The Flood of Horrors: An artists’ response to information overload, York University (March 2018)
The term infoxication refers to a state of information overload and first appeared in Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970), a text that forecasts ways of coping and adapting to a society accelerating at an unmanageable rate.
Almost 50 years ago, Toffler proposed that the condition of over-stimulation by way of an excess of information could elicit destructive or irrational behaviour. He spends much of Future Shock describing the accelerated rate at which society consumes, products, technology, and information. As a foremost futurist he predicted centrally that future societies would exploit not labour but information, and those civilizations that failed to adapt to this change in structure, would experience decline.
Since Toffler, much has been theorized about the impacts of infoxication (or data smog) on individuals, a condition that has continued to be compounded by the pervasion of the Internet and the digital devices that punctuate our lives. Subsequent cultural theorists have observed that the Information Age has led to distraction and a decreasing capacity to make decisions. Richard Saul Wurman (American architect and founder of the TED conference) describes this perpetual state as one of information anxiety.
The abundance of information on the Internet is quantifiable by rarely used units – exabytes and zetabytes. In 2007, Bret Swanson of the Discovery Institute coined the term exaflood warning of an impending Internet collapse caused by congestion. This collapse of course never came to pass and the volume of data online has continued to grow exponentially. It is almost impossible to fathom how big the internet really is but to put it into perspective global data use reached the equivalent of 152 million years of high-definition video in 2016 (a sum that will double by 2019 according to Cisco, the world’s foremost provider of internet infrastructure).
How big is the Internet?
According to Internet Live Stats (http://www.internetlivestats.com/)
Every second approximately:
6,000 tweets are tweeted
40,000 Google queries are searched
2 million emails are sent
In 2011, Dutch artist Eric Kessel began the project 24 Hrs of Photos, downloading every photo uploaded to Flickr over the course of one day (which neared 1 million images). He printed a portion of them, about 350,000 and displays them in an ongoing project in galleries in a totally engulfing cascade.
“I visualize the feeling of drowning in representations of other people’s experiences”.
It’s not yet known what the long-term impacts of Web 2.0 will be on humanity and what psychic or physiological outcomes will stem from time spent accessing, absorbing, filtering, and purging information online, but as artists and intellectuals we can begin to speculate.
A range of cursory responses can be observed that have resulted from the consumption of the enormity of the Internet’s content: the development of addiction or dependence is one such outcome (though Internet Addiction Disorder has not been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, despite its identification as a potential condition as early as the mid-1990s). Other responses can include a complete rejection of its use (as was the case with Verge’s technology writer Paul Miller, who stopped using the internet for the entirety of 2012).
Artists too find themselves grappling with the effects of this Web-based state of over-stimulation. Works by Baltimore-based Dina Kelberman and Queens-based Eric Oglander both demonstrate a unique aesthetic response to the deluge of online content. In their practices both artists slow nd reduce the flow of online content by assembling images that are visually similar, editing the Internet to singular and obsessively repeated objects. I describe this visual imperative as monomania.
Monomania originated as a psychiatric diagnosis, detailed in the first decade of the 19th century by French psychiatrists Etienne Esquirol and Etienne-Jean Georget. The condition was described as a “partial insanity”, where an individual of otherwise “sound mind” develops a preoccupation with a singular subject, manifesting as a mental fixation.
Between 1821-1824, French painter, Theodore Gericault studied Jean-Etienne Georget’s patients at the Parisian psychiatric ward where he was head physician. Gericault apparently met the doctor when he pursued treatment for a depression he experienced following the controversy that erupted after painting The Raft of the Medusa (in 1819).
In exchange for medical treatment Gericault created 10 oil portraits of Georget’s patients allegedly suffering from monomania. 5 of these portraits survive. The paintings were allegedly commissioned so that the doctor’s students could study the physical traits of mentally ill individuals. The paintings were produced in the romantic style for which Gericault was known.
Throughout the 1800’s the term monomania evolved and according to author Francesca Brittan in the article “Berlioz and the Pathological Fantastic: Melancholy, Monomania, and Romantic Autobiography”, “emerged as an increasingly aestheticized malady, and the idee fixe (fixed-dea) itself as a signal, not of mental debilitation, but of creative absorption and artistic inspiration”.
Throughout the early 19th century the term made its way into the popular imagination and was adopted by the French intelligentsia and began to appear in French literature to describe eccentric characters possessing a singular aim, objective, or obsession (e.g. central characters in Wuthering Heights, Moby Dick, and Crime and Punishment).
In the 2005 book, entitled Monomania, author Marina Van Zuylen revives the term and extrapolates it from its original medicalized context to a more expansive sort of imaginative application. Relying on various sources—case studies, letters, biographies, fiction, philosophy, and art—van Zuylen examines monomania's role in a range of practices, all of which are unified by a drive to achieve coherence within an otherwise chaotic context. This coherence enables, particularly artists, in her text, to derive meaning from an otherwise melancholic world.
Van Zuylen maps the way in which monomania serves as an “obsessive strategy people use to keep the arbitrary out of their lives”. The author describes monomania as both symptom and cure - as a therapeutic practice of boundary-making amidst “the tyranny of the everyday”.
Within the context of this analysis, like Van Zuylen, I am taking monomania as a phenomenon and extracting it from its medical origins. Here, I am proposing that, just as in the 19th century the term monomania was foregrounded as a device used by artists to cope with a climate of chaos, contemporary internet artists, particularly Dina Kelberman and Eric Oglander, are applying this device to deal with similar conditions.
Dina Kelberman and Eric Oglander are two artists practicing within this monomaniacal register.
Kelberman is a Baltimore-based artist who works across media and has been producing an online project titled, I’m Google since 2011. The artwork manifests as a perpetually updated website, populated by photographs that she collects during “obsessive” periods spent perusing Google Image Search.
She manually inventories these images, arranging them thematically and then posting them online. All of the photos she selects have been captured without artistic intent by their creator and often depict industrial materials and everyday objects or events.
She began uploading these images on a tumblr account, clustering the photos by category. Each cluster has about 20 images, but the composition of the clusters do range making for a dynamic viewing experience. Presented as a constant stream of images, the collections transition from object to object, or theme to theme, seamlessly, in a sort of algorithmic visual euphoria. The viewer is tasked with identifying the meaning, humour, and throughlines as Kelberman steers the flow of images, leaving traces of their predecessors behind, until they disappear completely.
The subject of the images evolves, picking up on visual cues from the previous set (i.e. photographs of mannequin hands shift to images of medical gloves which then become visual documents of various things enclosed in plastic bags).
Upon first viewing this work it's easy to think that the project is produced through an algorithm or through Google’s “Visually Similar” search function. Despite its automated appearance, the artist herself carries out the labour - the gallery of images is not the work of a machine but the product of thousands of choices made by the artist. Each thematic transition becomes an expression of Kelberman’s thinking through of these objects on the internet, her sense of humour, aesthetic pedigree, and organized sensibility begins to surface.
The project collectively provides almost more information about the artist herself, than the oblivion of images displayed.
Wading through the over 1 trillion digital photographs and videos uploaded to the internet (in 2017 alone) this impulse to arrange seems to be an expression to reach order and has been described by the artist as an obsessive act, and by critics as a gesture of photo-fetishism. Scrolling through Kelberman’s I’m Google for me, is somewhat therapeutic. These uncontextualized images, generate meaning only through their proximity to each other. It is an almost purely aesthetic experience, that mimics a perpetual web surf, but reduces the content to a manageable state. The order and simplicity bellies the impossible task that the artist is enacting -- inventorying the internet.
Through the urge to escape or subvert a cultural climate entirely influenced by algorithms, the artist herself begins to behave like one.
Likewise Eric Oglanger’s website project, Craiglist Mirrors assembles hundreds of images of orphaned mirrors for sale through the online marketplace craigslist.com. He posts his collected images on his website, Tumblr, and Instagram. The images themselves are intended to be artless -- posted for shear utility, as is the case with Kelberman’s images. It is the artist's’ aesthetic arrangement that gives these decontexualized images meaning.
His inventoried objects observe the accidental beauty that can occur in an image captured purely for function while refining the thousands of objects potentially for sale on the website to one particular type of commodity.
Oglander’s project has been widely popular, and has been canonized in a book.
Like Kelberman, Oglander’s project endeavours to delimit the content available on a platform that provides limitless options.
There’s something calming about both projects.
Despite the effort to arrange, aggregate, and distill an endless amount of digital content, both Oglander and Kelberman end up reproducing and adding to the endless flow of information available online.
For each image or video Kelberman posts, she retains the viewer’s ability to navigate back to its place of origin -- ever extending the nodes of the internet.
Likewise, Oglander ends up adding layers of meaning to an otherwise inert image, prompting his audience to consider the personal lives of the photographer (as we observe their intimate spaces, their assistants’ displaying the object , their own reflections, and the rather mystical worlds embedded within the reflective space rather than limiting the photograph to its purpose of selling an unwanted mirror. Oglander makes visible more than what we are meant to see.
While Kelberman and Oglander respond to data overload by reducing online material to a singular visual category their attempts risk the further decontextualization of content on the Internet, leading the viewer further adrift in the flood of information.