The philosopher Seneca emphasized the difficulty of such a task when he critiqued the impressive private libraries of imperial Rome’s wealthier citizens, asking, "What is the use of having countless books and libraries whose titles their owners can scarcely read through in a whole lifetime? The learner is not instructed but burdened by the mass of them.” If so, then how much more burdened are we today by that mass? In 2010, Google calculated that every two days we create as much information as humanity did from the dawn of civilization through 2003. Every two days. Email, books, around-the-clock television news cycles, journals and magazines, social media, documentaries, and countless websites (not to mention the reams of data generated by the computational sciences) — our access to ideas, images and facts is unprecedented.
Weirder and more fascinating, are the photos Kessel found of people who engage in repetitive practices over long periods. One series of 61 photos covering an entire wall is of a woman firing a rifle in a Dutch shooting gallery; the pictures were generated by a mechanism that triggers a shutter when the target is hit. The series began in 1936 when the woman was 16 and is ongoing; the only chronological gap occurs during the war years, 1939 to 1945. Equally fascinating is a slide show featuring a woman dressed up and drenched, a fetish played out between husband and wife across multiple locations and a seemingly endless array of outfits and immersion modes. Wacky and fun. Then comes Oolong, a rabbit photographed with objects balanced on its head, images of which its Japanese owner uploaded to the Internet. Initially, you can’t help but chuckle at the fey ridiculousness of the project, but if you linger, you might find yourself stirred by its playfulness and oddball sentimentality, key aspects of so much of what appears online and in social media. The point, of course, is to demonstrate, by way of sampling, the volume and the diversity of things people record with cameras. For the macro view of this phenomenon, Kessels fills an entire room with one day’s worth of images uploaded to Flickr. The mass of prints forms a floor-to-ceiling swell of whites, blacks, and blues with occasional bursts of warm color. By including only images from one 24-hour period, Kessels has technically “curated” the installation; yet even taking into account that parameter, the wave of images is startling and incomprehensible, a dramatic manifestation of our contemporary predicament.
Working in a related mode, the Pittsburgh, Pa.-based curator and bookseller Melissa Catanese selected 58 pictures from the photo archive of Peter J. Cohen. She presents them as a visual poem she calls Dive Dark Dream Slow. Resisting easy typologies, Cantanese achieves “something more personal, intuitive and openly poetic” in her juxtapositions of images of people and seascapes. They demonstrate the richness of the associations that can be wrung from ordering found photos. In thinking about this now-widespread practice, the Dadaist Tristan Tzara comes to mind. He instructed would-be poets to cut up newspaper articles, put them in a bag and shake it, and then extract the scraps one at a time, writing down each word in the order they are withdrawn.