A good way to begin thinking about Joseph Desler Costa’s work is by way of an anecdote he relayed about a friend of his. This person is a music teacher working with young children. Apparently, their students, who are taking their inspiration from any one of a number of pop music examples, have begun to emulate the jerky, robotic tenor of auto-tuned vocals in their natural singing voice. The internet tells me that this is actually possible to do, as this video shows (yes, she really sings like that):
Apparently, the technique this girl uses is similar to the jumping vocals inherent to yodeling. And equally discomforting:
Joseph mentioned this story to me in passing, but I think it’s offers some valuable insights into his recent body of work Supplementary Materials. On one level the kids are simply emulating what they hear. But they’re also emulating the artifact of digital manipulation, the fingerprint of an algorithmic “improvement”. In watching these videos, there’s something mildly creepy about hearing those sounds come out of a human being. In Supplementary Materials, this vocal mimicry of digital manipulation is translated into a photographic toolset. One the most immediate qualities this work reveals is the influence of tools like photoshop both in the post-production and also in the construction of these images. The auto-tune analogy makes sense to me because, as Joseph put it, he’s mimicking the look of heavily retouched images with material components; instead of trying to sound like his natural voice is auto-tuned, he’s making images that look like the’ve been photoshopped.
At one point I asked Joseph how “Sunkist Eclipse” was constructed, specifically wondering how much of it was photoshop. And I was glad to hear that yes, it was mostly done in-camera by painstakingly cutting perfect circles out of black foam-core and combining all the elements you see in a single exposure. But asking the question “Why is it better if it was done in-camera rather than in the computer?” misses the point for me with respect to Joseph’s work. The payoff is the fact that he’s successfully mimicking a digital look with analog materials. It’s the inverse of why something like Alex Roman’s weirdly realistic 3rd & the 7th from 2009 is so cool, because it’s actually ALL CGl but damn if it doesn’t look ‘real’ at moments. Both manage to hover in the negative space between the familiar and the uncanny.
Our conversation called to mind Annie Dillard’s essay on witnessing a solar eclipse from 1982’s Teaching a Stone to Talk and in particular the incapacity of a photograph to provide sufficient context for the experience:
You have seen photographs of the sun taken during a total eclipse. The corona fills the print. All of those photographs were taken through telescopes. The lenses of telescopes and cameras can no more cover the breadth and scale of the visual array than language can cover the breadth and simultaneity of internal experience. Lenses enlarge the sight, omit its context, and make of it a pretty and sensible picture, like something on a Christmas card. I assure you, if you send any shepherds a Christmas card on which is printed a three-by-three photograph of the angel of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, and a multitude of the heavenly host, they will not be sore afraid. More fearsome things can come in envelopes. More moving photographs than those of the sun’s corona can appear in magazines. But I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky.
(Edit : and also this entry from Sarah Charlesworth’s Modern History project)
In his project statement, Joseph describes “a reality in which identity is fluid from one moment to the next” and in which “objects of mass production and consumption become vehicles for transcendence and beauty”. And of course the images bear a superficial slickness that reinforces this notion of transfiguration unencumbered by identity. But as he goes on to say, this surface gloss is undercut with melancholy, like a candy shell with a rotten core. Lips and Gorilla are stock images (one of which Joseph sold to a stock agency and then bought back from them for the piece) sporting Xzibit-worthy—in more ways than one— mods like holographic window tint and high-gloss paint.
And lest we remain too cheerful in this post, here’s a Nietzsche quote that came to mind:
What do they really want? At least to represent justice, love, wisdom, superiority—that is the ambition of the “lowest”, the sick. And how skillful such an ambition makes them! Admire above all the forger’s skill with which the stamp of virtue…is here counterfeited.
That would make us consumers the sickly ones in this equation. But hear me out: this might have more bearing that it seems on work like Joseph’s, in that the context of the quote Nietzsche describes nihilism as the “uncanniest monster” at once familiar and yet deeply discomforting. Joseph’s work captures that bizarre mixture of familiarity and repulsion, and a sense of the uncanny is deeply embedded in the images he’s crafting. And along with it comes a recognition of the illusory seduction of surface sheen. Rather than avoiding the discomforting emptiness behind surface gloss, we are asked to embrace it as a fact of life and get on with the show already. Even in writing this post, I had a persistent sense of familiarity with one image in particular:
I still can’t place what about it looks familair to me. Is it one of Robert Smithson’s Mirror displacements?:
Or is it something more direct like John Baldassari’s 3 balls?:
Or maybe it’s even more banal, and I’ll never quite be able to resolve it:
Joseph’s website can be found here.
Back in 1995, NASA pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at a small section of the Eagle Nebula (M16) in the constellation Serpens 7,000 light years away. The image it produced, known as The Pillars of Creation, is probably one of the first images that spring to mind when talking about astrophotography. The public was predictable thrilled with this and other images coming from the telescope (images like the Hubble Deep Field). And thanks partly to their public-domain status, these images find their way into all kinds of usages. The Pillars of Creation, being among the most famous, can be found on almost any object, from skateboards to aprons:
Simply put people love this image. But, as this article points out, the famous pillars don’t exist anymore and were actually destroyed by a supernova that took place about 6,000 years ago; the light of their destruction just hasn’t made its way to Earth just yet. So what does it mean that the famous pillars in the photograph we all know were obliterated about 5,820 years before photography was even invented? And should this have any bearing on how we should think about the images we make here on Earth?
Part of what’s fascinating about images like this to me is the fact that they visibly record the incomprehensible. The first hurdle in trying to comprehend what you’re seeing in these pictures is the scale of the distance involved. I would argue that even conceptualizing the amount of empty space in our own solar system is pretty much impossible. The website If the Moon were only 1 pixel does as good a job as any at trying to parse this amount of space down into a human scale, but still. You. Just. Keep. Scrolling. The distance between Mars and Jupiter alone is incomprehensibly far when you put it in human terms like miles or kilometers. And if the scale of our own miniscule solar system isn’t mind-bending enough, think about it this way: When the Hubble revisited the Pillars of Creation earlier this year, NASA published this side-by-side comparison of the structures 20 years apart:
Besides the higher resolution provided by the updated camera Hubble got in May of 2009, it looks pretty similar, right? Some tiny differences maybe, but nothing drastic. Now realize that, according to this NASA report from January, parts of these clouds of gas are moving through space at about 450,000 miles per hour. For 20 years. That’s 10.8 million miles per day. Over 20 years? That’s 78,840,000,000 miles. And it looks almost exactly the same. That’s how far away we are; something can shift by billions of miles and look pretty much the same. It makes the whole notion of human scale seem a little inflated (cue Carl Sagan). What we see is impossibly abstracted from anything human. Jorge Luis Borges’ short story On Exactitude in Science comes to mind as a vehicle for thinking about of abstraction and representation of physical spaces:
… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
The other difficulty in thinking about these photographs — which proceeds as a result of these huge distances — is that we have what equates to an exaggerated, 2-dimensional view of these objects and events; we can’t stick our head out far enough to get a true sense of depth, and our “eye” the Hubble is effectively a cyclops. As an example: if you’ve ever been stuck behind a really tall person in a full movie theater and can’t change seats, you can probably understand this dilemma. Additionally, one of the characteristics of a long, telephoto lens is that it compresses the space that it records. Now attempt to complete the oxymoronic task of imagining that effect on an incomprehensibly massive scale. This gif is a great example I use to show students how the same scene looks vastly different depending on the lens used (you can read more about how this was made here):
This Chrome experiment, 10,000 Stars, is a great if limited way of showing the vastness of the Milky Way in 3 dimensions. And by using the MUSE instrument as part of the Very Large Telescope, NASA and the ESO do have the ability to image the Pillars in 3 dimensions: this video published just a few weeks ago give you a sense of what it can show us about the Pillars of Creation:
You might already be familiar with the fact that many of the images we see of celestial objects are composites made up of processed monochrome images; it’s also the subject of artist Adam Ferris’ project 500 Years Away. And a more in-depth explanation of what is behind Hubble’s color images can be found here. Essentially the “natural-looking” images from space are filtered and compressed versions of wide imaging data sets that sit within the spectrum of visible light our eyes can see. This manipulation of photographic data goes beyond just color, such as these recently re-processed images from one of the Russian Venera probes sent to Venus in the early 1980s:
It looked a little more like this in its raw and unprocessed state:
So what does this have to do with photography here on Earth, then? Part of NASA’s primary mission is “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind” and it seems obvious enough that photographs play a big role in that mission. Or, more precisely, photographic data that are gathered from a immobile perspective, and then manipulated and massaged into a more recognizable form. Not in an effort to deceive, but as the mission statement says, to “reveal the unknown”. I think we’re doing the same thing when we make art. Of the many definitions out there, one of my favorite definitions of art is that it reveals the hidden aspects of the familiar. How else can we do that but though forced perspective, manipulation; by shifting the balance between foreign and familiar? These images from deep space manage to shrink the massive distances that separate us from the rest of the universe. To me, art functions in much the same way, only on a more recognizably human scale.
A couple weeks ago, I received an email that said simply the following: “I am a huge fan of your art. I wonder if it would be possible to get your autograph? I collect artists autographs and it would be wonderful to add yours to my collection.”
The fact that I got a spammy message is not particularly interesting or surprising. But, If you’re an artist — and especially if you’re a photographer —there’s a good chance that you’ve received exactly the same email, down to the letter. Go ahead and search your email (and email me if you did). If you did get the same one, you probably brushed it off like you would any other junk that made it past your spam filter. Oddly enough, just before the email appeared in my inbox, I had seen a Facebook post from last November asking about an email with the exact language in the my email…from the same person. It was in a photographers group, and several members — including several I know personally – had received the same email as me, and were wondering if this was for real. The general tone of the comments was roughly as follows:
- Don’t do it. It’s a scam
- Most likely it’s an identity theft organization
- They find your work online, ask for your autograph, then apply it to the work they’ve printed and try to sell it
- See you all in the shantytown we will all be living in after [he] steals everything we own!
So when “my” email contained the same exact wording from the same exact person, I was naturally suspicious. But I figured, why not mess with the guy? I mean, who does he think he is anyway? So I wrote him a very brief reply:
“That’ll show him” I thought, fairly pleased with how awesomely I’d just burned this guy. And so I was a little surprised when he wrote me back, literally within 5 minutes:
“Thank you so much.”
For some reason, this response crossed a line. I hadn’t planned to send anything other than the “ok” (hoping he’d get more than one meaning from it). But then I wondered, “Wait…Is this guy going to print my website photos and paste an emoji on them as a signature?” I looked around online and was surprised that I couldn’t find any examples of artists had actually done this. All I could find was this awesome pillow for summer campers. Nonetheless, this guy seemed to be taking me seriously, so I felt I had to let him know about it:
“Yeah. Sure. Stop trying to scam people.”
I figured that would be the end of it. 2 minutes later:
“Not trying to scam people, I have collected artists autographs for over 20 years.
Sorry to have bothered, very odd response.”
Ok, well this is a pretty weird scam. At this point I assumed that he was committed to his little ruse and was just trying to wear me down with this whole feigned innocence act. I wrote back — a little more abrasively this time — “Oh, ok you want to play that game? Cool. So tell me…what are your thoughts on this:” And, after blacking out all the profile pictures and names, I pasted in a screenshot of the Facebook conversation that listed his first and last name, email address, and identically worded email. His response:
Right. Libelous. Obviously. By this time I was curious enough to ask the guy some more questions, and I was willing to entertain the possibility that he might be legitimate. I sent him a longer, strongly-worded email that advised him to, among other things, personalize the language in his emails rather than using identical language in each request: “You should really know better, that is practically the textbook definition of spam.” He seemed genuinely apologetic, thanked me for my “measured response” and said he’d take my thoughts into account in the future. Because that’s how he wins my trust and then exploits it, right? I asked him to send me some proof of his collection, and of the article he wrote in Autograph Quarterly Magazine. I couldn’t find much about this magazine apart from their site (which seems to have been made around 1996) and this discussion on a hobbyist forum, which only raises further suspicion. He said he’d be happy to. Here are some of the photos he sent me:
Over the past 2 weeks I’ve exchanged around 30 emails with this person, and I still have no idea if he is genuine or not. Call me cynical, but it’s hard to believe that there is someone out there collecting artist’s autographs (and that they want mine). But if this is a scam, this guy must be pretty committed to his cover story, and so I’m just really not sure. It’s why I’ve decided to keep his name anonymous (although you can probably figure it out pretty easily if you try). Here’s what he’s told me about himself over the course of our correspondence:
- On what he collects: “I have everybody from sculptors to performance to photographers to graffiti to electronic / digital to textile artists…Photography is one of my most favourite types of art.”
- On how big his collection is: “I have over 2000 autographs including artists, politicians, magicians, sports stars…I think [my collection] is the biggest collection of contemporary artists autographs.”
- On what he does with the autographs: “I don’t display them or do anything apart from store them safely…I genuinely believe that at some point my collection will be significant, I have pioneers in art, early performance artists, and as art changes and different art disciplines occur, I hope to also get these autographs…A museum would be a good home.”
- On how he finds artists: “I first find artists I like the work of, then research shows, try to attend if possible, research awards. I try to research notable, emerging, news worthy artists.”
- On why he doesn’t just collect artwork instead : “I do collect art, I have a small collection.”
- On why he wrote me back: “I wrote back because I have done nothing wrong, I am neither scamming or spamming, I am not selling a service, just asking for an autograph. I felt I needed to show that I had no ulterior motive.”
- On if he has considered the monetary value of his collection : “No never, I work, I have a home. Don’t have the need for the money. Don’t need to sell collectibles, you can’t replace them…and I just enjoy collections.”
- On what he does for a living : “I work as a salesperson, on the telephone. Selling plumbing equipment”
In response to my asking if anyone had ever accused him of being a scammer (before me), he said this:
“I have had a few emails back saying no to autograph, but nobody has been rude or called me a scammer, I am not and this is the first time I have had such a response.”
Well now I feel like a jerk. But…really? Out of thousands of emails I’m the ONLY ONE who thought to say something back to this person? That is the hardest thing of all to believe, for me. Yet even if this is a total shake-down, I can’t really figure out what the scam is. Think about it: How valuable is your autograph/signature in today’s world? According to the BBC, “the signature is in retreat” and rapidly being replaced by digital methods of authentication. This collection of anonymous and mostly illegible signatures captured at POS stations was featured in the first installment of Paul Soulellis‘ fantastic and ever-evolving Library of the Printed Web:
Looking at these, or perhaps this famously minimal signature, and it’s pretty easy to see the drawback of using signatures when more secure and sophisticated options are available thanks to technology. Hyperallergic writer
Whatever the truth may be about my email friend, there ARE definitely scams targeted at artists floating around the internet. They usually involve a more direct appeal for money in exchange for “exposure” or as inflated competition fees. But there also appear to be more than one example of individuals who have taken this shotgun-approach to collecting artist ephemera: a very similar case involving a handwritten letter from a French girl is explained here, and This American Life has even done a story on an English man who solicited artwork from “more than a few” artists, allegedly for his artistically-inclined autistic son (here’s the link, it’s worth a listen). Both of these actually seem to be genuine in the end, if not a little weird. And it may well be the case for my guy as well. But either way, I’m not sending anyone my autograph.