A mural wallpaper of an eye (psychology.about.com) is applied directly to a temporary wall as part of Tabitha Soren’s Surface Tension installation at Mills College Art Museum. Credit: Michael Halberstadt

Berkeley photographer Tabitha Soren wants us to slow down and consider the images we absorb with our eyes and then pass along on our devices. In her new series Surface Tension, 45 images on view at the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland until Dec. 12, Soren questions how contemporary society consumes and disseminates information.

“There is a connection between what troubles us and what distracts us,” Soren said. “We use what distracts us to evade what troubles us.”

Using a large-format camera, Soren captures screenshots of images culled from text messages and web searches on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. Some are private moments: a child blowing an emailed goodnight kiss to her mother, another asleep in bed. Others are more public: a man raising his fist in a Black Lives Matter protest, buildings ablaze in the Paradise fire. A process of applying colored gel to the surface of her iPad before she shoots reveals patterns of fingers and handprints that resemble abstract brushstrokes. These are the grimy traces left behind as the images are apprehended, then swiped through on a digital screen. The result is a tangible, forensic record of what compels attention, what is consumed, manipulated, and dismissed in a constant search to feed an endless craving for entertainment.

Soren is well versed in the intersection of technology and culture. Before moving on to fine art photography, she was a Peabody Award-winning journalist and former reporter for MTV, ABC, and NBC News. Her layered approach allows her to explore the interactions between the viewer and the image, between the authenticity of the source, and the whims and desires of the consumer.

Surface Tension is Soren’s first solo museum show in the Bay Area, where she makes her home in Berkeley with her husband and children. “It’s wonderful to have my art world family view the work in such a gorgeous space,” Soren said. Additionally, she was excited by the museum’s impressive exhibition history, which has included shows by renowned artists such as Jay Defeo, Faith Ringgold, and Hung Liu. Motivated by the venue and its participation in the Feminist Art Coalition, Soren created three new pieces specifically for the installation. 

A mural-sized close-up of an eye greets the viewer as soon as they enter the museum. The image was sourced from psychology.about.com. Across the surface of the eye, traces of white fingerprints have left a residue of trail marks in their wake. Touch, Soren suggests, has become less physical and more virtual as we constantly meander through the digital realm.The centerpiece of the exhibition is an installation Soren refers to as Hall of Mirrors. Commissioned and acquired by the museum, Soren crafted an immersive environment of resistance: 15 images culled from the Black Lives Matter protests, the Women’s March, the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the recent insurrection at the Capital. Hanging each image from the ceiling on thin cables enabled Soren to back them with mirrored plexiglass. “Using a reflective material on the back allows the viewer to be reflected into the protests,” Soren said. Yet surfing the web is also a way of not interacting. “It steals the time we might actually enact change,” she added.

Hall of Mirrors installation of hanging digital archive prints mounted on mirrored plex. Credit: Michael Halberstadt

Continuing the theme of reflection, the multi-channel video and sound installation Narcissus serves as a space contemplation in the back room. Three light-boxes positioned on the floor project images of colored thumb and fingerprints that look like rocks scattered at the bottom of a river bed. The title refers to the Greek myth of Narcissus, the beautiful youth who yearned after his reflection until he pined away and died. “Scientists are studying how our interaction with these devices affects the way we treat each other,” Soren explained. “One result is a condition they call ‘digital narcissism.'” She is referring to the habit so prevalent now of posting and sharing selfies and other intimate moments on social media. 

Narcissus is a three-channel video creating an immersive environment. Photo credit: Michael Halberstadt   

Finally, a dramatic cluster of large-scale photos of the natural world: the Great Barrier Reef, shrinking glaciers, and the Arctic Ocean reminds us that human interaction — human touch — can be dangerous.  A dark blue photo of Greenland is overlaid with swirls of yellow and red fingerprints that burst across the surface like consuming flames over the ice. Like forensic evidence gathering at a crime scene, these shots, with their greasy coating of human marks, imply that our fingerprints are on everything. We have not left any part of our planet untouched and unharmed in our quest to consume and populate information around the globe. 

Greenland is overlaid with swirls of yellow and red fingerprints. Credit: Tabitha Soren

Surface Tension is an ambitious series that maps our pervasive reliance on technology to engage in the most basic human interaction: touch. The forgotten traces that Soren’s camera makes visible remind us that touch can be as delicate as a good night kiss, it can be dismissive, and it can be harmful. Touch is, in the end, a record of our existence.

Gabrielle Selz is an award-winning author. Her books include the first comprehensive biography of Sam Francis, Light on Fireand Unstill Life: Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction. Her essays and art reviews have appeared in The New YorkerThe New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times, Hyperallgic, Art & Object, Art Papers, The Rumpus, and The Huffington Post among others. She makes her home in Oakland, California. 

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