1.4 Unstable relations

The relation of text and image become unstable (or "open") when neither text nor image is primary in the piece, nor is one more grounded in the world than the other. As we view them, we shuttle between one signification system and the other, which is to say between the two visual modes of reading and viewing. Here we will begin with some of Martha Rosler's work, where the words mostly stay outside the frame of the image, and look then at what we will call textmontage, where words and phrases bleed into each other and into images. We will then look at some variations and developments of words in imagetexts from another Wired, and an online edition of a Borges story by Eduardo Navas to the long and continuing anatomy of urban street life, Jody Zellen's GhostCity.

Figure 1.37
Martha Rosler: The Bowery in Two Inadequate Representational Systems


A year or two before Victor Burgin began exhibiting the series just discussed, Martha Rosler first showed The Bowery in Two Inadequate Representational Systems. This work has had an extraordinary history of exhibition, publication, inclusion in collections and citations on the Web (usually only a sample of the exhibit in the last two cases.) It consists of 24 rectangles of masonite, each with one photograph of a street site in New York's Bowery and one list of terms meaning "inebriated." So for the image at the left there are twelve terms ("soaked, sodden, steeped, soused, etc."), many of them terms the alcoholics sitting or lying in the streets would use to describe their condition. The sites themselves are mainly the fronts of stores where the alcoholics would sit and they all have empty bottles lying about, but of the alcoholics themselves there is no trace. The terms by their very abundance show that there is no single, most accurate term to represent the state these people seek; they convey rather a sense of the lifeworld of their users with elements,Rosler notes, "of playfulness and humor, of poetry and stand-up comedy." 14

The photographs hark back to Walker Evans' work in street documentary, but Rosler's streets are empty, early morning scenes with only traces of the inhabitants. Speaking of Eugene Atget, also a great depicter of empty morning streets, Walter Benjamin says,

Not for nothing were pictures of Atget compared with those of the scene of a crime. But is not every spot of our cities the scene of a crime? every passerby a perpetrator? Does not the photographer--descendant of augurers and haruspices--uncover guilt in his pictures? 15

Harlan Wallach's "Chicago Murder Sites"(see Chapter 5.3) is a fine example of what Benjamin is talking about, but Rosler's is not, mainly because the viewer constructs an inhabited scene by means of the words that is not one of repulsion, condemnation, pity, guilt, or victimage. The inadequacy of the photographic medium, we might say, is that in depicting (necessarily) the shabby clothing, splotchy flesh, toothless mouths, matted hair, and supine postures, the camera would capture only the roughest outlines of individual experience.

I call this exhibit unstable (or "open") because neither text nor image is primary, and because the viewer struggles to compose an interpretation that brings the pieces together without knowing what that exactly would be, only that it is not any of the conventional stances the viewer of documentary might take. To put it another way, Rosler speaks of pointing the camera back toward the world, so that the self-referentiality of much contemporary conceptual art gives way to actually looking at the world--while at the same time thinking about the two representational systems and their relative adequacies to represent the experience of the Bowery alcoholic.

Martha Rosler: In the Place of the Public: Airport Series

Figure 1.39
Martha Rosler: In the Place of the Public: Airport Series

Beginning in the early 1990s, Rosler began to exhibit a new series which has gone through some changes it has traveled and as she continues to add new pictures (and remove others). This series, "In the Place of the Public: Airport Series," uses color and is photographed with a little pocket camera she carries with her as she travels. These she displays in various arrays with words, phrases, sometimes a paragraph placed near or around them. You can get a sense of this from the slightly amplified online version of a recent exhibit. You can also click here for a picture of an installation.

The gallery display frees the words and phrases from any pairings to images, which are presented in standard gallery fashion. They mean to invoke the ambiance of the airport, of course, and so the words become an ambiance of commentary. In this they are distinct from the baseline simple singular indefinite noun phrases in small, gray letters, most of which signify, rather nostalgically, places which were destinations and locales where specific human interactions took/take place. These also function as a baseline to the pairs of images in the online exhibit and they are plentiful. The words above in the gallery (above and on top of the online images) are name bits and pieces of Postmodern information age culture that apply in various ways, some quite tangential, to the images, or, one might say, vice-versa.

One theme of the work is thus obviously the experience of airport space as not a place (in the old sense) but a passage to a place and filled with images of other rather generic spaces as possible objects of desire (Germany, England). A second theme is flow of data and information, which in our time is far more important than where it starts or ends up, or what it is. This notion is touched in the numerous images of television displays, newspapers, placards, in the floating phrases, and even in the base line series, which includes or concludes "flow, transition, data, bit, byte," which terms contrast to older units of information in the base line ("A tablet, a paper, a parchment, // A palimpsest, a pamphlet, a book"). 16

There are three strings of words that rise to the level of sentences and might thereby be qualified to give definitive commentary, but one is figurative and descriptive ("Each module repents of meaning") and the other two are self-canceling. The singsong "I don't say map, I don't say territory" could be applied a number of ways as a reference to the whole exhibit. Taking the "I" in a simple, naive way as the voice of the maker, it refuses to say that the display is in any sense a map of postmodernity- -the layout of the world of virtual space- -nor will it say that airport space is a particular territory, since it is always only a passage to "elsewhere and otherwise." Equally so, these words or spaces cannot be said to be fragments, since "There are only no fragments where there is no whole" and it would seem the entire notion of whole/fragment is nostalgic.

Figure 1.40
Stef Zelynskyj


Textmontage refers to the superimposing of text onto image layers with the soft blending edges we take as characteristic of photomontage.(See Chapter 2) The text can be read in bits and snatches, but it fades into the background, so that there are no well-defined boundaries to mark off the "readable" from the "seeable." Textmontage is more than simply using text, especially hand-written text, as a visual texture usually harking back to a predigital world (very often also with postmarks and stamps). Such bits of text can be deciphered only with effort and their contents are not thematic to the work. With textmontage, you can and are meant to grope for the words and decipher them as part of a message, but the artists often also provide a simple version to assist your grasping of the text. In the example at the left by the digital artist Stef Zelynskyj, the text is a poem "Song (That Women Are But Mens Shaddowes)" by Ben Jonson.

FOllow a shaddow, it still flies you;
Seeme to flye it, it will pursue:
So court a mistris, shee denyes you;
Let her alone, shee will court you.
Say, are not women truely, then,
Stil'd but the shaddowes of us men?
At morne, and even, shades are longest;
At noone, they are or short, or none:
So men at weakest, they are strongest,
But grant us perfect, they're not knowne.
Say, are not women truely, then
Stil'd but the shaddowes of us men?

Here the disruption of reading seems to arise from physical damage to a printed page scrutinized through a magnifier at five different degrees of magnification. The damage allows the sky to appear through the page in places, but not always exactly the same places. This piece taps in to a certain fascination we have with reading erased or canceled words, or restoring a page that has been ripped to pieces.

Sandy Young: Which Way

Figure 1.41
Sandy Young: Which Way

The digital artist and designer Sandy Young exhibits this along with six other "typographic pieces that express ideas in the form of 'visual poetry'." The piece as an IRIS print is large enough that text in the background may be legible (with concentrated effort), but as exhibited on line, she gives the text to its left:

i don't want to do it that way / i want to do it my way. / frank did it his way / so why can't i do it my way? / by the way / which way are you going? / can i come along?

This does not appear to be a continuous or unified text, but a series of strips of language containing the word way, and the various visual styles of presentation reflect the various phrases and uses of way.

Sandy Young: Emerging Vision

Figure 1.42
Sandy Young: Emerging Vision

The piece "Emerging Vision," which mercifully is available in a larger version, is from another series (Notebooks) and blends text with image on the theme of "coming to see." We also "come to read" as we recognize repetitions of the sentence "this is what I see" (not "his is what...") and then can link that to a face emerging through an eroded screen with rows of digital 01's on it. These images are of such complexity both for reading and viewing that they do emerge slowly like a print in developer, except that these are textmontage prints, not photos. This is perhaps as close as anything can come to Mitchell's imagetext.

Kim Beckmann: Metaphrast

Figure 1.43
Kim Beckmann: Metaphrast

Kim Beckmann also won a prize in the ASCI Digital98 contest with "Metaphrast as Author" (along with two others, one of which we looked at in the stable section (1.2).) This is textmontage with a vengeance, with layers of text occluding other layers of text, and with diverse voices or sources likely for the bits of text. As before, we cannot tell which is primary here, text or image.

Diane Fenster: Canto 2 of Huidobro

Figure 1.44
Diane Fenster: Canto 2 of Huidobro

Diane Fenster is another digital artist discussed elsewhere (in Photomontage) whose montage extends to layering text. In her "Hide and Seek", which is a hypertext consisting of 12 images, each of which includes (translated) snips of a poem by the Chilean surrealist poet Vincente Huidobro. One might suppose from this description that the images were essentially illustrations to the lines from the poem, the latter being the primary focus. However, the twelve snips in order do not correspond to any single text that Huidobro wrote, and there is a third, definitely surrealist element involved, which is a number of hypertext links from words on most of the pages to sites that are not obviously related to any theme of the page (they may be related, just not obviously related).

Ian Campbell: Usenet series: Male Cliche

Figure 1.45
Ian Campbell: Usenet series: Male Cliché

Ian Campbell is perhaps more interested in junk, debris, garbage (for him, being Canadian) than in words and texts, but he is also attracted to words when they are thrown away. So old Usenet postings get laid over rusting steel plate or old, torn underwear and buzz words and words of art are sprinkled about. Campbell actually began with pairs of words like male cliche, ran them by a Usenet search engine, and harvested the posts the engine turned up. He then presumably gave them their material form on various kinds of discarded paper and with various fonts, emphasizing their already used up quality. In more recent works, he has been using the HTML browser apparatus of "alt tag" tool-tip windows and messages in the status bar that cause words to appear as you mouse over his images, so that the words are not physically next to the things that trigger them in the image, but are "released" by touching the things. In his recent "Dross" these devices produce two short strings of words when either of two trigger panels is touched; the words include a goodly number of nonsense words and strings and cannot be semantically connected to the images, for the images are not readily recognizable as familiar objects. They exude a strong physical presence because they are brightly lighted and photographed very close up in hard focus; we just don't know what they are fragments of, and so cannot summon up much of the cultural code about them. We will discuss his more interactive work in the Collage chapter (3.4).

Data 1

Figure 1.46
Data 1

Wired The "Data" set of pages from Wired is built on lines from an article about a Seattle company that recovers old email, even deleted email. The lines seem rewritten over themselves, and the graphic represents old data that has been rewritten over many backups. This pair of graphics give strong support to the claim that images excel at representing chaos. The line in "Data 1," "Backups containing millions of email messages are the digital equivalent of formaldehyde," offers a simile which is the basis of the green liquid look with its bit of magnified mosquito or crane fly in it.

Data 2

Figure 1.47
Data 2

Turning the page, the color changes to fiery red and hotter yellow, to a lake of fire or furnace with old disks, a key, some more crane fly wing, numbers and labels. The text says explicates the simile: "a medium where nothing decays." The fire could be taken as what puts companies in the hot seat, but it can also attract traditional connotations of Hell, the place where the fire of torment burns unconsuming and nothing is forgotten or forgiven. For me, seeing a sort of doll's face or mask in the fire invites this human association with the digital eternally unforgotten and is much more powerful than fragments of email memos would be. This I should add carries the significance of the graphic far into a spiritual dimension that has little to do with the content of the article, which mostly turns on CYA for corporations. If the reader turns to the indicated page and begins to read the article, she likely will be disappointed by the absence of metaphysical grandeur. Which is to say that the artist takes the lines out of their verbal context and indeed out of the context of the article and recontextualizes them, composing a visual meditation upon them. The new, very strong contexts do not upend or puncture or invert the words; they simply take them as a point of departure into a parallel realm which corresponds to the date in a digital backup in a perhaps indeterminable number of ways.

The top screen from Eduardo Navas: Qstory

Figure 1.48
home.earthlink.net/~navasse/ Qstory/once.html

Eduardo Navas, the author of "The Quixote" In all of these instances of text-in-image, the relation is unstable insofar as one alternates between reading text and viewing image, with neither illustrating nor explaining the other. They do not necessarily compete with each other for interpretive mastery, except insofar as they compete for "real estate" on the screen or page. Most of the instances of text in these examples are relatively brief—fragments, in some cases—and it would seem that they compete with themselves as visual figure and as connected text. An interesting way to resolve this competition can be seen at the web site linked from the screen capture at the left. The site is Eduardo Navas' "edition" of Borges' short tale "Pierre Menard: The Author of The Quixote." It is made up of nine screens plus a tenth floating window. For each screen, the window displays part of the text of the story in both Spanish and English, sentence by sentence. Each screen contains two sentences from the section of the story in the window, in both Spanish and English, montaged over the background in large, colored fonts. The background contains an image of an illustrated Spanish edition of Don Quixote (different for each page) and a smallish graphic that links off site to targets whose connection to the theme of the page is extremely obscure. (Here the image is a little movie of surf and the link is to a Surfing Cam site which itself links to various surfing cameras around the world.) In this way, various sentences are both made part of the visual design of a page (a sort of poster, as it were) and yet can still be read as part of the connected text, so a part of their own illustration. Even in their large, poster-panel form, the sentences also insist on their being text by reminding us they are words of one language along with their equivalent words in another. This is just the sort of tension between word as visual figure and word as meaning that Johanna Drucker finds to be core of early modern typographic art:

This typographic work embodied and manifested a complex attitude toward the materiality of visual and verbal aspects of signification--one in which there was a continual interplay of reading and seeing, linguistic referential functions and visual phenomenological apparence[sic], as well as traces of social context and historical production evidenced in materiality. (Visible, p. 89).

It was this very multi-modal quality that caused this experimental typographic art to fall out of favor with Greenbergian High Modernists and that is found once again in net.art.

Figure 1.49
Jody Zellen: GhostCity and Rooftops: urban (s)pacing

Jody Zellen has focused her sizeable body of on- and off-line work on the experience of the urban street and urban life, which is for her first of all that of fragmentation: incomplete takes of things and texts which are interrupted before we can fully recognise and integrate them into a world. Her style for conveying this fragmentariness is not the classic one of collage with its torn and cut images and texts interrupting each other, once quite popular as a way of representing the rush and jumble and distraction of urban life, but rather that of a grid made up of 100x100 pixel sections of larger images. These sections are often rotated or distorted and some are animated gifs that flip through a series of image pieces (at 100 msec a piece) or that change on mouse over. In the grid at the left, the bottom image is a flipping animation and the four upper images replace on mouse over. So even this very standard, stable design with centered complete-sentence text is less fixed than it appears.

Figure 1.50
Jody Zellen, Book, from GhostCity

As we go into the site, however, text also is fragmented, overlaid, and flipped through in stacks, passing also through states where it is fused with the images in a single tableau. The animated image at the left epitomizes most of these techniques. Presented in this way, one might seriously doubt what sort of coherence or satisfying shape could emerge from GhostCity or Zellen's other, similar works (e.g. rooftops). After viewing her work for some time, however, one begins to recognize fragments of text and image and to realize that a great deal of it is recycled, as if bubbling around in the preconscious and surfacing as half-remembered echoes. At times the spatial array of words seems like visual poetry ("vizpo"), but as you assemble the words into sentences, you frequently get rather long, stringy, and thumping examples of academic prose, as in these two examples:

The narrative of this walking is belied by what we know and yet cannot experience. As we turn the corner, one object disappears around the next corner. The sides of the street conspire against us. The walkers of the city travel at different speeds.

The alienated city: a space where people map their positions within the urban totality in which they find themselves only to disappear.

These texts, which appear as continuous strings or sequences in rooftops, furnish a few words here and there in many places in GhostCity, so that the effect is that of alluding to one's former commentaries and mutterings.

An obvious extension of Zellen's urban vision is into the sound fragments that are so often part of representations of the City, and indeed, she has just recently posted her first piece about urban sound—Disembodied Voices—about cell phone conversations in public with non-present people. Done in Flash, this piece has several images of public spaces aswarm with people, who, when clicked on, speak into their cell phones. The site begins after the fashion of GhostCity, trying to subject the viewer to an experience of many voices speaking many languages in a black space with only icons floating in, but then it rather surprisingly begins to return us to the body. On the later pages, we can control hearing the conversation by clicking on a figure in the scene and the space remains that of the large public spaces that we view as if from fixed cameras.

Figure 1.51
Screencap from Miranda and Neumark's "Machine Organs"

Dynamic textmontage:

Thus far, we have been thinking of text as an element in a static visual composition; one of the most attractive affordances of Macromedia Flash, however, has proved to be its easy animation of lines and blocks of text; a second attraction has been the easy synching of sound with scripted animation, and the ability to play concurrent tracks on any platform and browser. Flash has become the on-line multimedia medium par excellence: in the first four issues of Ctheory Multimedia, for example, the great majority employ Macromedia Flash or Shockwave. The fourth issue of Ctheory Multimedia, for example contains Zellen's "Disembodied Voices," which uses Flash; Issue 2 contains Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark's "Machine Organs" (Figure 1.51), where words and phrases write over the images of computer-organs accompanied by distinctly "bioform" sounds and a montage of voices, whispers, and noises—lest, as it were, that we in our rush to virtual life in virtual space forget "the meat." The work is thus a visual-textual-aural metaphor identifying the computer's vital processes in terms of "our own." The great popularity of this software can be seen also in the "Congruence" branch of The Cauldron and Net and in the winners and honorable mentions of recent net.art competitions.

Figure 1.52
Section of one screen of Jess Loseby's "Textual Tango"

Jess Loseby's "Textual Tango" (snapshot in Figure 1.52) repaints the screen over and over with two texts of personal ads and lines from others. One speaker is represented in red, one in green, but as the flow of text continues, other texts enter, disintegrated, and drift or fade away, only to be replaced with others asserting the desire to "find someone." This cascade mounts to two climaxes of speed and abundance synced to a voice (Sting?) singing "Roxanne," a song originally written by Sting and performed by him and The Police, but featured recently in the film Moulin Rouge with Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman. The singer is a man who loves a prostitute and is promising her she need not go out into the street anymore—a stern, if not perhaps entirely excessive comment on "the discourse of personal ads." This counterpointing use of a song is quite similar to Young-Hae Chang Industries' use of "C-Line Woman" discussed in Chapter Five, §3.

It is interesting that both of these examples work by assembling associations and connotations of images, texts, and sound, where no one mode is dominant. Clearly neither statement-plus-illustration or image-plus-commentary apply; rather, we find the incessant switching between modes and media that seems highly characteristic of contemporary net.art.

literaturetranssm_200.jpg (103K)

Figure 1.53
Lit box, British Library

Post Script

The John Ritblat Gallery in the new British Library houses and displays many of the Library's oldest books and most precious manuscripts (under glass, to be sure). The gallery is decorated with a number of free-standing glass boxes illuminated from various directions and with bits of text and diagrams drawn on the glass in white. The image to the left is of the Literature box; through it can be seen other boxes as well. On the Lit box are words and even stanzas of a poem (Wilfred Owens' “Dulce et Decorum Est”). The look is of text montaged into pure space. The materiality of the texts are foregrounded by the variety of scripts (printing, cursive hand, courier-looking monospace), as is appropriate in a gallery celebrating works of scribal writing and early print, but the mixture of pure space and material hands displayed on illuminated glass surfaces (two-sided boxes) seems to carry the look of textmontage on the screen to a final abstraction—the homage of contemporary infoart to its forebears in monasteries and print shops.