Robert Hirsch

From Dots to Pixels: Tracing Truth & Desire

By Robert Hirsch and AnJanette Brush

From U-Turn E-Zine #1, 1999

The human aspiration to create a likeness of someone or something that is deemed worth remembering led to the notion of photography -- an idea and invention that transformed the Western cogitative concept of truth. At the start of the nineteenth century, the majority of people thought that which was rational had to be true. By the beginning of the twentieth century, most people believed that what they saw in a photograph was true. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, industrial-scientific technology has led most people to question the trustworthiness of a photograph, yet people still want to have faith in what a photograph is "supposed" to show them. News reports of apocalyptic theology, such as that espoused by the Branch Davidians or Heaven's Gate, indicate that when people stop believing in something they do not consequently believe in nothing, but are in fact more likely to believe in anything.

Although Poststructuralists have stated that images are nothing but signs which refer to other signs, people continue to rely on pictures as convenient hangers for imparting what they want to believe, insisting that there is a framework of reality and truth somewhere out there. Whether one refers to it as a form of photography or digital imaging, the need for a system for visually identifying and communicating our personal and our shared realities remains a strong human desire. This need is not surprising, as vision is perhaps our most highly developed sense for apprehending our world. Publicly, news events, however edited and staged, are instantly beamed from everywhere around the world so that we might know and consume that world. When something newsworthy happens out of a camera's reach, we understand the imageless event differently, and perhaps it means something a little less. Privately, people not only continue to amass snapshots, but now post images of their newborns on the Web so that far-away family members can get a first glimpse of their new family addition. Contemporary telecommunications technology has made our involvement with picturing the world more immediate and effortless.

During the closing decade of this millennium, however, there has been a transference in how imaging for public consumption is produced, from the half-tone dot of the press to the electronic pixel of the screen. In terms of technology, light-based artists no longer talk much about films, papers, developers, or enlargers. Discussions now center on speed, RAM, and supposedly "archival" inks. But just what have photo-based artists been able to accomplish with these new and expensive technologies for blending reality and desire, technologies capable of making images that can exist without a physical presence but as pixels inside a screen? Most of the time, the result of their experiments is not much more than the illusion of mimicking other media. One now-familiar area of exploration is the linking of the seen/conscious and the unseen/unconscious, generating a "reality effect" the public has come to accept through the production codes of the commercial media. Here, computers generate seamless presentations of truth and yearning that locate satisfaction in the purchase of a product.

What we are witnessing is the transference from an optical/chemical trace of reality to an optic/electronic hybrid that society considers to have an enhanced sensation of genuineness. Synthesis is everything; reliance on a hybrid rather than a "pure" form encourages a rearranging of the "natural" relation of parts. Instead of a predictable, classic presentation, a state of excess hangs in the air of creation. Merely because something can be done, it is done. The simple is jettisoned in favor of the complex, ambiguity takes precedent over the direct as a messy vitality overtakes a designed unity. Ultimately, duality reigns over clarity as a guiding principle in the production of images. The impulse to photographically commemorate all that is worth remembering has evolved into a sheer drive for communication, a drive that has itself become almost more important than what is being communicated.

What is striking in all of this are artists who use new technologies to transcend the confines of traditional representational systems, finding innovative ways of picturing the important and the noteworthy. Such "Kodak Moments" existed long before Kodak cameras, making desire the mother of invention. Whether a finger presses a shutter or clicks a mouse, the active impulse today remains the same -- commemoration. Current technology permits a rapid and seamless combination of photography's indexical and illusional qualities, allowing the identity of a photograph to constantly mutate according to its surroundings. Empowering people with the tools to imprint a notion of reality and desire, as well as evoking their sense of a subject's presence, remains at the core of these photo-based activities. What people consider true, like photography, is dependent on the circumstances surrounding the "facts." And imaging tools are producing a generation with the ability to easily improvise the content of reality, bringing forth artists who are accustomed to inventing worlds rather than merely presenting them.

As contemporary artists take advantage of this expanded ability to express what makes up the "truth" of our world, the signs which once were meant to refer to reality now point to individualized versions of that reality. As artists and citizens alike are becoming adept at creating their realities as well as communicating them, truth is made up by whatever people deem important, and by whatever they choose to subvert. While an average citizen might ask a computer-literate sibling to help post those baby pictures on the Web, for example, Nevada-based artists Diane Bush and Stephen Baskin digitally add images of their utterly fictional children to the "family" portrait on their holiday greeting cards. And numerous other contemporary artists are currently using the ever-evolving new technologies to investigate issues raised by Roland Barthes in his essay "The Photographic Message:" namely, how the way in which an image is formed in this post-optical digital age affects how it is transmitted and received, how the new ways of image formation that have freed photography from the realm of the "Real" have changed the historical syntax and values of image making and image reading, and how these new codes which allow the realization of individual messages might lead toward a resolution of the contradictions between natural, cultural, and personal realities.

One artist involved in such investigations is Gedi Sibony of San Francisco, who sanctions what is seen through technological means over what is seen with the eye. Weather maps, physical manifestations of highly complex system ideas, become Sibony's means to investigate the relationship of form to life.

Gedi Sibony
49.67° N, 31.00° W 11,000 ft (1997, 
34-in x 46-in. inkjet print) Gedi Sibony
Large-scale Iris prints are established from exact areas of weather maps on specific days -- such as the day when two people died in the ocean near Sibony's studio, or the moment at which TWA flight 800 exploded -- which Sibony downloads from the Web. Using this information garnered from an invisible place, Sibony isolates two or three pixels from the global weather map that references that particular time and place and reworks them in PhotoShop. The Web -- a site without a body, accessible only through pixels -- has become a new container of Truths. 

By rejecting the immediate visual world and its art as a descriptive tool that often disregards the potential of an endeavor to relate human experience, Sibony builds a new relationship between the final non-arbitrary abstract form that has been "touched" by various technologies and the specific, subjective experience that created it. The abstract results, based on scientific principles and rules, transcend objective truth and exist within or without human interaction. As in the work based on the drowning victims, the information "hidden" within the aesthetic of the color field images has been removed from a specific event, yet remains precisely related to a particular human experience. Sibony relies on and allows technology, devoid of all but the most tenuous connection to ordinary reality, to explore itself. As viewers we look directly at the "Truth," but have no idea what that truth is. Pushing these boundaries even further, Sibony has removed all of the referential information contained within the maps and replaced it with the familiar television weather map symbols "L" and "H," which mark low pressure and high pressure systems. While these are nothing more than the banal red and blue cut-out letters stuck onto a white wall, they contain within them quoted truths based on millions of fluctuating facts that have the potential to produce infinite reverberations.

Another San Francisco artist looking to the Web for information to manipulate and interpret is Rebecca Bollinger. Bollinger downloads anonymous portraits from the Internet and, using a Sweet Art computer cake-decorating machine which can ice a digital image onto a variety of surfaces in twenty minutes, prints these found portraits on bagels, biscuits, cookies, cakes, and unleavened bread.

(Left) 75 Ingredients (1997, mixed media) Rebeca Bollinger, detail from performance
(Right) Untitled (1997, cookies, cardboard, mixed media) Rebeca Bollinger

This unusual, surprising, and pointedly humorous process points to how the Internet is changing our notions of identity -- fantasy reigns (and perhaps danger lurks) as technology allows people to dramatically alter their identity and their relationship to the physical world.

One of Bollinger's unsettling observations is that the personal home pages from which she takes her portraits follow a rather pre-established commercially based mold. This model is one that is informed by advertising, as people define themselves in terms of companies, TV shows, and movie stars. This trend turns the idea of the snapshot inside-out, with the private becoming public; the notion of private and public are in fact shifting meaning as the family album is being replaced by the family home page. Bollinger's work suggests that new collections of human typologies can be organized from a computer desktop. What took August Sander years of physical travel to produce can now be done from one's desk while drinking a cup of coffee, even if these typologies might be unnaturally impersonal and artificial in their homogeneity.

Bollinger has turned icing into a metaphor for electronic enhancement and consumption. She claims her "cookie'' art can familiarize people with the idea that the Net can be about community and not primarily involved with isolation -- access to others is after all the basis of her search for images. Her work opens an amusing dialogue about virtual communities and the use of baked goods as a traditional form of community exchange (one is lead to think of bake sales, cake walks, neighborly greetings). Underneath the fun, though, there is a chilling side to this work. Bollinger's "cookies" also make reference to the surveillance code that drops a "cookie" into a computer, allowing a user's Web travels to be tracked and recorded. As people willingly surrender their face for public consumption, there is a sense of quiet desperation, a hunger to be seen not for what one is, but as a cyber-creation. The digital world allows the fabrication of a fictional persona without any accomplishments or attributes from the physical world by which to judge its value. And a very real danger of this new communal sharing is that the virtual technology can gobble anything it encounters, making your face merely one more edible "bite" of the information age subject to types of utilization and observation of which you might never be aware.

Madge Gleeson of Bellingham, Washington, elaborates in her own way about reality and surveillance at the intersection with technology.

(Left) Pearanatural (1997, 24-in. x 38-in. x 7-in D print with mixed media) Madge Gleeson
(Right)Illuminated Manuscript (1997, 26-in x 36-in., laser mylar print) Madge Gleeson

To create her images, Gleeson replaces the camera with a scanner to make direct-from-life recordings of ordinary objects. She then "brands" or "codes" these objects to reference the ubiquitous datamining practices which collect personal information on unknown mainframes. Her representations, based on "true" recordings, highlight electronic, ethical dilemmas to our privacy, pointing out that often the ability to get information exceeds the need to know; the development of technology can outstrip the social framework designed to contain it.

Carol Selter of Soquel, California, also takes scans from real life; her subjects, too, are ordinary, though the manner is which she works with them certainly is not. Selter creates her images by recording live animals as they move across a flatbed scanner; around the bed of this scanner she has erected short walls to provide the creatures -- roaches, snakes, mice, ducks, tortoises,rats, and more -- with a contained space for activity.

(Left) Ducklings (1995, 16 1/2-in. x 23-in. Chromogenic color print) Carol Selter
(Right) Cornsnake (1996, 17-in. x 23-in. Chromogenic color print) Carol Selter

The scanner is operated in a darkened room; Selter's computer then serves as a simple conduit to feed these unmanipulated images to a printer. She does not use PhotoShop or other imaging software to produce these images; the result of the interaction between moving organisms and the scanner is a fractured time-lapse pattern unique to each species.

A high-tech update of photographic animal locomotion studies, this series reflects Selter's continued concern for the distortion of nature by humans and their technology. Her unusual, beautiful, and rather jarring images give illustration to a tenuous interaction between nature and machines. It is certainly clever and rather ironic that these digital images rely solely on living activity for their creation by a machine, since today it is often technology which demands and allows for the manipulation of animal subjects. The message of this work is imbued with a real poignancy, as is Selter's past work. For example, in an earlier series -- "Nature Mortis: The Calendar Pictures" -- Selter staged brightly-colored nature scenes with dead laboratory specimens apparently in their natural habitat. Reminiscent of harmlessly optimistic calendar pictures, one only noticed that something was amiss -- that the bird was in fact not hovering but suspended on threads -- on closeinspection. Issues of interference, control, and loss are at the forefront of -- and complicated by -- Selter's investigations of the intersection of nature and technology.

At least since the Renaissance, new optical ideas and effects have been developed to replicate the visual experience of nature as an expression of the desire to further observe, order, and discover elements of the world.Especially in photography, a new aesthetic came to be recognized and accepted as artists and their audiences grew inspired by a world that contained so many phenomena and by the technology that captured them. With what until recently seemed a clear vision of the future of photographic technology, William Henry Fox Talbot believed that "this invention may be employed with great facility for obtaining copies of drawings or engravings, of facsimiles of manuscripts." Now, artists using Virtual Reality helmets allow their motions in this invisible world to generate drawings -- technology writes, but the original we desired to copy no longer actually exists. Nature is no longer the pencil; machines are. The relationship between art and technology has grown to be more reciprocal than ever: what one accomplishes influences the other, the vision of one becomes interesting and integral to that of the other. In his History of Photography, Beaumont Newhall wrote, "as more powerful tools for observation are built, new worlds of form are revealed." Today, the ways in which photo-based imagery shapes and shows us our world are tremendously complicated, and ultimately open-ended, due to the nature of technological developments.

New manners of, and forms for, cultural mediation have been created by technology, as have new contexts for art and artists. Those contexts are interactive, shifting, experiential, and simulated -- affecting who is addressed (and how) as the audience becomes involved in new ways beyond the contemplative level. One challenge is that the language necessary for people to describe what it is they are now seeing is still being formulated. This makes it difficult for people to know what they are seeing because without this language of description they are unsure how to name what they are looking at. This in turn affects presenting organizations who are faced with the new challenges of providing access and introducing these new forms of working to the public. The expansive amounts of virtual visual information make it even more important for people to develop critical aesthetic skills.

Ongoing experimentation due to dramatic progress in both computer hardware and software also demands new responsibility on the part of imagemakers. As mindful artistic work with these machines replaces the initial experimentation, those artists with clear reasons for their involvement with such technologies are forming work that is less derivative and based more firmly on the native characteristics of the new materials. And this often leads artists to comment on the role of technology, to utilize it as an unprecedented tool for access and interactivity, and to show us that what we thought to be true may no longer be the case. It may be that the digital world offers a kind of truth that transcends the facts. As soon as a subject is digitized, whether it is an out-of-focus photograph or an unproven rumor, it becomes sweepingly true. Digital truth is truth without authority and therefore it is incontestable and dangerous as it can create fallacies that prey upon the unreflective. Talbot's comments from his Pencil of Nature (1844) concerning photography's potential for "every man being his own printer and publisher" again take on new cultural dimensions of commeration at the close of the twentieth century, as people attempt to assimilate "unstable" information that has lost much of its former authority. It is up to "every man" to find their own truth by analyzing the universe of dots and pixels.

Hirsch and Brush are planning to present works dealing with the issues discussed in this article at CEPA Gallery in Buffalo, NY during 1999. Interested artists should send their materials and SASE to CEPA, 617 Main St., Suite 201, Buffalo, NY 14203.

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