Appropriate Images

by Ian Wallace

December 2012

Kids born in the digital age grow up with access to high-quality color photographs and videos of themselves, self-images that are not tied to the past, as portraiture once was, but that can also be images of the immediate present. The iPhone’s screen remakes the mirror image, and flips it into a non-mirror image. Barthes called the sight of one’s self in a non-mirror-image, as introduced by photography, a “disturbance” to civilization, the “advent of myself as other.” This notion can be contrasted with what we have now, which is the opposite: the advent of the other as myself, via Facebook and the other interfaces through which the production of these images occurs. What’s more, one has no problem with replacing one’s “profile picture” with a photo that is not of one’s self. These shifts lead to self-observation, and, contemporaneous with the graduated increase in speed of and access to technology, self-design. Boris Groys has articulated that, in the spirit of Joseph Beuys, now everyone really is an artist; that everyone designs themselves, through such interfaces, within an aesthetic/political field, by producing and disseminating images and texts. Groys frames this shift within the lineage of the historical New Man, a figure for whom the design of the aesthetic self has supplanted the design of the soul before God.

There’s an inherent exchange created by these interfaces that means that that digital self-design manifests itself aesthetically in real life. This is a counterpoint mapped out by Vilém Flusser in “The Photograph as Post-Industrial Object” in 1986—the same year that a 56 kilobyte-per-second “backbone network” between five data centers in the US gave way to a hub-and-spoke infrastructure of interconnected networks: the very beginnings of the Internet. Although Flusser’s essay was written decades before iOS 1.0 would ever be conceived, even then, Flusser described “post-industrial objects,” valueless supports for programmed information. He was presaging the relegation of subjectivity to the apparatus that we have today, a subjectivity that is manifested aesthetically on a screen. Flusser argues that in photography, the apparatus elaborates information, unlike in printed matter, where the human subject is tasked with this elaboration. However, the relocation of subjectivity from the human to the apparatus means human non-subjects elaborate information simultaneously with and within the apparatus; without the human, the apparatus has no information to elaborate; one operates the screen with one’s eyes and hands, and also supplies the network with one’s information, the content one produces and, most importantly, the chronological developments of one’s aesthetically designed self.

While current criticism might deal with the problem of the contemporary aesthete as belonging to the cultural sphere and separated from art history, Groys’s analysis points toward a development that certainly belongs to art history rather than culture, if only through the kind of orthogonal synchronism through which any given avant-gardist modern art movement arose. It imagines the aesthete as less contemporary dandy and more complacent situationist, inhabiting a dystopia where everyone is a (deprofessionalized) artist, a minion of a market with no capital.

If we want to talk about how a given generation might be culturally self-involved, nostalgic, invested in repeating the visual-cultural tastes of bygone eras and engaged in the never-ending edited self-presentation that happens via the Internet, this is the visual-cultural grounding for such a phenomenon. We’ve always had the problem of aesthetics—affectation superseding ethos—but never before has it been so lurid and so crystallized in visual culture. Central here is the object status of the photograph—first on paper and now on screen—and the distance from the “self” that the photographic image allows.

In a culture of social media, cultural production is also always image production. Images are literally produced from information by the apparatus, but the apparatus also has a new and more complex relationship to the image and the information it carries. Stock photography is a prevailing presence on the Internet, where corporations, blogs and other online publications buy photographs from massive databases to illustrate pamphlets, blog posts, articles, advertisements and so on. Stock’s heritage is in clip art—essentially cartoons—as well as in the industry-standard fashion plates of the nineenth and early twentieth centuries. It includes multiple genres and may incorporate branding techniques—one can specialize in stock photography of food, for example. The photos may be populated by people, but are devoid of characters or scenes. They embrace methods of advertising, but have nothing but themselves to sell. Even when these photographs have a clear subject or implied story, they always harbor a latent void, and, importantly, stock is distinctly different from traditional commercial photography, articulating itself through a ligature of networks and sublimated processes. (This new situation is what Flusser acknowledged when he wrote that “even the elaboration of information has mechanical aspects.”)

There is a wide range of activities that determine how these photographs are found and used. Often they are sought out through keyword searches; concepts used to create and subsequently identify stock photos can be as vague as “concept of group,” “good health,” or “central business district” (these particular examples come from a manual for stock photographers-to-be). Just as often, the photos are chosen by algorithmic mechanics, sometimes with horrific results, as in a 2010 article about a school bus in Chicago that was shot at by a gunman in a random act of violence that was inexplicably illustrated by a photograph of Malia Obama; a story about Chicago, federal investigators and school children automatically produced a photograph of the president’s daughter. The mistake was outrageous, but was quickly forgiven and forgotten. So stock can also be dangerous; but it seems, often, to embrace humor as a sort of lubricant for meaning.

Stock images, on their own terms, make little sense; they embody the proxy for the appropriate image. These latent images require a text to inform them—not like journalistic images or illustrations, which inform a text. There’s an irresolvable aporia between a stock photograph and its text, built into their genetics as algorithmic nodes. The image is an illustration of the text, but it was not made for the text. The text is illustrated by the image, but it was not made for the image. The image is appropriated, and made appropriate, by the text. And there is not only one text that may make use of a single image; each can be infinitely reproduced, repurposed and re-appropriated.

Stock aims for the general in order to achieve longevity and economic viability, but it also rewards canny specificity—specific images better fit specific needs, and the task of producing stock is a task of plugging in to specific niche markets. Images are uploaded to massive networked databases, where they become available for prospective buyers to purchase and use, with a wide variety of regulations in terms of legal specifications and copyright laws. All of this occurs through the apparatus of the computer. Because stock, a contemporary, interfaced photography, is a paragon of the ground between art and science, it becomes neither—as Flusser writes, “[The new photography] renders possible a total art Wagner never dreamt of.” We can extend Groys’s analysis and say that the political surroundings that our self-designs inhabit is the endgame of Flusser’s “total art,” where we are no longer true subjects; we have replaced our subjectivities with experiential apparatuses, the necessary and increasingly omnipresent interfaces through which we access the Internet.

The political situation of Groys’s “obligation to self design” disregards the traditional cultural border limit between the self and the self’s production. And this is a purposefully ambiguous phrase; the self’s production—both that which the self produces, and the process of the production of the self. If self-design is art (and it surely began to pass for art as late as the 1960s in the United States and Germany, with Warhol and Beuys, and more recently with artists like William Powhida and Genesis Breyer P. Orridge), it puts in a tenuous position contemporary commercial art, which has subsisted by learning to sell immateriality by appropriating social and theatrical models. But this social practice is only another format for self-design, using interpersonal (or often, importantly, international) relationships as a way to insulate and aestheticize the self within an aesthetic design. In this way, contemporary, professionalized art practices are made distinct from the deprofessionalized self-design discussed above in that, on the level on which they operate, they do away with the apparatus as a mechanism of production and rely, instead, on the market and its network of curators, critics, gallerists, fairs and literature.

Stock images, as professional image productions, are in stark counterpoint to contemporary deprofessionalized image productions. Following the lineage I’ve mapped, where artistic production is supplanted by totally deprofessionalized image production by the mass public and social networks (on- and offline but always on a screen), professionalized image production is actually identifiable and characterized by a taxonomy of imagistic aporia, where the gap between the surface of the image and the information it carries is built into the nature of the image format. The image, then, is a sort of sublimated palimpsest. It is not the surface of the image that is processed and rewritten, but the information that it carries; the image itself fully precedes its subject. But stock photos are designed to accompany text, and as such always invoke an unknown and even unwritten ghost text. Professionalized, aporetic image-making; deprofessionalized, networked production; and professional contemporary art all rely on texts to explicate and disseminate the information they carry. The question of this text will be the key to dealing with the new aporetic image.

If the tactics of appropriation art were exploitative (at the very least, from a legal perspective), the aporetic image introduces a distinctly new relationship between the image and how it is “read,” wherein the image asks to be exploited. So, how to exculpate the aporetic image of its market-induced exploitation? Professional contemporary art is beginning to attempt to do so, in Ryan Trecartin’s videos, for example, which embrace the aporetic image as it is; the videos are about, and simultaneously neglect, narratives. R.H. Quaytman’s “chapters” of paintings eschew actual text while simultaneously embracing the taxonomy of literature and the reproducible nature of contemporary images. Younger artists proactively use text, like Max Pitegoff and Calla Henkel, who write quasi-personal critical narratives and follow the fault lines of this new image-text split by publishing them via their website, alongside their photographs, and use pages of text as sculptural elements in installation. Recent work by Timur Si-Qin also investigate the aporetic image by relocating it in sculptural, rather than virtual, space. It’s easy to see these kinds of works as being ‘about’ the art world, or art history, or the social; but it might be more useful to begin to frame these practices as responding to the new situation of the self-exploiting image in the age of self-design.