How To Be Both

Ali Smith, How To Be Both
(London: Hamish Hamilton, 2014)

[T]his place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing, who all talk into their hands as they peripatate and all carry these votives, some the size of a hand, some the size of a face or a whole head, dedicated to saints perhaps or holy folk, and they look or talk to or pray to these tablets or icons all the while holding them next to their heads and stroking them with fingers and staring only at them, signifying they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from the world and so devoted to their icons.

How To Be Both is made up of two halves, the order of which differ from copy to copy. One follows the teenage George in the wake of her mother’s sudden death. The other presents the disembodied gaze of the Renaissance fresco painter Francesco del Cossa, whose first-person narration drifts between Renaissance Italy and a defamiliarizing commentary on George’s twenty-first-century Britain. Lacking the historical context of the telephone, Francesco observes people’s use of smartphones and from their apparent devotion deduces that the objects must be religions icons or ‘votives’, used to appeal to a transcendental heavenly realm. This defamiliarization reflects ‘digital-dualist’ understandings of the internet as somehow separate from reality, channelling twentieth- and twenty-first-century attitudes that ubiquitous telecommunications and internet disconnect individuals from the world and one another. However, elsewhere, Francesco links smart devices to artistic practice: whenever George uses her tablet to take a photograph, Francesco states that she has ‘made a study’. Therefore, the two worlds are not separate in a simplistic sense but layered like Francesco’s own frescos, producing a palimpsestic experience. George weaves the artist’s imagined narration out of information she retrieves online and her own desires, a doubling of subjectivity that reconfigures her experience of urban space.

by Richard Bingham