Ima Picó and the digital mural

By Gillian McIver

Ima Picó uses the media-tools of camera and computer, photography and computer-generated images, to make artwork that explores media saturation in contemporary culture. Her compositions are based on original photographs that have been further developed using digital tools.

A philosophy of the digital image

Digital art started to appear in the 1980s, but had great difficulty getting accepted “as art” because it is new, because it is highly technological, because all digital applications have their origins in the functionality of information technology and not in “art”, and because the people that practice it have usually been younger and less experienced in the ways of the art world, than those who run the art world. But artists who worked in traditional media such as photography, sculpture, painting and film were intrigued by the new possibilities offered by the technology and increasingly began to experiment, and then work, with it. Initially the acceptance of the digital in art has been in the uses of digital video, and in digitally-interactive performance or installation work, and did not touch the traditional areas of art production and collection.

Recently, however, the work of artists who produce digital photographs, paintings and digital printmaking is beginning to find acceptance, as the output capacities advance and quality increases. Internationally, collectors and museums are now beginning to create small collections of digital art. But this has not been won without a fight, as the arguments against the digital in these traditional artforms, encompass the argument of authenticity, the argument of dehumanisation, and the argument of de-skilling or perceived “ease” of use, which I shall call the argument of democratization.

Philosopher Luciano Floridi, has noted that "digitality has been accused of evisceration of the real, and of liquidating truth, reference and objectivity.” The digital image is fabricated through layers of algorithmic processing, with no trace of materiality. But what is this “real” that is being threatened?

As can be perceived, the foundation of Ima Picó's work for the Whitewall is the photograph, photographs of graffiti she took while walking in the streets of various cities, and which she has then reworked into collage. So, the photographic image, transformed. This brings us to one of the oldest objections to the digital image, the digital photograph: its removal from the idea of “the real.” The “virtuality” or intangibility of the digital image makes it suspicious and therefore less “authentic “than the analogue, which after all simply “captures what is there.”

This question of authenticity is always at the core of any discussion of the digital image. But what exactly is an authentic image? Traditionally, there is in the idea of photography the idea that a recorded image records what the optic can perceive, what is “really” there. The technique of the photograph, traditionally, was about the encounter between measured light upon a composed emulsion - silver halides suspended in gelatine. But what is the relationship between light and chemical mixture that renders it more “authentic” than a digital one?

Is a digitally-manipulated image necessarily inauthentic? The digital photograph is equally dependent upon the law of reciprocity - how light intensity and duration trade off to make an exposure, better known as the relationship between shutter speed and aperture. The difference between the analogue photograph and the digital photograph is that instead of the encounter with sensitive emulsion, the light encounters the sensitive microchip of the miniature computer that is the digital camera. In both cases it is the manipulation of the aperture and shutter that determines what becomes the image.

The digital image is a matrix of numbers, a composition of integers, transmitted electronically. And then we move into the production of the “image as an image” – that is, the viewable image: the print or the screen view. In this case the interesting thing is that the digital image can usually be used immediately after the picture is taken, it can be uploaded directly to a website, emailed right from the phone-camera or at the very least viewed on the camera's own LCD screen. The printed analogue image must be manipulated further, in the darkroom, before there is a print.

Thinking about the ways in which all machine-made images happen, their very artificiality, makes us aware of what is involved in machine-based image making. All of the choices required in image making are profoundly human choices. Machine based image making depends on the interaction between the human and their tool, whether it is analogue photography, digital photography or that other “camera” the scanner, which can scan objects directly and turn them into images. Martin Lister has pointed out that the critique of the digital image is just another reworking of the historic debate about supposed photographic realism and “the photographic image’s privileged status as a trustworthy mechanical analogue of reality.” So what is the most “authentic:” the original graffiti as it was in the street, Picó's photograph of the graffiti, or the transfigured graffiti, reworked and remade into a mural? Each of these does not have the same message as the other. By taking the photograph, Picó has made a series of choices entirely separate from the choices made by the graffitist. She has selected the graffiti and the wall it appears on, composed the shot and manipulated the camera to expose it in the way she wanted. In this way she has authentically made an artistic choice to say what she wanted to say. The next stage is the selection of the photographed images of graffiti, and the application of digital methods to reshape the, combining images together with other images texts and colours, and shapes. At this stage the work, though based in the photograph, moves away entirely from the depiction of “the real” - that is, the real as the optic nerve of the eye or the optic of the camera can conceive it. It is no longer a picture of graffiti, or a “picture of” anything - it has become something else. Picó is working with the depiction of the real – the photograph - to create something that is not real, but resembles, in its use of colour, shape and design, something we recognise from the “real” world.

The resulting image is as artificial as a painting, but as “real” as a photograph. How can it be both things simultaneously? It is the digital tool which allows the seamless blending and application of different elements to the process. Man Ray, painter, photographer and inventor of the “rayogram” once said that photography can do what the eye cannot do. Man Ray, it can confidently be said, would have been one of the first to grasp at the possibilities of digital. The upshot of all of this is that the argument of the “inauthenticity” of the virtual, in terms of the image is a false problem - because every image is constructed, doing what the eye alone cannot do.

In 1994 Bill Joy published an article in Wired asking us to imagine a world where humans have become dependent on machines. Joy feared that “people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones.”

This is one of the fears attached to the digital in art. The auto-options in the software, the batch process and so on, means that the danger is that the artist trusts the machine more than his or her own perception. However, this fear appears to evade the question of what an artist is. The apparent emergence of non-skill-based-art in the art market – art whose core meaning and value lies in the publicity it generates, art where there is nothing to see and little to experience - the very media sensationalism of this kind of work means that the majority of artists, who do not work in this way and who are concerned with skills and excellence, are in the shadows. But this is temporary and fashion-driven, and has nothing to do with the ancient practice of art. And digital tools require skill. As Picó says, the digital tool is like any other, it takes time to learn it in order to use it precisely, and it requires lot of practice. The artist who trusts his tools more than his own judgement will always be a limited artist, limited by his distrust of himself. Of course, if Joy is right, and we do enter a kind of “Matrix” state, then the position of art will be one of the least of our problems.

Mark Hansen is another philosopher of the digital, who takes a more positive view, and rejects the idea that the digital will lead to the erasure of the human. Hansen believes that the comforting certainty in our relationship to the digital, is that digital information – any system involving “information – needs an interpreter, and that interpreter is the material human body grounded in the wetware of our sensorial systems.” So whatever the information system, whether it is a scrawl on the wall of the cave or a binary code, it is our human sensorial system itself, the working of the brain – itself a part of a fleshly entity, the body - that is our only way of making meaning out of it. Hansens' reminder that is our sensory nature that interprets all data, whether it is oil paint on a canvas, or algorithmic data assembled on a viewing screen, has an echo in Bergson's emphasis on the body as “a kind of filter that elects from among the universe of images and according to its own embodied capacities, precisely those which are relevant to it.” The human makes sense of data, however that data is constructed or presented, and it is this process that determines how a work of art can be evaluated: through human criteria. The categories of digital and non-digital are less important than the human act of making culture.

Digital culture is not simply technologically determined; it is rooted in a wide range of discourses from early industrial capitalism, through to the critical theories and philosophies of postmodernism. “Culture” in itself is a necessarily slippery notion, embracing our hopes and dreams as well as our objects and artefacts. And yet there is something special, something even weird, about the digital. Years ago William Gibson referred to that limitless network of zeroes and ones that is the digital world, as “cyberspace”, which he called “the non-space of the mind”. He described it as “consensual hallucination”. Digital artists harness that collective hallucination and reveal it to the perception, in the familiar cultural form or category of “art.”

So, if there can be no argument against digital art in terms of the authenticity of the digital image, and the argument of the inherent dehumanised properties of the digital is shown to be baseless, then let us turn to the final argument against the digital in art, that of the digital's contribution to the de-skilling of artists, through the perceived “ease” of use, which I shall call the argument of democratization.

Familiarity breeds contempt. Everyone has a computer. Emailing, web surfing, doing the accounts, writing letters - and everyone has at least one camera. Your mobile phone is a camera. The camera is no longer that bulky metal object that grand-dad kept on his shelf and dusted down several times a year for the requisite family photo. It has not been that for decades – if it ever even was. We have lived already a whole century or more of photographic-image saturation. Today, control of the image is more and more democratized, with cheap, clever and easy to use cameras. And perhaps it is this plethora of amateur images that has caused a disdain among some in the art world. Again the argument of inauthenticity is raised, only to be invalidated again and again. What is left is the argument against the democratization of the image, the denial of participation.

This is one of the points that Ima Picó highlights in Overflow. Picó effects a détournement of both the graffiti artefact and the digital photograph of the graffiti, its image. Both of them are examples of discredited “low brow,” that is democratized, cultural artefacts of low value. Graffiti is valueless (unless it's by Banksy), and so is the digital snap. By embracing these democratic artefacts, then using digital tools to totally reconfigure them, Picó has managed to embrace the democratic nature of the source material and to create something out of them which is clearly that much-desired “unique work of art.”

There is the argument that digital is “easy”. But is it? It may be “easy” to take a digital snap, not any more “easy” to take a great photograph, where the old rules of reciprocity still need to be followed. Collage and assemblage remain difficult artforms, because their success entirely depends on the judgement of the assembler. Digital tools are simply tools, and it takes time and dedication to know how to use them. How many people know how to read a histogram? Manipulating curves and levels? Precisely delineating CMYK tones? And it is not just about mastering the computer techniques: it is about staying abreast of new developments in software and hardware, and constant upskilling. Digital technology appears to make artwork quick and easy to produce, but it is not the case. Truly mastering the digital is a vocation like any other, and at the same time, a digital artist must have first mastered the analogue skills that precede it, such as drawing, painting, photography and so forth.

Wall based art and Picó's Digital Mural

Ima Picó's Overflow and her other digital murals are special not only because she is using digital techniques to collage and combine diverse elements, but because she has chosen the mural form to work in. This is a difficult form, with an ancient and troubled history.
The mural serves two main functions, the first is to serve a huge space, a wall, and to serve it with one mammoth, overwhelming image. The second function is to reveal a lot of layers, details that cannot be experienced in smaller work. A mural composition needs size to manifest itself.

Classically there are two types of murals the interior and exterior. The interior mural is about the viewer being in a space, and being overwhelmed by that mural in the space. Picasso's Guernica is a good example of a modern interior mural (though it is movable – more about that later). The exterior mural is about passers-by, who are arrested by the appearance of images in the outdoors. The Whitewall project is interesting because it offers mural artists an opportunity to have both – it is inside and outside. Picó's work, revealing bits of masonry, wood and graffiti from walls she has photographed, plays on this outside and inside idea. As one would not expect to see graffiti on the walls inside the Centre MK, Picó has brought the outside world in, but invites us to view it in a way that offers us the intimacy of the inside mural.

Murals bring art out of the gallery or private collection, into the public sphere. But due to the size, cost, and work involved, murals are usually commissioned by a sponsor. The nature of the mural, that is demands size and until recently, permanence, means that historically it has been the preserve of the Church, the State or corporate clients. In this respect, most murals have contained within them elements of propaganda or at least strong persuasion, through high artistic expression. A mural is meant to overwhelm and in so doing, it has the power to convince. In this, a mural can be said to have a sense of purpose. Murals have also been used as a tool of social emancipation or achieving a political goal. They have been created against the law, as alternative voices, or as a means of calling for attention to issues. In contemporary culture, the opportunities for murals are very sparse. The State and the churches no longer commission mural projects, and the “community” murals that abound in social spaces are not primarily about artistic excellence.

Both indoor and outdoor murals are less common in Britain than in many other cultures. In Britain, interiors tend to be divided into smaller rooms. Outdoors, the climate is damp and it is too northerly to guarantee good light. Instead, Britain is noticeable for its astonishing stonework on building facades, from the gargoyles of Oxford to Eric Gill's Prospero and Ariel or Epstein's Night and Day. But contemporary architecture has jettisoned sculpture and decoration, and it can be no accident that into the vacuum of public wall art, has been filled by widespread appreciation for graffiti artists, notably Banksy and his imitators, whose work has drawn attention to the line between mural and graffiti.

In the 20th century, artists understood that the mural form of a very large, wall based painting could be re-purposed for more personal expression, and rejected the notion that the mural must be a permanent fixture to the wall. The mural as developed by Picasso with Guernica, or Rothko's Seagram Murals, is a temporary mural, intended for a vast space like any mural, but portable. Far from being an expression of the illness of modern society and takeaway culture, the temporary mural allows the portability of an idea, of installation and reinstallation, the transference of the monumental expression.

Take the aforementioned monumental Guernica – moving from Paris to New York and to many other cities in the world until its eventual instatement in Madrid. Its tapestry copy, housed at the UN, is currently in London's Whitechapel Gallery. Thus the overwhelming statement made by the mural has been made available to many, which it would not be if it had been painted onto a wall in Paris in 1937.

Graffiti is in most cases an inarticulate public comment – expressing anything from dissatisfaction with a political situation, to a sense of personal alienation. But we are not only assailed in our daily live lives by graffiti: the public sphere is filled with visual overload. Ima Picó says that “in our contemporary society, people are constantly invaded by design that does not communicate any essential information, and is habitually confusing.”

Ima Picó's Overflow brings the digital together with the idea of the mural: harnessing the controversy of the new media technology to the ancient practice of mural; combining the “street” sense of the forbidden graffiti expression with digital manipulation into a striking, large scale and engaging exploration of media saturation in contemporary culture. Using the same kind of media that is used for advertising (digital print on vinyl adhering to the wall), Overflow incorporates these signs using colour and distortion, exaggerating and rearranging them into configurations that express a sense of cultural overload, straining under the weight of information excess. The result is a portrait of chaos, patterns and textures using imagery taken from the mass language of visual culture. At the same time, the work is striking, lucid and beautiful, sacrificing none of the qualities that have made visual art timeless, and significant to the viewer.

Something new?

Is it necessary for digital art to proclaim itself as a new medium? Art is no longer medium specific. Artists now operate across disciplines - text, image, moving image, event - and choose the tools that they need to accomplish what they want.
“Digital technology exists. Art exists. Art which uses technology exists. Digital Art does not exist 'in its own right'.” (Morrison and Fuller)
And yet, something is happening. Artists, film makers and photographers are – slowly, and whether they know it or not - in the process of creating a new aesthetic language, a new aesthetics even, a digital aesthetics. Moving beyond the limits of what has been accomplished already though analogue practice, but learning from and incorporating what is useful from analogue practice, and jettisoning that which is not useful.

The new digital aesthetics must move away from being imitative, and seek to use the digital tools to make different images, different sounds and different narrative structures. The new digital tools have opened our eyes to new ways of seeing, new and unorthodox combinations, a distinct aesthetics.

Ima Picó's work references key analogue practices – photography, painting/mural-painting and text-art, but it is none of these. Her digital murals refer to wall graffiti, but are not painted; incorporate photography, but are not photographic, and include text but are not text-art. In all cases they go beyond these categories, combining them and transforming them – not to supplant them, but to create something alternative, a different vision, and a different kind of critique of the culture we live in.
Gillian McIver. 2009

Gillian McIver is a digital film-maker, artist and lecturer. Her work explores the intersection of narrative, image and language. She has written about media and spectacle, and about the question of where and how to “site” the moving image. She is interested in the issues raised by digital aesthetics within the filmic tradition.
She is a member of the Luna Nera group and also works as an independent curator.

Floridi, Luciano,
Gibson, William, Neuromancer (1984)
Hansen, Mark New Philosophy for New Media (2006)
Lister, Martin. 'The Photographic Image in Digital Culture' (1995)
Ewan Morrison and Matthew Fuller, Mute 2004

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