The rectangle that contains the Facebook profile picture is almost empty: from the upper left part only a rent that tears in half the group photo can be seen (three smiling middle-aged ladies laugh hugging a fourth person we cannot see; we can see only a piece of her body, her salmon pink dress and her right arm; the rest of her figure is ripped off in another gap on the right side of the picture). The empty rectangle, indicating an absence, is asking to be filled.
“Pictures and Documents found after the april 27 2011 tornadoes” is a page Patty Bullion, 7 Lester, Alabama opened in the aftermath of the catastrophic series of tornadoes which occurred in the southern United States last month http://www.facebook.com/PicturesandDocumentsfoundafterAprilTornadoes
In her garden, and in that of his uncle, the storm left messages in bottles: a series of photographs, some encrusted with mud, rolled over by water, mutilated, others miraculously untouched by the fury of the wind and rain. Many of them belong to family albums blown away (dating back to the 60ies, the 70ies and the 80ies, the 90ies …). But there’s more: documents, receipts, checkbooks, even an ecography, some death and birth certificates Bullion has decided to photograph them again and re-publish them on the web looking for some “claimers”, ie someone who could be searching for them or also compensated for them.
The first comments started to appear right on April 27th, people started recognizing the first pictures and contacts increaseding by the minute: having a facebook profile is the only thing needed ( belonging to the Facebook community) in order to reach the page, click on the “like” button, and be included in the “community in the community.”
The administrator of the page is the same Patty with the nickname pbull35. She invites users to view the pictures posted and to consider them in their pure objectivity. By clicking on “info” this following inscription appears: “Please leave photos or items you found in the rubble after the tornadoes occurred on 4/27/2011. Leave a brief description of how you can be reached in case one of the items or pictures is identified.. MY email is: “email@example.com”, se posso aiutare qualcuno in ogni modo a far tornare indietro le proprie cose”.
With time passing by along with the contacts pictures began to double. They started to be stacked chronologically on the board: other people, from different places say they witnessed the same experience, or have been affected by the disaster and they found something to share on their way home, in their own driveway or in their own garden. Photos traveled thousands of miles. The caption of many of them, repeats the same formula: “if it’s belongs to you”.
This way, photos and documents become traces, evidence of a survey that first of all requires a process of identification: a name has to be given to people, to things, to a house or a street known, the places where those pictures come from, where they were found and where they need to return have to be find out, identified.
The analysis of the documents is so detailed that it is very often successful. It was successful in this case: the picture of a child was posted on May 1st. She was a young girl dressed in lace, smiling and clutching a bouquet of flowers. The user who posted the picture also added the message: Brandy, Miss Empire 1995”. The picture was found in “Rossville, Georgia.” Some curious users saw the picture, went to see the Miss empire website and added the link to it. So we all moved to the Walker County, where the little beauty queen won this event. Somebody from there posted a message saying he knew Brandy. She grew up after that terrible day but unfortunately died 2 years ago in a car accident. Her message: “I knew Brandy (…) her house disappeared during the Sipsey tornado in Alabama. “
From Sipsey, Alabama in Rossville, Georgia: just have an eye on a map – or google maps – to see how that picture traveled: hundreds and hundreds of miles.
During the first days of May, the community then began to “count itself”, to set points. They were physically shaken by the disaster; they slowly needed to recover empirically through paths of memory. Maps were restored progressively in accordance with routes that follow the procedure of the reallocation of photos and documents.
In this study, everything takes on a value: also a bill, or the receipt of a registered letter. So when, for the first time (we are still at the early days of May) a user comments on the publication of a receipt, calling it “garbage,” an avalanche of messages agree on the same point: “What is junk to you may be a treasure for others. ” “How can you leave such a nasty comment in such a moment.” A woman, joining the chorus of criticism adds: “My grandmother still has a check matrix dated 1977 because it was one of the last to be signed by my grandfather before he died … everything has a reason to be saved.”
Let’s take a look at what happened to the page opened on April 27th. The first hypothesis: time goes by and the material is published constantly. The mechanism of accumulating pictures is so fast that the administrative staff was forced to create folders and abandon any chronological order. The users are forced to arbitrarily choose their “routes” by reading the comments previously published or by producing and sharing their own experiences. The community acquires skills and self-awareness over time and also gets used to feeling like a part of herself.
The identification of the photos very rarely occurs by a direct recognition. Almost nobody recognizes himself posting a message saying “This is me!” (Although sometimes it happens). In most cases this happens by an exchange of ideas, a flow of information in which users express themselves about faces, things, streets as if they belonged to them.
The process of identification seems to shift from the survey tout court to an emotional level, which is hypermediate and allows the entire community, only when users – of course – share the same point of view, or even the same emotion, to identify themselves in the images they see.
This is the case of a man who, found by chance the old figurine of a baseball pitcher said with certainty: “This figurine belongs to my nephew; he had more than 300 figurines before his house was completely destroyed. This page found pictures of my son, my nephew and a picture of one of my checks; everything is from Houston, Tennessee. “
Who could confirm the identification? Couldn’t it be that the user recalled, through the vision of that figure, the collection of figurines of his nephew and he impulsively related those pictures to his personal story? A similar thing happened also to a woman who was looking at a child sitting with his head bowed and his hands between his feet. That picture was surely taken dating back to the ’70ies. She said that “could” be her son, and she used the picture of her son as her profile picture, her child today, who was photographed in the same position.
The second hypothesis, therefore, is that each user, while changing the sign of the investigation “collects” the material and works together to produce an image of himself which can be shared with the community. In addition to themselves, the images and things found after the tornadoes assume a value because they could belong to anyone. The acknowledgment of that similarity, between those who watch and what is watched at the same time (re) produces the mechanism, and compacts the community, in a process of endless recreation.
Jean-Luc Nancy, citing Blanchot, defines similarity as the starting point of self-portrait. And not only that. It is its base principle, since the self-portrait effort depends on the (vain) attempt to bridge the gap between the subjective level and the external representation objectified. Basically, what we see in a (self-) portrait is a representation of an absence, a face that is not there and “that appears only from that absence that is the likeness.”
In my opinion, what we see and what is taking place on Pictures and Documents found after April 27th is the self-portrait dynamic as it exhibits a mechanism of personal identification which is never really completed, but which is played slipping between a purely objective dimension, derived from the images still legible, traced by the traces left on what was recovered in the disaster, and a very subjective dimension, a symbolic dimension.
These two levels create a profile of a collective portrait, faceless, where private moments, disrupted by the disaster and fired into the space between Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia are made up with those of all. Moments of all times in common (Holidays, Christmas, presents, first boyfriends, new cars …) that should find their rightful owner (claimer), but that “work” even as anonymous fragments to be used to restart the process and continue to exorcise the trauma.
I saw recently a work displayed at Tate Britain in London, in an exhibition dedicated to one of the most striking performers of our times, Susan Hiller.
Monument (1980-1), was conceived by the discovery in a small park in London, of a Memorial to Heroic Sacrifice. The story of some men and women who died to sacrifice their life for others is written on ceramic panels of equal size and shape hung on a wall above. Hiller selected 41 of them (the number corresponds to the age of the artist in 1980), she photographed them and placed them in a grid, very similar to a memorial cross. In front of the cross, there is a bench; a tape recorder and a headset. They are on the bench and invite visitors to sit and listen.
The recorded voice is that of the artist herself: “(…) The monument is behind you. The monument is in your past. Do dead people speak through us? This is my voice, rolled up in your present, my past. I’m speaking from here-after, I am speaking from hear-after] (…). We could exist forever, inscribed, portrayed as enrollment, portraits, representations. I’m representing myself, for myself and for you … you. This is my voice. Now I will speak of the ideology of memory, the history of time, the fixity of representation: still, as photographed, or recorded on a tape, or inscribed … (…). You can think about life after death as a second life where you come as if you were portrayed, inscribed (…). The “Monument” is the absences. There are representations of those who have gone (…). The absence is a metaphor of desire. The representation is taking distance in time and space. It is a “regeneration” of images and ideas.”
Is it clear that in Monument, through headphones, your own voice whispering, the cross formed by 41 panels Susan Hiller tends to turn into her installation. The artist while “capturing” pieces of memory which would otherwise be destined to oblivion, identifies so closely with her work, that she proposes herself as a medium between present and past, between what was and what no longer exists, between those who see and those who have already passed away. In doing so she invites the viewer to do the same: to cross the border and access a second life, where everyone will be eternal, forever portrayed in the Monument that “regenerates images and ideas.”
The Facebook user faces a similar situation: there is a grid, similar to the Monument grid, where users would like to identify faces and lives that claim to go back. As they try to “capture” (by re-photographing them or celebrating the loss), they identify so closely with them that they ensure to pass through the alternating phases of the process of identification in order to pass the border and become themselves part of the Monument which regenerates images and ideas.
But there is a difference. In Pictures and Documents found after 27 April 2011 tornadoes the Monument has not yet been created, there is still no “memorial cross.” In this sense, among many pictures, maybe really worthless, self-driven, posted, commented, reduced in folders, the only one that really has value is the one still missing: the community celebrates in a chorus of voices the rite of eternal rebirth about this one.