Sunday, April 8, 2012

Digital Transmission

This week's readings were interesting, but they also made me feel like a bit of a ludite.  I think I'm in a certain amount of denial or unawareness of the extent of digital technologies for not only making or distributing art, but for human connection in general, though I simultaneously engage with the internet in ways that are useful for me (having a website and blog, photo networking on Facebook, following online publications, etc).

Several interesting themes came up for me throughout all of the readings.  One was the distinction between the internet (or all digital technologies) as a media for dissimenating art versus a media for making art.  This difference seems critical to discussions of digital technology and the effect it has on art making.  The second theme was a financial component.  Many of the discussions centered around the financial elements of both making and showing work online versus the potentially outdated models of shooting film and distributing photography through the book form or gallery system. 

Lev Manovich: The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production?

Lev Manovich begins his article The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production? by describing the phenomenon of social media and user-generated content.  He makes the important point that "this new universe is not simply a scaled-up version of twentieth-century media culture.  Instead, we have moved from media to social media."  (Manovich, 319)

In traditional media, a relatively small number of people are responsible for generating content for a much broader audience, but this is changing with the prevalence of social media.  There is a new democracy to media creation, but with this new democracy comes a lack of specificity or criteria for evaluation (as Amir Zaki beautifully points out in his response to Jason Evans' essay). 

It is interesting to think about who is generating content, and why.  Manovich points out, "in celebrating user-generated content and implicitly equating user-generated with alternative and progressive, academic discussions often stay away from asking certain basic critical questions."  (Manovich, 321)  I was interested that he pointed out this often implicit assumption.  In some ways,the democratization of media means that not only those in power can create media representation, which in and of itself leads to more progressive or alternative media.  But of course, through democratization, anyone and everyone has access to create media from their vantage point, which of course includes less progressive or alternative points of view.

He also pointed out that software manufacturers are now making their products with the specific intention of users altering them, customizing them, and "remixing" from various sources to make things their own, much like one would decorate their home or prepare a meal.  Manovich writes, "to oppose the mainstream, you now have plenty of lifestyles- accompanied by every subcultural aspect, from music and visual styles to clothes and slang- available for purchase."  (Manovich, 324)  This is a fascinating idea to me- is this just another form of capitalist-sponsored individualism?  Is it all a facade?  How unique can you be when you are being sold or marketed the original materials from which to create your identity or existence? 

The idea of constantly streaming ones' life online is also presented in this article as something that will soon be commonplace.  I imagine there has to be a tipping point to this move towards living so publicly, a point where people will find it exhausting or intrusive and refuse to participate.  But is that an option?  And will it be an option moving into the future?  I am always surprised to see the behavior of people even half a generation younger than me in regards to their privacy or social lives.  When I work at summer camps and watch people who are say, 12 to 16, engage with social media, I am fascinated by how different their high school social experience is from mine, which was not even all that long ago.  I think the way people interract with each other has changed so dramatically and so quickly that it will be interesting to see the longer term effects of all of this.  I have read many articles examining the effect of this public living on adolescent development, but it seems like it's too soon to really understand the effects of web 2.0 on people who have grown up with it so intensely.  Of course there is already a culture of people refusing to engage, which makes me wonder if that will become a larger group or if it will remain a smaller subculture- a sense of being radical by moving away from technology, which is something I often encountered in the intentional farming/living communities of Western Massachusetts.  And how does this relate to communities of artists?  What does it mean that you can take and exhibit a photograph in the same day?  That people around the world have access to your work, immediately and constantly?  That we are all engaging with the work of others in a rapid, immersive way?

Manovich also describes the ability of social media and the internet to collapse conversations across time and space.  Some conversations, he claims, are similar to what might take place in a graduate classroom, but with the internet, these conversations can take place by people in different times and locations, and they can theoretically go on forever.  But this again raises the question of quality versus quantity: is this really a better way to converse?

Online Photographic Thinking

Jason Evans' article is interesting, as is the format of the book it comes from.  Words Without Pictures is a fairly interesting case study on its own, as the production of the book is attempting to grapple with the new ways that artists, practitioners, curators, critics, etc engage with and talk about art.  It is essentially an archived hard copy of a series of online and in-person conversations about art that took place over the course of a year.  Similar to the internet, this book has collapsed important discussions across time and space, and then made the choice to archive them in a real-world, tangible book.  It is also part of what I see as a growing movement of practitioners engaging in criticism.  Perhaps this has always been the case, but it seems that with the move towards social media and user-generated content such as blogs, more and more practitioners are contributing to conversations about the fastly changing medium of photography. 

Another interesting book in this vein is Will Steacy's The Photographs Not Taken, which started as an online project and was recently released as a book.  And also Michael Werner's Two Way Lens, though this has remained online as far as I know.  On Friday night I was having a conversation with (and being interviewed by) Caleb Cole, a Boston-based artist who is starting a website where he creates hour-long interviews with artists that will be available for streaming or download called Art is Neat.  Who, we wondered, is creating resources and content for artists?  Who is archiving this history?  In Boston, at least, there used to be an amazing online journal called Big, Red, & Shiny, which ran for many years and archived the city's artistic practice in a fantastic way.  But, as these things tend to do, it eventually ended due to lack of funding and a desire on the part of the artists behind it to do something different, and nobody picked up the slack.  The newspapers certainly aren't covering these things, and the theorists are too slow to respond (and sometimes too far removed from the practice to be relevant).  So it's up to practitioners, it seems, to create their own archives, critical discussions, and communities of engagement (which is encouraged in Lester Pleasant's response to Evans' article).

I think it was in a copy of Photograph magazine that I read Catherine Edelman bemoaning the lack of a permanent arts writer position on the staff of the Chicago Tribune.  Perhaps we can't look to traditional media anymore for the coverage they used to provide. 

Anyway, back to Evans' essay.  Evans starts by saying he is "underwhelmed by photography's presence online and the lack of innovative explorations of the new medium."  (Evans, 40)  This is interesting to me because I actually would choose the word overwhelmed in regards to the internet, and not necessarily in a positive way, though perhaps this has to do with the overwhelming quantity of work available online, not with a new and innovative use of the medium.  The discussion about what kind of engagement that photographers are looking for is interesting.  Can you measure success in number of hits to a website?  Is size of the audience really the goal, or is it a more critical and meaningful engagement?  Will it soon become a radical act to hang pictures on a wall and force people to engage with them for more than 5 seconds?

The benefits of the internet to distribute photographic work are profound- think Flak Photo, Fraction Magazine, Daylight Magazine podcasts, online versions of publications such as Aperture, Blindspot, etc- plus the seemingly endless number of blogs and websites that one can navigate through.  On the one hand, it is a wonderfully democratic (though not always free, I might add) way to distribute one's work- but is it really the best way?  Does the work lose something in the process?  Is the goal to peak interest and then have viewers see the work in a different form or is the online presentation the ultimately intended format?  For me personally, the internet functions as a method of distribution and definitely not as the intended viewing format, but this is not the case for others.

One interesting thing in this essay, and in this discussion in general, is the issue of work being not just distributed online, but actually made in a response to or dialogue with the internet or social media.  Penelope Umbrico's work immediately comes to mind, of course, as work that engages directly with the issues of image creation and consumption, whether it's her images of books culled from advertising magazines or sunsets taken from Flickr.  We have looked at many examples of artists working in this vein that I won't repeat here, but the room full of photos taken from Flickr comes to mind as another poignant example.

Penelope Umbrico, 5,377,183 Suns from Flickr (partial), 2009

Penelope Umbrico, Embarrassing Books

Rachel Perry Welty's Twitter performance comes to mind as an example of an artist creating work in direct response to internet technology.  When I saw this piece exhibited in person at the DeCordova Museum outside of Boston, it was displayed on a series of iPhones fastened to the gallery wall that changed their content every minute, engaging with the constant stream of information provided by Twitter and Facebook.

There was also the professional versus amateur debate, and a discussion of the blending of the categories.  What do these terms even mean?  Yesterday morning at O'Hare, the TSA agent hand-checking my film (which she did not recognize) asked me if I was a professional photographer.  This is always a strange question for me, as I do not know anymore what constitutes a "professional."  Does devoting your life to photography count even if it's not how you make your livelihood?  I said yes, as that usually expedites my process and makes the whole engagement easier.  But as I was reading these essays on the plane it made me think of that question again.  What was she asking me, exactly? 

Evans' project The Daily Nice is interesting, and does in fact make me anxious, as he describes in his writing.  What is this fascination with killing your darlings?  Perhaps it is liberating.  I have no idea as I would never do it.  I have seen many other projects where work is created or shown only for one night and then destroyed (or never screened) again (such as the Humble Arts Foundation's Manual Transmission, which they describe as "a one-night exhibition and event that blurs the lines between art viewership, visual spectacle, and minimalist performance")  The idea of creating an experience is interesting, but is it possible to do both?  To have the initial experience of viewing and then also have an archive or history?  Evans quotes his visitor stats: 34,000 visits per month in the winter and 32,500 in the summer,  However, several of the response essays point out the problems with simple stats such as these.  What is the duration of the viewing?  Who is the audience?  What is their level if engagement?  I personally agree with Amir Zaki when he says "it means more to me to have 10 people intentionally spend 20 minutes each seriously engaging with my photographic installations in actual space than it does to know that 100 people happened upon my website, half of whom got there by accident when Googling their favorite guitar virtuoso who happens to share my name, and spent five seconds or less before they were on to yet another adventure."  (Words Without Pictures, 50)

Going back to the financial discussion, Evans' points out the liberation he finds in being able to take an unlimited amount of photographs using digital technology, not worrying about the cost or preciousness of each exposure, and the freedom in sharing these images very cheaply online in a way he could not do in a gallery.  He writes, "an interesting thing about the digital is that it does us good (mentally, anyway) to sometimes put aside the seductive 'thing-ness' of photography (the crumpled papers, the hassles of framing and hanging) and engage directly with the image."  (Evans, 44)  If trends in photographic education are any evidence, apparently other people agree with this notion.  But what is lost in this process?  Is it completely fantastic and liberating, or does it just create a new set of problems?  I personally find a lot of value in a work of art as an object.  For me, the "thing-ness" actually contributes (or doesn't contribute, as it were with digital imagery) to the meaning of the work.  Evans claims that an image made with a 35mm camera doesn't deliver in the same way as an image made with an 8 x 10, but it delivers nonetheless.  Is it a similar moment in photography to the use of the medium by conceptual artists in the 60s and 70s who were not concerned with Photography with a capital P, but instead used the medium for their own purposes, capitalizing on the varied potential of the technology? 

Then, of course, there is the issue of how to profit from such online image distribution, as Nicholas Grider points out, writing "it seems that the nervousness that underlies both Evans's original essay and Zaki's response is not ultimately one of the quality, seriousness, or ontology of photographs circulating on the Internet, but the equally serious question of how to profit from it."  (Words Without Pictures, 52) 

There have been different approaches to this, ranging from paid subscription dowloads to using digital media as a platform or springboard for other projects or sales.  However, the art world as we know it would fall apart if it were democratized.  The essays point out that the art world proper is inherently flawed, yet artists continue to participate in it because it is nonetheless a system with checks and balances, a game with (some) rules.  It thrives on newness and exclusivity- there is no place for democracy in such a system.  In this regard, how does work meant for the internet, or culled from the internet (an inherently democratic medium, assuming a certain level of socio-economic status) engage with the art world proper?  Is it even possible?  Or does it need to create its own system of checks and balances?  Is it possible to have a system where makers and consumers are held accountable without some sense of financial and cultural heirarchy and supervision?  It seems there is freedom in the kind of democracy that web 2.0 offers in regards to art making and art consumption, but it could also very quickly reveal the smoke and mirror effect of the whole art world thing and create a bunch of unorganized chaos.

Digital Images, Photo-Sharing, and Our Shifting Notions of Everyday Aesthetics

Susan Murray's essay examined the ways we currently take and share photographs and compared this to the way this was done in the past.  Examining Flickr as a photo-sharing platform, she writes "Flickr has become a collaborative experience: a shared display of memory, taste, history, signifiers of identity, collection, daily life and judgement through which amateur and professional photographers collectively articulate a novel, digitized (and decentralized) aesthetics of the everyday."  (Murray, 149)

She engages with the reasons behind picture-making.  In the past, people made photographs to record special events: holidays, weddings, births, etc.  In the slightly further past, they also made photographs to record deaths, though this practice is considered taboo today, probably because of the sheer amount of photographs we are (financially) able to make of people while they are alive.  It is no longer the case that the only photograph you might have of someone would be taken after their death.

However, with today's technology, people are able to make endless photographs relatively cheaply.  I am always hesitant to call digital photography "free," because of course that isn't the case.  Now that most consumers and non-professional photographers (and many professional photographers of course) have moved away from using film, the amount of images they can take is endless.  This technology has enabled a move away from photographing only special occasions and towards photographing the everyday.  With the proliferation of Flickr and Facebook, it has become common practice to make and share images of small quirky moments that, perhaps even ten or twenty years ago, would have seemed unworthy of a film exposure.

I was also interested in her account of how Kodak essentially created what we think of as acceptable or encouraged amateur photography (some Kodak ads here).  Much of how we think of photography comes from their earliest marketing campaigns.

Murray writes that "through its advertising... the company defined amateur photography as a practice that could be easily integrated into everyday leisure activities and could be used to express artistic impulses, yet more than anything else was centered on capturing those special moments of domestic life." (Murray, 152)  Murray continues to point out that in the 1960s and 1970s, the snapshot entered the world of art photography, "pointing out the medium's complicated relationship with reality and the construction of family and private life."  (Murray, 152)

There is a direct link between the manufacturers of photographic equipment and the way it is used as a medium, and this link is often ignored.  As Evans' points out, "those who whine about the demise of Kodachrome rarely bemoan the lack of popularity or common usage of the cyanotype.  Those fuzzy thinkers seldom make the connection between a beloved aesthetic and the motivations of the corporation that created it." (Evans, 43)  This idea seems never more relevant than now.  I know that all of us film shooters held our breath while Kodak sorted out its bankruptcy, emerging on the other side with a commitment to continue film production (and handing out free Portra film at the recent SPE conference in San Francisco, presumably to continue building an active client base).

It is interesting to think about how the new accessibility of photography is moving the medium away from the sense of embalming time, as she writes, and towards a more transient experience.  The overwhelming amount of images that we both create and see leaves us no other option than to engage with them in a faster, more temporary way than we ever would have before.  It will be interesting to see where this new direction in photography leads, and what happens when artists engage directly with this sense of transience as the motivation for their work.  I, of course, am also interested in seeing what happens to work that requires a more sustained look, and seeing what artists choose (and are able) to hold on to from the medium's history as its future moves swiftly and wildly forward.


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