A Spurious Result

Thomas Ruff, jpeg kj01

The working definition of artifact I’ve been comfortable with lately is an object embedded in a tradition or social structure that gives it meaning. Walter Benjamin argued that one of the things being altered about artifacts in the age of reproducibility is that they are loosing the aura that surrounds them because of the irrelevance of authenticity. There are no originals, only copies that have surrendered their claim to uniqueness in pursuit of universality. They lose their fetish cult value, but still participate in social structures in new ways.

Thomas Ruff’s JPEG work demonstrates this. Immaterial objects that exist only as clusters of electrons on a screen provide new social effects brought about through increased connectivity. The drive for universality continues.

I find it interesting that Ruff’s series arises, in a sense, from a group of failures (disasters, both natural and unnatural) juxtaposed with idyls (his word), or natural and man made landscapes depicted in the same digitally disintegrated form. He suggests that the focus on disaster is autobiographical, arising from an attempt to make sense of the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11/2001. He was in NYC at the time, and his camera failure  (or x-ray damage at the airport) left him searching the internet for images to make sense of the disaster.

His career-long focus on the structure of photographic images as they change with technology lead him to consider the pixel, rather than silver grains, as a fundamental constituent of images. Further, the internet has altered the image through compression. The artifacted image, then, is a product of both a reduced “sampling rate” of reality, related as “painterly squares” but further altered by losses when compressed images are reintegrated as viewable artifacts. This presents artifact in different light.

Research into the term in the OED has brought some new perspective. Artifact is of relatively recent pedigree, defined in the 17th century as “An object made or modified by human workmanship, as opposed to one formed by natural processes.” The Latin etymology from ars factum (object made with skill) is amazingly direct and similar in meaning and spelling across several languages. However, in the 19th century there was a reversal of this meaning:

A spurious result, effect, or finding in a scientific experiment or investigation, esp. one created by the experimental technique or procedure itself. Also as a mass noun: such effects collectively.

The alteration of usage shifts, perhaps with the trends in shifting technologies and techniques. Artifacts have been wrenched from human hands and rendered procedural. But the human touch lingers, in its third sense, an ideological manifestation: “A non-material human construct.” The citation of this usage from Toynbee’s Study of History from 1934 is particularly telling:

It is a mere accident that the material tools which Man has made for himself should have a greater capacity to survive than Man’s psychic artifacts.

Toynbee’s psychic artifacts like the concept of an internal and external proletariat have completely faded, including his suggestion that civilizations disappear through disintegration. Recall that disintegration is ultimately what Thomas Ruff’s JPEG work places firmly in the field of view. Ruff suggests that with adequate distance these artifact filled JPEG images integrate themselves into natural images. Viewed up close, their disintegration can be beautiful.

What procedural tool, then, creates the appearance of these images? The short answer is “lossy compression,” but the longer answer has some important clues. From Wikipedia:

JPEG uses a lossy form of compression based on the discrete cosine transform (DCT). This mathematical operation converts each frame/field of the video source from the spatial (2D) domain into the frequency domain (a.k.a. transform domain). A perceptual model based loosely on the human psychovisual system discards high-frequency information, i.e. sharp transitions in intensity, and color hue. In the transform domain, the process of reducing information is called quantization.

The images are transformed using an algorithm created from a perceptual model. The information discarded in the compression is forever lost. In short, we trust a machine (computer) to shape our images, using a model based on our perception. The information we view has a diminishing relationship with any sort of material object, rather, it comes from our artificially created intelligence of our own visual system. This takes artifice to an entirely new level.

The “skill” introduced into the ars factum— the artifact— is that of a machine. We are in effect, creating human/machine hybrid perceptions that are becoming the cornerstones of our epistemological universe. These new truths are not completely man made. It’s not just AI and robots that will alter the future, it’s a thousand choices along the way based on spurious information untouched by human hands.

It remains startling to me how relevant Walter Benjamin remains in all this.

Theses defining the developmental tendencies of art can therefore contribute to the political struggle in ways that it would be a mistake to underestimate. They neutralize a number of traditional concepts—such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery— which, used in an uncontrolled way (and controlling them is difficult today), allow factual material to be manipulated in the interests of fascism. (252)

Benjamin goes on to argue that his “politics of art” would be useless for fascism. I think he’s wrong. Machine manipulation is nothing if not the new mystery. Reproducibility through algorithms has reinforced what is worst in us in the last decade or more.