how does a .jpg feel against your skin?3 January 2019
By Shauna Jean Doherty
By what metrics can you measure a digital object when it is situated in physical space? How (much) does it weigh? How does a .jpg feel against your skin?
In this exhibition, first-time collaborators Sophia Oppel and Blair Swann presented a curated repository of images that link together, often abstractly, in what culminates as a contemporary account of Hito Steyerl’s poor image rooted within the aesthetic milieu of the post-Internet.
Lo-fi and collaged images, molded plastic, and gel transfers held together by painter’s tape are displayed in tandem with the artists’ co-written text, titled “how does a .jpg feel against your skin?”. The essay is written in verse, and through its irregular meter, offers itself as an opaque ode to the Internet. It begins:
What are we –
a chain of relations? (1)
The content of the exhibited works and essay are the result of collaborative Google searches carried out during a residency at the exhibition’s venue, 156 Studio Projects. Here the search engine has played a distinguished role, producing a palimpsest of cultural references, (dis)connected concepts, and reflections on the act of searching (online or otherwise) as the artists vacillate between textual prompts and pictorial outcomes. Incoherent fragments are extracted from the search results, producing an erratic stream of consciousness emblematic of the Internet age.
Conceptualizing the post-Internet relationship between text and image and text as image (consider the computer code that undergirds all online imagery), the numerous stock photos, video projections, and sculptures that comprise the exhibition have not been given individual names. The works hang and are named together, mirroring the online experience that is the homogenous deluge of digital information. The connections between the exhibition’s images and text are intentionally unresolved or—when placed together out of context and focus—are rendered unresolvable. Through the combination of Oppel’s frequent use of retro futuristic materials and techniques, (including laser cutting, heat bending, and the incorporation of acrylic) and Swann’s intuitive use of found images, the two artists derive new textual and visual narratives from decontextualized digital ephemera, which include references to popular interfaces, stock photography, Photoshopped textures, and a multitude of reflective and semi-transparent materials.
My search histories scab.
They shed data like dried skin.
In previous works, Swann has interrogated the colonial gaze through the reappropriation of materials including issues of National Geographic. Often through collage, he visually maps the circulation of images onto the migration of people. In contrast, Oppel’s practice is characterized by a heady weaving of algorithms, software, research, and reading. Here their practices coalesce through an investigation of digital and human networks, imbricating praxis with theory to examine the role of commercial technologies in the Western world, as well as the signifiers of value they produce and perpetuate. Their critique is localized within the images churned out by consumer devices such as the cellphone and the camera. The artists locate even deeper anxieties surrounding accelerated capitalism and digital economies within the hierarchy of digital images, replicating the framework Hito Steyerl used in In Defense of The Poor Image. (2) In it the author examines the circulation of images in digital culture, specifically addressing their assigned value by establishing a duality between what she terms the poor image and the high-resolution image. Taking this critical frame as a point of departure, Oppel and Swann execute an aestheticized union between Steyerl’s theorizations on the digital circulation of images and post-Internet art’s institutionalized musings on the Internet itself.
Steyerl, Oppel, and Swann’s images are all situated within the broad economy of online visual culture, though they find themselves positioned on opposing sides of the post-Internet era—Steyerl at its beginning (3) and Oppel and Swann somewhere else along its continuum. Common to them is a broad criticism of digital technologies underpinned by an understanding that those with access to screen interfaces and imaging technology hold unequal power in the world to those who don’t. (4) Steyerl articulates this cultural moment when she describes the state of Western society as entranced by “an information capitalism thriving on compressed attention spans, on impression rather than immersion, on intensity rather than contemplation, on previews rather than screenings”. (5) The post-Internet takes Steyerl’s diagnosis of the contemporary condition as its driving force.
According to Karen Archey and Robin Peckham, curators of the 2014 exhibition Art Post-Internet, at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, artworks of the post-Internet genre are “consciously created in a milieu that assumes the centrality of the network, and that often takes everything from the physical bits to the social ramifications of the Internet as fodder. From the changing nature of the image to the circulation of cultural objects, from the politics of participation to new understandings of materiality, the interventions presented under this rubric attempt nothing short of the redefinition of art for the age of the Internet”. (6, 7)
The network is central to the circulation of Steyerl’s poor image and to post-Internet art production. The poor image uses the Internet as its vehicle—circulated, transferred, and translated to the point of abstraction, by an altruistic community of uploaders and downloaders. The poor image finds it power, like a virus, in its ability to spread. (8) It is through this rapid distribution that the poor image acquires its key characteristics—low resolution, compression, and reproduction, standing in contrast to the high-resolution image which is magical, fetishistic, and seductive. Oppel and Swann’s images, drawn from the vast database that is Google Image Search, are chopped up and repurposed to favour quantity over definition. In continuing the perpetual flow of digital imagery, they find themselves adrift within a global sea of users.
You are corrosively high-def –
A camouflage unburdened by artefacts.
With no fear of compression.
While Steyerl remarks upon the flattening-out of images in the digital age, Oppel and Swann advance this visual phenomenon to its logical next stage, shifting their digital objects into semi-dimensional space. These visual representations materialize in a translation from the virtual to the physical through the bending, collaging, copying and pasting of hard and semi-transparent materials. In their highly tactile sculptural works, Oppel and Swann have physicalized and propelled the perpetual transfer that is so central to the poor image’s survival.
Given the impulsive trail upon which the exhibition’s foundational images were discovered, their original sources have been lost, leaving the viewer with unmappable images of space travel, kite building, moisturized skin, tongues, and screenshots of YouTube videos stretched across an array of unconventional surfaces. A consistent motif in this exhibition, and in post-Internet art in general, is the “downloading and repurposing of images” (9) drawn from periods of excessive online surfing (10) and the translation of this content into the physical landscape of the gallery. The narrative of the assembled artwork in how does a .jpg feel against your skin? consists of modified spam, screencaps of familiar online platforms, and digitally rendered textures that together continue the process of abstraction inherent to the poor image’s lifecycle.
I’m trying to convert
Into a vector object.
So you can do whatever
you want to me.
With no fear of compression.
Pretending to pretend?
Yes – you can move me
The transference of material from the online world into the white cube gallery is a central concern of post-Internet art, and remains a source of criticism for the genre. Steyerl’s poor image, bastard child of the Internet era, is here reborn as some kind of exalted, commercialized prodigal son. In a 2014 Art in America article, critic Brian Droitcour acerbically describes post-Internet art’s “transactional tendency”: the idea that it is made for the purpose of its own documentation. Droitcour notes that art within the genre is “about creating objects that look good online: photographed under bright lights in the gallery’s purifying white cube (a double for the white field of the browser window that supports the documentation), filtered for high contrast and colors that pop”. (11) This vacuous aestheticization, according to Droitcour, is endemic of the post Internet’s propensity to feed into its own marketability, circulating in commercial art spaces while simultaneously critiquing the Internet’s acceleration of late-capitalism.
Plastic towards a surface.
Oppel and Swann’s extensive use of stock imagery in combination with clear plastic resists further representation: perhaps a conscious deviation from post-Internet art’s highly photographable nature. In documentation posted on both artists’ websites, the works are confounding and illegible: the lasercut letter detailing is unreadable; the works are difficult to differentiate from each other; the mirrors are disorienting; the projections lack contrast and are swallowed up by the wavy surfaces on which they are directed. The depth of the installation (both physical and conceptual) evades online reproducibility. Drawn from the online world and translated into physical space, the exhibition returns its content back to the Internet newly corporeal and indecipherable.
This use of acrylic and other clear materials has further conceptual implications. In digital culture, it is necessary that the surface of the screen remains imperceptible so that information can flow uninterrupted. The monitor must act as an undetected conduit to content. Through the activation of semi-transparent and reflective materials, the artists disrupt the undetectable nature of the digital screens and systems that pervade our lives. Their use of gel, plastic, and resin signals the real world detritus of online objects. (12) Glassy and rigid, translucent and opaque, the artists’ sculptures also physicalize the construct that is the Internet itself, forcibly confronting viewers with a reification of the digital.
Fractured hands holding
Despite their deviation, the works in the exhibition do indeed share aesthetic qualities that dominate the post-Internet genre. The use of digital imagery printed on clear plastic for example, recalls Harn van den Dorpel’s Assemblage (everything vs. anything) (2013) featured in the previously mentioned 2014 exhibition Art Post Internet. An undulating effect applied to a still image is deployed in Oppel and Swann’s video projection as well as in work posted on the Dutch post-Internet artist Rachel de Joode’s website. Finally, the collection, display, and translation of materials sourced from the Internet is the central feature in numerous post-Internet artists’ practices including Jon Rafman, Kari Altmann, Dina Kelberman, and Eric Oglander. As Artie Vierkant observes in the text, The Image Object Post-Internet (2010), “Artists after the Internet…take on a role more closely aligned to that of the interpreter, transcriber, narrator, curator, architect”. (13) These aesthetic and conceptual similarities demonstrate the networked milieu within which the two artists practice.
Smudges on glass,
spots of dust.
Fingers flutter across a screen,
Fingers clasped together,
Steyerl describes the new and ephemeral screens of contemporary image consumption, coveted by viewers across the globe. In this exhibition, screens are multifarious. They are represented pictorially and placed physically in the gallery. A television monitor is laid out on the floor, and corrugated plastic is the base on which screen-captured images are stretched and affixed. The storefront window of the venue is layered with plastic sheets printed with clips from YouTube skincare tutorials, and digital projections are obscured by suspended sculptures and floating images. The pervasive aesthetic influence of web interfaces, the recurring motif of human skin, and an image of a smashed cellphone screen as a centrepiece of the exhibition evidences the artists’ generalized preoccupation with the surfaces of the privileged world. The repeated usage of television mounts to suspend their plastic sculptures signifies a deep engagement with the very hardware of contemporary screen culture.
A copy in motion. Or copies –
through someone else’s body
Oppel and Swann extract their collected images entirely from original contexts and apply their own lateral connections, forging the “erratic and coincidental links” (14) that propel the new economy of image circulation. Their images are unlocatable, drawn from the edges of the Internet and brought together by the authorial vision of the artists, as copies-of-copies traversing worlds online and off. This dislocation and displacement is borne out of the poor image’s rapid dissemination and illuminates “the ungovernable nature of web-based image circulation”. (15) The ubiquity of the copy as a conceptual gesture in post-Internet art is symptomatic of the genre’s emphasis on transmission and reproduction. This condition is also mirrored in Steryerl’s description of the poor image’s tendency towards “swarm, circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities”. (16)
Oppel and Swann experiment within these registers, replicating images of objects from the Internet while demonstrating little regard for their original source. As articulated by Vierkant, in the post-Internet era, “even if an image or object is able to be traced back to a source, the substance (substance in the sense of both its materiality and its importance) of the source object can no longer be regarded as inherently greater than any of its copies…The striking thing about these images is not their content but their availability and the context within which they are now received.” (17) In how does a .jpg feel against your skin? the artists claim their own indeterminate position on the role of the Internet within contemporary art practice. In the transience of the copy, these images touch down on yet another stop in their perpetual circulation, meeting each other for what is likely the first and last time.
- All block quotations are from Oppel and Swann’s exhibition essay.
- Steyerl, Hito. “In Defence of the Poor Image.” The Wretched of the Screen. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012. 31-45.
- Steyerl’s In Defence of the Poor Image was originally published by e-flux in 2009, the same year that Gene McHugh began frequently using the term post-Internet on his blog, 122909a.com. The first usage of the term by an artist is credited to Maria Olson in an interview with former Rhizome Editor Lauren Cornell, in Time Out New York Magazine in 2006. Lev Manovich used the phrase post-Internet as early as 2001 in his widely cited text, The Language of New Media.
- Pereira, Paula Cardoso Pereira and Joaquín Zerené Harcha. “Revolutions of Resolution: About the Fluxes of Poor Images in Visual Capitalism”. tripleC 12(1): 315-327, 2014.
- Steyerl, 42.
- Archey, Karen. Peckham, Robin. “Art Post-Internet.” Exhibition catalogue, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. <http://post-inter.net>
- Chan, Jennifer. “Some Notes on Post-Internet.” You Are Here. Ed. Omar Kholeif. London: Cornerhouse. 2014. <http://www.academia.edu/7508373/Notes_on_Post-Internet>
- Steyerl, 41.
- Gens, Mark. “A Critical Analysis of Art in the Post-Internet”. Gnovis 17(2): 12-20, 2017.
- Cornell, Lauren. “Net results: Closing the gap between art and life online.” Time Out New York Magazine. 2006.
- Droitcour, Brian. “The Perils of Post-Internet Art.” Art in America. November Issue. 2014. <https://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazines/the-perils-of-post-internet-art/>
- Steyerl, Hito. “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?”. e-flux #49. 2013.
- Vierkant, Artie. “The Image Object Post-Internet. 2010. (8) <http://jstchillin.org/artie/pdf/The_Image_Object_Post-Internet_us.pdf>
- Steyerl, 43.
- Archey, Karen. Peckham, Robin. “Art Post-Internet.” Exhibition catalogue, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. 2014. (11) <http://post-inter.net>
- Steyerl, 44.
- Vierkant, Artie. “The Image Object Post-Internet. 2010. (8)
how does a .jpg feel against your skin? ran from August 24 – August 31st, 2018 at 156 Studio Projects in Toronto.
Feature image: how does a .jpg feel against your skin? (2018) by Blair Swann and Sophia Oppel. Photo by Philip Ocampo.