241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Hito Steyerl, a German artist and theorist, wrote an article in 2009 called ‘In defence of the poor image’. Poor images are the heavily compressed images that are available for everybody online. They are either the poor copy of a better, more professional original, or an image that was made by an amateur and was poor to begin with.

In the six years since then, the image quality of the average video on Youtube has gone up dramatically and so have the average consumer cameras, but there is still a difference between professionally produced commercial films seen in cinemas and the ones available online. How long this will remain the case is the question. But for now I think Seyerl’s argument remains interesting. I quote:

“Poor images [are] popular images—images that can be made and seen by the many. They express all the contradictions of the contemporary crowd: its opportunism, narcissism, desire for autonomy and creation, its inability to focus or make up its mind, its constant readiness for transgression and simultaneous submission. Altogether, poor images present a snapshot of the affective condition of the crowd, its neurosis, paranoia, and fear, as well as its craving for intensity, fun, and distraction.”

Film still 'The Voices of Iraq'

You see these contradictions of the contemporary crowd continuing in today’s visual aesthetics. And in these aesthetics there is of course space for critique and experiment. Where again I would like to stress that experiment isn’t necessarily critical.

In 2004 a film was made called ‘the voices of Iraq’ in which US filmmakers gave 100 camera’s to Iraqi people, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Although the idea is given that many different viewpoints are voiced in this film, I would argue that this film is pure US propaganda. The democratisation of the camera is here symbolising the democracy that the US brought to Iraq, finally allowing people to speak freely.

Film still 'The Voices of Iraq'

Steyerl speaks of this tendency of the resistance becoming part of the value system of capitalism. She uses the example of conceptual art, first resisting the fetish value of the object, which had become so valuable in the art world. But then, as value was dematerializing within capitalism on a larger scale, conceptual art fitted in perfectly and fetish value could be assigned to dematerial concepts just as well as to material objects. The same goes for the poor image:

“On the one hand, [the poor image] operates against the fetish value of high resolution. On the other hand, this is precisely why it also ends up being perfectly integrated into an information capitalism thriving on compressed attention spans, on impression rather than immersion, on intensity rather than contemplation, on previews rather than screenings.”

Transformers, The Premake

In the film ‘Transformers, The Premake’ we don’t only see the multiplication of the body and the multiplication of the camera, but also the multiplication of the screen. We see how the plurality of images produced by amateurs during the shoot of the film the Transformers, can be used as a source for promotion, or as a way to emotionally bind your audience. Crowd filming, just like crowd funding and crowd sourcing. The production potential of all these individuals together is enormous and is therefore exploited by commercial and political parties. (Transformers, The Premake)

Transformers, The Premake

Wark McKenzie speaks of Hito Steyerls writings in a very recent article. He says “The labour of spectating in today’s museums is always incomplete. No one viewer ever sees all the moving images. Only a multiplicity of spectators could ever have seen the hours and hours of programming, and they never see the same parts of it.”

Of course the same goes for all moving image online. Maybe here not even the multiplicity of spectators have ever seen the whole. This abundance of images also causes a kind of invisibility. There’s a good chance to get lost in this overload of images, or to just become a piece of data in the data pool.

Still from ‘How not to be seen, a fucking didactic education mov file’.

The last fragment I will show is an excerpt of Steyerl’s video ‘How not to be seen, a fucking didactic education mov file’. It’s a tutorial on how not to be seen in a world where we are always being looked at. We are constantly filmed by drones, surveillance cameras, our own smartphones and those of others. We never know if someone might have hacked the camera or microphone on our laptop. Our location can always be tracked though our smart devices. We can’t escape being seen if we want to take part in society. At the same time we have become tiny particles in the large pool of images. Our physical bodies don’t matter so much anymore; it’s the data that we generate that counts. So in a way we have become invisible. Paradoxically Steyerl’s video on how not to be seen, is at the same time a tutorial to escape invisibility. (How not to be seen)

Still from ‘How not to be seen, a fucking didactic education mov file’.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres: When people ask me, “Who is your public?” I say honestly, without skipping a beat, “Ross.” The public was Ross. The rest of the people just come to the work.

Ross Lalock was Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ partner. When the doctor diagnosed Ross with HIV, he assessed his ideal weight to be at175 pounds. Portrait of Ross is precisely that: 175 pounds of candy collected into a mound. By the invitation to take one of the candies, the viewer becomes part of the work and becomes more than simply a viewer. Every morning, the mound is replenished until it’s back at its ideal weight.

These candies are not only a representation of Ross’s weight, but also one of his struggle against the illness. HIV emaciates its patient, but the weight of the soul remains the same and allows for the patient to carry on, day after day.

Each day, the work risks being reduced to absence as the mound dwindles to nothing and no candies are left, in which case the viewer would be responsible for the lack of an artwork. And every day, Gonzalez-Torres plays this game with his audience, allowing them to decide the form of his work. With his work, art becomes fluid and in movement, but also in constant risk of disappearing.

A black and white photo of an empty bed with two pillows. A slept in bed. This is the artist’s own bed. The image was exhibited at the Projects Gallery at the MOMA, as well as on twenty-four billboards around the city of New York: Second Avenue and East 97th Street in Manhattan and Third Avenue and East 137th Street in the Bronx. None of these places were related to the art world of museums, galleries, and collectors. The number, twenty-four, relates to the date on which Ross died.

With Gonzalez-Torres’ sparse and tranquil photograph, the barrage of images that overwhelm New York pedestrians was temporarily paused. No text was supplied to explain the text. And there was no intention, as other billboards typically have, to lure the passerby into buying something. It was nothing more than a photograph of an empty bed with two pillows and a crumpled sheet. An image of private space manifesting itself within public space.

Gonzalez-Torres’ decision to refrain from showing Ross’ image can be seen as a political act. Typically for that time, depictions of AIDS denoted a discerning breach between the homosexuals and the heterosexuals. The sick homosexuals and the healthy heterosexuals. Gonzalez-Torres refuses to depict Ross. With his billboard, Untitled, he depicts the invisibility of the gay community. But he refuses to place himself in opposition to the dominant population, as Robert Mapplethorpe was doing. Gonzalez-Torres invites the viewer, regardless of their sexual preference.

Gonzalez-Torres: Go to a meeting and infiltrate and then once you are inside, try to have an effect. I want to be a spy, too. I do want to be the one who resem­bles something else [….] We have to restructure our strategies [….] I don’t want to be the enemy anymore. The enemy is too easy to dismiss and to attack.

But Gonzalez-Torres also uses other strategies to include absence in his work. By allowing the viewer to take a part of his work, he plays with the role of the artist and the role of art. The role of the artist as designer, the role of the artwork as form. His work displays and art that is not static, but susceptible to constant change.

Gonzalez-Torres: Go to a meeting and infiltrate and then once you are inside, try to have an effect. I want to be a spy, too. I do want to be the one who resem­bles something else [….] We have to restructure our strategies [….] I don’t want to be the enemy anymore. The enemy is too easy to dismiss and to attack.

To what extent is it his work?

Gonzalez-Torres:Perhaps between public and private, between personal and social, between fear of loss and the joy loving, of growing, changing, of always becoming more, of losing oneself slowly and the being replenished all over again from scratch. I need the viewer, I need the public interaction. Without the public these works are nothing. I need the public to complete the work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work.

Barnet Newman, Cathedra, 1951
Barnet Newman, Cathedra, 1951

‘There was nothing, nothing at all to see.’ This line, which would become famous, was spoken by a visitor to a Barnett Newman exhibit on January 1950 in New York. Newman presented the monumental monochrome paintings, cut through by a vertical line, for which he would be well renowned later. Paintings without a title, without a motif. In a certain sense, Newman did not want to ‘show’, at least not to show any subject, no image referring to the history of fine art. That was the discovery he had made shortly before: he no longer needed a subject. He advised the viewer to look at his paintings from up close, and not from afar, which one tends to do because of their large sizes. ‘Paintings need to be felt, not to be read,’ was his adagio.

Titian, St Margaret and the Drago

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Margaret_and_the_Dragon_%28Titian%29

Four centuries before, around 1550, a similar discussion took place. The incentive was the paintings of Titian. At an older age, the master from Venice started to paint ‘invisible’ scenes. No longer did he bind colour to matter and shape, his palette had the figures dissolve in a kind of fog or haze. He built his composition with broad, bold brushstrokes and colour fields. Moreover, he left parts of the canvas unpainted, so that, as his contemporary Vasari put it, ‘one does not see much from up close, whereas from afar the paintings appear to be perfect.’ With ‘perfect’, Vasari meant that Titian’s paintings gave the impression of being alive.

The revolution that is born with Titian and comes to an end with Newman, is that of a category of painting that thrives on invisibility and shapelessness. It is an art of painting that shows the process of the métier, the dynamics of the brush, the use of colour, the texture. But most of all, it is a way of painting that involves the viewer in the work. For it is his position, his place, close to the painting’s skin or from a distance, that determines what can be seen. This form of painting creates the illusion of the viewer as a (co-)creator, an artist, who has to finish the work.
Ironically, this suggestion is raised most strongly by remaining at a distance from Newman’s work, yet by almost pressing one’s nose against the canvas in the case of Titian.

Detail, Titian, St Margaret and the Dragon, c.1559

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Margaret_and_the_Dragon_%28Titian%29