Photography and the ‘Artifacts of Software’:
Akihiko Miyoshi’s CMYKRGB
by Emily Doucet
As the American poet Eileen Myles confessed in an essay: “the rupture with reality one feels when writing about art is that there is a tendency to make manifestos out of someone else’s play.”1 In an attempt to place words in lines to describe the images in Akihiko Miyoshi’s exhibition CMYKRGB, I was presented with a diversity of digital and immaterial formats of work: .jpeg, .gif, URL, and even a 3-D model of the exhibition space to be. While the implication that the digital is in fact immaterial represents a common disavowal of the material, ecological, and human consequences of information technology and digital production, my first encounters with Miyoshi’s work were appropriately situated somewhere between my computer and the gallery space.
In an artist statement accompanying the exhibition, Miyoshi charts and maps the point of tension sketched out in the processes of his image-making: “we live in a moment where the torrent of the digital and the inertia of the analog collide with each other creating an aesthetic and lived experience unique to our time.” In a similar spirit, the artist and philosopher Hito Steyerl has stated that she sees “images as modes of energy and matter which shape and effect people and monuments.”2 Steyerl argues that we live amongst – and even as – images, and that images have begun to invade reality. Fundamentally, she suggests that “affect is rendered as an after-effect, reality is post-produced, and we can change it by post-production, we can intervene by means of imaging techniques.”3 In a world where both everyday reality and human consciousness are produced by and function in tandem with images and screens, object-subject distinctions become increasingly complex. I mean this not only in the sense of the body’s relation to the technological (as in cyborg theory for example) but also the relation of mind and cognition to the proliferation of images in accelerated capitalism. Human interaction with technology hovers between the figures of the cyborg and that of the avatar and Miyoshi’s images map this journey of representation. However, digital labour (here, photographic manipulation) is emphatically still labour and the question remains of how and where the body is to be seen or felt. Current emphasis on materiality and production is therefore bound up in our political moment and the role of images in the definition of possible pasts and futures.
Miyoshi has described several of the works in his exhibition as a “collaboration with the digital algorithms which [are] no longer a mere simple tool but one that has its own ideas about object ontology.”4 He points to the “content-aware” tool in Adobe® Photoshop™ software which, when applied, selects, outlines and removes what it determines to be objects and/or subjects in the background or foreground of the image. Imagining photography as the transmission of information (pixels) as opposed to the interaction of light and chemicals on the material surface of the photographic print, Miyoshi highlights the evident tensions between these various embodiments of the medium. Playing with the prescribed and static algorithms of standard photo-editing programs, Miyoshi explores the established and pixel-oriented definition of subjects and objects within digital image worlds. Treading a well-worn path of investigation into the relationship between subjectivity and automation, Miyoshi’s images are situated almost between mediums, borrowing from the visual languages of photography, painting, collage, and sculpture.
Miyoshi differentiates between his earlier “abstract” photographs and his later “process,” images; the former highlights the framing apparatus of the camera’s lens, while the latter explores the creative potential of the prescribed algorithms of photo-editing software. The content aware algorithm excavates objects, based on significant differentiation between hex number (colour) of pixels. Thus form is defined by colour, establishing a surprisingly formal, and even modernist basis for what at first glance appears to be digitally informed.
In e-mail correspondence, Miyoshi refers to the content-aware function in Photoshop as an “artifact of software,” singling out the complex conception of materiality at play in this series of images. An artifact signals something of human creation, usually of historical or cultural interest. Uncertain objects emerge within the frame of Miyoshi’s images. Painterly and even sculptural in form, the Process Structure series appears to be furthering of many of the concerns of the Abstract Photographs series. What was made explicit through imaging the body in dialogue with the camera has now left both body and apparatus outside the frame, imaging instead the abstractions of colour and code, mirror and paper.
Through Miyoshi’s manipulation of the photographic, colour is understood as an object, or at least as something with its own temporal form. As objects and subjects are determined by differences in pixel colour, Miyoshi’s use of coloured paper in Process Structure #6 and Process Structure #7, contrasts the very real material qualities of paper against the immaterial, or at the very least uncertain materiality of the shapes determined by the pixel analysis performed by the software. Uncertain object-ness thus floats to the top of Miyoshi’s words and images. Somewhere between the body of the artist, the physical weight of the camera and the embodiment of colour transposed into form, the images remain transient.
The projection piece, The Distance Between included in the exhibition, speaks to just this tension between body, apparatus and image; the viewer creates the image only through the physical act of looking in concert with the lens of the camera. Moving past the overt relationship between the body and the apparatus, which is defined in the Abstract Photographs series, Miyoshi’s later work, shown here together, celebrates rather than questions the occultism and esotericism of computer programming. Invoking the mysticism ingrained in the audience’s understanding of the processes at play behind his images, one is left considering where this thinking could lead Miyoshi next, ensuring artistic production does not water-down the artist’s knowledge of computer science, through the translation of the exploration of these themes in the language of visual art. How does one generate substantial and epistemological claims through the language of photography?
Miyoshi’s own disciplinary redefinition, leaving a PhD program in Electrical and Computer Engineering to pursue an MFA in photography, seems key here, outlining a search for and exploration of a variety of languages with which to define… something. A diagram acts as an artist statement, outlining the visual complexity and multi-directionality of terms and reference points Miyoshi oscillates between and amongst. How – can – I – make – myself – write – a – functional – program – without – myself? We can read multiple sentences or narratives across Miyoshi’s diagram, a network that obscures as much as it communicates.
At the bottom of the diagram, the words “digital image” and “imagination” sit across from each other, connected only through the central question mark, an apt mapping of the tension embodied in Miyoshi’s line of questioning. Most intriguing of these allusions perhaps is the animation of the supposed indexicality of the medium of photography in concert with the language of computer programming and algorithms, which define our interactions with digital images. As Miyoshi himself has suggested: how can we use these languages as allegorical devices with which to define the complexity of our present state?
1. Eileen Myles, The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 111.
2. “The Photographic Universe: Photography and Political Agency?”, online lecture recorded at the New School, New York on April 24, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqQ3UTWSmUc. Accessed: November 30, 2014.
4. Miyoshi, “Artist Statement.”
Emily Doucet, March 2015
©Emily Doucet. All Rights Reserved.
Emily Doucet is a writer and researcher based in Toronto, Canada. Currently working on her PhD in the History of Art at University of Toronto, she holds an MA in the History of Art from University College London. Her current research explores the boundaries between artistic practice and scientific research, with a focus on speculative fictions and photography in nineteenth century France.