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Double Take
By Teju Cole
A blog on vision, visuality, and visual culture
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The Atlas of Affect

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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.)

Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, Panel 45 ("Superlatives of the language of gestures"), 1927-29

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.

Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas, Panel 79 (“The Eucharist”), 1929

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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—————
NOTES:

Dina Kelberman, I’m Google.
Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne Atlas.
Gerhard Richter, Atlas Micromega.
Teju Cole, Google’s Macchia.

Evening Walk

(from my journal, January 2013)

It is always strange to be out in Sunset Park at night and feel it so powerfully like a setting from Love in the Time of Cholera. There’s a “we” at work at such times that thrills and mystifies me. I am never prepared to see these peasant faces, dark and busy with worry, or to encounter at my doorstep this antique Latin American world in which one inhales the smoke from frying dough and root vegetables and overhears conversations that are opaque even when some of the words are familiar.

Tonight at the photo shop where I was picking up some rolls of film I’d had developed, there was a fast-talking grandmother with a cast on her arm, the cast like something pulling her back into childhood, and at the food vendor near the mobile phone merchant there was a woman with an angelic face who was dressed in black and was as short as a child.

They say García Márquez is “gone” now, no longer able to recognize anyone. To think that he’s out there, at this very moment, in this world, this man who is one of the minds of the age. I wonder if there’s ease and mercy in his senescence, I wonder if it is as soft as a second childhood, or whether it’s the case that some fierce small intelligence still avid in him rages against the dwindling of itself, an intelligence that daily and helplessly wishes itself already dead.

Envoi

“This has been a good year.” Or, “This has been a bad year, right?”

What sorts of statements are these? What consensus could there be on a year’s goodness? I think of early medieval annals. “721 AD–drought; 722 AD–(blank); 723 AD–(blank); 724 AD–(blank); 725 AD–bad harvest, frightening comet in the west.” Poor helpless humanity.

2003–terrible year (launch of a murderous and unprovoked war on Iraq)

2005–terrible year (tsunami)

2010–terrible year (earthquake in Haiti)

2013–terrible year (war in Syria)

2003-2013–terrible years (extreme climate events, Global War on Terror, intensifying economic immiseration)

Meanwhile, Uncle Seamus is dead. Beloved relatives are dead. Beloved writers and artists are dead. Revolutions are stillborn.

All years are terrible years; the predicament of being human tends towards the negative. We read the news and are left feeling nothing more noble than “only I have escaped to tell thee.” A given year can be pronounced good only in a solipsistic sense.

2013 ends and I wish again, selfishly, hopelessly, and dubiously, as I do at the end of each year, that my friends and I will in the coming year escape fate’s worst.

Dreezus

I know I got a bad reputation. Walk around always mad reputation.

I’m aware I’m a wolf.

I had this vision in my sleep, and saw how many great waters fell from heaven.

The first struck the ground about four miles away from me with such a terrible force, enormous noise, and splashing that it drowned the entire countryside. I was so greatly shocked at this that I awoke before the cloudburst.

Something strange is happening. (Blood on the leaves.)

And the ensuing downpour was huge. Some of the waters fell some distance away and some close by. And they came from such a height that they seemed to fall at an equally slow pace.

The inscription on the Bremen self-portrait reads: “Where the yellow spot is, to which I point with my finger, there it hurts.”

The wound in Christ’s side was a question of recognition—evidence for the doubters. Recognition was also what was at stake in the matter of money.

If it’s for myself, I would have been cool just sitting in Nike not getting no royalties. When I’m having negotiations and then I go and look in my daughter’s eyes, when I go and negotiate after that I’m like, “Oh y’all ain’t finna talk to me like that. We finna get this money right.”

His colophon to the 1511 Life of the Virgin is unrestrained:

Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains. Think not rashly to lay your thievish hands upon my works. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximillian, that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings?

Y’all niggas can’t fuck with me. Y’all niggas can’t fuck with ‘Ye.

Listen! And bear in mind that if you do so, through spite or through covetousness, not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger.

I am a god.

But the very first water that hit the ground so suddenly had fallen at such velocity, and was accompanied by wind and roaring so frightening, that when I awoke my whole body trembled and I could not recover for a long time.

God! God! God! God!

His dream of the flood was on June 8, 1525. The dream perhaps was linked to the astrological panic of the previous year, when many contemporary prognosticators, noting a strange conjunction of the planets in Pisces, feared an apocalyptic flood.

(Aquinas notes in the Summa that dreams may be caused by the influence of heavenly bodies.)

They say I’m possessed. It’s an omen.

The first Transit of Venus since the nineteenth-century was observed on June 8, 2004 and—a further coincidence to trouble the pattern-seeking mind—it was also on a June 8, in 1977, that the other man was born.

Reconciliation

…down De Villiers Graaff motorway and talking about other things when my friend says, “Can you guess what this building is?”

It is my first day in the city. The building’s looming presence tells me what I didn’t know I knew. “They tortured people here?”

REPORT FOR FEBRUARY 1987

MISSING PEOPLE

Mrs R was referred to us by the attorney acting on her behalf. Her husband was taken from their house in Old Crossroads by the ‘witdoekes’ in June last year and they allegedly handed him over to a particular warrant officer and held him at Gugulethu Police Station. This police station (and all the others in the area) has no record of him ever being held there. The security police have no trace of him in detention. He has disappeared. It is difficult to know what to say to a wife in this position.(1)

An alien visitor to our media environment this week might notice two things.

One: torturers and their assistants expressing how profoundly they forgive themselves. They love television, and they love newspapers, and their memories of what they did in the nineteen-eighties, what crimes they participated in or supported, are foggy. In fact, often, there is nothing to forgive. Everyone was on the side of the angels.

A second phenomenon, related to the first: torturers expressing their disappointment in the tortured. This disappointment quickly becomes anger. What is the matter with these blacks? The tortured act troubled, it is observed. They consistently fail to live up to the hopes the torturers have for them. Equality has not come, corruption is rampant, and the leadership is disgraceful. An alien visitor might note: the wounded are everywhere singled out for blame, the wounders almost never.

The one forgets to remember itself to its self. It keeps and erases the archive of this injustice that it is, of this violence that it does. The one makes itself violence, it violates and does violence to itself. It becomes what it is, the very violence that it does to itself. (2)

The torturer cannot forgive the tortured for having been tortured. And certainly not for having taken on some of the torturer’s characteristics.

It is good to remember that for a brief moment (before reconciliation interrupted the work of mourning) the victims had a say:

After learning for the first time how her husband had died, she was asked if she could forgive the man who did it. Speaking slowly, in one of the native languages, her message came back through the interpreters: “No government can forgive.” Pause. “No commission can forgive.” Pause. “Only I can forgive.” Pause. “And I am not ready to forgive.”
(3)

The second chapter of the fifth volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report is entitled “Victims of Gross Violations of Human Rights.” It contains a long list of names in alphabetical order. The document says there will be more names to come. But this, already, is a rich and representative sample. Take any section, and it could have come from a Johannesburg phone book:

MATISO, Peace
MATISO, Sithembele
MATITI, Zandisile
MATIWANA, Hombakazi
MATIWANA, Nontombi Beauty
MATIWANA, Siphiwe Headman
MATIWANE, David Ndumiso
MATIWANE, Lungisa Welcome
MATJEE, Lawrence

The names run into hundreds. Folded into the neat letters of each name is an invisible horror. We know a little more about one of these names, Lawrence Matjee, because David Goldblatt took a photograph of him in 1985. No one in the history of photography ever captioned photographs more scrupulously than did Goldblatt:



Fifteen Year Old Lawrence Matjee After His Assault And Detention By The Security Police, Khotso House, De Villiers Street, Johannesburg, 25 October 1985

“Yes, they tortured people here,” my friend says. She points out the building. It has a façade of blue tile. This is John Vorster Square, headquarters of the security police. In the old days people went into this building and came out lessened, if they came out at all. It was an evil place.

The victim, by continuing to suffer, irritates the oppressor, who would rather be already past it.

We drive on in silence.

Will there someday be another Truth and Reconciliation Commission? One that features names like Faisal bin Ali Gaber, Nabila Rehman, and Zubair Rehman? Maybe. But should such a day ever come, if history’s any guide, we won’t be ready to forgive those people for what we did to them.

 

Notes:
(1) Catherine Taylor, “Apart,” 2012.
(2) Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever,” 1996.
(3) ed. Robert Rotberg and Dennis Thompson, “Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions,” 2000.