The confessing image
Trisha Low's screenshot poetics
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When you think of Tumblr, it’s not just, like, your Tumblr dashboard, but it’s like a memory of a screenshot of your Tumblr dashboard that’s on your Tumblr dashboard.
— Trisha Low, “Hunting Season”
When I think of Tumblr, and of Trisha Low, I think of sitting on the Caltrain on vacation with my family in the summer of 2015, scrolling through Tumblr on my phone and seeing the last essay in Low’s “On Being-Hated” series for SFMOMA’s Open Space magazine. I remember reading it and reading around it: first a block quote on my dashboard, posted by my then-boyfriend, then a series of posts on Low’s own Tumblr, and finally the essay itself, which I downed greedily, looking for answers about what I was then just beginning to learn about the fraught racial politics of the avant-garde. “Trisha Low,” as far as I knew her, lived on the surface of my phone screen — I picture her suspended somewhere between Tumblr’s navy-blue abyss and Open Space’s flattened white cube, a perfectly precise image in my imperfect recollection. Later, after reading more of her work, that image would change over and over, but it would never leave the screen.
The point of Low’s suggestion in the epigraph that to think of Tumblr is to remember a doubly mediated version of it is not simply that our memories have come to include digital ephemera like screenshots, but that the structure of that ephemera has become the structure of memory itself — Tumblr and its visual logics turned into a form of consciousness. I’m not sure I can describe what this consciousness is exactly, but I think I’m still in it, experience lived and remembered in the form of blurry pictures I or someone else took of something half-remembered or maybe nonexistent in the first place. I spent countless hours on Tumblr in college and my memories from those years are tinged by its signature dark blue. My offline life was staid: I lived at home, worked part-time at a library, read what was assigned in class, stayed too long in my first relationship, and was varying levels of depressed. It was on Tumblr that things changed from day to day and there that I was able to best navigate the emotional lives of friends and strangers.
Looking back at my Tumblr now, it’s hard not to want to disavow everything about it. It’s an embarrassing record of who I was and wanted to be, what I was trying not to say, what I said instead. But that’s also why I can’t let it go completely and why Low’s work stays with me. For her, and I think it’s hard to disagree, it’s not just that interior life is increasingly conducted online, but that those digital expressions are available to be duplicated and to resurface as truths about that life.
Imagine: I’m taking pictures on a friend’s camera at his birthday party. I haven’t gotten the hang of it and all of my pictures turn out too dark. “Don’t worry,” he says, “there’s information in the darkness.” He means it literally, but I gasp a little, then immediately want to laugh at myself. I love these accidental faux profundities a bit too much, I know, but afterwards, I can’t stop thinking about it, about how memory works like that too. After turning a moment over in your mind so many times it flattens into a set of facts, the dark lacunas sometimes sharpen all of a sudden, and you manage, against all odds, to retrieve a new detail from them. These moments can feel like gifts, or they can be little cruelties, what you had once suppressed but your mind trips over trying to move across the past’s glossy surface.
In a screenshot, there’s no depth to probe, for better and for worse. There’s only the moment of capture, which, unlike traditional photography, doesn’t happen in the space of living but in the flat expanse of the screen. You can zoom in and out of a screenshot, turn it this way and that, but the image will never become more certain. What was hazy at the moment of capture will remain that way in the self-same resolution, a special kind of opacity. And in the case of screenshots that include words, the individual letters that compose them lose their modularity and the text becomes “visibly invisible,” impervious to search. Remembering in and through screenshots is a surface operation, though an unsettled one in which the homology between human memory and digital information turns in on itself, each side supplementing and supplanting the other in turn. Wendy Chun, arguing against the tendency to conflate memory with storage in thinking about new media, writes: “If computer memory is like anything, it is like erasable writing; but if a penciled word can be erased because graphite is soft, a computer’s memory can be rewritten because its surface constantly fades.”
For Low, who describes herself as “just another feminist, confessional writer trying to find a good way to deal with all her literary dads,” the soft but insistent surface of screenshots is the perfect platform on which to stage confession in an age where the notion of digital media as a site of performance has become, if not ordinary, then at the very least imaginable. One iteration of Low’s “Hunting Season,” published in Women & Performance’s interdisciplinary, multimedia “&” section, takes the form of a series of screenshots from Low’s personal Tumblr, some of which are interspersed throughout the essay along with some of my own screenshots. I’ll come back to “Hunting Season.” I want to do right by it, which is to say, rather than using it to rehash discussions about Tumblr as a crucial space of identity creation and performance, especially for young women, I want to think about the formal specificity of the piece’s presentation. The screenshots that make up “Hunting Season” are not merely documentation of an ongoing performance event (Low’s Tumblr) meant simply to elevate the vernacular form of Tumblr curation to greater aesthetic and cultural heights through their publication on the website of an established academic journal, but they themselves constitute the piece’s performativity. If the work is a document of anything, it’s a document of the ordinary practices of looking and seeing online, as well as a performance of the blog’s production. Thus, despite the temptation to read it as such, “Hunting Season” is not primarily an affirmation of trishalow.tumblr.com as a performance art object but rather the staging of screenshots from it into a tableau vivant.
Low’s approach to digital confession bears the traces of both her poetic training and her disidentifications with and from that training. In her Open Space essay, Low writes:
I’m writing this on Microsoft Word for Mac, 2011 v. 14.4.0 on an Apple laptop computer OS X v. 10.9.3. It’s 5:14 p.m. in the afternoon on a Friday and I’m telling you what platform I’m writing on and when, because I’m writing about poetry, and timestamping is a formal tic I picked up from Conceptual writing. It’s a gesture which Conceptualism itself borrowed from the New York School, and years later, feels already outmoded, but I’m fond of it anyway.
There’s something about Conceptualism and its techniques and methodologies that rhymes with screenshots. Both involve an insistent presentness, which we see in the way Low understands her conflicted fondness for the “formal tic” of timestamping as a pointed rejection of the notion of writers dwelling in a timeless now, photosynthesizing language from an ambient surround. Low wants you to know how she’s writing, and so she tells you what she sees in front of her: a Word doc on a MacBook, partially filled with words.
There’s also the foregrounding of citation as an aesthetic practice, and in the case of Low’s work, the citation is often of herself or of a version of herself. Her 2011 piece simply titled “Confession,” published in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, explicitly thematizes sites of confession (in this case, confession of the Catholic variety) as available for performing “self-on-self drag.” But there is also an important distinction between Low’s self-conscious adoption and adaptation of confessional genres through Conceptualist procedures and more literally “documentary” work, such as Lance Wakeling’s “Sic: Notes from a Keylogger” (2007), a record of every keystroke Wakeling made over the course of a year. Confession, by contrast, is a genre that is necessarily mediated even as it strives, with varying degrees of self-awareness, for the impression of immediacy. “To be honest,” Low says in a performance of “Hunting Season” at The Poetry Center in 2016, “like, compulsive truth-telling is really like my artistic practice, even though, like, I reject the idea of like one transcendent ‘truth,’ like, what is that?”
To be honest, I want to tell anything but the truth about myself, especially as art. I’ve always admired people who could confess, spill and gush and weep openly because I can never fully inhabit the abject girlishness of it, even in private, even after recognizing my resistance to it as internalized misogyny. I’m a bad liar and an even worse confessor — the only sin greater than telling your secrets in public is being artless about it. Confession is such tricky, indirect business, and Low knows this well, which is in the end what fascinates me so much about her work. I want to gush about gushing, criticism as infatuation, and vice versa.
I’m writing this with a blue Pilot pen in a college-ruled Mead Composition Book, the kind I used in elementary school because Harriet the Spy preferred them and which I recently bought again out of nostalgia. Later I will type this up on a Google Doc, but for now, it’s 4:00 p.m. on the dot on a Sunday in late summer. I’ve spent the last few months trying to figure out how to write about Low — and what so moves and fixates me about her work, that funny contrapposto pair — and coming up short. I’ve watched the video of her 2014 performance of “Hunting Season” at the Kelly Writers House on YouTube so many times that it’s now the first link that pops up in my search bar when I type “t,” pinned there like the poster of a childhood celebrity crush. I can’t write anything that feels like it does the work justice, so I retreat to Twitter: “writing is bad and hard what if we just took screenshots of our mental states and texted them to each other.” I really mean it. In this way, the hold that the video has on me is fixation in the most elemental sense, the kind that produces nothing except itself over and over.
But okay: the performance is immediately entrancing. Low walks up to the podium, sweeps her bangs to one side, takes a sharp inhale, smiles, and begins. “You guys,” she lilts, teasing and conspiratorial, “it’s like…hunting season.” She tells a story about getting her period at the One Direction 3-D movie — “like, you know, the like 1D3D. Do you guys know that, like, I got my period at — anyway, uh, I don’t really know” — that holds the position of introductory anecdotes commonly used to preface poetry readings but which thoroughly destabilize its generic markers. “I — I guess I’m,” Low continues, “I’m here because I’m, I’m supposed to — I guess I’m supposed to read, um — uh, okay, so, fuck, um, um, let’s try it again.” She does, but she begins again with 1D3D, then moves frenetically through a series of self-interrupting thoughts, including, near the middle of the performance, the quoted section in the epigraph about remembering Tumblr as “the best example” of an experience of communal breath. She circles back and restarts yet again, back to the fixation that won’t unstick.
This is a story that is told in the screenshot version of “Hunting Season” as well. The work is composed of screenshots taken from three different views of Low’s Tumblr, and fragments from the One Direction narrative are scattered throughout. The dashboard view and draft view are set against Tumblr’s dark blue background, while the public view is disarmingly bright with its neon-green polka dots, stars, and hearts and its Hello Kitty motif. Transacting in the midst of informational glut requires something reckless and fast, and screenshots are the perfect vectors — they’re ubiquitous, versatile, disposable, Wet Wipes in your digital purse. In this case, the screenshots are disarmingly ordinary, rendered in nearly their original size so that looking at them feels almost like an illusionistic experience, the screen seemingly a window onto yet another screen. They form something like the seamless continuity of infinite scroll, but one that is constantly interrupted by the changes in view, dashboard blue stuttering into neon green and back again. All lined up like that, the screenshots look somehow like they’re both out of place and exactly where they should be, both pop-up and trompe-l’oeil. There’s the initial and obvious shock of seeing a Tumblr dashboard on Women & Performance’s site, but scrolling through the piece, I found that shock was quickly replaced by a sense of familiarity. This is what it was like to be on Tumblr, “sixteen, a girl on the internet,” when Tumblr felt like the center of my life, the place I returned to day and night in snatches of time away from work and school: scrolling on the bus, scrolling in the library bathroom stall, scrolling in my bedroom late at night when I was supposed to be writing a paper. I confessed by virtue of being there, shedding data.
There is a semblance of a continuous narrative told through the string of self-reblogged text posts titled “HUNTINGSEASON,” which follows in broad strokes the arc of Low’s live performances. Those narrative elements are, however, often pushed to the margins of the frames and intercut with reblogged images — many of which are themselves screenshots — as well as with the ordinary visual paratext of Tumblr. The arrangement of the screenshots suggests both the apparent endlessness of internet content and Tumblr’s pastiche ethos in the same breath, attention that lags and lapses.
Low’s cursor is out of sight in all of the screenshots, but on the bottom left of one, we can see the mouseover text of the link that her cursor is resting on. Her purposeful excision of the address bar and tabs from the screenshots in “Hunting Season” and the lack of time and date stamps in the Tumblr posts themselves suspend the work in a limited kind of timelessness, even as the specificity of the blog’s content and aesthetic locate it resolutely in its early 2010s moment. This too is motivated by the genre of confession rather than strict documentation — cropping out as a form of curatorial control. Nonetheless, the mouseover link wiggles on the page, the residual mark of the professing consciousness behind the work, picking up and intensifying the electronic unfurlings happening elsewhere on the page — the long URL that acts as the screenshotted post’s title, the self-reblogging slew, the activity graph with no predictive powers.
The self-archiving impulse behind taking screenshots is bound up with other smaller, often pettier impulses, laziness or jealousy or ambivalent desire, whatever makes you want, in that moment, to push the right buttons to capture the screen in its flat and naked totality. Sianne Ngai’s endlessly productive category of “ugly feelings” seems to be relevant here, those feelings that are “explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release,” except for maybe the release of documentation. There was this tweet I saw: “Every Lana song is about scrolling through your screenshot folder feeling insane and free.” I screenshotted it so that I would remember to mention it here, and in case it disappears from the internet, as things sometimes do. I had the distinct sense of squirreling it away, this precious object about a kind of terrible person. Maybe I felt free too, having outsourced my memory to the folder so that I could safely forget.
Having a stash of screenshots is all about stockpiling evidence for good times and bad, but your receipts can betray you too, confessing on your behalf in their margins. On the edges of an uncropped shot, there are always markers of that moment of looking: a timestamp, the battery level, other open tabs, unread texts, the errata of your visual field that’s beside the point until someone points it out. Boris Groys writes that the digital image file “remains invisible precisely by the multiplication of its visualizations.” For Groys, the act of making a new digital copy is in itself an event that ensures the continual erasure of the original source and, moreover, is what “turns the visual arts into the performing arts.” Screenshots both realize and give the lie to the dream of perfect mimesis in their overperformance, reproducing not just what you wished to preserve and transmit but all of the other lively details, too. Screenshots are proof of the ongoing digital moment populated by such asynchronicities, the living playing dead, the passed-on continuing to circulate.
In Low’s 2013 book The Compleat Purge, a character bearing her name writes out her last will and testament over and over again, dying, we presume, every time. “Trisha Low” confesses everything: her fears, worries, discontents, crushes, private conversations, debts, possessions, passwords, fixations, and other unsound desires. She stays undead in order to keep performing and keep confessing. “Hunting Season” in all of its digital forms recapitulates this chronic death, one that is marked and presaged by confession. In this iteration, however, the work confesses through a visual proxy, screenshot begetting memory begetting a cascade of “trishalow”s down the infinite page. “A girl with a crush is also capable of crushing,” Rachel Monroe writes about the fever pitch of young women’s fannish behaviors online and off, and it’s that simultaneous crushing and being crushed that lets Low snuggle up to death just enough to stay in a space where memory and fantasy can bleed into each other.
Even Groys can’t stop himself from confessing. “Actually,” he writes, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, “pure suffering is, as we know, the most adequate experience of the Invisible.” Sad girls have no choice but to stan.
Sometimes it’s a curse to be seen, even when it’s supposedly on your own terms. In “Closing the Loop,” Aria Dean warns against “white feminism’s eagerness to appropriate the selfie as political tactic” and instead argues that the long history of Black femme experiences of self-alienation can help to “devise a new politic of looking and being looked at … in particular [for] those whose gender expressions fall outside of white cis-masculinity” within contemporary networked and surveilled life. The mere fact of visibility, of presenting one’s own image for public consumption, Dean suggests, is not enough to undo the raced and gendered histories of display and visuality that haunt self-depiction. A similar problem exists for confession. In Socialist Realism, a book-length autobiographical essay from 2019, Low writes about her new work being praised as “vulnerable.” “I’m not sure what it is about writing the raced elements of childhood that makes them assume the writer must be feeling especially ‘vulnerable’ when it’s simply what happened,” she writes, “Does writing about race make my writing ‘realism’?”
I imagine that this demand to, in Low’s words, “hit an exotic note of warmth,” made screenshots appealing as a medium for her in the first place. It’s a way of outsourcing confession while retaining creative control, since you’re ultimately outsourcing to yourself. Which isn’t to say it’s without its risks. Screenshots transmit what you see at the expense of also transmitting the fact that you’ve seen it. All things being equal, there’s nothing more humiliating than being seen, except for maybe being seen being seen, a most pernicious visual multiplication. “It’s so stupid,” a friend says, post-breakup, looking through Rupi Kaur’s Instagram, “but these poems … it’s like she was literally in a relationship with S— too.” She laughs, then goes back to scrolling. Later, she turns to me and asks if other people can see that you’ve watched their Instagram story. I tell her yes and she stiffens. “Can they see how many times you’ve watched it?”
This tradeoff is slightly different from what Hito Steyerl proposes about the “poor image,” which “transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction.” In Steyerl’s formulation, speed and resolution are inversely related, almost by definition, and the wide transmission of poor images indexes a general withdrawal of public support for noncommercial and experimental media. That is, poor images emerged to fill a lack of higher-resolution copies: they are stopgaps that Steyerl defends in aesthetic terms, attributing a democratizing mission to the images’ visual degradation.
Screenshots are far from high res, but they’re not quite poor images either. For one, they are not lower quality reproductions of a source image but rather an exact replica of the captured screen, whatever its original quality. Most of the time, a screenshot just does its job. Even after the compression that happens in the process of transfer, its lossiness is often minimal or unremarkable — it gets you on the plane, into the show; it makes your friends laugh, wipes the metadata from your protest photos, triggers emotions in yourself or others in a way you feel like you can control. Unlike the experimental cinema that Steyerl is concerned with in her essay, screenshots are made to be mass, vernacular objects that are always already “cop[ies] in motion.” And so, rather than “los[ing] matter” to “gain speed,” what screenshots require most of all is a willingness to lay bare your digital habitus in exchange for its easy maintenance. Unlike photographs, however, which also necessarily include in their visual field information that is in excess of their immediate subjects, screenshots are always framed by the paratext of quotidian use. It’s difficult, even just logistically speaking, to feign remove or disinterestedness if the means by which you are encountering the object of aesthetic or critical judgement is either in your pocket or less than ten feet from you every minute of the day.
Perhaps then a screenshot is a “good enough” image, neither succumbing to the “fetish value of high resolution” nor self-consciously aestheticizing its lack of resolution — like D.W. Winnicott’s figure of the “good enough mother,” its mode of existence privileges, above all, endurance over the long haul. Chun characterizes digital media as having the temporality of the “enduring ephemeral,” the illusion of permanence maintained by the cyclical movement of “a degeneration actively denied and repressed.” That is, the appearance of perfect digital memory is in fact the result of a constant shedding of the ephemeral, and the conflation between memory and storage that lies at the heart of new media is what for Chun gives it the luster of infinite perfectibility, positivism with a pixelated face. Any lapse in digital memory calls only for a deeper investment in the digital’s promise of total recall. “[O]ne medium becomes the ‘memory’ of the next,” she writes, and that promise lives on.
It’s perhaps telling that Chun and Steyerl, speaking to two fairly different sets of concerns in their respective essays, each land on a description of the digital world as “undead.” For Chun, it is digital information’s undeadness and “resuscitatability,” its ability to be reconjured and renewed, rather than any extraordinary durability which allow it to continually sustain media network; for Steyerl, it’s the internet — that digital network par excellence — that is undead, having “moved offline” and become ubiquitous, “a mode of life, surveillance, production, and organization” that is both real and absent. What this ghostliness indexes about digital media is more than liminality plain and simple. Ascribing undeadness affords both writers the conceptual room to get at the spooky mechanics of our digital world, in which automated animacy runs the show while hiding its own stopped heart. In this way, the very notion of liveness becomes an aesthetic resource, a matter of degrees and extensively, if not quite infinitely, stylizable. An undead Trisha Low writes another will, reblogs her own post yet again, then takes a screenshot to really seal the deal.
There are, at the moment of this writing, 2,404 pictures in my phone’s screenshots folder. When I can’t sleep, I lose hours in there, scrolling between tweets and QR codes, absurd headlines, people behaving badly online, funny texts from friends, gorging myself on “the past,” which is to say, my obsessive but selective documentation of mostly trivial things that pass through my phone screen. In this bleary way, I endure these periods of “vulgar boredom,” Scott C. Richmond’s term for a kind of boredom he understands as unique to contemporary mass media. Instead of the “mediatic boredom” of durational art and experimental cinema, vulgar boredom fails to produce aesthetic and intellectual value and is thus for Richmond an affective salve for the otherwise unbearable condition of persisting in a highly mediated society. I’m not sure I always feel as optimistic as Richmond in this regard, but I confess, I sometimes find myself fantasizing about stitching all of my screenshots together into a weighted blanket and pulling it over my body, just to feel the force of every overexposed minor affect concentrated in one place, heavy and warm.