September 21, 2021
Sara Cwynar’s opus Glass Life (2021) ambitiously navigates contemporary image culture with her signature embrace of “high” and “low” source material. To watch this six-channel video is to tumble headlong through sheaves of saturated hand-clipped images interlaced with hundreds of files pulled from deep within the artist’s hard drives. Her narrator reminds us: “In the glass life, everything can be used. It is all material.” Fingers swipe through Instagram. Hands hold open history books. Kim Kardashian appears while we hear about tulips in seventeenth-century Holland. Cwynar pins a stock photo of a cobra to the wall of her studio. The camera zooms into the ben-day dots of a vintage print of an apple, an illustration of Pinocchio, and smiling pig emoji. A swimmer dives among the floating images. Soothing voices quote a 2011 essay about social media: “We have to watch ourselves become ourselves in order to be ourselves, over and over again.”
“Glass Life” is on view at Foxy Production, New York, September 1 through October 23. Sara Cwynar: Glass Life was published by Aperture this summer. Cwynar will present a new commissioned work at Performa from October 15–17.
I STARTED GLASS LIFE at the very beginning of lockdown. I had just finished a show of Red Film (2018) in London which began to deal with some of these themes: trying to define a self against an endless wash of images and input, and trying to find what is true or real, but not being able to grasp onto anything. During the pandemic, I became obsessed with continuing those ideas via my personal archive and my anxieties about being removed from the world. On my computer, I only had a fixed set of material to work from, but that was already an overwhelming amount.
Glass Life at Foxy Production is chaos broken up by moments of contemplative relief. Wild shifts in emotional register feel true to the world right now. A large screen seems to scroll through a relentless stream of photos, selfies, emoji, and videos, briefly zooming in on various pieces of footage, such as Margaret Thatcher speaking, or an iPhone video of a swan. Two curved screens on either side continue to play those clips while the main channel resumes scrolling. I know it’s too much to absorb, but I want it also to be pleasurable. Across the room, facing the central video, are the head and shoulders of three identical women on a row of smaller screens. They wear royal blue swimsuits and swim caps, with inexplicable dark circles under their eyes.
The Pictures Generation was radical for taking images from the world and giving them new context. It seemed like that was really enough then; Sarah Charlesworth is still one of my favorite artists. But now everything gets recontextualized, reposted, and recaptioned every ten seconds. Change of context doesn’t mean anything anymore. I have 70,000 pictures on my iPhone. This is a shared compulsion in the new digital age, but I think the art world likes to see something simple over something that is really bonkers. My interest has shifted from institutional archives to the personal archives everyone has of screenshots, photos, and texts. Historically, an archive is what people in power decide can be said, accepted, or looked at. The power today lies with the few giant tech conglomerates who make us think we must document everything. We feel we are creating something tangible, but these personal collections cannot really be brought to bear on our actual experience in a meaningful way.
“Glass life” is a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff to describe how we are living under constant surveillance without the privacy needed to really form ourselves against the world of images. Our actions are always being monetized. We start to lose who we are. It is presented as a convenience or even a necessity to participate. Her concept resonates perfectly with what I’ve been working on and even related to the way I shoot through glass surfaces. I want to talk about how it could be both beautiful and scary to dive into the pleasures of living in this world.
With 250 pages of research pulled from think pieces, op-eds, poetry, and literature, I began editing. I made maps in the studio of the main themes, then divided those into sections such as truth, beauty, shopping, or surveillance capitalism. I categorized images from my computer and from my archive of physical images and objects in the studio around these concepts. To create the scrolling effect, I filmed the collected images directly from above. The piece also includes footage I have shot over the years on 16 millimeter and my phone. I wanted to create a Rolodex of imagery that appears randomly associated, but carefully timed.
I found my narrator, Paul Cooper, when I put out a call for a “male voice of authority.” Since then, he’s narrated four of my films. In the past, my voice sometimes comes in and corrects him. In Glass Life, we are speaking together. He has this wonderful rich voice, and his way of speaking reflects an ambivalence toward the content and the fact that nobody is really sure of anything. This kind of language is even prominent in politics. I was listening to Biden yesterday start a sentence by saying, “Let me be crystal clear,” and then say something meaningless. In the film, there are several examples of political slogan T-shirts and protests staged for Instagram. I was thinking about how politics and action become part of the same world as online shopping. The separation line between them seems increasingly porous, but they are still different.
I knew early on that I wanted to work with a swimmer character from TurboSquid, a company that sells stock 3-D graphics. She’s this bizarre digital artifact that you can buy for $150, already slipping from the forefront of image technology. I love that the figure has a kind of power and looks strong, but then shrinks in scale to swim through hundreds of floating objects—a redeeming metaphor for how it feels to navigate the visual world today. The image of the swimmer repeats to form a chorus and an audience who watches the central film. This robotic set of observers is glitchy and not quite right. The installation has six separate audio channels, so the swimmers’ voices come from their own screens. They echo, parrot, and contradict the narrator’s voice without investment or emotion.
All of us seem to be trying to wrestle some semblance of control out of our lives right now and failing to do so. Glass Life is an audiovisual analogue for that trying and failing, but it’s not entirely an indictment of digital plenitude. Watching the film, you’re reaching for these objects but they keep flying by. They aren’t necessarily things you would want in real life; the urge is to just to keep reaching and looking. Desire without an object, as Simone Weil might say, or desire for desire. The satisfaction of organizing and finding associations allows us to feel connected to the world and to move forward with some optimism amid a time that might not necessarily engender confidence in the future.
— As told to Chandra Glick