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The Image in a Network

Writing by Laura Baliman. Illustration by Sarah Phelan.

All art exists within a network – a series of connections to other pieces, to historic and contemporary contexts. The gallery space visualises some of these connections by presenting artworks alongside others in a network that rests under the umbrella of the exhibition’s title and theme. Such connections have been taken apart and understood since their inception, but there is now a new kind of network at play with the advent of the internet and associated conditions of digitality.

The web of connections in which art exists has expanded exponentially, especially with regard to images and digital paintings. Each image is copied and pasted and transferred and downloaded – and with each of these actions the data of its file is altered. The artwork is connected to historic and contemporary contexts in a similar way as a 19thCentury painting, but it is now also connected to the advertisement displayed on the sidebar, to the web address of its location, to the pixels within it and the coding within them.

The digital image is also circulated so widely across the web that we lose sight of its original context. Graphic art from Instagram and fashion photography from Pinterest circulate with no source information and no visible author. Beyond these issues, there is also the state of general excess that comes with digital art and imagery: there is no way to track down a ‘canon’ or embark on a survey, because there is no beginning and no end.

It is easy to get lost in the web of the image; critic Hito Steyerl accurately describes the image as ‘energy’ rather than anything else – it’s not material like the great canvases of centuries past. This lack of fixity implicates the image in the current politics of ‘post-truth’, that refutes the evidentiary use of images, which always allows for the possibility of tampering. As Steyerl goes on to suggest, the reality of the image is lost as there are no material referents like there were for analogue photography or paintings. How can we trust images or even paintings when they exist as energy in a complex knotted network?

But to see the growing connections involved in art as a loss is to play into the politics of fear that surrounds discussions of ‘post-truth’. Steyerl suggests rightly that ‘one could of course argue that this is not the real thing, but then – please, anybody – show me this real thing.’ Indeed, the ‘truth’ that lies in art has always been illusive and art has only ever been about truth and beauty for those Enlightenment thinkers such as Kant. Is art not more about representation and interpretation – and is the role of the viewer not greater than the art itself? If so, then the network is a help rather than a hindrance, because it aids us in making connections and creating interpretations.

If anything, we might gain more control from the digital network. Jean Baudrillard, one of the earliest thinkers of the internet, declares that the self is a ‘modem’ so implicating us within the network and suggesting that we do possess some control over it. Algorithms strike fear into many, but it is still true that we can ‘curate’ our own Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards with each action we make. Vilém Flusser theorises this greater control, suggesting that ‘the human being will no longer exist as a subject to an objective universe but as a knot within a social network which transcends space-time.’ Flusser states boldly that we are now no longer subjects looking at art objects as we were in traditional histories of art: we are instead a modem at the gateway of a larger network that we can eagerly take part in. In traditional histories of art, the role of the viewer was very much to ‘view’, to apprehend, and to ‘take in’ the artwork. In the digital sphere, this role is complicated and expanded.

The new digital network also means that art does not have to go through the traditional hierarchy of the art world to be of value. The name of Rhizome, one of the leading publications that focuses on art and digital culture, proposes a useful term for the shape of this network: a root with no centre that grows unpredictably. The new channels of art are spontaneous and wild and it takes but one click to access all kinds of art.

Furthermore, instead of framing the scale of the digital space as excessive, it is better to think of it in terms of growth. New forms of art proliferate online and the distinction between old ideas of ‘high’ and ‘low’ or ‘folk’ art is blurred by social media presence. An instagrammed Monet work might mean less to the user than a post of a boredom-fuelled doodle. The growth of the art-network also means that more connections become apparent. For example, on the recently developed app Google Arts and Culture, a user can draw connections across epochs and eras from the comfort of their smartphone.

The digital paintings of U.S. artist Petra Cortright epitomise all these ideas:

Petra Cortright, guttermouth bed comforters rampey, 2019, digital painting on anodized aluminium, 59 x 59 inches

Cortright creates her paintings on Photoshop using pictures and shapes from the internet, altering them, positioning them alongside each other and adding in her own marks using digital paint brushes. The medium is reconsidered here: it is a digitally-made painting yet the paint strokes look truly textured and the colours mix and blend and act like real paint. But behind this is a grid – an acknowledgement of the digital universe and a recognition that this artwork exists in a new kind of space where the lines of the grid overlap and connect and burst out of each other. ‘guttermouth bed comforters rampey’ as a title enacts this connectivity by juxtaposing odd words next to each other, reflecting the connection of each grid square to the next, the connection of the painting to the screen of the viewer and the connection of the work to the online-sourced shapes that it began with. Like the rhizome, there is no distinct centre to the painting. It seems that teal could be the predominant colour, but if we look closer it could be brown or red – and thus is none of them at all.

In art, connections are always facilitative and generative: to fear the flourishing digital network and its artworks would be to do them an injustice.

Steyerl, Hito. ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, in The Wretched of the Screen, (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), pp. 31 - 45

Baudrillard, Jean. ‘The Ecstasy of Communication’ in Hal Foster (ed.) Postmodern Culture, (London: Pluto Press, 1985), pp. 126 - 134

Flusser, Vilém. ‘The Photograph as Post - Industrial Object: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs’, Leonardo, vol. 19, no. 4 (1986), pp. 329 - 332

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