My car’s called Picasso
A name that people getting born around the world just now are more likely to hear for the first time in connection with a car rather than one of the twentieth century’s most influential painters. Here we have a sign of the porousness of today’s boundaries between art and popular culture, itself a reflection of the High / Low yoyo that’s been going up and down for near on a century now. Soon we’ll be celebrating the hundredth birthday of Marcel Duchamp’s invention of the readymade, since which the concept of taking some everyday consumer product and importing it into art has been all the rage. Most of the historical avant-garde movements—Dada, Surrealism, Pop, the Situationist International, the Picture Generation and Postmodernism—delved extensively into the visual resources of appropriation, to the point where it’s now become a medium in its own right. These days artists resort to appropriation the way their quattrocento predecessors did to the camera obscura, or a Sunday painter does to watercolour. Everybody’s on the bandwagon: the artist currently in the spotlight, the art student, the lady next door, my cousin— right down to the art directors of the big car companies.
All mod cons—and images too
The growth of the Internet and the proliferation of sites for searching out and/or sharing images online—Flickr, Photobucket, Facebook, Google Images, eBay, to name only the best-known—now mean a plethora of visual resources that was inconceivable as little as ten years ago: a phenomenon comparable to the advent of running water and gas in big cities in the nineteenth century. We all know just how thoroughly those amenities altered people’s way of life in terms of everyday comfort and hygiene—and now, right in our own homes, we have an image-tap that’s refashioning our visual habits just as radically. In the course of art history, periods when image accessibility has been boosted by techno- logical innovation have always been rich in major visual advances: improved photomechanical printing techniques and the subsequent press boom of the 1910s-1920s, for instance, paved the way for photomontage. Similar upheavals in the art field accompanied the rise of engraving as a popular medium in the nineteenth century, the arrival of TV in the 1950s—and the coming of the Internet today.
Across-the-board appropriation on the one hand plus hyper-accessibility of images on the other: a pairing that would prove particularly fertile and stimulating for the art field. Beginning with the first years of the new millennium—Google Images launched in 2001, Google Maps in 2004 and Flickr the same year—artists jumped at the new technologies, and since then more and more of them have been taking advantage of the wealth of opportunities offered by the Internet. Gleefully appropriating their online finds, they edit, adapt, displace, add and subtract. What artists used to look for in nature, in urban flâneries, in leafing through magazines and rummaging in flea markets, they now find on the Internet, that new wellspring of the vernacular and inexhaustible fount of ideas and wonders.
For an ecology of images
This is hardly the kind of phenomenon to be understood via the sole and unique filter of its newness, given that the works emerging from digital appropriation practices are not fundamentally new in the way Modernism perceived the term: originality and revolution are not their goals, but they still take the thinking of the last few decades a lot further. What they are after is intensity: by radicalising artistic stances they are beginning to make the boundaries shift. To take one example, artists in this category are part of a significant trend towards the demythologising of the artistic making that began with the early twentieth century, opting more for a celebration of choosing. Rather than adding images to images, they are all for recycling what already exists, for applying a kind of ecology of images. This makes the creative process something much more playful, with an accent on the unexpected, the serendipitous and the inadvertently poetic. And another thing these artists share is an urge to drive home the obsoleteness of criteria which were once the crucial factors in determining what was art and what wasn’t.
The simulated suicide of the authorWhat the artists on show in this exhibition also have in common is an upgrading of the amateur at the expense of the auteur. Their hero is no longer the technician, the expert or the professional armed with their specific savoir- faire, expertise or métier and in quest of a certain quality, but much more the amateur or collector, the impassioned practitioner of a hobby. At issue here is no longer the ‘death of the author’ proclaimed by Roland Barthes in 1968, but his simulated suicide. For the appropriationist working in the totally digital age, the point is no longer to deny his status as author, but rather to play-act or feign his own death in the full knowledge that he’s not fooling anybody. Clearly, then, the issue is one not of newness, but of intensity.
The small change of art
The digital appropriationism surge that this exhibition only begins to map—and then gauchely—tells us one vital thing: we are sitting on veins of images, mother lodes that have been accumulating for almost two hundred years and are now expanding exponentially. Like the different resources that are a natural part of our planet’s composition, this form of energy embraces both the fossil and the renewable. It is also an extraordinary form of wealth. You only have to dig a little and sift gently for the water of the stream to bring the first nuggets to light. And the gold rush has already begun. On his grave in Batignolles cemetery in Paris André Breton’s epitaph reads, Je cherche l’or du temps: ‘I seek time’s gold.’ Breton was one of the first to realise that as an inexhaustible source of marvels, analog images constitute our greatest asset. His friend Paul Éluard, that passionate collector of photographic postcards, said that his finds were ‘at best the small change of art’, but that they ‘sometimes conveyed the idea of gold’. The artists making the most of digital technology resources in recent years have been working this vein. And working as trailblazers too, pointing us down the path to riches.Clément Chéroux, April 2011.