Visual Contagions. Images in Globalization.
An exhibition of Jeu de Paume's online creation space.
What is their role in this peculiar cultural, social, economic and geopolitical phenomemnon that is globalization ? We often hear globalization associated with a general homogenization under North-American domination, where their images appear to be be more powerful and attrative than others. As if images had followed a darwinist logic where only the fittest survive and command. But are our individual experiences suffient to claim this type of theory ?
Let's accept a wild project then: determine what makes a succesful image through analyzing the broad digital archive of the web, what it can tell us about the past and present of images; let's trace back the clues of ancient material and artistic circualtion of images, find out what motifs circulated most in the print, TV, cinema or the present social media era. The notorious "artificial intelligence" spots which images have circulated the most. It remains to be discovered through which factors images become contagious.
This experiment is both scientific and artistic: young creatives are part of the research. The project analyzes and reinterprets as much as it challenges the different visual contagions of globalization. We are launching potentially contagious images in the flow of contemporary circulations. We are testing their channels of circulation. By mapping the globalizatin of images, we go beyond the "center and periphery" logic and other darwinist approaches to images. We therefore affirm that images, often prematurely labeled icons of our time, do not owe their succes to their visual potency but also to their context in which they appeared, their content, medium of circulation, types of produceurs and broadcasters, of their misunderstandings and quiproquos.
The museography conceived by Rui-Long Monico for this exhibition highlight the problem of the surge of images by confronting it directly. It makes us understand that things are more complex than an alienation or an unpleasant flood. The deluge of image, whoever arrives on this site undergoes immediately the disturbing effects of it. The interface of the exhibition has been conceived in reverse of the purified designs of our time. The images overflow. They invade the bottom of the pages. It is a firework display, not a fashionable design; an explosion of color and movement. The images contrast with the geometric cleanliness one would expect from a digital white cube. Rui-Long Monico has let the effervescence of the sole concept of the web - the web of the web, the digital web, the web of layout - drip onto the screen. The fonts have no unity; their frames deliberately overlap. You think you're clicking on a link, it's a gif that explodes. Here it flashes, there the colored contrasts degrade the user experience. The popup that greets you so badly as soon as you enter the site is a nasty reminder: no matter what you do, whether you are asked for your consent or told what to expect, the site will bombard you as its designers have decided.
The submersion is not only visual, it is also sonorous. Truck Thomas 's musical background implies that in this world, images are not just phenomena in their own bubble, but that they are always immersed in noise, screams, music and soundtracks.
However, Truck Thomas 's strong tribute to elevator music reminds us that the flood is not always threatening. The music, like the visual background, ends up being what the great composer Erik Satie called "furniture music": we end up not paying attention to it anymore. A deluge of images can be only an atmosphere. It all depends on the inner attitude with which we receive it.
The work created by Valentine Bernasconi, La Main baladeuse, examines this problem - the impossibility of seeing, of perceiving what is at stake in a flood of images, and the importance of our own point of view, which gives meaning to the flood. The interface of his hand game encourages us to look for images through our own body, to project ourselves towards a range of gestures covering various worlds and mediums. With a simple impulse of the hand, we find commonalities between our movement and a large visual corpus, far from a traditional logocentric thinking. In this new, more or less scientific world, we ourselves are the content of a request. To be personally involved is to embrace and overcome at the same time the diversity and the deluge of images.
Nora Fatehi's reflection extends that of La Main Baladeuse. Her work, You and Meme, produces an endless artistic field, constantly augmented by its viewers. We integrate the mechanism of the deluge of images, since in order to enjoy the work in action, we must accept to produce and become a new, new image. Nothing can be studied without participating, without becoming part of the phenomenon. In order to analyze, understand and criticize our own subject of research - visual globalization - we produce even more images, in an infinite mechanism that is constantly autophagocytic... /p>
This dialogue made us understand why the relationship of the Visual Contagions research project to the deluge of images could never be simple. When we study the Brownian movement of images in globalization, we have to do violence to our disciplinary habits.
A computer counts better and faster than we do. For the Visual Contagions project, we programmed algorithms to group our millions of images according to their visual proximities; then to put them in order by date and place of publication. It is, again, with a machine that we visualize chronologies, geographies, deserts and centralities, networks or an absence of link.
The power of machines is often fascinating. Valentine Bernasconi's work will trap us in this fascination. Let's activate our camera and place our hand in front of it. We see our hand being activated, majestically reduced and thinned out into a black line drawing. We surprisingly enjoy to see its articulations tapping, closing or opening. On either side, come numerous images of the past, which the machine associates with the successive positions of our hand. Individuals painted, drawn, real or imagined long before you were born, were already moving with the same gestures as you. A well-fed computer does wonders, both for playing and for learning.
For our project, the question of the best visualizations arose very quickly, as soon as the first groups of close images automatically appeared in our corpus. Have we tried everything? The interactive visualization in networks, the atlas with thousands of pages, the ordering by the most international groups, the cartography - no visualization is sufficient to orientate oneself in the visual globalization, even on a small corpus of three million images of illustrated prints. No single visualization of the global network of images is satisfactory; even if each one brings new ideas, or rather new questions.
The playful world of Robin Champenois, where one gets lost looking for who knows what, is perhaps the work that best translates our experience of the early days, when we had to explore the results of this artificial intelligence producing, in such a short time, results by the thousands. From the million images without logic to the thousands of groups of connected, classified, meaningful images - we were even more lost.
Our first networked visualizations resembled a cosmos whose stars had to be patiently named and mapped. There are perhaps more black holes than constellations.
Inviting artists is a way for us to look for other inspirations, other ideas to navigate through the deluge of images. Anim Jeon's video has disturbed our tendency to look for panoramic points of view. It propels the gaze elsewhere, in a surprising zoom, forward and backward simultaneously. We are placed as if we were in a car - as if we were that car. As if we were an image in circulation. First it's a video capsule exploring intestines, then comes a bullet in accelerated trajectory, before we are left in the role of a character in desperate flight. Rather than just browsing, or trying to see from afar, diving into the data means seeing it very differently. Rather than observing from afar, one must also run, accelerate; and at the same time accept to enter into a story - the one told by the voice-over, for Anim Jeon's work, or the one told by a particular image, for our own research. Running, jumping, taking off and then coming back down; there is plenty of room for exhaustion; or on the contrary, a lot of fun.
The challenge will then be to understand why these images have been so successful - while reserving the possibility of considering that a high degree of reproducibility is not always, for an image, the sign of a particular success.
Surprisingly, the artists we invited to dialogue with us about globalization and the deluge of images did not directly address the issue of visual blockbusters. Does this mean that they are afraid of the heaviest images of previous generations? No desire to designate certain "icons", as the previous generation called them? Or the desire to singularize certain images rather than others, at a time when it is the deluge effect that prevails?
It is in fact from an angle that the artistic works exposed in this space which approaches the question. Nora Fatehi makes us create images that she projects to the world of twitter, where images struggle for existence and recognition. She thus questions the way in which an image becomes a blockbuster. Is it by chance? Certainly not. The image will be successful according to the network of the one who launches it; not because of its intrinsic visual quality.
Rui-Long Monico has proposed to rethink the visual blockbuster on the scale of a very small community - the Visual Contagions project. Thus, the "Easter Eggs" placed here and there in the site of this exhibition, are the concatenation of the favorite images of the members of the project. Valentine Bernasconi's wandering hand encourages an even more intimate dive into the personal dimension of blockbusters. By focusing on our own hands, her game recreates the possibility that we often think has been lost since the advent of the internet and social networks: that of a contemplation, where it is a specific image or object that requires our full attention. By turning our hand, by observing how our screen responds to it, we look at it from all planes, all angles, all positions. The quasi-phenomenological access to the knowledge of one's own hand will perhaps have the effect of making us love it - or even of making it enter a personal imaginary museum; for it is here, ultimately, that the real visual blockbusters end up.
Rui-Long Monico and Truck Thomas have hidden "Easter Eggs" in the exhibition website. These Easter Eggs concocted in the spring of 2022 will surprise those who stumble upon them and did not expect such visual incoherence; they will delight those who were looking for them on purpose. Among our six invited artists, most have gamified their contribution. Nora Fatehi lets us play with these proposals of memes to invent in photos, but also traps us like a cat with mice: a script launches these photos on Twitter without warning. Let's be reassured: these tweets will be anonymous. Valentine Bernasconi, for her part, has certainly envisaged that you will laugh at her by testing in front of your camera what crude positions to look for in her bag of hands, members of the past. "Jeux de mains, jeux de vilains" ?
As for Anim Jeon's work, it tells an abracadabrantesque story: that of the bullet of a revolver badly discharged by the clumsy assistant of a fake Chinese magician who was performing in a London theater at the beginning of the 20th Century. The video feeds that are supposed to illustrate this story have no relation to it. Perhaps because Anim Jeon knew that we could find these images ourselves in our historical corpus of illustrated prints? Perhaps it is rather, in his work, the narrative that makes his life without regard for video, let alone the entertainment society of the past. In any case, we don't understand anything. And this is what the artist wants. Let's step back and allow the magic happen.
Pranks, villainy, affectionate or poetic, we find them oftem in our visual corpus of the past. That's why the team has hidden its own Easter eggs in some pages of the site. We will devote the summer to this slightly offbeat sequence. The computational approach to images of the past holds surprises, which speak to us as much about the visual cultures of the West as they do about our own approach, our dreams and our illusions. Sometimes the machine seems to laugh at us. We have not deprived ourselves of playing bad tricks on it either.
Our artists will have helped us to think before going too quickly to invent a definitive epidemiology of images. Valentine Bernasconi's connections say nothing more than what we see. Without erudition, no epidemiology is possible. For our project, too, statistics and atlases are hardly enough. No, data does not speak. We will not learn anything if we are satisfied with large numbers of images, or with formal connections that artificial intelligence would help to visualize. We do not believe in "Cultural Analytics as the ultimate goal". We are wary of an approach that would believe to expose everything through numbers, graphs and beautiful visualizations. If only because - as you will find out in the pages presented - bias is everywhere.
To study visual contagions, we have to use all kinds of tools. Our exhibition's website clearly exposes negatively what a visual epidemic can be today. The contemporary scenario of the web is the complex copy of a functional and canonical design, generally consisting of ready-made frames. The presence and development of these frameworks, the obligation to standardize web pages, the struggle for cleanliness have triggered a widespread diffusion of these web standards, which has killed the joyful effervescence of the early days of the Internet. The site designed by Rui-Long Monico reminds us of the freedom of expression and the designs of the late 1990s. The sites of that era blinked, their effervescence of colors and shapes constantly disrupting the web, until the recent fashion of the digital White Cube flattened the expressiveness in favor of readability.
Our epidemiology, unlike the dangers against which health agencies fight, does not aim to stop visual contagions. It experiments and revives them, at the same time as it studies them. One sometimes affirms, in cognitive sciences, that the ideas which circulate are the simplest ideas; and that the images to be spread would follow the same anthropological rule. The simplification of formats at work in the digital circulation of images would be a recent proof of this. The progressive adaptation of images to the medium of the smartphone, the primacy of faces seen from the front or simplistic memes, would confirm this point of view: what circulates best is simple ideas and images. That idea seems to us... too simple. If there are visual rules to the success of an image, why can't we not put in circulation a similar image back into the global flow of images? Simply because the factors of transmission and retransmission of images are social as well as economic and political, but also historical and aesthetic. And because when images circulate, like viruses, they mutate. They are not simplified.
We will see the effects after a few months, when Nora Fatehi's artistic proposal will have gathered many contributions. The memes that you will have posted, or rather that a stealing algorithm will have posted for you on Twitter, will not circulate by themselves. They will move more or less quickly depending on who "likes" them, who recirculates them, who forgets them and who recognizes them. They may have been modified, recovered, hijacked. They will have taken in circulation some layers of the complex palimpsest that becomes the image in circulation; something to circulate even faster or on the contrary to stop somewhere on the way...
They are, first of all, the spectres of ancient forms, from the past, which have remained from one image to another in a more or less faithful way - but which return and haunt visual cultures beyond the ages and the seas. The most ghostly will perhaps be, as Aby Warburg already showed at the beginning of the 20th century, the images that engage the body, its movement; those that tried and still try to capture the fleeting flight of an attitude, an enthusiasm or an affliction. Valentine Bernasconi's "La Main baladeuse" suggests that certain gestures have lost the meaning they had in the past; but also that some of this meaning remains when a hand unwittingly adopts a position recorded in the images of the past.
Do we make these ghosts speak when we study the global circulation of images? Do we also know how to listen to them? For if we must count, track, map, relate, visualize, it is not ultimately to demonstrate; nor is it only to search and understand; it is to feel; to imagine; to tell stories of the past as well as the present. When we feel the ghosts circulating, from one set of images to another, we cannot adopt this scientistic or objectivist attitude that our disbelieving era expects. The frontier between the true and the false is dismantled.
The video world created by Robin Champenois encourages us to become aware of this. Terraverstasis: The artist brings us into an infinite space as beautiful as the cosmos of our illustrated magazines; and just as futuristic as it is, it is built on objects from the past. Now, this world has nothing real; but it is a world, it makes a world.
What is surprising, when the images circulate, is that the borders between past, present and tomorrow are permeable. In Robin Champenois' game, the omnipresent images furnish the nostalgia of an astonishing return, the reunion of a person with a recently disappeared civilization. When the narrator begins, in Anim Jeon's video, it is also an imaginary world, both past and future, that is sketched out, and which takes shape in our present. The precision of this world is all the more clear, as the videos that accompany the story of the magician Chung Ling Soo are each time more offset from the story told. Faced with the flood of unpleasant images - these entrails that we are made to visit, then this artificial world in which a breathless race is engaged -, one quickly disconnects to concentrate on the story; on this soft voice, touching even if one hardly understands it; on the surprising texts which translate it. A visual flow sometimes favors the paradoxical contemplation, the plunge into the present existence. In spite of the noise, the ghost of old Chung Ling Soo can get up, play his number one last time, die again of his lost ball, run out of breath in a futuristic city and still surprise the last spectators that we are.
In the Visual Contagions project, we are finally working on ghosts of ghosts, on their world and their reproduction, on their survival through time and space. The images of the past already carried the spectres of other times. These ghosts have travelled through time to us, and have also become our ghosts. Some images speak to us, promise and forbid. Others appear, fascinate in a flash, to disappear as quickly in the nothingness of this big corpus - everything was too fast, we could not keep the image or note where it appeared or keep this group of illustrations . Other images will haunt us all the more as we have difficulty in explaining their circulation and their functioning. The visual contagions have not finished operating for a long time.