Zeitgeist through June 30
WORDS Annette Griffin
Zeitgeist is currently displaying Simon Roberts’s ethnographic photography in a show that examines popular social intentions and ideals. Public Performance brings together two of Roberts’s recent projects, Sight Sacralization: (Re)framing Switzerland and The Last Moment, in a dual offset investigation of what we see and how we show it to others.
Sight Sacralization was named for the process described by scholar Dean MacCannell in which “a place is named, then framed and elevated, before being enshrined, mechanically reproduced, and finally socially reproduced across a variety of media.” The show details this moment in Switzerland’s history of landscape tourism, which has been predicated upon the human selection and reselection of winning views and vistas in managed cooperation with the environment. Roberts used the online mapping software Sightsmap to generate popularity heat maps using information from geo-tagged pictures online. Once his locations were determined, he photographed not only the views, but the viewing platforms. The result is airily performative, funny, and exquisite, revealing a fragile human theatre too intent on self-realization to take in much of the scenery.
This is an instant in landscape tourism like no other; nevertheless, the movement has always been animated by its seekers and sharers as discourse on issues of domestic importance. The questions What do we want? and What can we get? are highlighted here in careful curations of priority and frequently removed from ethics. The ethics of landscape tourism, of course, encompass movements in competition for resources and recognition, so even someone fully vested in compassionate and “correct” attitudes is bound to find themselves fodder for hypocritically competitive, moralist scrutiny.
As such, the infinity ring of our devotion to landscape dives into a search for oneself. Sure, heritage and the human spirit demand that we desecrate what we most admire in order to enact the highest form of worship; but in a digression from the political savvy of our information age, we’re willing to disregard our carbon footprint for a chance at enlightenment. It raises the questions: Is travel something that was evolutionarily beneficial for humans over relatively short distances, something that we’ve now become too good at? Is it not only our overpopulation, but our mobility, our freedom, that are overburdening ecologies and creating a parasitic system of ironies too radically conservative to confront?
“Once his locations were determined, he photographed not only the views, but the viewing platforms.”
In countries with large feral populations of dogs and cats, an entire visual mesh exists that cannot be present in a place like Nashville, for instance. One’s eyes are constantly being drawn to knee height, where granular clouds of life dart here and there, in manifold pockets over the expanse of landscape, clumping in places of resource, and dispersing across the edges of human habitation. In The Last Moment, Roberts helps us visualize a different mesh, one that we ourselves enact in a fervency for auto-augmentation.
In this series, Roberts has scanned photographs from British print newspapers and noted the presence of each camera, whether they were “a pocket-sized phone camera or a professional digital SLR.” Through a translucent screen, he marks a halo around each device, so that they float in constellated patterns of abstraction; physical 0s and 1s in an unreal, white sky. The mark-making in this series is as much a tribute to tactility as it is a clinical act of disembodiment, where Roberts reveals that our determination to dispel privacy and create a lasting presence beyond our bodies burgeons into a popular preference for mechanical eyes and memory.
The axis of The Last Moment is aesthetically and metaphorically disseminated via translucency, as a comment on the “various ways cameras function and are used in today’s societies.” Lenses and split-seconds, hands and mirrors: The passage of light and time is one whose capture seems classic, infinite, but is still subject to all the old laws of physics. Our intimacy with ephemera will never truly protect it, in the same way that our need for definitive understandings rules out the uncanny, uncertain magic of our planet. By that reasoning, perhaps there is value in hyper-documentation. But Roberts reminds us to question our first instincts: Must the places in which documentation occurs act effectively as sets and backdrops? What are we responsible to, in this act? Perhaps, there, translucency is also metaphorical of personal perception: the miraculous, internal understanding of ourselves and equally sublime observance of the exteriors of others, alongside the milky, misunderstood threat of those ulterior poles. Despite all the searching, despite trying to find ourselves in the reflections of what we see, we’re unlikely to get beyond that particular vantage point.