© Will Fenstermaker 2016–19

Below is my master’s thesis for the MFA art criticism and writing program at SVA, on Thomas Ruff’s “JPEGS” series and post-9/11 media imagery, for which I was awarded the Paula Rhodes Memorial Award for Exceptional Achievement in Art Writing.

A PDF is also available for download.


Chapter One: Regarding the shifts in the news-media landscape that occurred following 9/11. I challenge overly wrought theories of “desensitization” advanced by writers like Jean Baudrillard, Marshall McLuhan, and early Susan Sontag. “Access” is introduced in regard to institutional control of art objects, following visits to the cold-storage facilities of the Smithsonian Institution and the Broad Museum. Also included are my own photographs of the secure archives.

Chapter Two: Regarding the systemization of image production and the ways in which various institutions (particularly JPEG, the Joint Photographic Experts Group) codify vision. The pixel-mosaic becomes a way of understanding telematic society, in which knowledge is a composite of information material. The idea of “absence” is introduced as a model for understanding the unpredictable implications of deleting information from an archive or network (i.e., the pixelated structure of the “JPEGS,” in combination with their size, suggests missing material becomes increasingly important as a record enlarges in scale).

Chapter Three: Regarding artists’ use of archives—notably, projects by Aby Warburg, Gerhard Richter, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. Aspects of the atlas—particularly Richter’s construction of private identity by juxtaposing family photographs and cultural iconography—are a model for the ways in which social media affect cultural identification and in which our experience of reality is increasingly an experience of images.

Conclusion: Regarding Ruff’s recent series “press++” and the processes by which archives rewrite history by categorizing its images, remove images from their places in the world, and substitute historical awareness with image literacy. In this environment, the viewer remains the sole responsible party for maintaining context—an easily disruptible link. Thus, for example, how decontextualized images of 9/11 were repurposed to justify war in Iraq; cf. Laura Poitras’s film installations. A final note on the remnants of images.

Ernst Fischer

The Archive Is a Set of Relations, Not a Record of History