Seeking Information

Again and again in the same way forever


 
Animated gif showing only 8 versions of Vermeer’s “The Concert”

Animated gif showing only 8 versions of Vermeer’s “The Concert”

 
 

 On the night of March 18, 1990, thirteen works of art were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and never seen again. A year before, in March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee first proposed an information management system he would call the “world wide web” while working as a computer scientist at CERN. For me, these physical works of art arguably disappeared from the world at the dawn of the internet—finding an afterlife as image files uploaded and reproduced ad infinitum these past 29 years. 

I had this silly idea a few years ago that I would find the Gardner Museum’s stolen paintings if I could come across abnormally high resolution/high fidelity files of them online. My thinking was that only someone with access to the originals could reproduce them with any clarity. So I began searching and downloading images of the stolen paintings, keeping track of URLs, file names, and resolution numbers.

Screen capture of downloads from April 2019.

Vermeer’s “The Concert,” for example, has hundreds and hundreds of images reproduced and distributed online, and each with different degrees of cropping, color shift, resolution, sharpness, and artifacts. Click to enlarge thumbnails.

 
 
 
 

I’ve long since given up on finding the originals, but am fascinated by the idea of collecting and animating these paintings from the internet—where the works have occupied a kind of low-resolution limbo in the public imaginary all these years. What I’d like to do, or the picture I have in my head, is learn how to seamlessly transition all these color and quality changes into a slowly shifting “still” image of these lost paintings, possibly resulting in continuous video projections scaled to the respective works’ original sizes.


Color Sorting

One possible way of arranging a continuous image of each collection is with color. However…

  • Zucconi, Alan. The incredibly challenging task of sorting colours.

    “Sorting colours is a pain. There isn’t a magic function which will order them nicely, simply because the way we perceived them is based on three different components. Any attempt to flatten them onto one single dimension will inevitably collapse some of the complexity. When it comes to sort colours, you should understand which features you want to highlight. Is it the hue? Is it the luminosity? Start from there, and create your own function.“

Grid of twelve jpegs, sorted by filename.

Grid of twelve jpegs, sorted by filename.

Average color for each jpeg in grid, sorted by filename.

Average color for each jpeg in grid, sorted by filename.


 
 

Notes

  • Campany, David. Thomas Ruff: Aesthetic of the Pixel

    “All photographic images come from archives. The very idea of the archive shaped how photography developed from its invention in the 1830s. The standardisation of cameras and film formats, the standardisation of printed matter, the standardisation of the family album, the picture library, the computer image file, the press agency and even the modern art gallery – these are all archival forms of, and for, the photographic image. The hungry gathering and ordering of information proceeds according to rules but it is always holding off a potential collapse into chaos, because there is always something wild and unpredictable about the behaviour of images.  We feel the strain of that disaster more than ever as the world’s archives are themselves subject to digital re-archiving and redistribution via the internet.”

 
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  • Steyerl, Hito. In Defense of the Poor Image.

    “The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.”