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Standing before a 'rabbit hole'

Text by Bárbara Lissa
A dialogue with artist Artur Urbanski

Less than 30 years ago the world experienced the popularisation of the internet, and in even less time came to know social media. Although this technology is so recent, it has already changed the world and the way we experience it but also the way we perceive reality.

There is still no consensus on how digital technologies restructure society, reshape the existential and political aspects of life, or what is the new standard of experience behind the unfolding of digital culture. These questions are approached in the project Live View (2010-2016) by Artur Urbanski, which depicts people contemplating beautiful landscapes via photographic devices. In a way, travel experiences are captured, not through the memory of being present, but through photographic images formed by metadata, making us question whether or not photography is a medium that expands our memory. When tourists take pictures of a site, what will be remembered? The experience of being there or the photographs taken? How is experience mediated by a technological apparatus? How long will we remember the original experience? These are some of the questions raised by Urbanski in his work.

Artur Urbanski, Live View, 2010-2016.

For some perspectives, Modernity goes through a process of collective amnesia, so that the dilution of memory arises along with industrial society — this connects to a growing understanding that the development of digital technologies brought the human and the technical closer to the point of accepting the category of post-human. For Ecléa Bosi, Brazilian scholar and researcher, this context of modernity also results in the loss of the capacity for perception, as things appear less clear due to the speed and discontinuity of things experienced.

Artur Urbanski, Live View, 2010-2016.

If we are going to remember not the lived moment, but the photographs taken, what is the quality of memory, if we understand that the photographic image itself is not a record that is intended to be totally verisimilar? What exactly will we remember, if photographic apparatus is considered not as a mere capturer of a credible record of the real, but a non-neutral element of reception and perception that creates abstract images? Which temporality will we remember? Faced with this abstraction, we can ask ourselves, after all, what memory will we remember and what is reality?

Today, these issues are pushed to the limit due to experiences of social media. Since users create profiles on these networks and live a virtual life, often totally different from everyday life, the questions regarding the understanding of what reality is confronts us with a problem with no easy answer. We know that these networks work through algorithms that usually present the user with what they want to see. Therefore, each user may receive different information regarding the same topic, depending on the social bubble they occupy and their behaviour on social networks. Concerned with these questions, in Phobos Ex Machina (2017) Urbanski develops a reflection on how social media and the internet have been used by governments to manipulate citizens and generate fear. According to him, the internet and social media “promised to communicate 'many to many' – a truly democratic medium free from government and corporate influence. Today, instead of this idealistic vision, we face different consequences of social manipulation using social media”.

A striking example of this is the growth of fake news within governments such as Trump’s administration, in the United States, or Bolsonaro in Brazil. Urbanski further questions how social media influenced the world on a global scale, impacting on the radical right-wing revival, the destabilisation in the Middle East and Brexit. Aiming not to get the public to buy or to vote, but rather to stop and reflect, Phobos Ex Machina exhibition provokes the viewer to feel fear of trees. Faced with the absurdity of being afraid of trees, the public is led to realize how easily they can be manipulated.

Artur Urbanski, Ewa Ciechanowska, Phobos Ex Machina, 2017.

Artur Urbanski, Ewa Ciechanowska, Phobos Ex Machina, 2017.

Perhaps because trees are socially perceived as good and lovable beings, the work manages to demonstrate a sense of alertness when we suddenly start feeling afraid of things that normally don’t scare us. Therefore, the viewer is confronted with a simple question: What are you afraid of? Is it fear of being present to experience life? Is it fear of frustration, of diverging from different thoughts? Are we increasingly isolated and therefore more easily manipulated?

Artur Urbanski, Ewa Ciechanowska, Phobos Ex Machina, 2017.

Knowing that the Internet and social networks are instruments of ideological domination and monopolized ownership of large economic groups that aim to induce our choices is the first step towards understanding that we are in the "rabbit hole". Since the problems of excessive use of technology are already part of public policies, we must demand that governments follow the regulation of virtual space for the benefit of users, making sure that its use is safer.


I am working on conceptual projects which use landscape photography in order to examine how experience is perceived and processed. Archives are more and more important parts of the conceptual side of my work. I don’t build the work solely on archival material but in my recent work I often approach the archive.


The last ten years have been quite transformative in my approach to photography. I have been working with photography for more than 20 years. It started from a flâneur point of view, just catching and assembling fragments of reality. However, the last 10 years made me rethink my photographic practice. I still work on landscape photography but, rather than presenting the world as it looks like, I try to raise questions about the ways in which we perceive the world. In Live View I was interested in the internal process that happens in our heads when we take pictures of landscape. What happens when we take pictures of breathtaking landscapes and, while doing so, end up losing the experience of place. In the latest project Phobos ex Machina, which I did with Ewa Ciechanowska, we examined how narrative context defines the perception of images. How objective, neutral descriptions of reality can be perceived as threatening when paired with seemingly innocent pieces of information.


Derrida’s thoughts on the archive resonate in my works – especially the most recent. In Phobos Ex Machina we examined the power of narrations which are built on fragments of objective records. However, such power is in the hands of the person who builds a specific story from the archival materials. We were interested in exploring how false notions of reality could emerge simply by changing the context of objective photographic records. Is it even possible to build an image of reality based on archives, when we’re dealing with subjective processes of deconstruction and reconstruction?


When we were doing research for the Phobos ex Machina project, we found that even the most exaggerated or abstract thought is present in reality. We were looking for an idea that could clearly show viewers that they are being manipulated. This resulted in using photos of fallen trees in order to create a specific narrative that could lead the viewer to think that trees are enemies of people and actively plot to kill us. When we were looking for archival materials that could support this idea, we were surprised that even the strangest idea, as detached from reality as it could be, had supporters in the world. For me, such a find was an article from the mainstream U.S. press in which the author tried to convince readers that they should be afraid of trees because they are more dangerous to people than terrorists.

About Artur Urbanski



BOSI, E. O tempo vivo da memória. São Paulo: Ateliê Editorial, 2003.

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