Show me this real thing

Grace Wood,  Like a Hasselblad on the moon , West Space photo by Julia Murphy

Grace Wood, Like a Hasselblad on the moon, West Space
photo by Julia Murphy

 

After the Apollo moon landings between 1969 and 1972, twelve Hasselblad cameras, specifically modified for space travel, were left on the lunar surface. Along with other junk and ephemera—shattered pieces of spacecraft, bags of urine and faeces, a photograph of astronaut Charlie Duke’s family—the cameras were used, emptied of their film and discarded. In their place, lumps of lunar rock were brought back, the heavy machinery rendered obsolete after the completion of its task. Meanwhile, the photographs taken by the Apollo astronauts—including a snapshot of Duke’s family portrait, placed on the lunar surface—have been duplicated over and over, digitised and spread around the world, becoming part of our subconscious.

 

Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art published more than 375,000 digital images of works in their collection, for public use without restriction. The ability to waive copyright on these images means that they can be downloaded, reworked, redistributed and discarded by anyone with internet access. An article in The Paris Review lightly poked fun at this, describing an image of an iron wastebasket in the collection, designed by Jules Bouy. Stored in the museum’s archive, the wastebasket exists (for public consumption) only online, as a digital file. It is disconnected from its function (both through its digital reincarnation and in its existence as an artefact in a museum collection): “Nothing can be discarded into it; it can’t do what it was designed to do.”[1] The author then urges us to download the file, save it as wastebasket.jpg and drag it into the trash: a digital rite of closure.

 

In the digital torrent of images, the aura has dissipated; there is no original anymore, but endless copies, each of which has become an original in its own way. Boris Groys states that through the intangibility of the digital file, “we are dealing only with originals—only with original presentations of the absent, invisible, digital original.”[2] We are deeply embedded in the weightless abundance of Google image searches, Instagram feeds, an endless stream of visual knowledge. Click on a Google thumbnail and you can instantly see The Roses of Heliogabulus or a topographical survey of an expanse of land or a photo taken on someone’s iPhone. These images, in their lightness and multitude, carry the weight of all the other versions, other originals that exist alongside in a vast archive.

 

The ‘poor image’ as Hito Steyerl describes, has become the reality of our collective consciousness—an image that can be distorted, edited, and spread throughout global networks of communication. The defining feature of the poor image is its motion, its mutability. Rather than being corrupted by this condition, the poor image is a representation of our reality; “it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities.”[3] We see the poor image on screens—phone, computer, TV, projector, billboards—and we see it in installation. Its intangibility gives it the potential to mutate from digital to solid; become part of an architectural structure; become a physical presence. It is no longer a copy, but an original—a real thing.

 

[1] Dan Piepenbring, ‘I Found This Wastebasket For You’, The Paris Review, February 8, 2017

[2] Boris Groys, ‘From Image to Image File—And Back: Art in the Age of Digitalization’, Art Power, MIT Press, 2008

[3] Hito Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image,’ e-flux Journal #10, November 2009

 
 

This essay was presented alongside the exhibition Like a Hasselblad on the moon by Grace Wood at West Space, 17 February – 25 March 2017
https://westspace.org.au/along/16070/show-me-this-real-thing