Thuistezien 292 — 02.01.2022

Arjen Mulder
Vilém Flusser Symposium

As part of the Vilém Flusser-symposium ‘Synthetic Thinking’, essayist Arjen Mulder offers a perspective on meaning-making and dialogue within the digital age. From his specialisation in media theory, his talk ‘Dialogical Images in an Environment of Data’ in 2016 walks through the characterisations and crucial differences when engaging with a traditional image, a technical image, and a digital image. He does this by demonstrating seemingly the same picture: a painting of an avenue of trees, a picture of an avenue of trees, and a desktop background image of an avenue of trees.

How the viewer extracts meaning from these types of images happens along different lines, since the medium of the images themselves direct and condition the eye, merely already by having a different purpose. For instance, paintings or sculptures are mostly made iconographical. This means, the artist chose the subject matter with agency and to express or refer to something else. Then, the objects in the drawing become ‘semiotic resources’, signs for other meanings.

Could the same be said about photographs? Photographs are not made by people, pixel by pixel. Rather, it is shot by an apparatus which has an operating function. The objects in the image are not created with an artist’s agency, and so the element of intentional iconography diminishes. Instead, a picture serves as an ‘index’, where cause-and-effect comes into play to find meaning. It guides the eye to think of fire, when there is smoke. Naturally, this is often looked at as if it were an icon.

Mulder brings in Flusser to emphasise that it doesn’t take away that a technical picture is not capable of moving a viewer. An image that first shows a scene, a state of reality, and later on starts to reorganise reality according to its own image, is called a ‘project’. This is when the indexical relation, the way it projects itself and creates a real affect, takes precedence over its content. This has a familiar ring to Marshall McLuhan’s claim ‘The medium is the message’.

What lies close to this type of image is, then, the dialogical image, also called digital or synthetic. These are the type of images that you can change, programme, or choose to close the window of on your desktop. It entails an interface with a flexible structure, where the viewer is not ‘given’ an icon to passively consume, rather they become affordances. Images signify what you can do with them, instead of what they mean. Mulder holds that this two way-medium makes room for creativity, as well as information retrieval and communication.

How would data fit into this picture? According to what type of signs do we make sense of data? Mulder starts the discussion by mentioning data is both an index and a project: it provides causal statistics, but based on its information it allows for building and projecting models and algorithms. An image would be an end result of data calculations. In the discussion, the symposium panel discusses that how we interpret data inevitably resorts back to traditional imagery. The way we collect and visualise data, i.e. from NASA, is conditioned by the development of technology and the medium through which we’re used to express the world. Moreover, isn’t there already a similar open-ended dialogue of meaning-making going on in a traditional image between the artist and the viewer? And, is a supposedly dialogical digital image, like the homescreen of an iPhone, really that open-ended?

Arjen Mulder is a biologist and writer. Mulder’s works contain multidisciplinary insights from biology, media theory, anthropology and literature. He lives in Amsterdam and teaches media theory and social semiotics in Rotterdam and Ghent. Mulder published a large amount of essays among which ‘Het twintigste-eeuwse lichaam’ (1996) and ‘Het fotografisch genoegen.’ Mulders literary-historical study ‘De vrouw voor wie Cesare Pavese zelfmoord pleegde’ (2004) and his collection ‘Wat is leven?’ (2014) were nominated for the AKO-literature prize.

Text: Yael Keijzer