Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks
The clouds cleared, the rivers were clean, the roads were quiet. Brexit was forgotten. Lockdown began and an almost utopian world seemed to come through. Account holders on Instagram (a popular image-centred e-commerce tool) told me it was the world that was healing itself.
We’ll Meet Again is sung on doorsteps throughout Britain, and I think of the controversial Facebook research project that explored whether it was possible to affect people’s mood through algorithmic shifts in our news feeds. I think of the sadness, frustration and anger that is subjugated by the increased posting of a need to #bekind or to do our duty for the nation.
A photographer living nearby knocks on my door and asks to shoot me for a project documenting the residents of the area, as a record for the time. I think to the archives of the future, and how this is a good record of a time in lockdown: to see a smiley, happy, resilient nation. But I think also to what is missed here, how each smile will be mined, or how nostalgia will be weaponised to re-present a small period of time when the nation came together, in spite of everything.
I think back to a discussion in 2008 in relation to the 40th anniversary of the worldwide revolts of 1968, and I (possibly mis)remember a panellist saying that there haven’t been events like that since then as we have nothing big enough to fight for anymore. In every year since then, with events including the Arab Spring, Occupy, Brexit and now with a pandemic, I have heard that this is the year we’ll remember that everything changed.
In the period leading up to the lockdown, I had been researching and discussing a new programme at The Photographers’ Gallery that considered how we might respond in the case of an internet shutdown, a situation that has continued to take place around the world since Egypt cut off access during the revolution in January 2011. The programme would question the kinds of infrastructures and networks that need to be in place, and the position that a photographic institution might take in this kind of situation.
The shift from thinking through the possibilities of a shutdown to the realities of a physical lockdown felt peculiar. With ever more reliance on a functioning network and with cultural production and consumption all taking place through digital spaces, the questions relating to surveillance, datafication and a panoptic future become even more urgent. After 30 years of digital solutions slowly replacing all the tools and processes, there is finally an understanding that every day culture is part of the digital, rather than two spaces (the real and the virtual) that marginally border one another. And with this realisation, new polyvocal histories and politics have become battlegrounds that require new forms of creativity and image-making.
These are some of the thoughts that came to mind when speaking to some of LCC’s graduating students. Thinking about the networks of images and the roles that artists and photographers are playing in this new world, it is refreshing to hear how the projects they have been working on have altered because of the societal changes that have happened since March. The work we spoke about considers digitisation of the domestic and the personal, alternative and esoteric forms of knowledge, non-human perspectives, humour, failure, virtualisation, as well as misrepresentation and re-enforcement in artificial intelligence. The complex interplay of contemporary society is often hard to grasp, but the students I spoke to each are critically engaged in cross-disciplinary practices and well attuned to bringing new visions to the present moment.
Sam Mercer is an artist and researcher living and working in London. He works as a producer of the Digital Programme at The Photographers' Gallery; and as an artist, primarily working with moving image and with artist group Common Study at Somerset House Studios.
Recent projects include Interruptions, a browser extension with Field Broadcast and Bad Vibes Club, Backs To The Future at Five Years project space, and Nobody Must Realise, a video commission exploring the Knaresborough Bed Race, Yorkshire. He completed an MRes Art: Moving Image course at Central St. Martins with a focus on artists' broadcasting and use of television formats. Between 2007 and 2013, he was a member of Nottingham artist group Tether, producing exhibitions, events and online projects.