To friend or not to friend: MFA exhibit explores Facebook relationships

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A corner wall at the Museum of Fine Arts has temporarily been transformed into a riot of blue and white. Coin-shaped “cameos” made of glass and etched to look like engraved trinkets dangle from metal hangers. They feature pets, babies, license plates, couples smiling for selfies, young women in profile — and each is a glass copy of a profile photo that a person posted on Facebook.

Welcome to “Pending,” an expansive installation that toasts every ignored friend request on glass artist Charlotte Potter’s Facebook list, part of an exhibit opening Tuesday at the MFA.

Facebook_4 “In my relationships I have rules,” said Potter, who is programming director at the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio in Norfolk, Va.

To be approved as her Facebook friend, must have “physically met the person in real life.” It didn’t matter if they’d spoken on the phone, or had mutual friends in common. “I need to have shaken their hand,” Potter said.

Any would-be friend who didn’t meet that mark wound up on this wall. Potter worked on the piece for about six months, and made 445 tiny glass trinkets to match each ignored Facebook request.

Some are flush with the wall, others are suspended about two feet away from the wall on metal poles. The length of the beam supporting each represents how many shared friends Potter has in common with the person who made a friend request.

The individuals also are arranged in what appear to be random sprays and bursts. But their location is strategic: as if pinned on an invisible map of the world, each medallion’s location within the piece corresponds to the location posted on Facebook.

Facebook_3Potter was first inspired to reflect on virtual relationships during a summer residency program at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Wash., in 2010.

“I think it was a response to being out in the woods and isolated,” Potter said. She’d find herself waking up in the morning and scrolling numbly through her Facebook feed, following friends profiles back many years.

She felt less alone, but also more conflicted about that habit. Facebook may be connecting people, but was it really bringing us closer together?

The first product of that reckoning was entitled “Charlotte’s Web” and featured every one of her Facebook friends, each a profile photo etched in white and Facebook-blue glass connected by a thin metal chain.

Facebook_1 Then came “Pending” which previously has been hosted at the Visual Arts Center in Portsmouth, Va., and at the Heller Gallery in New York City.

This weekend, Potter sent an e-mail to each of the people whose photos were transformed into glass for “Pending,” thanking them for their contribution. She said the response has been mixed — while some of these acquaintances have responded saying they are honored to have contributed, others have been bristled at knowing their photos are displayed without their permission.

Potter’s latest work is called “Message Received” and is a series of text-message conversations she has had with her boyfriend. She wanted to think about the fleeting nature of our electronic missives. “I never got a physical letter from him —  there was no love letter,” she said.

So she printed the content of individual texts onto small glass tiles and each of those, like the cameos in her other work, are suspended. She currently wears one as a pendant.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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