Tabitha Soren Shows Us the Dirty Side of Our Devices at Transformer Station

Tabitha Soren,, [Charlottesville, Virginia, 2016], 2017, Archival Pigment Print 41″ x 31″

Walking in to the Transformer Station’s current exhibition, Surface Tension, you will quickly notice that all of Tabitha Soren’s photographs appear hazy and out of focus. Upon closer inspection, you might notice that all-too-familiar pattern of smudge marks and fingerprints, a texture that is now a recognizable aspect of modern technological life, as our fingers swipe the various screens of our daily existence. With touchscreen technology came this new form of touching, a gentle movement that seems oddly intuitive to young children, and so second nature now, it is easy to forget how frequently we use it. Soren puts these touch mechanics in the spotlight; they are a common feature of all of her photographs in the large show. And while it is a powerful idea, I’m not sure its sustained use maintains quite the impact intended – but that could perhaps be solved with tighter curating. The sameness of the finger smudges becomes a repetitive trope when confronted with so many of these images, but does punctuate how ubiquitous this pattern is to us today – you see it everywhere. I can see it on my laptop screen as I type this. Soren’s work is a powerful indictment of our dependence on devices, and our oily residue is often the only trace left behind from hours of digital consumption.

Soren is not the only artist to examine these digital touch-prints, back in 2014 artist Meggan Gould put her families’ dirty touchscreens on display in an exhibition with the very same name, but Soren puts imagery behind her finger-smears. Using a large-format camera to capture a photograph of the iPad, the large negative is then digitally scanned and printed. Each photograph shows a different subject, all taken from her internet browser history, text messages, and various social media. The results are separated by subject matter on each wall of the exhibition: current political events, personal life, travel snaps, and a site-specific installation of the two most common image searches – cats and porn.

The current events wall contains images as far reaching as the Charlottesville racists, to a memorial here in Cleveland for Tamir Rice. Police shootings, mass incarceration, and other horrific events are all covered with the snail-trails of swift digital touches, demonstrating how quickly we absorb this imagery, then relegate it to our browser history.

Tabitha Soren, Proof Kids Are in Bed, Text From Husband, 2015, Archival Pigment Print, 41″ x 31″

The back wall contains imagery of family and friends, such as the touching photo sent to her by her husband to prove the kids were in bed. It too is covered with the trails of digital life, an ironic simulated form of touching that cannot replace the actual touch yearned for in this instance. Other photos seem oddly out of context, like snippets of our digital appetite, nearly unrecognizable.

Tabitha Soren,, 2014, archival pigment print, 41″ x 31″

For example one photograph on this wall is a grainy image of an arm, and other than the tattoos and long fingernails, this otherwise nondescript disembodied arm points out of the frame to who knows what. It is ascribed to the facebook page of drummer, comedian, and bon vivant Jon Wurster, but it’s definitely not his arm, and when I shared the photograph with him, he had no idea what is was. This is a testament to the ephemeral nature of our digital lives: shared today, forgotten tomorrow.

Tabitha Soren, Katie’s Vacation Phone Photo, 2018, Archival Pigment Print, 81″ x 60″

Some of the most attractive photographs in the exhibition address climate change, such as Katie’s Vacation Phone Photo, a painterly view of a receding glacier. Others feature wildfires and ailing barrier reefs, each image marred by the swipes of an eager viewer – making me pause and think about how we only ever see our own photographs on screens, hard-copy is an antiquated rarity, and how imperfectly we see them – through our own dirt and grime – which we somehow miraculously overlook. Honestly, how often do you clean your screens?

Tabitha Soren Installation View, Below: Narcissus No. 3, 2019, Archival Pigment Print Face-Mounted to Plexi, 58″ x 72.5″

On the floor at the center of the room is a three-panel piece titled Narcissus – the only photographs devoid of any background imagery, but the highly polished surface implies that you are the subject. Named for Narcissus, the mythological Greek beauty that fell in love with his own reflection when looking into a pool of water, here Soren forces us to look down into the pool, and think about our digital, highly-curated selves. Selfies, influencers, likes, filters, etc. – this kind of digital narcissism has become a way of life for those seeking a jolt of serotonin every time someone praises your “face”. But all Soren gives us is the dirty truth of these encounters, laying unceremoniously on the floor.

Tabitha Soren, Please Touch Me, 2019, Site Specific Installation, Below: Detail

Of course the running theme is the elusiveness of real touch – we are so removed from reality at any given moment, the irony is that we use touch as part of that process. But instead of touching the soft fur of a kitten, or the skin of a lover, we relegate our touches to the slick inhuman surface where we get our fix. It’s a sad truth of modern life, and I can’t help but feel slightly guilty about my own dirty habits as I leave the gallery. Think I’ll start by cleaning my screens and petting my cats. IRL.


Tabitha Soren: Surface Tension runs through January 19, 2020.



The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.