Artists critiquing our increasingly screen-based existence is nothing new. The series of stock images showing a couple in bed, each turned from the other toward their phones, their faces lit only by the glow of whatever ‘content’ they’re fictively engrossed in, is now so well-worn that there’s a meme template for it.
Where Italian photographer Cristiano Volk’s work stands out is in his more abstract, almost dream-like take on the theme: he chooses to depict the glittering, strange and colour-rich worlds we risk missing out on by scrolling for emojis or refreshing Instagram again.
Volk’s images of this cultural malady have been drawn together in a new book titled Laissez-Faire, which aims to underscore the richness of life outside of that lived “under the glow of artificial daylight … mediated through screens,” as Eugenie Shinkle, the writer and photographer behind a text accompanying the book puts it.
All the images in the book were shot between 2018 and 2020 across countries including France, Germany, Austria, England, the Czech Republic, Poland, Spain, the UAE, the US and Croatia. What unites them is a wry focus on people absorbed in their phones – both in and out of shot – and as such, oblivious in that moment to the world around them. When Volk’s images are people-less, he instead shows “the structures and colours they would see if they looked outward, interacting by proximity, yet not together,” says publisher Fw:Books.
In the shots that do take people as their subjects, Volk looks to show how our reliance on virtual and digital realms has collapsed traditional distinctions between day and night, public and private, and interior and exterior. In effect, so Shinkle writes, people become little more than “vehicles for the exchange of commodities” – hinting at the political undertones of Volk’s art.
The French phrase ‘laissez-faire’, from which the book takes its title, loosely translates as ‘allow to do’ and is generally interpreted as ‘let people do as they choose’. However, Volk has said he chose it for its implications of ‘let it go’ and as a metaphor of an invisible hand as related to human economic behaviour created by Scottish political economist Adam Smith. “In this theory, the selfish action of the individual citizen, in the pursuit of his own well-being, is in fact sufficient to guarantee the economic prosperity of the whole society,” he says.
The book itself is organised according to loose themes, listed as transgression, dreams and desires, fiction, transparency of power, dependence on technology, consumerism, and power and control.
Political economics and power struggles aside though, Laissez-Faire presents very beautiful, compelling, neon-tinted photographs. Volk’s work deliberately uses chaotic lines and weird compositions that imply a sense of chaos and constant movement, driving home the idea that what’s going on outside the frame is just as vital to the image’s meaning as what fits within it.
Cristiano Volk’s Laissez-Faire is published by Fw:Books; fw-books.nl