Matière Numérique — a few thoughts on digitalmatter / digitalgrime: a photographical perspective.
We might like it or not, the digital process from originally timidly embracing photography is now avidly embraced by it. We used to try to enhance our photographic process by means of digital transformation, but we are now going beyond and are trying to discover new digital dimensions and caracteristics.
The digital matter offers easy ‘clonability’ to the photographic medium, and also alleviates us from the physical limitations of film. While many of us think there has been a clear transition of photography from analog matter to the digital one, we are only now starting to actively experiment with its new induced artefacts, noise, software, … and some of us have actually started searching for the pure digital matter within.
After years of experimentation, I personally tend to believe digital matter is to be best viewed through its action on figurative representation. As long as there isn’t another technological revolution, until we can directly access our senses through means of pure information, and thus without anything other than purely digital interfaces (e.g. brain interfaces), I believe the search for pure digital matter will be futile.
Digital matter can currently only be viewed in part and as part of our traditional analog processes. It can replace most of the chemical emulsions and reactions, some of the lenses and optics, and obviously much of the editing workflow, but as long as digital is only a part of the whole process, there will not be any convincing way to separate and sense digital matter per se. How would you set it apart from its analog content as it must be displayed through screens, paper and our eyes? Or is there another way?
Since the mid eighties I had been fussing around with images by means of digital computation. First and foremost for the entertainment, but then also for the process, and of course the results. I would turn pixels on and off, drawing geometrical shapes, adding and substracting display states and try to animate these in order to generate interesting photographic scenes I would then capture on film with my SLR.
Originally I had already fallen in love with the film’s grain, more specifically with that rendered from extreme low light situations or that when pushing the chemistry of emulsions to their limits. I found the granularity quite exquisite. And the computers promised something similar in a way: pixel granularity.
The video games revolution had already taken place, and with it extensive experiments in image reproduction and manipulation. Many artists and photographers readily started exploiting these new tools for ‘art’ (even Hollywood got an early shot at it e.g. Tron). The tecnhiques and apparatus was however still far from being widely available to the amateur photographer.
So when this new ‘affordable personal computer graphics’ thing came up, all the nerdy specialized stuff you could until then only have read in magazines was suddenly at reach for experimentation.
You still couldn’t reasonably afford a digital camera or a scanner (at least I couldn’t), and neither could you easily go get your source pictures online. Computer graphics looked quite contrasty, granular and boxy, and the whole process of generating pixels was sometimes quite enigmatic. Technological progress was making it increasingly affordable to touch the new medium, and thus get a try at all the photographic experimentations that could ensue, but limitations were still quite obvious. Digital matter however was starting to feel a bit more concrete.
When I tentatively started with a couple of these sadly ill-fated IBM PCjrs (cheap computers with a relatively creative color graphics card for the time, and using a green monochrome monitor), I did feel I was working with some other kind of photographic medium, some kind of photonic clay.
The graphic card was color thus coding/drawing those lines and pixels would suddenly transform the monochrome phosophorous surface in some sort of weird artefacts’ paradise depending on the red, blue and green signal I sent it, revealing digital caracteristics I had never seen on photographic film or on another reflective surface.
There was something fascinating in the way these programmed photons seemed to vibrate on the CRT, thanks to the screen/card refresh rates and limitations, and that all looked so new and ‘digital’. The pixels where never really how you’d program them to be when looked at close, they weren’t intrinsically digital, they were the end product of a whole chain of physical analog effects and actions, up to the wiggly and boxy pixel.
There was grain, there was light, it looked and felt different, but was it digital matter per se? It obviously only was the result of a new analog apparatus used and controlled by digital code and data.
I did try whatever computer I could get my hands on, but all only offered similaringly limited imaging propositions, by essence very geometric, conceptual and minimalistic. Until the Commodore Amiga 1000 and its incredible graphics card. You could finally afford photorealistic manipulation fun. This computer was a weird graphical beast for the time, one that would rely on even weirder graphic card modes as ‘EHB’ (extra half brite) and ‘HAM6’ to overcome the technical hardware limitations of the time (mainly memory), and these modes would let you actually render photo-realistic pictures. By that time too, there were a few affordable video capture interfaces available for it (most of them to self build or sold from other hobbyists), and modems had progressed such as you could actually start downloading source photographs to have fun with from online databases.
These strange graphic modes naturally generated visual artefacts. And while they were hard to differentiate to the untrained eye on programmed geometrical figures, their application to render figurative photorealistic images made them more obvious to the naked eye / mind. Probably because you could actually compare them with the original analog reality you so well knew, and beyond the GIF 8-bit rendering style, it was a bit like what we call the ‘uncanny valley’ in aesthetics but applied to photography. The digital matter felt ‘oozing out’.
These artefacts where of course inherited from the guts and brains of the machine and the processes to try recreating a semblance of reality (mainly trying to reproduce a continuous color palette at photorealistic resolutions, when memory bits were not so affordable). They definitely didn’t seem to have much to do with anything figurative.
You could actually discern the digital matter from the rest, as it overlayed figurative or geometrical shapes and forms. This digital matter was a superimposed ‘digital grime’ I could explicitely point out in the output image, an ‘uncanny’ part of it which made it look like photorealistic but not real.
I spent years trying to ‘print’ and record the most convincing results of my experimentations, but always ended up slightly frustrated by the addition of yet another ‘analog’ grime layer atop. The film glaze, the screen surface and the reflections where some kind of supplementary and unecessary glaze I didn’t really care for. On paper or in video, that pure digital matter always seemed to disperse at some point in the recording process (maybe except with my old color dot matrix printer, but I didn’t really catch on that part of the experimentation, yet).
Later, following technological progress, digital matter increasingly looked analog, and finally I couldn’t really feel much anymore of that digital dope the limitations of my early computer equipment had made possible. Excitation was fading and I was slowly moving back to film photography for its better resolution and level dynamics.
It is only when I started re-experimenting using lossy compression algorythms in the mid-ninetees for online projects (where data transmission still was costly), that I started finding the results more satisfying again in terms of feeling that digital matter. As if limitations was inherent in the recreation of something sensual.
You could compress pictures to let them load faster online, and that would generate that quantessential digital grime I had started to lose, the one that came from the limited bits and computation of elder electronics and signal restitution.
You could GIF or JPEG your original digital photo with various settings, ‘Sorenson’ your video with high compression to attain weird visual transformations, these reflecting that new kind of matter offered by the digital world: digital matter.
Then came affordable cameras and scanners, and depending on the source, you could add in sensor artefacts (e.g. using crappy cameraphones) and increase the seemingly digital caracteristics of the overall photograph. But everytime the digital matter felt stronger when the substrate was an understandable analog figure, one transformed by the superimposed caracteristics of the digital transformation.
This finding lead me to a first long lasting serie / photographic experiment in digital matter and grime with the Bootymachine.net project in 2007 (from the first of January 2007 to the second of September 2009, on a daily basis).
The proposition was that serial and strict application of a set of digital filters on figurative photographic source material would better let appreciate the digital matter oozing out. It felt easier to understand and sense the digital matter from a set of analog real world scenes distorted by an unvarying set of digital processes and transformations (a figurative object under digital grime revealing the digital matter).
10 years later, and a few related experimental works, the Duall Dualphotography app filters — Sqare, Booty v1.0 and v.1.1, Geoh — offered these tools on an even wider scale, with the ability to apply purely digital filters (distributed as a free photographic app — you can check my personal works using it on Instagram), and under the proposition that multiple users using a same toolkit would let us get more of that digital matter experience.
And finally the ‘Matière Numérique’ works as a trial to increase digital matter by photographically zooming in a simple and unique black pixel on a white background, recursively until figurative representation annihilation.
To be edited and continued… Your feedbacks and comments welcome of course! :)