Vintage Print – Josephine Pryde
A previously unpublished essay, inspired by Pryde’s nomination for the Turner prize in 2016.
Turner Prize nominated artwork, or iPhone ad? It turns out to be the former, but the fact that it could keep you guessing is hardly inadvertent. Contemporary art photography has been converging with the visual tropes of marketing for some decades now. The traffic has been mostly one way; advertising’s borrowings from fine art are rare, and suffer from several decades of cultural lag, so that Jackson Pollock still counts as an edgy reference. But in the 1970s, the so-called Pictures Generation artists picked up where Pop Art left off, adopting the design intelligence of marketing departments as their own. In a few cases, like Richard Prince, this was done through straight appropriation. But most of these artists, like Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Barbara Kruger, and Robert Longo, engaged in a cagier game of impersonation. By using images to critique images, it was as if they were going undercover in enemy territory, turning the visual tropes of the culture industry against themselves.
That is not what Josephine Pryde, the maker of the 2014 image Here Do You Want To?, is doing. She uses the tropes of commerce, to be sure, but if she is taking aim, the target is not so clear. It is would be difficult to read the picture as feminist, for example: it has the whiff of banal eroticism familiar from innumerable ads using slender, youthful women as props. The model’s head is unseen, though a spray of her hair pokes down into the frame, gleaming under artificial light. Her poison-yellow nails hover above the black mirror of a smartphone, fingers poised in the texting motion we have all learned so well in recent years. It is a graceful gesture, pinky held delicately aloft like that of an eighteenth-century lady at tea, with the other fingers arranged in a gentle arc. The depth of field is extremely shallow, so that the model’s hand is pin-sharp but her arm and body recede into haze. The effect is reminiscent of the soft focus used in shooting film actresses back in the silent era, which was sometimes achieved by smearing Vaseline on the lens.
So far, this could be the description of an Apple advertisement in a glossy fashion magazine. But there is at least one telltale difference: an actual iPhone ad never depicts a blank device. It usually is made to glow encouragingly, its screen showing a big pink blossom, a surging wave of aqua blue, or a menu of options that suggest the world’s pleasures are immediately at hand. The phone in Here Do You Want To?, by contrast, is an empty slate, apart from the reflection of the model’s finger and body. The effect is purposefully strange: she is poised to tap away on the touchscreen, despite the fact that is turned off. This is the pictorial counterpart to the sideways lurch of the title, which sounds almost like a text one might send to a friend, but not quite.
Another subtle note of dissonance is the text on the model’s shirt, which presumably reads “vintage.” That is a word beloved of marketers, used almost exclusively to denote new things that look old. Tap “vintage T shirt” into your phone right now and you’ll get an endless number of hits, all of which encourage to buy something freshly manufactured. Many examples will have a double stripe on the sleeve, just like the one on the model’s shirt, a retro touch that refers back to 1970s athletic wear. Such garments, paradoxically, cite the idea of authenticity without even pretending to manifest it. Pryde is using this contradictory vocabulary – both the word and the dress code – as a way of establishing an atmosphere of the ersatz.
Now, seeing as you have your phone out already, try this: enter “Josephine Pryde Here Do You Want To” into Google and bring the image up on your screen. What you’ll see is the perfect state of this artwork: not a large print on a gallery wall, but a slidey little picture seen in its native habitat. You’ll notice that your own fingers have curled around your phone just in the way that the model is holding hers. This duplication of the real and the represented is the beginning of an infinite recession, the mise en abyme of digital imagery. The dive down the rabbit hole began with print photography – if you now Google “mise en abyme” you will see online images of a hand holding a photo of a hand holding a photo of a hand holding a photo, and so on to infinity. But it is only with online experience that such cascades of reference, of pictures and words nested one within another in endless series, became the terrain we daily navigate.
This brings us back to the object that forms this image’s center: the material phone itself. When all else is shift and flux, as we navigate the digital landscape, it has become a sole fixed point, a wormhole through which pieces of information cycle endlessly. As Maggie Jackson, author of a full-length book on the topic of distraction, warns, “It’s a darkening time when we think togetherness means keeping one eye, hand, or ear on our gadgets, ever ready to tune into another channel of life.” (1) This is the world that Pryde seems to be depicting, not only in this photograph but a series of related images. Each of these shows a pair of well-manicured hands in glamorous close-up, caressing a touch-sensitive screen. One can find pathos here without looking too hard: Pryde seems to be suggesting that our most intimate moments these days are with technology, which does not love us back. Again, it would be a stretch to characterize this as critique. There is little accusation, and much conventional visual pleasure, in these pictures. In the old days of the avant garde, one spoke of artists who were either critical or complicit. Culture wars were fought over these matters. Pryde is, we might say, “post” all that. She is, together with much of her generation, and like the model in the shot, merely... interested.
That word, “interested,” carries an exceptional amount of freight these days. This is particularly true when it comes to contemporary art. If you are the sort of person who goes to art fairs, galleries, and museums, keep your ears attuned. You’ll be shocked at how much the word comes up, and how thoroughly sophisticates of the art world rely on it. But this is a far more widespread phenomenon. When we discuss movies or clothes or restaurants, when we compare our reactions to the latest political developments, even when speaking about other people, we often describe things as interesting, or not so interesting, and leave it at that, as if this were the highest form of praise or condemnation left to us. Interestingness is becoming the coin of the realm. This, in turn, is an indicator of how completely the “attention economy” has pervaded our everyday experience. As companies, colleagues and friends compete relentlessly for our “likes” and “views,” we are increasingly conditioned to an infra-thin form of response that does little more than index who has seen what.
Already in 2008, the theorist Sianne Ngai saw this coming. In a beautiful essay entitled “Merely Interesting,” published in the journal Critical Inquiry, she argued that the
"semantic blankness” of the term allows it to act as a technique of deferral: ...interesting [is] a syntactic placeholder, enabling critics to defer more specific aesthetic judgments indefinitely. Interesting thus becomes particularly handy as a euphemism, filling the slot for a judgment conspicuously withheld. But in addition to replacing or postponing aesthetic judgments, we also use interesting to facilitate our return to the object for judging at a later moment, like sticking a Post-It in a book. (2)
Here Do You Want To? is the perfect visual counterpart to this diagnosis. Ngai was writing just before the mass proliferation of smartphones, but her realization that contemporary life was becoming an experience of “judgment conspicuously withheld” could not have been more prescient. The iPhone in Pryde’s photograph, a stand-in for the one that most of us carry every day, all day, is an object that is not one (to paraphrase the French philosopher Luce Irigaray); an object without qualities (to paraphrase the German novelist Robert Musil). It yields the promise ofeverything, while being, in and of itself, a solid slab of blank mute matter.
The next time your smartphone chirps to get your attention - more likely drawing your attention to a text or a tweet than an actual phone call - listen closely. The sound may seem cheerful, but think what it might portend if, like the model in Pryde’s picture, we fall too deeply under the spell of our own devices. Listen again to that sound. One Ring to rule them all. One Ring to find them. One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.
- Maggie Jackson, Distraction: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), p. 22.
- Sianne Ngai, “Merely Interesting,”Critical Inquiry 34/4 (2008), p. 784.