project > JPEG Devouring Its Own Pixels

Part I – Prelude

Part II – The Devouring

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Part I: Prelude

The two icons below represent the image file formats in two mainstream operating computer systems. On the left, there is the default symbol of the JPEG file format, employed by the Apple corporation in their Mac OS X operating system, and on the right, there is the symbol of a PNG file, used by Microsoft in Windows XP. What might be the relationship between these file icons offered by default to every user of a personal computer, and the history of modern art?  In order to make things simple let’s ignore Microsoft’s PNG and focus instead on the JPEG file symbol employed by Apple (the operating system that I am using for this project).

Left: Default icon for JPEG file in Mac OS X; Right: Default icon for PNG file in Windows XP

JPEG (an abbreviation that stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group) has been the most popular method for compressing, storing and transmitting pictures in today’s image-saturated world. Both as producers and consumers, we deal with innumerable JPEG files. Taking a picture with a digital camera or a mobile phone, processing this image in one of the editors, sharing it with friends via social or other networks, surfing the web, reading the news, watching television, running into advertising at every corner, and so on and so forth: most of the image information that one encounters today is stored by default in one or another of the available JPEG formats. The JPEG files are thus the building blocks, the primal elements of our spectacular specular world; they seem to be the invisible and indivisible monads that today constitute and sustain the matrix.

But let’s reflect a little upon how these files are symbolically depicted. Both Microsoft and Apple represent their most popular image formats by means of a square, a circle, and a triangle. Under both Mac OS and Windows operating systems, the image files icons are depicted by means of primary geometric figures. In the case of Mac OS, the square, the circle and the triangle are imposed on a feather – suggesting perhaps that Apple Inc. sees a direct relation between these abstract geometrical figures and the “natural” objects from our everyday recognizable world. Stated in a slightly different way, it may be said that if one were to disassemble our visual virtual world into its primary elements, one would find every image stripped down to squares, spheres, and triangles. Unlike the matrix reality, which in the film series seems to be generated by a combination of zeroes and ones (a binary numeral system), an alternative visual understanding of the matrix that we inhabit may be also possible by means of a ternary logic, one which draws not upon numeric values but on primary geometric shapes.

Here we arrive at art history. The division of the visual into primary elements has been regarded as a turning point in the history of modern art. It is well known, for instance, that Cézanne advised his younger colleagues to treat nature “by means of the cylinder the sphere and the cone” – a piece of advice that has had great consequences for the next generations of French painters, especially for those who contributed to the rise of Cubism. But the advice went far beyond the borders of France. In pre-Soviet Russia, Malevich (fully acknowledging Cézanne) performed a similar painterly reduction, distilling the artistic canon into primary elements symbolized by the square, circle, the cruciform. If Cézanne taught us to treat nature by means of the cylinder, sphere and cone – a tripartite volumetry that was still attached to a three-dimensional illusionist mode of representation – Malevich went further, reducing art and nature to three flat or two-dimensional elements: the square, the circle and the cross or the cruciform.

In Malevich’s case these three geometrical elements also play a wider symbolic function, for the square represented his cubist phase, the circle the futurist phase, and the cruciform stood for his transition into Suprematism: the last being a new method understood by the painter as the dialectical outcome of his Cubist and Futurist experiences – that is of his engagement with Russian Cubo-Futurism.[1] It must be noted that he had also replaced Cézanne’s cone with the cruciform, for reasons which may have to do with his almost religious belief in the future of Suprematism – his gift to the world.

At the origins of this big sdvig (shift) towards Suprematism stood the Black Square, whose significance Lissitsky explained in the following way:

[…] Malevich exhibited a black square painted on a white canvas. Here a form was displayed which was opposed to everything that was understood by ‘pictures’ or ‘painting’ or ‘art.’ Its creator wanted to reduce all forms, all painting to zero. For us, however, this zero was the turning point. When we have a series of numbers coming from infinity …6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0…it comes right down to the 0, then begins the ascending line 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… [2]

The Black Square, which collected such epithets as “the royal infant,” “the zero of form,” “the nothing of art,” is then like the neck that connects the two bulbs of an hourglass: the art of the past passes through it, emerging in the other bulb purified, changed and highly modern. The impact of Malevich’s Suprematism on 20th century art and design cannot be ignored. Without the new pictorial language of Suprematism, as well as without other contributions by various representatives of the historical avant-garde, one can hardly imagine the iconography of the dogmatic Socialist Realism drafted behind the Kremlin walls in Moscow, nor the mercantile glossy imagery sold by the advertising industry after World War Two on Madison Avenue.


Image from the film "Communications Primer" (1953) by Charles and Ray Eames

Thus when speaking about the symbolism of the JPEG file it is worth keeping in mind both Cézanne’s and Malevich’s painterly reductions, seeing in the square, circle and triangle of this icon the contributions of the cubists, futurists, suprematists and many other “ists” who revolutionized visual language during the twentieth century and contributed directly or indirectly to the current pictorial cannon in both high and low culture. The JPEG file falls somewhere around 6 or 7 in the ascending sequence proposed above by Lissitsky. One may even say that for the contemporary artists of today the JPEG file is the primal constitutive element of a petrified and arrested visual language; it is today what was once for Cézanne and Malevich the realist or naturalist mode of representation (the landscape painting for instance) based on Renaissance perspective and the faithful mimesis of reality. But one wonders how one might perform, today, another painterly reduction of the imagery built from JPEG files, from files that have flooded our real and virtual worlds with invisible squares, circles and triangles. How might it be possible to further decompose or negate this language?

 

Part II: The Devouring

The sequence of images that follows is a photograph of a JPEG icon. The square, circle, triangle symbol was first printed, then photographed with a digital camera, then printed again. This operation was performed multiple times, in order to observe what happens to the digital square, circle and triangle when it is treated digitally.

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[1] Octavian Esanu, Malevich’s “Passage” to Suprematism (a painterly sdvigology or a poetic passageology), [unpublished manuscript], 2005

[2] Simmons, W.S., Kasimir Malevich's Black square and the genesis of suprematism 1907-1915. (New York: Garland Pub., 1981), 319.