Archive Noise

Joan Fontcuberta
January 31, 2006
The Internet is the supreme expression of a culture which takes it for granted that recording, classifying, interpreting, archiving and narrating in images is something inherent in a whole range of human actions, from the most private and personal to the most overt and public. Internet underwrites our archive culture and at the same time resolves the old dispute between access to information and the ownership of documents: cyberspace imposes on us a universe of pure information in which the physicality of things has disappeared; a shared pool of information, in relation to which the idea of ownership is all but meaningless. Perhaps we are arriving at that prophetic noosphere envisioned by that heterodox Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin, back in the early years of the 20th century, when the computer was still beyond even Alan Turing’s wildest dreams. These days the omnidirectional Internet acts as the communicative link between all connected individuals. The Internet may prove to be the tool that so enhances our stock of information that we manage for the first time to create a ‘noosphere’ — that is to say, the collective mental space where all our cultural exchanges take place. The Internet is in the process of becoming a world memory common to all connected minds. Googlegrams is a project that negotiates with precisely this utopia of connectivity and the free exchange of information.

In my previous work the archive has been a recurring presence. On numerous occasions I have used the faked discovery of an archive as the starting point for a critique, parody and deconstruction of the whole concept of the document. On other occasions I have looked at issues of representation, focusing, for example, on the notion of the palimpsest. Googlegrams combines the two strategies. The basic idea consists in selecting images that have become icons of our time. For example, one of the widely disseminated photos of the torture scandal in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad: Private Lynndie R. England holding a leash tied around the neck of a prisoner as if he were a dog. In one ‘Googlegram’ this photograph has been refashioned using a freeware photo mosaic programme. The photo mosaic is a technique used by graphic designers and photo enthusiasts that consists in composing an image out of a large number of tiny images, which function like the cells in a reticular structure. The programme selects each graphic sample from the bank of available images and places it according to chromatic value and density in the position that most closely coincides with a portion of the larger image being recreated, as if it were making a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Logically, the greater the number of cells, the sharper the resulting image will be.

For the Googlegrams, however, the programme was connected to the Internet and used the search engine Google to locate thousands of images on the basis of search criteria determined by the user, normally images associated with one or several words. In the Abu Ghraib photograph, for example, the search engine was given the names of top officials, civilian contractors and enlisted soldiers cited in the ‘Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review DoD Detention Operations’ (August 2004) of the Schlesinger Panel, set up by the United States Congress to investigate the alleged abuses.

At a certain distance the photo mosaic presents us with a perfectly recognizable picture of Lynndie R. England, and as we move closer we find photos, drawings, caricature, graphics, etc.: in other words, a host of images associated in some way with each of the names supplied for the search. What we have again here is a palimpsest effect of overlapping texts whose hierarchy is solely dependent on the observer’s distance: a hyperopic vision privileges the composite whole, while a myopic view privileges the little component units that make up the coarse graphic texture. The overlapping of the two, the lack of fine detail, indicates a first level of noise. At the same time, however, the creative weight of each work derives from that noise, or rather from the relationship established between the content of the primary image and the search terms. The connection can be causal, spatial, temporal, metaphorical, linguistic, etc., suggesting the dense relational constellation that obtains inside every archive while at the same time determining the project’s ideological orientation.

The Internet functions as an immense visual memory bank that supplies the graphic information available at any given moment. However, Google introduces into the search another kind of inevitable noises that manifest themselves as logical ‘accidents’. The origin of these noises is the ambiguity inherent in the words used, words that also express the categories or catalogue numbers of the archive. This ambiguity can deflect the search mechanisms and cause certain ‘errors’ that touch on the question of how documents are catalogued and what routes are used to access them. In effect, we are exploring the connections and disconnections between word and image. When we give a particular surname as the search term we are provided with pictures of all the people who have that name, as well as images of a whole host of things that happen to be associated with that name; the photo mosaic programme will use those images it finds most suitable, irrespective of whether they happen to be of the target person, and the random ‘intruders’ will appear with greater or lesser frequency according to their degree of Internet notoriety.

And if we want to avoid sinning from an excess of innocence, we must also acknowledge the presence of other noises that are the product of ideological ‘accidents’. We like to think of the Internet as a vast, open, democratic structure, but the channels of access to information are still mediated by political or corporate interests. The blocking of data, secrecy and censorship are technologically feasible options that the search engines exercise, freely or under compulsion, without informing the user. For example, when the Abu Ghraib affair hit the headlines, Google did not at first supply images of some of the people implicated (including Lynddie England and her boyfriend Charles Graner), although images of these were available from other search engines such as those Altavista, Lycos or Yahoo. On its ‘Remove Content’ page, Google declares: ‘Google views the quality of its search results as an extremely important priority. Therefore, Google stops indexing the pages on your site only at the request of the webmaster who is responsible for those pages or as required by law. This policy is necessary to ensure that pages are not inappropriately removed from our index. Since Google is committed to providing thorough and unbiased search results for our users, we cannot participate in the practice of censoring information on the world wide web.’ Unfortunately, however, we have to wake from this ‘noospheric’ dream and keep a sharp eye on the latest Big Brother’s decisions as to what is and is not politically desirable or potentially detrimental to ‘national security’.

Exploiting this archive noise is basically a way of entering into a new dialogue with the archive. Over and above the intellectual game that defuses the archive, the gestures of Googlegrams, although strictly symbolic, have a pedagogical dimension. On the one hand they expose the elaborate semantic camouflage with which the archive invests information. On the other, they light up the space between memory and the absence of memory, between useful data and the undifferentiated magma of raw information. Finally, they establish the supremacy of intelligence and creativity over the accumulated mass of information; an absolute requirement to ensuring that memory does not become sterile.

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