Looking for Real Connections in the Digital Age

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By Emily J. Weitz

When John Messsinger was offered an artist-in-residency at the Watermill Center this past winter, he thought he’d probably spend his time creating site specific photos, capturing the landscape of Water Mill and the surrounding areas. What he didn’t realize was that he was about to probe deep into an exploration of photography itself, and of its place in our digital-age culture and our own self-perceptions.

At the Watermill Center, Messinger was alone and isolated, and he found that his connection to social media became more pronounced as his real face-to-face interactions were limited.

“In that isolation,” he says, “I was looking at my computer screen and my social media outlets far more than I ever had before. In doing that, my view of these things began to shift.”

He saw that Facebook and Instagram are platforms on which people attempt to connect, but there was a falsity in those connections. Even though it seemed like these platforms were bringing us closer, Messinger came to believe that “we were being disconnected from one another at an ever-increasing rate.”

From these investigations came a body of work entitled “Facebook Makes Us Lonely,” although Messinger is quick to add that the inverse is also true: “Lonely Makes Us Facebook.” Messinger raises the point that we reach out into the cosmos to try to get some deep connection, and we end up coming up empty.

“It’s a spiral outward into a false perception of connection,” says Messinger. “It drives us further apart on some level.”

In addition to exploring the way social media has changed our way of connecting with others, Messinger also examines the way social media makes us look at and even remember our own lives.

“I’m interested in the human/screen interface exchange,” he says. “It deals with how we manicure and manipulate our realities through the use of our images. It’s this very edited hall of vanity mirrors.”

As we choose the pictures where we look fabulous, as we adjust the tint to make the day look sunnier, and as we edit certain people out of our frames, we are manipulating not only the image, but the way we recall our own lives, and the way we perceive ourselves in the world.

“It’d be one thing if we said to the world,” says Messinger, “’This is who I am’, but we knew on some level where the fictions lied. But at some point, even we lose sight of who we are in our images versus who we really are.”

Messinger invokes the ideas of Daniel Coniman, a behavioral economist who focused his work on the study of happiness.

“Coniman said there was a fundamental difference between how we experience our lives and how we remember our lives, and that the thing that keeps humans from achieving long lasting happiness is our inability to tell the difference between those two things. For me,” said Messinger, “photographs are false evidence that allow us to perpetuate that delusion.”

Of course, Messinger is a photographer, and a passionate student of the history of photography. He is not condemning photography, but rather asking that we acknowledge the profundity of this conundrum.

“We have spent far too long ignoring the significance of one of the most significant social inventions,” says Messinger. “Our ability to render a three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional object and call it the same thing, or perceive it as the same thing, is fascinating to me. It’s in need of examination, as opposed to an ever-deepening connection to those devices.”

002That examination has manifested itself in “Facebook Makes Us Lonely”, which has been on view at the Eric Firestone Gallery in East Hampton since Memorial Day. In these works, Messinger took thousands of Polaroid photos of different images on his large computer screen. He then created grids which work in starkly different ways to get across this over-arching point – that we’re looking for connection in a backwards way.

In one piece, entitled “The Sound Below,” Messinger takes a Polaroid snapshot of an Instagram photo of a boat, which he took when he was visiting his family in Colombia. That small image is then surrounded by broken-down images of the same computer screen, which come together to create a sea and a sky. He added in birds, as a commentary on the way we alter our memories to fit the feeling we want to evoke.

“It’s about deconstructing an image and constructing it at the same time,” says Messinger. This ties back in to his overall commentary on social media and photography: this simultaneous connection and disconnection.

In another piece, “That, and Everything Else,” Messinger found the most photographed barn in America. He was fascinated by the fact that people came from far and wide to photograph this barn simply because it was the most photographed barn. He found a stock photo online, and he noticed the beautiful rolling hills to the side of the barn. He zoomed in on those rolling hills.

“I’m asking the viewer to look more closely at what we pay attention to,” says Messinger, “and how we denote importance to things.”

In a striking, large-scale piece called “All That’s Left is You,” Messinger uses the digital green screen, which is the basis of every single photograph. He found the exact color temperature needed to make the green screen, and he entered that color code into Photoshop and then photographed it again and again.

“Abstract expressionism suggested that a brush stroke could communicate the internal goings on of the artist,” says Messinger. “Early minimalism suggested that an object or piece of artwork was not a representation of the artist as much as a mirror for the viewer. I think that’s never been more true than in the modern age.”

He recalls a quote by author Anais Nin: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”

That’s the digital green screen.

“It’s a large mirror asking the viewer to have a moment in which they realize that aside from a warm green tone and a grid of white lines, there’s nothing really there. And hopefully it challenges them to not look at what I’m showing them, but to look at what they’re already seeing on their own. It’s the most meditative piece in the show.”

If we can stop looking outward, to our devices and our inboxes, for connection, that’s when we find the most profound connection of all. And in the end, “All That’s Left Is You.”

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