Karin Grech interviews Joanna Demarco and Ann Dingli about their upcoming exhibition The Spaces that Connect Us which opens at Valletta Contemporary on July 26.
Let me start by asking you how this collaboration between a writer and a photographer came about?
JD: In 2017, I was working with a local magazine, and Ann, who is a writer by profession, was one of the writers who used to contribute to the publication, so as an editor I was in touch with her regularly. We knew each other socially before that, but it was through this work that we began a really great working relationship. We often used to discuss ideas and ways in which we could collaborate on projects using text and photography. She was also living in New York at that time.
I had first planned to go to Green Bank on my own, and secured this plan with an impulsive 3am flight purchase. I then told Ann about the project a few weeks later and she was really interested in joining and collaborating through writing. Besides that, her husband, Mark Leonard, has a deep interest in astronomy, so decided to join too. It was actually serendipitous and rather perfect, because as you can imagine, with such projects, having someone to collaborate with, as well as share the experience with and accompany you in a place which is so out of your comfort zone, is beneficial.
AD: Joanna and I have been collaborating for a while. As she mentioned, we worked together mainly when she was editor at First magazine. Our working dynamic is symbiotic. We both value collaboration above all and support each other in developing ideas autonomously, which we then typically help refine together. When Joanna spoke to me about Green Bank I was instantly intrigued, because even though I normally write about art and design, my work has often focused on digital storytelling. I didn’t think twice about accepting when she asked.
Was there a trigger to make you decide on the format of this exhibition or did it develop through a process? And if so, which process?
JD: We were always keen on using both text and photography for this exhibition. A large part of the research done there was through interviews, in order to gain insights into the thoughts and feelings of the residents. The main part of the exhibition will consist of a large wall that puts all the photographs and information together. This came as a reflection of our experience of the county itself; having so many juxtaposing realities within one place as small as Pocahontas County.
Ann’s essay within the exhibition is also greatly significant to the format – she gives an intimate personal account to how she – a digital native and constantly-connected city girl, feels entering and living in such a disconnected space. Mark also contributes to the exhibition through his analogue photographs, which he took of the telescope itself – digital cameras were not allowed next to it.
AD: I would echo that our main driver for the exhibition format has been to tell a genuine story and let the content speak for itself. Our process has always been led by the material – Joanna’s imagery, the interviews we conducted in Green Bank, and the essay I wrote on returning. The format for the essay has always been to use it as a vehicle to showcase our own personal experience in Green Bank as digital natives. It’s less analytical than a blow-by-blow account of what it felt like for us to significantly disconnect. The feelings we went through as we did that were an important part of our research.
Your collaboration is described as a case study of life in a mostly technology-free zone. Or as I see it, a life how it used to be before we all got and stayed connected all the time via our devices. Green Bank is special as radio silence is a scientific necessity there. Do you see a need or demand of such ‘disconnected zones’ for the pure sake of people going offline, especially in highly developed countries?
JD: Firstly, I’d like to explain one thing. We went to Green Bank thinking there would be no Wi-Fi at all. However, what we discovered was a different reality, and in fact, many residents were rather annoyed at the portrayal of their community as being one disconnected and ‘Wi-Fi free’. There is no mobile service there, so mobile phones have no service and cannot have 3G. However, there are Wi-Fi spots in people’s homes and in one or two eateries. In fact, Wi-Fi and connection has been on the increase there – but the strength of the connection is still largely weak and there are often issues with connectivity.
To me this presented itself as a situation that was even more interesting than complete disconnection, as it meant conditioned usage. As regards the need or demand in the developed world for disconnected zones… definitely. I think it is a natural reaction. I think most people long to have a break and be disconnected, at least temporarily. Nowadays people pay thousands for vacations which are known as ‘digital detoxes’ – basically going to a retreat in a place which doesn’t have mobile service. As I experienced in Pocahontas County, some people also moved there with the sole purpose of getting away from this constantly-digitised reality.
AD: The most interesting part of being in Green Bank was catching a glimpse of a life we once all had. We weren’t always constantly connected; time moves rapidly, and we don’t often mindfully stop to take stock of what has changed. For me, being in Green Bank was less important for revealing a time when we didn’t use our phones at dinner, for example, and more poignant for reminding us of a time when we couldn’t type a location into an app and be supplied with information on how long it would take us to get there, or what the best route was to do so. It shone a light on what we’ve put forward as our priorities – convenience, information, speed. We’ve had to adapt to the consequence of having those priorities manifested.
So yes, now it is almost impossible for a phone not to appear at the dinner table at some point. Many see that as a bad thing, I see it as a new reality – a side effect of progress. I believe we can have ‘disconnected zones’ whenever and wherever we want – we just have to turn our phones off.
With the advent of 5G, do you think our future should be a move towards such zones to safeguard our health or do you think that eventually technology will take over in every lived-in space?
JD: There is much controversy about the health effects of 5G, and some people I met in Green Bank – who suffer from what is known as Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity – are campaigning heavily against it. I think all the effects of mobile use – both biologically and psychologically/ emotionally – are still not fully understood. Having said that, I also think that such technologies are beneficial and exciting... as things stand now, I believe in moderation. The annoying thing about that, though, is that many social networks that drive our personal technology use are developed to be highly addictive, making it difficult for people to reach that objective – so it puts us in situations where we are all glued to our devices. I think technology has already taken over practically every lived-in space, so I feel finding balance and obtaining a healthy relationship with it on an individualistic level is really important.
AD: Our exhibition deals with this issue in quite a specific way when we cite the launch of a programme called Spacelink, being developed by SpaceX. It refers to the launch of a satellite constellation that could conceivably provide internet connection to every corner of the globe. We resist making a comment on whether this could be good or bad for humanity as a whole – there’s very little way to know the answer to that gargantuan question. It certainly would have consequences on Green Bank itself. But like with any other advancing technological development, the danger lies in what people choose to do with it, not with the technology itself. There’s nothing unhealthy about progression, we wouldn’t survive without it.
Do you depend (a lot) on technology that is absent in places like Green Bank? Can you see yourself living in an unconnected world like it, now or at any time in the future?
JD: I think the technology that is absent in places like Green Bank is embedded in our day-to-day life to such an extent that it is extremely difficult not to use it, and I wouldn’t even want to live in a world that is unconnected. I would say that my technology-usage has decreased significantly and I have become much more aware of my use of social media. I think the key – in places like ours which are so abundantly connected – is to discipline yourself to use technology in ways that it benefits you. I don’t plan on moving to a place that is absent from technology any time soon though, no.
I think most people long to have a break and be disconnected, at least temporarily
AD: My own experience of living without constant connection was an uneasy one. I am very pro-connection and believe the good it brings outweighs the bad. I’m not ignorant of the difficulties constant connection brings in terms of our collective behaviour and changing psychologies, but I believe that we have the integrity and fortitude to be able to live with it harmoniously. Would I be able to live in a place with limited connection? A resounding no.
You did your research over two years. How many times did you visit Green Bank in that period? Its geographical location, although rather remote within the Appalachian mountains, is also not that far from the big cities on America’s East Coast. Logistically, how easy is it to get there?
JD: I visited twice. The first time was between March and April 2018, and the second was in May 2019. Ann was with me on the first round. It is extremely difficult to get there, and the journey is potentially the most anxiety-inducing part of the trip. It is a seven-hour car ride from New York; however, the last two hours are driving through the mountains with no cell service (a nightmare for digital natives in a new region). The second time round I got a bus to Virginia and then drove to West Virginia by car through country lanes. Having now familiarised myself with the route, I don’t see it that impossible. However, while being there I did feel very isolated and often longed for a more urbanised place.
AD: I myself only visited once and stayed for a week together with Joanna and Mark Leonard – who also contributes to this exhibition. We drove for over nine hours through three states to get there from New Haven, Connecticut.
The observatory itself offers tours, and I read it attracts about 40,000 visitors annually. Did you meet any such visitors during your visits and were you able to find out why they chose to visit the area?
JD: The Green Bank Space Observatory is home to the largest fully-steerable space telescope in the world, so it is definitely a point of interest for many people. I know for a fact that many visit it from West Virginia, or who are passing through the region. It is also frequented by school children and students as a field trip, and anyone who is interested in astronomy. There is also a mountain close to the observatory called ‘Snowshoe Mountain’ which attracts many tourists for skiing holidays, who probably visit the observatory too. No, I did not speak to visitors of the observatory.
AD: When I visited we did take the tour but did not get the chance to speak much with the visitors. We spoke a lot with Mike Holstine, who works at the observatory and is deeply knowledgeable and passionate about radio astronomy. We learnt so much from him.
I read that Green Bank also attracts what would be called ‘alien hunters’. Did you encounter any of these ‘seekers of extraterrestrial life’? Can you tell us how welcome they are in a community that is centred around a scientific research facility staffed by mostly astronomers and physicists?
JD: I didn’t meet any alien hunters unfortunately, but the Green Bank Observatory has also been searching for life in space for many years. It’s made milestone discoveries in the field.
AD: I didn’t meet any alien hunters, although I quite wish I had.
Q&A with Joanna Demarco
Your biography tells us that you have an interest in exploring new technologies. How did that fact tie in with investigating a space like Green Bank that is devoid of a lot of technology we take for granted in everyday life?
A: Yes, for a few years now I have been really interested in developing technologies and how they impact people and communities, mostly communication technologies such as social networking and smartphones (the two work hand in hand nowadays). What drew me to Green Bank was that it was a community with less technology, located in one of the most westernised countries in the world, that isn’t part of a community that rejects technology due to religious beliefs (such as the Amish). More than researching new technologies I wanted to go there to explore all the factors that arise from a place where technology use is minimal.
With digital cameras being on the list of unwanted technology that emits electromagnetic signals, were your photos taken with an analogue camera/film?
A: Digital cameras are not allowed within a few hundred metres of the space telescope. They are allowed in the town itself, therefore analogue cameras were used right near the telescopes themselves. This was actually something I panicked about before going there, as I was not yet accustomed to shooting with an analogue camera, but in the end it turned out to be fine after e-mailing the space observatory director and asking him about it.
From the photos it appears that you put the people you photographed into the context of their immediate environment. Do you find that – especially for this project – the context is of equal significance to the person portrayed?
A: I do think a sense of place is an important aspect to the project as the project is mostly speaking about a specific place. Since there were limited places to actually go to, the spaces I found the people in also spoke volumes aboutthe individuals.
After looking at your work that was shot in Malta, I was wondering if you do see yourself as a mere observer or can the photographs also be interpreted as an expression of your views or a comment on (Maltese) society?
A: I think this depends on what work we are speaking about here. I wouldn’t say I’d go out looking for something specific or with some kind of agenda. In the street, I take photographs of things I am drawn to visually; it is a feeling more than anything. However, with projects shots in Malta, for example a recent project in collaboration with photographer Inigo Taylor, Valletta in 2018, it was definitely more of a commentary, and therefore the photographs were taken by finding moments and sights I was drawn towards visually, but also while being conscious of the narrative I was seeking to build.
Q&A with Ann Dingli
This case study of a radio quiet zone is being documented by photography as well as text. What would you say the role of the text is? Is it meant to convey what the photographs on their own cannot?
A: I certainly don’t believe text can ever supersede imagery or vice versa – they work irrefutably together. The text element of this exhibition – aside from the explanatory text shown on the walls and as captions – will take the form of an essay that will be handed out in a small booklet. The essay has been written as a creative non-fiction piece – a kind of writing that uses literary techniques to recount events that actually happened. We wanted to put forward our personal experience in Green Bank as a vital part of the project’s research.
Your biography tells us that you have conducted research into writing to describe places. Without photography to support ‘our imagination’, how would you describe Green Bank in order to convey its character?
A: The descriptive passages within the essay that are dedicated to the texture of the place are plentiful. The landscape, the built environment, even the interiors of spaces in Green Bank are a very important part of how the text works to convey the town’s character.
I have recently read that texts about artworks are experienced differently than texts that are artworks. Would you agree with that? And also, how would you classify the texts that you produced for this exhibition.
A: The text for this piece isn’t about an artwork but about a community, its people and our experience within it. The text works in service to the description of that place and that community; it functions mainly as a vehicle for communicating an experience. However, the stylistic choice to write the piece as creative non-fiction was deliberate.
I am of a generation that prefers text to video. I welcome texts as part of an exhibition that go beyond explanatory wall labels. Yet most people today prefer to watch a video than to read a text. How do you view the future of text in the art world?
A: Text needs to evolve just like anything else. In my studies, one of my core interests has been how text can work with imagery to reinvent itself and continue to add meaning for readers and viewers. That being said, there’s no shortcut to reading. People will either do it or they won’t. The same goes for all content, it just has to be meaningful and captivating. I would prefer to watch a good video than read a bad text. One is not in conflict with another, it’s all about quality of content.
And one last one for you both: In a world where everything depends on technology and being digitally connected, it is intriguing to see that places still exist where this connectivity is not the order of the day. Radio quiet zones – areas where any kind of radio waves are unwelcome or non-existent – are they a curse or a blessing? And did humankind maybe take the wrong path when it opted for ubiquitous connectivity?
AD: This is the big question our exhibition is opening up to its audience. I don’t believe there is an absolute answer to it. My perspective is – no, of course we didn’t take the wrong path. But we should always have the utmost respect for technology and endeavour to live with it as our progressive companion, not as something we need to contend with.
JD: As Ann said, I don’t believe it can boil down to being defined as merely a ‘curse’ or a ‘blessing’, being connected comes with its pros and cons, as does being disconnected. By talking to residents in Pocahontas County we came to understand numerous factors in which being more disconnected is a blessing, and others in which it is a curse, so the result is a mix of both.
I think the ideal situation would be one in which we use these technologies which are full of potential in ways where we have control over them and in ways that they benefit us individually.
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