Material World

Honk if you “like” our landscaping.


Every few weeks, I get an email reminder: “A lot has happened on Facebook since you last logged on.” I’m always disarmed by this phrase, which feels closer to “So much has changed in the neighborhood since you moved away” than “There have been many interesting articles in The New Yorker since your subscription lapsed.” But it makes sense, of course. Facebook is so effortlessly immersive that we can think of it as being somewhere, rather than reading something. That’s a disconcerting thought, given that we are humans whose consciousness depends on our experience of real space and time. Can we remain connected to our material selves, even as we spend more of our lives in virtual space?

For the ongoing series Geolocation, Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman use geodata to find and photograph the precise location where Twitter users post their tweets. Most recently, they have documented sites in Fargo, North Dakota. Sometimes the connection to place is obvious, as in the photo of a giant buffalo statue introduced as “My spirit animal.” Other images make sense in cultural context, like the tweet inveighing against gun regulation posted from a church parking lot. But often there is a more oblique connection between site and status update, which leaves the viewer to fill in the story. Whose heart was broken beside the high school bleachers? Is it dangerous to think deeply about adulthood in the grass beside the railroad tracks? The series reminds us that our lives are grounded in mundane landscapes, even as we stare at screens that seem like portals to other dimensions.

Photo by Aleix Plademunt
Composite of cell phone towers. [Aleix Plademunt]

Everyday landscapes are also the focus of Aleix Plademunt’s series Virtual Space (a collaboration with Carlos Marqués and Borja Bagunyà). He photographs the physical infrastructures of digital technologies — cell phone towers, data centers, surveillance cameras, Google Street View cars — and reveals their messy interface with the material world. This is a sprawling exurbia, shot in a casual style. The infrastructures seem slightly off, as if they are struggling to fit in. Cell towers unconvincingly take the form of trees or boulders. Damaged Google cars have clearly suffered the indignity of real streets. Corporate tech campuses lie out of sight, behind dense walls of foliage, leaving only an unsatisfactory trace of their presence. Facebook’s “like” logo, a giant thumbs up, greets a vast, empty boulevard. Plademunt shows the impenetrability of systems designed to appear transparent. They intrude into our world but do not give us a window onto theirs.

Those messy interfaces make a sharp contrast with the hermetic data centers in Henrik Spohler’s 0/1 Dataflow, photographed in the early 2000s, as many people were getting online for the first time. Spohler’s precisely composed images match the stark perfection of the spaces they depict. A cold light evenly illuminates rows of white steel cabinets and brightly colored wires that disappear into dark holes. These are mute spaces, their repetitive perfection at odds with the endless, fluid variety that makes online experiences so compelling. Here, content and purpose cannot be deciphered from physical form. Spohler’s photos mark an important point on the post-industrial trajectory where the apparent increase in openness of experience is accompanied by an increase in the opacity of the systems that enable it.

Editors’ Note

Nate Larson’s and Marni Shindelman’s series Geolocation was supported by the Visual Arts Department at North Dakota State University.

Aleix Plademunt’s series Virtual Space was a collaboration with Carlos Marqués and Borja Bagunyà for the film 10.000 km, directed by Marqués.

Aaron Rothman, “Material World,” Places Journal, November 2015. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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