Image as process

  • Culture

Artistic innovation has long been driven by technology. Even the very basic building blocks of what we consider art today were invented at some point: The stained glass seen in many churches; tubes and palettes that allowed artists to paint outside; silkscreen printing; the camera and image editing software many painters use to make their work.

In a conversation with Refik Anadol at the recent Global Art Forum, Hans-Ulrich Obrist observed: “Artworks are fundamentally changing. They are becoming infinite.“ Anyone who has played with a GAN can attest to this. The image as a final result has made way for the image as a process. In generative technology, every image is a mere stepping stone to its next iteration. But is this also true in a sociological sense? Think of how market forces drive image-making on Instagram: Every “successful” page looks the same, the norm for the image style-du-jour is distilled in hyperspeed and gets widely distributed within days if not hours. Ranking algorithms make it almost impossible to break out of commonly accepted visual conventions. This great middening has doubtlessly changed our perception of the image as a carrier of information. The image's final result carries less meaning than the process the image lives through. Proof in point: Pepe the Frog stumbled through comics, artworks, politics, social unrest, and cryptocurrencies. A pretty epic journey for a stoner frog.

Artworks, of course, were never static. Their meaning continuously evolved through their changing context. However, I suspect that in the future, many artworks will not only evolve through context, but the much-loathed word “content” as well. Take Beeple’s HUMAN ONE for example: Its juxtaposition with Francis Bacon's Study for Portrait IX at Castello di Rivoli illustrates this point very well. Both depict a subject of their time. In Bacon's study, we’re looking at a man after the Second World War, stripped of his agency, sitting in the box that is his mental prison, contemplating the horrors of what just had happened. With no hands and no feet, he is clearly not going anywhere and is damned to stay put. HUMAN ONE, on the other hand, moves about. As the Metaverse’s first native, they walk at a steady pace through an ever-changing environment. Yet they stand still in physical space, subject to the whims of the artist who put them in the box and the curators that placed the box at a specific place in the museum. Both are prisoners of their time: one of WWII, the other of the Metaverse. The difference is that the latter will keep expanding.

While Bacon’s study categorically remains Bacon’s study, HUMAN ONE promises to be HUMAN ONE only conditionally, as was experienced at the opening of its second museum show, at M+ in Hong Kong. There the explorer was, in the same shiny metal box as in Castello, but something about them was different. The clothes had slightly changed, and the backdrop was a new one. The darkness of the Ukraine war had made space for colorful flower arrangements, sprouting like springtime on steroids. The environment got more abstract, flowers morphed into fireworks, fireworks morphed into planets, and planets decayed into the abyss. HUMAN ONE’s environment went from harsh realism to speculative adventure. The explorer itself had altered too. Their clothes were slightly different, the backpack changed, a Castello di Rivoli patch appeared on it, akin to a sticker you brought home from your last vacation. The figure was aging! I couldn’t help but think, how would the world be different had Mona Lisa aged, rather than being frozen in time? What once was meant to be preserved, is now meant to evolve. The time of the completed artwork might just have come to an end.

Great art is always a reflection of its time and raises fundamental questions about the human condition through the lens of its era. The internet has shaped contemporary culture beyond many people’s wildest imaginations. Our offline lives, much like the politics of our time, have become completely memeified. The comical nature of contemporary fashion (MSCHF boots, Loewe’s Minnie Pumps, the style of every Berlin-based techno aficionado below the age of 30) is just one example to prove a point. Online many of us conduct ourselves like a brand. Shumon Basar speaks about the everlasting present, as we’re stuck in an ongoing bombardment of content and likes and there is no escaping the attention economy. Many find it hard to remember anything that dates back further than 2007 when the iPhone went public and „today“ was unleashed. How could art-making not reflect that?

If the completed artwork is passé, is the age of the infinite artwork dawning? Maybe. In the competition for attention, infinite artworks will command more attention than finite artworks. Refik Anadol’s Machine Hallucinations at MoMA has broken every record and has been extended multiple times. Just like TV cannot compete with TikTok, a painting cannot compete with the process of painting. Narratives are not final anymore, they are but a stepping stone to the next chapter (Hello Louvre Cinematic Universe). And so are each iteration of Machine Hallucinations or HUMAN ONE. The former will have to change alongside the evolution of MoMA’s collection; the latter will evolve one exhibition at a time. Both promise to be infinite. Given the advent of contemporary generative technology, finalizing an image might have become impossible anyway.