Andrea Orejarena and Caleb Stein’s photo series American Glitch looks at the fraying edges of reality, where the mask begins to slip, pixels fail to render. The project’s DNA lies in simulation theory, which suggests that everyone is living in a simulation, like a computer game or the Truman Show, and that the clues are visible if you look hard enough.
The eerie, often dreamlike quality of the imagery echoes the absurdity of contemporary life, now home to dystopian news segments and parallel virtual worlds. The sense of illusion in the images is helped along by the fact that the pair visited actual simulation centres attempting to replicate everything from an Iraqi village to life on Mars.
Currently on display at Belfast Photo Festival, the ongoing project was initially born during the pandemic – a time of increased screen time, and a greater distance from reality as we knew it. “We spent years treating the internet as our collective subconscious, collecting posts on social media and Reddit threads of people’s ‘evidence of glitches in real life’,” they tell CR.
The pair identified over 200 places around the US that remind them or others of these “real-life glitches”, which they whittled down to around 50 shooting locations that each had “layers of meaning”.
“For example, many of them participate in an ongoing collective exploration of American visual symbols, while also reflecting some of the key characteristics of the changing American landscape,” the photographers explain. “A major element for us in choosing the location was also finding places that reflect the blurring line between the physical and digital world, places that feel unreal, as if they could have been digitally constructed. We are not interested in being cynical or having one line visual jokes.”
The project is in constant dialogue with online spaces, and the pair don’t shy away from the fact that these scenes are already well known in certain corners of the internet. “What does it mean when the same image, in varied forms, is circulating on the internet? Sometimes, it’s the same exact photograph being reposted – you can see the pixels getting larger and larger showing the life the image has had on the internet,” they say.
“Other times, it’s the same location being revisited by hundreds of people, showing all of our different, or similar, interpretations alongside posts on social media threads like Tumblr, or websites like Atlas Obscura with discussions of the uncanny. There are thousands of photos being made every day. That’s the beauty of photography, and this project is about the flood of images in conversation with each other.”
The artists’ curiosity stems from their own perspectives of the US. “We both immigrated to the US at a young age – from Colombia and the UK – and many of the topics we’re touching on in these images were symbols and key themes in both of our experiences of assimilation,” they say. The project is ultimately intended “as a personal exploration of an ocean of information and imagery as an act of placemaking for our adopted home”.
Despite moving to the US from entirely different continents, the photographers have managed to synthesise their different perspectives into a joint vision. They share every part of the process, whether that’s concepting, directing people in the frame, or composing and photographing the images, thanks to a monitor.
“We are interested in the emergent property that happens in collaboration – the product is not just each of us coming together, but it almost feels like a third person. We don’t really compromise and we are lucky to be on the same wavelength through close to a decade of building a shared frame of reference,” they add.
They say that plenty of artists, from Bernd and Hilla Becher to Broomberg and Chanarin, have been doing this for decades, but that people still have antiquated views of authorship. “Often people want to assume only one of us took each photo. We want to challenge this conception that photographs can only be made by one author – where other mediums have audiences that assume collaboration more readily.
“We are interested in how collaboration forces us to let go of some of the ego and figure out a way of making work from a place of love. We often hear our peers say photography can be lonely, and it doesn’t have to be.”
American Glitch is on display at the Botanic Gardens as part of Belfast Photo Festival until June 30; belfastphotofestival.com