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the emancipation of the image through digital technologies Pt.1

The emancipation of the image through digital technologies Pt.1

In this research we are eager to explore and open a conversation within the reconfiguration of the image and the qualities of it through the media apparatus, actualising whatever form of relationalism (material relations) have created the image on us as an object, and how it has transcended its medium and perhaps how we can judge it “as a thing, not as representation” (Steyerl, 2012, p.50).

Screen from ‘In Free Fall’ by Hito Steyerl (2010)

Walter Benjamin, Barthes and Baudrillard are central to this research on matters upon the relation of identification and image, besides the process of self-objectification of the icon, understanding also the practice of subjectification and what Foucault (1986, p.163) refers to as the “mode of power that can be described as a governing method of the self-mastery individual” that can be found through. This journey will allow an understanding of the image and the transformation of its “post-medium condition” (Krauss, 1999, p.p.289-305) to the state of “the digital” and the new ways image production addresses media ecology, image theory, and a case study of artists and practitioners that have been working with different mediums that support the image. In this context image orientated practices have straddled and struggled with the boundaries of art, art theory and specific associations of image and the social, economic, spatial and political relations of power, speculating on the construction of our ordinary life through the digitalization of it, influenced by the internet and the online culture.

For Walter Benjamin (2008) before the XVII century, the perception and reception of the image was exclusively addressed to a few, that must be formed with a particular knowledge, the reception of the information of the image was passive and the public had a contemplative attitude waiting for the image to say something, the image was imitative and mimetic and the public does not have to contribute anything to the image, it was expected that the image brings everything to the public and they were subject to the image, not a person who freely interprets the image. In this point of history, the image had a single meaning and a single purpose.

According to Walter Benjamin (2008), the characteristics of the image before the industrial revolution occurred firstly as a product of the creation of an individual creative genius, and this person had the capacity to understand the beauty by itself as an innate talent. When the image was created this way it became unique, or what Benjamin calls the authenticity of the work. When the work was born, it was created in a here and now (which underlies the concept of its authenticity), a place where the work was the result of a manifestation, an appearance in a specific historical social cultural that spoke of the tradition of a moment, a history. Also, the image has authority; the time and what has happened to it, in other words: when it was created and what was the reason, why it was made, by whom, who has possessed it and why they have possessed it.


Preliminary research on Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Night Watch (1642) at the Rijksmuseum. Photo by Daniel Maissan, courtesy the Rijksmuseum.

Originality, authenticity, authority, uniqueness and the here and now results in the concept that Benjamin (2008 p.7) calls the “aura” of the image, where the reception of the image is only coherent for people who have had a prior knowledge of it or the context (mainly the bourgeoisie), only to these people the image or creation speaks to them. Unlike the masses to whom they appreciate and worship this image without having a full knowledge of why, they have been taught to worship it, which leads us to something that is announced on The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, where Benjamin says that the work of art has accomplished before industrial age a cultic function, to which it has always been to the purpose of a rite (religious, magical). where artistic expression exists for the sake of art, but likewise the image is only understood and read by experts or connoisseurs of the subject. Understanding then that the image from the beginning of humanity until the twentieth-century art has been exclusive and its function has been to legitimize a few; whether it be religion, political power or the power of the art for a few.

Rituals that normally placed the image interpretation beyond the reach of the general populace, where only a few were able to interpret and read such images (as in the case of images found in caves or hieroglyphs in sacred temples). Then towards the fifteenth century appears a new ritual, where the rite appears to beauty and the individual (the age of classicism) where a new individual is constructed; the bourgeois, which is raised through the image and the work of art, where it not only has the magic-religious apparatus but has a strong social purpose. In the twentieth century, a new ritual arises

Benjamin (2008) implies that the image after the industrial revolution, and specifically after photography, the press and film, the work of art and the image lose its aura. (a disruption caused by a cultural artifact) This raises the question; can the image have any interpretation because it lacks authority, uniqueness and it’s here and now, a loss of the manifestation of authenticity as a mode of separation? The image due to being easy to copy and reproduce requires in most cases a description for more specific interpretations, which takes us to the most important characteristics of the image after the industrial revolution: the ease of reproduction, copying and alteration.

The changes in the mediums and methods of technical production imply a necessary change in the work of art, in the creator and in the way the image is received, there is no longer an image with aura, but a mere object or product, a (art)work, an object with artistic qualification. The creator becomes a producer and the receiver becomes a consumer, where the reception of the work of art is now active, the audience that is no longer a spectator but an observer/co-creator. They place the work into operation, due to the image becoming an accessible object, where the public understands itself within the representation of the (art)work.

An inevitable evolution of the image occurs because of its intrinsic dependency of the medium of reproduction and creation, in a first perspective we have the “identity” and characteristics of the image after the twentieth century and after this, we find the effect that this generates on social relations: During the transformation of the visual and pictorial media, we find photography before the invention of the moving image. Photography is related with an action of –no movement- a still picture taken with a camera, where normally called “still” because the action the person had to do, stay on that position without moving when someone was about to take a shot. Nowadays there are many actions influenced by the way the users or subjects position their self, like the famous ‘selfies’, this is an impact on a change of social relations, to take the so-called ‘selfies’ it is necessary to adopt a specific position and the way you take it to require specific characteristics of an “identity”, infusing the image with a flag and manifestations of self- imposed evasion of natural motion.

Roland Barthes (1981, p.14) explains the implication and meaning of the photography entailing that it becomes a “mechanical analogon” transmitting a sense that “the scene itself, literal reality.” We can understand that logically image is absolutely not what reality is but its accurate analogon. Is then this specific analogy what best describe as photography.

Etymologically the word image has to be associated with the origin of the word imitārī, (imitate/copy/mimic) so this takes us to an interesting way of seeing what is an image as Barthes implies on the Rhetoric of the Image, “Can analogical representation –the copy– produce true sign-systems and no longer merely simply agglutinations of symbols?” (Barthes, 1977 p.32). From this perspective and after Camera Lucida we can determine that an image is merely a re-presentation but the problem here is that the image no longer captures us; even though the image does have some kind of hold on us there is something wrong about image’s hold, or perhaps only that it doesn’t hold us enough, is betrayed by its proliferation, as if by multiplying, sharing, reformatting, re-editing and simultaneously becoming more accessible and “well presented”, it might justify the stakes it has in us.

In The Photographic Message essay, Barthes (1977, p.15-31) lays out that in photography there is “never art -aesthetic effects, he says- but always meaning” and so concludes by writing about how and why the best approach to reading a photograph is to understand that “photographic connotation…is an institutional activity.” Barthes’s semiotic approach to photography demanded an analysis of the cultural codes inscribed within the production and reception of a photograph. He refocused photographic theory as a critique of the social and cultural myths (for example, gender identity) abetted by the denotation of a photograph (it’s being taken for the thing itself, as a direct analog of reality), that is, how the uncultured of the “automated-art” became an institution with the most social impact. He calls a photograph “a message without a code.”

Barthes’s focus on the image as part of a language gives us an insight into the image’s “messages” by separating out three messages: linguistic, connoted, and denoted. It is the interrelationship between these three messages that gives an image its “originality”; The interpretation, readings or construction of the same image depends on every individual, as Barthes mentions: “The variation in readings is not, however, anarchic; it depends on different kinds of knowledge -practical, national, cultural, aesthetic- invested in the image.” (Barthes, 1977, p.46)

What makes Barthes’ outlook interesting for this research, is that although it insists that a photo figure is “a message without a code” he changes the significance of this claim: “nothing can prevent the Photograph from being analogical” but “its noeme (essence) has nothing to do with analogy” (Barthes 1981, p.88) and he continues “the important thing is that the photograph possesses an evidential force, and that its testimony bears not on the object but on time.” (p.p. 88-89) Exactly on shift from how an object’s meaning and rhetoric is formed and functions in relation to temporality has an important consequence for any conception of the image. “The power of authentication exceeds the power of representation.” (p.89)

For nearly a century, particularly within the realms of art, cultural and social criticism, the image has been reviewed in terms of its reliability and trustworthiness due to its ambiguous, subjective, compliant, and therefore potentially deceptive nature, also is important to recall that because of its intrinsic dependency of the medium of reproduction and creation, technology has transformed the image and its way of interpretation.

Still from The Matrix (1999), from The Wachowskis

Cultural theorists like Jean Baudrillard now examines how language is received and interpreted. Even before the internet, in Simulacra and Simulation(1994) Baudrillard argues that the amount of information given by the different mass mediums addresses and conducts a destructuralization of the social. Normally information is thought to build and deliver increaseddissemination of meaning and this information culture is thought to create communication, but Baudrillard (1994, p.55) believes that “information devours its own content, communication and the social in a sort of nebulous state dedicated not to innovation, but to entropy”. When we think in an extended parallel with information culture and visual culture on Baudillard’s theory we could argue that digital media has fostered many innovative developments in communication, education, music, and art. In regards to “the image”, the Information age has presented new challenges that have fostered and encouraged innovative solutions and changes in thinking and behavior.

Baudrillard (1994) illustrates the concept of Simulacrum/Simulacra, a term from ancient philosophy, particularly Plato, that defines a representation that is not necessarily tied to an object in the world. As a copy without an original, a simulacrum is often used in cultural criticism to describe the status of the image in our society of spectacle: mass- media, consumerism, commodity consumption, leisure, and images. Such images, even as they appear to be representations, dissolve the truth-claims of representation. Through the evolution of technology, the image also finds other mediums, to evolve and hybridize; new techniques and technology turned the image to mutate in different ways of exposure, e.g.,(photography to cinema) this “modifications” also change the work of art in the creator and in the way the Image is received, so in this context, the image constantly needs a redefinition.