Production, reproduction, processing
“Image Runner” is being created as part of his exhibition at the Galerie der Künstler in Munich in Fall 2020, and gives him the opportunity to examine his existing image collections composed of drawings, sketches, copies, found photos and prints. We arrange to meet at his studio to talk about his work, and Jonah shares his sifting process with me. He groups motifs and patterns that constantly recur in his drawings and paintings: chequered fabrics, domestic activities, office work, individual figures, assembly instructions in drawings, details of courtyards or depictions of hands. In some cases the works are executed in detail, in others they are studies of surfaces, at times abstract line drawings or images that are heavily distorted and collaged. In almost all cases the initial impulse comes from found photos that Jonah discovers in newspapers and magazines, online, and also by chance in the public sphere. Often, depictions of staged reality guide his choice of motif. He then processes the found images further, appropriates them, and by these means gets closer to their symbolic content. What does the picture mean for the context in which it is set? What does it say about the ideas of the world that underly it?
The selection of motifs in the publication places the focus on the examination of immaterial work and the material handling of paper, which serves as a carrier of information, ideas and means of presentation. They depict people, primarily men, in office or home office situations. They handle paper, photocopiers and computers, thus suggesting cognitive work. Stock images form the foundation of Jonah’s drawings, generic material from image databases that are created and used for illustrative purposes in advertisements and the press.
Jonah processes the found images not only by means of drawing or painting, he also copies, scans and prints over them. As a result, motifs overlap, and the painted picture blurs together with the digitally reproduced one. Tracing and re-painting are also parts of his process towards making the finished picture, as well as fragmentation and re-composition. By using cutups he draws out the details of the pictures, points to certain aspects that might at first appear secondary, and places them in the context of other similar fragments. He uses collaging as a possibility to connect his own drawings and paintings with found material from a general imagery, as “a way to create meaning and order in relation to the world outside”. (Freireiss, 2019, p. 20).
Jonah also includes the reverse sides of the pictures in the reproductions in the publication. The traces of lines can be seen, semi-transparent overlays, leaking photocopies that show the front and the back at the same time. Jonah places the sheets in front of a black background. The contrast highlights the image border. He emphasizes the border of a detail, or cuts the motif that transgresses the image’s space. But Jonah also shows us the flip side of the image production: the scanner or photocopier that generates the reproduction is visible as a black background space. The hand that places the original on the glass pane of the photocopier appears, shifting the focus to the act of creation. Copying, printing, painting over and printing again is part of Jonah’s painting practice. In the final part of the publication he uses a watercolour, which he copies mechanically dozens of times, always using each copy as the original for the next copy. In the process, the original motif recedes more and more into the background, while the colour becomes denser. With increasing reproduction, the machine produces more and more matrix dots, revealing its technical character. By overlaying technically reproduced pictures and his own drawings and paintings, Jonah subtly questions the extent to which the artistic image must still meet the requirements of originality and ingenuity, and how a creative act is defined. At the same time, he casually points to art-historical references to modern and postmodern art, which used techniques of reproduction as an emancipatory act.
The use of the photocopier is also reflected in the title of the publication: “Image Runner” is the name of one of the devices used by Jonah, from the Canon brand. The photocopier, like photography and film, allows mass reproduction and enables, as described impressively by Walter Benjamin, a changed collective perception by means of an altered depiction of reality. Reproduction contributes to the fact that the reception of artworks changes, and as a result, art receives a changed social function. Here, Benjamin saw both the chance to make art more accessible for a wider social group, but also the danger of its instrumentalization for the purposes of politics and capitalism (cf. Benjamin, 1963).
The visibility and invisibility of work
Yet like almost no other equipment, the photocopier is the symbol of the post-industrial age, in which physical labour is being replaced increasingly by cognitive work, and the manufacture of goods is shifting to the southern hemisphere and thus being made invisible. Daniel Bell refers to post-industrial society as the information society, in which capitalist production is less dependent on raw materials than on information and knowledge. Technical advancement is based on value creation due to knowledge production, thus altering both the structures and the value of labour (cf. Bell, 1975).
The notes added to the image part of Jonah’s publication contain keywords and titles of the stock images that served him as models for his drawings: “Man in home office using computer holding paperwork and smiling”, “Co-workers working at office comparing data”, “Financial analyst with document in his hands reading information on computer screen”, “Midsection of businessman using printer in office”, “Two businessmen having discussion in office. Consulting, laptop” or “Portrait of busy male office worker makes voice call discuss documents with partner compare result try to predict wastes for next month. Head executive officer holds balance sheet and mobile phone”.
The photos that Jonah finds in online databases are created to serve as illustrations for reports or to advertise products. They therefore have a communicative aim. In order for them to be used in as varied a manner as possible, and to address as many people as possible, they aim to represent something “typical” or “normal”, as Paul Frosh describes: “advertising images communicate by systematically performing ‘ordinariness’” (Fros,h 2001). By these means they reproduce ideas as to how certain activities, but also the function-holders who carry them out, should look. They strengthen the feeling of supposed normality, which however depicts only a section of society. Rather, they represent a social norm – a norm that is primarily white, male, heterosexual, of adult age and physically healthy. Every characteristic that does not represent this norm must be given its own keywords and sought-for specifically. Public imagery is the product of social contexts. It upholds and at the same time reproduces those social contexts by the visualization and categorization of actors.
Jonah draws from the pool of images that are available in databases and which therefore also to a certain extent reflect the dominant representation of mainly male protagonists, which stands out in the subject matter. Supposedly complicated, cognitive activities – “comparing data”, “discuss documents”, “compare result try to predict wastes for next month”, “financial analyst reading information” – are shown as being carried out mainly by men. The photo of a female character in Jonah’s publication, who is named as such in the comments, bears the keywords: “Irritated Businesswoman Looking At Paper Stuck In Printer”. She represents another aspect of social conditions in patriarchal capitalist systems: Women are associated more strongly with emotional reactions, and where a woman appears here in the context of cognitive work, she generates a problem: paper is stuck in the printer and the situation seems to be intractable, she can only react with irritation. Advertising pictures show (white) men in socially highly-regarded areas of activity, such as “business” in general, while women are still tasked with reproductive, support and care work, or else they are presented in a sexualized or objectified manner, up to and including the non-active naked bodies that advertise goods.
Another feature of the postmodern world of work is expressed in Jonah’s drawings: the performance of work subjects. Andreas Reckwitz describes the structural change in society since the 1970s/80s as a process of “singularization”. Forms of standardization recede increasingly into the background and characteristics such as uniqueness and specialness achieve greater social value. Both the aesthetic and ethical structuring of one’s own life articulates the desire for an expressive, unique self, which is subject to the logic of difference and competition. This is also true in the area of work, where nowadays formal qualifications count for less than the accentuation of a unique profile. The assessment measure is not objective performance, but rather the presentation of one’s own irreplaceability, the subject of work becomes a “performance worker” (Reckwitz, 2018, p. 209).
On the one hand, a constant performance pressure is expressed in Jonah’s drawings, but on the other hand it is revealed to be a repetitive gesture. The sheets held like valuable objects by the protagonists are actually empty. The information to which the captions refer cannot be found. The alienation and dematerialization of the world of work are expressed in repetitive actions. Moments that recall Jacques Tati’s film “Playtime” from 1967, to which Jonah once drew my attention. In the film, the protagonist, Monsieur Hulot, gets lost in an endless complex of identical offices and waiting rooms, as a symbol for the incipient post-industrial society.
Depictions of hands appear repeatedly in Jonah’s works. In the case of the photocopies, they are usually his own. As a painter he addresses the material dimension of picture production and highlights the conditions of production. The photographic print of the hand bespeaks the artist’s preceding presence, it reminds us of the body that made the picture. The hand as a trace appears not only in the form of xeroxed reproduction, but also as a trace of handling, wielding: by the kinks and folds of the page or as fingerprints on the reverse of pictures. By showing touches and traces, the photocopies demonstrate the charged relationships between presence and representation, and imply, in turn, questions as to who is visible and thus ultimately part of a collective structure. The traces bring a temporal, linear aspect to the picture. The work of the printer also forms as sequential lines, by the drawing-in of the paper and the jet of ink as repetitive processes. The technical production of the printed picture thus becomes a metaphor for the production of common social imageries – a sensual experience of society emerges as an everlasting process of production and observation.
Embodiments of social norms and standardizations – the straight line
The personal fulfilment imperative of our present day defines success not only in terms of economic security, but as a permanent reinvention of an interesting, authentic life. The abundance of differences is the decisive feature of global capitalism. From the perspective of Jonah’s work, which is interested in detecting patterns and repetitions, they become a document of fascinating similarity.
The imitation of social ideals, including that of the unique realization of the self, also reproduces the very structures from which these emerge. They are inscribed in the visual world, in patterns of perception, in behaviours, but also in bodies, as shown by Pierre Bourdieu based on the concepts of habitus and hexis (cf. Bourdieu, 1984).
Sara Ahmed expands this idea from a phenomenological perspective, and describes how bodies tend to repeat gestures, which present themselves as effects of previous social practices. They are not so much individual and random, but rather the result of overlapping norms and processes of standardization (cf. Ahmed, 2006, p. 553). Paradoxically, the constant continuation makes the conditions of their origin invisible. They become automated actions, which dictate the directions and thus make certain consequential actions more probable than others. Following patterns generates fewer sources of friction, and power structures perpetuate. The focus of Ahmed’s analysis is the relationship between directions and orientations and the reproduction of norms and conventions. She uses the metaphor of the line – as conceptual directions as well as physical movements –, which presents itself in heteronormative societies as a straight line: “Lines are both created by being followed and are followed by being created. The lines that direct us, as lines of thought as well as lines of motion, are in this way performative. […] We find our way, we know which direction we face, only as an effect of work, which is hidden from view” (Ahmed, 2006, p. 555).
The aspect of tracing lines and thus the repetition and renewal of norms can also be found in Jonah’s depictions of work as continuous, recurring gestures. Learned procedures that are socially prescribed and accepted are repeated, because they are rewarded. Following certain lifestyles promises culmination in success. They are reproduced, and power structures become consolidated. Ahmed relates this idea to the body: “The normative dimension can be re-described in terms of the straight body, a body that appears in line. Things seem straight […] when they are in line, which means when they are aligned with other lines. […] Think of tracing paper. Its lines disappear when they are aligned with the lines of the paper that has been traced: you simply see one set of lines. If all lines are traces of other lines, then this alignment depends on straightening devices, which keep things in line, in part by holding things in place. Lines disappear through such alignments, so when things come out of line with each other the effect is ‘wonky’” (Ahmed, 2006, p. 562).
In Jonah’s pictures, the process of drawing and printing over the images causes a blurring of the lines. Minor shifts lead to the dissolution of prefabricated forms, until they merge completely into a colour field and can no longer be recognized, as in the case of the final drawing in the publication. In contrast, he creates new forms by cutting out, adding and re-composing fragments. What is articulated here is not any loud criticism of social conditions, but rather small gestures, refusing to leave found images unchanged or unchallenged, to touch them, shift them, to disorient them a little, while looking in different directions and thus “making lines that do not reproduce what we follow, but instead create new textures on the ground” (Ahmed, 2006, p. 570).
Juliane Bischoff, 2020
Ahmed, Sara (2006). Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology. In: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Vol. 12, Nr. 4, Durham: Duke University Press, p. 543-574.
Bell, Daniel (1975). Die nachindustrielle Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Campus.
Benjamin, Walter (1963). Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1984). Die feinen Unterschiede. Kritik der gesellschaftlichen Urteilskraft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Freireiss, Lukas (2019). Radical Cut-Up. Nothing Is Original. In: Id. (ed.): Radical Cut-Up. Nothing Is Original. Amsterdam: Sandberg Instituut/Berlin: Sternberg Press, p. 7-25.
Frosh, Paul (2001). Inside the Image Factory: Stock Photography and Cultural Production. In: Media, Culture & Society. London: Sage Publications, p. 625-646.
Reckwitz, Andreas (2018). Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten. Zum Strukturwandel der Moderne. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Translated from German into English by Carolyn Kelly.
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