Jana Cruder

CA, United States

The path of the modern man is lit by the glow of his smartphone screen. The manner in which today’s human exists in the world is increasingly mediated, truncated, and flattened out despite its illusion of depth. We no longer communicate directly, and we no longer walk upright. Our minds and our spines are literally bending toward the pull of the handheld machine. As inherently social beings, we are both emotionally disconnected and digitally hyperconnected within the new norm of technological dependency. While the cognitive downsides of this dynamic are decried in certain quarters, contemplation of its physical effects remains relatively rare. But what about what this does to our bodies? When our attention is on the small screens, how does our psyche inhabit our flesh?

“Way of the Modern Man” represents an investigation into the sociological, physiological, and consciousness-adaptive experience of how we live now. Cruder remembers being in Hong Kong observing and people watching, scanning an ocean of humanity, “I saw seas of people hunching over, never looking up…” It reminded her of those evolutionary charts that show fish growing legs, then in stages becoming homo sapiens and walking upright – except that it was like the far side of that, as though we’re devolving back to a place of crouching and grunting. Determined to document this shift, she set up a conceptual and formal structure – both a physical space and a method by which to explore the contrast between the projected and observed self.

During Cruder’s isolation/observation booth portraiture process, each participant spends about 30 minutes in a private session with the artist. The subjects are alone in a confined, featureless space, furnished only with a single chair, and permitted to enter only with his or her mobile device. Communication between the subject and the artist takes place exclusively via text message, with Cruder outside the enclosure, not visible or audible to the subject. Conversations are captured in multiple layers – text message, still image, and video. Clothes are all or mostly removed not to create vulnerability, although that certainly occurs, but rather, to better study inflections of posture and spinal stance. But it’s worth noting the people soon forgot they are nude – evidence perhaps of how absorbed they are in texting with the artist. Cruder collaborated with a sociologist to produce questions that she could control for, adopting a more scientific methodology to measure emotions and physicality against each other.

The final images are presented in a series of back-lit panels, whose light-box qualities recreate the luminosity of a smartphone itself. Large-scale typographical emoticons both inform and interfere with the image, obscuring and contextualizing the subject’s character at the same time. Like a mashup of Muybridge and Baldessari with the cool detachment of Arbus, the earthy, sepia tonality visually links the portraits to art history and to documentarian pursuits as well as to tropes of conceptual art. Stylistically, the series’ naturalism marks a break from the artist’s well-known high-gloss Barbie-based works, but this also represents a jump from deconstructing personal relationships to technological ones. “They know I’m observing them, and they add these smiley faces, even to the saddest stories. I’m watching them, how they are standing while they’re texting with me, and there’s this disconnect between the stories, the bodies, and the language – because what they are saying isn’t really what they are feeling. My goal is to show how the smartphone phenomenon is literally – on both a social and a physiological level – changing what it means to be human.”

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