Editor’s note: This is the tenth in a series of commissioned essays for The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium on Saturday, March 9, 2013.
This brief essay will focus on something that I think is important to Tumblr — the need to negotiate with media already in circulation. It is a desire that has been expressed variously throughout the 20th century by other artists and writers who negotiated, or thought about how to negotiate, with a world overflowing with images. Already in the 1980s you have media theorist Vilém Flusser describing a “telematic society of image producers and image collectors.” Before that Susan Sontag had already discussed how just about everything had already been photographed. Today, Hito Steyerl emphasizes that “postproduction has come to take over production wholesale.”*
Here, I want to describe, quickly, some previous practices that also expressed a desire to negotiate with the immense amount of sensory material already in existence. In no way is this a complete history, and I don’t mean to use these diverse previous practices to prop up Tumblr now — but I do think they can help us see better what Tumblr is, and perhaps what it could be. To go through this saturation, this overcoding — I think its possible that could be what Tumblr helps us to do, as a tool. As such it relies on a principle of montage and collision, a cinematic principle elaborated by Sergei Eisenstein but continued throughout the 20th century.
When the photomonteur John Heartfield began, in the mid-1920s, to utilize only images already in circulation to construct his covers for the AIZ (Workers’ Illustrated News), it was because of their potential to create a “condition of rhetorical and hermeneutic surplus” within the image. This was because — not in spite of — their previous media-circulation. The image was not restricted to the auspices of high art: in fact, its meaning was in part a result of its existence and place and mass culture. The detritus of mass culture could be recoded, and this recoding was accomplished through the collision of images and texts — texts that, in Heartfield’s work, often relied on common clichés and turns of phrase.
In 1927, Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty emerged in the Soviet Union. Shub worked as an editor for Goskino, re-editing Western films to fit the demands of the new Soviet state. Fall of the Romanov Dynasty recounted the events and circumstances surrounding the 1917 Revolution by reediting pre-revolutionary newsreels and a treasure trove of film material from Tsar Nicholas II’s personal films. Shub’s deployment of montage, revealed through her practice with The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, is if anything closer to Heartfield than Eisenstein: that these images could be recoded and reordered into another whole, that their potential outweighed their previous contextualization.**
In the early 1960s, German artist Gerhard Richter began to formulate his Atlas. The Atlas is an open-ended collection of images ranging from landscapes and newspaper clippings to personal, amateur photographs, and pornography. It provides visual cues rather than models for many of Richter’s paintings. What differentiates Richter’s project from other contemporaneous ones is its heterogeneity and discontinuity. As an image-accumulation, the arrangement is undetermined by theme or category.
Notable about the Atlas is its title: an atlas in German can be a manual of visuality. It is in this sense, for example, that photographer August Sander intended his portrait atlas project to be an atlas of the German people. Lynne Cook has described Richter’s Atlas as hovering “between the promise of taxonomic order as devulged in the archive and the total devastation of that promise, which is implicit, for example, in the amorcellated, antirelational potential of photomontage.” Allan Sekula has famously described previous photographic archival methods — utilized for largely juridical purposes — as defined not by the camera, but by the filing cabinet. In the Atlas, it is almost as if Richter had attempted to discover an archival mode ungoverned by the logic of the filing cabinet.
Around the same time, Stan VanDerBeek began working on the media environment known as the Movie-Drome.*** With the Movie-Drome, VanDerBeek imagined a cinematic environment where drawings, lights, newsreel excerpts, and found footage, along with original films by VanDerBeek and others, would be projected together in overlapping directions. Combined with sounds reverberating from the interior of the dome and the heat of electronic equipment and human bodies, the Movie-Drome was a dense multimedia environment.
In his “‘Culture: Intercom’ and Expanded Cinema” manifesto, VanDerBeek insisted “that immediate research begin on the possibility of a picture-language based on motion pictures.” The home for this language would be the Movie-Drome, or the various Movie-Dromes that would dot the Earth. “This image-flow,” he continued:
Could be compared to the ‘collage’ form of the newspaper, or the three ring circus (both of which suffuse the audience with an abundance of facts and data). The audience takes what it can or wants from the presentation and makes its on conclusions. Each member of the audience will build his own references and realizations from the image-flow.
Essential to the potential of VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome and image-flow was a principle similar, in a sense, to that of Heartfield’s photomontage: that the force of collision, expressed through montage, could move beyond the limit of the cinema screen and into the world, as a way of contending with the “abundance of facts and data” VanDerBeek describes above.
Following VanDerBeek, in a sense, though coming from a more thorough and sustained reflection on photography, the experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton would by the 1970s arrive at his conception of metahistory. Frampton’s metahistory, derived in part from his appreciation for T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and Individual Talent,” was a tool for the invention of traditions. “The metahistorian of cinema … is occupied with inventing a tradition, that is, a coherent, wieldy set of discrete monuments, meant to inseminate resonant consistency into the growing body of his art.” What distinguishes Frampton’s metahistory from VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome is selection: where VanDerBeek wanted ungoverned velocity and collision, Frampton sought instead a subjective genealogy that could be constructed from preexisting materials. “There is no evidence in the structural logic of the filmstrip that distinguishes ‘footage’ from a ‘finished’ work. Thus, any piece of film may be regarded as ‘footage,’ for use in any imaginable way to construct or reconstruct a new work.”
Other than a desire to confront and utilize media elements already in existence, what converges in the works of the artists above is something like what Marshall McLuhan referred to as art’s potential as a means of “training perception and judgment.” They sought new ways to organize media, even if they shirked the parameters of organization is favor of haphazardly expanded consciousness. By forcing a user to confront what VanDerBeek called the image-flow, and to build your own “references and realizations,” Tumblr somehow works to train just that perceptive capability. Tumblr can force us to think abstractly about images, to face the collision between images.
Like I said before, I don’t want to suggest that any of these practices culminate in Tumblr. But there is a sense, I think, in which Tumblr emerges from a similar desire — the desire to interact, reorganize, and re-present elements from an already existing body of media. Just as Frampton insisted that any filmstrip was suitable to (re)construct a new work, Tumblr is a space where a Sander photograph can interact with a selfie or a GIF of Mothlight, or where those things could all combine into a mash-up GIF.
Still, as Jesse Darling, who likens Tumblr to “an open sketchbook,” maintains:
It’s something like a place, which is also a discipline or a protocol: like any other software or platform, or K-Mart, or a library, or a gallery. There are best practices and paths to excellence in all these: it’s possible to excel at Tumblr, for sure, like it’s possible to excel at Facebook or Twitter or Photoshop or gallerygoing.
Darling’s own tumblelog, which images, performance GIFs, an excerpts from essays intermingle, is certainly metahistorical. Yet Darling reminds us that Tumblr is a protocol, an environment where we’re encouraged to circulate media, focusing on what we like and even what we want. You could end up with a lookbook just as easily as a metahistory.
Hyperallergic would like to thank Pernod Absinthe for their support of the World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium essay series.
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* Hito Steyerl, “Cut! Reproduction and Recombination,” in The Wretched of the Screen, 176-190, 182.
*** Interesting in relation to Stan VanDerBeek, Richter has spoken of a “dream of mine — that the pictures will become an environment or become architecture, that would be even more effective.” Quoted in Dorothea Dietrich, “Gerhard Richter: An Interview,” The Print Collector’s Newsletter 16, no. 4 (Sept./Oct. 1985), p. 130. Appears as a footnote in Lynne Cook’s introduction to an exhibition of the Atlas at Dia in 1995, available here.