One of the several interesting points that caught my attention in Versions is how easily a digital image can be manipulated while maintaining a credible degree of realism. Such ease allows a multiplicity of versions of a given image to materialize, as in the image(s) of missiles being fired by coalition forces.
Jos de Mule follows Walter Benjamin's claim that the cult value of a work of art, was being replaced in the age of mechanical reproducing by its exhibition value - the presence of various of entities of itself. De Mule updates Benjamin's argument to the our age, by stating that the exhibition value of an object has been replace by its manipulatory value, its openness to transformation. (p.98)
disrupting claim of real - not digital specific
Being able to be so easily manipulated, as shown in the missiles example, while still maintain a believable degree realism necessarily shakes the foundations of photography's objectivity claim. However image manipulation is not a specific practice of the digital, as examples such as the erasure from Soviet films of individuals who have fallen into disgrace reveal (Kessel p.189). What the digital images provoked, according to Frank Kessler, is a 'renewed awareness of the numerous forms of manipulation and intervention that constitute the very activity of producing and presenting (moving) picture' (p.190).
Kessler argues that:
'problem in most of the debates about non-fictional photography or film lies in their conceiving them as documentations of the afilmic [what is not captured by the camera lens] real rather than approaching them as discourses on it...what makes a photo or a film function as a non-fictional or ‘serious’ utterance is the fact that the viewer can interrogate it in terms of trueness' (p.192).
Following this argument the proliferation of digital versions of an image can be seen as non-fictional or ‘serious’, since the ostensible manipulated and even humorous versions of an image are extremely effective in challenging the image's objectivity claim. Unarguably versions with hundreds of missiles being fired or a dancing missile are digital fabrications, but their presence, as well as a multitude of more subtle versions, bring us to ask whether the official 'original' might have also been manipulated.
If such is the case, the 'oficial' original becomes no different from a copy, there is simply no difference between the two. Even if differences exist, if the original hasn't been visibly transformed, when faced with large numbers of versions, the status of original begins to blur and might eventually disappear. Faced with multiple versions in the missiles' image it becomes impossible to detect which one gave origin to the variations.
Since fabricated realities can be presented as convincingly as reality it is not difficult to see that such possibility appeals to power as a strategy for influencing public opinion. According to Jos de Mul, in the age of mechanical reproduction, politicians relied on their exhibition value, in the reproducibility of their image, achieved through media of mass distribution. Whereas today "[p]ower, political power included, is becoming increasingly dependent on the ability to manipulate information"(de Mul p.103).
Information manipulation is not restricted to images, all kinds of data can be recombined, contextualized and present in order to exert the desired influence over public opinion (de Mul p.103). The manipulation of values constitutes a strong (if not stronger) political tool (de Mul p.103)
It is interesting to note that since the world, in the process of digitization, is indexed as a series of numbers (Kessel p.191), the manipulation of digital image or statistical values becomes, at its core, the same operation. [What the implications of this position where number, images, text and sounds become essentially the same material?]
Digital information (and more explicitly images) seem to have a double aspect. On the one hand being easily transformed and tailored to fit the perspective of those who manipulated them; on the other hand the transformational ease in conjunction with the proliferation of remixes makes viewers take notice to the subjectivity of digital information. Perhaps, we can say that what the digital has brought is an democratization of manipulation and awareness of its effects.
de Mul, J. (2009). The work of art in the age of digital recombination. In: van den Boomen, M. Lammes,S. Lehmann, A. Raessens, J. and Tobias Schäfer M. Digital Material. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 95-106.
Kessler, F. (2009). What you get is what you see: Digital images and the claim on the real. In: van den Boomen, M. Lammes,S. Lehmann, A. Raessens, J. and Tobias Schäfer M. Digital Material. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 95-106.