05.11 - 05.12.2020
Jorge Luis Borges has a short story about a guild of cartographers who, in the pursuit of perfection, produce a 1:1 scale map of their country, such that it covers the entire country, coinciding point for point with the land. The map is, of course, useless, left to rot in the rain and bleach in the sun. But what was allegorical for Borges in the twentieth century – satirical, even – has been made real in the form of Google Maps, a precise and ever-updating map of the entire world which will never tear or fade, accessible from any internet-connected device in the world. Supplemental is the Street View function, which comprises an archive of (pretty much) everything in the world which can be seen from a moving car.
Mame-Diarra Niang, in isolation due to lockdown, made use of these readymade images for her recent exhibition, ‘Call Me When You Get There’. Though not the first to experiment with this new form of imaging – some favourites include Michael Wolf, Mishka Henner, Doug Rickard, Jon Rafman, Justin Blinder, and Jacqui Kenny – Niang’s show nevertheless explores what the medium offers (or agitates) in what is now the third century of photographic production.
Teju Cole writes of Street View photography: ‘The “neutral” and panoptic eye of Google itself becomes the camera, and under these conditions, the photographer’s task becomes curatorial.’ In Street View, the candid photograph becomes surveillance, becomes data, becomes product. It is plotless and impartial. Subjects are less documented than they are captured, depersonalised, and discarded by a click of the mouse. It is incomprehensible and frightening to know that our world has been overlaid – as in the Borges parable – with image and data. More so than curatorial, Niang’s project is to resurrect something of the humane here.
She does this by awarding them a humane eye, appreciating small moments, mundane as they may be: someone shopping, holding a baby, taking out the bin, working on a car. Niang is also attracted to moments when the digital confronts nostalgia: a street corner packed with Volkswagen Beetles in various states of decay; an advertisement celebrating 25 years of the Sowetan (the publication is now 39 years old). But what captures Niang’s attention most of all is when the subjects turn towards the (9-eyed) camera. Their body language conveys curiosity, surprise. But, thanks to Google’s face-blurring technology, as the subject appears before the world, they are, at once, disappeared. What happens in the space between facial-recognition and facial-obfuscation? Does the blur afford a protection of identity, or does it obliterate identity altogether? The experience for the subject, I imagine, is to be in a state of vertigo. It is the experience of being simultaneously surveilled and unseen.
Where do we locate information in the absence of personality? Black Label advertisements, a Shoprite bag, a veranda made of mismatched bricks, a dirt road, a block of security gates. There are times when these pictures feel definitively Joburg Noir. Others feel entirely dislocated. Looking at the pictures gives one a sense of apophenia, which is another kind of vertigo: patterns reveal little more than the seer’s desires to locate. And yet, Niang’s relationship to these pictures is far more personal than her fellow Street Viewers. Whereas Rafman describes seeing in Street View as ‘looking at a memory that nobody really had,’ Niang takes a more embodied approach: ‘They are memories… they are guides… their trace is still there.’ Diang speaks about the people she finds on Google Maps as fragments of the self, breaking the notion of the digital as non-human, or a corruption of the human.
In the absence of personality, the artist’s role – perhaps viewer’s too – is to desencrypt the poetic from the impersonal. Augmented through this particular technology – an archive of disappearances; ephemeral retrospective – one gets the chilling feeling they are dealing in the realm of ghosts. Perhaps this is why Niang’s pictures have all the aesthetic qualities of the uncanny: doppelgangers, spliced bodies, hazy visions, misshaped reflections, shadows where there shouldn’t be. Call it post-internet gothic, where the world once known is nowhere, the map is a map of imperfections (called glitches), revealing what can but won’t be seen. At the end of the day, this is what I think Niang’s show is trying to teach us: how to see a ghost.
Let’s look at two works as an example. The first, go straight #9. In it: barbed wire, concrete wall, stunted tree and, spread across the dirt ground beneath, as if an offering, the shadow of a man. But it’s not a shadow. It’s blurry, yet full of light. We can make out his crisp white shirt and the buttons on his sweater. We can almost see his face. The second work, go straight #10, is captured a few seconds after (or before?) and a few metres onwards (or backwards?). The subject becomes clearer, and yet, he’s turned away. A shadow that is-but-isn’t his shadow trails behind him, eerily so. Not a ghost, but the afterlife of having been seen.
How do you witness a subject as they’re vanishing, as they’re being vanished by an algorithm? Or, it’s a diptych of a subject being made a memory. How to witness this as memory? If the viewer understands the subject in a continuum with the self, as Niang does. I think Niang is on to something important about the nexus of gothic and digital when she says: ‘My darling, memories are fading. Memories, my love, tell different stories when you look at them twice. And travelling through them is going around in glitches.’
Here, the glitch is crucial. It’s the one thread pulling this body of work together. What is a glitch? As it’s imperfect, I have no perfect definitions. Stuck in time, a glitch is both a past life and an afterlife. A glitch is non-narrative, and yet, it contains multitudes. A glitch is anti-representational, a blind spot in the seeing machine. A glitch is placeless, what Niang calls a ‘plasticity of territory.’ A glitch is an act of placelessness. A glitch is an untethering. A glitch is a problem, which is to say, it is subversive. Legacy Russell calls the glitch ‘a correction to the “machine,” and, in turn, a positive departure… the catalyst, not the error.’
If we want to understand how to map the humane in an increasingly dehumanising photographic world, the glitch might be the starting point. A glitch is a nothing which leaves room for the humane to rush in.