Poverty is Not a
the Matter of the Poor Image
Concurrent with the litspam weavings and research, I had the opportunity to participate in a specialized Jacquard weaving workshop at Concordia University, organized by Associate Professor Kelly Thompson and taught by artist and author Louise Lemieux-Bérubé. The workshop introduced advanced ways of working with a multicoloured tapestry warp, composed of an ordered rotation of black, red, green, blue, yellow, and white threads. These we learned to combine, in a pointillist fashion, to create the illusion of colour-mixing, and endless shades and textures of colour. Tapestry warps are the most efficient way to weave multicoloured imagery or patterns, and our group of weavers each explored its capacities with varied practical and conceptual interests.
My struggle with Jacquard weaving is that it has to start with an image file. I tend to think in terms of strategies to produce unpredicted visual effects – like the coding of my spam emails – more so than in terms of representation, visual expression or graphic design. But the workshop was underway and I needed some content to get going with. Luckily, I came across Hito Steyerl’s essay, “In Defense of the Poor Image” and saw the immediate potential of translating her ideas through weaving. Steyerl’s essay opens,
“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.”
It’s captivating – I’ll have to refrain from quoting the entire essay and just suggest that you read it at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/. She examines the phenomenon of the “poor” or “low-resolution” images that proliferate online, in terms of what their lack of “quality” tells us about the circulation, control, and appropriation of information in the Internet age.
We come across poor images in Google image or YouTube video searches all the time. I need a good picture for my Bauhaus Weaving PowerPoint and the only one I can find is like 10 pixels wide… I want to stream Janet Jackson’s Superbowl scandal and the video is so glitchy that I can’t even see the offending nip. Ughhhh! But Steyerl suggests that, in the poor image, “poverty is not a lack, but an additional layer of information, which is not about content but form. This form shows how the image is treated, how it is seen, passed on, ignored, censored, and obliterated.” That image is low-resolution because it’s been through a lot. Its condition “speaks not only of countless transfers and re-formattings, but also of the countless people who cared enough about [it] to convert [it] over and over again, to add subtitles, reedit or upload [it].” There is certainly an astounding amount of image and video content online whose quality is so poor as to make one question its use, its uploader’s intentions, and its value to society.
To Steyerl, the condition of these images, especially of poor copies “of militant, experimental, and classical works of cinema [or] video art,” reveals a hierarchy of art and appearances deeply rooted in patriarchal, capitalist and nationalist agendas.
“[H]igh-end economies of film production were (and still are) firmly anchored in systems of national culture, capitalist studio production, the cult of mostly male genius, and the original version, and thus are often conservative in their very structure. Resolution was fetishized as if its lack amounted to the castration of the author.”
Super high resolution is becoming more accessible for the average photographer or video artist, but still remains the glossy medium of big money. “Obviously, a high-resolution image looks more brilliant and impressive, more mimetic and magic, more scary and seductive than a poor one,” but poor images can function to undermine and “creatively degrade” mainstream image production.
For instance, the 2015 film Tangerine, the story of a transgender sex worker, was shot entirely on iPhone 5s due to budget constraints. Low-cost, accessible video cameras are used to tell a highly marginalized story. To Steyerl, the relegation of experimental content such as this to poor imagery “reveals the conditions of their marginalization, the constellation of social forces leading to their online circulation as poor images.” Poor images are often the result of piracy or less-than-legal sharing. They defy “patrimony, national culture, or indeed copyright” and mock “the promises of digital technology.” But they are also the inevitable products of the world they emerge from and against, for “only digital technology could produce such a dilapidated image in the first place.”
In seeking references to the material, the sensorial or physical in research surrounding digital culture, I was particularly intrigued by one of Steyerl’s passing comments: “Poor images are poor because they are heavily compressed, and travel quickly. They lose matter and gain speed.” The way we talk about compressing files has a decidedly tactile feeling about it. She describes a process of dematerialization, as if a high resolution image has more “matter,” which then gets compressed, fuzzed out, deleted, and shrunk to move faster through digital connections.
On the other hand, Pit Schultz speaks about the digital realm “imitating analogue dirtiness,” which results in “a higher resolution, a recursive, deeper, infinite structure.” This means that the reproduction of a “poor” analogue image, grainy film, or the distorted sound of vinyl records could actually make a higher resolution digital file. Jacquard weaving fits perfectly into this back and forth between analogue and digital, messy and clean, slow and speedy.
Also reminiscent of the weaving process are the systems through which poor images travel – web searches, social media, P2P platforms, and (over-)sharing sites like YouTube. “The sampled sounds, processed words, and digitized images of multimedia reconnect all the arts with the tactility of woven fabrications.” To Plant, these new ways of viewing, experiencing, and sharing art or other content are more “interconnected and entwined” than ever before, producing a kind of materiality.
With all these connections between the poor image and the woven image ruminating, I began selecting the images for my weavings. Trawling through YouTube, I was looking for the lowest quality videos on weaving, computers, information and data storage, and the like. The first screenshot I started working with had actually been collected before, while looking up how industrial Jacquard looms work (see fig. 14). It was a terrible video, ripped from one of those “How It’s Made”-type TV shows, and every close up turned into a moving pixelated mass. I had been frustrated that this was all I could find, and that I couldn’t steal a sharp, clear image to work with. But now, the poor image started to appeal to me as a composition, for its colours (perfect for the tapestry warp!), and its history – how many processes and people it went through before it got into my hands.
In the weaving, I wanted to translate not only the image itself, but also its unknown history and its significance in a body of poor images as elaborated by Steyerl. To do so, I decided to use both sides of the piece to showcase different content. We don’t have access to what the backside of an image file looks like (except perhaps its code) but we do have access to both sides of a weaving. This has always been one of my favourite things about the medium. When weavers get together to look at a piece, we always turn it over and begin marveling at the reverse-side, which is often where the process is written most clearly.
To create two unique sides of my cloth, I developed my own way of working with double-weave (see weavings here). Double-weave is a technique where two layers of fabric are woven at once, one on top of the other. These layers, in the words of Anni Albers, “can be locked at both sides, at one side, or, within the fabric, at any number of places where the design asks for an exchange of top and bottom layers, usually of different colors.” Depending on how you work with the double-weave, the backside of the cloth is usually the perfect opposite of the front face. On the tapestry warp, the threads are warped at a much denser resolution of 90 threads per inch. Six threads (one of each colour) are needed for every pixel in the image. So, for an image with one red pixel next to one blue pixel, you need to tell twelve threads what to do (see fig. 15). First pixel: red thread on top and hide all the others underneath, and then second pixel: blue on top and hide all the others. This means that the 1728 threads are actually acting in groups of six, leaving only 288 pixels of image to work with.
Once scaled down, the image must be reduced to a limited number of colours, similar to “posterizing” or creating a paint-by-numbers. Each colour is assigned a weave structure, and this is where the real material exploration takes place. It is an attempt to predict what the weave
structure will look like once woven, and to try different combinations of colours. Once the structures have been worked out, the file is taken to the loom, woven by hand, and the results can be compared to the source image. In addition to colour, textural variation was an important factor as I attempted to recreate a poor image’s sense of transparency, density, or static. Some of my favourite weave structures were the ones I developed in Contemporary Crowd to imitate a plaid shirt (see weaving here).
I decided to work with two wefts for a classic double-weave, though more can be used as well. Using two contrasting wefts allowed me to mix a range of colours – for instance if using a black
and white weft, I would use the white to mix a light blue, and the black to mix a dark blue. For each colour area I had to decide which weft would be used, and then tell every warp thread what to do with it. The unused weft and warp threads are woven separately in the bottom layer of the weaving. This can be observed neatly on the back (for instance, see here). When the text changes colour it means that a different weft was needed on the face. Each weaving also has one colour where both wefts are on top, breaking the double-weave. In these structures, there is no weft available to weave the text on the back, so the text gets obscured and glitched. Steyerl’s words come in and out of legibility, playing with the idea that poor images are often readable is some areas but not in others. The shape of the image on the face of the cloth grabs whichever weft colour it needs, and the text hangs on to what is available. I wanted to avoid being too didactic with my appropriated snippets, and offer only enough information to be intriguing or frustrating.
The resultant weavings resemble their source image but become something different altogether. All the changes these images went through to make it to material form produced a kind of collaboration between my designing hand and the computer’s automated processes.
“On the computer monitor, any change to the programming brings another image to the screen. This is the continuity of product and process at work in the textiles produced on the loom. The program, the image, the process, and the product: these are all the software of the loom. Digital fabrication can be endlessly copied without fading into inferiority; patterns can be pleated and repeat, replicated folds across a screen. Like all textiles, the new softwares have no essence, no authenticity. Just as weavings and their patterns are repeatable without detracting from the value of the first one made, digital images complicate the questions of origin and originality, authorship and authority with which Western conceptions of art have been preoccupied. And the textile arts ‘have always turned upside down any economy of the senses, rekindling polysensory memory.”
68. Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, 32.
69. Ibid., 156.
70. Ibid., 41.
71. Ibid., 38.
72. Ibid., 34.
73. Ibid., 33.
74. Ibid., 34.
75. Ibid., 38.
76. Ibid., 32.
78. Ibid., 41.
79. Pit Schultz, “The Origins of the Nettime Mailing List: In conversation with Pauline von Maurik Broekman” in Networks, 153.
80. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 185.
81. Ibid., 186.
82. Albers, On Weaving, 50.
83. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 189-90.
Figure 14. Screenshot from “Industrial Loom,” YouTube video, 6:36, posted by “SlimaksClass,” January 24, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TyhDkd8Iabs. See weaving here.
Figure 15. How to build a weave structure in Pointcarré Textile Software. The six columns represent the order of the warp colours, and the two rows represent the wefts. For each intersection, the warp and weft much be told how to act with each other. Notice the custom weave structure containing text fragments.