The issue of the transition from analog to digital images is often tackled assuming as a central point of reference the photographic medium. For instance, this is the perspective around which the theses presented by Fred Ritchin in“After Photography” (2009) revolve.
In this book, which received particular attention some years ago, the American researcher observes that, more and more: “Most of the photographic process happens after the shot”; photography appears therefore as nothing more than an “initial research”, an “image draft” which is open to further modifications and interactions. The photographic image enters then a flux, a “digital vortex”, in which some cornerstones of traditional photography are shredded, such as the concept of authorship. The latter becomes so malleable that it opens to collaborations (even posthumous ones) which manage to reorganize and expand the concept of “photographic time”, until the point in which it is difficult to assert that photography is still that “static moment of a privileged encounter between observer and subject”.
Even the idea of original loses its meaning because the “architecture of abstractions which can be repeated ad infinitum”, a feature of the digital image, makes the original and the copy impossible to distinguish, either conceptually and practically. Ritchin also manages to grasp one of the fundamental premises of today’s remix culture, when he affirms that, in the shift to digital: “Every creation is reconfigured, made more flexible, apt to human manipulation”.
The photos become “data to play with”, “initial recordings”, or “preliminary screenplays”, which introduce consecutive reshuffling, while the digital photographer takes on the role of “postmodern visual disc jockey”. From my point of view, the most convincing part of Ritchie’s reasoning is his act of going beyond the concept of reproduction, in order to open up to an idea according to which the digital image is an initial point of view, which can be: “Merged with other images, or create multicolored copies which can evolve independently”.
Referring to YouTube dynamics, for example, (and in particular the idea of video responses, which create continuous fluxes of comments) the American researcher frames correctly the real nature of the “following generations of images”: they are “reactions” to an initial image, rather than being copies of it. Ritchin says: “In the digital realm, the shutter shot is just a first step in a process which includes altering the image, linking it, contextualizing it thanks to other media”.
It is starting from similar assertions that we can try to sketch a series of useful hints for the definition of the contemporary images’ principles. Rather than lingering on the scarcely productive distinction between analog and digital images (a distinction whose technical bases don’t manage to support a thorough analysis of the digital devices’ functioning), we ought to move from the premise that contemporary images, however produced, take part – instantly – into the unstoppable flux of data which characterizes the current existential condition of human beings.
This means being aware that any image inserted, since its creation, into social, experiential, media networks, doesn’t live by itself, alone, not even for one second: there will always be a previous image, an emotional status, a social construct to link to, as it goes without saying that many other media will be ready to reproduce it.
Every contemporary image can then be defined as liquid. In fact, when I try to visualize the condition of the contemporary subject, it is this image that I see: a continuous flux of information and data that envelopes our existences. From a phenomenological point of view this is the aspect I reckon as central in our contemporaneity, and it is clear that by assuming this perspective we cannot avoid taking a distance from all those attempts which try to isolate an image, and analyze it (criticize it) as if it was something which could stand by itself.
I rather let the temptation of assuming a provocative symmetry get me. This means considering that referring to a content as an entity in itself (something separated from the flux), equals to referring to an individual as something separate from the quantum ocean in continuous flow: this is a way of positioning oneself in a world of physical phenomena where everything is observable and measurable, it is an act of hiding (a delusional one) a dimension in which the behavior of matter is more complex, and where certainties are replaced by mere probabilities.
If everything is part of a continuity, as the conquers of quantum mechanics seem to prove (let’s think about the theory of the holographic universe), how else can we consider the apparent separation of things?
It is an illusion, an abstraction, as it is an illusion the consideration of a cultural content, whatever it might be, as something distinct and separate from the flux of data which regulates current existences. In our contemporaneity, every piece of data, every phenomenon, every event, finds its own reason of existing only insofar as it is in relation with the liquid flowing of all the other data, phenomena, and events.
As it is obvious, this doesn’t mean negating the individual qualities of cultural objects, it is about negating the validity of those judgements which, considering images as isolated entities instead of entities which are part of an indivisible totality, deny the contemporary existential condition which – as we previously explained – is given exactly by the immersion into flux of data and our flowing along with them.
The infinite possibility of modifying digital data, and the remix culture resulting from it, contribute to instability instead of contributing to the definiteness of contemporary images. I say “contribute” because I believe that images which saturate the global media system are inherently unstable: in fact, especially if we accept Vilém Flusser’s point of view about technical images as an act of uni-forming (materializing) from punctual elements (from the quantum universe) and a projection to the world out there, one of its infinite possibilities (one of the infinite possible worlds), how could they be defined as definitive?
Each of them represents nothing more than a mere possibility/probability which becomes concrete, becomes real for human beings, only thanks to the field of relations in which it is inserted, that is: thanks to the formation of a social consensus around its existence. Given that contemporary images are intrinsically fluid, we have to clarify nonetheless that it is because of continuous remix practices that we confirm and make recognizable this fluid nature, and, in many cases, we exacerbate it till its extreme.
When an image becomes a meme, and ends up in infinite remix loops, transitioning from an intersection of the network to the other, from contact to contact, from media to media, its fluid nature becomes evident. However, it is important to highlight that, even when this doesn’t happen, fluidity is not contradicted at all by the absence of a practice which makes it explicit.
Every image, be it analog or digital, stays infinitely modifiable (the analog ones upon previous digitalization) even if it falls into the oblivion, and its left in a hidden corner for years: modifiability, as much as remixability, are qualities which cannot be lost because of lack of exercise, nor can weaken with the passing of time.
If then fluidity is the foundational element which characterizes contemporary images, it is not worth to problematize how to distinguish analog images from digital ones: both share the same fluid destiny and, if we’re compelled to create classifications, it is possible to maintain a separation from traditional images (cave paintings, miniatures, canvases, etc) which – evidently – fall into another category of representation.
Clearly, there are elements of novelty which contribute to determine the mode of being fluid for images after the “digital revolution”, for example: the circumstance under which the subjects of the pictures posted into the Network cannot be mute anymore. It is Ritchin who observes this – faithful to his idea of photographic recording as a “minimalist starting point” destined to open to internal and external interventions, which transform it into a polyphonic space – and underlines how today photographs are judged not only by photographers, newspaper’s directors, and readers, but also by the subjects portrayed into those very pictures, who respond to them with their points of view.
What results from this is that in the current media scenario each image is a possible vision of the world which, since its first appearance, is destined to collide and confuse itself with innumerable alternative visions. If we think about the subjects of famous photos taken during the Thirties by Farm Security Administration’s photographers in the rural province of United States, we understand intuitively that these subjects never had the opportunity of giving their opinion about the way they had been represented.
Today, a similar dynamic is not even thinkable and, differently from the way it happened with pre-digital apparatuses, every image constantly stays in a fluid state, open to any possibility (modification, comment, trans-codification, remix, etc), and it is for this that no image or vision can be defined as definitive. A last consideration seems to be decisive, in my opinion: contemporary images are inserted in networks of media which preside over media operations (such as sharing, commenting, contextualizing, editing, remixing, etc) of which each of them is an object.
The late-industrial phenomenon of the multiplication of representative possibilities already sufficed to contribute to making the image ubiquitous, while today, moment in which communication techniques made it possible to continuously interlink a media field to another, we witness an endless movement which contributes, also, to the liquidity of contemporary images.
Now, if it is clear that when using a smartphone or a tablet the possibilities of creating a chain of re-mediation (for example: after taking a picture, I can publish it on a social network adding some textual comment, and, thanks to geotagging possibilities, I can share information about where that picture has been taken, giving the opportunity to another user with a GPS technology of localizing me and reach me, on the exact spot the picture was taken), are uncountable than the ones offered by analog devices.
However, we need to consider that the scenario which the cultural critique observed in the last years has been one of crossing distinctions and specificities of single media, in the direction of what Peter Weibel defined: “The post-media condition”.
To be more precise, we need to underline that the expression post-media (or ‘post-medium’) appears on several occasions along the decade which closes the XX Century, and it is recognized officially in 1999 when the influential US art critic Rosalind Krauss theorized the entrance of art into a post-media era, going therefore beyond the concept of media specificity (or better: that conception which connect the specificity of the medium to the physicality of the support material used) in favor of a diffusion of artistic practices which don’t have any regard for the employed media.
In this article, I cannot reconstruct an exact genealogy of the concept, and I prefer to look at one part of Weibel’s reasoning, which I find interesting. The Austrian researcher and curator distinguishes between “old technological media” (photography and cinema) and “new technological media” (video and computer), and he asserts that the merit of the latter has been of not just launching new genres and artistic movements, but also of having had a deep influence on all the media preceding them, even on the “historical media” like painting, sculpture, etc.
The latter were not even considered media before the advent of the “new technological media”, and it is exactly thanks to their influence that today we manage to look at “historical media” from a different perspective – hence the need of a new definition, which for Weibel is “non-technological old media”. For the Austrian theoretician all the artistic disciplines have been transformed by the media which had a universal impact, and this is particularly true for computer which, as Alan Turing had foreseen, becomes an authentic “universal machine”.
Today nothing can escape the media, and no aesthetic experience can happen outside the media, it then becomes meaningless to consider the different media as “separate fields”, whereas we need to admit that they “live within each other”.
Besides the artistic field, an interesting reading is the one offered by Lev Manovich, who prefers to use the term softwarization, term with which he wants to highlight how the new environment of software production allows to hybridize: “The content of different media, but also their techniques, the production processes and the modes of representation and expression”.
This process had never been a premise for the convergence of old and new media, in fact, Manovich says: “Once freed from physical platforms and transformed into softwares, the formats the techniques and the interfaces of traditional media have begun to interact producing new hybrids”. For the Russian researcher it is meaningless even insisting on the use of the term multimedia, since in the multimediality different media coexist one next to the other, but the relative interfaces and properties don’t interact in depth.
This kind of interaction is characteristic instead of the “hybrid media” which result from the radical re-combination (made possible by softwarization) of interfaces, techniques, languages, and assumed as bases for different media. Ultimately, when referring to the pioneering work of Alan Kay, Manovich affirms that: “The properties and techniques which were specific of each medium up until now, have become re-combinable elements in ways unthinkable before”.
The final landing of the processes triggered by the digital advent is a metamedium. The interpretation of Manovich is particularly useful because it allows to understand that the hybridization of the media, which in a metaphoric sense can be read as an erasure of the borders which used to separate each medium from another, allowed the consolidation of the liquid nature of images. Images are now free of transiting from a communication media to the other without (almost) ever colliding with the obstacles of the different interfaces, of the different techniques, and of the different languages.
In my opinion, it is possible to register also a countermovement: the liquidity of contemporary images contributed to blurring, especially on a cultural level, the importance of the single media specificities, to the point in which, today, what counts in the general feeling is mainly the continuous movement from a medium to another (in practical terms, the possibilities of making one’s own data travel among different devices and share them with the outside world in the easiest and most immediate way) and not the particular features of the individual media through which the flux of images passes.
Cover Image: Domenico Dom Barra, DMNC RMX, https://dombarra.tumblr.com/
*the original text in Italian is an adaptation from: Vito Campanelli, Dialoghi. Verso uno statuto delle immagini contemporanee, Edizioni MAO, Napoli, 2016.