It’s both a holy and a homely site
Slowlier perused than eye can see
(Whenever the stones blink a century
Blacks out) by this vague track
Of brick and thatch and birdsong any June
Galactic pollen will have overstrewn.
From Mirabell: Books of Number, by James Merrill.
In response to MAJ’s topic “Art in Balance” and the appeal to “bring us into your space,” I want to discuss a persistent feeling in the studio. Months ago I found myself at a crossroads as the thought of making new images produced exhaustion. The desire to view images made by others also evaporated. After thinking through this feeling, I came to describe it as image fatigue. As an artist primarily engaged in image production (paintings, drawings, collages), this was a notable development. This essay will describe my experience of image fatigue and also discuss its implications for creative labor.
Am I sick of all images? No. To attempt to avoid or abstain from imagery is an absurd and impossible proposition. Let me try to be more specific: the treatment of imagery within digital screens is the source of my ailment. Overexposure to any phenomena leads to feelings of saturation and eventual revulsion. The instrumentalization of imagery by social media feeds and twenty-four hour news cycles, for example, produces a physical feeling of exhaustion after extended exposure. Within these contexts images travel at the speed of capital, a persistent necessary acceleration in service of exponential accumulation. Image fatigue results from my body attempting to adapt to the rates and rhythms of capital as imposed and embodied by digital formats.
The production, distribution, and reception of imagery constantly evolves because of the link to the development of technology. Just as a late-19th century artist had to re-negotiate the terms of their relationship with imagery after the invention of the camera, I now find myself altered by the way my body processes digitized imagery. How to live with imagery directed to and through my body? The easy answer seems to be—avoid screens! I do, as much as possible. But digitized imagery has become an extension of the body, has invaded the body–from scrolling thumb to scanning eye–to a much greater degree than the camera. The tempo of capital, as transmitted by digitized imagery, courses through my body in ways I am only now beginning to understand.
Screens privilege visual simplicity and reduction, flat colors and sharp lines. In a word, iconography: the visual language of institutions and corporations, the tool of proselytizers and advertisers. I find images made for this context largely unworthy of deep exploration. Icons (logos) exist as non-ambiguous, singular assertions of form, unwavering in the need to transmit a directive. Images made to be legible and notable within this context cannot help but be reduced to the constraints of iconography. How can I read images that screens cannot make legible? Which images make screens fail? Where can I find images that have never come into contact with a screen?
In the midst of image fatigue I find myself drawn as never before to verbal imagery, also known as poetry. In contrast to the treatment of the image by social media feeds and news cycles (single use, disposable, momentary), I find in a poetic mobilization of imagery the embedded layers of memory and history which screens reduce to an a-historical amnesia. Words make images destined for my mind’s eye—food for imagination. In its shift away from the eye and celebration of the tactile and auditory, poetry becomes an antidote for image fatigue.
This brings me to the other questions posed by the MAJ topic, which address the problem of when and where creative labor is possible. How to balance art and life, or put another way, how to find time for creative labor and other forms of labor? Any time devoted to imagination is time borrowed and not returned from another aspect of daily life: eating, sleeping, tending relationships. This is nothing new, however. Artists have always found, made, or stolen time to make their work in the hours before, between, and after. Just as capitalist expansion swallows public space, time for creative labor finds itself increasingly encroached upon by the demands of non-creativity. Despite the pursuit of increased efficiency and time management, I never seem to accumulate the necessary hours. As Sandy Denny sang, “Who knows where the time goes?”
The example of poetry again proves instructive here. Reading a verbal image demands stillness. A static space is incompatible with the voracious speeds of capital. An image finds itself trapped within a feed or cycle, the stream and flow that can do anything but stop. Static space is derided as non-productive space. This results from the cultural assimilation of the protestant work ethic that equates productivity with movement. In fact static space (imaginative time) is attacked because it is a space of non-consumption. Time to think, with hands or with mind, is time not spent buying. Empty time is a pre-requisite for productive labor of any sort, artistic or otherwise. Poetry makes possible a temporary static space in which to move through non-screened imagery. How to prolong this intentional lapse? How to create and extend a static space of imaginative possibilities? And the real question: how to transition from the private, singular occupation of time within the studio, to a collective reclamation of stolen time?
The pursuit of poetry as an antidote to image fatigue led me to spend time writing in the studio, or put another way, to use writing as part of my practice rather than writing about my practice. My production over the last few months really has not included anything I would call an image. Instead, there are essays, notes, poems, and small wooden sculptures the size of my palm. For these reasons, there are no images to insert, but I might like to add a couple lines of poetry as a sort of prelude to the essay.
Regarding an untranslatable image: this past winter I had the chance to experience the Larry Bell installation–The Black Room (1969/2018)–at the ICA Miami. As it sounds, this is a room which the viewer feels rather than sees. my eyes adjusted after many minutes in the space and were able to discern the faintest outlines and shifts in shadow. Much more memorable were the puffs of cool air on my face and the texture of the walls I continually tried not to walk into. Photographic documentation of this work is not possible.