Regardless of whether we are posting something personal, shopping online, doing research, or booking a trip, we are always asked to accept the “General Terms and Conditions of Use.” The recent data-protection scandal around Facebook has drawn our attention to fact that the supposedly free online media expect something from us in return: our data. As tracking machines, our smartphones pass information onto the major companies of this world concerning our locations, personal interests, illnesses, culinary preferences, or planned travel destinations. With every step we take with our mobile phones in our pant’s pocket, with each click on the “Accept” button, our data-based, digital self-portrait becomes more accurate and distilled.
Lilly Lulay’s work Digital Dust can be understood as such. Viewed from a distance, the elongated swaths of fabric are reminiscent of analog film rolls or contact prints. At second glance, one notices that the white subsections each have a date suggestive of a chronology or timeline. Organically shaped bubbles form a contrast to this and appear to dance across the precise, geometric surfaces. In fact, these represent image fragments from the artist’s Google Photos account, a free cloud service that automatically archives all photos that Lulay’s smartphone produces or receives. The shapes of the bubbles are inspired by the program’s sophisticated algorithms, which can recognize outlines, color combinations, and faces and thereby arrange the mass of images not only chronologically and geographically, but also in terms of content.
In contrast to the blind Google algorithms, Lilly Lulay looks for details within the individual image fragments that trigger her personal memories. On the one hand, she picks up on the operating principles of the algorithms, but with her self-determined approach she simultaneously breaks free of the standardized framework of content analysis. How anonymous can a Google photo user remain if the program can recognize people and objects, and even track our locations in real time?
With Digital Dust, Lilly Lulay leaves behind her own digital footprint that not only addresses the automated ordering of images but also critically questions the changing functions of photography directly tied to the smartphone. On the one hand, the viewer gets to see everything that was uploaded onto Lulay’s Google Photos account in the months of November and December 2017, on the other hand, it is only part of the “digital dust” Lulay produced. Thus she also alludes to how we use our camera in profligate ways: the amount of images we produce and consume daily explodes. What we produce no longer collects dust in photo albums or shoeboxes, but rather on our smartphones, social-media timelines, or as in Lulay’s case in a cloud archive. Photography only has a short half-life; it becomes a sort of disposable item.
Our Writing Tools Take Part in the Forming of Our Thoughts—a series of lasercuts Lilly Lulay produced in 2017—explores how the smartphone has changed the ways friends communicate and what role photography plays here. In 1882, Nietzsche wrote this sentence to a friend while using his first typewriter. Much has changed since then: even face-to-face communication today often takes place through our smartphone screens. Lulay developed the work Our Writing Tools Take Part in the Forming of Our Thoughts in response to this issue. At first glance, we might notice a photograph whose visual contents appear to be broken up by a delicate web of ornaments. Only at a close distance is it possible to recognize living spaces superimposed by various icons. These are impressions from the apartment of Lulay’s friend C., who got her first smartphone in her mid-seventies. “The paper plane means sending something, with the camera icon you can take pictures,” explained Lulay in describing the functions of her new writing tool to her friend.
These icons also reappear in the laser cuts: consistent with the image contents, Lulay found these in a digital icon database for web designers and placed them in the corresponding locations in the photo. The digital icon of a computer keyboard, for example, is positioned over the keyboard in the photo of C.’s office. Lulay placed icons over the computer screen associated with the internet and the way the computer works: a globe, a cursor icon, an envelope, and a file folder, for example, can be found here. In this way, she creates a classic image description that no longer works with words but with icons—a sign system that is currently establishing itself worldwide and actually only exists in the digital space of smartphones and online media.
At the same time, this also reflects the question of how our digital interactions are framed. On the web, photographs are always linked with icons that imply taking a certain action. Thus our uploaded photo on Instagram or Facebook always appears in combination with a Share, Like, or Comment button. Similar to how architectural space shapes our analogue encounters, the architecture or layout of digital spaces where we meet our friends also informs how we move around within them. It often shapes our actions without our realizing it.
Transparency forms another important aspect of the work. Cutting the icon collage out of the photographs creates gaps that invite viewers not only to look beyond the visual surfaces of photographs and screens, but also to question the superficiality of Instagram, Facebook, and the like. The original flat photograph is also expanded by a spatial level, reinforced by the shadows the collage network casts onto the rear white wall. In the two laser cuts that extend into the gallery space, this idea is finally perfected: the shadow on the wall functions as the actual image. In addition, the permeable surface addresses the fact that we as smartphone users are transparent, i.e. trackable. As with Digital Dust, the work Our Writing Tools Take Part in the Forming of Our Thoughts is also directly related to our digital identities, to the casually created user profiles or data portraits that now tell us more about us than any detailed photo can.
The works presented in this exhibition address photography as a ubiquitous cultural tool that must always be questioned and reinvented. By printing her Google Photos timeline on swaths of fabric, Lilly Lulay adds a tactile component to photography in Digital Dust, thus creating a desire in the viewer to touch the work. The same is true of Our Writing Tools Take Part in the Formation of Our Thoughts, which as a double-sided installation extends in part into the room as well. Both works transfer content—which originates from digital space and does not actually have any specific material properties—into analogue space, so that it is no longer only viewable on a screen but is also experienced physically. They confront the viewer with the challenge of intensive looking in order to recognize anything within the visual overload. Our dependence on the smartphone—the question of how we use this medium and above all how this medium reacts to our behavior—is always reflected on critically in the work presented here.
Works by Lilly Lulay, born 1985 in Frankfurt, are represented in the collections of the George Eastman Museum, the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, the Fondazione Fotografia di Modena and the DZ Bank Art Collection, among others. This year, Lilly Lulay was selected as a finalist for the Schmidt-Rottluff Fellowship. Last year she received the Olympus recommended fellowship, in collaboration with the Deichtorhallen Hamburg, Foam Amsterdam, and the Fotografie Forum Frankfurt. The works presented in the exhibition were created as part of this fellowship.