Rob Walker | Essays

The Work of Art in the Age of Googled Reproduction

Mona Lisa, per Google

A few months back, I had an email exchange with a Web/technology expert for whom I have great respect, and who made an interesting point about works of art in the age of Google. (The exchange was a sidetrack to an off-the-record discussion of a different subject, and he may be appalled by what I’m about to do with his wise insight ... so I’ll leave his name out of it for now.*)

Basically we were discussing the Web, memory, and what sort of record current technology would one day leave behind, and he sent me a link to the Google Image Search results for “Mona Lisa.” See above: This results in a pastiche of remixes and references. "There are all these mashups of the painting," he wrote, "but where's the original?" It's there of course, but I see his point.

That said, the truth is that whatever this may or may not suggest about art and the age of digital reproduction, I found the actual Google Image results page kind of fantastic: Some algorithm picking the elements; some other string of code arranging the results in tidy rows, each image somehow commenting on what's next to it, above it, below it. Time went by, but I kept thinking about this and finally I decided to do a few cold searches for iconic imagery, to see what came up.

American Gothic, per Google

Normally I use Firefox, but for this little experiment I searched using Safari, on the theory that because I don't often use Safari there would be less me-specific Google data skewing the searches. Then I used the “Grab” utility that as far as I can tell is part of the standard software on my MacBook Pro. I custom-captured the first full page of Google-provided images; I converted to those to JPEGs, and you’re looking at the results.

Some time after the original email conversation that put this line of thought in my head, I was talking to a designer who kept referring to “image economies,” or some similar phrase. When I asked him what that meant, he basically said: What you get back when you search for a term in Google Image.

Tomato Soup Can, per Google

Obama Hope, per Google

But I don’t want to call these digital objects “image economies,” I want to call them something like Google Clusters. Or maybe Pergoogles: These are iconic images — per Google.

Even that is a bit of a cheat, because obviously Google is responding to the specific words I choose. (The title of each image here corresponds with the search term I used; I didn't use quote marks in my searches.) It’s easy to capture “Mona Lisa,” harder to see what Google makes of Warhol’s iconic soup can, or Michelangelo's David (see below).

Nevertheless, I’m rather pleased with the results, all in all.

Guernica, per Google

Last Supper, per Google

I’d love to see all these printed crisply, and very large, and displayed in a high-ceilinged and white-walled gallery. Or museum. After all, I think a case could be made for these as "digital readymades," a term whose origins I don't know, but that I've read applied to the "Photoshop Gradient" pieces by Cory Arcangel. Those are supposedly one-click affairs, and the ones I've seen I quite like. (Though I've only seen them online.)

One question that might arise is: Who would be the owner, the artist, the author of these Pergoogles (or whatever they are)? They encompass original works, remix spinoffs, spoofs, maybe even unrelated keyword-driven imagery. Is it an involuntary collaboration among all of the above? Or is Google the artist, creating bricolage with its algorithm? 

Whistler's Mother, per Google

I'm going to say the author of the images that you are looking is me, on the theory that I typed the search terms. Admittedly, I didn't do as much work as, say, the brilliant Kutiman must put into his musical/video YouTube assemblages, or as much as the makers of the Life In A Day documentary apparently put into their project. But I don't think what I've "created" here is totally removed from those collage-like works. Plus, it did take me more than one click. And there's actually a lot of work involved in pulling together and arranging all this material — it just happens that here the work was done by algorithms and code that I wasn't involved in. 

Probably my (unserious) gallery dream is a bit much, but I could at least make postcards. Or, with a few more images, a calendar. This set is just the start, of course. This method could also be applied to create per-Google portraits of celebrities, famous logos, news events, perhaps even abstract concepts.

To me the most interesting thing about nailing down permanent-ish versions of these image clusters is that (as my Web expert correspondent was trying to tell me all along) they are actually quite ephemeral. Your own Google Image Search results for these same terms could be different, according to your search history. Mine could be different in a week, according to traffic fluctiations online. In fact, if you click on the titles of these images, what you get will almost certainly vary from what you see here.

On some level, that may suggest an image crisis; but at the same time, it's an image opportunity. The underyling source material may be quite durable, yet these composites are anything but. All the more reason to take a few seconds and capture them, just as they are, for me, right now.

* UPDATE: It was Dave Winer, who you may know, among other things, for his Scripting News site. (He's signed off on being named prime instigator of this flight of fancy.)

David, per Google


Comments [10]

Rob, these are amusing but "David" is the most interesting to me because of the (slightly) greater unpredictability of the search results.

The most startling Google-made, algorithmic, collage artworks are the searches that use ordinary, as well as not so ordinary, words.

"Lips" produces more spectacular results than anything above: a digital-demotic version of Pop Art, no less.

angler fish
extractor fan
machine gun
tax inspector
winged messenger
artificial intelligence

Ad infinitum . . .
Rick Poynor

These Google-generated image clusters remind me of Ken Solomon's paintings — work that I encountered at Art Basel 2009. I agree with Rick that the searches for ordinary words or even random numerical sequences are perhaps more fruitful avenues of exploration — providing unanticipated content juxtapositions. For example, most people would be shocked with the image results returned for the numerical sequence 241543903.

Ken Solomon's Google Portrait series:
Forest Young


I did something similar using Flickr and Vesuvius. Kind of like Zoe Leonard's "You see I am here after all"

But instead of screen grabs, I actually printed about 100 pictures of them. I'm kind of half thinking of doing it again with other iconic tourist destinations and then slapping them up in some white cube somewhere.

I'd definitely vote that you put 'em up in a gallery someplace.

Rick, you're right of course, it gets more interesting to move into concepts/etc. -- and that list is pretty fantastic! Maybe that'll be the second show. We'll collaborate! But more seriously, I do still like the tension between the lasting/iconic/familiar image, and the Google stew, and it seems (to me) like a good place to start. (And I should mention that my little meander here is ultimately much less creative than your recent Ballard post... )

Coincidentally Joanne McNeil at Rhizome also posted something about Google image searches yesterday, pointing to a short piece written by someone at Google.

Forest: Thanks for the tip on Ken Solomon -- I wish I'd known about that, but I'm happy to know it now.

Zeke: That Zoe Leonard project seems a little different to me, but I do like it and wasn't familiar with it either. Another useful tip. And curious about your Flickr and Vesuvius project.

Rob Walker

The idea of exhibiting these seems written half in jest but its a great idea Rob. I'd suggest extending the idea over time. Maybe one "digital readymade" once a month over a span of two years. Perhaps five to ten of the same search. A gallery/museum viewer could then see how images, or the use of them, changes over time. The other aspect (which is really appealing) is capturing something that is transient and everyday but is also a defining aspect of our daily lives. Have you seen photographs that capture the flickering stream of television images from the 1960s? I'm thinking of some photographs by Lee Friedlander taken in hotel rooms, just stuff that was scrolling by when he happened to take the picture. Nothing anyone would have ever archived or saved. And yet so resonant. Or how about an art book? I love the idea of capturing an essential aspect of our new media landscape in an "old school" form. It just wouldn't be the same if you did it as website. The potential tension between impermanence and permanence would be lost.
Adam Harrison Levy

Thanks, Adam. I like your idea (although except for the "two years" part -- I'm always trying to think up stuff I can dispense with in one crazy weekend...). Maybe I'll combine it with Rick's advice, and when the show makes me an art-world sensation, you can both come to the after party, or however that works.

More seriously, emphatic yes on the Lee Friedlander mention. In fact there was an interesting essay recently, that I caught via a mention by Joanne McNeil on Rhizome, that drew some lines between Google Street View art & Friedlander. The most interesting detail to me was that art (or rather, stuff shown in galleries?) derived from Google Street View evidently entails photographing a screen, for technical reasons as I understand it:

"One important process-related issue with GSV images that end up as photographs on a gallery wall is this: they are not screen grabs, but photographs of a screen. Whether the camera was employed to enable more megapixels for large printing, or as part of the conceptual artistic process, images created by the GSV device and compressed for the web are transformed somehow, perhaps with the air between monitor and camera."

It's worth a read:

Lastly, what you say about a book is making me think again about postcards, actually... Maybe I'll follow up on this after all...
Rob Walker

Hello-I very much enjoyed your Google image project and all the comments and references. I'm an artist who has also been working with Google images. I am currently working on a piece that takes 606 words and I am looking each up on Google and finding the image associated with the word's number. Using that image as a reference, I make a small drawing. (A selection can be seen on my website: http://cloverarcher.com/www.cloverarcher.com/606_images.html)
I'm finding Google is a resource to visually explore the elusive nature of objective meaning and the difficulty of ossifying relationships between language and image.



Fascinating project, clover. I think we're approaching the point where there are enough interesting variations on Google Image play that we (well, someone) could mount an impressive group show!
Rob Walker


ashmile, do you have a point there? I hadn't seen that (and the behance page says something about January 2012, which is after I wrote this) but it's very interesting, thanks for the tip. As you can see from the existing comments, many people have experimented with Google Image search results in various ways, and I always appreciate getting more examples.
Rob Walker

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