When I was a child in the early 1990s one of my favourite hobbies was looking at photos. My grandfather is an amateur photographer so there were always lots of pictures in our house.
I loved to spend hours admiring his images, unconsciously absorbing the visual culture that would later become my profession when I became a film director.
Most of the pictures in his collection were black and white, just like our TV set. So I always understood that the world of images wasn’t real but only a projection. When I enrolled in film school in the early 2000s I knew that movies were the perfect tool to create different realities and communicate with an audience, working with sound and colour, composition and symbols to capture their attention.
Artists analyze these options and interiorize them in their work, so as a filmmaker I play with reality all the time. I tell stories in my own way and add or remove colours in the palette, mute or boost the audio, add music, and cut and alter images. All of this helps to order my thoughts, feelings and experiences about the world in the best way I can think of, while taking full responsibility for the final product.
But in the last 20 years much has changed. As information and media technologies have exploded and films like the Wachowskis’ “Matrix” trilogy have crossed the boundaries between human and virtual experience, the question of how reality is defined has been drawn into much sharper focus.
If the twentieth century was the century of people working with machines, the twenty-first is the age of people who work in front of screens. Today, we are all consumers and producers of virtual reality. I'm writing this article on a computer, for example, with a tablet on my right and my cell phone on the left; meanwhile, you are reading what I’ve written on some sort of electronic device, so we all play by evolving digital rules.
You can be a TV host on Periscope, a photographer on Instagram, a writer on your blog, a filmmaker on your Youtube channel and a journalist on Twitter. Each person has more opportunity to broadcast their ideas worldwide. You have a canvas with unlimited space, and you can shoot 20 takes and make 30 selfies in order to choose the ‘real self’ that you want to expose to the world. Hours and hours of ‘real’ content are at your fingertips. The only question is how to hold fast to the things you really value amidst all this cacophony.
Here come the professionals who are better storytellers, who know how to make material juicier or provide more attractive pictures. ‘Higher, faster, further,’ as the motto of the Olympic Games puts it, translated into these new digital spaces. All over the world, people are drawn into a constant media ‘arms race’ that’s driven largely by marketing: more special effects, more colour correction, more loud music and dynamic editing, more striking headlines to catch the viewer's attention—now please!
As producers of content, each of us has unlimited possibilities. But as consumers, we have limited time available in this new world of information, so we search and search for something real. It’s impossible to go into details anymore, so we ruthlessly scroll through page after page in the hope of finding something that’s ‘alive,’ passing over all the other things that aren’t so ‘shiny.’ We start to see the loudest message as the best, but when everything is becoming louder there’s a danger that we might stop hearing our own selves.
Do we really agree with each article that we “Like” or every petition that we sign? How do we know if the content provided by someone else is authentic? As a result, trust breaks down. Someone who needs help but doesn’t have the time to build a strong social media network will surely struggle to be seen or heard in your increasingly crowded and pre-filtered news feed.
As an independent filmmaker I want to talk with the audience, to catch their attention for a full 90 minutes. So I use storytelling, light, sound, colour and composition, but end up feeling like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. Do I have to scream in order to be heard by the audience? And what if I lose my voice completely? Is it possible for an artist to speak in the modern digital world without submitting to sneaky marketing techniques? Can I grab your attention for an hour and a half without offering any easy rewards or explosions? I don’t know anymore. I’m lost.
In 2016 the Observer reported that a new trend was grabbing the attention of the millennial generation called the “double trailer”—which is a speeded up version of the actual trailer for a movie. The assumption is that viewers are too busy to watch for a full 90 seconds. I have a constant feeling that our world is governed by colour correctors, social media managers, IT-specialists and marketing advisers, all helping to create a world for us to consume on a daily basis. Meanwhile the artists themselves are left behind the scenes. Instagram and Prisma offer you preset artistic filters, so the sky on your photos can be bluer and the grass can be greener.
“Never send a human to do a machine's job” said Agent Smith in the Matrix, and he was right. We have stock (royalty free) video, music, photography and design, and millions of manufactured art-works. Our news feeds on social networks are pre-moderated, so increasingly we read what we are told to read. We see only contextual advertising. We surround ourselves with the same tastes and opinions, reject dialogue and ban the ‘haters.’ Social media were supposed to unite us, but instead they’re building walls. Life in virtual reality is becoming more comfortable and less risky. We have a perfect copy of our lives, and only a faulty internet connection can stop us from enjoying it.
My grandfather’s photos were black and white, and we clearly knew that they were a projection of reality. Now the pictures in your cell phone look more vivid—more ‘real’—than real grass or sky. Now you can ‘Like’ photos on Facebook, but before you had to look at your favourites over and over again, each time rethinking your reactions. Do you even remember the picture you ‘Liked’ two weeks ago? It’s unlikely.
But if we can’t remember our feelings—if we forget our past as soon as we switch off our cellphones—then there’s more chance of making the same mistakes over and over again. The rise of right wing parties in Europe and a racist agenda in the Presidential election campaign in the USA are dangerous signs that this is happening. We look at the past as if it was a black and white photo, so in the 21st century everything that happened before isn’t ‘real’ anymore.
The place of artists has always been to illuminate contradictions, to help us escape from the boxes that contain us, and to provide platforms for reflection. But what if we as artists are also lost in this world of binary codes? Zero or one, Republicans or Democrats, black or white, female or male, good or bad? Why should we choose between such false polarities?
Just before finishing this article, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Now there are deepening divisions and disappointments, joys, hopes and fears, and a lot of mixed feelings in both camps. But why was this historic vote framed in such binary terms? What is ‘leave’ and what is ‘remain?’ Leave who, and remain with what?
Did anyone take the time to think about these questions, and I mean really think about them, without the internet or TV screaming in their ears? Now 48 per cent of the UK population are prisoners of the other 51 per cent. Is that real democracy? In the era of the ‘Like’ button we may lose the ability to work in dialogue, to hear arguments and build solutions with our opponents and not just with our allies.
None of us are robots or ‘stock humans.’ We all have a unique personality and charisma, but being yourself is hard, hard work. You have to rethink who you are each day, what you want and where you’re going. And then you have to talk and listen to other people—authentically. There’s no other way of creating a reality that we can share.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.