FaceSurFace: Paris Edition

Greg McLaren


Introduction, by Mary Paterson (co-commissioner)

On 8th July 2005 my boyfriend and I came out of the Royal Free Hospital in Whitechapel and gave each other a hug. A man wearing a trench coat moved uncomfortably close.

“Are you ok?” he said.

He could tell by the way we looked that we had just come from the police briefing, which was held for people looking for people who had been missing since the terrorist attack on London the previous day. We could tell by the way he looked that he had a voice recorder in his pocket. Instinct told us to leave as quickly as possible.

Our instincts were right. The newspapers were callous with the details and clumsy with the grievers. Our friend was 28, or she was 31, or 32. Our friend worked in advertising, or as a temp, or as a PA. Our friend was a Christian, or an English Rose, or a reason for war. Always, our friend was reproduced. She was a beautiful young woman. She sold a lot of papers – smiling from photos stolen from the missing posters, her employment profiles and her funeral programme.

The company she worked for bussed in hundreds of people to attend the funeral. They stood around in figure-hugging dresses and stiletto heels, eyes darting left to right for the TV cameras. Around us, the streets of London were buzzing with the ‘news.’ “I wish I had been involved,” said an acquaintance, wistfully, mistaking the fizz in the air for excitement.

When Greg McLaren said he was going to use the Facebook profiles of people who had been killed in the recent terrorist attack in Paris for this commission, I thought of three things at once:

Firstly, I wondered if it would have been easier or harder, when my friend was killed, if she had already curated a public version of herself. (My friend died before the ubiquity of Facebook.) Would the violence of the news media have been cushioned by her own voice, echoing self-consciously from the chambers of the internet? Would the publicness of her death have been softened if she’d already chosen parts of her private life for public view?

Secondly, I wondered whether I would still believe in news, truth, stories or images if my friend hadn’t been killed in a terrorist attack. It took me two years to read the news again after she died. Eventually, I decided to pretend to believe that the world has any sense in it, simply as a strategy for getting out of bed in the morning. But I don’t know whether it’s the public horror of the reports of her death that made me shrug off the moral responsibility to ‘keep up to date’; or whether it’s the rise of social media that’s had that effect, cocooning me in the willing fictions of people I already know.

Lastly, I wondered what the friends of the people who died in Paris are doing right now. I wondered whether they visit their friends on social media, whether they still write emails to them, or call up their voicemails just to hear them speak. I wondered whether social media makes it easier or harder to keep the relationships going, in that way that we all keep on going with the people that we love, even when they are missing.

I rarely talk about my friend in public. She was a private person, and each public story chips away at the totality of her privacy. If I do talk about her, I don’t mention her name. Instead, I remember her, probably every day, in the continuous present of the last conversation we ever had. I pick up the phone in my old flat, I am a little drunk, and there she is.

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