In Don DeLillo's recent novel "Underworld" the narrator slips into one of those many off-handed remarks that is so characteristic of DeLillo's writing as it oscillates between the quietly profound and the profoundly obvious. He reminds us casually "how human it is to see things as something else." Much of the transformation of our modern culture over the last century rests upon the presumption of just such irony and the patterns of spectatorship shaping what we see and how we see ourselves. For those of us who came of age around mid-century (that is, we recognized the propagation of identity through image) the emerging techno-culture reflected an undeniable reciprocity between technology and representation. So much so that "technology" itself not only became a kind of utopian metaphor for the mechanics of seeing and being seen, but offered its own brand of salvation politics.
Photography has been at the root of much of the discussion and evolving theorization on which our electronic culture now turns. Introduced in 1839 (the same year Charles Babbage with the assistance of mathematician Ada Lovelace introduced the first true mechanical digital computer), it was quickly embraced as an automated machine image capable of mirroring material reality without the hand of the artist. And it was unique in another critical way. It carried the possibility of conveying meaning on the level of icon, symbol and index simultaneously, distinguishing it from other non-optical systems of expression while securing its place in the now flacid debate of its status as an art form. Much of my own fascination, if not obsession, with the photographic image has been tied to this simultaneous interplay or tension between index and symbol, between mechanical impartiality and personal language. Our collective notion of photography persisted throughout most of the century grounded in this simple yet paradoxical condition, while the image itself gained unparalleled agency in the trajectory of twentieth century thought and politics.
Linking digital technology to the production of photographic images and image-forms, while unhinging photography from the classic burden of depicting the truth (an admittedly highly complex task reflecting intention, experience and observation), shifted the mutability of the image from the essentially interpretive/psycho-analytic to the techno/imaginative. Our ability to see the image as something greater than simply a descriptive record grew naturally out of our own analytic tendencies, meant to penetrate the intentions of the picture-maker and/or read the subliminal psychological state of the subject(s), all generally compressed into a 1/100 of a second of picture time. The digital photograph has dramatically altered the likelihood of a fictional basis of the image, while properly implicating it within its own technological means of production. There now exists a kind of parallax between photography and the photographic, rendered palatable in the knowledge of our digital capabilities and the demystification of truth.
What was once securely factual is now factually ambiguous and the mantel of truth-telling seems to have fallen closer to video, with theimmediacy of the ever-present camcorder, surveillance technology, real-time recording and live broadcasting, while drifting steadily away from the now suspect still image. This marks a semiotic break in the fabric of our collective consciousness about photography and what constitutes the photographic. The ability to perfectly forge the image so that the content neither contradicts knowledge nor conflicts with experience, conceals only the fact that our senses deceive us. No recourse through witnesses, reports, experience or common sense guarantees the integrity of the photograph, although consensus may increase the probability. What is now considered digitally photographic has wedged uncertainty between signifier and the signified. Curiously, photography inherently speaks always to the past while the digital image, like that of painting, resides in the present, leaving the digital photograph to occupy the new boundary between the atom-heavy artifact and cyber-virtuality. For those of us extruded through the keyhole of modernism, the need and fascination to deconstruct and explore the means by which images were produced and how they conveyed meaning confronted classical arguments for the perfectly aestheticized moment and re-animated the critical environment surrounding photography in the latter part of the century.
Although this disrupted a certain cultural logic between the optical unconscious, as Walter Benjamin describes it, and objectivity, it also served notice on the comforting thought of simple order. The new aesthetics of our techno-culture will likely emerge from the tradition of film and the auteur, as writer, producer and director, configured around broadly discursive cultural, political and biological networks. The new "vision" of the mid-century, modeled by followers of both the German Bauhaus and later the new Bauhaus in the United States, seemed to galvanize the practice and formal teaching of photography around concerns of experimental "seeing" and technical exploration against that of the traditional connoisseurship of pure vision. It was an integrated experience bringing artists, writers, poets, architects, designers and film-makers together in common purpose, recognizing the accruing complexity of our modern visual culture, while anticipating the power of networked thinking and collaboration. It spawned a climate of inquiry and experimentation which destabilized virtually all aspects of the medium and propelled photography center stage, driving our visual culture. The seeds of our electronic culture grew more and more visible with the broader use of telegraphic devices such as the wire-photo and subsequent telecopier (fax machine), television, telegraph, and telephone, all encoding information electronically for remote transmission. It seemed to signal a radical transformation of the materiality of the image and its potential for manipulation and integration into an emerging electronic elsewhere. This undifferentiated digital coding of photographs, sound, music and text together offered many of us a new language of synthesis, providing a common electronic platform for unifying basically incompatible signifiers. Even in their seemingly primitive state, many of these early electronic image-processing technologies forged a context for what was to follow and began to disrupt our sense of the physicality of the image and its mooring in time.
Other corresponding optical/mechanical means of the photographic process as well as related technologies such as holography, the slit camera, Polaroid SX-70 instant camera and color Xerox copier, itself an instant camera, fueled greater and greater challenges to the temporal boundaries of still photography. Sequence, interval, and collage produced presentational modes of display calculated to convey narrativity, cinematic continuity and temporal flow. As the data-processing technology improved exponentially, so followed the variability and viability of the image in time and space. An image now potentially immaterial, non-local, and of light of a different magnitude.
It is probably safe to assume that the computer now stands unparalleled as a tool of production and as a site of interactivity, uniting all of the historical possibilities of the machine-generated image. What flourishes beyond the hyperbole is the raw vitality and ironic play confronting the political and aesthetic issues of our time, raising salient arguments for more integrated experience, while building forms that manage to hold together our incompatibilities and histories long enough to disarm the status quo. Our uneasiness with the intimate coupling of our body and technology is understandable. Maintaining or recouping an integrated sense of "wholeness" is not merely an act of faith but the result of lived social relations, in turn socializing our new networks of communication and mastering our intricate hi-tech visualizing tools. The greatest risk, as Donna Haraway suggests, is that "our machines are disturbingly lively and we ourselves frighteningly inert."
In a naive state of mind and with the suspension of a certain logic, one could think that the orchestra resides in the radio. The otherness of our cybernetic culture often conflicts with our own innate sense of space, time and place, disrupting the familiar architecture of our identities. In this reconfigured environment what is "photographic" has significantly altered our individual means of designation and, with that, opened new terrain of rendered experience, simulated spaces and fluid connectivity with each other. Our machines cannot dream for us. They do offer a new logic of expression by which we can imagine other worlds and assert our sense of self while taking pleasure in reconstructing the boundaries of everyday life created in the collapse of the "it" and "us" of our cyberculture.
Will Larson is Director of Graduate studies in Photography/Digital Imaging at Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore. His work has been exhibited widely and is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitian Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art, and the Philidelphia Museum of Art, amoung many others, both here and abroad. He has received numerous grants and fellowships, including the Pennsylvania Governors Award for Excellence in the Arts, a Guggenheim fellowship and four NEA fellowships. He has also served on both a Peer Panel and a Policy Review Panel for the NEA. Will lived in Sienna, Italy prior to studying with Aaron Siskind at Institute of Design in Chicago. From there he moved to Philadelphia, where he still lives. He is currently curating a major digital exhibition entitled; Signal to Light, Images from the Silicon Elsewhere, to open in the Fall of 2000 at the Maryland Institute.