Access / Absence

Below you will find my MFA thesis 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. Photographs made to accompany the piece can be found here.

Ostensibly, “Access / Absence” is on Thomas Ruff's "Jpegs," a minor series the artist began in 2004. However, by following “Jpegs” through various cold storage facilities and archives, Ruff’s series becomes a way of understanding the control and moderation of images in general, particularly in regard to the shift from physical to digital media. Of central concern are issues regarding the control, publication, and contextualization of digital images.

In the Archive, 2016, Will Fenstermaker


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 the network (i.e., the “Jpegs” pixelated structure means missing material becomes increasingly important as the image 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.

Conclusion: Regarding Ruff’s most recent series, “Press++,” and the processes by which archives rewrite history by categorizing its images, and remove images from their place in the world. The viewer remains the sole responsible party for maintaining context. Thus, for example, how decontextualized images of 9/11 were used as justification for war in Iraq.

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