Navigating the Stream, Part II

from acidcow.com

Last week we posted Part I of our look at the stream, the fast flow of fragments of information that makes up the contemporary Internet. We focused on describing some of its qualities and then critiqued the problems of the stream in relation to photography and photographers. Today we will continue the conversation with a consideration of what the stream can offer us as photographers as well as with some final thoughts for working with the stream.

So, I think we can begin by all agreeing that the only two things that are universally evil are the Yankees and Strawberry Quik and, this being the case, despite the litany of issues ascribed to the stream in Part I, there must be positives for photographers in receiving and distributing information in this way as well. And of course there are.

In fact, the stream maximizes what the Internet does best – it's the most efficient, to date, employment of speed, volume and democracy in terms of distribution and consumption of images that exists. Anyone with computer access and a means of making digital images can create a potential viewership of their images anywhere in the world to an unlimited number of people immediately. And any viewer can continue the distribution process with a split second share, retweet or reblog.

The stream moves us beyond the individual page or personal site in terms of distribution – you no longer have to actively choose to make a visit. Images appear in your constantly updated stream via the posts and reposts of your contacts and also, increasingly, the algorithms of Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr that produce recommend and promoted posts to the stream. Looking at my Tumblr stream right now, there are dozens of photographs by people I've never heard of and to whom I have no connection; they are images that I would never see through the process of actively visiting individual photographer sites.

The stream functions via the sample - the quick quip, the solitary image, the cut-and-paste - entering photography distribution very belatedly into postmodernism even as we are, people smarter than me say, becoming a post-postmodern world. This is fantastic. It creates the possibility for creating new forms and meanings through liberating the whole and giving us parts to work with. An actively managed process of juxtaposition on thoughtfully curated Tumblr pages is a new form. The idea of curators as some sort of photographic DJ, culling and ordering existing images via the Internet is trending (sorry) and a frontier in terms of exploratory use of photographic material. I would say the stream is a facilitator of that process. In terms of the curation of projects and conceptual work with the flow of images, we now have another arrow in the quiver.

While some are intelligently exploring the use of the stream as a vehicle for creation – see Mark Peter Drolet's curation project on Tumblr – the stream for the majority is about consumption of the sample. While this has its drawbacks as explored in Part I, it has its positives including the chance reception from a much larger pool of sources that might provide important information or inspiration that one would not encounter reading or looking through entire articles or pages. It increases the random chance of interaction.

Let's not overstretch the academic vocabulary here – you can find cool images on Tumblr or pithy quotes on Twitter all day and all night. It may be a simple pleasure to sit down and look through random single images or quotes but sometimes that random flow provides the spark you need for your own work in a way that sitting down and studiously working through Retinal Shift can not. And as much as I can argue why watching the entirety of Citizen Kane is better than GIFs of people falling down, sometimes people falling down is what you want or even need in terms of intake and inspiration.

One more point in terms of the stream and potential content. Some of what could be seen as the negatives of the stream can make for fascinating material for art. The slow converging lines of reality in the world and the reality of the Internet towards - but inherently never being able to arrive at – one conflated entity via constantly documenting the lived moment in the stream is some wildly dystopian shit to work with. So is the fact that all of this documentation is being lost into the ever-increasing flow of the stream – very little of all of this information will be referenced beyond the moment. We type faster and faster and add more and more with the result of more quickly losing. If you're not there to bear witness, it's gone –it's beautifully ephemeral sound and fury.

Whether to accept or reject the stream I would say is almost irrelevant as a question. It's an inevitable system if we want to take part in social media which the vast majority do. It's the direction of computer interface as it plays to the idea of faster and bite-sized as inevitable societal demands. Computer scientists are not going to start looking to return the Internet to its slower, whole sources-only ancient history of a few years back.

Clamoring for people to not post so much or not add so many images seems fuddy-duddy and futile. People want to endlessly post and enjoy doing so. So be it. Fighting to make sense of the stream of images on Tumblr or Facebook or Flickr – 5 billion on Flickr alone according to this source - is also a losing battle. It's meaning is the form in which it's distributed; any organization project of the material or strategy to make sense of it beyond that seems to be literally an impossibility to me - you'll have a million more photos to deal with before you finish reading this post and the quantity will keep growing in multiples in the future. Such hypothetical organizational projects go against the nature of what this is – endless streaming information.

Having looked at the stream's qualities, problems and strengths and recognized that it's a system we necessarily have to work with if we want to be connected to the world via social media, lets start to make some final conclusions.

I should say – as a pre-emptive strike - that it's not my goal to tell you how to use the stream or the Internet, but rather to have a healthy conversation as people involved in photography about "smart use." Each should draw their own conclusions for themselves. I'm trying to look fairly at the stream, its risks and benefits. While the world at large may love posting endless images from their trip to Saskatoon and if the conversation stops there, that's fine. As artists, the conversation can be more textured and consider a bit more on its use and effects.

On the practical side, Tumblr can be a way to try ideas, generate audience and gauge reaction to images. It can be a way to explore, publicly, an edit. All photographers probably have had the experience of seeing their work differently once it's placed in front of the eyes of others. It's an important part of the process of understanding your work and Tumblr can help. It can be a free calling card when you're at the point you want to solicit distribution for your work by getting it in front of editors, curators and gallerists – and it can continue to be handed out for free for you by others. And anyone can take part - for some, it may be the only way to take part, actually. In the end, it's always about the right tool for the job, and if the job is exploration of ideas about and edits of your work, volume and speed, looking for attention from distributors or using the stream itself as content, it's a hell of a tool if employed judiciously.

The main issue for me in relation to the stream, to elaborate on a problem discussed in Part I, is the potential to confuse tool and product. The casual release of work and the tempting intellectual laziness the stream provides as an end in itself for one's work that I see sometimes from photographers suggests to me the confusion exists for more than a few. The single image limits the power of photography and generally isn't very interesting beyond the momentary engagement. Meaning is compounded between images; the job of the artist is to synthesize their work into something more, something beyond individually sticking up all your great shots to the stream.

I also suggest there's risk to getting caught up in the possibility of getting work out now, threatening the digestion, rumination, care and time behind almost all good art. Let's all bow our heads and remember sage words from producer Rick Rubin: "From the beginning, all I've cared about is things being great. I've never cared about when they were done."

You develop risk and skin in the game when you put the most at stake. To consider a question from Joerg Colberg's post from last year, in your artwork the most is at stake when you risk your very self through caring about it deeply, by taking a stance through it and by giving it huge quantities of your life/time. Mindless use of the stream can leave your work short on all counts.

So I’ll leave it here with the stream. It's a tool. Its use is almost inevitable. I argue for being selective and mindful in how you add to it and how you digest it. When should you use it with your work? How much time do you want to give it? Why do you want to use it? At what cost? With your own work, you take it from here.