Through a Monitor, Darkly: William Scarbrough's Prosthetic

from Artbyte, August/September 1999

Several months ago, I received some photos in the mail. They seemed to be snapshots from a family album. I had no idea whether they were real or fake, or why they had been sent to me. One of the photos shows three children in the corner of a room, near a table. On the table, there's a pack of Marlboros, an ashtray with cigarette butts, and some dirty paper plates, paper cups, and paper towels. A boy stands to the right of the table, smiling at the camera. He is wearing a white t-shirt that reads, "I Love DAD." Next to him, a little girl makes an exaggerated grimace. A second boy sits behind the table, near the photo's left margin. He stares down sullenly at the remnants of food on his plate. The wall behind the children is covered in garish green wallpaper. The caption reads: "Me and Rebecca playing with friends in the kitchen. My parents still have that wallpaper. -Plant City, FL, 1975."

I wasn't quite sure what to make of this image. The photo is just a little bit off--but in a way that's hard to define precisely. Maybe it's the boy's smile, which is too eager, too anxious to please. It seems hyperreal, like one of those fake smiles you see on TV. Or maybe it's the "I Love DAD" message on his t-shirt. Is that for real? Or is some sick, twisted irony at work here? The girl's grimace is also not quite right. Surely she's making this ugly face as a joke; but why does her expression seem so awkward, so strained? And then there's the aggressively ugly wallpaper, and the way the caption calls attention to it. Are these oddities intentional or not? Is the picture a na´ve relic of American suburban life in the 70s and 80s? Or is it some sort of self-consciously kitschy postmodern pastiche?

Of course, we make sense of images by putting them into context, by finding a narrative to explain them. The photos came with a URL: This is the home page of Stuart Tiros III, from Gainesville, Florida. The site contains the photos I received in the mail, plus many more. In pictures and words, Stuart tells the story of his life. We see him at birthday parties, and on family vacations; and later, playing rock music and heading off for college. Stuart grew up in a typical suburban household. His father is an engineer for NASA; his mother used to be "Aqua Girl" in the carnival. His kid sister used to be a dancer. Now she is married, and has a child. Stuart himself has been married and divorced. He makes his living installing video surveillance cameras in convenience stores. His five minutes of fame came when footage from one of his cameras helped the police to catch a serial killer. It turned out that the murderer and all of his victims had shopped in the same Circle-K.

Stuart's home page is like many other personal pages online. The site is as painfully earnest as it is banal. It testifies to the deep human desire to be heard, even when one has nothing to say. Stuart piles detail upon detail, but these details never add up to anything. They don't even tell us much about Stuart himself. Sometimes the details Stuart gives us are simply irrelevant. The site is filled with useless hyperlinks: to the church where Stuart's parents were married, to the Eagle Scouts, which he joined as a child, to the Chamber of Commerce of Plymouth, Massachusetts, where his family once went on a vacation. At other times, the details are wholly generic, predictable for a suburban white boy who grew up during the Age of Reagan. Stuart's favorite movies include "The Breakfast Club," "The Blues Brothers," and of course "Star Wars"; his favorite songs range from "Stairway to Heaven" to "Thriller" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Stuart even provides cheesy MIDI renditions of these songs; the effect is to make his choices seem yet more bland and generic. Still other times, Stuart offers details that are too private to be meaningful for outsiders. What are we to make, for instance, of the photo of Dad dressed in drag for Halloween? All Stuart says about it is, "now that I'm older it seems real strange."

Stuart broadcasts his memories to the world, and waits for the world to email him in response. He forgets that these memories have no meaning or resonance for anyone other than himself. But does that really matter? The site itself is a kind of postmodern proof of being: I have a homepage, therefore I exist. What the images depict is less important than the mere fact that they are there. This is why I felt so uneasy when I got Stuart's photos in the mail. All sorts of inconsistencies come up when I examine these pictures carefully; but why look at them closely at all? It's not that they resist interpretation, so much as that interpretation seems beside the point. Meaning can only be imposed from outside, in a desperate recourse to fiction. The website gave me a context for the photos; now I needed a context for the website. It was when I reached this point in my musings that I noticed the most egregious discrepancy of all: the snow on the ground in a picture that is supposed to show the Tiros family home in Florida.

Something was wrong. I had to rethink the matter entirely. It was with a combination of relief and consternation that I finally received an email that told me more. Stuart's photos and website were part of an installation: Prosthetic, by William Scarbrough (Michael Gold Gallery, April 22-May 28, 1999). The installation is an exercise in information overload. Stuart's life flashes before you as you look. A computer allows you to access the website. Photos from the site pepper the gallery walls. Four surveillance cameras are suspended from the ceiling, in front of rotating discs containing the same images in miniature. The output from these cameras, mixed with other material, is played continually on two monitors. Headphones hanging from the ceiling allow you to listen to a series of taped interviews with Stuart Tiros III. But here's the rub: in these tapes, Stuart tells a story that is quite different from the one recounted on his website.

It turns out that Stuart Tiros III is a lonely, embittered man. He is confined to a wheelchair, as a result of an auto accident. His face was smashed up in the crash; now he must wear a prosthetic replacement for his nose. The photos on his website are also a kind of prosthesis: a proxy for his shattered identity. Stuart claims to have found them in the basement of his house. He doesn't know whose pictures they really are. But he finds them beautiful, and so he claims them as his own. On the Web, Stuart projects his own story into the photos. He makes an improved version of his life, one in which things happen the way he wishes they had. This allows him to encounter people online, and even to fall in love over the Net. But the tapes end with the story of how everything falls apart when Stuart's cyberlover comes to meet him in the flesh. Not wanting her to know the truth of his disfigurement, he sends her away without a word. He is unable to leap from the virtual to the actual, from the safety of his prostheses to the vulnerability of the here-and-now.

Prosthetic maps out the contours of what we have come to know as postmodern space. It's a work of metafictional dazzlement. The artist creates (presumably) a fictional character, who in turn creates a fictional surrogate to live his life for him. This suggests a logic of infinite regress. Everything is always under surveillance, and everything is a prosthesis for something else. We never quite know what is real and what is not. Truth is always in process. Identity is always a construction. Meanings and references are always incomplete. Images and narratives proliferate endlessly, in a vain attempt to populate the void.

At the same time, though, Prosthetic does something else. It creates a sense of emotional discomfort, on several levels. The pictures are disturbing, first of all, because-whether they are "real" or fake-they depict the stifling vacuity of American middle-class family life. In the second place, it's quite creepy to contemplate the prospect of someone like Stuart Tiros sending such photos unsolicited through the mail, or putting them online for all the world to see. Exposing their artless banality in this way feels like a violation of intimacy and trust. And third, the story of Stuart's appropriation of these pictures is troubling, because it suggests that the photos have moved from actuality into the realm of the ideal. They are no longer just a record of one family's life; they have turned into a model of the Good Life. In Prosthetic, William Scarbrough has created a work where every step into the maze of the postmodern mediascape is also a kind of Station of the Cross, a progress on the path of excruciating embarrassment.