How the Internet's Ceaseless Image Stream Is Changing the Way We See, Create, and Communicate

How the Internet's Ceaseless Image Stream Is Changing the Way We See, Create, and Communicate
Searching for "art" in Google Images yields an avalanche of images, not all of them relevant.
(Screenshot of Google Images)

A Van Gogh painting. An Ingres drawing. An Etruscan mural, a Picasso, a Paul McCarthy video still. Your sister's baby photos, the façade of an apartment building, kitschy black-and-white portraits of that girl you know who wanted to be an actress, a picture of the sunset in some other city. LOLcats. Your desktop.  

As denizens of the Internet, we live in a constant stream of images. The dominant mode of our visual experience of art is not to slowly pore over of an illuminated manuscript, or even to enjoy a leisurely stroll through a museum gallery. It is a ceaseless flow of visual stimulus where the next aesthetic input is only an arrow key away; our eyes stay fixed on the back-lit computer or iPhone screen as each new picture passes. Though our attention spans have invariably declined, this new state is not necessarily a bad thing. Life in the stream of images has its advantages.

The current pace of visual transmission online is such that trading pictures has become a form of real-time conversation, a dialogue in which the aggregate exchange is more important than any single component or any individual image. Web sites have arisen that marshal the visual flow, providing venues and systems that allow image conversation to become the de facto form of communication — not just a Facebook photo album shared with friends but a constant dialogue of pictures. While these sites facilitate visual communication, they also destabilize the traditional state of image creation.

In a traditional art historical framework, artists create images and viewers consume them. But when the line between artist and viewer is blurred into irrelevance, as it is on the Internet, images become collaborative phenomena rather than individually authored units. Images are now transmutable objects, unfixed in time and space, taking as their only context the pictures in the stream around them.

This stream, it should be said, manifests itself in different ways. The recent redesign of Google Images search, with its tiled expanse of thumbnails each in proportion to the one next to it, reinforces the idea of an infinite expanse of imagery. The search page scrolls endlessly, a river of pictures. Only when users scroll over the thumbnails do any details emerge, showing a size, a file name, and a source. Social networking site Tumblr's dashboard is another stream of images, an anodyne blue background set with white speech bubbles to frame content, forming a pathway that users get sucked irresistibly into. It's only too easy to keep looking and keep scrolling; there's no reason to focus on one single thing.

In both cases it is the user (or viewer) who chooses what to see, through Google's search bar or the careful curation of their own Tumblr feed, and through the action of re-blogging (re-publishing, or passing on to your followers) imagery that interests them. While this selection process is not a creative act in itself, the sensation of guiding a ceaseless current of relevant visual stimuli does provide some of the feeling of creativity.

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Other Web sites privilege the creation of images rather than their consumption. Oekaki is a Japanese word referring a type of online forum devoted specifically to drawing. An active format in both Japan and the U.S. since the '90s, oekaki BBSes (bulletin board systems) are streams of images produced by users through an in-browser drawing system, similar to a very simplified version of Photoshop. Users can create their own image and publish it, while the BBS's community comments and responds, giving tips to oekaki novices and critiquing the BBS's own home-grown Michelangelos. In the world of oekaki, authorship is important — what you make amounts to your reputation and credibility within the site's audience.

Internet art collective Computers Club has moved the idea of the oekaki to the context of the art world. At their members-only Computers Club Drawing Society page, structured much like an oekaki, participants (including artists Sterling Crispin, Nicolas O'Brien, Jeremiah Johnson, and Sara Ludy) post images for public appreciation and critique. In what amounts to a collaborative sketchbook, group critique, and online classroom, each picture posted has at least a few comments on it by other members. The dominant style is total 'net art, largely abstract, with gradient fills, glitchy pixelation, and gestural mouse work. The group commentary, too, is a mixture of new-age-inflected compliments ("Sandstones Adrift Sea of Tranquility..."), online patois (~ and <3 feature prominently) and ASCII drawings particular to the online art community.  

In contrast, Internet start-up Canvas, founded by 4Chan creator Chrisopher Poole, downplays the notion of a single author in favor of unleashing the mass creative powers of its audience. Similar to an oekaki, Canvas features an in-browser image editor. The site's main page is a stream of different images, but the interesting thing is that these pictures constantly echo each other. The point is to take an image and edit it, adding your own twists, additions, and Internet meme jokes in an effort to make something that the audience will react to. Dialogue is enabled by written comments and by a sticker system that allows user to put a smiley (or bored, or excited, or shocked) face icon on top of an image. Canvas demonstrates that today's image communication has no start and no end, and no closed arena of fixed meaning. It is simply an anarchic mass of visual stimulus and symbols, incessantly mixed and remixed in an effort to create some kind of fleeting connection between users.

In all of these sites, significance is accorded not in a one-on-one viewer-to-image relationship but in the exchange between users and a massive body of images, the language through which users communicate with each other. The image stream is the medium, and the message, well, that's still under discussion.

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VIRTUAL MEMORY: In a Rhizome profile of Aram Bartholl (who conceptualized Dead Drops, Speedshows, and other new media art tropes), the German artist explores the intermingling of the digital and the real. Investigating his own emotional investment in virtual spaces, Bartholl plans to replicate such unreal architecture as first-person-shooter video game levels on a 1:1 scale. "You spend hours and days in the same space" of a video game, Bartholl says, to the point where your attachment to it is the same as or greater than your connection to a "real" space. The artist continues, "the virtual spaces we lived in, spend our precious youth in are like memories carved in stone, like a Mayan temple hidden in the jungle."

– SCI-FI SCAVENGER HUNT:
Legendary cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling has turned app-developer with the announcement of an application that works off of Aram Bartholl's international network of dead drops (the data-carrying USB sticks he embeds in walls around the world). The application "helps users locate these hidden Dead Drops by letting you scan the nearby area, then you can hunt down the nearest drop using the information displayed on the screen," according to the Creators Project. Sterling is also writing a work of "augmented fiction" that will be stored on the Dead Drops.

Net Work is a weekly column exploring the state of contemporary new media art and its practitioners by ARTINFO Assistant Editor Kyle Chayka. Follow Kyle on Twitter at @chaykakor email him at kchayka@artinfo.com.