Is Instagram a reality or an illusion? Does it feed or kill human creativity? Harmless pastime or serious addiction?
Three urgent questions tackled by art photographers Natalie Christensen and Jim Eyre in their first joint exhibition alteredstates/alteredscapes.
Like many of us in the 21st century, Natalie (above left) and Jim (right) – who live 5,000 miles apart in New Mexico, USA and London, UK – initially made contact via social media. Both share a fascination with street scenes reduced to starkly beautiful abstractions of shape, line, colour and light.
From there, Instagram’s algorithms for matching ‘users’ with like-minded profiles, hashtags, followers and – you know the score – connected the dots.
Over time, the pair began to swop messages in cyberspace; likes, comments and ideas for collaborating together.
For alteredstates/alteredscapes – Natalie and Jim selected elements of each other’s work and collaged them into single images.
The above example blends Natalie’s fascination at faded 1950s Americana with Jim’s love for the nondescript corners of Lewisham. A empty swimming pool, deliciously pink concrete, a sun lounger. An unruly burst of weeds, a road cone and steps leading to nowhere. An ominous shadow cast by an object outside the picture frame.
Despite its superficially banal content, there’s a hidden psychodrama at play here – poised between nothing’s-going-on and something-dramatic-lies-around-the-corner. As if blending Jim’s original training as an architect with Natalie’s part-time day job as a psychotherapist.
During the exhibition’s Q&A session, I speculated which individual elements in the image came from New Mexico or London? Half of my guesses were wrong. Which just goes to show how playfully Natalie and Jim tease our senses, challenge our assumptions about what’s what?
The image can be read on so many levels and it’s available to view in cyberspace 24/7 wherever you are in the world – by logging into Instagram, of course. That oft-maligned platform where people show off their haircuts, cleavages, ice creams, while advertisers prospect for your likes.
“Yeah, I admit, Instagram is… let’s use that word… an addiction”, confesses Natalie, with a knowing smile. “But Jim and I want to use it, not abuse it. We’re asking questions about what is real and what isn’t. It’s kinda surreal to be collaborating from half way across the world via mobile phones and laptops, so that naturally leads to surreal images too.”
“Sometimes people may think we’re cheating when we Photoshop stuff,” adds Jim. “But we’re challenging people to think about what we see, who we engage with. And, Instagram is a just app. Is any of it real anyway?”
As with any philosophical line of enquiry, some dilemmas arise: “Do Natalie and I stay true to our original intention – to share and create meaningful art?” quips Jim. “Or do we allow it to get interrupted by a never-ending dopamine rush in the quest for the most “likes”?
In this context, it was inspiring to see Natalie and Jim’s Instagram work occupy a public space at Peckham Levels – a new arts, shopping and eating venue hosted in a former multi-story car park.
I loved how the architectural content of their floor-to-ceiling-sized prints merged seamlessly into the building’s own structures of concrete walls, walkways and ramps.
As shoppers and families strolled past (including those who’d never normally set foot inside an art gallery), I was struck how often they’d pause to take a closer look, and occasionally take selfies in front of them. Who knows, maybe some of these ended up on Instagram too?
During a photowalk after the Q&A, I decided to have a little fun with this myself and took a few candid shots with passersby blending into the images (above). Art into life into art, as it were.
For me, a key lesson from altered states/alteredscapes is that Natalie and Jim are showing it is possible to strike a balance, to be artful and well-liked too (Natalie has 33,000+ Instagram followers). To inhabit cyberspace while physically interacting with people. And that’s a humanising message for all of us art photographers and Instagrammers alike.
Natalie Christensen at nataliechristensenphoto.com
Jim Eyre at germaine.co.uk