Recessed in the small project room in the rear of the David B. Smith Gallery in downtown Denver, Laura Shill’s Separation Perfected resembles a makeshift altar that offers viewers an ambiguous, devotional experience in praise of smartphones and selfies.
Mounted atop an inconspicuous gray box and foregrounded against gold spandex drapery that parts in the fashion of a lancet arch, Separation Perfected’s cache of disembodied plaster hands each hold aloft a selfie stick. At the end of every apparatus, a gold-colored smartphone case inset with a laser-cut mirror faces outward.
The title of Shill’s installation offers the most evident point of entry for thinking about her piece. Separation Perfected takes its name from the first chapter of Guy Debord’s 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle. The book’s opening consists of thirty-four, enumerated paragraphs that expound upon a particular characteristic or quality related to the author’s concept of the spectacle.
In short, Debord’s spectacle is the “social relationship[s] between people…mediated by images” that functions as a “weltanschauung [i.e. world-view] translated into the material realm.” The images of the spectacle have been “detached” or fragmented from “life” and merged into a “common stream” that mass media disseminates. As such, life in society predicated upon “modern conditions of production” becomes “mere representation,” in that it transforms into an “immense accumulation of spectacles.”
Debord further explains that “spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production,” which is historically contingent and serves to maintain hierarchical power structures through alienation of the laborer from his labor. This, to his mind, results in the “economy’s domination of social life” such that the subject experiences complete dispossession through the “generalized separation of worker and product” and “leads to the proletarianization of the world.”
The David B. Smith press release for Shill’s Separation Perfected, though, focuses less on the specifics of Debord’s text and more on the fact that we “are both together and alone in our filtered feed of images.” This emphasis, in turn, leads to rhetorical questions such as “if we are so truly connected to each other, then why are we so lonely”?
Of course, swerving away from Debord’s ideas doesn’t mean that Shill’s installation does not engage them. In fact, the specter of the French theorist’s thought haunts the material elements that comprise Shill’s piece. What follows, then, is a fragmentary list of correspondences between Separation Perfected and “Separation Perfected,” as well as brief musings on smartphones, selfies, and the spectacle.
1. “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” As a material object, Shill’s Separation Perfected is “mere representation” of contemporary society’s dominant mode of production. She does not engage the smartphone directly. Rather, she substitutes the mirror (an antiquated form of representation) for the smartphone. Thus, her exhibit is mere representation of mere representation of directly lived life. But the images of Shill’s installation embedded within this article (and elsewhere), at a remove from her actual work, augment the accumulative spectacle: a mere representation of mere representation of mere representation of directly lived life.
2. Debord argued that “images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation.” Our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook feeds manifest this fragmented pseudo-world to such a degree that Debord’s claims seem frighteningly prescient. Each moment captured by our cameras and uploaded to our feeds detach themselves from our lives lived directly and integrate themselves into our curated, online streams in the form of digital objects (i.e. content) for other users to contemplate. These feeds form the semblance of a whole, when in fact they are disjointed moments fabricated into an alternate reality: falsehood as a moment of truth. And though we curate these pseudo-worlds, Debord remains clear: the closer our lives come to being our own creation, the more drastically we are cut off from that life. We sacrifice our lived existence to the power of spectacle.
3. “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” The spectacle is not our selfies. The spectacle is mediated by our selfies; the spectacle is the “likes” and “comments” and “re-tweets/grams and shares” our selfies receive. On October 11, 2017 I uploaded an image of Separation Perfected to my Instagram account. The spectacle is not the image I captured. The spectacle is the @lauraleeshill and @dbsgallery tags I added to the image; the spectacle is the #davidbsmithgallery #laurashill and #denverart hasthags; the spectacle is the, to-date, 92 likes. The image simply mediates those relationships.
4. Debord claims that the “spectacle is essentially tautological, for the simple reason that its means and its ends are identical.” I capture an image of Shill’s Separation Perfected with my smartphone, and the image of my smartphone mirrored in Separation Perfected is also capture. I capture an image of Shill’s Separation Perfected from an angle, and the mirror reflects back another smartphone case in the installation. The proliferation of smartphones mediated through images of smartphones. The image of the smartphone mediating my relationship to the smartphone. The image of my smartphone mediating my relationship to myself. Or the mirror selfie capturing the smartphone that captures the mirror selfie capturing the self. Indeed, this experience also addresses Debord’s belief that our new “economic system” is a “circular process designed to produce loneliness.” My smartphone and I repeat one another in Shill’s Separation Perfected in total loneliness.
5. “For the spectacle is simply the economic realm developing for itself—at once a faithful mirror held up to the production of a thing and a distorting objectification of the producers.” Each of the 35 mirrors held aloft in Separation Perfected faithfully reflects that which stands before them. But when an audience member stands before Separation Perfected, the 35 mirrors fragment the reflection for the viewer and distort the view of whoever/whatever stands before it. The “economy has brought [the self] under its sway.” We fragment into images of ourselves for others to contemplate.
6. Of the spectacle as a reconstruction of religious illusion, Debord notes that it wrenched power from theology and brought “those cloud-enshrouded entities…down to earth.” Thus, the “absolute denial of life, in the shape of fallacious paradise, is no longer projected onto the heavens, but finds its place instead within material life itself.” But, in a turn Debord could not predict, material life itself ascended back into the clouds. We capture our seflies on our smartphones, transmitting them wirelessly through the atmosphere and store them in The Cloud. Satellites in outer space circle our planet as they send and receive data from our smartphones. Spectacle, thus, wrested power from heavenly deities and brought it earthbound, only to return it from whence it came. By fashioning Separation Perfected into an altar-like object, Shill’s installation appears to acknowledge the spectacle’s return to the sky.
7. Shill contends that her Separation Perfected “is not meant to serve as an indictment of our increasingly visual culture.” To her mind, the installation explores the effects/affects of spectacle in a more open-ended and less determinate manner. Debord, conversely, believed: “If the spectacle…seems at times to be invading society in the shape of a mere apparatus, it should be remembered that this apparatus has nothing neutral about it.” For Debord, there is nothing neutral about the smartphone; for him, it is the complete “concentration of the media [that] amounts to the monopolization by the administrators of the existing system,” which results in “social division” and “class rule.” Following Debord’s trajectory of thought, our smartphones track our every movement and monitor all our desires. We unwittingly succumb to the machinations of power by merely carrying our smartphone with us, let alone actively engaging it.
8. “The generalized separation of worker and product has spelled the end of any comprehensive view of the job done, as well as the end of direct personal communication between producers.” 35 casts of disembodied hands raise 35 corresponding selfie sticks upward in Separation Perfected. The hand of the laborer no longer attached the laborer’s body. And the laborer no longer connects with his labor without his precious hands. His hands are no longer in his possession. His hands are now the hands of the dominant mode of production and reproducible as needed. He is now alienated from himself, from his labor, from society, from life live directly. He has become dispossessed from his very body. And the selfie, an image of the self removed from lived life and thrust in the common stream of spectacle (dis)embodies this new unreal reality perfectly.
9. “Isolation underpins technology, and technology isolates in its turn; all goods proposed by the spectacular system…also serve as weapons for that system as it strives to reinforce the isolation of ‘the lonely crowd’.” With every finger swipe on the touchscreens of our smartphones, we are complicit in our isolation. Our social networks will not save us. Our selfies will not save us. We are utterly alone. I once wrote: “I transmit life’s debris to you as a form of saying: I hope you know we’re forever alone but please join me in this loneliness.Which is not a contradiction, but a manner of existing in close proximity to a vague and incomprehensible image of ourselves irreducibly distorted by the smallest distance.” In retrospect, these sentences resonate with Debord’s understanding of the current human condition: we are united with one another only in our complete separation from each other and ourselves.
10. “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.” Capital has become image and fulfilled Debord’s dystopian vision.
You can view Laura Shill’s Separation Perfected in the project room of the David B. Smith Gallery, located at 1543 Wazee Street in Denver, Colorado. It will be on display until November 11.