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Vandalist Iconophilia

The Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism (SICV) was founded by Asger Jorn shortly after leaving the Situationist International in 1961. It was the name of an association combining the forces of certain artistic and political ideas, the French museum photographer Gerard Franceschi and his Danish assistant Ulrik Ross, book printers and publishing houses, a Citroën, archeologists and art historians, a board consisting of well-respected citizens from Jorn’s hometown Silkeborg, a darkroom and an archival apparatus. For a brief period (1961-1965), this unlikely assembly was held together and in motion by the sales of Jorn’s paintings, which by then had started to fare well on the international market. The output of the institute was paginated rather than painted: for Jorn the codex was a site for the analysis, sequencing and presentation of large quantities of heterogeneous visual materials. Through his “continuous collages” (the phrase belongs to Jorn’s friend and collaborator, the archeologist P.V. Glob) Jorn wanted to trace image migrations across space and time, including, most notably, what he perceived as a specifically Nordic tradition going back to pre-Christian times and significantly influencing European art writ large. Most ambitiously, he planned the production of some thirty volumes of coffee table books devoted to 10,000 Years of Nordic Folk Art under the auspices of the SICV. Only a pilot volume on 12th Century Scanian Stone Sculpture was ever published. When the Museum Jorn invited us to work with the SICV archive last year, what confronted us was ideas and images stored in a complex relational and paper-based structure: manuscripts, indexes, maps, negatives, contacts sheets, photographic prints, folders, binders, boxes, books. We tried to understand how the archive works, to map its relations, conjunctions and affordances, and we spoke about what a prospective digitization of this material might open up. The exhibit we ended up creating in the museum dramatized the moment of conversion from analogue to digital by installing a scanner station where the scanned image underwent a very specific form of annotation: a contour detector drawing the contours of the image with colored strokes. What follows is a conversation between Asger Jorn, Ellef Prestsæter, Michael Murtaugh, Nicolas Malevé and Matthew Fuller (by order of appearance) at the end of a summer evening in Silkeborg, following the founding of the Scandinavian Institute for Computational (sic) Vandalism.

Asger Jorn: After I launched my Scandinavian Institute of Comparative a lot of people wondered why I invented this peculiar name, not knowing whether they should take it seriously or not.

Ellef Prestsæter: I believe the answer to that either/or question is a resounding yes. Readers of Concreta, beware! … Engaging with you, Asger, in the context of this special issue on Vandalism and Iconoclasm calls for a strict demarcation between vandalism on the one hand and iconoclasm on the other. While the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism (SICV) connects you intimately with the concept of vandalism you are anything but iconophobic. Your notorious détournements or modifications provide a case in point: there clearly is a brutally destructive moment in overpainting these tableaus bought at flea markets, but the point was never to annihilate or make fun of them. You were rather driven by a profound interest for the “popular” art form these pictures represented. The overpainting is a form of resurrection or remobilization, or, on a somewhat more prosaic note, a form of image analysis. And the endpoint was always a new image. Whatever you may have meant by “vandalism”, your practice was always rooted in an engagement with, and even a love for, images. The iconophilic vandalist? The notion carries a certain attraction …

AJ: An interest in dispersed attention, such as the one modern art has shown throughout this century, may contribute to the deterioration of culture’s authoritarian patent makers, and surely it is this practice you would call comparative vandalism.

Michael Murtaugh: But ...

AJ (ignoring the interruption): Détournement is a game born out of the capacity for devalorization. Only he who is able to devalorize can create new values. And only there where there is something to devalorize, that is, an already established value, can one engage in devalorization. It is up to us to devalorize or to be devalorized according to our ability to reinvest in our own culture.

EP: Michael, visually, the images produced through the contour-tracing scanner echo Jorn’s modifications as well as the images in the so-called tongue-book —La Langue verte et la cuite from 1968 — where Jorn assembled black and white images from around the world and colored the tongues in all the images. This similarity calls for a comparative analysis, don’t you think?

MM: Consider what happens when you run an image analysis procedure such as an edge detection or a (SIFT*) feature extractor, and then use a conventional means of visualizing the results drawnon top of the original. The result is an image dense with markings, edges of figures traced with the brutal pixelized edge of a computed curve or dotted with swarms of circular markers of various sizes and positions throughout the image at various points of (algorithmically determined) interest. The marks typically number from tens to hundreds. Visually, the language of the algorithmically annotated image resonates with the vandalized image, the political poster with sprayed-on beard or mustache, the marketing billboard covered with elements crossed out or covered by graffiti tags. There is an essential difference however: where the billboard vandal challenges the authority of the image (both of those depicted and the forces that arrange to place them in public), the marks of the algorithm carry themselves an authority borne from the often impenetrable layers of technique and software employed. On top of this, such techniques may well be further allied to authority by patents, software licenses, and other aspects of law. Furthermore, the images most frequently subjected to the algorithmic processes of analysis are typically banal ones, themselves collected by agents of authority and typically recorded with their subjects (relatively) unaware of their being taken. For instance, the closed circuit surveillance system in a shopping center or laundromat, or the passport control agent’s webcam. Computational vandalism aims to challenge the authority of the algorithm and uses computation both as a means and a subject of critical investigation. It aims to expose the values enshrined in algorithms, to consider alternatives, and to feed them back upon themselves to make these processes more apparent in their operation, as well as to activate them as tools to investigate other kinds of images and contexts from their conventional uses.

Nicolas Malevé: You are right to underline the authority of the algorithm. It is nevertheless interesting to see that this authority is granted under a very specific condition. The algorithm must in the end confirm human perception. I always see a visual algorithm as a sort of Hercule Poirot on a crime scene. Where his assistant Captain Hastings will immediately decode the semantic layer, the obvious clues, the motives, Poirot always seems concerned with absurdly pointless details: a slight change of color in a carpet, the position of a finger, etc. Poirot seems to embody the coolness of media archeology, indifferent to content. Let’s think of the SIFT algorithm, how it looks into extremely narrow fragments of an image to find patterns that could identify an image even when it is rotated. When we look at the regions of the images selected by the algorithm, they seem completely secondary to the human observer. But, in the end, if we make a search for similar images, the results returned by this algorithm seem to match very well what a human would have picked up. In every Hercule Poirot ending, the tour de force is to make a match between all these apparently absurd little clues and a narrative where the murderer is punished and the social order is confirmed. In every operation of computer vision, there is this expectation that the gap between human perception and computer perception will be filled. But what if it isn’t? What if it reveals that there is a zone of intersection between human perception and computer vision, and that the contours of this zone are problematic, fluctuating? Computational vandalism is what introduces us to a world with a proliferation of powerfully meaningless little clues that do not point towards any murderer. Nobody is punished in the world of computational vandalists, but its visual structure is denser. Computational vandalism is Agatha Christie smoking Asger Jorn’s cigar.

AJ: I believe that vandalism only reaches its full bloom when it goes beyond its purely empirical form and becomes experimental.

EP: I really appreciate this tableau you are drawing of a crime story with neither crime nor closure, Nicolas. Together with Michael’s emphasis on a computational self-reflexivity of sorts, I think this serves to distance us from mainstream Digital Humanities. The practice of computational vandalism is more open-ended and experimental, less purpose-driven. Computational vandalism is just as interested in the workings, materialities and socialities of the algorithms themselves as in the answers or solutions they might provide to, say, art historical questions. They are not only means towards an end. It is up to us as to whether computation opens more interesting realms of experience than it closes.

AJ: In my book La Langue verte… I have an image of Tezcatlipoca with his leg on the mirror. What I do not understand is the hand he puts around his nose. The parallel to the Swedish image I have on the opposite page I find obvious (Fig.85-86). And in Fig. 87 too, a man holds a hand in his hand. I do not believe in immediate solutions of these things. For me, it is first of all the possibility of associating things systematically, and then seeing what happens, when enough elements are available. My method is systematically in-consequent and non-chronologic without other determinations and conclusions except the choice of subject and what eventually comes out of the puzzle. Some pieces come to fit together and make groups of relations and perhaps more general visions come out of it, or perhaps not. So my questions have only the scope to force you to break up my combinations if you see that they are wrong, and put them together in another way if you see a combination, or if you have some pieces to join. It is a game. You don’t know exactly what comes out.

EP: At the same time, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of these experiments yielding insights that would count as valid knowledge also within the confines of traditional academic disciplines.

AJ: Nothing is worse than stupidity combined with a never-failing memory.

Matthew Fuller: Although we can have doubts about the latter quality on occasion, this pair of assets is among the range of exciting features that computing offers. Computers are stupid in the sense that they do exactly as they are told. Their capacity for memory, like this function of stupefied perfect recall, is what makes them so effective for archiving, and indeed so disturbing as an agent of social control. Computational vandalism means working with this and other qualities of computing; the capacity for repetition, speed, interpretation by combination, the layering of operations and so on. In this sense, computational vandalism works with the aesthetic, social, material and imaginal forces that are gathered as compositional terms within computing. The art here is in discerning and making some of these qualities subtle, blatant or seductive, in turn drawing out their capacity to work on things.

AJ: Comparative vandalism surely belongs to the sciences. One may well do science without being a scholar. Comparative vandalism is an attempt to show that much so-called science is based on the most absurd and narrow-minded prejudices, whose existence it is the purpose of so-called science to secure.

NM: One could look first at the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism as a visual tool to compare different images and draw genealogies that would contest the order of art history.

EP: Indeed,Asger’s vandalism referred to the historic Vandals, a Germanic tribe which travelled around Europe during the early middle ages, the age of the Völkerwanderung. The specific provocation here had to do with Jorn’s persistent insistence on a specific Nordic culture which was not derivate of southern (Latin, Classical, Christian) influences. On another level, adopting the name of the Vandals signaled a general oppositional stance towards any official culture.

NM: But Jorn’s vandalism also includes another dimension. For him, vandalism is a method of engaging with images that gives the hand a prominent role. When one looks at the archive of contact sheets, one sees Asger’s hands at work. Not only his eyes. Contact sheets become vivid sketches where the photographic material merges with the greased pencil. La Langue verteet la cuite is another example of interventionist overlays of colors that redraw the photographs. In your practice of the archive, Asger, you need the hand to confirm what the eyes see in the images. And this encounter of the hand and the eye corresponds to the moment where reading the image and transforming it coincide. This redistribution of sensation between hands and eye, the visual and the touch, and the reading and writing of the image are things we experience strongly when we operate digitally on a collection of images.

MM (reading his notes): A scan is not a photograph. The scanner head is like a comb of light-emitting fingers that slowly strokes its subject in order to see it. The final image denies this temporality in its conventional single and simultaneous presentation.

AJ: How can the dimension of time be depicted?

NM: Like the blind, software sees while touching. And its vision is inseparable from movement. Considering its rhythmic dimension, scanning means more than digital conversion. Scanning has everything to do with slowness and speed, waiting and moving. The meaning of the word itself is paradoxical: to scan means to examine minutely and also means to look over quickly. Scanning is a redistribution of attention. What then if we look at the scanner not only as a practical digital photocopier but as a tool that can be extended to look at the entire archive, something that can (make us) scan and skim, minutely observe and look over rapidly. A scanner gone back to its etymological root from the Late Latin scandere "to scan verse". As we know from poetry, verses are structures aimed at creating an aesthetic effect, but also to create a mnemonic one. What then is the scanner marking off? What are those mnemonic structures sensed by the comb of light-emitting fingers?

AJ:In a hundred years everything will be forgotten except 10,000 years of Nordic folk art.

EP: This takes us back to the question of digitization. Can we imagine the Institute of Computational Vandalism taking on the digitization of the entire SICV archive? What would be the challenges? And how could a tool such as the contour detector work on the archive as a whole, rather than single images?

NM: Consider how the contours are detected. The computer looks at the regions in the image where there are abrupt changes in intensity. The problem is that those changes are not contiguous. The computer must guess if the same line continues along a variation or if another line begins. It has been important for us to recognize the fragility of the algorithm. In the Museum Jorn, we produced an animation that shows the algorithm tracing the contours fragment by fragment. Visitorswere saying it looked like a child drawing. It is important because when we think of contour in general, we think of an ideal form, a pure shape. Contour detection is very far from that. We don’t have the complete contour of an animal or an object. We have fragments of lines of different sizes and orientations, we know where they are in the image, how they concentrate, etc. From there, it becomes possible to find images where the contours are concentrated or dispersed in the same way, where there are a lot of small contours or large ones, etc. This creates affinities between the images. We always think we need the algorithms to look at complex things. But it is rather the opposite.

EP: How so?

NM: The algorithms allow us to see again the obvious things that we unconsciously move aside. For instance, we grouped the images by looking at the light spectrum. How much do these images use a certain variation of grey, a certain form of contrast? Suddenly we see the images taken in certain museums coming close to each other. Why? Because these museums adopt a particular scenography and the projectors create a particular light on the objects. This algorithm doesn’t care about the nature of these objects, but it reacts strongly to the lighting conditions.
Now we have to be very careful. The algorithm reveals affinities between the images and we can “understand” these affinities. But it comes with a cost. We need to transform these images so much that what is used to make the comparisons becomes a problem. If we compare histograms to compare images, how much does a histogram “count” for an image? To extract the contours of an image we need to erode the image for the algorithm to find a continuous line; how much is left of the image after that? The challenge for a computational vandalist is to show how these alterations are inherent to a computer “vision”; to find ways for the violence of this process to leave traces in the final result.

MF: In his time, Jorn’s argument was often with the established standards of archaeological photography. Essentially he proposes that scientific photos are like passport photos, dull lifeless portrayals of otherwise vital things. Instead, Jorn and his collaborators take the stones’ portraits; taken from oblique angles, eliciting details. In this, the stones reveal their capacity to act, to be partial, as dynamic concentrations of forces, some of great slowness, others with the rapidity and deftness of a chisel, manifesting over time.

AJ: It seems highly unlikely that the art historian has not observed the incredibly complex artificial lightning arrangement that has to be set up in a laboratory in order to create photographs accommodating the "matter-of-factly" interpretive demands of scholars. What is natural? Are the images of criminals in the police albums more natural than family portraits?

EP: In a sense this is what the contour tracer draws out: its childishness speaks not only about the algorithm itself but also about a certain quality of the images, what the art historian Asger reproaches described as Franceschi’s dangerous tendency to “write poetry by means of light and shadows.”

MM: assert not (self in data) ...

EP (smiling): Looking at the image now, it struck me that I have no idea where it is from. In the analogue archive, the single image is the basic unit. And each image has a unique code relating to its geographical origin. This code allows us to trace the same image across different orderings and materializations: contact sheets, negatives, enlargements, indexes. This system of retrieval and addressability is vandalized through the images’ digitization. With the analogue print in hand, you can simply turn it around to find the code written by hand on the verso. Digital images can’t be turned around like that. The files contain metadata, but not, by default, this code. Following these images through their migrations, we suddenly realize that both they and we have forgotten where they came from! Indeed, one of the fascinating things about working hands-on with digital image repositories is the way that it leads you to a fundamental problematization of what an image is, both pragmatically, genealogically and conceptually. There lies a certain charm in forgetting the rigid structure of the analogue archive. It allows us to underscore the way digital archives can let different orders coexist and to really push the experiments with an archive which is no longer addressable only at the level of the single image, but also at level of pixels, features, contours etc. Still, if we were to take on the full digitization of the archive, we would have to find ways to remember the original ordering system. Could we use an image of each photo’s verso as an annotation of that photo? Such an annotation would include the copyright stamp of the SICV and thus also serve to emphasize another important aspect of “where the image comes from”. Who do the images belong to? Jorn? Franceschi? Or are they themselves Folk Art, belonging to the “people”?

AJ (reading from The Situationist Times): All reproduction, deformation, modification, derivation and transformation is permitted.

Concreta 05

Context

Taking Walter Benjamin’s essay A critique of violence as starting point, Geoff Cox analyses the notion of violence as an idea inherent to language and software, and questions its uses and ethical consequences.

Exchange

José Díaz Cuyas has a conversation with Dario Gamboni about the notion of vandalism as a political weapon within the contemporary art, but also about iconoclasm towards images nowadays, which are marked by mass media technology making the representation of violence and its impacts its leit motive.

Ellef Prestsæter, Michael Murtaugh, Nicolas Malevé and Matthew Fuller have a conversation with Asger Jorn on an attempt to review the definition of comparative vandalism, among other things, but also of computational vandalism and its capacity for devaluating and reinventing culture itself.