The Canadian photographer observes her own life to explore the commodification of our personal data and way of being
On 26 June 2010, a Hollywood Legends auction took place at Planet Hollywood Las Vegas Resort & Casino. Among the items up for sale were earrings worn by Kate Winslet in the film Titanic and a dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in the musical Funny Face.
There were also three X-rays of Marilyn Monroe’s body taken at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami, Florida during a doctor’s visit in 1954. Once entrusted to her physician, the converted chest images sold for a combined sum of £29,900 ($45,000). Darren Julien, the president of Julien’s Auctions, which hosted the event, described the medical images as the “ultimate look into the legend”.
“What an apt metaphor for the way we live now,” Sara Cwynar remarks. “Even the inside of [Monroe’s] body was up for sale and up for view.” The Canadian artist is known for her lens-based work that interrogates the existential trauma of modern life.
Her practice is rooted in a kind of artistic cryptanalysis. She exposes the power structures embedded in photographic representation, the media landscape and the everyday objects we surround ourselves with. In both her photography and film, she grapples with the chaotic and conflicting experience of positioning oneself in relation to 21st century capitalism.
“The most oppressive and urgent influence of tech in our lives is the requirement to participate. All these big surveillance capitalist companies are mining our activity and data for profit, and we have simply agreed to it.”
In this way, technology and its omnipresent influence is a central theme in Cwynar’s work. She mines her own lived experience to untangle how ‘the network’ has ushered us into an entirely new way of being. She exposes the porous boundaries between our public and private selves, and our active participation in the commodification of personhood.
“The most oppressive and urgent influence of tech in our lives is the requirement to participate. All these big surveillance capitalist companies are mining our activity and data for profit, and we have simply agreed to it. We are so busy, overworked and overwhelmed, we don’t stop to think about what’s going on. We assume someone else is watching over these things – but it’s an unprecedented realm.” Cwynar continues: “These platforms are designed to maximise user time and interaction, and have become mandatory parts of participating in social life. They frayed our traditional bonds and then offered us ways to reconnect but only through channels that work for them.”
This interrogation of the pervasive nature of tech, both on a systemic and individual level, exposes how corporate agendas and patriarchal narratives assimilate into our lives by manipulating our innate human desire to belong.
In her new book Glass Life, published by Aperture, Cwynar collates her observations and findings. She unravels how our modes of thinking, feeling and acting are predetermined for us by a confluence of institutional power and politics. The book is a portal into a complex network of ideas and theories.
Visual cues that define her artistic inquiry are framed around annotated transcripts from her film trilogy – Soft Film (2016), Rose Gold (2017) and Red Film (2018). This open invitation gives us access to her process, offering myriad entry points into the work. It animates her shifting relationship to proximity, at once up-close and in the detail, while also pulling back to articulate the broader ecosystem at play.
The title Glass Life, a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019), describes the pervasiveness of data-driven technology. It operates under the cover of connection and convenience, while quietly eroding privacy, social bonds, self-determination and individual will. “Zuboff is describing something that we need to try to turn around before our lives are forever altered, before we can’t go back.”
To unite her roving interests, Cwynar employs an aesthetic that is so glossy and seductive it is impossible to look away. Maximising aesthetic pleasure is a conceptual strategy that enables the viewer to confront challenging subject matter while exposing the staging and trappings of advertising. Cwynar leans on her previous life as a graphic designer at The New York Times to inform her process.
“The work is very controlled, carefully edited, planned out and worked over and over again so it can be as efficient as possible, while also being packed with content and information,” she explains.
For example, in Red Film, Cwynar explores how objects, images, ideas and even language get reproduced and regurgitated to ensure systems of power maintain the status quo. Multiple lines of inquiry intersect, including ideas about the colour red, our sense of self, and how the canon of western art influences how we understand value.
Throughout the film, we see glimpses of Cwynar hanging upside down. She looks increasingly uncomfortable as the blood rushing to her head becomes too much to bear. At times it feels like she could burst from the pressure, her insides becoming outsides. “All of my films are, in part, about beauty – who decides what is beautiful, what power beauty holds in our media landscape, and what we go through to achieve various ideals of beauty. Red Film is very much about outside appearances, about our cultural insistence on connecting beauty with truth, and the long-standing notions that we can know anything about someone’s inside character from looking at the outside.”
Like Cwynar’s photographic work, Red Film contains an overwhelming volume of material moving in different directions. Infused with intense colour, it is captivating and unnerving. “One section of the film takes on the style of Instagram captions,” she explains. “Often written by young women, they can be personal and incisive, while also being overwritten and narcissistic. I am thinking about the new ways we absorb information and express ourselves in the age of social media and image saturation, and how it can feel like a trap rather than a freedom.”
“I’m interested in how things get standardised or repeated, and how those things stem from corporate interests. How certain colours are always reproduced in the same way or an object is always shown from the same angle. These ideas can be applied to language or even our thinking. We often operate in received ways of speaking or thinking that come at us from systems of power.”
The visual language of e-commerce is also a source of fascination for Cwynar. Photographs such as 141 Pictures of Sophie 1, 2 and 3 (2019) andSahara from SSENSE.com (As Young as You Feel) (2020) pull and mimic images of models from e-comm sites.
Tirelessly shot from the same three angles, the photographs speak to ideas of multiplication of identity and the ways we reproduce and fragment ourselves on social media. “I’m interested in how things get standardised or repeated, and how those things stem from corporate interests. How certain colours are always reproduced in the same way or an object is always shown from the same angle.
These ideas can be applied to language or even our thinking. We often operate in received ways of speaking or thinking that come at us from systems of power.” Cwynar continues, “I think about the idea of doxa. The Pierre Bourdieu theory that the doxa denotes everything that is sayable and knowable in a culture at any given time, decided on and handed down by systems of power. I’m interested in finding ways this shows up in seemingly more benign or aestheticised ways in parts of the culture.”
Cwynar’s practice is one of accumulation and excess. Each frame is a sculptural construction, crafted from source materials ranging from discarded photo albums, encyclopedias, historical archives and objects from eBay and thrift stores. Together they create logic-defying assemblages that manifest as collages. Their rich surface design is a tangible metaphor for the ideas the work contains.
“The projects are tough to make,” Cwynar says. “They feel impossible when I start. Making a film takes two years, from the time I start thinking about it to the editing. The process is very physical. I will move things around for days to get the right balance in the composition. Each object has a specific relationship to one another, and there is an overall feeling that comes through when everything has been so carefully arranged.”
Throughout her career, much has been made of her collecting tendencies and obsession with objects. The essays in Glass Life, ‘On Beauty and Being Glitched’ by Legacy Russell and ‘Should Artists Shop or Stop Shopping?’ by Sheila Heti, unravel this central tenet of her practice with renewed energy and irreverence.
The ability to dynamically access the nexus of academia and real-world experiences permeates Cwynar’s work. She does this through an acute sense of artistic dramatisation. Her narrative strategy invites the viewer in while simultaneously holding space for us to metabolise our entanglement with the issues she raises.
She is also unafraid to brandish emotion. “There is something cathartic and comforting in talking about these experiences – from the ways I experience misogyny to the ways capitalism imposes itself on me,” she says. “But talking about all of these heavy topics only goes so far. A lot of my works are about trying to connect these ideas to how it feels to experience them, and how they trickle down to our real human lives.”
Glass Life is more than a monograph. It provides visibility to Cwynar’s rigour and acuity while honouring her need to be roving and untethered. It emphasises how beauty and desire are encoded into her artwork like a kind of Trojan horse – enabling her to expose and address the cognitive dissonance of the cultural values of the west. Beyond Cwynar’s sharp and detailed exposé of institutionalised power, it is the way she conveys the complicated visceral experience of being a subject within these systems that makes the work so radical and remarkable.
Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.