The World Wide Archive Revisited: Gavin Bunner, Penelope Umbrico, and Dan Gluibizzi
After my April review “Dan Gluibizzi and the World Wide Archive,” painter Gavin Bunner (NAP #65, #97) and I discussed the process of sourcing images from the internet. Bunner expressed curiosity about whether Gluibizzi and Penelope Umbrico (also mentioned in the review) have noticed any changes in search engines over time and we wondered how these changes have impacted or inspired their work.
And so began this roundtable conversation with three artists, all who use the internet as a source of primary material for their work. Both Gluibizzi and Bunner are painters who find their source images online (Gluibizzi often using Tumblr and Bunner preferring Google images). Umbrico uses photography as both the medium and subject of her work, tapping sites like Craigslist, eBay, and YouTube for shared tags and similarities.
Though the three artists’ end products vary drastically in look and feel, they all capture something of the cultural zeitgeist pulsing through the world wide web. – Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
Ellen Caldwell: About how long have you all been sourcing your images from the internet?
Gavin Bunner: Since way back in 2005. A time before Facebook and Youtube existed.
Penelope Umbrico: Since 2001 - Arrhythmia (All the Dishes on EBAY-10/28/01) was a compilation of all the images of dishes for sale on Ebay on 10/28/01. I took the single images, normally presented side by side, and animated them into a sort of arrhythmic rush (of consumption).
Dan Gluibizzi: I have been sourcing images online for 15 years [since 1999].
EC: Have you noticed a change in search engines and the results they produce?
Bunner: In 2005, it seemed like search engines gave me a better insight into what images the overall culture understood certain keywords to represent. The results seemed to be derived from a larger web community, where now they seem more influenced by my previous individual searches. In 2014, search engines seem to produce more images it assumes I will associate with a given keyword, rather then showing me what images are most widely held in association with the keyword.
I personally started to notice changes in the search engine, when I started to see bicycles showing up in most of my search results. At first I wondered if everybody posting pictures on the internet is getting really into bicycles, but my daily 20 mile commute to and from work tells me otherwise. So it therefore must be related to how much time I spend intentionally reading about bicycles on the internet, and Google is just trying to give me more of what it assumes I want. I also haven't heard anyone else talking about how many bicycle pictures there are on the internet now, so I assume everyone else's search results don't include as many bicycle pictures. Of course, it could be that I am more fixated on the bicycle pictures because I am into bicycles, and therefore more likely to notice their prevalence, while everyone else is just looking past them. If you are not at all interested in bicycles, but seeing bicycles everywhere on the internet, let me know. (If the bicycle conspiracy doesn't exist, I need to know.)
Anyways, besides changes in search algorithms, the introduction of social media sites has moved most of the internet's candid photography to websites like Facebook and Instagram, where those images will no longer appear in search results; making the once common juxtaposition of personal, and commercial images in search results, increasingly rare. The era where I would see a picture of someone’s grandmother riding a lawnmower in Paris, Illinois, next to a picture of Paris Hilton, is apparently over. Now I'll have to come up with those juxtapositions without any serendipitous Google help. (Full disclosure, I never actually encountered that juxtaposition in any searches, but I did encounter juxtapositions equally odd. Unfortunately, screen capture tech wasn't widespread back then, and have no real examples, or proof of their existence, but they happened, I swear.)
Umbrico: Yes, but I think in fact the biggest change in terms of search results, since 2001 anyway, has less to do with advanced search engines, and more to do with how much more shared information there is. The diversity of returns from a search inquiry now is the result of anyone and everyone having the easy ability to share what they think is meaningful to share - images and words.
Gluibizzi: Now that so much content is linked, weird and wonderful image juxtapositions are more possible than ever. However I notice search fatigue sooner. I think searches often have comforting predictability - the image I want to see is a click away. But this leads to a kind of hollow pleasure.
Bunner: Also, I doubt if search engines had anything to do with it, but I encounter a ton more stock photography in searches today. I feel Shutterstock is trying to turn the internet into a collection of blandly composed images of actors, depicting different occupations, in front of white backgrounds. I don't think Stock photos need to go away; sometimes I need images representing obvious stereotypes to complete my narratives; I just wish they didn't completely dominate some searches. Google “thumbs ups”: everything is a stock photo.
Penelope Umbrico | Universal Remotes (eBay), 2008-ongoing, c-prints, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Mark Moore Gallery.
EC: Which search engines are you using right now and why?
Bunner: Google is still my main squeeze, but I do step out with Bing when I'm in the mood for something a bit more unpredictable. Bing reminds me of the way Google was when we first met: always teaching me new things, never trying to conform to my tastes, and never judging me by my previous inquiries. That said, every time I use Bing, I am still thinking about Google. Bing may eventually take over, but you never forget your first.
Umbrico: I actually don't use search engines as much as the search features on various websites like Craigslist, eBay, YouTube, Flickr, etc. in my work. I suppose these sites utilize third party search engines behind user interfaces, but my work depends on how people tag their images and I explore what that means. I think of what I find in a search as a result of a collaboration between what and how I search, and what and how people tag.
Gluibizzi: Despite knowing that everything I look at is being recorded, sold, and fed back to me, I still use Google. As we all know, Internet experiences are tailored by algorithms, but I have not done much to change my habits. There are intriguing articles about The Deep Web, but I am most inspired by the saturation of images that are easily accessed by everyone. I draw from source material found in a few clicks with no special knowledge of searching.
EC: You all work with image sourcing from the web in different ways -- and with very different results. Could you describe this evolution in your art? When did you first go to the web for inspiration? Or for the images that would provide source material? Or, in Umbrico's case, when did you start searching out the photos that end up being the very medium with which you work?
Bunner: My use of the internet as a source for images came out of a class assignment, which involved using ten found images. I believe the intention was for us to collect these images from a non digital, ephemeral source, but I'm not big on dumpster diving, and I happened to work in the college computer lab; which gave me plenty of free time to peruse the internet, and print images for free: therefore I decided I would instead mine the world’s largest image library to complete the project. The results were so good I have been doing it ever since.
Umbrico: I have always been interested in what we produce and consume, and how we describe ourselves in that process. What better medium than photography, now, to show me that, now that everyone can take and share pictures of how they want to be seen, what they desire, and what they consume? My focus on subjects that are collectively photographed has led me to examine collective practices in photography. So in this way, if I understand your question correctly, photography is as much the subject of my work as it is the medium in which I work.
Luckily for me, the quantity of images online has grown exponentially since I've started working with them - the web has become a collective public archive that is as indexical to who we are as the entire history of photography is to the material world. I think of the web as a collective auto-portrait made by all who use it.
What is especially interesting to me in this context is the potential for finding inadvertent information revealed in the images meant to tell something else - in the images I find, I am constantly seeing stories other than what they presume to depict.
For example, below are some images from TVs from Craigslist, where I crop just the screens from TVs for sale on Craigslist. On Craigslist, these are seen as very small utilitarian images, but when I download the images and crop the screens from the TVs and enlarge them, sometimes I find very intimate scenes reflected in the screens' surfaces. These reflected scenes are probably not the point of the utilitarian images (which is to sell the TV), and the sellers are probably not aware of them, but they reveal to me an underlying humanity that is lost in the dark recesses of an object no one wants.
Gluibizzi: In 2003, when I purchased my first laptop, I began making more focused use of online content. Before that, I had only limited access to computers. In the early 1990s I went online via a chat group at a college computer lab. In the late 90s, I made a few small paintings with content I photographed from the screen with a Polaroid camera. Since childhood I have been clipping and collecting images. But, for me, the moment Tumblr launched, in 2007, my practice was irrevocably changed. Mammoth collections of crowd-sourced images appeared overnight. Not long after, I became focused on making images about the amount of images there are to find. Then I created my own Tumblr blog and began making paintings of the blog itself.
EC: Do you worry about changes to the search changing your work?
Bunner: Changes to the search results won't change the work I produce in anyway, as my process has always involved me heavily editing through what images will eventually be used in my pieces. If my work had different rules, such as, I must make a piece by combining the first 20 image results I get for a keyword, then it would be a huge change: a change that would then probably then become the defining aspect of the work. However, because I edit, my work will remain immune to the changing search engine, as I leave myself free to select and reject the results it delivers. Perhaps, searches may take me longer, but I will still always figure out how to find what I'm looking for. In fact, completing my searches may become faster, as Google eventually figures out the algorithm to predict what pictures I will need to produce a painting.
EC: Are there any favorite image databases you use that we haven’t discussed yet?
Gluibizzi: I love exploring online museum-collection databases. Along with enjoying the art of museums around the world, I find the documentation of art objects to be inspiring and beautiful. Each object has been carefully handled, photographed, color-corrected, and posted. It’s awesome. Much is gained with access to endless image feeds, but in our daily lives we need tangible handmade objects. For many of the vernacular images I draw, it may be the only time they exist outside the digital realm. I imagine in the future, curious folks will dig and flip through vast digital storage units looking for forgotten gems from our current online culture.
Gavin Bunner earned his BFA from Illinois State University in 2005. He has lived in Los Angeles since late 2007. He has an upcoming show this fall at Fold Gallery in Downtown Los Angeles, and has finally launched (but not completely finished) his website.
Penelope Umbrico is a photo-based artist whose work explores the ever-increasing production and consumption of photographs on the web. Umbrico has exhibited internationally and her work is in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Modern Art, NY; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. She is the recipient of numerous awards including a recent Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. Aperture published her monograph, Penelope Umbrico: Photographs, 2011, along with her free e-book Moving Mountains (1850-2012), 2013. Forthcoming monographs include Range, 2014, Aperture; and Out of Order, 2014, RVB Paris.
Dan Gluibizzi was born in Kentucky and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his BFA from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania and his MFA from DAAP at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio. Recent exhibitions include New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland and Berlin. He lives and works in Portland, Oregon.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, writer, and editor.