Here is a memory: not so long ago, a few years maybe, we bid a final farewell to flawed photography. Previously 35- mm negatives held masses of blurry, over-exposed and badly composed photographs (not to mention those threading strips, the “film ends”) only to be given a new lease of life by people like Géza Perneczky who believed, “The avant-garde, it would seem, is none other than a history of deliberate errors introduced as a substitute for miracles.”1
Here is another memory: the citizens of a great many western European countries spent half the night glued to their television sets on 13 March 1986 to see the images relayed by Giotto. Giotto was the European Space Agency’s first robotic spacecraft. It approached Halley’s Comet at a distance of six hundred kilometres, an event that was televised live by many broadcasting companies. With their coloured patches, the television screens were reminiscent of the best moments of abstract art. Since then images received from the remotest corners of the Galaxy have adapted to our photographically minded visual idiom. The imagerial excitement of Giotto has become a thing of the past. It would seem that changes in modern technology not only make novel objects ubiquitous, soon thereafter consigning them to archaeological memory (remember the VHS tape or the floppy disc?), but also cause numerous traditional forms and images to disappear from our everyday lives. (How could the telephone be illustrated by means of a pictogram?) That also holds true for other sensory experience. The friendly scent of fixing agent in a photo lab has been replaced by the stale smell of plastic DVD cases for today’s young people. Not unlike many visual forms, forms of thought too are eroding in front of our very eyes. Naturally I used Google to find the following quote by H. H.
Price, written over a half a century ago: “We have the misfortune to live in the most word-ridden civilization in history, where thousands and tens of thousands spend their entire working lives in nothing but the manipulation of words. The whole of our higher education is directed to the encouragement of verbal thinking and the discouragement of image thinking.”2
As a teacher of image science at a faculty of humanities, many years ago I myself struggled with my students who at every turn threw texts over the pictures. Then everything changed. The humanities faculties began emptying out, students stopped picking up books, texts and images no longer competed and everyone was attached to Facebook. One consequence was that the constantly rectified metarepresentation of meeting great knowledge was replaced by practices based on superficial knowledge.
Creating descriptions of forms born in front of our eyes (from us?) is no easy matter. Researchers of online society keep trying to convincingly describe the workings of Facebook and the other social media, but their efforts are like those of photographic historians, who sought to write a valid narrative called “photographic history” in a way that they were familiar with a negligible portion of the mass of images out there. Extrapolating, they trusted that the whole would be similar to the part. Social scientists today seem to hope that their use of their own Facebook account or their teenage child’s use of Facebook, together with the available literature can give an idea of the subject.
Whether or not the nature of this “phenomenon” can be known, the digital technology-fuelled cultural turn is an elementary experience of our time. It is the context in which the existence, character and way of operation of many works of the Pictures and Pixels exhibition can be interpreted. To reiterate György Kepes’s old question: do art and science co-operate; does the artist learn from the engineer (and vice versa); to what extent do changes in media and communication excite or embarrass the official actors of the visual arts; what is the landscape outlined by artists; in other words: what is the new image of the world like?
Looking back on papers on image science, it can be seen that the examples they cite are from the phenomenon generally referred to as “art”. The most momentous visual turns of modernity were demonstrated on this corpus of images, practically aligning the history of images with the history of art. This allows for illustration of the autonomy efforts of the image, exploration of features trying to épater la bourgeoisie and the systematic examination of images, only to arrive at the issues of a work’s mediality. Within this paradigm the viewer’s eye or the broader functioning of visual culture were irrelevant. The arguments supported the view that the prevailing artistic avantgarde of modernity was having new experiences and modulating new forms and behaviours that gradually acquired validity in the broader meaning of popular culture.
Then, however, a few cultural turns occurred which, irrespective of digital technology, considerably changed the popular articulated idiom also affecting the arts. Allow me to cite a few examples. The literature likes to refer to the imagery of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and Willy Ronis, with its tiny smiles and everyday drama, as “humanist photography”.
After Robert Frank’s book The Americans came out in 1958, it was no longer possible to take pictures without irony. One might call this the turn of the quotes. (Obviously the history of quotes goes way back in the history if the image; a case in point in modernity being the trapeze artist in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, one of the breaks in representation that rendered earlier modes of narrative obsolete.) Another such turn changed the common twentieth-century outlook – that of photography – in an entirely different way altogether. When in 1970 John Szarkowski, curator at the MOMA, first published the family photographs of the Lartigue family, Diary of a Century, he created the since then unavoidable construct of the naïve photographer. Examples in film include Alphaville, Stalker versus Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Pulp Fiction.
The multifunctionality of these works, not unlike old art, their distance from “high” aesthetics and juxtaposition of many cultural layers seems to have become important all of a sudden.
There are many more examples illustrating the aspects of this cultural-artistic turn. The negative outcomes are clearly visible. Certain forms of expression have become definitively (or at least for a long time) associated with certain eras of history. Identifying the positive outcomes, the phenomena and works evolving in front of our eyes requires certain archaeological skills. For example, one might leaf through the pages of a proto- Facebook which is the prehistory of selfism, “last night” as an authentic layer of time, of role play and the loss of the author. Nevertheless, it can be observed that the “artist as a forerunner” is increasingly becoming an unviable model. Characterised by visual richness and an abundance of memes, user-generated content in online society is becoming widespread, new means (hacking, remix, sampling, copy/paste) have become taken for granted to the point that artistic invention and styling have been thrown off balance.
In addition to reviewing the use of digital photography and the current phenomena of media convergence, Pictures and Pixels presents works that have been, directly or indirectly, created in this powerful force field of media/communication transformation. It will display findings of media archaeology, as well as unusual, novel uses of technical means. Some people will indulge in the overwhelming experience, others will be more interested in the form production practices of everyday interfaces. The exhibition will showcase technological enhancements of artistic materials and tools. On the whole, it will help find our bearings in pixels
and beyond. That is what it has to offer here and now.
1 Perneczky Géza: A korszak mint műalkotás. Corvina, Budapest, 1988.
2 H. H. Price: Thinking and Experience. 1953