Home > Uncategorized > mediamodes at sva this weekend

mediamodes at sva this weekend

it’s around 10pm sunday night. i’m currently on a flight back from new york. there was a lot going on in new york this weekend. i was able to catch a few talks at the new school’s conference on the internet as factory and playground: lisa nakamura gave a great talk on how virtual worlds need a civil rights movement; alex galloway spoke on how racism is operating today; mckenzie wark gave a talk called ideologies of praxis on hackers, gamers, workers, and hustlers; and patricia clough gave an amazing lecture on affect, immeasurability, and branding. all in all, it was quite an incredible mix of scholars.

on saturday, i gave an artist talk at the school of visual arts. i was on a panel with 3 other graduate students. there were 2 artists counting myself, and 2 humanities students. our panel was called “processes and aesthetics of digital art.” in this post, i would actually like to focus on one talk in particular, on the pixel in digital photography. i was very troubled by this paper–not only did i think it was just flat out wrong it what it was saying but the very methodology that was used made me reflect upon larger issues of the ethics and duties of a scholar (especially when one choses to talk about images of war torture, violence, etc.).

i’d like to just first lay out some points from the paper and then move on from there. to be brief, the paper simply argued this: that whether or not an image is digital or analog, people cannot perceive a difference, so thus, because analog photography came first, we think the image as analog and therefore the digital image is always inferior. the digital image was claimed to have a “pre-determined aesthetic sensibility” (hmmm, sounds like technological determinism to me here) and that the pixel is always a “technical crutch to see other images” (a bizarre sort of privileging indeed!). Again, it was claimed that the digital image, comprised of pixels, only appears as traditional photography.

there are so many issues going on here i struggle with where to begin. it seems to me, on a very basic level, what has failed to happen in this paper is to understand and illustrate the difference between thinking about the technicity of the pixel–that is, just understanding practically what a pixel is, and the way a human would sense, perceive, experience, relate to this pixel within the framework of a digital photograph. to say that the pixel comes with a pre-determined sensibility completely misses what the human looking at the image brings along with it…a vast array of interpretive strategies and sensing capacities. how can we ever say that two people experience the same photograph in the same way? is not an “aesthetic sensibility” a relationality? what is there to be pre-determined experientially in a digital photograph?

this points to the fact that we cannot simply privilege the older analog photograph above the digital…nor can we simply link them together as the same thing just because they may look the same. aren’t they 2 very different things?

in this paper, it is claimed that people always experience the digital photograph as a “traditional” photograph. if we even grant the license to refer to older photography as traditional, where does this claim actually get us? what does it mean for a scholar to speak for and make claims that humans only experience the digital photograph in an incredibly narrow manner? i would want to argue that the digital photograph can never appear as a traditional (or analog) photograph because it is not a traditional (or analog) photograph. it seems that we need to completely scrap this way of discussing the image because it evades commenting on what the photograph technically is as well as the situatedness of human experience.

if it’s even possible to believe, the talk moved from these propositions to a discussion of digital war photographs, specifically the now infamous images from abu graib. in quite a shocking passage from this paper, it was claimed that it was absolutely irrevelant that the images from abu graib were digital….again because they are experienced by humans without an ability to differentiate whether the image is digital or not. besides the fact that this is clearly making a lot of people in the world appear much dumber than they actually are, the paper completely misses the important point here about the digital. it is the very nonvisual aspects of the digital image here that prove that it absolutely makes and did make a difference that the images were digital (and hence, comprised of pixels) and not analog. digitality allowed the images to rapidly circulate and spread beyond governmental / military control. and was it not the time code (something absolutely specific to the digital image and not necessarily contained within / on the analog) that enabled the time line of when the images where taken to be constructed (we watched a clip of this in class, right?).

it seems that with the digital image there is a delicate balance that must be carried out when critically engaging with it that must incorporate its technicality (which is visual and nonvisual), the ways it is experienced, as well as how it is contextualized and situated within the world.

in a confusing twist, the end of this paper ended with the claim that the digital image appears more “real.” i’m just going to avoid questioning what real even means here, but i do what to point of that if anything, in the age of photoshop and the ease of digital mutability, wouldn’t we always think of the digital image as always less real than the analog, precisely because its alterability, more often than not, is seamless and imperceptible….

to put it bluntly, this paper made me so frustrated that i immediately challenged the presenter during the q&a on these points. they were very hastily and defensively brushed aside. even more interestingly, an art instructor from sva in the audience claimed my point was “elitist.” this was quite a fascinating moment because i was actually calling for a critical engagement for what exactly the pixel is along with simply recognizing that people experience the surface / appearance of an image in a multitude of ways. so if what i said was too “elitist” for the artist or scholar in the context of a graduate event actually subtitled, “critical thinking with art, technology, and media,” then what should have been said? unfortunately, this experience brought forth the all-too-familiar art school experience….which is constantly battling against anti-intellectualism. that many artists just want to make beautiful things and not only have no interest in other critical matters but get incredibly defensive / argumentative when they are discussed.

what i’d like to say is that i think this paper is an ethical and political mishap.

during the q&a, the presenter stated they did not like digital art. but, is it really necessary to “like” digital art” to write this paper? sometimes, isn’t it necessary to write about things we don’t like or even hate? thus, what does this paper do? where do the claims in this paper take us? is there not a duty of sorts to the images of abu graib? it seems to be that liking here is what has faulted the paper from the beginning. exposing their preference for analog, traditional photography, this completely molded the “argument.”

interestingly, the presenter also said that the “pixel is like a brick.” again, the pixel is not a brick. a pixel is a pixel. don’t we need to start with that to push forward any type of critical engagement with the pixel?

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