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Web on the Wall @ Robert Koch

Josh Begley, Miami Correctional Facility, 2014

What does the future of photography look like?  You needn't look far.  In fact, you're already staring at it.  It's the Internet.  Increasingly, artists are downloading images and retooling them, transforming scavenged pictures into things that often bear little relationship to the intentions of those who placed them online to begin with. While it can said that appropriation lies at the heart of photography and that the act of taking a picture, whether by shutter snap or mouse click is essentially the same thing, Web on the Wall, a six-artist, 17-image sampling of current trends, argues that the act of re- or decontextualizing online imagery takes photography to a new place, one quite unlike any seen in its 175-year history. 

The reasons are many.  But the most potent is this: By making the world’s trove of imagery easily searchable, the Internet allows artists to sit before their computers and mine any of a number of image-rich sources — Google Street View, Flickr, eBay or YouTube — for raw material. The most obvious impact of this drone-like efficiency is the diminishment of the artist/subject relationship, the transaction that until recently influenced how we select, compose, process and present photographic images.  It’s a seismic shift in orientation. 
Josh Begley’s enhanced satellite photos of prisons and military compounds, for example, don’t even look like photos.  What they resemble, at least from a distance, are relief sculptures. The buildings in Miami Correctional Facility, for example, convincingly mimic dominoes set in cement, while the aircraft in Davis-
Penelope Umbrico, url-12-c.jpg from Broken Sets/eBay, 2008
Monthan Air Force Base bear a physical and dimensional likeness to Cracker Jack toys. The trick to these transformations lies in algorithms that Begley, a graduate of NYU’s interactive telecommunications program, wrote for that purpose.  (No doubt, U.S. intelligence agencies do the same.)  Begley’s goal, however, isn’t to assess enemy capabilities, or to draw attention to his technical prowess, which is considerable, but to focus pubic attention on the huge tracts of land devoted to mass incarceration. 
Penelope Umbrico downloads images of broken LCD screens posted for sale on eBay.  The devices, when plugged into electrical outlets, give off wild patterns that when captured and printed have no counterpart in either abstract painting or photography.  They appear as transparent layers of iridescent ribbon and cellophane — a description that only hints at their complexity and beauty.  While such discoveries highlight the richness of the Internet, they also reaffirm a core value of photography: the primacy of deep looking to isolate and organize things that others don’t see. 
Doug Rickard, operating like a tech-savvy Robert Frank, makes pictures that draw back the curtain on poverty. Using Google Street View to scour America’s urban and rural wastelands, he pulls down images from depressed regions where the American dream has been “inverted.”  The resulting pictures have the faded look of old Kodachrome prints.  In them we see emptied-out business districts, boarded-up buildings, weed-strewn lots and derelict houses. People, when they appear, do so as collateral damage, a reflection of exactly
Doug Rickard, #34.546147, Helena-West Helena, AR., 2008
how our winner-takes-all economic system views them as well.  As records of social breakdown, Rickard’s photos parallel not only Frank’s efforts, but also those of the New Topographics artists of the 1970s who documented development in the West with the same point-blank style that Rickard brings to his depictions of ruin caused by corporate greed.  
Douglas Coupland, the author of Generation X, presents two digital collages that test our ability to recognize images disguised in Op-ish dots.  Like those employed by Bridget Riley, Coupland’s arrays cause his pictures to bend and bulge, obscuring the fact that in one there’s a drone and in the other, the face of Osama bin

Douglas Coupland, Blue Boogeyman, 2013

Laden.  To tease out those images, viewers are encouraged to look at them through their phone cameras, which, for me, yielded no appreciable difference.  The exercise feels more like a clever parlor game than a serious inquiry into liminality, memory or surveillance. 

Joachim Schmid’s pixelated portraits of 12 female Nobel Prize winners, a nod to a similar effort made by Gerhard Richter, purportedly demonstrate how we recognize people from fragments.  But is this something that needs reiteration?  Likewise, the noted architecture documentarian Michael Wolf’s street views of Paris, snatched from Google, attempt to mine that city in a manner similar to Rickard’s, but lacking focus and force they fall flat. 
Overall this show charts promising directions for web-based photo art. The issue it raises is whether and to what degree artistic use of the Internet narrows or enlarges the gap between knowledge and experience. Photographers, ever alert to moral consequences, will be grappling with that for a long time to come. 
“Web on the Wall” @ Robert Koch Gallery through November 15, 2014

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