Filmmaker Hito Steyerl has described the aesthetically-coded power dynamics at play between the "poor" and the "rich" image that infiltrate all aspects of contemporary video production. Beyond the dialecticism of her argument, which encourages deeper engagement with "degraded" pictures and a sort of abstract suffering through circulation (at least in terms of pixels), there remains a wide spectrum of mediocre to fair digital images for artists and filmmakers to deal with, and a host of issues concerning the resolution of visual matter, both new and appropriated. Just as collage and photomontage were once essential techniques for tinkering Dadaists, today the manipulation of picture quality has become a distinct strategy. I spoke to Berlin-based artist James Richards (UK) about his particular practice of presenting still and moving images of all registers in the space of the gallery exhibition, and the point at which an image breaks down into a feeling.
KR: In 2012 you programmed a screening for the Serpentine Gallery Memory Marathon. Surface Tension had some incredible films in it, including Paul Wong's Bruise (1976), which records the skin-level effects, in real-time, of transferring 60 units of blood between friends. That program really seemed to develop a metaphor between skin and screen—a form of intimacy that visually explodes the technological concept of a "touch screen"—something that I think also comes through in the composition of your own work, including Rosebud (2013), which premiered at Artists Space in New York in January.
Stills from Kenneth Fletcher/Paul Wong, 60 Unit; Bruise (1976, Digitally Re-Mastered 2008). 5.25 min., stereo, colour, English, single-channel.
JR: The censored images in Rosebud were shot in a library in Tokyo. I came across them by accident while researching there in the spring of 2012. The books—monographs on Mapplethorpe, Tillmans, Man Ray—were being imported into Japan from Europe when they were stopped by customs officials. Local law in Japan forbids a library from having books with any images that might induce arousal in a viewer, so after negotiations with the director, it was agreed that customs workers would go through the shipment and sandpaper away the genitals from any contested images. As you say, the video somehow is focused on the violence of the action of sandpapering—the point where glossy black printer ink gives way to the scuffed and bruised paper stock underneath. There's something intense but also futile in these marks. The video is a study of rubbing against and along different surfaces: the meniscus of water over the print, the elderflower rubbed along a boy's body.
James Richards, Rosebud, 2013. HD Video, 12 minutes 57 seconds. Courtesy the artist; Cabinet, London; and Rodeo, Istanbul. installation view, "Frozen Lakes," Artists Space, New York.