Dispatches from the quiet zone | Joanna Demarco and Ann Dingli

Through photography by Joanna Demarco and text by Ann Dingli, the upcoming exhibition The Spaces That Connect Us offers a peek into Green Bank, located in the Appalachian Mountain Range in the Pocahontas County of West Virginia and within ‘America’s National Quiet Zone’.

Joanna Demarco’s photography documents time spent in the internet-deprived town of Green Bank, USA, between 2018 and 2019
Joanna Demarco’s photography documents time spent in the internet-deprived town of Green Bank, USA, between 2018 and 2019

First of all, what led you to decide to collaborate on this particular project together, and what were the first stages of the project like?

Ann Dingli: Joanna and I have been collaborating for a while. We align very much on our interests and have mutual respect for each other’s practice, which means our ideas are able to gestate in a very healthy and reinforced way when we work together. Specifically, with this exhibition, Joanna told me about her plans to visit Green Bank while I was living in Connecticut, USA, so geographically, it worked.

Thematically, the idea of looking at a community that was restricted in their access to the Internet intrigued me. Aside from my interest in digital storytelling, I have always been fascinated with my own relationship with the internet. I saw it as a personal experiment as much as a research project. The first stage of the project was the actual visit. Joanna, myself and Mark Leonard – who also contributes to the exhibition – made an approximate nine-hour trip from New Haven, Connecticut to Green Bank, West Virginia in a tiny city car. After we successfully reached the town we went about looking for willing residents to speak to us about community life – of which we found many. We learned so much in just one week, but Joanna visited again a year later and stayed for a whole month.

Joanna Demarco: In 2017, my flights to America were quite an impulsive 3am purchase, and I was set to face any fears and go to Green Bank on my own. However, at that time Ann (who was living in the US) and I were in touch, and often spoke about potential collaborations and ran ideas past each other. When I told her about my project in Green Bank, she was immediately on board. This year, I revisited Green Bank for a month without Ann to continue the research thanks to the Malta Research Fund from the Malta Arts Council. I would say that my first trip there with Ann was very different to the second. The first time round we were still discovering the place and meeting people, and taking in the whole experience of the place. The second time round I feel that I went there with more clarity as to what my objectives were.

Ann Dingli (back) and Joanna Demarco
Ann Dingli (back) and Joanna Demarco

How does the particular situation of Green Bank tie into both your interests?

AD: I’ve always been very drawn to the online world as a space for relationship-building. It might seem like a bleak or undesirable reality, but the truth is many of my relationships – both past and present – have unfolded online; whether or not they also existed in the offline world. It’s known by experts in cyber-psychology that we act differently when we’re online – we’re less inhibited, less safe, more likely to reveal parts of ourselves that we wouldn’t in face-to-face interactions. As such, I’ve always felt as though growing up in the internet age was an inextricable part of how my identity was shaped. So, with Green Bank, I was wildly interested in what life could look like if the online dimension to personal development was effectively stripped away.   

JD: I have been interested in the subject of how constant communication and developing technologies are affecting humans and society ever since working on my University dissertation in 2011, which dealt with the same topic. I think, having gone through adolescence with the birth of home internet, and reached adulthood with the dawn of social media, I have somehow always been aware that such technologies were altering both me and the world around me, and this fascinated me. In 2014, I pursued an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography and, since then, I have always wanted to find stories linked with the research I had done as an undergrad. This town felt like the perfect opportunity to do just that.

The Spaces That Connect Us
The Spaces That Connect Us

Given the collaborative nature of the exhibition, how did you two set about working together to structure what eventually became the final product?

AD: Our main driver for this exhibition format has been to tell a genuine story and let the content speak for itself. Our process has always been led by the material – Joanna’s imagery, the interviews we conducted in Green Bank, and the essay I wrote upon returning. We constantly swap notes and ideas, but also give each other the space to work autonomously. The truth is that we all visited the same place, so our findings are cohesive by nature. The final product is a faceted snapshot of our experience of that place.

JD: We both had the liberty to tackle the project however we felt we should. Ann’s was more of a personal experience, while gaining more information from the people we spoke to. My approach was rather to build a narrative around this idea of an environment with limited technology, and make it less of a first-person narrative.  

Articulating the overbearing ‘silence’ and ‘media isolation’ that must characterise a place like Green Bank must have been quite challenging to pin down, both visually and by means of the written word. In light of this, how did you set about building a necessary and relevant aesthetic framework for the project?

AD: You’re right, it has been challenging, but the experience of living in Green Bank was so distinct that the narrative tools needed to present that experience eventually revealed themselves quite naturally. With regard to the text – which will take the physical form of a small booklet that people can take away with them – I quickly knew I wouldn’t be writing an analytical, blow-by-blow account about the virtues and/or disadvantages of the internet. The essay is written as a creative non-fiction piece, showcasing our personal experience in Green Bank as digital natives.

We wanted to put forward our own reactions, emotions, and coping mechanisms as they unfolded in Green Bank as a vital part of the project’s research. Our own feelings, in effect, become a crucial exhibit within the show. Using creative non-fiction as a writing mode also allowed me to focus on unearthing the texture of Green Bank as a place – there’s a lot of emphasis on descriptive passages within the essay – the landscape, the built environment, even the interiors of spaces in Green Bank are a very important part of how the text works.

JD: The context of Green Bank and its surrounding towns is quite interesting. I think it is important to say that we went there thinking it was completely void of internet, as that is how it was portrayed in articles we read online. However, the reality we discovered was not so extreme. Many residents do have a wifi connection in their home, however it is a weak one, not strong enough to upload a video or buffer a movie. There is connection, but it is there in pockets. There is no mobile service and therefore no constant connection, and for me this was somehow even more interesting. Visually, I tried to focus on photographing the results of what such a unique environment in today’s Western world brings about; the people who moved to the town to escape constant radiation digital devices bring about, the lively senior centre at the heart of the town due to an aging population which is in some ways brought about by the lack of strong internet connections, the residents’ relationship with nature, the seductive pull of a free public wifi connection, to name a few.

The Spaces That Connect Us
The Spaces That Connect Us

What do you make of the local visual arts scene? What would you change about it?

AD: I’ve lived away from Malta since 2011, and although I have constantly returned for short periods of time since then, I always feel slightly nervous about providing an assessment on the arts scene as a relative outsider. The truth is, though, that I would probably feel the same if I were based on the islands, because trying to understand and critique something while you’re in it – or while it’s still revealing itself – always feels like such an abstract thing to do. What I would say is, even though I am not a huge fan of a lot of the more manufactured endeavours that have taken place within the Maltese art scene over the past five years, they have seemingly made an impact on visibility and access.

There seems to be more money and more meaningful ‘PR’ available for visual artists. But there are still problems – cliques, lack of resources, lack of public interest, lack of critics. These seem to remain the most prevalent issues.

JD: I think that when it comes to talent in the field, it is definitely blooming. Especially in recent years, I am seeing an ever-increasing amount of young, passionate photographers emerging. However I do feel there is a lack of work concerning issues or subjects which are more political or controversial in nature. We are fortunate when it comes to aspects such as funding and exposure, however I would definitely increase the amount of events available to remain engaged and deepen our practice (such as workshops, networking, talks, festivals etc).

The Spaces That Connect Us will be on display at Valletta Contemporary from July 26 to August 14. The exhibition is supported by the US Embassy and the project was supported by Arts Council Malta - Research Support Grant. The photographs of the exhibition are also sponsored by ILab Photo.