PhD Candidate, New York University
PhD Candidate, New York University
[keywords: erasure, digital, aesthetics, archive, art, materiality, media, photography, destruction, shredding]
In a media landscape structured by binary logic, much of the contemporary experience of digitality centers on the choice to keep or discard. The either/or choice is presented to the user of digital technology in various forms; whether or not to save a document or voicemail message are just two examples of the constant prompts to make decisions that result in either discarding data or preserving it for future access. These two examples further demonstrate the tangled web of desires, needs, creativity, productivity, and social connections in which this binary is encountered, and suggest that the habitual choice to save or to delete underlies a contemporary aesthetics of erasure, as a constant, mundane reminder of the potential to erase. Yet, in this essay, we intend to problematize the neat binary of storing versus deleting. Through close analysis of a single artwork and its components, we aim to open up the discussion of the aesthetics of erasure to include categories beyond preservation and destruction. More specifically, by looking at the use of found photography, we introduce the third category of lost/found.
Max Dean’s installation As Yet Untitled (1992-95) was not conceived with the particularities of digital life in mind.  (Fig. 1) Yet, this mechanical, robotic artwork is poignantly expressive of the digital condition described above. The work presents gallery visitors with a choice. Drawing from a stack of found family photographs, a robotic arm repeatedly pulls a single photograph and presents it to the viewer, at a rate of three times a minute. Unless a viewer intervenes, the photograph is dropped into a document shredder and the resulting scraps are collected in a growing pile. If the viewer chooses, pressing on one of a pair of hand silhouettes ‘saves’ the photograph. This action disrupts the cycle of destruction and causes the robot to drop the photograph into an archival box. As an assemblage of electronic, programmed actions, controlled through a human-machine interface, this work serves as an allegory both for the human act of memory and for the conditions of the digital archive. On the one hand the work dramatizes the ubiquitous choice between save and delete, a set up in which there is only one type of imperative, either archive or destroy. But on the other hand, we find that the use of found photographs, a resource for Dean, points to the precarious distinction between the two. In other words, the binary is complicated by the (itself unstable) category of lost/found. We will briefly contextualize these two expressions of erasure— erasure as a conscious decision to destroy rather than preserve and erasure as an involuntary sense of loss conveyed by the presence of a found photograph—before discussing broader implications for aesthetics of erasure. Throughout, As Yet Untitled will serve to bring together voices from art history and media studies in an exploratory spirit, in order to probe the aesthetics of erasure in artistic and digital contexts.
The document shredder forms the spatial and conceptual center of As Yet Untitled (Figs. 2, 3). Flanked on either side by archival boxes, and positioned between the hand-shaped interface and the base of the robotic arm, the shredder anchors the work. After a photograph is passed through the shredder, the remains drop onto a conveyor belt that carts the discards towards a pile that accumulates at the left of the machine. The incessant loop of destruction is continuous; as Dean notes, “The piece works non-stop from the time the gallery opens to closing and if no one is present it continues.”  The result is a “pile [that] is left really until it reaches the height of the conveyor belt. The pile is very much a part of the piece and contributes to the unrelenting nature of the robot.”  The violent nature of the shredder signifies a traditional way of understanding erasure as negation.
In twentieth-century art, erasure is often associated with modernist gestures of destruction that repudiate the notion of the two-dimensional canvas as a representational space, or that embrace entropic forces as productive. These forms of destruction are often spectacular, performative, and blatantly set against the museal desire to preserve. We will consider two particular examples that bookend As Yet Untitled: the first a 1960 kinetic sculpture by Jean Tinguely, the second a net artwork by Mark Napier from 1998.
Jean Tinguely’s 1960 Homage to New York (an acknowledged influence on Dean) was a massive, jerry-rigged, mechanical sculpture that destroyed itself over the course of a twenty-seven minute performance in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. Although spectators to the explosive, smoke- and sound-filled event were free to rummage through the resulting debris, for Tinguely, it was important that nothing physical would remain but the memory impression of the event in the mind of the spectator.  Within the digital context, the second example of aesthetic destruction is Mark Napier’s Shredder, from 1998. This work, a website that will reinterpret any given URL to produce an abstract image from the scrambled source code, aims to expose the material structure of web sites.  (Fig. 4) Napier’s project is explicitly motivated by the shifting media environment: “Websites are not paper,” he states.  For him, erasure is a method to explore the experience of the user:
The web browser is an organ of perception through which we ‘see’ the web. It filters and organizes a huge mass of structured information that spans continents, is constantly growing, reorganizing itself, shifting its appearance, evolving. The Shredder presents this global structure as a chaotic, irrational, raucous collage… Information becomes art. 
Napier’s digital shredder is the fulcrum that transforms information into art; through erasing legibility and denying access to symbolic meaning, raw digital data is transformed into pure aesthetic.
Like Tinguely’s Homage and Napier’s Shredder, the destruction in As Yet Untitled is mechanized, not hand-operated. The decision to save or destroy is an act that takes place exterior to the machine, through the hand-shaped interface. This visual uncoupling of hand, human and machine separates the decision performed by the user from the actual execution of the act. This kind of separation facilitates, at least for heuristic purposes, thinking how erasure occurs in a digital context. Yet the act of destruction is not the primary aesthetic component of As Yet Untitled. Where Tinguely desired no remainder of his initial structure save for dust and memories, Dean incorporates the pile of shredded photographs into the work. Where Napier sees the act of shredding as the transformation of pure information into pure aesthetic, in As Yet Untitled, the source photograph is not pure information, and the pile is not pure aesthetic. The physical demarcation of source pile, archived pile, and shredded pile point beyond the idea of destruction as a decisive, singular, artistic gesture, and towards the variegated categories and processes of erasure.
Beyond Additive Subtraction
Erasure in the form of excision, correction, or modification has a long history as an artistic strategy of mark-making (for instance frottage and grattage). Throughout the twentieth century, along with works like Tinguely’s, various erasing techniques were deployed to convey a brash, iconoclastic stance, epitomized in Robert Rauschenberg’s often-cited Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953). Jasper Johns has famously referred to Rauschenberg’s move to painstakingly erase a drawing by Willem de Kooning as “additive subtraction.”  Additive, for Johns, primarily referred to the conceptual addition of Rauschenberg’s signature and the psychic residue of the “patricidal” act.  But what of the materiality of erasure? While Johns’ “additive subtraction” introduces the idea of erasure as a productive act, recent work in media studies that focuses on materiality and digital media extends the notion of erasure’s additive qualities beyond the idea of a purely conceptual addition.
Notably, a common theme emerges in recent work by the scholars Matthew Kirschenbaum, Wendy Chun and Wolfgang Ernst.  Across these works, the authors reframe erasure as a generative and recurrent act that allows for new data to be stored once again, which means that erasure is unavoidable. Describing the new context of erasure, Kirschenbaum notes that the relation between the surface and inscription is changing with electronic media.  The magnetic surface is unlike paper or wax, so far as the inscription performed “is a temporal as well as planographic intervention whereby even data that has been overwritten continues to resonate as a result of ongoing oscillation teresis.”  Something of the erased then, according to this account, still remains and persists, although not in its original form.
The reason for overwriting and erasing is to make room for new data. Significantly for Kirschenbaum, Chun, and Ernst, the act of overwriting is both destructive and productive at once. Wendy Chun argues that the metaphor of memory (as an ephemeral experience) becomes the chief ontological category of new media at the expense of storage (that which is permanent).  She writes, “Digital media is degenerative, forgetful, erasable… If computer memory is like anything, it is like erasable writing; but, if a penciled word can be erased because graphite is soft, a computer’s memory can be rewritten because its surface constantly fades.”  Chun’s metaphorical approach expands on Kirschenbaum’s discussion of overwriting. If Kirschenbaum points us to the dual nature of erasure, Chun describes how it is a habitual, continuous condition of the digital.
Wolfgang Ernst further addresses this instability of digital storage, always potentially involved in erasing, in what he calls “the dual system.”  For Ernst, the collapse of erasure and storage from a perceptual perspective is a key, desirable feature of the digital “dyna-archive,” in contrast to the classical archive. In the new dynamic and ever-changing archive, the oppositional functions of storage and erasure are unified temporally, as a result of becoming calculable and operable beyond human perception.  Subsequently, he theorizes this shift towards dynamic memory as: “A radical metamorphosis of the aesthetics of storage is taking place in the media-technical field… with the emphasis on almost immediate reproduction and recycling rather than emphatic cultural long-time memory.” 
Ernst, Chun and Kirschenbaum turn to old media metaphors such as paper, wax, pencils, and the archive to explicate the process of erasure, which occurs differently in new media.  (Phenomenologically speaking, erasure occurs out of sight and to some extent, separate from the interface level). Taken together, these accounts emphasize erasure as that which makes something else possible. And yet, even such productive accounts of erasure rely on treating erasure as opposite of storage. In such a dichotomous set up, it is hard to approach the variety and multiplicity of the different kinds of erasure that can occur, particularly in new media. As Yet Untitled points towards another form of erasure concurrent with the idea of generativity described above: what we call the lost/found.
A genealogy of the usage of found photographs in art extends from reproductions of anonymous photographs in Surrealist journals of the 1920s, through work by contemporary artists such as Zoe Leonard, Gerhard Richter, and Tacita Dean that ruminate on collective memory and history. Art historian Mark Godfrey has proposed a typology of the use of the found photograph in art, including work that deals with de-skilling of photography, appropriation art, quasi-anthropological work, and work that plays with notions of documentary and fiction.  However, the found family photographs of As Yet Untitled, as an endless supply for either shredding or archiving, do not fit easily into any of these categories. Rather, the clipped rhythm of presentation followed by destruction or preservation prompts the viewer into an emotional response to another sense of erasure, namely loss. Whether archived or destroyed, the anonymous photographs of others are, in the words of Kate Bush, “[s]eared with unknowable emotions and irretrievable truths.” 
The idea of loss has been an integral part of the theorization of images, whether photographic or cinematic. Even before accounting for the specific resonances of found photography, any photograph can provoke an affective experience of loss (so argue Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer). Kracauer describes photography as annihilation, one that is doubly felt by the viewer of the found photograph.  This is also expressed by Walter Benjamin’s “unruly desire” to know more about the anonymous Newhaven fishwife, to identify the “tiny spark of contingency” which links the nameless photographic subject with the “here and now.” 
Not limited to the indexical properties of the photograph, confronting a found photograph is always to contemplate a type of erasure: the loss of a moment in time, but also the loss of the physical print. In this way, we think of the found photograph as a launching pad to the lost, or rather to the collapse of the found and lost categories. A found photograph is always both lost and found. The lost in found photography marks the initial loss that results from being taken out of its context. It is lost when the photo is dislocated from its place in a series, album, or personal collection. Nevertheless, this dislocation is also that which provides for the possibility of recuperation. Similar to the artist rummaging through flea market bins full of anonymous photographs, Benjamin writes of his desire to rescue abandoned books in the marketplace so as to “renew the old world.”  His drive to collect is motivated by a desire to connect the historical presence of the old books with the present, and future. The act breathes new life into them, as a new context had been introduced, and the lost is converted into found. Contemporary media archaeologists aiming to excavate the “suppressed, neglected and forgotten” as a way to understand the past in terms of the present echo this sentiment. 
In As Yet Untitled, each found photograph is a lost memory that could potentially undergo another erasure. Once a photograph is incorporated into the piece, the threat of being taken out of its new context returns. A spectator who chooses not to save a photograph re-performs the initial loss. Further, another sense of loss is introduced by the shifting media environment for found photography. Digitization has undoubtedly transformed the practices of producing, sharing, and preserving vernacular photography. This haunts the current experience of As Yet Untitled, and other artworks that utilize found photographs, pointing towards a different kind of loss, one yet to come. Godfrey describes the contemporary use of found photographs as a knowing farewell: “Touched lost photographic objects are presented in a valedictory way, knowing there will soon be a loss of the touched, and a loss of the lost: one day soon there will be no more discarded photographs that have been taken, rejected, fingered, scratched, lost, found, and wondered about, no more object/images cluttering our lives”  Max Dean acknowledges that his own sources for found photographs are changing; in the past he has sourced prints through “dumpster div[ing],” gifts, and purchases, but these avenues are disappearing. As Yet Untitled is now itself preserved in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and long-term plans for sourcing photographs are a necessary part of conservation. Dean noted that recently 125,000 prints were sourced after the close of Erik Kessel’s exhibition 24 Hours in Photos at the Contact Photo Festival in Toronto. (Fig. 5) In this project, photos uploaded to Flickr from a single day were printed out as 4×6 prints, and the result was a seeming avalanche of material, with piles of photographs reaching to the ceiling of the gallery.
The scale of 24 Hours in Photos, coupled with the piles of shreds that inevitably accumulate during the presentation of As Yet Untitled, suggests that one aspect of the digital condition may be thought of in terms of a new sense of lost and found; the condition of being lost in a sea of data. The sheer amount of information flowing, demonstrated in 24 Hours in Photos, contrasts the new conditions for found photography with those suggested by As Yet Untitled. The availability of found images is vastly increased, dramatized by the mountains of prints, and the methods of retrieving, managing, and erasing have correspondingly become more complex.
In this way, rather than using the analog photograph to talk more narrowly about the transition to digital photography, we see the analog photograph as an object that has the potential to illuminate the conditions of erasure in a broader sense. Considering erasure in terms of the concept of lost/found – introduced by the anonymous photograph – contributes to discussions of erasure within the vast entanglement of materials, software, platforms, and technologies that are collapsed under the umbrella of “the digital.” In a similar way to art history, which has mostly considered erasure as different forms of destruction in the face of traditional mark-making, media theory has largely concentrated on the role of deleting as a way of highlighting it against that which is operable: memory, archive, preservation and storage. As far as the ontology of the digital archive goes, such accounts as we have already mentioned mostly locate erasure in the self-destructing archive, where data is erased in order for new data to be imprinted. Erasing is either a dysfunctional act to be guarded against or a functional act that supports saving. This is precisely where the found and lost come in. Ignoring the phenomenological and affective experience of erasure and loss shuts down a particular avenue of theorization. The essence of the photograph remains the same whether the photograph is dislocated or not, which means that the opportunity to elaborate on the additional social and economic contexts of found photography is never explicated or reintroduced back into discussions about the ontology of the photographic image. The categories of lost and found are defined not by what the photograph is, but by the way it is understood and experienced within a particular context. And this experience of searching, losing, and finding supplements a possible ontology of the digital. Initially, As Yet Untitled seems to present two possible endpoints: the archival box or the trash. In actuality, focusing on these terminals obscures the journey of producing, dislocating, finding, and re-purposing that has already taken place and is yet to come.
Towards aesthetics of erasure: beyond mere destruction
So how does the lost/found category help us to think erasure away from the rigid binary of save and delete? Lost/found expands the way in which we can understand and define erasure in the first place. Any one definition of erasure would inevitably miss something of the wide range of possibilities of how erasure comes to be and how it is represented. Using As Yet Untitled and the discussions it brings up regarding memory, preservation, and found photography, we suggest that erasure may be thought of as a dislocation of data (whether intended or not) from the original context of the initial inscription. The erased can be reframed in terms of irretrievability. This sense of erasing allows one to think the lost/found as a third category that intervenes in the traditional dyad of saving and deleting. We used the notation of the slash throughout to signify that the lost/found is an unstable category which always encompasses within itself the potentiality of multiple losses; or, that the lost is a category, which may at some point be recovered.
The authors would like to thank Max Dean for engaging in a conversation about his work.
- Max Dean, email message to authors, January 14, 2015.
- Dean, email to authors.
- Dean, email to authors.
- Tinguely noted, “What was important for me was that afterwards there would be nothing, except what remained in the minds of a few people, continuing to exist in the form of an idea.” (Extract from an unpublished interview conducted by Calvin Tomkins in 1962 for The New Yorker [Calvin Tomkins Papers, II.A.5. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York], as quoted in Michael Landy, “Homage to Destruction,” Tate Etc. 17, September 1, 2009, accessed February 5, 2015, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/homage-destruction.) Despite Tinguely’s stated intention, one fragment did enter the MoMA’s collection.
- See http://www.potatoland.org/shredder/shredder.html.
- Mark Napier, “About the Shredder,” 1998, accessed February 15, 2015, http://www.potatoland.org/shredder/about.html.
- Napier, “About the Shredder.”
- Jasper Johns, as quoted in John Cage, A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writingsby John Cage (Middletown: CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967), 75. While Johns’ label of “additive subtraction” is often cited in relation to Erased de Kooning Drawing, the full quote makes the connection to the signature: “What did I say in Japan? That the Mona Lisa with mustache or just anything plus a signature equals addition, that the erased de Kooning is additive subtraction. . . . ”
- Calvin Tomkins referred to this as patricide in Calvin Tomkins, Off The Wall – Robert Rauschenberg and the Art of Our Time (New York: Doubleday and Co.Inc., 1980), 96. Richard Galpin also discusses this work in the context of Johns and Tompkins in “Erasure in Art: Destruction, Deconstruction, and Palimpsest,” February 1998, accessed February 5, 2015, http://www.richardgalpin.co.uk/archive/erasure.htm.
- Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge, MA; London: MIT Press, 2012); Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013); Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive, trans. Jussi Parikka (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
- Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms, 64.
- Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms, 66.
- Chun, Programmed Visions.
- Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Enduring Ephemeral, Or the Future Is a Memory,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 1 (2008), 160–161.
- Ernst, Digital Memory, 90–94.
- Bernard Stiegler, as quoted in Ernst, Digital Memory, 93.
- Ernst, Digital Memory, 95.
- See also: Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009).
- Mark Godrey, “Photography Found and Lost: On Tacita Dean’s Floh” October 114 (Oct 2005): 90–119.
- Kate Bush, “Candid Camera,” Frieze 73 (March 2003), 62.
- Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography,” in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, ed. and trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995): 56–57.
- Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings vol. 2, trans. Edmund Jephcott, et al., ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (1931; Cambridge, Mass., 2005), 510.
- Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schoken Books, 1968), 61, 64. Such urge is not unfamiliar to media archaeologists who made a point of restoring and finding neglected technologies. This method is similar in some respects since it does not wish to tell a linear narrative history.
- Errki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, “Introduction: An Archaeology of Media Archaeology,” in Media Archaeology, Huhtamo and Parikka, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 3.
- Godrey, “Photography Found and Lost,” 119.
Diana Kamin is a PhD candidate in the department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. Her dissertation research focuses on the techniques and practices of circulating images, tracking the history of several New York-based collections from their analog roots to the present, from the perspective of media studies, art history, and library science. Prior to NYU, she spent five years in the exhibitions and curatorial departments at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Publications include contributions to numerous exhibition catalogues (including monographs on Maurizio Cattelan and Jay DeFeo). She is also a frequent contributor to Art in America. She holds a BA cum laude in Art History from Georgetown University.
Ella Klik is a PhD candidate in the department of Media, Culture and Communication and Culture at New York University. She is currently working on a dissertation on the topic of erasure at the intersection of media history and philosophy. Surveying the underexplored histories of several tools, techniques and gestures involved in the work of erasing, the project will rethink the relation between inscription and its negation. Past projects focused on Holocaust memory, cinema and horror, and Viennese Actionism. Ella’s current research interests include the relation between media archaeology, German media theory and continental philosophy. She also holds a BA in English Linguistics and Communication & Journalism and an MA in Communication & Journalism, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.