Are smartphones ruining art?

Videos on social media sites are merely dumbed-down replicas.

Earlier this month, James McAvoy stopped a performance of Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios to ask a member of the audience to stop filming it. A bold move that risked ruining the show for those who chose not to view the live event through a 2D screen. And, arguably, any actor less sure of his status as one of Britain’s best wouldn’t dare be so impertinent. But, in principle, McAvoy has a point.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs cottoned on to the annoyance of phone-viewing and posted a pre-emptive notice to their fans banning the use of phone cameras and filming. The Guardian’s Michael Hann has argued that cameraphone footage is infuriating and pointless. Using mobiles and tablets to document a live event is not only annoying to those around them – judging from the comments on Hann’s article, many agree with this point – it’s also detrimental to the production itself.

When you see an iPhone or iPad set to camera-mode during an event, it’s rarely so the owner can enjoy the show over and over again at home: it’s for sharing on social networks. And for artistic productions, this kind of exposure is damaging. Posting self-shot videos and photos of gigs, productions, performances and art exhibitions undermines the integrity of the original. Production teams work hard to create an image for their show, often selecting specific moments during the production to be shown to the press, while reserving others as surprises. Inevitably, if someone documents what they deem to be the best moments of a production and strew them over Twitter, you would be less inclined to bother spending money on going to see the show live.

Take No Fit State Circus, currently performing at the Roundhouse, as an example. Type their name into Twitter or YouTube (followed by the word “live”) and a barrage of pictures and videos taken on smart devices will flood your newsfeed. These aren’t produced by the company, they’re snapshots posted by viewers wanting to share their experience of the show with friends and followers – a fragmented portrayal of the production.

Arguably, footage posted on social media could be deemed as publicity, providing the show with free exposure. Social networks are now well-known for their ability to generate ‘hype’ about a certain product or event. But there’s a reason why institutions like The Southbank Centre have a no filming policy: the joy of seeing a play or visiting an art installation is in the physical live experience.

Your peripheral vision soaks up your surroundings. The sound design creates a three-dimensional scene and you feed off the atmosphere in the space, reacting in real-time to other viewers or participants. None of this can be sufficiantly captured on film. Instead, you’re presented with a cut and paste job, left to make your mind up about whether or not to visit a production based on someone else’s selected clips. Plus, they may well have exposed you to the most climactic point of the piece – this has happened to me – which thoroughly ruins any appetite you once had of going to see it.

I’m not averse to technology fusing with the arts when it is complimentary, as this advert for a new robot demonstrates. We may not be far away from a time where remote viewing becomes the norm and viewers can “visit” exhibitions using robots with iPad conectivity. It may not be the same as physically attending a gallery, but as least you will create an interpretation of the art based on your own experience of it.

However, until the majority of performances and installations are created with smartphone technology in mind, pictures and videos published on social media networks are merely dumbed-down replicas of the original cultural product. Unrepresentative and misleading, they devalue the original production. I would love to see technology further incorporation into the arts, but otherwise, smart-phone filming has no place in artistic performances. In my internet utopia, our cultural spaces would be camera-free, allowing the genius behind every piece of art to remain a mystery.

Put your camera up in the air. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism