Inessential views of art and photography.
“Being together” while apart. Transnational families and new media.
In the course of my investigation about family photography today, I have explored the work of several artists. Although I am interested in everyday practices carried out by everyday people, the work of visual artists often unveils important themes otherwise hidden, not addressed by amateurs.
John Clang’s “Being Together” caught my eye because it specifically deals with family portraits of transnational families. The work is about absence. It is about living in between. It is about substituting presence with a visual reminder that yes has a relation of contiguity to reality but that lacks of touch, smell, warmth, sound, taste. It is about “(…) how we can finally coexist, albeit in pixelated and two-dimensional forms” (Clang, 2010, artist statement). It is about co-existence, reviewed and mediated through digital means.
Somehow, it seems similar to post-mortem photography. Few decades ago, photographs of dead people used to be hanging on the walls of living rooms. They constituted a visual substitution of the dead. In that way, the living ones were still asking the deceased to participate of the shared life. Often collages were made using old photos of a dead person in order to create family portraits. Clang’s work is a living collage. It is a tableu-vivant across time and space. It is dynamic and it in fact creates a space for genuine interaction. It unlocks emotions, feelings, affection.
Talking to John Clang
The process of taking the photographs that constitute John Clang’s “Being Together” is very emotive, profoundly moving. Feelings and emotions are generated by it. Although the title suggests that the work is about physical contact and about sharing spaces, the focus and the ethos of it is in fact about a state of mind, about a mood, about a shared emotional state that exceeds spatial and temporal barriers.
“(…) no tripod are used , no pro equipment….just laptop, webcam and we use stacks of books and shoes box to stack up the laptop/webcam. So the whole capturing is very makeshift, primitive and collaborative. I want the whole family to get involved ….It is the process I’m going for….” (Clang, private conversation, 2013).
The combined use of online video-conference, image projection and digital photography opens up a space of familial, intimate interaction across time and space. In this work he fully acknowledges the potentialities of digital technology to (re)create a third space, a space that is in-between time zones and geographical locations, a space that fosters active engagement among family members and that enables dialogue and intimate communication. “ (…) [A] third space, a site that is able to reassemble them together within the photographic space that we call a family portrait.” (Clang, 2010, artist’s statement).The social value of this third space lies in establishing a framework, where a repetitive and frequent flow of communication can take place. It is not about what is conveyed by the images, but about the rituality of their production, which generates social cohesion (Villi 2011: 105-15).
Skype has smartly used Clang’s work and technique for marketing purposes. What started with a small feature of “Being Together” in the skype corporate website (Sarah Pearlman, Sep. 2012), has gave rise to a become a dedicated website: Skype Stay Together. Positive stories of remaining in touch in spite of being distances apart are celebrated. Technology affords certain actions to take place and change the relationships we are able to have (Belting, 2001: 13). In this tale skype is the only technical miracle allowed.
Shadows and absence
However, there is a disruptive element in all photographs of “Being Together”: John Clang’s shadow. This shadow is a witness and a proof of John Clang’s physical presence on the picture projected on a wall in NYC. It highlights his solitude. It is a manifest of his family’s absence. In conversation with Clang, the more obscure and daunting aspects of the work came up.
” I realise that it is the smallest detail that counts…the fear of knowing what will trigger you and yet you will never have the control to avoid it even though you know it’s coming. So as much as we want the process to be organic….and life to take place on its own, we are the making of our own emotion, somehow. We learn to accept it but at the same time, we start to wonder how similar we are” (Clang, private conversation, 2013).
Clang continues investigating moments, liminal spaces, emotional interactions and its mediations through photography. Although the project is dated two/three years ago, it has only been uploaded to his website few months ago. The triptych highlights the ephemeral of the everyday and the dialogical situations in which (significant) photographs are created.
Let me end this post with another, rather long quote, which in my opinion summarizes not only Clang’s approach to photography but also the reasons why I am so interested in everyday photographic practices.
“A good photograph brings out the event of that occurrence, the process … in which link to other delicate emotion hidden away when we were in that photo taking……only to realise it much later after reflecting on the photo days or years later. It brings us closer to our inner thoughts, inner world to link the missing pieces together, and informing how we actually got there in the first place and marvels at the dynamic underlying the relationship and allow us to question what exactly is the relationship?” (Clang, private conversation, 2013).
If you happen to know about more artists dealing with this topic, please share their work leaving a comment below!
Belting, Hans. Bild-Anthropologie. Entwürfe für eine Bildwissenschaft. [Image-Anthropology. Drafts for a Theory of the Image] München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag. 2001.
Villi, Mikko. Visual mobile communication. Camera phone photo messages as ritual communication and mediated presence. Helsinki: Aalto UP, 2010. Print.