Ground Zero

German photographer Thomas Ruff, works with a range of experimental photographic forms and techniques, and much like his contemporaries Peter Mann and Corinne Vionnet, the appropriation of images from a variety of public venues including the internet. For Ruff and co the human experience is contained in the images which constitute our mediated atmosphere. For Ruff the process of signal compression in the exchange of visual information on the network presents an opportunity to expose its technical deficiencies by close examination of the image file’s structure. His Jpegs series is a confronting sequence of images which exploits the artefacts left behind in a digital image from the process involved in compressing the image for display on screens and publication on the web and mobile. Ruff exposes the fabric of the digital object through enlarging the image to an extreme size and then printing that image onto large canvases (2.5 by 1.8 meters) to further accentuate its inherent flaws. “It creates a nice effect,” Ruff notes, “when you see it from about 10 or 15 metres away, you think you are looking at a precise photograph, but if you go closer, to within about five metres, you recognise the image for what it is. Then if you go really close, you can’t recognise anything at all: you’re just standing in front of thousands of pixels” (Ruff, 2009, from “Thomas Ruff’s best shot”).

Thomas Ruff (2004) jpeg-ny02 (artblart.com)

Thomas Ruff (2004) jpeg-ny02 (artblart.com)

In this sense the networked image is vulnerable to the ultimate form of corruption and mistreatment – enlargement. The algorithmic compression fabricates what it cannot see creating colour and shape that is an approximation the image’s version of reality. This is the inverse of the Geo-Eye satellite in which clarity and resolution is the yardstick of truth and where the absence of the artefacts of compression – the lack of image corruption – renders the simulation real. Here in the Jpegs series the truth emerges from the approximations made by algorithms, the distortion becomes the memory. This is something that film maker and academic Hito Steyerl writing in e-Flux identifies when she describes the degradation of a digital object in the network as a “bad image”. In an era of high definition display and ever increasing resolutions of digital photography Ruff’s series is emblematic of what constitutes a bad image. And while Ruff is playing with the fatalism of the digital form – after all there is only so much resolution one can attain from the available data, the pixels have only so far to fall – in the travails of the network it is a but “a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution” (Steyerl, 2009, from “In Defense of the Poor Image”).

Thomas Ruff (2004) jpeg co01 (princeton.edu)

Thomas Ruff (2004) jpeg co01 (princeton.edu)

While Ruff is exploring notions of disruption in the distribution and reception of digital images on the network – an unseen invisible process – he is also bringing the fragile memory of catastrophe and notions of the imagined apocalypse together in a provocative convergence. The pixelated squares of the manipulated jpeg images become the building blocks of a reconstituted past and a plausible future. It is as if these machine images have been reclaimed by human intervention, stripped of their clarity when viewed up close they become personal constructions – abstract things of discovery, messy human constructions. And yet they become clearer and therefore more real the further we are away from them reminding us that most of our memories are images made stored and distributed by someone else’s machine at a distance. To see then, is to understand.

This was my first experience at Ground Zero. The return to the accident as media archetype – the image loop personified. The site that constitutes the ultimate looking down – the gaze of the machine – peering back into the belly of the 20th century. To be there in that place at that time, March 25 2013, was my second chance. Six months earlier I was evacuated from New York City, when during a preview screening of a pre–release cut of Lincoln (Spielberg, 2012), hosted by Mr Spielberg himself, to my surprise I began coughing up spots of blood. Back at the hotel it got worse, it was thick and dark and reeked of rotten meat. It was nearing midnight on the U.S. East Coast but it was only 8am in Australia, the office wouldn’t open for another half an hour. Plans needed to be made and flights needed to be booked. My feverish Webjet searches turned up the most economical option, a Cathay Pacific flight from JFK to Melbourne via Singapore. It left at lunchtime in New York, a hellish 32 hour ordeal. The flight’s departure time roughly correlated with the time I had booked my tour of Ground Zero. Instead I bought a face mask, a box of tissues, and some nasal spray to keep the airways moist. I left the AirBnB apartment with a few more days still on the clock and dragged my arse to the sidewalk. Sinking into the back of a yellow taxi I swallowed hard. 32 hours spitting into a stainless sink at 30,000 feet. Fuck.

I wouldn’t be certain of my health for almost another year. A left lower lobectomy, would put me right. But in the meantime, I wrangled the funding to return to America and to make the pilgrimage to Ground Zero. It was totally unsurprising the sense of absence the site engendered. It is after all a thing of absence. No images, no billboards, no holographic tour guides, no expositional video kiosks to detail the history.[1] Which is an odd thing. Vincent Mosco, in his text The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power and Cyberspace, makes the link between Castells and the symbolic significance of the original World Trade Centre: “The World Trade Center and especially its twin towers was a first attempt to create a hub for what Manuel Castells has called the Informational City, a space of flows or portal that simultaneously produces, manages and distributes data, messages, and ideas. People began to call New York a Global City to describe its ability to command and control the international production and distribution of resources, particularly information.” And then this: “It would indeed provide the first genuinely utopian space of the information age” (Mosco, 2004, from “The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power and Cyberspace”, p. 144).

Ground Zero (Goodwin, 2013)

Ground Zero (Goodwin, 2013)

Peering down at the solid black granite blocks, swollen walls of crystalline water endlessly gushing over them and into the pit below, it is hard to imagine such a thing now. The site is so very masculine and ancient and modern in the same instance. Rock from the bowels of the earth, from some geologically violent time have been cut by machines to create the smooth hard lines of the modern memorial. Granite: forever, time unbroken, memory bounded by the history of the earth’s cosmic birth. A weighty assumption, but the right one, to be in this place is to feel the weight of a moment that shifted the collective consciousness of four billion people. The universe could barely weigh as much. Dark matter surrounds me; constituting the galactic network supporting everything else. The absence of evidence that constitutes Ground Zero, is the rock upon which the dark euphoric moment was most certainly first written.

And yet what is most striking about being at the edge of the memorial’s hulking interior – leaning self–consciously, and perhaps somewhat disrespectfully against the names laser etched into the ledge overlooking the watery abyss – is that there is no sight of the bottom. The water feature becomes an echo chamber of unprecedented depth, endlessness and repetition the most explicit of signifiers of what one might imagine a millennium to represent. We must presume that as long as the water flows, that the mechanisms of the long now, will outlast the video loop and the media archive. This place you could imagine will one day swallow all data.

September 11 provided an insignificant yet much vaunted death toll and a gruesome if not thrillingly voyeuristic assemblage of the end times. As the death toll grew, visualisations of flight paths emerged and sketched identikits of the ‘known assailants’ flashed across the world’s screens, the true trauma of the last great television event of the 20th century was lost in repetition and rapid machine translation. Gothic high-tech personified. It haunts the web as all great contemporary paradoxical stories do but it remains largely hidden from the mainstream venues of cultural production except for the gaudy exaggerated simulations. Mogadishu, Iraq, Aceh, Darfur, Mumbai and Haiti represent complex human concepts – injustice, racism, greed, fear, alienation – yet they rapidly become mechanically exposed image sequences, crude pixel renderings from DV cameras, mobile phones and hotel webcams. The previous centuries’ mono cultural television event has been transformed into a content on demand disaster portal. The depth of our understanding of these events is at once embellished by image frequency and dulled by over exposure. This is not just the media itself, but the mix of that media, the blend of content – opinion, hysteria, hype and paranoia (other fairly notable human concepts) – which constitute not just the web experience but the mass media’s interpretation of what the mix looks like. This complex layering of content and associated streams of meaning (data) presents a contemporary audience with a difficult translation. How do we define that which is in front of us? Are we experiencing the apocalypse or its simulation? Are we holding it in our hand or walking through its evolving catastrophe? Technoculture has become an intricate totalising narrative: the medium, the message and the meme. In this space of flows sight has become mechanised, space militarised – time meaning and reality collapsed into a digital simulation. Nation states dissolve into wikis, faith into terror cells, race into genetic code, humanity repackaged as a distributable sequence of digital objects. The speed of this transformation – the acceleration of the global contraction and the fatalism of its digital authorship – inhibits our conceptualisation of the final image. It becomes dark – blank – a dead link like the black granite pixels of Ground Zero.

In the post 9/11 world, the romance of Armageddon is being replaced by the spectre of inevitable destruction, albeit on a smaller scale. Piece by piece, city by city, landmark by landmark, the delicate balance of post–World War II nuclear politics has given way to a new war, in which atomic bombs, capable of decimating an entire metropolis in just one blast, fit in suitcases. The global apocalypse depicted by Stanley Kubrick in 1964’s Dr Strangelove now seems simultaneously remote and infinitely more tangible. (Dixon, 2009, from “Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia”, p. 156)

[1] What was in abundance however was security, and lots of it. For a solid granite and steel memorial the queues, bag checks and body scans seemed excessive and was very unsettling. For a media artist committed to documenting the site it was also problematic. I had a Crumpler backpack stuffed to the gills with tech: a DSLR camera, mini-tripod, 28mm and 50mm lenses, a Zoom audio recorder, shotgun and lapel microphones and a Mac Book Pro. This is my kit. This also caused me no end of suspicion and interrogation. I was ghosted throughout my time at the memorial by two of New York City’s finest. “I am here to capture the atmosphere” I said, “to remember but also to create.” It was a difficult couple of hours.

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