Portrait of Jean Cocteau with actress Ricki Soma and dancer Leo Coleman

Looking Good

The entrance hall to our small apartment building was not a very welcoming space. The installation of a cage elevator in the late 1930s had sliced off the graceful winding curves of the Bauhaus staircase which lay at the end of the hall. The rest of the space was empty and unhappy, and remained so for some time after friends and I bought the building a decade or so ago. There was little money in our budget left over after renovating our own apartments to do much with the common space.

We had the marble floor polished and the walls painted. Manos had an old mirror-inlaid armoire he no longer wanted, which we hauled into the space. After we all moved in, we set a pair of yuccas by the door. But that was all we did for a long time. Until one evening when Yannis showed us his Marsellaises.

It was a series of old sepia-toned photographs of matronly country women. The great-aunts he called them. And by wonderful coincidence, there were four of them, one for each of us. He’d bought the lot for €15 at a flea market on his last trip to Marseilles. He was thinking they’d be interesting to hang on the wall opposite the armoire.

We laid claims to our favorite aunt—I immediately picked out mine, the shortest of the four in a polka-dotted Sunday dress and modest heels—and told him to go ahead. The next day, Yannis matted the photos and mounted them in simple wooden frames. I saw them later that afternoon when I got back from work, a little gallery of lovely old women from the south of France. I quickly grew fond of them and came to see them as our very own patron saints. Yannis hadn’t just decorated the hall; he’d built a lararium.

The old women were gone in a week. Someone—a pizza delivery guy, a drunken guest from a party, the guy who comes to read the gas mater—stole them. It couldn’t have been for the modest, unfussy Ikea frames. Nor could it have been for the photographs themselves. They were clearly the work of some local photographer who made his living taking commemorative portraits of the women, men and children in his village. No, it was the combination of the photograph and the frame that had caught the thief’s interest.

The frame lent its contents valueIt called attention to the photograph as something more than documentation. In essence, the frame transformed a provincial memento into something approaching art, or at least something collectible, and thus something worth stealing.

I was reminded of the Marseillaises a few days ago when I returned to Twitter after an absence of several months. No one missed me, but I didn’t expect anyone would. Though my tagline says “my therapist sent me here,” the real reason I’m on Twitter is for the free comedy, the news and the economy of expression it disciplines me in (there are times I wish office emails had to be sent as tweets). As I scrolled through my earlier tweets I was struck by how smart they seemed. They weren’t, of course, but they looked smart, so neatly stacked in the more or less uniform slats of my timeline in a way that suggested tenets more than ramblings or gossip. The wisecrack and the apothegm share equal footing on Twitter, and both acquire an aura of truth, borrowed from the format in which they are presented.

It’s not only Twitter. Quite apart from the very complicated and much less transparent question of what would appear in your feed, considerable attention was paid in the previous makeovers of the Facebook news feed and timeline to the visual concerns of presentation—how the posted items would be arranged on the page, which essentially meant how good they would look on the page..

When launching the sleeker and even more heavily grid-dependent redesigned news feed in 2013, Facebook swarmed over the “vibrant new visuals [that] bring your News Feed to life.” It claimed the new design provided a clearer focus on content, curiously borrowing from the language of narrative:  “Each story has been re-imagined to put the spotlight on what your friends are sharing.”

The content we post may be disparate but the aesthetics of the timeline give our assembled self an appearance of a higher order. Our shares are boxed and perfectly spaced and aligned, with generous space for the image or video. Even the news feed frames our experience in added value. The thumbprint image anchors the shared link or video, the equivalent of an illustrated dropped capital in a manuscript. Above this sits the marquee of our brief introduction. Extended prose is eschewed in favor of the witty one-liner (how much goes on a marquee anyway?), exhortation or a line of hearts or exclamation points. Below the shared link or status update, the strips of boxed comments from our friends. The share or update—a narrative detail in the story we tell of our lives–looks so attractive, so valuable as it is presented here, precisely framed in the page’s grid.

WordPress and tumblr themes frame and give order to our imaged posts. ScoopIt lays out our rescooped news items and captured tweets in a crisp magazine format, and leaves us room below the item to add our own comments—the curator’s legend to the artifact on exhibition. Pinterest, of course, takes this idea of framing to its logical extension and provides users with the ability to create virtual galleries (“boards” in the language of the platform) of images that users copy or pin from sites they visit or (much more frequently) from other Pinterest users. Each image is framed and set onto a digital white mat. Here, too, we are invited to add our own interpretative caption, though very few users do.

The frame demarcates a space of significance for our artifact, lending it an importance as Yannis’ frame did for the quartet of French women in our hall. But it does something more (in a way that, alas, Yannis’ frames could not): it saves and archives the artifact, rescuing it from being forgotten or lost in the stream of ideas, images and thoughts we share with others in face-to-face communication. The Twitter slat and Pinterest board and Facebook box are tools of both exhibition and conservation at the same time.

Our experiences, interests and opinions have never been more on exhibition than in social media, and perhaps never before have they looked so good. Or been so more permanent.


Featured image: Portrait of Jean Cocteau with actress Ricki Soma and dancer Leo Coleman. Philippe Halsman, 1949 © Philippe Halsman/Magnum Photos

The post was indeed triggered by my return to Twitter but reworked from a text I had written for an abysmally short-lived blog I once kept that recorded musings on the assembled self. Apologies to the few readers who may have already read this.


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