H Lucier

A few things have been coming my way recently, feeding into my notions of art and aesthetics. The principle one was the GLI.TC/H festival my friend Antonio Roberts curated in Birmingham last month where I did the video/photography stuff. I’m still processing the details and wouldn’t want to make any pronouncements, but there’s the seed of something to do with digital errors and degradation in copying. It probably started with my obsession with photocopiers circa 1988 and keeps popping up again and again.

The granddaddy of degradation in copying is, of course, Alvin Lucier with his masterwork I Am Sitting In A Room. You can find it on YouTube in three parts and it’s worth listening to in full at least once. There have, of course, been many pieces inspired by this work. A landmark one for the Internet era is I Am Sitting In A Video Room where a video was uploaded, ripped and re-uploaded to YouTube 1000 times. Here it’s the compression algorithms that create the flattening but the end result is surprisingly similar to Lucier’s. Here’s the whole thing summarised in a couple of minutes. And I should of course mention Antonio’s glitch-font version.

I say all this not to put my effort on the same level but to merely illustrate my thinking. I did the following on a whim, the culmination of a wasted day of mooching around the house, desperate for something to snap me out of this funk I’m in. I’d been thinking about pixels (producing this piece, cropped from a photo and designed to be printed at A3) and found myself thinking about the loops one could create using Apple’s iCloud photo stream. Sitting on the sofa I loaded this photo on my Mac at fullscreen and took a picture of it using my phone. Soon that picture appeared on my Mac and I took another photo. Eventually I had 21 copies, 20 of which you can see at the top of this post. Here’s the full sequence as a video:

The image is filtered through a number of processes. Off the top of my head:

  • The scaling of the jpeg on the screen
  • The gamma and brightness of the lcd display
  • The light emitted by the display
  • The ambient light in the room
  • The sensitivity of the phone camera sensor
  • The phone camera’s automatic metering of the screen
  • The processing and filtering in the phone
  • The compression undergone through the iCloud server

At each of these stages some information is lost, noise is added, the image is changed in some way. I only repeated this 21 times because it’s just an experiment. If I were to do this properly I think at least 50 or maybe 100 iterations would be necessary. It only really starts to get interesting towards the end. And, of course, it has to mean something, to say something of value to the world. Right now it’s just a degrading H.