Commissioned by the National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw, Poland, the clever team at Pangenerator was tasked with constructing a digital art installation that made viewers think deeply about an aspect of teenage life in the postmodern age. The resulting piece is entitled hash2ash – everything saved will be lost, and it sets its sight on the now global culture surrounding selfie photos.
Informed by the popular and inherently visual social media outlets of Instagram and Snapchat, which only display images for brief periods, Pangenerator built a display that erases a selfie before the subject’s eyes. It begins with the participant sending a selfie through a mobile web page, which is then transferred onto a large display screen. A facial detection algorithm translates the image pixels into virtual particles, which begin to drop and disperse through a computer simulation. These particles are mapped by computer software, which triggers the release of small pieces of black gravel or “ashes” that collect in a tray at the foot of the installation. See the video below for a face-melting demonstration:
Try to look past the high-concept, arguably pretentious staging and the not-so-subtle questions it raises about technological reliability, digital impermanence and the inherent vanity culture of millennials and digital natives, because this installation is profoundly transcending its medium. The hashtag etched in metal at the bottom of the display calls to mind the symbol’s meaning before Internet grouping and the IoT—when it was the humble pound sign and referred largely to metrics and numbers. As the symbol sits motionless amongst the pile of selfie ashes, it reminds us that everything is just numbers, whether that refers to the ones and zeroes of binary code or the faceless consumers of modern times.
Indeed, everything saved in terms of software (and hardware) will eventually be lost to the ages … except, of course, certain memories and other intangibles that are worth passing down through countless generations as unofficial traditions. And, for the time being, digital art installations like this still have the power to remind us of that bittersweet truth.