Facebook in film: Crystal Pillars

In 2012, Constant Dullaart publically revealed his Facebook password as part of a Terms of Service performance at New York’s New Museum. For many, this might be seen as the most terrifying of social media prospects; a radical yet voluntary act perhaps best likened to stripping oneself bare in the heart of a crowded metropolis. So what exactly drove the Amsterdam and Berlin-based artist to cede authorship of his online identity to a collection of strangers? One year later, this query is resolved courtesy of Crystal Pillars, a short film showcasing Dullaart’s strained relationship with Facebook and the forces that informed his account abandonment.

The film, a video essay comprised of ‘real’ social encounters Dullaart experienced throughout his Facebook life, employs a lone voice actor to recite a range of social media sages, from Mark Zuckerberg to Lil B to Dullaart himself. The result is a surprisingly cohesive narrative that takes us on a journey through personal experiences, corporate promotion and somewhat apocalyptic perceptions of our contemporary social landscape. For Dullaart, social network citizens readily give up their privacy in return for potential contacts, as if these were tangible commodities to be exchanged. This fuels the idea we control our identity and how we are perceived, which he sees as an illusion: “You give up some form of autonomy with the idea that it will benefit you in life.”

Of course, questions of privacy and identity only make up the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Facebook disenchantment. Dullaart also speaks of the game of competing for recognition, which takes place in a ‘perpetual high school classroom’ with ever-weakening social rewards. Then there is the actual composition of our communication, having eroded from original thoughts and feelings to the sharing of generic links that vaguely express sentiment.

So was the abandonment of Facebook actually a remedy for the artist’s Facebook-inflicted ailments? Absolutely, at least according to the film. Dullaart reports that he has gained a newfound appreciation for seeing people in the flesh. His emoticons of yesteryear have made way for real facial expressions, while his interest in the mundane has been reinvigorated now that it no longer takes the form of a status update distracting him from ‘more juicy information’.

The ancient Macrabii people of Ethiopia stored the bodies of deceased relatives in hollow crystal pillars and displayed them in their own homes. More than two millennia later, Facebook ‘memorialises’ the profiles of those who pass, allowing friends and family to post in remembrance while preserving the account itself. In the words of Dullaart, “the shell is still there but there’s no soft parts left inside.” Somebody, somewhere is still taking care of his account, but he has managed to walk away from himself. He has left himself in a crystal pillar.

Crystal Pillars is part of an increasing body of films that focus, either directly or indirectly, on the implications of online social networking. But while some find fascination in these dynamic new platforms, others consider their present-day pervasion a bit much to stomach. Writing from the 42nd International Film Festival Rotterdam, Vivian Sky Rehberg describes Dullaart’s work as “a heavy-handed, sickly-voiced-over short about the narrator’s fraught relationship to Facebook”, awarding it the unflattering title of ‘most irritating film’. Rehberg goes on to implore filmmakers, writers and artists alike to stop reflecting on how Facebook has ruined their relationships, a theme which has admittedly received serious media saturation in recent years. But regardless of whether or not we have been over-exposed to social media stories of late, the fact remains that social media experiences are fundamentally changing our lives, and this is certainly worthy of consideration.

Of course, artists play a crucial role in deconstructing the political and economic issues inherent to social media. The Unlike Us #3 Conference will play host to a unique panel discussion on the potential of art to visualise power relationships and disrupt the daily routines of social media usage. How should we understand the political economy of commercial social media, and what opportunities are there for alternative structures? Tickets can be purchased here.