We Have Always Been Digital

We Have Always Been Digital (2009) explores digitality as the intrinsic condition of photography, both in its past and present forms. Rather than focus on the aesthetic qualities of light, it invites the viewer to consider the formal role of light in the constitution of a pattern, the ‘ON/OFF’ of the information culture. It assumes that computation also takes place outside what we conventionally think of as ‘computers’. Indeed, it is through the differential effect of the presence and absence of any data - of pattern, electricity, light - that computation occurs in the wider world, engendering complexity and bringing about change. The eight images presented here show the digital flow and exchange of data in different media: house walls, furniture, human bodies. They capture the digital condition: the emergence of a pattern of zeroes and ones. (This work has been exhibited at Shoreditch Town Hall, London, at the Shifted Gallery in Melbourne, and at Goldsmiths as part of the 'Media and the Senses' exhibition.)

Joanna Zylinska, We Have Always Been Digital, 2009

In 2016 I revisited this earlier photographic series to look at both the light patterns and the algorithmic patterns underpinning the images. However, rather than aim to discover any kind of ontological truth or technological essence behind them, I was interested in highlighting processes of translation and abstraction that were involved in any kind of photographic practice. I also aimed to bring focus to the black-boxing of technology that we tend to associate with digital devices but that was already at work—perhaps inevitably, given the nature of light sensitive materials—with early large-format cameras which were literally black boxes. In the second iteration of We Have Always Been Digital I thus overlaid the nine original photographs from the first series in Photoshop to create an abstract composite image showing a textured palimpsest of light traces appearing on different surfaces. The visual latticework obtained, corresponding perhaps to Fox Talbot’s Lace image, engages the analog and continuous nature of light while also becoming more abstract than the individual images from the first series. I then opened the composite jpeg file in a PC program called Notepad to reveal its code, which I then pasted (almost in its entirety) into a separate panel. The image obtained became the second part of a diptych to accompany the composite photograph. This code-displaying image offered a different kind of abstraction, outlining a pattern which, at the scale and in the format in which it was presented, gained an alternative legibility for the human spectator: the image had been transformed from a command aimed at a machine with a view to executing a visualization, to a visual abstraction presented in barely legible black marks on a white surface and arranged into another kind of latticework. The black-and-white conversion of the image added another layer of translatability to the process, while also foregrounding the fact that photographs have always been translations—and not transcriptions of reality.

Joanna Zylinska, We Have Always Been Digital II, 2016.