Ripped, remixed and compressed, the pixelated “poor image” satiates consumer thirst for visual knowledge at the expense of its own substance. Cast out into digital uncertainty, the poor image is confined to an existence of endless accumulation, circulation and widespread distribution. In demand yet dilapidated, it squeezes through search engines and streaming websites to challenge the supreme, seductive quality of high-resolution images traditionally found in cinemas and gallery settings. This is Hito Steyerl’s conception of the degenerating digital cipher, unpacked throughout her text ‘In the Defence of the Poor Image’ (2009). Although persuasive, there is a problem and an oversight in Steyerl’s singular defence of “the debris of audiovisual production”. Thriving among the virtual exchange of degraded ‘rare prints’ is the visual and economic phenomenon of the stock image.
The stock image is an antithetical mode of image production. It is conversely ‘rich’ in resolution, yet also entirely dependent upon the Internet for aggregation and dissemination. Operating at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, the stock image emerges through online channels of distribution as the glossy counterpart to the poor image. It distorts physical perceptions through bland visual registers and proliferates across picture libraries of multinational agencies on a daily basis. The stock image can be perceived as an elite clip-art icon, frequently stereotypical and often ambiguous, vague in purpose and produced en masse to appeal to the greatest cross section of clients. Emptied of semiotic meaning, stock footage and photography is thus ripe for appropriation and critical interception.
Incorporating the indistinct strata of stock material, video and installation artist Rachel Reupke interrogates the dislocation between digital images and their subsequently signified physical objects. In her videos Containing Matters of No Very Peaceable Colour (2009) and 10 Seconds or Greater (2009), Reupke moves beyond the politics of image distribution mapped out in Steyerl’s text by presenting a clinical dissection of advertising syntax. The artist borrows heavily from royalty free stock footage that features banal depictions of everyday items, such as towels and bathroom tiles, as well as contrived scenarios featuring actors chopping vegetables. Her appropriation assemblages posit a critique of the latent commerciality of digital image production via a subversion of associations produced between image and sound.
Bath towels, rendered in a spectrum of colours and textures, are the primary visual subjects in Containing Matters of No Very Peaceable Colour. Their visual arrangement is surreal and austere: they traverse the screen in neatly folded piles, while a text-to-speech narrator lists Internet search terms used to locate stock footage online. Latent associations with commercial photography are also evoked through Reupke’s choice of commodity. The artist notes, “towels are often used to dress a location for a shoot”, and in this way, Reupke performs a conceptual return: the dislocated virtual stock image is released back into the reality of its specific site of production. Her absurd arrangement of towels becomes the defining aesthetic of the video. It produces a reckoning with the artificiality of the stock image, where presenting differences (in textures of the towels, their ‘fluffiness’, their folded arrangements) enable the viewer to “understand something of the commercial message of the unseen clip”.
Differentiating the poor and the stock image is their relation to, or rather allusions ofreality, engendered in the stock image by its clean visual strata, its hyper-real aesthetic. Yet content remains realistic, yet banal, and as a result, offer Reupke a range of creative opportunities. She explains, “it is a banal visual register that allows the literal representation of a difficult subject. And I am particularly interested in difficult subjects, or lets say embarrassing and mundane subjects – health, loneliness, general worry etc”. Reupke seeks to represent the “realness” of the stock image, or at least its capacity for ‘real’ representation, by divorcing it from its commercial usages. In Containing Matters of No Very Peaceable Colour, image is separated from sound, and the video itself is separated into distinct parts. The visual register switches from the conveyer belt of towels to a close-up of a woman drying herself. In turn, this figure (partially obscured by a Getty watermark) is incongruously followed by rapid zooms of marbled bathroom tiles. A disco soundtrack plays. Reupke shifts the viewer from a “highly constructed world of advertising and the imagination, and place them back in the real world at the end of the video”. The real world: amateurish photography of bathroom tiles, bouncing flashes, blurred edges.
Reupke’s clinical combination of generic visual data and distorted sound disturbs the reiteration of social stereotypes and lifestyle choices that are habitually promoted through popular media. She suggests the stock image can, in fact, be a significant point of departure, an opportune vessel within which new modes of representation and critical associations can be positioned. It is thus not only the poor, but also the stock image that conveys the condition of dislocated online existence. Through subtle manipulations, in both Reupke’s work, but also web-users accumulating, circulating and disseminating poor, compressed digital media, quality is transformed into accessibility. The accelerated economy of the digital image removes aesthetic concerns from the semiotic value of virtual appearances.