While the phenomenon of appropriationism entered with force -and controversy- into the artistic debate at the end of the seventies linked to conceptual art and post-modern thought, the issue reaches a new dimension in the framework of digital culture. The term was devised by the American critic Douglas Crimp (1944-2019) within the framework of the exhibition “Pictures”, which invited various artists to appropriate the work of other authors and recontextualise these images to create new narratives. The list of authors included in the proposal included names such as Sherrie Levine, Troy Brauntuch, Jack Golstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman. Beyond being a visual pastiche conceived on the basis of another author’s work, the appropriationist proposals of these artists approach the genre from a critical perspective, exploring the polysemic possibilities of the image for its reuse in an ideological context not foreseen in the original work. Thus, for example, Barbara Krugger fused advertising images with slogans that proposed a re-reading within the framework of political criticism, the denunciation of consumer culture or feminist vindication. The work of Sherry Levine or Richard Prince illustrates in a remarkable way the debate on authorship and originality raised by appropriationism, already present in Duchamp’s aesthetic manifestos at the beginning of the 20th century:
“[…] the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work into contact with the outside world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his or her contribution to the creative act”.
And that Barthes discusses within the framework of post-structuralism in his seminal text “Death of the Author”, questioning whether the intention and ultimate meaning of the work of art is the exclusive responsibility of the author and attributing the limits of meaning in which the work is inscribed both to cultural codes and systems of meaning and to the very space of knowledge in which the work is received by the spectator:
“The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make a writing are inscribed” (Barthes, 1977)
Already in the realm of digital culture, the abundance and accessibility of images available on the Internet – and a certain ambiguity about their authorship and availability – has extended the practice of what we might call “vernacular” appropriationism, which adopts these images in such a “natural” and widespread way that “they are deprived of any critical radicality and spirit of transgression” (Fontcuberta, 2019). Nevertheless, it would be convenient to point out that in the framework of popular culture the reuse of images in memes would form part of an ecosystem of social and political commentary, where through a process of hypersignification they assume the role of “tools for collective criticism” (Shifman, 2014) or denounce the processes of social stereotyping.
“But political dialogue, especially when it is inflected with pop culture, can be pleasurable and powerful. And political memes provide one of the more accessible avenues for everyday citizens to participate in the political process.” (Tryon, 2014)
These processes of appropriation and dissemination that are developed within the framework of digital platforms and social networks, beyond being banal manifestations of low-profile popular creativity – as I pointed out in assignment four- can be interpreted as instruments of a participatory culture of a highly performative nature and which, in Olga Goriunova’s opinion, are fundamental in the processes of individualization and subjectivation. Considering this argument, the creation of the Instagram account @face_of_our_time, in which August Sander’s photographs are shown intervened with Instagram filters, allowed me to reformulate these images in a “fun” way for a more popular context, diluting the formalism that characterizes the style of the master from Cologne, and allowing a certain degree of interactivity with the public through the use of the elements of this social network (likes, comments, stories, surveys, etc.).If at the beginning of the 20th century Sander’s typology was revealed as a kind of human cartography of German society, Instagram’s filter de-dramatises and subverts the social intention of the original work and turns the characters into a colourful and banal parade of tropos and visual clichés. Although the aesthetic differences of the available filters – and the justification of the users who use them – pivot between the defamiliarization of everyday scenes and amusing frivolity, they contribute to the process of individualization in the ideological framework of neoliberalism that is evident in the ideals of beauty, perfection and success so present in Instagram’s profiles.
“New social and technical machines have taken hold over behavior and attitudes not only in the workplace and in labor generally, but also in daily life. In our most ‘human’ actions (speaking, communicating, writing, thinking, etc.), we are ‘assisted’ by a new generation of [cybernetic and informational] machines” (Crano, 2018)
And outside this context, does it make sense to physically exhibit something that was conceived to be consumed digitally in the discursive field of the gallery or museum? In 2007, Thomas Ruff completed his JPGS work in which he enlarged images taken from the Internet on a large scale, bringing them together in a large-format photobook and exhibiting them in galleries, exaggerating the pixelated effects typical of JPEG compression. The move from screen to paper introduces new meanings to the image, giving it specificity as an object and thus being able to adapt to the spatial and standardising logics of exhibition spaces. According to Juan Maria Prada, taken from the sphere of the screen, the image is situated in the same space occupied by the spectator, challenging him to question the different way in which images are viewed in the context of art and everyday life.
“all works produced within the scope of existing art institutions will inevitably find their discursive life and their life within those institutions” (Crimp, 2005)
Continuing with the previous reasoning, freeing the 60 intervened photographs from their digital confinement and endowing them with materiality, not only do we walk the path back that connects us to Sander’s work, but we are allowed to escape from Instagram’s visual guidelines and the logic of its algorithm to explore new visualization alternatives and, therefore, establish a new relationship with the viewer. To this end, I have simulated three examples of exhibitions based on the same number of exhibition developments corresponding to Thomas Ruff, Richard Prince and August Sander himself.
It corresponds to the aforementioned exhibition of the German artist held in 2017 at Whitechapel Gallery in London. Exaggerating the impression of these images taken by a mobile device to the point where the pixels are shown reveals the technological limits of the digital image, exposing the technical artifice behind the apparent continuum of the image optimized for circulation on the Internet. The formalism of Sander’s work is replaced here by the geometric discipline of the pixel.
Exhibition of New Portraits by Richard Prince in which the author appropriated images on Instagram and showed them accompanied by the posts with which they were originally published by their owners. In addition to the controversial act of appropriation, Prince uses Instagram’s own aesthetics: user profiles, icons, emojis, likes, hashtags and comments that usually accompany all the posts on this social network, but frees these images “from the snaky action of the infinite scroll and instead reveals the dispersed and challenging syntax of the language of the network”. Exposing face_of_our_time in this format, where the viewer has access to information from Sander’s original information and information from the filters used, confronts him with all the signifiers that normally accompany the image displayed on a screen, but denying him the ability to interact with it.
The last option is based on the exhibition of August Sander’s “Antzeit der Zeit” (1929) held at Paris Photo LA in 2014. The installation consists of a large panel formed by a grid of 12 x 5 photographs located in one of the corners of the exhibition hall. Without knowing the exact intention of the curators, the arrangement of the photographs in this configuration seems to be a clear allusion to the book format in which Sander published these 60 photographs in the year 60 and presenting the whole as a whole reminds the viewer of its typological character. By choosing this format, face_of_our_time acquires an unexpected singularity in which the monochromatic formality and rigor of the original series is replaced by colorful and banal carousel of unimportant miniatures in front of which the viewer will stop amused or scandalized.
The images of the simulated exhibitions that accompany this text are a simple illustration – or pretext – of the concepts on display, and the viewer will have to rely on his or her imagination to “simulate” the experience of a visit to one of these proposed spaces. Using an online virtual exhibition modelling tool I have created a space where you can walk through a gallery that includes the 60 works included in the face_of_our_time project:
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
Final chapter of the course in which some of the concepts discussed during this year are compiled. Without a doubt, the question of appropriationism is critical in these last two assignments, but so is the reuse of archival images -in this case, alien- in a new context of visualization, photomontage and the manipulation of images with the juxtaposition of elements characteristic of social networks, which has allowed me to explore the concept of the constructed image so present in different units of the course. On the other hand – and certainly motivated by the possibility of showing this project in an exhibition in Cologne – I think it is a timely experiment to transfer the reading of these images produced in the digital realm to the discursive space of the gallery and explore the possibilities.
Quality of outcome
I think that the result of this fifth assignment should be translated into a kind of virtual exhibition proposal. The so-called “New Normality” in which the crisis of COVID-19 has installed us may be a stimulus to seek new ways of reaching the public. In a world saturated with images, photo exhibitions are certainly in crisis and have to invent a new way of reaching the public. Aside from cultural events of a different scale, I understand the exhibition as the commercial part of artistic practice: a social meeting point and facilitator of commercial transactions. Although my experience to date has consisted of three or four small-scale exhibitions, I consider that the whole question of planning, production and promotion of this type of event will form part of the next courses and in the future of my artistic activity.
Demonstration of creativity
The proposed exhibitions -especially the third one- as a kind of Pop Art tapestry: the individual content is diluted in the whole and transforms the social approach of Sander’s work into a sensorial experience. I would like to highlight the area of research deployed around this work, which, in addition to covering the question of appropriationism, could be valid for reflecting on the sociological aspects of social networks (an aspect already noted in the first assignment) or on the ideological orientation that seems to energise social networks. Behind the colorful aspect of the final result, this work is proposed as a critique to the banalization of culture in social networks.
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