The Trace That's Left in Us

by Rebecca O'Dwyer

I started using Instagram back in July. Initially chosen for its suitability in promoting a new publication I was starting, I soon exhumed my old profile alongside my ostensible purpose for being there. And, despite my best intentions, it has become yet another touching point in my daily social media routine: Twitter, which I just about tolerate; followed by Facebook, which I despise, followed by Instagram. The latter is, I think, best suited for those times of lassitude when you can’t really commit to much of anything, its visuality rendering it even less taxing than Twitter, which unfortunately involves words.

Instagram is not particularly exciting. A significant proportion of its content, like all social media, is scarcely veiled self-aggrandisement in the guise of “information” (everyone does it). But the most interesting thing about it, I think, is its uncanniness: the Instagram feed is composed of distinctly familiar images, as users duplicate images from other, seemingly more vital, social media. Of course Facebook, which owns Instagram, does this rather seamlessly for you, but other platforms require a more manual tack. To differentiate between posts, then, we often give them a different caption, or no caption at all, but the primary desire seems to be to disperse the image so widely, so as to weight their presence, equally, everywhere. There’s a certain resignation to this gesture, a feeling of enforced upkeep, both understandable and mortifying by turns, that speaks to the fallacy of choice on which social media depends. The Instagram feed is, basically, that drunk friend recounting the same story over and over, until finally you decide to just go with it, and feign surprise.

Instagram distinguishes itself from other social media through its quite particular use of the hashtag. Whereas the Twitter hashtag is ironical, often used to complicate or parody the content’s message, the Instagram hashtag is mostly representational, altogether less cynical. It seems to me that it speaks of a simple desire for expansion: latching a few of these onto the tail end of a post, even if its content is absolutely banal, allows it to extend through space and time, breaking and entering into conversations hitherto set apart from it: #love, #instagood, #me, and #tbt (Throwback Thursday), apparently being the four most popular — and inane. Using hashtags, any hashtags, all but guarantees “likes,” the currency of Instagram; squads of bots, like emaciated dogs, are primed to smell them out and pounce. As a result, you can post an image and acquire ‘likes’ without anyone really seeing it or liking it at all: Instagram is full of ghosts.

*

Newly returned to the platform, I quickly remembered its particular demand: scroll, scroll, scroll, and scroll; maybe ‘like’ a post or two (nothing too serious). After a short while, though, maybe a matter of days, a strange user caught my non-attention: Down and Out in Los Santos. And, not being familiar with Grand Theft Auto, I initially thought of it as real; a risible photojournalistic account of life on the hard streets of, eh, Los Santos – its apparent veracity compounded by the unfocused, deadened looking particular to the platform (and a terrible phone). I followed back, thought no more of it.

Over the course of a few weeks a new post arrived twice every day; sometimes I noticed, sometimes I didn’t. The flow kept coming. Finally I acquiesced — what is this anyway? — and stopped scrolling. On further scrutiny, turning against the tide of dead-eyed gawping, I determined: no, these are not real. What they were, I still wasn’t sure, but they were not real. What they had done, and of this I was certain, was to play my promiscuous eye against itself, to hold its insufficiency up to the light: these images are not real and never have been. My next logical, if somewhat harried question was: what else isn’t real?

I returned to the images, which kept coming; clicked on the profile to learn that Down and Out in Los Santos was actually someone I knew of, the artist Alan Butler. This made sense; on further digging I learned that Los Santos was not an actual place, but the ostensible setting for the aforementioned, rather famous computer game. That the feed still held my attention after this big reveal is testament to its complexity, the aha! moment only serving to throw me further down its semantic hole.

Down and Out in Los Santos’ images aren’t exactly unreal either, though: they are the result of Butler’s disembodied-but-actual navigation of the landscape of Grand Theft Auto V. Armed with an in-game camera, this avatar, proxy-Butler, goes wandering, capturing moments of unexpected clarity and poignancy in the charred streets of Los Santos: a totally bizarre, wholly unproductive use of time within the confines of the game. What it comes down to, really, is one simulated person, taking pictures of other simulated people, within a simulated place. After this, and through the mediation of both Butler and other software, the images slip into the real world: online, under your fingers, into a more collective sense of time and space. They will make this uncanny journey until some point in 2018. The project is migratory: like other, more tedious Instagram posts, it also occupies Twitter and an informative, stand-alone website. But it’s Instagram that fits it most satisfactorily — the project’s startling, utterly false images reduced to non-events in the flotsam-jetsam of its image feed. It was here, for me, that it was, and is, at its most troublesome and potent.

As I said, the hashtag is precisely where Instagram is good; dispersing the message of the post, it adds vulnerable inflection, making it somehow less than the sum of its parts. Often, you can tell the specific impetus of a post from these accomplices, where it wants to go, and with whom; you can tell how a person feels about themselves, about others, or their situation; perhaps more touchingly, you can also understand how people want to be. The hashtag can propel the image off in a million different modes of association, exploding it before becoming tethered to maybe another million associative hooks. There’s a desperation to them, I think, like a metastasised hyper-empathy wanting to be all places at once.

With Down and Out in Los Santos, the situation is even better. The hashtags that accompany its images are one of two things, and typically both at once: rudimentary, startling, and with the distinct lack of empathy accordant a sociopath, or a machine (e.g., #homeless; #capitalism; etc.); and/or gleefully duplicitous. In one image, dated 10 November, an unpeopled makeshift bed of scavenged wooden planks, tarpaulin and blankets sits in a paved clearing enclosed by heavily-graffitied walls. On Instagram, this image is chased by an overwhelming number of hashtags: sixteen to be precise, including #photojournalism, #contemporaryart, #documentary, even — most laughably — #furnituredesign. It is of course none of those things. But through these sixteen acts of conscious misrepresentation, Butler manages to enter into domains from which these technological renderings should really be excluded. He doesn’t enter by force, either, but through the willing cooperation of the platform itself, which automatically sorts like with like. As a result, you have a situation where another user, perhaps on an aspirational trail through documentary photography, finds these images of Los Santos; like me, they are then caught within a strange loop of not-quite-believing, belief1.

*

One of the things you’re least likely to find on Instagram is poverty. If you’re poor, you don’t take pictures of your own abjection, and you don’t let other people take pictures of it, either. This is probably the unspoken rule of all social media: the imperative to self-represent, at all times, as beautiful, happy, healthy, and definitely not poor. Technological or not, real or not, the images of Down and Out in Los Santos go right against this rule; up close, under your fingertips, there is poverty: vagrants, drug addicts, sex workers, and all the others typically maligned to the turbid underbellies of urban centers. In one image, dated 16 October, a figure, barely discernible as female, lurches her arms into a bin, right up to her elbows, searching for scraps of food, or money. Towards the background of this pseudo-photo, another woman walks away from us clutching a phone to her ear, wearing a scant purple dress and cowboy boots: one of Grand Theft Auto’s disproportionately large sex worker population. It is nighttime, and the scene is cast with a light distinctive to dilapidation and disrepair. On Instagram, it is captioned “Searching,” and followed by eleven hashtags, including #streetphoto, #photography, and #homeless. Here, poverty is subject to a sorting process, its particularity riven into subset after subset, after subset; it becomes just another image, subject to the same process that you might apply to a picture of a cat. But, it is unsatisfactory: when I try to imagine what the woman by the bin is thinking, I get eleven useless replies.

In The Four Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World (2015), Laurence Scott writes that our online lives are dominated by a kind of taxonomical mania: an imperative to categorise, to distinguish one kind of experience from another. We can see this very clearly with the hashtag, but also through a wider noun-ification, which supplants modalities of individual experience with a collectively felt “Thing”2. As a result of this desire to categorise, Scott says: ‘Nothing…is merely itself, being also an example of a species of a thing. The weird logic of hashtags means that although there are no one-of-a-kinds, everything is a collectors item’3. Through the hashtag, a particular, subjective, representation of experience or desire becomes sublimated: it is illustrative of a desire to exceed particularity, and to tap into the collectivity social media ostensibly facilitates. Anyone who has ever experienced something, or taken a photo, while at the same time formulating its linguistic encapsulation — either through the hashtag, some snappy combination of 140 characters, or a tagline — will know what I mean. This, slightly discomfiting phenomenon, as Scott says, ‘is not simply a question of the digital trace, but the trace that is left in us’4.

Such an understanding of the hashtag, whilst contributing in very real ways to a certain calcification of particularity, means that it also denotes a contemporary desire to share and to interact: to somehow get beyond the meagre tools we’ve been saddled with. On the project’s website, Butler writes that:

While the inhabitants of Los Santos possess only a superficial amount of artificial intelligence, it is possible to have real emotional experiences in their presence. This might sound sad and geeky, but it is true. The characters are aware of my presence as I photograph them, some ignore me, other times I am attacked and must defend myself. They chatter to each other, they share alcohol and cigarettes, they ask for money to buy drugs. Programmed to self-identify, they congregate with those in similar social situations to themselves.5

This latent humanity is reiterated in Butler’s use of the hashtag. It allows these simulated people to break into un-simulated worlds; there, they are no less real than anything else. Consider, for example, a recent decision by a well-known Dublin tattoo parlour to install sprinklers so as to stop homeless people from sleeping in its porch6: are the city’s homeless any more tangible than those in Los Santos? We shirk their gaze, muttering “no change, sorry” — if we register their gaze at all. Our bored parsing of Instagram has its kissing cousin in a real world scenario: we turn them into “things,” too. Butler’s project works so well by registering our complicity, that unfortunate flip side of collectivity. The difference between on, and offline life, becomes perilously scant.

Imagine, for a second, you were a designer on Grand Theft Auto V. Even more precisely, imagine that you were one of the designers responsible for the underbelly of Los Santos: in particular, its down-and-outs, created, no doubt, only so as to ensure its landscape had a more properly gritty, authentic feel. How would you approach this task? What signifiers would you use to convey them? Doubtless, and as we can see from Butler’s project, you would resort to well-worn tropes, like burning bins, facial scarring, drug use, broken teeth, short-skirts, and so on: a kind of shorthand for “undesirable”. And, perhaps I’m overthinking what is, after all, just a game, but I can’t help thinking here of the statistician Francis Galton – the founder of eugenics, and a cousin of Charles Darwin – and in particular, his efforts, as Allan Sekula described them, in the essay ‘The Body and the Archive’ (1986): ‘to construct a purely optical apparition of the criminal type’7. By combining the photographs of individual faces of criminals, the infirm, and other undesirable components of the population, Galton then created composites, which, he claimed, ‘shared, and ultimately surpassed, the capacity of artistic intelligence to generalize’8. Made by equally spreading the photographic plate’s exposure to each of the group’s faces, these composites are strange, uncanny images, where ‘what remained was the blurred, nervous configuration of those features that were held in common throughout the sample’9. That oh-so-slightly askew nose, that weak jawline: these become signifiers of a biological undesirability that cannot be eluded. The characters of Down and Out in Los Santos are composites also: multiple and exclusionary modalities of disaffection, emerging in lazy representational tropes that seem to anticipate it, flattening them and brown-nosing our preconceptions, in the process. They are created, as they are, in the same way that we calcify particularity through the hashtag.

As Butler points out, the down-and-outs of Los Santos have also been clearly programmed to recognise one another on the basis of these particular tropes, and as a result, to tacitly accede to them. They socialise amongst themselves. You can sense this in the preponderance of group shots in the project’s feed: in one image, titled ‘Chats,’ a pair of women stand against a heavily tagged wall, one smoking, the other with her head turned askew, a brown-papered bottle of booze in her right hand; in another image, ‘Chaos,’ we can see their provisional home, under what looks like a bridge. A sea of tents, shopping trolleys, and cardboard boxes, there are nonetheless at least four people there. The extent to which its designers have gone to, for verisimilitude, is astounding; these are, after all, only background-people; mostly they stay out of your way, unless you seek them out.

As a result, they often seem surprised by Butler’s interest, caught off guard, like they’re not programmed to receive it. In one candid photo, insensitively titled ‘Battery’ (27 October), a woman looks right at us. Her face, which occupies most of the image, is awash with bruises: dusky blues, jaundiced yellows, blotches of blood; a scrape cuts across her chin at a diagonal, her eyes are sheathed in a watery sluice, but her gaze is unbroken. A later image, ‘Selfie,’ dated 30 October, shows this same woman holding a phone up to a shattered bathroom mirror in the act of capturing her image. Her bruises are now gone. She wears a khaki baseball cap backwards, a low cut baby-doll dress, with black bra straps poking out from underneath. Her under-eyes are red raw, but she holds up the phone in a pose of steely resolve. She wants, in effect, to self-represent: to enter our world, and in so doing to break out from the technological determinism she’s burdened by - to escape the hashtag. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise here, and see the poignancy in this moment, technological though it might be. She wants to become more than a collection of tropes; or, more to the point, she wants to choose which tropes define her: like we all do.

Photo: Down And Out In Los Santos

See All Footnotes

1. A case in point: in February 2017, the Instagram feed of Getty Reportage, and also that of Getty Images, featured Down and Out in Los Santos in its weekly roundup of 'the work of others who share our passion for visual storytelling’. All of the other selections were of course traditional photography; whether Getty knew the actual providence of Butler’s images is unknown (https://www.instagram.com/p/BQV5egoDuUP/?taken-by=gettyreportage, accessed 26 Feb 2017).

2. Laurence Scott (2015) The Four Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World (London,Penguin, pg. 67) This thingification — which is curiously close to a Marxist understanding of reification, really — can happen to people also; I was told recently that an acquaintance had asked a friend of mine whether I, myself, was now “A Thing”. I live in hope!

3. Idid, pg. 69

4. Ibid, pg. 89

5. http://downandout.in-los-santos.com/about

6. The tattoo parlour in question was Dublin Ink, of Cow’s Lane. They have since apparently stopped using the sprinklers, in response to massive condemnation on social media and elsewhere. Such a strategy is continuous with a wider trend of ‘hostile’ or ‘defensive’ architecture, whereby public spaces are designed to be physically unwelcoming, even aggressive, towards homeless people and ‘anti-social’ behaviour.

7. Alan Sekula, ‘The Body and the Archive,’ October, Vol. 39 (Winter, 1986), pp. 19

8. Ibid, pg. 47

9. Ibid

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