In Tabitha Soren’s Surface Tension, the world is on fire. Palm trees and telephone poles stand stalk straight under the neon-orange glow of California wildfires, sparks flying in every direction. A convenience store dissolves into flames, and a sign on the side of a street warning “END” is illuminated by the fire raging around it. It’s reality, but distorted: glossy smudges across the surface of the photographs create a veneer like that of a painting, picking up new colors in the light that aren’t inherent in these scenes.
Soren used an 8×10 camera to photograph existing images as she saw them on her iPad, with the screen of the tablet showing each fingerprint as she swiped between photos of devastation around the world. From wildfires, to protests, to shootings, each flick of a finger left a tiny trace, which Soren captured by photographing the iPad screen under raking light, the images glowing beneath the oil slicks on the surface. “I edited the pictures to connect between the sense of touch in the background and the haptic language of touch on the surface,” says Soren. “And those two combined become surface tension.”
In a digitized world, where the majority of interaction takes place online and intimate conversations are no longer spoken out loud, but typed with fingertips on phones, Soren wanted to highlight this loss of physical connection. Surely, she thought, this digitalization of relationships is detrimental for our mental health. And as the Metaverse has begun to permeate our lives, Soren’s timing is apt. But she wasn’t sure if she was ascribing too much meaning to these new phenomena. “Is this just an impression that I have?” she wondered. “Are we just being nostalgic over this, over a touch or kiss? Or is there science to actually back it up?”
She investigated. “Once I started doing a deep dive and seeing that there was objective evidence to act as a foundation for my impulse, that if we’re touching these devices all the time, there’s an opportunity cost,” she says. “We are touching each other less and being less intimate and less connected to each other than we have in the past.”
Surface Tension at times makes the viewer keenly aware of the screen, like a foggy window through which we view the outside world. It’s through this veil that we are able to consume the tragedies and horrors of the world around us, always at a safe distance. In the United States, where school shootings occur at regular intervals, a numbness begins to set in; unless we personally are affected by these events, we can hold them at an arm’s length, trapped within the world of our phones, never within our own.
The book is imbued with deep tones: harsh reds and inky blues fill the pages, some pages so streaked by touch that they look like thick paint strokes swooshing across the frame. “If I let the grime accumulate and too much stuff got on the screen, it was very hard to see the background. It made it more of an impressionistic painting,” says Soren. Most of the original images remain visible, with speckles on the surface of the screen dotting the picture. “Sweat leaves these little droplets on the screen. They’re microscopic,” she says of those pointillist images. “But when the light hits them, they turn into these rainbow bits, like a prism.” Each photo serves as a reminder of just how much we touch our phones, cradling them in our hands, scrolling aimlessly, even gently touching them through our pockets to confirm they’re safely nestled away.
At first, Soren had some reservations about doing a project predicated on using existing work by other photographers. “Initially I was quite uncomfortable with the appropriation because my favorite part of being an artist is taking the pictures and actually being with the camera,” she says. But capturing the screen—and the images underneath them—proved to be challenging, leading to a lot of experimentation. Though the resultant photographs are significantly altered from their originals, Soren sought official permission from every photographer whose work she used, and used the URLS of the sites she found them as the official titles of each work, leading to lengthy names like abc10.com/80-arrests-made-during-sacramento.jpg and baltimoresun.com/City-of-Baltimore-Surveillance-Video.
Soren’s Baltimore Sun image is of one of the more distorted images in the series, the liquid crystal grid of the screen enrobing the picture beneath it. It’s impossible to discern what precisely the image is showing; all that’s visible is a purple sky and a hazy white cloud, like an apparition captured on film, with droplets of sweat on the screen speckling the sky like stars.
Though it raises questions about the impact of technology in our lives, Surface Tension isn’t meant to serve as an anti-tech manifesto. Rather, she says, it’s a wake-up call, that relationships fostered outside of our digital identities are important, that we shouldn’t limit our worlds to existing within our phones: never meeting, never touching. “I think there’s a lot of magic and fun on the internet,” says Soren. “But I think that the loss is the alienation and the loneliness that we feel while we’re anticipating it providing some sort of connection.”
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.