Near the end of his life, Aby Warburg (1866-1929) found a form that began to answer his questions about images. The questions had centered on the relationship between memory and history. Somehow, the conventional practices of art history had left Warburg unsatisfied. There was a deeper logic, he believed, between certain classical images, and between classical images and the ones that came later.
This restless search led him to amass an idiosyncratic library on Renaissance scholarship (the library was transferred from Hamburg to London after his death, and became the core of the Warburg Institute). And it was what propelled him to travel to the United States and live for several months in the mid-1890s among Hopi and Zuni people. The great insight happened many years later, in 1924, when Warburg set up large black cloth screens, and began to pin newspaper and magazine cuttings of paintings, prints, and photographs on them. Each screen was organized around an idea, a complex theme, and the sequence of images was a matter of reiteration as well as of imaginative leaps. (Click on images to enlarge.)
One panel was an exploration of the afterlife of classical gestures, centered around a painting by Ghirlandaio. Another looked at the iconological value of the figure of the hurrying nymph, and included paintings by Boticelli and Raphael, as well as a photograph of a young woman on an Italian street. The panels of Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas owe something to the systematic imagination inherited from the eighteenth century and to the atlases of that time. But there is something else going on in the Mnemosyne Atlas: it is neither systematic nor complete. It borrows the form of the atlas for something more surreal, more suggestive, and more affective.
Scholars in the 1980s and 1990s began to pay more attention to Warburg in part because of Walter Benjamin’s interest in him, but also because, like Benjamin, his talent for montage-like effects was seen as emblematic of the twentieth century. In a way, the Mnemosyne Atlas had begun to do in images what Benjamin did a few years later in words with his Arcades Project. These projects, as Benjamin wrote, sought to “develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks.” The use of images in conversation with other images (in other words, the use of dialectical images) became one of the standard gestures of the art of the twentieth century. It found powerful expression in works like Tarkovsky’s Mirror and Gerhard Richter’s incessant collection of cut-outs, prints, photos, and fragments: the Atlas Micromega (1962-2013).
Richter’s Atlas Micromega runs into hundreds of sheets, of faces, snapshots, mountains, cities, paintings, candles, nudes, landscapes: in short all the material that fed his large scale pieces. But the Atlas Micromega exists also for its own sake: as a testament to what the artist saw, and what he collected, and how he sequenced them. I see a through-line here, from Warburg to Benjamin to Richter and, finally, to Baltimore artist Dina Kelberman, who makes a long sequence of images and short films she has found on Google and on YouTube.
But if one strand of the genealogy of Kelberman’s I’m Google is indebted to this high art lineage, another strand is about something else entirely: the kind of “atlasing” that only Google could make possible. This project is involved in the affective language of Warburg (Benjamin writes in the Arcades Project: “I needn’t say anything. Merely show.”). There’s a satisfaction for the eye in wordlessly accounting for the link between one image and the one that follows it. It also contains, as in Benjamin, a critique of commodity culture. But Kelberman’s project is, in addition, a visual world-building that explicitly sidesteps not only the language of antiquity and classicism, but also any suggestion of “artistic” image-making. Her choices are brightly colored, plasticky, almost naive, and straightforwardly vernacular, less Warburg than Walmart.
Kelberman’s images are related to each other by a more transparent and less obviously intellectualized logic. By contrast, the deadpan affect of Richter’s Atlas Micromega is still freighted with a modernist melancholia. Kelberman’s images are all found images, discovered by trawling through Google and YouTube, mostly by use of keyword searches, and her selection process excludes images with an intentional artistic intent. In a sense, she has arrived at a goal Richter stated in his Notes 1964-65: “I like everything that has no style: dictionaries, photographs, nature, myself and my paintings.” But Richter has plenty of style; it is Kelberman whose hand-chosen images, with their impeccable timing and straight-faced absurdity, come close to being styleless.
Indeed, viewers have sometimes assumed that I’m Google is simply the result of a very clever computer program, a bot set free on Google Image Search and directed to Tumblr, rather than the selective record of countless hours of looking and sifting. As Kelberman said in an interview, “The blog came out of my natural tendency to spend long hours obsessing over Google Image searches, collecting photos I found beautiful and sorting them by theme.” Anyone could do this. The deeper value here is in Kelberman’s notion of the beautiful: “the images that interest me are of industrial or municipal materials or everyday photo snapshots.” A more automated process—for instance, the one seen in Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz’s conceptually interesting Google-based Image Atlas (2012)—feels more limited and less suggestive, and more susceptible to distracting mistakes, in part because of the absence of the cunning curatorial hand. It is worth pointing out that Kelberman’s work exploits a strain in internet art that challenges the viewer to assume it was made by a bot, not an artist: a kind of reverse Turing test.
I’m Google uses the possibilities of Google Image Search in a way quite distinct from what I considered in my essay about Google’s Search By Image. Kelberman has said that she does not find Search By Image particularly helpful for this project. And yet, even in its styleless style, I’m Google does explore color patch (macchia) theory, the impact of first impressions. But it goes farther in relying both on visual as well as semantic similarities, in addition to very careful (and occasionally comic) timing. If classical macchia theory is about the nouns of things, and therefore just the appearances, then Kelberman builds similarities also on the basis of verbs: what sprays, what proliferates, what curls or curves or gleams or effloresces in a particular way. She holds the challenge of similarity to a more stringent standard, and yet out of this stringency, which explores static as well as kinetic interests, one feels she could end up just about anywhere.
The bright color palette, flat affect, shadowless lighting, and industrial obsessions in Kelberman’s work—she also makes comic strips, animation, and gifs, and writes plays— emerge in part from her fascination with Looney Tunes‘ Chuck Jones and the epiphenomena of The Simpsons (how clouds or furniture are rendered in it; another Kelberman project consists of screenshots of such “nothing” moments from The Simpsons).
Kelberman’s wonderfully named comic strips, Important Comics, are pared down in the extreme, often with simple shapes in place of people, but are emotionally anything but simple. In addition, she has an interest in synaesthesia and in the ways that the mind makes links and meaning out of apparently unrelated things. And perhaps, for all the disavowal of classicism, there is also strong classical idea at the heart of the I’m Google project: that of metamorphosis. As in the myths, there’s a little jolt of pleasure (or even fascinated horror) at the moment when something begins to turn into something else. Kelberman accomplishes all this by means of a language that contains the gestures of taxonomy without being taxonomic. She builds an ark of “types.”
In its list making, it is an update of the atlas of affect at the same time that it is a catalog of what one might call “catalog realism,” a sort of Sears Roebuck catalog stripped of labels and released into the wild, a sequence that includes logs, fencing, stadia, spray paint, tents, colored paper, sponges, mugs, dirt, houses on fire, geysers, hoses, phone cords, construction sites, molds, paint, tomato sauce, batter, bread, plastic lids, jungle gyms, balloons, Venetian blinds, table fans, scaffolding, greenhouses, kindergarten projects, messy bedrooms, televisions, explosions, lift-off, forest fires, forests, disabled parking signs, auditoriums, soldering, car washes, surf, sand, powdered paint, string cheese, hair, wigs, clouds, foam, yards, roller coasters, blizzards, squalls, tornadoes, lightbulbs, computer screens, windows, booths, ski lifts, zip lines, watchtowers, water slides, volcanic lakes, sand castles, team uniforms, group photographs, factory workers, crowds, balloons, mannequins, aquaria, window nets, mosquito nets, tents, canopies, piles, packing foam, gym mattresses, wildfire planes, desert rallies, dough, Play-Doh, hearing aids, earbuds, buoys, plastic bags, Ziploc bags, plastic gloves, palm prints, prosthetic hands, cut balloons, cut holders, painted bales of hay, silage wrapping, taffy machines, and more, because the world of things never ends.
Dina Kelberman, I’m Google.
Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas.
Gerhard Richter, Atlas Micromega.
Teju Cole, Google’s Macchia.