R. Gerald Nelson’s DDDDoomed essay has been making the rounds lately and it sparked a healthy amount of curiosity and note-taking on my part that I felt I wanted to share with some reactions. The essay is published as the first volume of eight in Nelson’s Making Known Img Ctrl series based out of Minneapolis. The image heavy text is “crafted as a speculative fiction that unfolds from the perspective of a future commentator reflecting back and theorizing about the factors that brought about the dysfunctional state of the contemporary image world.” The highlights and corresponding notes aren’t presented in their original linear order, but instead I’ve decided to skip around.
As a way of introducing the text, Nelson formulates a biting critique of how web-based image aggregators (abbreviated to “IA” henceforth) such as ffffound.com and tumblr are constantly undermining the cultural task of curation. Nelson points to several projects, including the amazing Voyager Golden Record overseen by Carl Sagan, that at first appear very similar to what IAs provide. Nelson emphasizes, however, that the deliberateness found in the cataloging work by John Baldassari and Ed Ruscha show a particularly accute understanding of the “‘unsexy’ non-visual history” embedded in images that IAs tend to ignore.
As [Cluade] Lévi-Strauss pointed out, ‘painting was perhaps an instrument knowledge but it was also an instrument of possession… Likely to their own regret (or so I hope), like many rich Italian Merchants long before them, many IAs likewise chose to use their collected images as ‘instruments[s] of possession’ rather than ‘instrument[s] of knowledge.’ The fundamental difference was that the IA’s possessions, while still defined by their relative materiality, were not physical in nature. Instead, in relying upon photographers and Internet image producers as their agents, IAs (with their ‘rich’ collection of images) apparently possessed what was commonly referred to as having keen awarenesses for so-called relevant styles and certain esoteric cultural artifacts of a digital nature.
Although Nelson never specifically ties this sense of ownership to the surmounting agency found within digital frameworks (see Janet Murray), the “posting as ownership” tendency within IAs is certainly a dangerous trend. I find it interesting to connect this amassing of content/imagery to the habits and behaviors found within the museum. Generating traffic and distribution through the narrow bandwidth of filtering systems that IAs enable is akin to the selectiveness of the permanent collection exhibitions of contemporary art museums. The “success” of any one image, painting, or object both within IAs and within the museum is dependent on distribution of its reproduction. This can be extrapolated into determining the “wealth” of any particular institution or image-object as being beholden to the traffic that is generated towards, or around, its presences or location.
Something else tucked within the quote above is this determining how IA-like activity can be likened to the collection of “artifacts.” I’m under the impression that this term is not deliberately used to identity these images as having an archeological undertone, but I am nevertheless drawn to the wordplay between artifact and artificial since Nelson does distinguish IA collections being invested in non-material object-images. I’m also considering the play between the non-physical and the superficial since Nelson positions this report as a fictional future-sighted account of a moment in Internet history (a future-artifact itself). This recursiveness is something in and of itself that can potentially undo, or complicate, the otherwise linear, archival, and progress-based mentality of IAs.
As we delve into the meat of Nelson’s text, we find that his primary critique of IAs revolve around the lack of critical inquiry of found material online. “What became evident to many was that IAs were capitalizing only on the aesthetically engaging qualities of imagery circulating online – their activities, increasingly, and eventually completely, dismissed an image’s history and its essential identifying information.” I’m curious to know what capital is being exchanged here other than hipsterism and/or “net-cred.” Although IAs generate revenue from adds on their sites, I’m not certain than any specific user is getting a substantial cut from any of that profiteering, and perhaps the criticism that Nelson is making here is the unconscious participation of capitalism through the guise of “free exchange.” Locating this fault with an engine and not it’s users is an important distinction to make. Although I think there are always alternatives to the default tumblog, the unfortunate consequences of this unwitting cooperation into fiscal market exchange is perhaps something unavoidable at this stage (or something that should be taken to task).
By devaluing each image’s potency as an autonomous object, IAs were effectively exaggerating the worth of their role by convincing the viewers of their websites that their assembled collection – as a whole which fails to properly recognize any of its constituent parts – was, paradoxically, to be the sole object of spectacle.
In this quote near the closing remarks of his publication, Nelson points us to the pivotal flaw of IAs as curatorial devices: namely, these sites rely upon their quantitative material wealth as opposed to a potential qualitative investigation of the contextual/intertextual relationships that images inherently have. Just before this exposition into that failure, Nelson points to a more effective route of image collection that occurs when there is a consciousness involved in “seeking to work in accordance with an image’s ingrained meaning (that is, both its actual and semiotic meaning).” This method, which aims to discover new content from the juxtaposition or compilation of images can combat the otherwise cursory appropriation for the sake of aesthetically likening one image to another.
However, I take issue with the sweeping gesture of lumping all of IA activity into one uniform unaware monster. Even though Nelson gives us specific examples of users and trends within “debased” venues of image distribution (like the “obligatory image [of the] skinny, half-naked, tousled-haired, Brooklyn-girl, shot Terry Richardson style”), I’m not convinced that the unintentional cumulation can’t show us something about our need to interface with visual culture. The fact that there is this sense of urgency and immediacy found within IA communities can speak volumes about the insecurity we suffer as a result of the image bombardment we undergo everyday. In other words, the power (and draw) to the IA spectacle is that we need to be able to create filters of exchange and distribution as a method of delineating preference and personality. That being said, the potential for undermining or circumventing image culture saturation is still folded into the mass-market appeal and commercial apparatus that IAs provide; a problem that could be addressed through moving away from the convenience of default systems and investing in personal customization.
Nelson employs the still incredibly relevant criticism of of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing to locate the technological skepticism within the scope of contemporary art history as well as it’s relationship to traditional/historical fine arts. He quotes Berger at length when discussing how IAs use distribution as an unknowing/unintentional destructive force:
What the modern means of reproduction have done is to destroy the authority of art and to remove it – or, rather, to remove its images which they reproduce – from any preserve. For the first time ever, images of art [and now, also documentary images that epitomizes our cultures] have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way as language surrounds us. They have entered the mainstream of life over which they longer, in themselves, have power.
I would argue that the unfolding of once sacred, kept, or owned imagery from the museum into the mainstream has not rendered their power useless, but instead has shifted their power to be more akin to the power found – as Berger himself suggests – in language (although I think that Berger is actually arguing that the object itself has lost power and not the visual information that the object once held). Language is an everyday utility that hasn’t yet lost it’s power for subversion, poetry, and emotional evocation. Similarly for all the power that the reproduced cultural image has potentially lost in being widely distributed, it has likewise gained through accessibility. I’m not crediting IAs with facilitating this shift of power, but I do wonder if/how the filtering/quasi-curatorial methods of IAs have positively effected our ability to take these once inscrutable images and reformulated them in order to understand their relevance in contemporary image culture. Although IAs have possibly done more harm then help in directing or dissecting how we socially engage with images, they have – in a semi-oblique way – enabled a discourse of understanding our current Ways of Seeing.