The poor Image

Posted on Mar 10, 2011

I was very impressed with Hito Steyerl when I listened to her lecture in Former West. Mischievous, bold and uncanny, her delivery was impeccable and she made no compromise, neither personal nor theoretical. Known for her writing and her video work, this is an artist who is as much a thinker as a doer. Why should there be a distinction? Today we think through making…but then again, when was art ever different?

This text on this week’s e-flux journal is a defense of the “poor image”, something I have used continuously in my work, and a practice which extends far beyond the strategy of appropriation of archival photos on the net, as was my practice years ago, to something that we all experience and see everyday. in fact, “the poor image” is our everyday connection to the world of images, which, you may not have noticed, has a deep effect on us, even if we see “poor images” as a distraction rather than as contemplation, thus making the distinction between ‘internet stuff’ and higher forms of art. These boundaries are really no longer sustainable given the influ of images we see and access everyday. And this is also no novelty. But a reflection on it is still quite current. So here it goes:


Hito Steyerl

In Defense of the Poor Image

The poor image is 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.

The poor image is a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG, a lumpen proletarian in the class society of appearances, ranked and valued according to its resolution. The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited. It transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction. The image is liberated from the vaults of cinemas and archives and thrust into digital uncertainty, at the expense of its own substance. The poor image tends towards abstraction: it is a visual idea in its very becoming.

The poor image is an illicit fifth-generation bastard of an original image. Its genealogy is dubious. Its filenames are deliberately misspelled. It often defies patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright. It is passed on as a lure, a decoy, an index, or as a reminder of its former visual self. It mocks the promises of digital technology. Not only is it often degraded to the point of being just a hurried blur, one even doubts whether it could be called an image at all. Only digital technology could produce such a dilapidated image in the first place.

Poor images are the contemporary Wretched of the Screen, the debris of audiovisual production, the trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores. They testify to the violent dislocation, transferrals, and displacement of images—their acceleration and circulation within the vicious cycles of audiovisual capitalism. Poor images are dragged around the globe as commodities or their effigies, as gifts or as bounty. They spread pleasure or death threats, conspiracy theories or bootlegs, resistance or stultification. Poor images show the rare, the obvious, and the unbelievable—that is, if we can still manage to decipher it.

It continues…


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