[Editor’s note: IMG MGMT is an annual image-based artist essay series. Today’s invited artist, Seth Price presents an essay challenging the traditional photo essay format. Born in 1973, the artist has widely exhibited internationally at Capitain Petzel Berlin, the Kunsthalle Zurich, Institute of Contemporary Arts London, Friedrich Petzel New York, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, and the Whitney Biennial. Price lives and works in New York City.]
1. Ritualized Unknowing
People keep trying to get a handle on what’s happening. There’s a fear that others are hastening to make startling connections among the raw material, tracing lines between points we didn’t even know existed. Exacerbating this anxiety is the fact that despite its supposed insistence on the consolidation of knowledge and the worth of information, the Internet produces ritualized unknowing. You could say, however, that this is a good thing, for it provokes a desire to remystify the frenzy of technological change through ritual, through a personal and allegorical rehearsal of what is perceived to be a manic and distorting increase in density, a compression exponentially telescoping in reach and magnitude.
To tame this frenzy we are offered the calming linearity of lists. While the persistence of the list as a constraint on the Internet’s data-cloud may simply be due to the persistence of small rectangular monitors, the list is clearly one of the chief organizational principles of the Internet. Search engines return lists; news is funneled into aggregations of that which is most flagged or emailed; blogs garnish their teetering stacks with the latest entries; a web page itself typically extends downward in a scrolling, implied list.
In recent years, some people have adopted the list form only to strip it to its foundation, yielding ultra-simple pages consisting of sequences of images cobbled together with little or no explanation, each image radically different from its neighbors, each likely to confound, amuse, or disquiet. These web pages are often “personal” pages belonging to artists or groups of artists. Text is relegated to minimal captions in these Internet wunderkammern, and sometimes abolished entirely.
Let’s call such a page a hoarding. The word can refer to a stash of collected goods, but can also mean a billboard, or the temporary wall thrown up around a construction site. The look of the hoarding is similar to that of a particular type of artist’s book that has flourished in the last 15 years or so, featuring page after page of heterogeneous images, a jumble of magazine scans, amateur snapshots, downloaded jpegs, swipes from pop culture and art history alike, some small, some full-bleed, none with explication. The similarity is not coincidental, for “the last 15 years or so” defines the Internet age as we know it, with its ubiquitous, colorful mosaics, evidently a powerful influence on publishing of all kinds.
What can we say about the experience of scrolling through a hoarding, trying to understand the procession of pictures? As in traditional fashion magazines, we find excitement and confusion in equal measure, with one catalyzing the other. Beyond that, it often seems that any information or knowledge in these pages is glimpsed only through a slight fog of uncertainty. Has an image been spirited out of the military defense community, or is it journalism; is it medical imaging, or pornography; an optical-illusion, or a graph; is it hilarious, disturbing, boring; is it doctored, tweaked, hue-saturated, multiplied, divided; is it a ghost or a vampire? In any event, the ultimate effect is: “What the fuck am I looking at?” Something that hovers in your peripheral vision.
One might ask, how does this depart from the queasily ambivalent celebration of the image that has characterized the last fifty years of pop culture, possibly the last century and a half of mass media? It could be the muteness of the offering, the lack of justification or context. But the observation that modern media divorce phenomena from context is a commonplace, and usually an invitation to reflect on the increasingly fragmented nature of experience. A hoarding is notable because while it is a public representation of a performed, elective identity, it is demonstrated through what appears to be blankness, or at least the generically blank frenzy of media.
This may be a response to the embarrassing and stupid demands of interactivity itself, which foists an infantilizing rationality on all “Internet art,” and possibly Internet use generally, by prioritizing the logic of the connection, thereby endorsing smooth functioning and well-greased transit. Recourse to the almost mystically inscrutable may be understood as a block to the common sensical insistence on the opposition of information to noise, and as a form of ritualized unknowing.
It could also be a dismissal of the ethos of self-consciously generous transparency that characterizes “web 2.0”: the freely offered opinions, the jokey self-effacement, the lapses into folksiness in the name of a desire to forge reasoned agreement and common experience among strangers. It is wise to mistrust this earnest ethos, which is inevitably accompanied by sudden and furious policing of breaches in supposedly normative behavior. This is not to argue that such consensus building is disingenuous, rather that it is simply politics, in the sense that politics is at heart concerned with separating out friends from enemies. In this view, the hard-fought equilibrium of an orderly on-line discussion is indistinguishable from its scourge, the flame war: reasonably or violently, both aim at resolution and a kind of confirmation of established precepts. Might a hoarding—a public billboard that declines to offer a coherent position, a temporary wall that blocks reasoned discourse—escape the duty to engage ratio and mores and resolution, in a kind of negative utopian critique? No, it probably cannot. But the perversity of its arrangement of pictures speaks for itself, and what it speaks of is manipulation.
Most design structures are short-lived, particularly on the Internet, and the “hoarding” will likely prove to be a breath in the wind. Can we say anything conclusive about the images, which themselves may indicate more lasting trends? Apart from their presentation, they often share an uncanny quality, a through-the-looking-glass oddity that stems from a predilection for digitally assisted composition, itself a synecdoche for manipulation. A given picture may have been generated by a graphics workstation, or it might be a found snapshot or news photograph subjected to alteration. Either way, what is proposed is a cybernetic vision, and a reflexive one: in gazing back at the emerging outline of a history of manipulation, it surveys its own slippery body, a snake coldly assessing the contours of recent meals. It has made a meal of news and sports and weather, of the military and medical establishments, of charts and diagrams, of jokes and games, of sex. It is interested in the abstraction and distortion of human expression and human form. The apotheosis of this tendency would be the computer-generated body, and, going further, computer-generated pornography.
So, is it computer-assisted perversity that is new about these images? Doubtful, though one could argue that the Internet makes it easy to circumvent traditional ethical standards since, should your current community sour on you, you can in effect join another, or start one from scratch. In a realm of numbers, it’s easy to form new islands at the leading edge of settlement. In such a realm it may not be possible to be crass, to step over the line, to incur that ignorant bit of finger wagging: “it’s a slippery slope.”
3. Teen Image
There are certain words, body-words like “fuck” and “shit” and “cunt” and “asshole,” which children and adults use freely, but hide from one another. The child knows the adult says it, and vice versa, but each pretends innocence around the other. Somewhere in the middle, however, the overlapping diagrams yield a portion of people who may say “fuck” with proper ownership of the term, who speak with the “devil-may-care” brio, panache, ésprit, élan, of the teenager.
A piece of computer-generated pornography is a teenage image. It is simultaneously ominous and absurd, empty and charged, futuristic and passé, and this uncanny indeterminacy disturbs nearly everyone, much the way a teenager standing in the street will discomfort both younger and older passersby. The teen image (the phrase is less awkward than “hoarding”, in fact suspiciously catchy) contains not only agreement and commonality but the antagonism and contradiction buried within common experience. It’s dumb, and it’s cunning. It skittishly glances both ways at once. It sees past and future alike. It’s like Janice’s face.
Speaking of pornography, why might it be that in this arena the genitals are usually shaven? A cock certainly appears longer when its nest of obscuring hair is freed from the base of the shaft, but this wouldn’t explain the frictionless cunt, the waxed asshole. It could be that such depilation comes out of a notion of cleanliness, of propriety even, an aversion to hair as a stand-in for dirt and disorder. This would be understandable in the sense that disorder is a mechanical irritant, and the removal of hair facilitates smooth functioning so that parts A and B may fuse with minimal resistance, speeding us toward our goal. This seems like a promising answer, in part because all pornography outside the printed page occurs in playback, and therefore can be understood as a time-based process inscribed within capital, technology, and all the rest; within the logic of the Internet, it’s one more successful link. If we could only do everything on-line!
On the other hand, a smooth asshole is a young asshole. Maybe in pornography the genital hair is removed because this slight deviance suggests the body of the child. However, while deviance is usually bluntly and reflexively reduced to sexual difference, and while our time and place considers sex with children to be among the “most different” and therefore proscribed behaviors, in this case the shaven genitals might refer not to some helpless morsel but to ones’ own, long-forgotten, pre-pubescent self. Another deviance altogether! To identify with that self is to confront an uncanny wraith, mostly due to the stubborn difficulty of recollection. Try to remember your distracted gaze downward, idly taking in the young self, the true self beyond mirrors or photos, a slippery body spied from headless central command, the smooth genitalia at the center. Not only is the picture hard to envision, but in attempting to do so you’re forced to imagine a naked child. Anxiety intrudes, at which point the ego asserts: “Not to worry, it’s supposed to be us! We hold the rights to this one.” This uneasy vacillation marks it as a teen image.
Computers have the opposite problem: they face significant challenges when asked to represent hair, wrinkles, dirt, slack wattles—in a word, aging. Irritatingly vigorous and robust, CGI is best suited to representing children, or, as in so many animated films today, adults as children. Whether shaven genitalia register a desire for childhood or simply an ambivalence about aging, it makes sense that CGI would be perfect for pornographic use.
So, can we say there is something special about a computer-generated rendering of a smoothly hairless child-adult having sex with another child-adult? (Child on adult? Child on child?) We can say this, yes, though with hesitation, and maybe sotto voce. But there is a clear relationship to popular images, even if it may not transcend the observation that we are intensely interested in images of sex and images of youth, and that in such a picture they overlap nicely. Maybe we should leave all this for others to resolve, merely noting in closing that while violence and domination are reprehensible, there’s nothing inherently wrong with finding children sexually arousing.
Art is sometimes taken to be a kind of seismograph that registers the effects of cultural change. In this view, art’s objects and gestures yield distanced reflection and insight: from the frenzy, a distillation. But the term ‘ritualized unknowing,’ used above in reference to the Internet, could also describe a response to the banal condition of trying to understand what’s happening that one finds in art discourse, which seeks to explain how art explains, to show how art shows, to suggest what art is trying to suggest.
There is a paradox in the very attempt to understand an unfamiliar art practice, which today is usually initiated through the medium of two-dimensional or screen-based images. Initially you grapple with a nebulous apparition in your mind’s eye, a suspicion that something hovers beyond with no name forthcoming, but this sense of looming energies and meaning often shrinks when you finally inspect the actual artworks, which reveal themselves to consist of mere objects or gestures, as do all artworks. No matter how powerful the work, you’re tempted to say: “But this is just…” Just an object, just a gesture. It would be a mistake, though, to think that your disillusionment upon scrutinizing the “actual” art is a bad thing. A gap has surely opened in your experience of the work, but art depends on this split between the fragile interiority of speculation and the more public and bodily activity of looking, which partakes of space. Your first impression, rare and valuable as it is, is only richer for the betrayal.
Frenzy might in fact be homeopathic, its anxiety-producing presence a spur, although rather than encourage the articulation of meaning, it encourages existing chains of associations to fold in a strange and unanticipated way, aligning incompatible ideas and holding them in awkward proximity. For example, a human body subjected to frenzies of processing is an aggressive and disturbing alienation, but the threat is also fascinating; like a gif-compressed headshot, a Cubist portrait recalls the ancient ritual gesture of donning a mask or hood, and the ambivalent pleasures of othering oneself. Fashion also hunts this path.
“We were trying to get to this place—it was me and you, I think, and some other people—and it was a little like my house ”¦ Although, well, it was my house, but it didn’t look like my house, somehow. And we were trying not to be seen.”
Why does this stumbling sentence so clearly represent a dream in the telling?
Bernd Porter’s “Found Poems” from 1972. Pieces of heterogeneous printed detritus, reassembled and presumably rephotographed in the printing process. It’s nice to think that these collages, which were probably laid out carefully, aided by facsimiles, white-out, and tape, existed alongside the book, rather than being subsumed or created through the process of publishing and distribution, as is often the case with internet ‘collage’. Computers conceal distance; their collage move consists of juxtaposing elements that might be stored hundreds or thousands of miles apart, giving an illusion of spatial continuity.
A commercial stock illustration book, “Art Stock,” from 1986. Most of the illustrations are quite small advertisements for what could be purchased in full size; for some reason the (French) publisher chose to highlight these two paintings. Often these kinds of stock illustrations are filled with symbolic meaning but kept purposely ambiguous so as to appeal to as broad a customer base as possible.
“World of Fashion”, February 1876. In general, the form of the fashion magazine as we know it is virtually unrecognizable here. First of all, illustrations of any kind were scarce. This was a point relatively early in the growth of the magazine as a popular form; photos were not yet used by this sort of publication, and presumably lithographs were expensive and time consuming. This page, one of the few full page illustrations in the magazine, shows the kind of thing women looked to a fashion magazine to provide: an array of stitches and hemlines, to be reproduced at home.
Something increasingly popular in the last few years: the representation of books through dispassionately photographed spreads, often with the surface on which they rest peeking around the edges. An almost clinical approach to a historical overview, one used by this feature itself. A little precious, maybe, but a natural reaction to what has happened to images in the last 15 years: a conscious choice not to use scanners and a striving to represent the book as object, rather than one more brief stop for images on their way from one place to another. It does make it hard to read the text and enjoy the pictures, which is an interesting wrinkle, until it gets over-used. This is from “The Purple Anthology,” 2008.
“Hobo Codes” supposedly inscribed in public places as coded messages to like-minded passersby: “Well-guarded house”, “Dishonest man”. Recently these were used in AMC’s TV show Mad Men, maybe to make an ambiguous point about how the power of signs and symbols was revealed to a future advertising executive. From “Graffiti”, Reisner, 1971.
Giger. The “father” of biomorphic illustration and set design, most famously for Ridley Scott’s Alien, though also for various album covers and a series of art based on the Swatch watch. Obsessed with an eroticism tied to distortion. His images are as much about entropy and decay as they are about sex or futurism: the mortification of the flesh and the breakdown of the machine are equally important. From “Necronomicon 2”, 1985.
Aquarian age. Characteristic illustration style of the time: dense organic patterning and baroque decoration rendered in a humble line, a spidery hand; homespun naÃ¯vete or faux-naÃ¯vete; the suggestion of a synthesis of nature and human. This one accompanies a feature on Natural Childbirth, from “Aquarian Angel”, 1972.
Example of an illustration that obscures rather than illuminates the text. This diagram from a self-published book called “Radiations: The Extinctions of Man,” which I found at a church sale. Musings on technology, art, and human existence, all in impenetrable language. As far as I could tell there was no author named anywhere in the book. Probably early 90s, judging from MacPaint patterns used elsewhere in the book.
Nearly 30 years old, this book imagines fashion of the future. White pompadour wigs never did spread among men, although that guy looks pretty good. It is fashion illustration that has apparently not changed much: the amazingly tapered, spindly legs, legs purely as risers, display stands for the billboard of the torso. From “Fashion 2001,” by Lucille Khornak, 1982.
Atelier Populaire posters, 1968. Archetypal images of protest, here stamped with the hardcore pedigree of les soixante-huitards. The raised fist, an arrow upwards, a symbol comprised of people… The English translation doesn’t seem very punchy, but maybe more interesting for that: “the initial start for a protracted struggle”. “Ã‰lan” would have done fine in English too, but maybe would have trivialized the message (too close to Esprit?). From “Atelier Populaire”, 1969.
Reproductions from a reprinting of Andrea Alciati’s Emblematum liber, 1531. Emblem Books were popular compendia featuring page after page of epigrammatic texts, normally with illustrations. A reader coaxed meaning out of the combination of picture and text. Sometimes it seems as if the text was generated to explain the picture, and with others it’s the reverse. One notorious emblem remained long unillustrated, for it described the act of literally shitting where one eats: “This act stands for all offenses exceeding the canonic measure of sacred law”¦”