An article by Antonia Laurence-Allen
Have you ever been perplexed by an image because you’ve unwittingly been looking at the negative space rather than the positive image? Or, when you know there is something uncanny but just can’t quite put your finger on what seems out of place, mysterious or missing? Wendy McMurdo’s work plays on these visual chords.
McMurdo trained as a painter and has for many years turned to digital photography to unpick how the manipulation of images affects our relationship to the physical world. She uses repetition and the erasure of objects to highlight how the photographic image, the digital universe and computer-aided information serve to screen more tangible realities. Her focus has primarily rested on the resonating effects this has on children, for it is through play and learning that adult identity is crafted.
Her earliest project In a Shaded Place – the Digital and the Uncanny (1995) looked closely at the role computers play in shaping children’s perceptions of themselves. Photographs, taken in a local drama class, were digitally manipulated to highlight the intensity of children’s games and demonstrate how identity is developed through role-play. A young child stands in a community hall, her eyes closed, transfixed and serious, her arms outstretched.
There is a stage behind her with four chairs stacked in silhouette. She is luminous, glowing against the darkening shadows of the background, and she is not alone. McMurdo has redoubled her figure, so one stands facing us, the other with her back to the viewer. It is like a game of ‘blind man’s bluff’. The girl is young and innocent, with floral skirt, short white socks with red hearts and a high necked jumper, yet she is suspended in a profound moment of self development and so close to her mirror-image the tension is palpable.
This evocative scene reminds us of the absorbing nature of childhood – everything is sinking in and being processed. McMurdo is asking therefore, what happens when much of the substance being soaked up at this early stage is digitally manipulated?
In a Shaded Place was the springboard from which McMurdo’s photographic work was launched. The ‘shaded places’ she shone light upon included the shadowy recesses of a child’s brain and the internal mechanisms of an emerging digital culture. Since its inception in the mid 19th century, portrait photography has been used to shape personal identity. The photographic likeness provided a means for individuals to study a complex network of identities for the first time, for they had access to other people’s images as well as their own. Queen Victoria and her family, for example, sports celebrities, actresses, war heroes and local success stories. It has always been the case that we model ourselves on others, aim to establish a ‘look’, follow a fashion, a set of moral codes or behaviours.
Adapting our bodies to ‘fit in’ to a paradigm of some sort has become complicated by the mass of imagery that now flows into our consciousness from the internet, and it is the impact this has on childhood development that McMurdo’s next work Computer Class (1999) investigated.
In Computer Class (i), a young girl is suspended in animation, perched on the edge of her seat; her legs are not long enough for her feet to touch the ground. She sits with one hand on the seat and the other reaching out in front with a delicate touch. Her face gazes in steady concentration. Around her are toys, neatly packed away – Forgotten? Already used? To be used?
Her presence in the room is amplified by the absence of the computer she is working on. Being enraptured by negative space poses questions about the impact of virtual reality on the physical world we inhabit. This child seems to be under a spell or in the company of the supernatural. This eerie sense of the uncanny is redoubled when viewed with its partner photograph Computer Class (ii).Mirror images of one another, these two photos illustrate the chasm between classmates whose bodies float above the wooden floor in a state of somnambulation.
McMurdo’s work deftly continues to focus on the hypnotic pull of digital reality and its consequent isolationism, but also to appraise the rise of an information age led by the Internet. She explores how the Victorian museum, as the purveyor and educator of ‘truth’ and knowledge, has been supplanted by a digital space for gathering information.
Girl with Bears, Royal Museum of Edinburgh (1999-present) is one of many images taken in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Aiming to scrutinize how children learn in museums and react to exhibits, McMurdo has captured a young girl kneeling, leaning in to look at two taxidermed bears. Both human and beast hold intense poses – as though both are crouched ready to leap forward. However, like Alice’s looking glass, or the glass of a negative plate, it is the mediating surface of the vitrine that holds alchemical properties. Only one girl sits on the floor but reflected in the glass are two children’s faces. The suggestion being, tangible reality is quickly becoming supplanted by a digital trace; thus, who really knows what perceptions the physical world is being built from?
The sociologist Jean Baudrillard called this state ‘hyper realism’, suggesting that it was photography itself that helped destabilize reality, because it reflects the real but is actually a mediated vision. Photographs are made up of the light that is reflected and refracted from the objects within the field of vision – the real world – yet these images are often used in place of the tangible world. Even more than this, they are used to model real space; think of home design magazines and the lure of rearranging one’s house in order to match an ‘ideal’ sitting room or foyer.
McMurdo’s photographs delve into the fundamental questions about how we craft our identity in a world mediated by digital content. We are now at a point where the first generation of children to grow up with digital media has come of age, and those still in school are learning with increasingly slick technology. How do children develop in this digital world through the act of playing with and through the computer? The Skater (2009-2010) asks this question. For this project McMurdo photographed children who spent a large number of hours engaging with online games. She noted their enthusiasm stemmed from the sophisticated graphics, competitive role-play, immersive content and the instant gratification of being able to repeat tasks immediately until perfection was attained.
Again, the absence of any physical computer in these photographs highlights its dominating presence. The children’s bodies are in limbo, removed from the tangible toys and furniture that surrounds them. They are oblivious to, yet engaged in, ‘child’s play’. As McMurdo puts its:
In more traditional play, the object of the child’s attention is clearly visible and externalized. The viewer can clearly see the object of the child’s attention. Digital play, however, hides this object of the child’s attention from the outside viewer and therefore can make this experience uncomfortable for those on the outside. This type of play can – from the outside – produce feelings similar to those of watching a child play with an invisible friend or watching a child hearing voices that only she or he can hear.
In this latter project, McMurdo also highlights the role of the avatar; the virtual identity taken on by gamers in a digital environment. It is the projection of oneself onto a computer-generated figure that fascinates McMurdo and connects these contemporary images to the history of portrait photography. From the 1840s, when studios first appeared on the high streets, people grasped at the opportunity to see themselves suspended on photographic paper. They could dress up in their best or in costume, be photographed with their favourite pet or surrounded by façades of finery with backdrops and props. The figure they took away in a frame or pasted onto a slip of cardboard was separate from their daily lives, yet still strangely connected to it; it was a doppleganger, an avatar or a virtual impression of what they wished to be.
In this way, McMurdo’s images of children engaging at this level of identity formation, are telling. They suggest the computer gaming children play will have a profound effect on their perception of how they ‘fit’ into the world (and what the ‘reality’ of this the world might be).
The Loop (2009-2010) explores this complex environment of avatars and mimetic systems. The Loop was first screened at Ffotogallery, Cardiff (2009) at Inspace in the Informatics Forum, Edinburgh (2010) and, most recently, as part of Digital Play (collected works 1995-2012) at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow in 2014. A young girl looks at her computer and follows a skater with her eyes until her movement starts to mimic the girl on the screen. The girl’s movement locks into that of the avatar’s, as she mirrors, repeats and attempts to perfect each motion. This work still focuses on childhood, identity and play, but the whole figure of a ‘real’ child is slowly receding from the frame, while the inanimate objects and virtual figures are becoming increasingly dominant.
McMurdo’s work has absorbed debates and theories about the impact of our relationship with digital realities, and, as such, will continue to search through the effects of on-line living. As instruments of commerce and power, computers, the Internet, the gaming industry, mobiles and cameras are all socially charged objects that reflect our material culture. They mirror the shifting manner in which we are now attempting to access and process, so called, ‘reality’. As the figure of a child echoes the movements of an avatar, so we craft our identity from pixels and photographs.
See more: Wendy McMurdo website