, in “Mòbil-U” we are presented with a brave new world, where the mobile screen becomes the bridge to guaranteed happiness.

Sponsored by the Fundación Vodafone España, with the collaboration of Nokia, RIM/Blackberry, Emporia and Samsung, and curated by Caroline Ragot, mobile strategist for and previously marketing director and executive director of Code Factory, the exhibition is presented as the cultural face of the Mobile World Congress, celebrated in Barcelona. The subtitle of the exhibition, “Conectividad, Sociedad y Creatividad” (Connectivity, Society and Creativity), exposes the key concepts of its discourse. It aims to be an interactive experience that shows the implications of the mobile upon human relationships. Divided into three different markets, one aimed at the adolescent public, another at entrepreneurial users and the third at those with disabilities, the show forms a pathway that leads us through 24 hours in the life of three individuals. The objective is to show how they use the mobile phone to achieve their respective objectives, making use of the latest technologies and services.

The exhibition demonstrates the commitment of the Fundación Vodafone España to culture by sponsoring the exhibition. In the press dossier we can read its primordial objective: “to bring devices and connectivity closer to users, so that they can try out first hand the latest technologies and services that the company places at their disposal”. The approach to the world of the mobile begins with a didactic explanation about all the types of applications (apps) available according to the needs of each of the three cases in the study. The information available about each application is purely informative, similar to the information available about the product on the web pages known as ‘markets’ from where the apps can be downloaded. The data that provide a level of reflection are the different statistics about subjects such as the downloading of applications, which platform is the most used or what percentage of the population uses a certain service.

To complement the information, that helps maintain clear the long list of applications presented, the show places at our disposal various interactive installations where we can test our agility with these technologies. From playing the mini game Angry Birds, to using voice readers to write an sms with the keyboard covered, to applications that carry out the function of establishing what song we are humming. Once more the texts that accompany the installations limit themselves to being informative and even incite us to try the applications in a style vaguely reminiscent of an advertising slogan, “Did you know that apps exist that can recognise a song that you are singing? Tune up and try!”

“Mòbil-U” seems to overlook the more controversial side of mobile technology to focus on its virtues. The path constructs an apologetic discourse for the marvels that a smartphone can bring to our lives, through the benefits offered by the applications destined to act upon each aspect of our social life. Here the screen of the mobile serves as a window onto a model of Internet, that passes for the predomination of the applications over the web. This reflects a substantial change in the communication and relation of the user with Internet and the information that can be accessed from it.

As is to be expected when technology enters the scene, a certain grade of interactivity is required. In both exhibitions, there exists the possibility to involve oneself directly with the content through the mobile devices. “Pantalla Global” offers the possibility to take the experience of the latest screen one step further, through the app that we can download and the augmented reality hidden behind some QR codes. In “Mòbil-U” we download the app of the exhibition to be able to try out the available interactive installations, to discover what lies behind the QR codes laid out along the route or to participate in the competition for mobile device that that are being given away in the exhibition.

The power of the screen reaches much further than we might suspect at first glance. This power can be analysed carefully and with respect. As we have already said, to seek out its impact on our society, supposes a valuable field for study and an opportunity with great potential. There needs to be reflection about the vocabulary used in order to portray the technology in a faithful realistic manner, that is conscious of not falling into the error of employing brands or specific products as synonyms for the technology to which they pertain. Propaganda and easy apology have no place in a discourse about the cultural and social implications of an element that is so important in life today. Above all we need to remember the authority that we have granted the screen. It is capable of transforming the way that we live on this side of the looking glass.

Verónica Escobar Monsalve is a restless soul, with a digital nature and an analogue heart. Her investigations centre on art and culture that mix the digital world with pre-digital thought. Art and culture that is capable of reflecting the complexity of today’s world. She believes in the vital importance of a critical spirit and how this can be applied to any facet in life, however difficult it may be.

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"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)