IMG MGMT: Stock Photography Watermarks As The Presence of God
Guest post by: KEVIN BEWERSDORF
[Editors note: IMG MGMT is an artist essay series highlighting the diversity of curatorial processes within the art making practice. Today’s invited artist Kevin Bewersdorf will show at V&A this fall in New York, and maintains the website maximumsorrow.com].
Disagreements on the ownership of intellectual property are issues of personal belief, and are therefore spiritual issues. Stock photography corporations have their own rigid dogma on the ownership of information, and they hold their beliefs to be truth. Like shepherds guarding a flock, these corporations brand their property in order to protect themselves and their patrons (the photographers) from unlicensed misuse or “evil” on the lawless web. In this collection of photos I have limited myself to an investigation of the protective watermarks of one such stock photography website, 123RF.com, and the search term “prayer.”
None of these subjects present a convincing depiction of religious devotion. Instead, they seem aware of the artificiality of their prayer, of the photographer and the impending image. As hired models they were undoubtedly aware of their own status as a potential advertisement. But whereas most photos end with the relationships of subject to photographer and viewer to subject, these subjects have been stamped with an additional voice. The translucent logo 123RF, unwaveringly placed in the exact center of every composition, becomes so tangible after its repetition that the subjects seem almost aware of its presence. The logo’s placement activates an inexplicable sense of One-ness in the otherwise disconnected and insincere subjects. Their prayers suddenly become convincing as communication with the deity 123RF, the almighty regulator of information.
To believe that information can be regulated is to bow down to a higher power and become submissive to the regulator. 123RF promises to protect and deliver prosperity to the faithful through its far reaching arms of commerce. In this instance, the photographer could have thought, “Alone I am helpless. I need a higher power with mighty marketing skills. If I align myself with an infrastructure like 123RF, I will become empowered and my photos will thrive in all eternity and sell like hotcakes.”
Accordingly the loyal photographer would travel to a computer and uploaded the photo as an offering. And there, after the final click of the upload form, at the moment of its dissemination into the infinite web, a logo miraculously appears on the photo — the name of God! Thanks to a few simple lines of code, the very presence that had gone unseen in the photo studio is made visible on every image, each photo an equal lamb of 123RF. This baptism-by-code is a ritual that marks the photo’s spiritual progression from to worthless single to infinite multiple. The photo no longer belongs to the photographer alone; it is now a commodity and child of God. And so the mark floats there forever, between the photographer and the subject and between the subject and the viewer, standing in for the presence of the Almighty.
“Look at my power as a barrier” says the watermark, “I am fused with this image. I own this image. If you want this to change, you must prove you believe in the ownership of information by paying a small offering to my church of commerce.” 123RF exists because the users do; their collective photo offerings give 123RF shape, viability, power, and income. A small percentage of this income is returned to the photographers for their faith. By contrast, your typical torrent hungry web sinner, an unbeliever, sees the watermark a stern warning. “Repent!” says the watermark, “embrace our corporation and you will be rewarded.” The unbeliever calls in to question the infallibility of the corporation, photoshopping out the watermark, parodying it, turning it into sassy net art, or perhaps even deliberately misusing the images for an essay on an art criticism website.
The below image is an example of a watermark parody found on a popular message board. It was not generated by believers, but made by unbelievers as a joke (note that the watermark is off center).
After viewing all 6,639 search results for the word “prayer,” the 123RF watermark began to feel oppressive to me. It seemed to be preventing the subjects from praying to any other deity, hopelessly branding them with this mark. Maybe they should have been worshiping the Moon or Jehovah or Getty Images instead, pleading that 123RF will stay in business long enough to deliver the next royalty check. The watermark began to feel like a dangerous tactic, so easily laying claim to everything it touches, imprinting its name over the Bible, over the setting sun, over the earth itself. Its transforms the image, but its propagation also negates its power; the 123RF logo seen so many times it becomes insignificant and hollow. This mutability suggests a contradictory position of representation; the logo selling the idea of God, the logo representing God, the logo ultimately attempting to name that which can not be named.
In this interview, conducted by Rhizome Editorial Fellow Gene McHugh, artist Kevin Bewersdorf discusses his philosophy toward surfing the web, the spiritual dimension of his work and his upcoming show "Monuments to the INFOspirit" at the New York gallery V&A. - Ceci Moss
Gene McHugh: The name of your website is Maximum Sorrow. What does this phrase mean to you?
Kevin Bewersdorf: Maximum Sorrow is my self brand and self corporation. It is a body of information waiting day and night to be wandered through, a corporate body whose only shape is the reverberation of the information passing through it. It is partly a philosophy of "corporate spiritualism" realized through marketing practices and continuous web surfing. I've recently written a text called "The Four Sacred Logos" that introduces some of the basic concepts of Maximum Sorrow. With each new sacred text and addition to maximumsorrow.com, I try to better understand my own spiritual relationship with the web. Hopefully the definition of Maximum Sorrow will become clearer as the site and I evolve together.
There seems to be a genuine interest in some of your recent work in locating or describing how the spiritual could interface with the digital. For example, Spirit Surfers surf club and the "Stock Photography Watermarks as the Presence of God" photo essay on Art Fag City. Is that accurate and, if so, what conclusions have you come to (if any)?
Well, the internet has hardly changed our physical lives at all, but it has drastically changed our spiritual lives. I think this perspective goes largely undiscussed when the web is viewed through less pertinent but more common sociological and technological lenses. While the internet is a physical body of wires and chips, the web is a shared non-physical realm of experience that requires many aspects of spiritual faith to interact with. We post and commune on a plane of information that we cannot touch or see. We tend to wander the web in private, confronting the massive database alone each day. We are inclined to use the web for the satisfaction of our emotional and intellectual needs rather than for our physical needs. We make pilgrimage to the same web sites at regular and repeated intervals, paying homage to them by contributing or partaking, and then we move on to our other daily needs like eating and sleeping. But all the while, we have faith that this plane of information we have become so dependent on is tangible enough to provide a worthwhile connectedness. For many of us, the web has become almost sacred, its ritual use is the embodiment of our spiritual needs. So I suppose that my conclusion is this: surfing the web can be a fulfilling spiritual experience and a direct interaction with a transcendent reality.
The written signature plays a prominent role in your self-portraits. What is it about this gesture that interests you?
There is something I have noticed about a lot of artists these days, especially net artists: they want to do everything. At one time artists were content with specialization, like in making only stained glass windows or etchings all day long. Now it is more common for artists to want to tackle all the forms of expression that the net can carry -- the still image, the moving image, music, writing, design, and so on. Many net artists may not be willing to admit it, but what they are really trying to do is to build an empire, to be a brand that offers it all. There is an absurdity to that. Having your own website is like building an unnecessary shrine to yourself. We can try to deny this by convincing ourselves that what we are doing is somehow a selfless gift, but the web has not asked us for these gifts. The web would go on without us. As net artists, we are pushing ourselves unsolicited on an already saturated marketplace. So I use my signature and various logos to point out the absurdity of this vanity, the struggle to give of yourself without becoming consumed with yourself.
The signature also makes my marketing tactics very obvious and shows that I accept myself as nothing more than a product to be marketed. Whether a net artist brands themself with a sparse list of links on a humble white field or with loud layers of noise and color or with contrived logos in a bland grid, they are constructing their own web persona for all to see. They are branding their self corporation. I think this self branding can be done with functionless art intentions rather than functioning business intentions. All the marketing materials are just shouted into the roaring whirlpool of the web where they swirl around in the great database with everyone else's personal information empires. I think these persona empires are the great artworks of our time, and they inspire me to keep building my own brand.