Never away from the keyboard: online and offline life in the work of Larson Shindelman
By Bryan Granger / Images courtesy of Larson Shindelman and Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
Editor's note:Larson Shindelman: Geolocationopens January 15th at theHalsey Institute of Contemporary Art.Curator Bryan Granger shares insights on the artist duo's use of publicly-accessible geographic tweet data to track down specific locations where Twitter users were when they posted on social media.
As a result of this photograph-tweet pairing, each element gains significance — the image gains a narrative, lending it new layers of readability, while the tweet attains even greater depth with its connection to the visual element of the photograph.
The almost ubiquitous internet acronym IRL, which stands for “in real life,” suggests a bifurcation of lived experience. Denoting a fracturing of reality, it breaks life into two domains: one existing in the connections between servers on the internet, and the other in the realm of lived experience. While this fragmented reality was more conceivable in the internet’s early existence, younger generations are growing up in a world where one’s IRL and online selves are often indistinguishable. As Orit Gat wrote in 2018, “a word to differentiate between time spent online and offline isn’t very handy after smartphones, which all but ensure we’re never actually offline.” 
Larson Shindelman, Geolocation: Lost My Dad, 2011. Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. Archival Pigment Print, 24” x 20” Tweet: “Two years ago today I lost my Dad...time sure flies! I miss you Dad. #RIP.”
Today’s largest social media platforms effectively obfuscate the boundary between online and offline worlds. On a high-volume service like Twitter, which boasts over 180 million average monthly users and hundreds of millions of tweets sent each day, it is particularly easy to enmesh aspects of one’s online and offline selves. As a microblogging service with posts limited to 280 characters, the service encourages users to post even the most banal moments of their daily existence. In general, this has helped Twitter become a platform of the mundane, less glitzy than the filtered images on Instagram and less significant than the birth announcements on Facebook.
Aware or not, each Twitter user participates in a commercial architecture built by a multibillion-dollar corporation. Mining this large volume of tweets provides targets for advertisers; thus Twitter is keen to collect as much data from its users as they allow. One bit of data, which users must opt-in to provide, is location. For users that allow it, each tweet has an embedded pair of latitude and longitude coordinates, revealing the exact location from which each respective tweet emanated. This geographic data is not easily accessible through Twitter’s user interface itself; rather it is freely available via an API — or application programming interface — to developers, websites, and apps. 
While this fragmented reality was more conceivable in the internet’s early existence, younger generations are growing up in a world where one’s IRL and online selves are often indistinguishable.
It is with this geographic data that artistic duo Larson Shindelman create work from their series Geolocation and #Mobilize. Collaborators Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman search for tweets from a given area and collect location data. After scouting these locations and considering the text of the respective tweet, they create photographs of the scenes they see — giving us presumably firsthand visual perspectives of each tweet’s author, imbuing each tweet with a hypothetical visual narrative. The artists then print each photograph along with its tweet, including any hashtags but leaving out identifying information.
In this sense, the images created by Larson Shindelman add a new set of complex layers on top of a necessarily brief caption. In many cases, the images provide a recognizable context for viewers. Consider Geolocation: Money Pigs, 2011, for example. The tweet reads: “Cars are nothing but money pigs #ihateit #waitingsucks #impoor.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the photograph portrays the waiting room of an auto maintenance shop. The signage reading “parts & service” faces the harsh glow of a fluorescent parking lot lamp, while an empty lobby awaits a new day of customers, idly marking time — and dollars — as their vehicles receive their regular upkeep.
Larson Shindelman, #Mobilize (Haunting Shadow), 2018. Archival pigment print, 30 x 40 inches. Tweet: “#alllivesmatter But it’s not all lives that still live in a haunting shadow of history’s recent social transgressions so #blacklivesmatter”
Such pairings can also have profound effects on each element of the work. Geolocation: Lost My Dad, 2011 paints a vivid picture in connection to its tweet, which states: “Two years ago today I lost my Dad…time sure flies! I miss you Dad. #RIP.” With a tweet that illustrates Twitter’s maximum capacity for the elegiac, the photographers have presented a poignant image of the front door of a slightly rundown residence. From one of the two doors in the frame, a dog peers out into the distance, almost as if it’s waiting for the “Dad” who will never return. The tweet marks a period of two years since the death of the father, a passing of time suggested in the photograph by the wearing away of paint on the exterior siding and weeds sprouting out of the concrete steps. As a result of this photograph-tweet pairing, each element gains significance — the image gains a narrative, lending it new layers of readability, while the tweet attains even greater depth with its connection to the visual element of the photograph.
In other images, the photographers complicate readings of both tweet and image with their pairings. With Geolocation: Gun Shot, 2011, Larson Shindelman’s image of a foggy scene of maritime structures in a body of water of unknown size provides an unlikely locale for a tweet that reads: “Pretty sure I just heard a gun shot lol.” With the careful framing of the photograph, it appears as though it could be taken in the middle of the ocean or just offshore, not exactly characteristic locations for gun shots or tweeting. The author’s ‘lol’ adds further disconnect, inserting an indication of levity into a tweet — and image — at what purports to be an odd time.
Larson Shindelman, #Mobilize (Black Girls are Enough), 2018. Archival pigment print, 30 x 40 inches. Tweet: “Black girls are enough. Black girls are enough. Black girls are enough. Black girls are MORE than enough. #BlackGirlMagic”
Recently, Larson Shindelman have continued their Geolocation methods while using tweets that contain specific hashtags that reference ongoing struggles around social and racial justice. In a series called #Mobilize, the photographers seek out tweets with hashtags such as #blacklivesmatter, #sayhername, #takeaknee and #metoo. Such hashtags have defined spaces within Twitter where activists can make their voices heard. At times, hashtags have played a key role in social media, and they’ve arguably had a mobilizing effect, in turn possibly accelerating societal change, as seen in the Arab Spring of the early 2010s and the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in 2020.
Larson Shindelman’s #Mobilize series helps to conflate ideas of online versus offline activism. In many of the images presented in #Mobilize, the locations are often quiet neighborhood streets and rural grassy fields — in contrast to scenes of protests on city streets commonly shared by the media. #Mobilize (Silence from the NRA), 2018, and #Mobilize (Haunting Shadow), 2018, feature photographs of quiet, verdant locales. Commercial districts appear in others, like #Mobilize (Protesting My Heart Out), 2018, and #Mobilize (Opiate), 2018; but, again, they are portrayed away from the densely populated city streets that are the stereotypical sites for protests.
They, along with the Geolocation series, show that our online lives may not be so distinct from our offline lives after all.
The resulting effect shows the breadth of activism occurring outside the protests that gain notoriety in the news media. Using specific hashtags, users can connect themselves to various protest movements no matter where they are. People browsing these hashtags can access streams of tweets connected to given issues — tweets from people located all around the world, all collected in one place. Such is one of the utopian promises of the internet — the idea of a highly connected society where all are equal. The works in the #Mobilize series reinforce this idea, showing that people from all over can join in with specific protests. They, along with the Geolocation series, show that our online lives may not be so distinct from our offline lives after all.
Learn more about Larson Shindelman: Geolocation and the exhibition’s correlating events at halsey.cofc.edu. You can visit the exhibition to see the Geolocation and #Mobilize series in person during the Halsey Institute’s gallery hours. Gallery hours are 11:00 AM–4:00 PM on Tuesday, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and 11:00 AM–7:00 PM on Thursdays. Admission is free and cloth face coverings are required at all times on the College of Charleston campus, including the Halsey Institute’s galleries.
1. Orit Gat, “The Relatable Web,” in I Was Raised on the Internet, p. 77. MCA Chicago: Chicago, 2018. Gat is specifically referencing the term “meatspace,” a word with cyberpunk origins to denote the real, offline world.
2. In its 3rd Quarter 2020 earnings report, Twitter reported 187 million monetizable daily average users. See https://s22.q4cdn.com/826641620/files/doc_financials/2020/q3/Q3_20__InvestorFactSheet.pdf
3. An API, or application programming interface, is a point of access for a service, like Twitter, where other programs, apps, or websites can get and explore available data or interact with the service itself.