Digital Social Memory- Archiving and its Discontents - Final

06 Mar 2017
courses, documentation, social-memory

The final project was to 'Work with an existing archive or archival object and open it up to new elaboration through re-performance and re-interpretation.' I worked with the Met's recently released digital collections and the NYPL's digital collections. to create collages and compise images using ImageMagick.

But first, a little context. According to Wikipedia, a collage "is a technique of an art production, primarily used in the visual arts, where the artwork is made from an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole." Additionally, "Collage made from photographs, or parts of photographs, is called photomontage. Photomontage is the process (and result) of making a composite photograph by cutting and joining a number of other photographs...The same method is accomplished today using image-editing software. The technique is referred to by professionals as compositing."

Collages have been often criticized as being low brow or a "lesser" form of art, although their original applications in the 19th century were to questions the veracity of photographs. In the early 20th century, Picasso and Braque helped bring collages into wider circulation when they used the technique to examine the realtionship between painting and sculpture. A noteworthy example was the 1956 pop-art work by Richard Hamilton and John McHale, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?

To provide scope for my project, I only used images from the Met and NYPL's digital collections. To create the images, I used the ImageMagick '-average' flag, which finds the average pixel value for a set of images.

I used Roman busts to create composite images. From a technical perspective, the technique worked well because the image were visually similar - a face in the middle of the canvas.

I used Roman busts to create composite images. From a technical perspective, the technique worked well because the image were visually similar - a face in the middle of the canvas. While the images have a ghostly quality to them, their creative application is a bit limited. It’s difficult to extract much of a dialog from these images. Perhaps one could argue that they reveal something about the process of reproducing artifacts in digital form by noting the similarity of the space around the busts. Why the dark grey/blue background, slightly darker at the top and lighter at the bottom? Can the essence of a sculpture really be conveyed in a 2D image, or at least to the extent that it justifies the scale of a large digitization project?

Similarly, the technique had mixed results when combining the images from one artist. Below are a couple examples of composites of Sol Lewitt images.

And a composite of the Met’s Egon Schiele holdings.

The technique was least successful when combining images from general searches or subject search because they were less visually consistent. Here’s an example of 20 overlapped images from a search for “death.”

And here are examples of 20 and 40 images from a search for “clowns.”

I found that the most interesting results came from overlapping two images. The simple juxtaposition gave more room to play with the subject matter and create more open-ended dialogue with the collections. It more clearly addressed questions around reclaiming culture and appropriation (perennial topics with the Met) and made it easier to explore themes within the chosen works.

Some of the uses could be to produce playful results.

And some could yield more critical results. Of all the images I created, I thought this one was the most interesting.

The cowboy image is a famous Richard Prince. Prince, who himself works with reappropriates images, has taken a Marlboro magazine advertisement and removed the ad's text and Marlboro logos, showing that the image of the cowboy is iconic of the cigarette brand. Playing with the theme of 'cowboys and Indians,' I added an image of a Sioux piece pipe.

Overall, I found that this particular technique, when applied to cultural heritage materials (at least the Met and NYPL’s) had rather limited results. The most interesting results came from juxtaposing two images, which gives the creator ample space to play with themes, form, and subject of source material and combine them into works that have complexity without being too dense.

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