Let us randomly pick up two recent Italian events of digital art. In these days the group Alterazioni Video is presenting its last work, Violent Paintings, at the Galleria Fabio Paris in Brescia. It consists in a number of images found on the web, passed several times between the five members of the collective, each of them intervening on each image.
The “violence” might consist in an alienating and ironic -albeit harmless- Photoshop intervention, in a more consistent change of medium (from digital images to prints and then to digital images again, perhaps using deformed materials), in whatever other distortion of the native image. But in the end, the actual violence, as the artists write, is the one that “the very images inflict to the spectator, who is challenged to make some sense of the big jam of amateurish and pornographic images, of cheesy special effects and reproductions of artworks”.
We could also find violence in Ciriaco Campus -one of the most idiosyncratic and coherent artists on the Italian scene today- latest work. CTMM- Centre for the Treatment of Medial Material was presented in Rome at Mercedes’ Smart Electric Drive (http://www.digicult.it/2010/SmartUrbanStageTheFutureOfTheCity.asp) last July, where it has been the cause of some frictions with the organizers, due to the supposedly excessive crudity of some images; it is a device that collects digital multimedia materials, and that also implicates the disposal of some of those materials.
Actually, destruction and disposal are the real core of this conceptual machine. In fact, the video illustrating the project shows with digital images a sort of huge paperweight pressing some images assessed as representative (in a negative way, it seems) of past 50 years of history. In order to create, through this process of elimination, “clean energy”, as the artist says.
We can clearly observe how both works (in other respects obviously extremely different) have a “conceptual” (in the “conceptual art” sense) attitude, where the image does not constitute the subject nor the final outcome of the operation, but rather some sort of raw material to be used for constructing a process aimed to propose a reflection, to trigger reactions. It is actually bright clear since some time now, that the primary concern of artist nowadays is certainly not producing new images (medial ones too, and actually especially medial ones, therefore electronic or digital images).
Contemporary influential artistic practices do rather tend to suggest new patterns of interaction between images, as well as new ways to look at them or new contexts where to look at them. They, in short, develop devices capable of creating atypical paths and of purposing displacing, deranging, surprising editing, within the flux of images in which we perpetually drown. We can realize how, all in all, there’s more than enough images around in the world, since way more than a century, as everything began with the creation of the illustrated newsmagazine in 1880. Quickly schematizing, between the two founding jests for videoart, both of them made by Nam June Paik around the mid-sixties (to wander around with his Portapak, Sony’s first tape recorder, to fix down sounds and visions of everyday life; and applying magnets on a television in order to distort the images), the one that revealed to be the most radical and influent was the second, more than the first.
In short, a profusion of images: first the tv, today the Internet too, thus provide an inextinguishable quantity of material to work on. The artist has no need to add new images up to all the ones that exist already: he can therefore focus on the rereading, editing and distortion processes. Moreover, he can slip into the game of relations between images that already exists spontaneously, apparently without any “artistic” intention, amidst “mass” producers and consumers.
Today we have at disposal a quantity of technologies allowing us to create and edit images for such low prices that virtually everyone can be able to produce photos and videos, not even needing to have deep technical knowledge. Vernacular Video, as this phenomenon has already been dubbed, is the base on which social networks, namely the websites living (and profiting) on user-generated content, have grown. Youtube makes a good example.
The quantity of videos that are daily flooded on this and other similar platforms is amazing – although the percentage of users that still contributes today to enrich the platform with new content is indeed wretched – and in a few year time it gave origin to a large number of genders and subgenders, old and new, which are all indispensable to be acknowledged by who’d want to really find his way through this jungle of material. Domenico Quaranta recently documented on Flash Art the phenomenon of artists working, mixing, reworking, and also respond to videos found on YouTube (“Vernacular video”, Flash Art n. 285, July 2010): Jodi, Petra Cortright, Oliver Laric, Alterazioni Video, Brody Condon and many others, spend increasingly more time on the Web in search of material to use for creating new editing, installations, or even just playlists. “When everybody is producing media, selection becomes the only way of producing content.” writes Quaranta referring to Bourriad.
This is certainly truth, though it seems to me to create more new problems than solving the old ones. I hereby list some of those. The first and more direct seems to be the fact that n the very moment when the availability of technologies for production and publication soars the number of images creators, the figure of the author staggers. When everyone produces media, hence becoming a media “author”, there is no author anymore. Or, anyhow, the author might risk not to be recognized as older and master of an excellence in the field he chose.
Could it be that, behind all the surfing, mixing and remixing of YouTube videos, is hiding the unconfessed need to resuscitate and retrain the figure of the author? Within official art scene, the one of galleries and catalogues, the author does not disappear thank to a market mechanism (I couldn’t fathom how solid and stable that is but there is) which selects and creates “successful artists”. In that case the best artist are the ones that are quoted the highest. But what about the social networks’ world? What’s the criteria here? Popularity and number of visits to one’s page? Or is it still the distinction accorded by a restricted group of peers, them being other artists of critics? That’s unclear.
Now, I do not believe that the search for visibility, popularity, success is a bad thing in itself (even when it’s doomed to be a failure). Nevertheless, it seems to me that the disappearance or “reduction” of the author as a figure is an almost logical side effect of the “democratization” of images production. Hence then, the artist should in my opinion reflect (and then choose) on the criteria and parameters on which he claims for its activity to be ratified. It’s blatantly clear how the main ambiguity videoart faced between 19878 and 1980 was to face an activity that had already become mostly selecting and combining, rather than creating “from nothing”, trying to keep an old criteria: “style” in the sense of “brand”. of fingerprinting the created forms, rhythms, editing.
Bill Viola, to name one. Do we really think it’s achievable to maintain an “artistic quality” of that kind with net art, vying and surfing too? Are we truly interested in keeping alive the shadow of that videoart? Or ins’t it that the practices Quaranta writes about do as a point of fact push for other “qualities” in this kind of artistic activity? Isn’t the “re-combiner” artist and adjuvant of the very processes on which it lives, hasn’t he got the role of stimulating the “others”, the “non-artists” the “mass-artists”, to widen, improve and differentiate their production? And give a sense to that, maybe?
Then, the second main problem. I am not struck by the impression that the main risk of a “democratization”, a virtually unlimited growth of creatives, would be that of having “too many artists” and thus no artists at all. If some prophecies from XXth century avant-garde (surprisingly cited by the latest Foucault) fulfill, like the one of “turning one’s very life into an artwork”, that would as a matter of fact be the act of – finally – recognizing the “common” spirit of art (I don’t mean “collective”. That’d mean to just flatten down the differences between individuals; I mean “common” as making able utter in different ways the potential for expression that each one of us carries), thus realizing a desirable condition, where everyone could (most probably) be able to express his own unique contents and style.
So the risk doesn’t really lay here. It exists in the fact that a combination of mass-technology, mass-syntax, mass-tastes, might end up in producing undifferentiated things that all look the same – the average taste of an epoch. Maybe here Wilém Flusser can help: the Czech theorist passed away in 1991, had had the time for elaborating a very personal and acute point of view about the new images. He called them “the technical images”, mainly referring to photographs, but his remarks may apply in extent to digital images; those definitions are actually even more appropriate in the latter case, since the concept on which Flusser based himself was “program”.
A camera, he used to say, is in fact an “apparatus” based on a “program”, an intentional plan transplanted inside these machines by the designer or the maker. Photographs are “crafty-technically created images, created to give an appearance of objectivity to the viewer.” (Wilém Flusser, “La cultura dei media”, Bruno Mondadori 2004, p. 73). The photographer (as well as the artist-photographer) believe he is producing “unique” images whilst he is merely realizing the built-in program of the camera. There is, however, a possibility to deceit the camera’s program, according to Flusser. The chance to create “images that stand obliquely under the showers of images; images which would force the devices to function against their own apparatical progress.” (ibid.)
Flusser calls those “quiet images” or “transapparatical”, able to “show what there is of utterly peculiar of human imagination, irreplaceable and impossible to simulate.” (p.77) in a word, impossible to be automated or programmed. Good. Because the re-combiner artist takes the commitment to not only produce new images going beyond the machineries, but also to widen such practice as much as it is possible, to affect the largest number of people, introducing this practice instead of the homologating one which leads to automation.
Thinking about it, behind this devaluation of the images, consequent to their copiousness, lays a very simple reason. Why did visual arts, from Lescaux to Picasso and slightly further, until mid-XX century, identified itself so deeply with the image? Because constructing an artificial image (either “realistic” or “fantastic”) was a hard, very hard work indeed. One had to master complicated techniques: gather or create series of objects to trace signs on a surface, know how to create coloured substances (solid or liquid) that could be spread, dispose all those signs and colours on the surface (that being a canvas, the wall of a building or a cave-wall) in a way that could evoke in the viewers’ mind known objects and being, so that they’d “seem” trees and rivers, bisons and hunters, dames and knights, kings and popes, bourgeoises and workers.
Recreating an artificial “space” imitating the natural environment required a really complex teknè, as the Greeks said (in fact, by teknè they meant both “technique” and “art”, since those actually were the same thing). Digital techniques accomplished what photography in the mid-19th century had started: they made it easy and even obvious (so achievable for anybody) to reproduce a space on a surface. Flusser’s “machines’ program”, in the end, was nothing more than this: to show a space that is dominated, colonized, mapped, tamed – and therefore made accessible and reproducible for all human beings: by only pushing a button. All human spatial imagination that was possible to be “mechanized” (reducible to an algorithm) was drawn from the mind and transferred into cameras and videocameras digital softwares.
How will then be possible to create new “original” and “quiet” images, as Flusser called them? It would surely be too hard to do that acting only on the spacial dimension. One must intervene on time too, incorporating it in still images, alter it and build an artificial time that differs from the “spontaneous” time of moving images. Every single videomaker knows that. The editing, that is, subdues the “natural” flux of images to the constrained, “unnatural” artificial time, hence creating the film, the video, the audiovisual.
Moreover, “time contamination” is also at the base of a recombining, remixing and distortion work, applicable to the “spontaneous” images found on the Internet. At first impression, time might seem to be simply-structured, linear unchanging, perpetually, identically repeating itself; whilst space appears to be more complex, jagged, hidden, modifiable and deformable. Such impression, though, disappears as soon as we compare, for instance, the social standardized time of clocks and watches with the capricious, rebel, idiosyncratic time of individual perception. Vernacular videos, the protean, creative manipulation of “found images”, are nothing but the contamination of their very spacial matter with the substance of time. Inventive work, imagination freed from algorithms, brings images to new life, showing in them the very timeframe which they were created and that the fact of being frozen in a “product” had temporarily hidden.