Proof, like other man-made intoxicants, has a way of bringing out the compulsiveness in people. Take the expression “pics or it didn’t happen,” a strangely poignant punchline that I’ve heard bouncing around the art school where I teach. Used facetiously, it parodies the habit of constant personal documentation now deemed prosocial, perhaps even presocial, by social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
A: Burgers were better than usual today.
B: Pics or it didn’t happen.
Whereas there is a certain truth to “pics or it didn’t happen” when it comes to one’s Instagram feed, the application of this criteria to live interactions is clearly absurdist. The joke is in the blurring of a thin but meaningful border between how we act online and how we act in person at a moment when these categories are constantly merging with each other. The punchline, however, seems both a lament and an acknowledgement of how this incessant filtering (of the 4-D world through the 2-D image) makes itself necessary, or at least, how we default.
Like the ubiquitous “selfie,” the “pics” meme is a by-product of the age-old need to authenticate our experiences and the recently broadened social mandate to do it in public view. Though the platforms have shifted from physical to digital, the basic methodology for authenticating photographs still applies: To quote McCormick’s legal hornbook on evidence: “Unscripted video and film recordings may be authenticated by testimony that the recording fairly and accurately reproduces events perceived by the witness.”
The fact that a photograph can’t be argued with is both its strength and its weakness as a form of proof, for no matter how in “real time” a flow of photographic documentation is, it is always a constructed view and not a transparent version of reality. Thus, for a process of authentication to be anything more than a compulsion, it must bear the potential discomfort of “pics and it didn’t happen,” even if tasked with locating a clarity akin to “pics or it didn’t happen.” To get to what actually occurred, the context of a photograph, you have to be able to ask what is outside of its frame.
The other day, for example, I was working in my studio. Through an open-ended process I made something, and it certainly looked like a sculpture. Out of insecurity or boredom, I found myself trying to corroborate its existence—typing oracle-like bundles of language into a Google image search and hoping to be told if what I made was already "a thing." In that moment I wanted something conspicuous, either presence or absence, whereas my inquiry into the sculpture’s authenticity had only just begun.
A process of verification is made precise by its boundaries but also less complete. In framing the world with our search parameters, we gain a kind of control that is rarely present in remembering, an even older form of authentication. The act of looking back is unpredictable in its uncovering. You see I am here after all, a contemporary artwork by Zoe Leonard comprised of several thousand vintage postcards from Niagara Falls, is an interesting case in point. Spanning 1900 to 1950, these postcards seen together form an index that is as idiosyncratic as its constituent parts. They yield a conjured Niagara, simultaneously indefinite and instantly recognizable.
Like the selfies of a bygone era, the postcards were made to give iconic status to a swath of customary tourist experiences. They were their day’s compulsory proof of existence, albeit a proof, which, like the photographic technology they paralleled, tended to keep the image and its human witness on opposite sides of some material divide. Along these lines the presence of the self in the selfie today is not integrated into the image but a watermark, or testament, placed centrally in the image's foreground.
The meaningful separation between the experience and the experience-ee, which Leonard’s project accentuates and which selfies paste together, is that of recollection. In zealously tracking down and recasting the postcards (originally meant to be dispersed) as a collective, Leonard’s monumental “recollection” rebuilds an image of a Niagara that is everyone’s and no one’s.
Of the once iconic Niagara Falls, visitors encountered an integrated scroll of sensation, image, propaganda and myth. Describing on the back how much or how little their view of Niagara looked like the image on the front, these witnesses had an experience of the “virtual” (postcard photos, taken by others) through the “real” (seeing the falls in person) that is instantly recognizable to us now.
In this way, the title of Leonard's work You see I am here after all is spoken by both the falls and its visitors. It is also perhaps a bluff, for when it comes to the “authentic” experience we are never guaranteed an actual encounter. We may certainly visit the physical site, be captured in front of it, and fall deeply into its dispersal into the world. But the authentic experience is something different, a nonappearing measure no postcard or selfie can capture; it’s an experience that can be as centerless as the falls themselves.
Which is to say that authenticity may be a useful term precisely for the confusion, not the clarity, that it names: every notion of it is a trespass upon every other and this is a form of merriment. For if we could agree on what was real, or true, or authentic and just see it, it would only blind us from each other and ourselves.