We can store the solid letters and envelops and photographs we exchange with each other safely in our cupboards and drawers and shelves through the years. But what happens to our digital communication? Where and how are the messages we share on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Gmail, etc. archived? They are always before us, for sure, but because they exist in the virtual world they undeniably have a rather flimsy, evanescent quality. These sentences of ours appear to vanish and lose significance all too quickly. How can we make sense of them, give them a more material, stable form? Also, what becomes of our conversations if the electronic systems on which they have been conducted are damaged or replaced with newer technologies?
Motivated by these issues, Brooklyn-based artist Isabelle Garbani installed a fascinating project called “Love and Death, Archiving the 21st Century” at Chashama Studio in New York back in 2013.
She writes: “Information in digital format is tied to the physical device on which it was created and stored. Computer hardware, software and operating systems are continually evolving, creating Digital Obsolescence, where data is no longer accessible because the media to read it does not exist anymore. Email and social media sites have essentially replaced letters. Communication between friends, family and lovers is increasingly in digital format. Are all modern stories then doomed to disappear?
“Love and Death, Archiving the 21st Century aims to chronicle our times through a tangible form that is representative of the digital medium and of our legacy as a society. Using lace technique with thread made from recycled plastic shopping bags, I record Facebook posts and Friends’ comments, Tweets and Text Messages.”
Lace is traditionally a feminine craft, aptly in opposition to computer science, which is frequently seen as a male-dominated field. Yet, thinks Isabelle, the technique has a lot in common with computers, since it also uses a binary method to display a message. Like a machine using ones and zeroes to manage complex operations, the lace is formed into a grid, and squares are either filled (one) or left empty (zero) to display words and embellishments.
On the other element, plastic, the artist says: “Plastic is a modern material that best represents who we are as a culture. It is indispensable and it is completely unnecessary; it is vital to our modern lives and it is harmful to our environment; it is a true technological achievement and a sign of our failure. Ironically, plastic will most likely endure past our digital age.”
Together, lace and plastic combine fittingly to create a concrete illustration of our time. One, in a way, symbolising connection; the other, consumption—two powerful forces that orchestrate the world today.
Isabelle hails from the northern French commune of Compiègne. Many of us consider France a great – perhaps the great – upholder and celebrator of personal liberty and ambition but, surprisingly, Isabelle felt she had a limited number of options in her native country. She says in her statement: “As a teenager, I was contemplating a future which was, frankly, very depressing to me. The expectations from both my family and French culture did not seem to leave me any breathing room. I felt like my life was on rails: I was supposed to get my BAC, get married, have children, spend winter in St. Moritz, and vacation at Club Med. Art was not even a possibility, or a glimmer of a hope. In 1984, we moved to Boston. I discovered that American culture rewarded and praised individualism. I could finally invent and re-invent myself anytime, at any age. The cultural yoke was lifted and I was free to experiment and pursue my own dreams.”
At the same time, she adds, she is still very much “a French person”, with strong political opinions, and is aware of the sometimes “corrosive influence of American culture abroad”. “A lot of my motivation to make art,” she explains, “comes from this constant dichotomy in my life: this country is my home and not my home; it welcomes me and it rejects me; I love it and I hate it. My choice of materials reflects this paradoxical view that I have of American culture. Plastic is indispensable and it is completely unnecessary; it is vital to our modern lives and it is harmful to our environment; it is a true technological achievement and a sign of our failure.”
Many of Isabelle Garbani’s works are available through Box Heart Gallery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Images used with permission. Credit: Barry Rosenthal.