The seventh of every month used to be just another day for me–then I discovered Beth Lilly.
Lilly is a photographer based in Atlanta. Once a month, she transforms herself into The Oracle @ WiFi, receiving phone calls from strangers looking for advice and answers. When she gets a call, Lilly stops wherever she is and takes three photographs on her cell phone, which she then e-mails to the caller. After she has sent the pictures, the caller reveals his or her question, and the Oracle provides a “reading” of the images she took, privately revealing to the caller her own attempts to make sense of the digital pictures.
The beauty of this project is manifold. On a sheerly structural level, I like it because it harnesses the power of modern technology–camera phones and wireless networks–without trying to push that technology beyond its limits. Camera phones are great because they allow us to seize and transmit imagery with incredible speed over long distances. The quality of the images isn’t good, but so what? Lilly uses them in a way appropriate to their format, exploiting the strengths of this new medium (no pun intended) to connect people together and form a collaborative art project with the anonymous public.
Lilly’s work tackles ancient issues as well as contemporary questions. The sequencing of three random images together in an attempt at divination falls in line with humanity’s many attempts throughout history to control fate by reading sense into chance phenomena. As with most dabbling in the occult, Lilly’s work is as impossible to take seriously as it is to dismiss. The temptation to interpret her enigmatic triptychs is irresistible.
The Oracle @ WiFi is also notable for its engagement with contemporary issues of so-called “visual literacy.” Lots of cultural commentators like to harp, Cassandra-like, on the necessity of teaching the public how to interpret the glut of imagery in contemporary culture. Their ultimate justification inevitably involves some kind of gloom-and-doom scenario in which the powerful–corporations and the government, as always–will manipulate the people through imagery if the masses don’t learn how to “read” images. While image manipulation has always been a possibility, visual literacy advocates tend to prophesy the worst now that digital technology has made photo editing an extraordinarily fast and cheap process.
While these advocates of visual literacy have some interesting points, I’m not particularly sympathetic to their Chicken Little act. (There are a number of reasons for my skepticism, to which I can’t really do justice here.) Lilly’s work demonstrates both the allure and danger of excessive “reading” of images. (And she does it using notoriously unreliable, “suspicious” digital technology to boot.) Her pictures invite interpretation, but contain no real meaning, so anything we read into them is really the product of an overactive imagination. The implications for the visual literacy movement are obvious–reading images might be both interesting and useful, but it also exposes the spectator to the danger of constructing meanings and patterns that don’t exist. There’s a very fine line between being informed and being paranoid, and Beth Lilly’s work foregrounds the gray area between the two.
In short, The Oracle @ WiFi is an awesome artistic
and spiritual experiment. What’s more, it’s one you can participate in, on the seventh of every month. I was overwhelmingly satisfied when I called this postmodern Miss Lonelyhearts for a reading, and I’d suggest it to anyone who’s got an unresolved question on his or her mind. You can find the information on Lilly’s website, located here.
Images ©2006 Beth Lilly. All rights reserved.