Technology and Interaction: Penelope Umbrico’s TV Sets

Duncan Wooldridge

Response To:

TVs From Craigslist


In their opacity and pixellation – in actuality, their workaday resolution - the tightly cropped digital images which comprise Penelope Umbrico’s ‘TV’s from Craigslist’ might at first resemble the lo-fi reproductions of late modernist paintings, compressed and filtered through the web. Vast swathes of black ground and patches of lighter tones make up much of what we see: a dense and flat surface, suggestive of an image beyond the limit of representability: stretched and mangled by technology.  Like an Ad Reinhardt ‘Untitled’ black square, or a Gerhard Richter ‘Grey’ glassy surface, the images are dense and allover: they work upon the eye progressively and not instantaneously.

Their files scaled down so as to be endlessly transmitted, Umbrico’s TV’s are largely monochromatic and resistant: encountered at speed, they are what the American curator Kirk Varnedoe would call affectionately ‘pictures of nothing’, those images which draw attention to media, process and sensation, but which also sharply divide their viewers.  Resistant like these works of modernism, they challenge the viewer to see at a singular tempo: they shift from possessing an impenetrable density and opacity, to open up to patient and attentive viewing.  We find ourselves slowing down.  In their gradual revealing of information, they provide a level of detail far beyond our expectations: rich in information, gesture, and composition. In fact, we find multiple representations - of seemingly obsolete television screens, of course, but also private spaces, reflected within the television’s glass, details partial and incomplete.

We might begin with monochromatic abstraction and pixellation then, but we come to see an image contained within. We usually desire to see representation in abstraction (by contrast, in representation we become distracted or diverted by the glitch, the sign of the medium and its methods of production, but representation remains).  What this reveals is our difficulty with abstraction and its demands.  In the broad world of photography, the possible abstractedness of the medium is rarely addressed, though here we can see that abstraction surrounds us.  Umbrico’s project seems to balance delicately between utility, familiarity and aesthetic experience, bringing forth complex images from the world outside.  It recalls the writing of critic George Baker, who in his essay ‘Abstracting Photography’, suggested that our culture’s very abstractedness - its concealment behind the screen and the virtual - requires an equally sophisticated, that is to say, abstracted, approach to imaging the world. 

Photography, usually persuaded to act as objective depiction, must attempt to represent our contemporary day to day, not by turning away from representation, but by constructing new realisms.  This may result, as it does here, in an image which traverses the pictorial binaries of abstraction (usually configured as non-representation), and representation (usually configured as actual and easy to comprehend depiction). Our notions of realism, representation, or abstraction are ripe to be turned on their head.  As American painter Robert Ryman has demonstrated, a realist painting might not be one which depicts an image or space, but that demonstrates paints movement across a canvas: that is painting, after all. Coding and mediation, flatness and fragmentation are a reality which represented in Photography might constitute a form of realism.

‘TV’s from Craiglist’ not only bring together an interplay between abstraction and representation, but also that now notorious polarity, established by John Szarkowski, of the photograph as ‘Window’ or ‘Mirror’. These two categories for Photography - one representational of the world, the other self-reflective and inward looking - remain, however much they have been debunked (in the writing of Abigail Solomon-Godeau, amongst many others), very much in operation: where technical images are concerned, we are prone to becoming passive viewers.  In his extraordinary essay ‘Two Approaches to the Phenomenon, Television’, Vilem Flusser describes the TV set as experiencing the very same problematic of non-perceived mediation.  Television is controlled and determined.  We are absorbed into watching the screen, and forget our surroundings; we lose, in absorbing drama or fantastical storytelling, an awareness of the TV’s presence within the room: its appearance and function within domestic space, just as we give up making substantial decisions for channels of similarity.  The age of the Internet is not dissimilar.

Whilst absorptive fantasy is the current mainstay of its content, Flusser states that Television has its origins in the logic of the domestic window. Stating that the window is first understood in relation to the door, the window is in actuality a protected opening onto a space: it provides the information so as to decide to exit or to remain at home: a readymade map of the outside.  From this window we view the world to see what awaits us.  Television extends this capability, while also forecasting and providing information at greater distances.  For Flusser, the Television set’s original purpose is not as a space of cinematic fictions at all (he connects this to an alternate tradition, the painted image, the fresco or wall painting), but as an object with a view of the world, with the potential to inform us sufficiently so that we might decide how to act. 

Umbrico’s project seems to deliver, gradually, a realization that we are reflected in our machines.  We see into these devices but remain outside of them, no matter how embedded our notions of interactivity might be.  The television’s means for the conveying of information, its provision of a map of the outside world, is passed onto the computer (Flusser correctly states that the Television has often sought to construct forms of interaction, in anticipation of web 2.0).  This forms the second part of Umbrico’s project.  The computer, in ‘TV’s from Craigslist’ - as in many of her projects -provides the means for the selling off of semi-obsolete or unwanted technology.  For all of our technological positivism, we are prone to forget that the Internet continues the work of the Television, as well as disposing of that which went before it.  In its production of a 24/7 environment of continual information flow, connectivity and, progressively sidelined rest and sleep, the computer-powered Internet is ever more absorbing, producing a space which seems to allow for no outside.  Jonathan Crary’s significant book ‘24/7’, which aligns the computer within a lineage that follows from the TV, sees the private space of the home truly conflated with our ongoing activities of work and sociability.  But there remains an object here, an object which acts as a portal to an alternative space.  Umbrico’s object of the Television seems to project the not simply the demise of the TV screen, but the monitor, the laptop, the computer: in all of these we find ourselves reflected. All are objects, and all will be superseded by the rapid turnover and forced obsolescence of consumption under capitalism. 

Crary recalls the strange return to the space of our home environment when we withdraw ourselves from the world of the screen. He writes:

“in the last two decades, one became familiar with the transitional moments when one shuts off an apparatus after having been immersed in any televisual or digital ambience for an extended period.  There is inevitably a brief interval before the world fully recomposes itself into its unthought and unseen familiarity.  It is an instant of disorientation when one’s immediate surroundings – for example, a room and its contents – seem both vague and oppressive in their time-worn materiality, their heaviness, their vulnerability to dilapidation, but also their inflexible resistance to being clicked away in an instant”. 

Returning to our environment and the space around us, we encounter the stubborn materiality of the world which exists about us: we continue to encounter, in all probability, ourselves reflected in the switched off Television or Computer screen. 

Umbrico’s alertness to our agency in the reflected image draws us into a renewed negotiation of our relationship to technology; places us in a suspended experience of our own image, caught, by accident, in the screen of our devices.  The images are seductive, of course, but also a little overwhelming, disquieting.  In a return to an awareness of our own agency, we are figured in our negotiation with our apparatuses, and become active as we use, or seek to dispose of our devices in a quest for the new.  We connect our individual actions to a multitude of similar gestures as the images are collected and arranged en masse.  When all of the images are brought together, a new relationship to these screens emerges when we step away from their individual frames.  In a second configuration of the project, Umbrico arranges the images as a wildly expanded array, which we view at a greater initial distance, seeing not detail but cumulative effect.  What emerges (the bringing together of all of the images and their hotspots, as the flare from the camera’s illuminating flash comes to the fore) is a multitude.  Collectively, a constellation or network of individual actors become interconnected, a host of singularities becoming interlinked.  Though Flusser argued that it was the television’s intention and ultimate logic to construct a true network, with the potential for feedback and interaction, he was wary of our disappearing agency, and our potential to pass into passive reception.  Now Penelope Umbrico shows us the window again: what is left for us is to decide how to act.