Art’s generous interface on screen

Grayson Perry at Salisbury Cathedral, experienced virtually

Last month I considered some problems around theology on screen. I was drawn in to media discussions about the effects of worshipping differently, in lockdown – and on the communication of theological ideas when such worshipping happens primarily online, via Zoom or Facebook. For a time, I was wholly absorbed with the intellectual grappling of something problematic, and I tried to articulate a frustration, an impatience, with what I perceived as a tendency to overclaim for screen-as-surrogate-presence. I felt that something obvious was being overlooked: the technology, its consumer- and use-value, and the extent to which it is carved in our own Enlightened image of design and functionality.

But as time has passed, the importance of idea-wrestling has faded. The closed-in-ness of the discussion feels alienating, even as I re-read my own position. Here I want to consider the possibility of a more optimistic interface for our dealings with the screen, the thoughtfulness we bring to considerations of art and creativity and interactivity. I’ve been buoyed by various UK programmes on ‘culture in quarantine’: the BBC producing shorter performances of poetry, Jools Holland presenting an introduction to blues on his piano at home, and Grayson Perry’s wonderful Art Club on Channel 4. The undemanding, unaffected, reach of art into our lives and living rooms, into mental states of disconnection and isolation, is quiet but somehow true. The power of the creative gift has the language of a physical gift, a generous and unconditional giving of something crafted, worked, wrestled with, spent on. It is almost alarmingly hierarchy-free: mediated, certainly, but intrinsically without claims of subjugating dominance. It is like a question, rather than an answer. It comes alongside us laterally, rather than meeting us on the perpendicular.

It has been my own experience in lockdown that there is no ‘meeting of minds’ in the virtual sphere, that the space for two-way (or group) communication is strangely anechoic. I’ve joined a few Zoomed seminars for photography, and watched artists talk about their work. But what is said has minimal return, reflections are absorbed, and energy is dissipated. There is no congregation. What is different in the receipt of art itself is the possibility of the work’s (as opposed to the people’s) connection held more loosely. Certainly art’s open-ended-ness has more room here. Perhaps it could be the first foot forward when it comes to thinking about Zoom. It will be a legacy of lockdown, to me, that our lives are made up of so much more than relationships with people, and that when these are minimised, other relationships fill and swell our vision and our hearts. The arts give voice to these, to the relationships we have with our self, the land around us and underneath us, the sky above us, the words we haven’t spoken, the songs we’re still composing, the food we consume, the tools we use in activities, the materials that make up our homes, the humanity of others we don’t know, the enormity of the planet. We are so rich in relationships, it’s just that most of them are silenced by the continual ego exchange with our more immediate fellow man.

Theology’s problematic interface on screen

Revd Adam Beaumont, leading an Easter service online.

So the unsettled feelings are percolating. Many and continued are the triumphalist pronouncements of church leaders that communities of faith thrive online, that connections are made and obstacles overcome (like prohibition of worship due to situations other than pandemics, eg. warfare, geography, disability), and that virtual communion is theologically sound. But some are not so sure. There’s the whiff of inflated rhetoric, a feeling that in not wanting to snuff out the humanity, some are led to overclaim for the spirituality of our technology. There’s disquiet felt by many at describing/entertaining Zoom and other digital communication as substitute presence (Giles Fraser and Paul Roberts), and not just faith leaders. I want to write here a short contribution to the debate, centred on some aspects of the technology’s materiality. In part, this is a response driven by the observation that not enough visual culture and media studies informs the discussions that readily flow into theological abstracts. In fact, I think that such abstracts miss the mark, precisely for not seeing the primary form of media exchange, the screen.

Theological discussion of the incarnation and the physical realities of Jesus and the Eucharist go some way towards an intellectual challenge. They muscle in on the conceptual space created by the overcoming of geography (with particularly purple-shirt ontological clout). You can, it turns out, throw all sorts of existential and philosophical enquiry at what simultaneity on screen might mean: you are there, but also here, and so ‘the body’ as Christ or the church can manifest itself in many different ways, literally for some, but also across the whole spectrum of metaphorical reality, including sacrament and symbol. Long, deep, and rich is the tradition of theological interpretation around images and their power – these are the verbal currents of exchange that truckload interpretation with conceptual and moral freight. Men and women coming out of vicar training colleges wield these ideas like full-blown Councils of Nicea. But such oversaturation has the effect of clipping in the digital image – you blow out the detail, creating flat areas of black or white and missing adherence to local situation. That, indeed, is the mark of a kind of category confusion: the interjection of wholesale ideas upon a two-dimensional representation. No matter how ‘transparent’ the simulation, no matter how real the figures seem, it is the medium which is the body, which offers the surrogate for presence.

Let’s step back a bit. We know how the shorthand version of this goes: the person on screen looks real, but is actually made up of varying pixel illumination (changing at speed); cameras are the primary functional operators, converting light’s energy to electrical signals. So do our eyes, for that matter. These are the answers to the ‘how’ questions, which in their place seem merely technical, an area of knowledge for practical answers. But does this understanding go deep enough? Doesn’t it, in fact, make more sense to talk ontologically and epistemologically about our relationships to objects of technology, and the extent to which they have an assumed use value in an economy of functionality – rather than a truth-bearing and revelatory value? Such is the integration of the science with our cultural worldview that where we are certainly beholden to the power of its images, we are also intellectually, and commercially, franchised to the means.

Unlike ‘using’ our eyes, we have to buy, own, and look after these technological objects in order to participate in their functionality. There is a paywall to communication here. That can, and should, deter the profundity of some of the theological claims being made: inclusion in online services requires financial means, as well as a hierarchical (if not entirely possessive) command of the instrument. We also inherently defer human agency in images of their kind, to the advanced specialist skills of a progressive society. These skills have developed through an engine of intellectual capital that has, for the last century at least, been applied to industrial and consumer need/desire. It is intellectual capital driven by the market – not by philosophical or moral enquiry for its own sake (though you might argue for a residual element of original creative enquiry).

To emphasise the point here again, we’re talking about the material technology, the carbonate stuff we hold in our hands, mount on a wall bracket, or trade in for upgrades – we’re not talking about the intellectual capital attached to the image itself (where the permissibility for connection seems almost utopian, but that’s for another blog, and other ontological-clout-contributors like Benjamin, McLuhan, and Baudrillard…). The physical objects for our most realistic images are high-precision complex pieces of electronic equipment, for which we have no personal human fingerprint or signature. Instead, we are on the receiving end of a conglomerate of impersonal human knowledge, parcelled out along long stages of production, the end of which most likely would not recognise the beginning, in whose machinations labyrinthine decisions for cost value and markup determine to a large extent the user functionality of the object. This in turn is enacted through the power we wield over the instrument as transactional, if not determinative, for human exchange.

Surely the limitations are obvious? Surely the attributions of theological efficacy are misplaced – certainly in the reductionist casting of God or Spirit in the role of Zoom share-holder? As much as Enlightenment thinking would render invisible the deeper cultural meaning of functionality (veiled as it is in the elaborate language of superior scientific description and performance), it is there. It is loaded. It is holding up whatever notions of spectacle and presence we would attribute to our screens. It drives the mining of our planet for endless supplies of lithium and cobalt. It confirms the hold of consumer identity and its ‘normative’ cultural participation over our relations with each other. Its knowledge puffs up, but ultimately does not build up, apart from as landfill. Theologians cannot afford to render it invisible, nor can they afford to align God with its mythical sub-text. Nor can they afford to pronounce from ‘outside’ their own use of the media, since the technology ownership by default includes their opt-in. Instead we need the courage to foreground our attachments, base as much as spiritual, as if the haptic were as much God-invested AND humanly-contingent as the perceptual. We need to see through our screens.

In memory of Dr Tom Gledhill, my Dad

My father’s Bible

My father died on the 16th April. He had Parkinson’s, and was in a care home in Oxfordshire where, despite isolation, COVID-19 took away his breath. Parkinson’s took away other things, shading my last year with him in other ways: his frustration, his failing speech, his intent on leaving the wheelchair behind (but definitely not the walnut cake). On his last night, the carers read Psalm 23 to him, a man whose love of the Bible knew it inside out. Of all the things I want to remember about my Dad, this is up there along with his favourite jokes and repeated stories of his life’s adventures. He found the Bible to be so abundant, so profusely full of life, it spilled over into my life. And keeps spilling over. The Bible, and this photograph of my Dad’s Bible, is fundamentally generative for me, an evocation of him that escapes the bounds of ‘memory’ and becomes a picture of life to the full.

Which it was. Dad taught in Nigeria, Turkey, Uganda, Malawi, Kenya, and Wales. The first three on that list were all before he was 40 years old, and include what he called his ‘baptism of fire’ introduction to Africa: teaching during the Biafran War at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and under Idi Amin’s regime whilst at Makere University in Kampala, Uganda. He was teaching physics in his specialist area of nuclear magnetic resonance (having been first to Oxford, then the University of Nottingham for his PhD), in countries without computers, and usually without running water, but with plenty of guns. Happily for him they also had motorbikes. And mangoes. But the science ultimately wasn’t to hold his interest, and in 1977 he retrained at Trinity College, Bristol, in Greek, Hebrew, and Old Testament studies for theological colleges. His father had been a Classics teacher in Yorkshire, where he grew up, and by his own admission this had put him off subjects in the humanities, but it seemed they were to claim him anyway through a discovery of the Bible, and an adventure in faith. It was at Trinity that he met my Mum, got married at All Souls Langham Place, London, and went out to Malawi ahead of us just after I was born (to Chancellor College, Zomba). By the time my brother was 4 years old, we’d moved to Kenya, where both my parents taught at the Nairobi Evangelical School of Theology, now Africa International University, until 1991.

My father in 2001, his publications, and with my brother and I in Kenya, c.1987

Dad’s faith, from my perspective of a childhood spent abroad, was as vibrant and buoyant as his way with words and stories. He read from or with Bible stories to my brother and I, even into our teenage years (back in the UK). In every home we had a chair that I associate with him reading or praying from, as well as a book-laden study with its own atmosphere of grown-upness. He was a gifted preacher and teacher, and when I compiled a book of acknowledgements for his retirement in 2006, the tributes were overwhelming. He also published a commentary on the Song of Songs (IVP, 1994), and contributed articles to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (IVP, 1998) – on ‘Zion’, ‘Trees’, ‘Nakedness’, and ‘Kiss’. His teenage daughter at the time did not think the subjects particularly spectacular, though in a letter I’ve kept he seemed quite proud to tell me that this was an ‘artsy’ effort at biblical interpretation – as I was studying fine art at university. Dad could poke fun at church leaders or traditions (especially the British ones), while speaking with pin-sharp honesty and authority. In UK life, his later experiences teaching in Wales (now the Union School of Theology, Bridgend) kept him in touch with international students, but a wry mockery of everything from rain to Reformed seriousness would pervade what was undoubtedly the loss he and my Mum felt at leaving Africa.

When I think of my Dad, I think of someone who wrote things like ENJOY LIFE and SHOOT THE PREACHER in capitals, whilst facing experiences and people and continents with an unshakeable sense of Christ by his side. He was never overbearing (except to labradors who stole his shoes), but kind and funny and steadfast and bright. I imagine Job’s words, below, as his words (he did love a bit of Job, and always the Old Testament – about which he said he learnt more through African eyes than through a thousand Western commentaries). And I forgive him for lampooning my MA thesis writing style in his wedding speech. I proudly claim artsy wordiness as an inherited trait. To the party in heaven for someone who lived wisdom with such humour, I raise my glass. And put on my sunglasses.

He knows the way that I take;

when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.

My feet have closely followed his steps;

I have kept to his way without turning aside.

I have not departed from the commands of his lips;

I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.

Job 23:10-12

The day the churches shut up shop

St Cyriac’s Church, Lacock; 24th March 2020

This week, the churches closed. The coronavirus spreads worldwide, and in line with a governmental announcement curbing all social gatherings on the 23rd of March, the Church of England confirmed the closure of all church buildings on the 24th.

There are so many ripples and ricochets felt as the doors are pulled shut. Permit me, if I may, to add a reflection based on my own church, St Cyriac’s in Lacock, Wiltshire – a small offering of wonder and lament. Let me say first that I understand, and agree with, everything about church community existing in the people, rather more than the building. I recognise that to pray, worship, and serve is taking faith into new spaces, and that beauty and truth will grow differently as a result – I’ve seen it in small ways already; my family’s singing, on broadcast services, and in my husband’s parish newsletters. Amen for this.

But here, just for now, I mean to see the building, to hover at the door, listening to the silence. I resonate with the Dean of Westminster’s words, reflecting on the closure of Westminster Abbey, that it feels like a hard thing to close the doors on a building that speaks. And for me, St Cyriac’s speaks volumes. This time last year, I took over a thousand photographs of the place. I immersed myself in its material culture (from the cockatrice on top of the spire to the hare curling round a pillar), in its setting of Easter time through candles and curtains and cups, in its history from knights to cameras, in its life unfurling as people came and visited, cleaned and prayed, sung and whispered. I did this primarily for a project of reinterpretation – to write a new guidebook and produce new postcards. But now they have a poignancy, typical of photographic documentation, of something not just passed, but of something silenced.

One of the things that makes a body of photographs work, that connects the images like words in a sentence, is the consistency of visual language or content – and here it’s the church. St Cyriac’s as I’ve seen it is a language, not just a symbol. With its own dialect (probably West Country). It transcribes and translates my community’s fumbling expressions of what it means to be human both physically and spiritually. Depending on your faith position, it can be like a relative who reminds you ‘what things were like in my day’, or it can be like material mindfulness in spoken word. It can be a thick accent with the clod of tradition, or a pure echo of light and air. It can only sound like this because it’s been talking for hundreds of years, a veritable wisdom tradition in its own right. I struggle to shut it out of my mental and emotional landscape, which is why it is so odd to be shut out of it.

Fundamentally here, what I want to remember is that stones and mortar have this kind of vitality, this kind of contributing conversation, for people doing their wondering (and wandering) out loud. When Jesus pointed out that the stones of Jerusalem were bursting to talk, I think he shone this light on their language. I for one don’t want to lose the accent.

A flurry of Frith photographs

The Holy Bible, illustrated with photographs by Francis Frith, 1861

This month I’ll be speaking at the University of Oxford’s seminar series ‘The Bible in Art, Music, and Literature’, with a talk entitled ‘Pick & Mix: the non-linear Bible as modern artists visualise it’. I’ll be exploring a few artists discussed in my recent journal articles, but also introducing some thoughts on Francis Frith. Frith’s albumen prints were the first to illustrate a Bible in 1861, as seen above. In many ways, what he did with photographs of Palestine anticipated the range and breadth of new, modern ways to visualise the Bible. I’ve called this a pick & mix approach, not to be derogatory, but to argue that for him and for others something positive is going on with respect to the interpretation of the Bible in visual culture – the recasting of its language and stories as essentially non-linear. Here, I expand on what this meant in Frith’s case.

Frith travelled to Egypt and Palestine three times between 1856 and 1860; during and immediately after the trips, he published at least eight titled works, including this and a following two-volume ‘Queen’s Bible’ – the first photographically illustrated Bibles. These were undoubtedly at the more formal, exclusive end of his commercial printing enterprises, which also included serial travel books, sets of stereoviews, illuminated visual presentations, and card- and glass-mounted views sold separately. Frith delighted in the immersive effects of photography – his were not the typical wall-mounted print set for exhibition in societies. In his hands photography had different work to do, conjuring up the travel experience and imaginatively engaging the viewer to transport them to another world.

More than this, Frith was a Quaker (later a minister), and the idea of transport had a lot to do with seeing and experiencing something true – in this case, with a lens on the landscape of Egypt and Palestine, it was exposure to its meta-truth as read in the Bible. Frith’s Bibles are inserted with topographical views of particular places (such as Bethlehem, Mount Sinai, and Jerusalem) on separate pages. They interrupt the seamless verbal script, offering a conceptual junction with the real world. It isn’t simply a case of illustrating the text, it’s the alignment of another space with, alongside, through, the text. It’s a new epistemological venture. Truthfulness as it might be read has now a spatial dimension as something that might be inhabited. Frith found that the photographic image made immediate, spiritual claims on the viewer:

We can scarcely avoid moralizing in connection with this subject; since truth is a divine quality, at the very foundation of everything that is lovely in earth and heaven; and it is, we argue, quite impossible that this quality can so obviously and largely pervade a popular art, without exercising the happiest and most important influence, both upon the tastes and the morals of the people. … We protest there is, in this new spiritual quality of Art, a charm of wonderful freshness and power, which is quite independent of general or artistic effect, and which appeals instinctively to our readiest sympathies. 

Francis Frith writing in ‘The Art of Photography’ in 1859 (emphasis original).

Such a charm of wonderful freshness and power becomes, in contemplating biblical sites, a matter closely related to faith. The past is realised in order to enliven a theological imagination. The reader-viewer may well connect with the romanticism of the picturesque view, may indeed connect with the factual visual information pertaining to ancient biblical sites, but the trump card was really that they might connect with the living truth of God’s activity in the world (as much present as past). The facingness of the world exerts its non-linearity on biblical reading here. And in so doing, Frith I think sees in miniature the effect of big screen photographic representation – that catapulting of realistic spectacle and immersion which has rendered the Bible extra-textual in so much of our modern visual culture.

More at the seminar… And for those that can’t, some of these ideas are being worked into an essay for an edited volume, to be published with Routledge later this year (Transforming Christian Thought in the Visual Arts: Theology, Aesthetics, and Practice).