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A Free Flea Market
I am surrounded by a graveyard of technology. My writing desk is in a basement, so it should not be such a surprise. To my right is an Ikea bookshelf that was clearly designed to hold CD jewel cases and not books. There is even a spindle of unburnt CDr’s. Actually there are two. To my right are some cameras. One is a camcorder that records to Hi-8 tape. Another below is a Canon SLR from the 1970s. Both are in great shape, nestled in their cloth and leather travel bags.
Given a malady that infected me early in childhood and is only spreading further and further in our culture, I need some music to get the juices flowing when I write. Foster the People’s Torches is playing. I don’t own the CD. I didn’t buy the mp3’s. I didn’t even download from BitTorrent. All I’m doing is playing a full cut of the album on Youtube, courtesy of a user who goes by the name Andre Juck. Andre appears to be a teenager that likes to mostly post songs by Skrillex and Tool.
Behind my computer monitor are a few old electronic devices I’ve decided to part with. They include a guitar chorus pedal from the 1990s and a stereo pre-amp designed to help amplify vinyl turntables. I took photos of these boxes with my pocket digital camera on the desk tabletop and posted them onto Craigslist. It’s been two weeks and no one has emailed me yet. Maybe I need to lower my asking price?
I have been spending the better part of my day sitting at this desk creating Powerpoints. I am teaching an art appreciation class that helps expose fine art to students who might have never stepped in a museum before. I’ve taught it for a few years now and I have gotten much faster at making these Powerpoints. Also, they look better than they used to. It used to be a real chore to find high quality images to put in lectures. Today, I found a photoreproduction of da Vinci’s “Last Supper” that was huge. The jpeg was over 6mb and the flaking of paint off the wall was clearly visible. Just by typing in “da vinci la” the Google search knew to autofill to “Da Vinci Last Supper” and to put the image I ultimately picked in the top row of results. In a typical lecture I will use two dozen images. It takes me more time to type in the captions than it does to find the images.
You may be thinking this is really unimpressive, and certainly I am by no means more sophisticated in media consumption than many other people I know. I can only imagine just how primitive all of this will sound years from now. That said, I remember a time when there was much more work involved. There is a place I sometimes go to that reminds me. It is a small windowless room behind the lecture hall where I teach. It is a slide library.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, tempera on gesso, pitch, and mastic, 181 x 346 inches, 1494-8.
For those too young to remember, a slide library is a place that primarily housed 35mm color slides of art work. Sometimes there are even black-and-white slides. Sometimes there are even colorless prints on yellowed paper, mounted on gray board that could possibly be a century old. There was usually a large back-lit table for display of hundreds of slides at once. Looking at one crowded with slides (something I haven’t actually seen in many years), a person can see what inspired the layout of online image search engine results. The Slide Library houses thousands of these 35mm slides in large gray metal filing cabinets. It is doubtful any art after 2000 C.E. exists in this library. There are also a large number of old textbooks in the room. A few sheets of paper, printed and laminated, outline and index the location of different genres of images around the room, along with the department policies on checking out images. The names of many professors who have not worked in the department for several years still have color-coded post-its and pins in case there is a question about whose slides are up on the table. A handful of dull, black plastic carousels and leather carrying cases lie on the floor. None of my students really know this room exists. It is possible that no one outside of the art department, including our deans, know this room exists. In larger universities, these slide libraries would have a full-time librarian. These librarians have increasingly had work with digital media in order to stay relevant.
While I may have been too young to have ever taught with 35mm slides, I certainly shot on Ektachrome for my portfolio as an art student. When I was applying to graduate school, I mailed entire carousels of slides across the country, and included the necessary postage for a return. The whole gesture seemed a bit archaic even at the time (2007). Even had I wanted to use digital photography, my then digital camera maxed out at 4 megapixels. In my last year at grad school, I volunteered to be part of the admission committee, selecting the new class of grad students. By then the school had decided to only accept CDr’s. We were one of the last painting programs in the country to make the shift. 35mm slides tended to have more accurate color back when many digital cameras still lacked white balance. I still have a binder of my 35mm slides. I’ll probably never throw it out. I spent too much time and money on them. That goes for all my old media formats.
My professors still used slides. Some had already begun the conversion to digital. They started bringing a laptop to class and eventually successfully lobbied to get a digital projector into the painting studio. Early on, digital sucked. Decades of experience yielded 35mm slides of good resolution and strong color accuracy. Especially for painting, color was the most important aspect of a reproduction. Most jpgs at the time were clearly pixilated and the color could be downright horrible. Why couldn’t digital projectors make a decent orange? The only really good digital slides could be obtained on paid subscription sites like Artstor. After graduation, we art students kicked ourselves for not properly hoarding these thousands of painting reproductions while we still had access. Once we started getting teaching jobs and restored Artstor accounts, we breathed a little easier.
There were other digital libraries online. Some were the domain of specific schools. Indiana University had such a large 35mm slide library. Once it began digitizing its slides it briefly seemed to be one of the biggest private digital collections of its kind. I had friends who took work study jobs in undergraduate at the school slide library. All they did was scan slides, and these slides were clearly of a better resolution that the fare to be found online at the time.
Today, things have changed. The resolution of free jpgs has greatly increased. I can quite easily tell which images are scanned slides, or worse, scans from books. The strange bleached white and inky black gives the slides away. The tiny primary benday dots give away the textbook scans. Ten years ago I would have stockpiled these files. Now, I couldn’t give them away. The slide libraries that still exist have largely had to branch out and merge with larger university media centers. This is a tricky pivot as slide libraries were usually governed by art departments whereas media centers are usually run by the main university libraries.
On my personal desktop computer (I realize this may seem somewhat strange in 2013), I still have a folder of jpgs called “Art History Slides.” I haven’t added an image to this folder in the last year. Why? At some point I realized it was no longer really hard to find reproductions of paintings, even the obscure ones. I didn’t even have to remember how their names of artists and titles were spelled. The search engines would usually read my mind well enough. Rather than clutter my computer, I tend to clear off and delete the jpgs once I finish the Powerpoint. It’s too much work to rename all the files under my old “Artist, Title” format and put them into subfolders like “Painting>American>Rothko.” It takes more time to find my own files than it does to find them online.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, [digital scan of film slide], tempera on gesso, pitch, and mastic, 181 x 346 inches, 1494-8.
Somewhere, a librarian or archivist is thinking, “I was on board until you told me how you just started deleting these files.” I do of course realize that someone needs to be backing these images up. I’m just not sure it should be me. The images are still embedded in Powerpoint files, ready to be pulled out, and the Powerpoints get backed up on external hardrives, thumbdrives, and Blackboard.
I think about these changes and wonder what they might really mean beyond convenience and higher resolution. Walter Benjamin in 1936 wrote about similar technological changes in his “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In his essay, Benjamin was still coming to grips with a world in which for the first time more people were being exposed to the reproduction of a work of art than the original work that was sitting in a museum. Though he didn’t seem to mind it too much, these reproductions were by contemporary standards, horrible. The works were only in black-and-white and often not well shot. The actual printing, either in periodical or book, was also inferior. Benjamin made a big point out of reserving an aura to the original works of art. By aura, he meant that even if there was a really great reproduction, there would still be an inarticulable value unique to the original.
The Benjamin idea of aura is problematic for contemporary digital media, as there may never be a physical original. Worse still, what if the reproduction is better than the original? So many paintings have been lost to fire, theft, vandalism, and war. Celluloid film itself has turned out to be a poor archival material. Entire films from the early days of cinema have been lost because of failure to digitally scan the celluloid before the work disintegrated its metal cans. Tape is similarly mortal, meaning many master recordings of the 20th century demagnetized in storage. Digital formats can become unreadable with the constant advancement of new operating systems. It is not enough that the media be reproducible, it must be reproduced to current formats continually as the master files have a limited shelf life. The original version of the work becomes a thing to remember, not a thing to see.
My favorite example, and this is the one I share with my students, is the “Mona Lisa.” In part because the painting was stolen and missing for years in the 20th century, the Louvre has all manner of security around the painting. One must wait in line to enter the packed room that contains that crown jewel of Western painting. Once in the room, one is only allowed to stay for a few minutes. There is a velvet rope, security guards, and closed-circuit cameras. Finally, there is a thick pane of glass. Did I realize that I would be visiting the “Mona Lisa” the same way I might meet with a glamorous prisoner? Most viewers at this point take out their camera (or phone), and snap a photograph. These photographs are not a good reproduction of the painting so much as a document that the person really was in the presence of the painting’s aura. At this point, I usually show my students the Wikipedia jpeg of the Mona Lisa (Wikipedia has some great slides!), and tell them that this image on the digital projector, in our classroom, is actually better to look at than the object housed in Paris. Why? Because you will never really get a good look at the original painting, but you’ll see quite a lot out of this jpeg.
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, Louvre installation view, oil on panel, 30 x 21 inches, 1503-6.
These old technologies and formats aren’t going anywhere. They’re still sitting in basements and walk-in closets in houses and schools, and oddly, it is the oldest formats that are likely to still be useful. These current digital formats that have taken over are really quite better than anything that came before them. At this point, all I have is my own personal story of how I have progressed through these formats and how it has affected me. A large part of what I like about painting is that it is haptic, and I do not want to reach a point where that physical element is totally lost. Still, if it weren’t for these immaterial formats, I would be much poorer, having seen so much less.
Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936.
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