(a text I wrote and stole from early 2012. This text is rough, unedited, almost unreadable to me tonight, at 12:23AM on Sunday, March 3, 2013. BUt I gave a talk a couple of weeks ago at The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and looking back at this text I remember how these thoughts underpin the things I talked about. I remember that I am letting go of the foundations of my thinking, as I step forward. I am trying to cut the cords to these thoughts and readings. They are digested, absorbed, made flesh, and I need to let them go, so that I can fold back, step into the next unknown, critique and return in a new place. I am not interested in holding myself in a critical argumentative place, but I do want this website to serve as a record of the fragments I have chewed and swallowed, the work of thinking and critiquing I have done, and then tossed aside, as the argument is not the point, the goal, the end. The end will be poetry. And painting of course.)
... increasingly I’m thinking about images. I’ve made a few videos and things in the paintings are becoming more sculptural. But the designation “painter” is very important to me. What I mean is that it gives me a structure to work against. In everything I make there’s always more, it’s always wandering off from the thing at hand, but I constantly check back with what painting might be. The compression of the paintings is so important, because the way they want to ramble off and become sculptures is really problematic. There’s de Duve and Greenberg trying to make paintings self-reflective. I don’t think I make self-reflective paintings in that way, they’re more Rauschenberg in terms of their extensions. I’m interested in everything, somehow. So forcing them back into their parameters is important. There must be parameters. I've been thinking about Saussure’s notion of the paradigmatic versus the syntagmatic. I’ve always called my paintings storage; and the database, the archive, the internet – we’re talking about the paradigmatic nowadays, less and less about syntax, about sentences that have any kind of meaning. What is meaning if you have every possible option? Putting that within the context of painting, in dialogue with images over centuries, and painting as the medium that reacted so strongly to photography. When I started painting, for me, it was a war against television. And painting since photography has been doing its own sort of battle with the reproducibility of the image. Like William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, no pencil was used - just the sun. That makes all images the same; it’s a sort of democratization of the image. We live in the fallout of a complete democratization of the image, and the problem of how not to revert to authorship and conservative notions of aura, presence, heroism or genius, is my dilemma.
I began looking at pornography just last year - I found a few issues of gay male porn from the 1970's - Men to Meat, Playguy, and some Playboys as well, and began cutting the images out, placing them in paintings. By late summer of this year, I realized that the element of nostalgia was too strong - the photos simply made the viewer (and myself) long for a time when bodies were less shaved, when the pubic hair was still there, when the lighting was less even. A time before what Ryan Trecartin has called Celebrity tan - where all skin color is homogenized to a golden bronze. In the New Jersey airport this September I found the September issue of Club International tucked inside a copy of Forbes magazine.
Susan Sontag called, in 1977, for an ecology of images. Instead, we have endured an avalanche. Pornography, perhaps unlike fine art, erotica or advertising, seems to me to have a specific tension between utter commodification of the body, and the obligation to produce a bodily response. That is, the pornographer operates by complete objectification and complete animism, or believing that the world of objects is alive and animate.
This is all from the perspective of making - I believe (from Marshall McLuhan and Elaine Scarry) that everything we make is an extension of the body. Clothing an extension of skin, houses a greater extension of skin, cars an extension of feet (the strange uncanny appearance of the wheel - doesn't look like feet) books an extension of memory...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSWN6Qj98Iw&feature=youtu.be koreans weeping aver death of kim jong il
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLNeQnKwNjA&feature=player_embedded laugh-flash in the U-Bahn
Humans once lived on this earth in a state of enchantment, surrounded by creatures, plants, clouds, and forms that spoke complex, mysterious languages to them. The world was animated and alive and everywhere they looked, these humans felt that the world looked back. Then, perhaps during the Enlightenment, perhaps even earlier, humans began to develop a way of knowing the world which was analytical, scientific, surgical, deconstructive, and involved mastery over the other world-inhabitants. It became evident that in order to know something (in order to not fear it?) we had to cut into it, look inside, understand it intimately and thoroughly. Dissection, cataloguing, ordering, and naming, all became standard methods for understanding something. We began to do this to other humans, to ourselves. All of the great thinkers of the Western world have partaken in this activity, from Darwin, to Galileo, to Freud, to Kant, to Oppenheim. This activity was self-evidently right. It proved to be greatly effective in its approach, yet more and more we have cut everything open and found nothing but the abyss of organized death looks back at us. In making the world into objects, we have objectified ourselves. This system of knowing has brought the greatest riches and the greatest destruction in human history, and increasingly, it is allowing/forcing us to archive everything. Where we might have once told stories, made narratives, passed down myths, conducted rituals, we now have the database as the dominant symbolic mode of our time.
What we know is not to be disentangled from How we know. And neither are we to be abstracted from our bodies, and our knowledge of one another.
I want to talk today about images, and their prevalence, and the way we think about them, but I want to do it in a roundabout way. I hope you will have patience with me as I find my way through a thicket of thoughts and ideas from other people over the last 100 years. From Theodor Adorno, to Roland Barthes, to Susan Buck-Morss and back to Walter Benjamin (a compatriot of Adorno's in the Frankfurt school.)
The way I began thinking about archives was through working in bookstores, and alphabetizing books. Back in the 1990's when I worked in used bookstores, books would be purchased in big dusty boxes from readers, and then we would catalog them, pencil prices in the first page, upper right hand corner, and then file the book in its proper section on the shelf. Shelved alphabetically by author, in sections such as Memoirs, or Psychology, or Philosophy or Fiction. As the decade wore on, an increasing number of books would arrive in the various bookstores I worked in which had no clear, obvious section to call home. Books that combined memoir and fiction, or philosophy and psychology, or Eastern and Western meditation ideas. It began to seem as if the categories couldn't hold meaning.
I was making paintings, and eventually made enough paintings to apply to the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute. I went off to school and stopped working in bookstores and then eventually I graduated and started to teach painting. The intervening years caused me to look at a lot of paintings, and a lot of images, and to change my notions about images, about reading, about information fundamentally. Those years have been crucial not just for my personal understanding of images, but on a global scale. In the past ten years, Google image search has become a standard method for accumulating, sorting, cataloguing, naming, and understanding images. Google image search has invented and branded our notion of the image. Before the internet, and digital photography, images were all material objects - photographs, or paintings, or collages or magazine pictures of reproductions in books. And photography consisted of 4x5 format, or polaroids, or color or black and white etc etc etc.
Now we have images - a category which eliminates the specific material of each image, and how it became what it is, flattening every different mode into a jpeg - the universal form of hi density pixel accumulation. My first poetic attempt to argue with this was to think about an object from the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago - the Boli. A ritual object from Malawi culture. The bollix are shaped somewhat like cows, and made of clay, porcupine bristles, straw, bees wax. During ritual, the object accrues other potent materials, such as mud, eggs, chewed kola nuts, sacrificial blood, urine, cow dung, honey and beer. I've found it difficult to find reliable discussions of their use, but speculative writing suggests that the disparity of the boliws contents symbolize the various parts of the universe, so that the whole is a model of the cosmos for the Bamana people. Also, people compare the exterior accumulations of the bollix to the undigested contents of human stomachs, while the interior is made of materials associated with the body's exterior, so that they have been interpreted as portrayals of people and animals turned inside out. I have also read that the energy that is united in the masks of the Kono Society is "stored" in the boli. The idea that they might be an abject Other to the the mask, a repository for the detritus, the shame and leftovers of the body. The masks are said to be used in rituals which "guard" the morality of the Kono people. And I wonder what this means. The Kono societies are secret men's societies.
For me, the discovery of the boli in the basement of the museum was a revelation. It was a blank storage device. An illegible archive. An object that did not return my gaze. It reminded me of the Pushmi-pullyu, a creature Dr Doolittle encounters in a book I read as a child. When the beast, with heads at both ends, tries to move, it is at odds with itself, and makes no progress. One head tries to go in one direction and the other pulls away. A beast for children, made absurd, and perhaps inspired by Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, of doors, gates, endings and time. His two faces look in opposite directions and he stays still, frozen.
Susan Sontag, in an essay from 1977 called The Image World, writes about the photograph, and the ways it has altered our seeing. Like Marshall McLuhan, in The Medium is the Massage, she argues that the technologies we use are extensions of ourselves. They are a reciprocal reality. They fundamentally alter our realities. She writes, "to view reality as an endless set of situations which mirror each other, to extract analogies from the most dissimilar things, is to anticipate the characteristic form of perception stimulated by photographic images."
The problem with representation, with talking about an original and a copy, with saying the word "nature," at all, is its static definitions. This assumes that what is real persists, unchanged and intact, while only images have changed - shored up by the most tenuous claims to credibility, they have somehow become more seductive. But the notions of image and reality are complementary, when the understanding of reality changes, then so does that of the image, and vice versa. In our time the notion of what is real has been progressively complicated and weakened.
To understand this, I jump from book to book, now Walter Benjamin, now Sontag, "what is an image?" I ask myself, again and again, going deeper, getting lost in this thing which at first seemed so obvious, but now slips away from my grasp.
Slowly reading The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno, and I'll stop here and say that with the digital world, and movies, and the increasing virtuality of our lives, perhaps the things I am saying are rendered moot. Maybe I am not talking about the future or the present, but only the past. But oddly, the more I read, the more I am not sure, like Janus, which direction I am looking, or whether it isn't both at once. Whether they aren't the same. In the Dialectic, Adorno describes the Enlightenment as a demystification of the world. In a pantheistic world, where magic, and gods animistically inhabit all things, the object stares back, it's specificity astounds. The scientific approach produced the thing known as fact. Where there was previously mythical explanations, scientists supplied answers. Each answer produced a new question, but the approach - one of inexorable knowing and naming, sorting, testing, analyzing and assessing, was/is both illuminating, literally, shedding light, where there was darkness, and also, because the darkness is increasingly pushed back, it is increasingly feared, and so fear increases.
Hell-bent on knowing, the rationalists didn't pause to wonder how they were knowing, and what their kind of knowing produced. To analyze and quantify the world is to approach it as master, and to render it mute. So the stars and the beasts and the flowers have slowly ceased speaking to us, because that kind of communication is an encounter. Not produced by mastery, but by enchantment, by wonder, by awe.
On the level of the whole object, the user is made aware that she is following one possible trajectory among many others. In other words, she is selecting one trajectory from the paradigm of all trajectories which are defined - at every moment she is faced with the infinite alternate possibilities for that moment. And the next moment. (so choices, and the argument, based on research, that there is a tipping point with choices, too many and the chooser is rendered nervous, incompetent, insecure in the face of choices.)
William Henry Fox Talbot The Pencil of Nature: The 24 plates in the book were carefully selected to demonstrate the wide variety of uses to which photography could be put. They include a variety of architectural studies, scenes, still-lives, and closeups, as well as facsimiles of prints, sketches, and text.
August Sander's major work, begun in 1910 consists of sixty shots of 20th century Germans. In this series, he was attempting to illustrate a cross-section of German society, although he had intended to categorize them by certain social types. Stating that “[w]e know that people are formed by the light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled.” The series is divided into seven sections: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People.)
With more and more media readily available through the unruly arch-epistemological archive of the internet, the task becomes one of packaging, producing, reframing, and distributing. "Packaging”— and what would have been called in relation to art “framing”—is transformed from a way of containing and protecting an object, delimiting it as a unified and finite thing, into a way of “producing social contexts." One might think here of networks, blogs, and groups formed around websites. The notion of what is “public” has shifted from the idea of a shared physical space as a specific location in space and time—which tends to monumentalize public art—to a publicness based on distribution media.
Anything on the Internet is a fragment, provisional, pointing elsewhere, where the perpetually transformable “version” replaces the bounded “object.” Nothing is finished. The "work" may migrate across different platforms and material realizations. Collective experience is now based on simultaneous private experiences, distributed across the field of media culture, knit together by ongoing debate, publicity, promotion, and discussion. Publicness today has as much do with sites of production and reproduction as it does with any supposed physical commons, so a popular album could be regarded as a more successful instance of public art than a monument tucked away in an urban plaza.
Think not in terms of “circulation”—as in the third sphere between production and consumption, which implies a circular return, with everything, including expropriated surplus value, accounted for—but "dispersion." This seems to be the sense of Derrida’s term “dissemination,” which concerns both a dispersion that is not controlled by nor returns to a putative “origin” (such as authorial intention), and the potential of any term to be cited or redistributed in an open-ended number of contexts without being limited by them.
DATABASE AS A SYMBOLIC FORM
After the novel, and then cinema privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its meaning-form: the database. Many new media objects do not tell stories; they don't have beginning or end; in fact, they don't have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other.
Why does new media favor database form over others? Look at the structural basis of the digital medium and of computer programming. What is the relationship between database and narrative?
Often the narrative shell of a game ("you are the specially trained commando who has just landed on a Lunar base; your task is to make your way to the headquarters occupied by the mutant base personnel...") masks a simple algorithm well-familiar to the player: kill all the enemies on the current level, while collecting all treasures it contains; go to the next level and so on until you reach the last level. Other games have different algorithms. Here is an algorithm of the legendary "Tetris": when a new block appears, rotate it in such a way so it will complete the top layer of blocks on the bottom of the screen making this layer disappear. The similarity between the actions expected from the player and computer algorithms is too uncanny to be dismissed. While computer games do not follow database logic, they appear to be ruled by another logic - that of an algorithm. They demand that a player executes an algorithm in order to win.
As the player proceeds through the game, she gradually discovers the rules which operate in the universe constructed by this game. She learns its hidden logic, in short its algorithm. Or, in a different formulation of the legendary author of Sim games Will Wright, "Playing the game is a continuous loop between the user (viewing the outcomes and inputting decisions) and the computer (calculating outcomes and displaying them back to the user). The user is trying to build a mental model of the computer model." ie we are increasingly trying to emulate the computer's methods of thinking.
data organized in a particular way for efficient search and retrieval.
In the 1990's, when the new role of a computer as a Universal Media Machine became apparent, already computerized societies went into a digitizing craze. All existing books and video tapes, photographs and audio recordings started to be fed into computers at an ever increasing rate. Steven Spielberg created the Shoah Foundation which videotaped and then digitized numerous interviews with Holocaust survivors; it would take one person forty years to watch all the recorded material. The editors of Mediamatic journal, who devoted a whole issue to the topic of "the storage mania" (Summer 1994) wrote: "A growing number of organizations are embarking on ambitious projects. Everything is being collected: culture, asteroids, DNA patterns, credit records, telephone conversations; it doesn't matter." Once it is digitized, the data has to be cleaned up, organized, indexed.
This formulation places the opposition between database and narrative in a new light, thus redefining our concept of narrative. The "user" of a narrative is traversing a database, following links between its records. An interactive narrative can then be understood as the sum of multiple trajectories through a database. A traditional linear narrative is one, among many other possible trajectories. (Remember the transitional narrative form; the Choose Your Own Adventure stories) Just as a traditional cultural object can now be seen as a particular case of a new media object (i.e., a new media object which only has one interface), traditional linear narrative can be seen as a particular case of a hyper-narrative.
What I am saying is that a database can support narrative, but there is nothing in the logic of the medium itself which would invite or imply its production. So after thousands of years as storytelling creatures, we have now built a gigantic database which supersedes and replaces memory, and its concomitant, storytelling as a passing on of memory from generation to generation.
As Frederick Jameson wrote of the shift from Modernism to Post-modernism, "Radical breaks between periods do not generally involve complete changes but rather the restructuring of a certain number of elements already given: features that in an earlier period were subordinate became dominant, and features that had been dominant become secondary."
To talk about this in another way, I'll use Saussure's semiotic terms, the syntagm and the paradigm. With the example of spoken language, the speaker produces an utterance by stringing together the elements, one after another, in a linear sequence. This is the syntagmatic dimension. The paradigm, on the other hand, to continue with the spoken language example, is a set of associated signifiers or signifieds which are all members of some defining category, such as nouns or verbs. Each new element is chosen from a set of related elements. For instance, all nouns form a set; all synonyms of a particular word form another set.
So where the syntagmatic dimension was once manifest and the paradigmatic latent, now with the gigantic database structure of computers and the internet, the situation is reversed. The paradigmatic is manifest, obvious and available, and the syntagmatic, or specific sentence is latent/hidden/obscured.
To make this perfectly clear, we have a massive pile of images and words of all types, and an increasing inability to make meaning out of them. Naming brings this problem to the foreground as well, John Stuart Mill wrote in A System of Logic, "A proper name is a word that answers the purpose of showing what thing it is that we are talking about, but not of telling anything about it." Once again, with naming, we have one thing after another, which accounts for nothing.
So back to my Boli, the problem I found with the Boli is the issue of presence. A Boli, like a painting, has to be confronted in actual space and time. This encounter is with something so close, but which feels far away - "a distance as close as it can be." The feeling of aura is described by Walter Benjamin as passing away with the onset of image (photography) culture - it was an aspect of magical thinking, sacred experience, mysticism, religion.
In the decline of middle-class society in the early twentieth century, contemplation became a school for asocial behavior; it was countered by distraction as a variant of social conduct. Dadaistic activities actually assured a rather vehement distraction by making works of art the center of scandal. What the Dadaists intended and achieved was a relentless destruction of the aura of their creations, which they branded as reproductions with the very means of production.
By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions.” Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.
Let us compare the screen on which a film unfolds with the canvas of a painting. The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested. Duhamel, who detests the film and knows nothing of its significance, though something of its structure, notes this circumstance as follows: “I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.” The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by their constant, sudden change. This constitutes the shock effect of the film, which, like all shocks, should be cushioned by heightened presence of mind.
Churchillian legs, hair barely there
the harsh truth of the camera eye
your eyes signal pain, because of the strain of smiling
the harsh truth of the camera eye.
One thing is certain: There is not, and will not be, an ecology of images. (Sontag acknowledged as much in her last book, “Regarding the Pain of Others,” published in 2002). Images make up our ecosystem, our native habitat, the only reality we recognize. And as we learn to negotiate the landscape of digital culture, the history of photography can provide a compass and a map. The camera, the darkroom, the museum and the archive all exist in the same place. Everywhere and nowhere; on Google Earth, in social networks, on a standard cellphone app. Every one of us commands a factory and a storehouse of images, vessels of information and nostalgia, desire and curiosity. And each of us spends more time than we care to admit browsing through it, searching out shards of memory and intimations of mortality.