Romance in the 21st Century is a twisted union of human emotion and digital calculation. As individuals we are encouraged to fuse our inner and outer worlds through technology, told to “share”, to “like” and to “favourite” each bite of information that appears on the screen before our flickering eyes. We are bombarded with the edited lives of others, creating a society of socially aware yet physically distant automatons being led down a yellow bit road by corporations mining our sensations for profit. It sounds dystopian, yet we have adapted to it peculiarly easy.
The challenge for many is to participate in such a world while retaining a sovereign identity and critical awareness of how the interface with which we use is all the time attempting to manipulate our psyche. This takes discipline: to not give away too much information, to not over-emote, to not confuse the parallel online dimension with real life. However there will always be crossover, when the two dimensions collide and the perception of one or the other causes real problems for the user.
How many of us still have digital photographs of our ex-partners haunting Facebook for instance? We can remove the tags but can we remove the memories so easily? We try again with new relationships and hope to forget the old by the promise of the new. We are constantly told to be careful what we post as it will stay there forever, and it sounds like just another Internet rule. But it isn’t, it is a rule for life in general. Ultimately, no matter how we engage with technology through our photographs or online identities, it is only ever a condensed, abridged version of our reality and the same rules always apply.
As Matthew Swarts shows us with The Alternatives, we may try to alter the surface, to interfere with the data and disrupt the layering of emotion and information, but we cannot dispel the idea, the ‘once-was’, because it ‘always-is’. So we get used to it, we accept this new reality where computerized pattern interacts with the curvature of a cheek, where solid forms become atomized and transparent, where the constructs of time and truth become undefinable. We get used to an alternative life.
SMBH: The Alternatives evolved from your earlier project Beth, can you elaborate on the process involved in moving on from one to the other?
MS: They are two projects that evolved from one working process, which I have stumbled back and forth between for over ten years. In Photoshop I create patterned screens out of web artifacts that I collect with abandon. Then I degrade, sharpen, erase, and complicate the screens by conforming them to masked adjustment layers from digital photographs. The masks take on the characteristics of the patterns, and provide a new alternative to seamless pixelated photographic information. In the Beth project, I used architectural and graph papers, repeated ad infinitum, to gently make visible to the disappearance of my former partner. In The Alternatives, I’m actively using optical illusions to question my (and the viewer’s) perception of my beloved. While both projects originated in 2014, the relationships that they borrow from are a year apart.
SMBH: Did you find it easier or more difficult to work with the personal source material of this project compared to the subjects of your earlier work such as the foliage in Monteverde?
MS: It’s a really delicate thing to implicate anyone in your art-making. I feel very vulnerable putting out personal information, or even the edges thereof, but really I have never worked in another way. My work has always evolved out of my concerns and relationships. Recently, I’ve made that directly visible in a line of projects about my intimate life. The only strange adjustment, I’ve found, is watching how the milliseconds of internet exposure function and play out.
SMBH: The images in The Alternatives are quite striking for their fearless use of technical patterning and layered surfacing; is there a point in the process when you feel it can lose meaning and become more about style than content?
MS: It’s definitely a major concern. I want something to resonate on more levels than just a stylistic fad would allow.
SMBH: As with your earlier portraits of Children With Cancer, you seem to be primarily concerned with undermining our perception of what is visible on the surface, would you agree with this? How does this inform your practice overall?
MS: I’m curious about perception in general. Mostly, I’m curious about it’s mutability. Time and context constantly throw perceptually ‘solid’ ideas in flux in my mind. I’m always looking for ways to challenge and provide other ideas about the perception of a person or a thing. In The Alternatives I am literally providing other possibilities for entering into the image, should a viewer choose to look beyond the surface. So yes, there’s a constant thread in my work about challenging and reorganizing perceptual processes, be that through social documentary strategies or other more studio based practices.
SMBH: As society at large becomes increasingly reliant on digital technology, do you feel it is up to photography to capture this?
MS: This is an interesting way to phrase a question, but I think it’s tautological: photography is always capturing our reliance on technology anyway, through its indexical relationships to whatever you think is ‘real’. In my work, I’m less concerned with documenting a reliance or a relationship to technology and more concerned with utilizing digital tools to communicate something about my heart and mind. It’s a smaller ambition I think!
SMBH: How important is the photograph as an artistic object for you, or is the artistic image of primary concern?
MS: I was the fortunate student of Emmet Gowin and Abelardo Morell, two of the consummate American silver printers of our time. I can’t help but be overly concerned with the physicality of the printed object. I love making prints that are as dense to read as an 8×10 inch contact print even at mural size.
SMBH: When you take a photograph, do you see it as something to work from, as a starting point as it were; or does it depend on the individual image?
MS: It does depend on how I’m working at the moment. There are times when I really am in love with how a ‘straight’ digital photograph renders the world. At others I am curious about using the image as merely a starting point for expressing other ideas about the world. The good part of this is that at this point I do not find these things to be at particular odds with each other: I can do both!
See more from Matthew Swarts here.