28 November 2013

The Half-life of Images

"Data, sounds, and images are now routinely transitioning beyond screens into a different state of matter. They surpass the boundaries of data channels and manifest materially. They incarnate as riots or products, as lens flares, high-rises, or pixelated tanks. Images become unplugged and unhinged and start crowding off-screen space. They invade cities, transforming spaces into sites, and reality into realty. They materialize as junkspace, military invasion, and botched plastic surgery. They spread through and beyond networks, they contract and expand, they stall and stumble, they vie, they vile, they wow and woo.

"Just look around you: artificial islands mimic genetically manipulated plants. Dental offices parade as car commercial film sets. Cheekbones are airbrushed just as whole cities pretend to be YouTube CAD tutorials. Artworks are e-mailed to pop up in bank lobbies designed on fighter jet software. Huge cloud storage drives rain down as skylines in desert locations. But by becoming real, most images are substantially altered. They get translated, twisted, bruised, and reconfigured. They change their outlook, entourage, and spin. A nail paint clip turns into an Instagram riot. An upload comes down as shitstorm. An animated GIF materializes as a pop-up airport transit gate. In some places, it seems as if entire NSA system architectures were built—but only after Google-translating them, creating car lofts where one-way mirror windows face inwards. By walking off-screen, images are twisted, dilapidated, incorporated, and reshuffled. They miss their targets, misunderstand their purpose, get shapes and colors wrong. They walk through, fall off, and fade back into screens."

From "Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?", by Berlin-based filmmaker Hito Steyerl, appearing in the latest edition of the e-flux journal.

The e-flux journal has volleyed off a pair of thematically-linked editions in the past few months. In the first of the pair, "The Making of Americans", penned by the Slovene[?] conceptual artist known to sometimes lecture in the persona of a back-from-the-grave Walter Benjamin. In the essay, "Benjamin" addresses the shaping of the canon of Modern art during the post-war years; particularly hinging on the role played by MoMA director Alfred H. Barr:

"While walking through MoMA, a majority of the American museumgoers there probably had no idea that what they were seeing was not Europe’s present, but its past. Although all the artworks were from Europe, hardly anyone was aware that the story told through the arrangement of the museum’s exhibits was not European; it was not a European interpretation of modern art. Instead, it was a story told by an American—namely, Alfred Barr. This story did not merely preserve the memory of European modern art, but in fact reinvented it by categorizing artists according to 'international movements' instead of 'national schools.' After the catastrophe of WWII, MoMA began to be perceived in Europe as the most important museum of modern art in the world. By admiring this American museum with the most comprehensive collection of European modern art around, 'natives' of the Old World were unaware that they adopted its story as well—its story about their own art and culture. Gradually, this story became the dominant, canonical narrative on both sides of the Atlantic, determining future developments in Western art for decades to come."

Barr's famous schemtic "tree" makes an appearance, naturally; as does the dissent that arose in the New York art community concerning Barr's Europhilic affinities and the Museum's early tendency of ignoring indigenous artists. What intrigues me is the portions of the essay in which "Benjamin" makes an argument -- re, the divergent nationalist-versus-international perspectives that he attributes to Europe and the U.S., respectively -- that all-but constitutes a counterithesis to that of Serge Guilbaut's axe-grinding How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. Of particular interest is the "view from abroad" section toward the end, in which he discusses government funding for art exhibition during the Cold War years, particularly in light of the "Advancing American Art" political fracas that I wrote about here earlier.

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