Digital reflection in an unexpected place

Eric Pickersgill’s analog photography showcases human relationships with technology

As part of Montreal’s Art Souterrain 2019 festival, running until March 24, artist Eric Pickersgill is showcasing a photographic series, titled Removed. The collection of black and white photographs focus on the constant presence of cell phones and technology in contemporary life. Connecting to the festival’s theme, Pickersgill’s project considers the significance of technology as a navigation of what is true, or false, and the way it influences one’s perception of the world and relationships to others.

In their opening statement on this year’s theme, the festival discusses how “art is, in essence, an illusion of reality, a way of, in turn, representing, denying and questioning.”

Pickersgill is an American artist, based in North Carolina. He works primarily in analog photography and finds a connection between education and art, influenced by his teaching experience with Teach For America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mobilising future leaders. In his photography work, there is consideration over how images can reflect a greater society.

Each image of Removed shows a subject in their everyday life and looking at their cell phone. Yet, upon closer inspection, the viewer realizes there is no phone. While the subject is positioned as if they are holding a mobile device, their hand is actually empty and they are staring at a blank space.

Pickersgill was inspired to create this project after following his own routine of scrolling through his phone in bed, before falling asleep. He was woken by his phone falling, yet found his hand in the same position, as if he was still holding it. From there, he began to take photographs of those around him, such as friends, strangers on the street, and even audiences at a TEDx Talk that Pickersgill presented at, speaking to relationships with devices.

An aspect of Removed that directly connects to Art Souterrain’s True Or False, is the viewer’s own interpretation and questioning of Pickersgill’s images. As one views these images, it is difficult to decipher whether or not there is editing involved, especially with the removal of the phone. Did Pickersgill simply edit out the device which the subject is holding and staring at? Yet, there is no editing to these images—the artist describes them as performances, in which the subjects of the photos act as if they are holding a device, and often find a space of reflection as they stare at their empty hand.

The lack of clarity as viewers wonder about the reality of the image further connects to the ideas of truth in a digital age. The artist also considered the prominence of fake news and how most people now receive all of their information and news from an online source. Through this, there is a complex navigation of faith, questioning and confusion around information gained online.

Removed is exhibiting in the Palais des Congres de Montreal, at 1001 Jean Paul Riopelle Pl., near Chinatown. It is showing in a passage connected to the Place d’Armes metro, as a space that is industrial and does not necessarily appear like somewhere art would be showcased. Yet, this detail plays an important role for Pickersgill in connection to his work. In considering the focus on devices and technology, these objects in expand the accessibility one has to art. For those who stumble upon these works by accident, a greater reflection of their own relationship with technology is encouraged, as they pass by and interact with these works in an untraditional art space.

The work encourages questioning of editing and reality both within the image, and in a broader context of contemporary society, while reflecting back to the viewer a very common sight—someone deeply engaged with their cell phone. These aspects work together to create art that challenges and encourages viewers to situate themselves within the works, and invoke greater consideration of the relationships between physicality, the digital, and human connection and truth within it all.

Removed will be showing until March 24, and is accessible through the underground tunnels at Place Des Arts.

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