Geoffrey Batchen

Da[r]ta: Digital Scores

A photograph is a universe of dots. The grain, the halide, the little silver things clumped in the emulsion. Once you get inside a dot, you gain access to hidden information, you slide inside the smallest event.

This is what technology does. It peels back the shadows and redeems the dazed and rambling past. It makes reality come true.

– Don DeLillo, Underworld (1997)

Fictional nostalgia aside, today’s photographic universe is found not in clumps of silver but in the algorithms racing across the surface of German artist Andreas Müller-Pohle’s 1995 Digital Scores (after Nicéphore Niépce). No dots. No silver. No emulsion. No hid­den information. In fact, nothing but information. The digital code generated by Nicéphore Niépce’s 1827 heliograph View from the Window at Le Gras (or at least by the watercolor re­production of it found in Helmut Gernsheim’s 1983 Geschichte der Photographie) has been spread across eight panels as a messy swarm of numbers and computer notations. Each of these separations represents an eighth of a full byte of memory, a computer’s divided re­membrance of Gernsheim’s own painted memorial to the first photograph. Already a copy of a copy, the Scores are less about Niépce’s photograph than about their own means of pro­duction (they bear the same abstracted relation to an image as sheet music has to sound). We see not a photograph, but the new numerical rhetoric of photography. In this sense, the Niépce image is but a convenient historical staging point for a certain unsentimental reflec­tion on photography in general; the beginning is brought back only to signal its end. In particular, the hand of the artist, restored so forcefully by Gernsheim, has been decisively displaced in favor of the aesthetic decisions of a machine. This work’s dense patterns of ty­pographical interference are entirely dependent on Müller-Pohle’s choice of fonts, resolu­tion, file format, printing size, or program. The resulting images are therefore unpredictably different in every manifestation, a product of orchestrated randomness and electronic cross­-fertilization. Periodically the image notations even spill off the edges of their rectangular frames, like the restless static of a television screen. Dissected under Müller-Pohle’s digital electron microscope, photography reveals itself as a dynamic field of particles eight layers thick, momentarily frozen here only for the purposes of gallery presentation.

Digital Scores is one more reminder that photography is no longer (if it ever was) a mat­ter of inert, two-dimensional imprints of a reality outside itself.  Since at least 1989 and the introduction of Adobe Photoshop into the marketplace, photography has been, in the words of French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, an immateriel (“the principle on which the operational structure is based is not that of a stable ‘substance’, but that of an unstable en­semble of interactions . . . the model of language”). Certainly the identity of a photographic image no longer has to do with its support or its chemical composition, or with its author­ship, place of origin, or pictorial appearance. It instead comprises, as Müller-Pohle suggests, a pliable sequence of digital data and electronic impulses. It is their configuration that now decides an image’s look and significance, even the possibility of its continued existence. In other words, “photography” today is all about the reproduction and consumption, flow and exchange, maintenance and disruption, of data.

In this sense, photography has become one small part of the voracious data economy that characterizes contemporary capitalist life in general. It thereby joins the Human Genome Project (which assumes the human body to be no more than so much organic data), Corbis Corporation (which sells images in the form of infinitely reproducible digital files), the Archer Daniels Midland Company (which provides farmers with information derived from the Pen­tagon’s Global Positioning System of satellites), the music industry (which has sold six billion CDs of digital sound since 1982), the stock market (which lives and dies according to the exchange of electronic money), Earth Watch (a company that sells customers images of any­where on earth beamed down from its orbiting spy satellites), and the CIA (which calls the electron “the ultimate precision-guided weapon” and worries about the vulnerability of the United States to data-oriented warfare) in seeing the world in terms of the manipulation and exploitation of data. If it wants to be relevant to contemporary social life, it is within and across this stream of data that artwork must henceforth be undertaken. For it is here, here within the very grain of being, that political and cultural action of every kind must now locate itself. This essay is about the possibility of this kind of action, about a type of data-art (or da[r]ta)that takes the electronic universe to be its given medium as well as its subject.

Geoffrey Batchen: Each Wild Idea. Writing, Photography, History. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001. ISBN 0-262-02486-1