City of Many Tales.
It’s a tech-warped world we’re operating in today. The increasing number of social media platforms is rivalled only by the proliferation of psychological concerns. The human mind’s ready submission to the hypnotic effects of social media, our need for instant gratification and validation, and the widening chasm that now separates once meaningful relationships all form facets to this contemporary neurosis.
Interdisciplinary artist Madhvee Deb witnesses this, and in her photography exhibition Digital Waste: The Sweet Smell of Burning that debuted at George Town Festival last year, she explores the behavioural issues of excessive photo-taking and the disproportionate exchange of worthless information on social media through a series of photographs, mixed media and video exhibition titled “The F-art of Social Media”.
“Let me first make myself clear – when I say that this is a digital waste, by no means am I saying that technology is bad. What is bad, however, is our discipline, or lack thereof. How much have we allowed ourselves to become enslaved to social media?”
Deb pegs her realisation of this technological affliction to the early 2000s, when Blackberries were all the rage and emails became ubiquitous. “I still remember the time while embracing me, my husband was also checking his emails – that was probably the onset of my questioning the engagement with tech gadgets.
“I realised my own heavy reliance on technology four years ago, while managing an e-commerce business. It’s a very hypnotic ‘drug’ – it sucks you in without you knowing it. On WhatsApp, I’d sometimes receive close to 600 messages on group chats over the span of three days, and there’s no constructive engagement in them at all. It’s either somebody has forwarded this or that, or somebody else wishing everyone a good morning. It’s rubbish.”
A “detox” was evidently in order. “Once I controlled my social media usage, it freed up time to read, to spend time with my family and to just simply do nothing, and trust me, nowadays this has become a very good thing. Nobody knows how to do ‘nothing’ anymore – the moment we are free our hands instinctively reach for our phones.”
Bringing The Light Inside.
I chose not to connect with my five senses to make memories because I thought that I could immortalise them within my photographs. But even though a photograph does tell a visual story, it would never be able to explain the experiences I had in person.
A self-professed trigger-happy photographer, Deb also tackles the mushrooming culture of photo overproduction. “I would come home with a plethora of photographs, but would self-curate only one or two. What about the rest? Hadn’t I spent the same amount of time and energy, and probably money too, to get to my destination? Could I have taken a few well-planned shots instead, and take the rest of that time to connect with the place and people?
“I chose not to connect with my five senses to make memories because I thought that I could immortalize them within my photographs. But even though a photograph does tell a visual story, it would never be able to explain the experiences I had in person.”
Deb recalls fond memories of her host family during a recent family trip to Fiji, and one memory in particular stood out from the rest: “Their two-month-old baby was crying so much one day because of the vaccination she just had. So, I swaddled the baby to mollify her. When her crying ceased her mother was so relieved, she actually gave me a hug! I can never capture these kind of stories with my camera, and why would I, even if I could?”
The photographic works in Digital Waste uses “rejected” photographs that were previously exiled to storage purgatory due to slight technical or compositional issues. “My choice of material, shape and format of the work are always guided by the subject matter of the particular body of work.” Influenced by the early pioneers of photography art, most notably Man Ray, Edmund Kesting and Gjon Mili, Deb reinvents these photographs as artwork through skilful layering.
“The technique is metaphor-inspired – as I’m layering the photographs, I’m also overlapping my memories and thoughts to express what I felt or imagined at that moment in time. Until now, it has never happened that someone saw the photographs and not want to know more about them. ‘What happened here?’ is always a good conversation starter, and when this occurs, I feel like I have achieved what I set out to do.”
Deb also uses rejected photo prints to create Small Sculptures to break away from the two-dimensionality of photography. “For the last three years, I took individual photographs of locals during my walks around Penang.
I love exploring the streets during the night and witnessing the connections people are making with one another, and every time I go out, the feeling of acceptance gets much stronger.
“I decided to create the sculptures in a way that gives people a chance to come close to and peep into the lives of the locals, the same way I’m peering into Penang culture. Again, it’s a complete metaphor that I’m using to convey what I felt.”
“The F-art of Social Media” was deliberately created to distort the vision. “We are entranced by the virtual world’s offerings. It is today’s opium of the masses, except that it’s legal. Scrolling has supplanted the thumbing of prayer beads.
“If somebody admits that he’s addicted to emailing, is there a possibility that the social environment – be it at work or at home – would discourage his usage of it? He’ll surely be lost; he won’t have any idea how to go about his day-to-day work and everything will come to a standstill. A drug addict, on the other hand, will be carted off to the rehab centre. As a society, we’re not developing the infrastructure needed to overcome tech addiction. We are in fact inventing more and more gadgets to encourage our dependency on them.”