“Have you seen these images before?” asked the artist. Viewing a livestream from my couch at home, I watched Sara Cwynar move about the room in an all-red outfit, staging a series of scenes:
Seen from above, the artist sits in a metal folding chair atop a red-gridded piece of paper and holds up different cut out images above her head for the camera to see. Monitors on either side of the stage stream this view for the physical audience. There isn’t a fixed perspective throughout, a dramaturgical choice replicated via the narration. At times, Cwynar’s voice almost syncs up with the narrator—reading a script that meanders between considered reflections on image cultures, quotations, and lists of nouns and images.
With her back to the audience and a microphone at her mouth, the artist directs the constellation of images that form the backdrop: a black grid with larger pictures affixed to it. Photographic prints hang from wires, which are strung in front of the backdrop. The composition of these images is occasionally rearranged by two other performers in all-white outfits or by Cwynar herself. She is all at once director, audience, subject, and choreographer.
Standing beside a table facing the audience, she arranges objects as if in a moving still life. There is a calmly erratic precision to the way objects and images are arranged, as if their momentary fixity is but one combination of many.
Cwynar and her two back-up dancers move as though in a ballet, accompanied by the swelling drama of a Sergei Prokofiev score. The musical interlude injects a kind of purposeful action, where image composition happens alongside a theatrical choreography.
A conveyor belt leads down the middle of the performance, dumping images and objects at center stage. Standing to one side, she takes images from manila folders and other objects out from containers arranged alongside the conveyor belt. The artist’s hand occasionally stops the flow, rearranging or bringing something back from the stream.
The back walls are turned around to reveal a pixelated image of the sky, forming the backdrop for the artist’s final words on her subject. Her cast of images is exhausted, but their possibility remains. We are inside her archive of images, reflecting on the conditions of its very existence.
Cwynar’s Performa commission Down at the Arcade was staged in midtown Manhattan in October 2021 and streamed for viewers around the world. The work was performed in a former Topshop, the relic of a paradigmatic house of fast fashion, that served as an apt site for the artist’s inquiry into two sides of contemporary photographic life: the continuous creation and consumption of images. 2021 also saw the publication of her book Glass Life by Aperture. On the page or on the stage, she reminds us that photographs are material and mobile objects. It is the consequences of this second characteristic, the mobility of the image, that is arguably the central subject of both performance and book. Both projects explore a phenomenon akin to what Nathen Jurgenson has called “the social photo,” in which the photograph’s “existence as a stand-alone media object is subordinate to its existence as a unit of communication.”1 In her work, Cwynar mimics the material and affective infrastructures of photographic circulation under capitalism, suggesting that the allure of the individual image is a distraction, obscuring the systems and platforms designed to circulate and collect images en masse. Foregrounding the processes, objects, and materials that characterize photographic transactions, Cwynar intuits photography as part of a process of extraction—expressed “like the juice of a lemon.”2
As in the performance, Cwynar’s book Glass Life visualizes the process of collecting and consuming images and objects. Alongside essays by writer and curator Legacy Russell and writer Sheila Heti, the book includes annotated transcripts, photographs, and stills from Cwynar’s trilogy of films: Soft Film, Rose Gold, and Red Film. The book includes the research behind these dense and meticulous works, walking the reader through the material histories that each film takes as its subject. Soft Film, for example, begins with a velveteen jewelry box, and Rose Gold with the sheen of an iPhone in the titular hue. Serena Chen’s book design mimics Cwynar’s recursive practices of collection and citation. The usual superscript footnotes aren’t up to the task of drawing such complex interconnections, so instead thin, coloured lines link words to references or images. The dense web of quotations, references, and images creates unexpected collisions, an egalitarian approach to citation which places the words of an anonymous eBay seller (“this is a great collectors item and a special find!”) alongside well-trodden references to philosophers such as Walter Benjamin and Lauren Berlant. These generative acts of assembly concretely describe the image-text relations of the present, in which disembodied quotations can be effectively recirculated and recombined in the same manner as any image.
In both projects, Cwynar theorizes photography’s place in public life, asking what it means to live amongst circulating images. Her references are vast, skipping from Greek mythology to Charles Baudelaire to Marilyn Monroe, among countless other subjects, but she returns again and again to the metamorphosing material forms of the image. A self-professed maximalist, Cwynar has spoken of her interest in her own neurotic tendency to collect endless archives of screenshots and other images. As she notes in the performance, the scope of her archives increasingly surpasses her capacity to return to each of the images collected. While the term collection often infers objects gathered and kept in stasis, Cwynar’s archives–—including postcards, old photographs, and magazine cuttings, among many other sources— remain animate and forever available for the possibility of recall and recombination. The magnetic steel wall positioned across the back of the performance offered up a collage in progress, created over the duration of the performance from materials gathered by the artist on the conveyor belt which moved down the centre of the stage. Refusing the fixity of the densely populated still photographs that Cwynar has become known for, the performance instead emphasized movement as the predominant characteristic of contemporary image culture.
The glut of images and objects in contemporary society may threaten to overwhelm, but there is no opting out of looking, collecting, or as the corollary now goes, being collected. As Cwynar puts it, we are “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.”3 In all her work, she subversively dramatizes the process of “image sharing,” a phrase which fails to represent the wide range of signifiers (of self, experience, desire, or recognition) that the act encompasses.
Cwynar’s collections of objects and images are just as mobile as digital images. Evident in her work is a profound appreciation for the long life-cycle of objects and images. Sorted by colour or subject, among other metadata, their fate is not unlike the images on our phones: sorted, searched, organized, collected, but often forgotten. And yet, these images take up space, on our phones, in our minds, on servers. Our collections take on weighty forms, drawing us into a constellation of extractive industries in inescapable ways.4 This extraction is material (not least in the minerals and exploitative labour practices which form the matter of analogue and digital photography alike) but also psychological.5 Participation in systems designed to circulate, store, and collect images also ensures that we are never forgotten by any device or service ever encountered.6 This too, Cwynar reminds us, is true of objects and images; we can’t quit their material forms. The plastic and celluloid detritus of the twentieth century is a kind of data, exchanged for convenience and forevermore with us.
At this point, you may have noticed that I have not provided much description of the visual content of the objects that Cwynar uses in her work. This is because the mechanisms and apparatuses of image circulation are the real subjects here. Perhaps, as she suggests, we have “lost the plot on the image,” mesmerized by movement.7 In a 1963 speech entitled “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” Lewis Mumford described the relationship between the public and technological systems under capitalism (what Mumford calls “authoritarian technics”) as a kind of “magnificent bribe.”8 Mumford’s concept of the “bribe” describes the process by which individuals abdicate autonomy in exchange for convenience—forgoing personal data privacy in order to use corporate social media platforms, to use a contemporary example. This makes me think about the ways that images might offer, in Mumford’s words, “every intellectual and emotional stimulus [one] may desire,” while the platforms that facilitate their circulation demand that you passively accept the networks of global capital which enable the image’s circulation. This phenomenon is made possible by the movement of materials and the material conditions of labor, from the rare minerals that make up an iPhone, the workers that mine these materials, the massive amounts of land being purchased around the world by technology companies to house data centers, and the human labor involved in content moderation, to name just a few.
This emphasis on movement and circulation as the motif of contemporary capitalism is precisely what makes Cwynar’s projects so compelling. Rather than just a simple critique of consumerism, her works emulate and recreate the dissociative mesmerism of moving images in a kind of parable about capitalist relations. I invoke Mumford’s concept of the bribe to describe a set of relationships rather than a single transaction—between image “users” writ large and those who determine how and when data can circulate. The artist, as perhaps the image user par excellence, can mimic, mock, and denaturalize the contours of this transaction.