• The Discrete Channel with Noise : Information Source #1
    The Discrete Channel with Noise : Information Source #1
The Discrete Channel with Noise : Information Source (2018)

Image = Information
Text by Orit Gat.

1. A beginning

In Paris, an artist painting in a studio that used to be part of a monastery. She goes out and gets the largest drawing papers she can find. Surrounded by paint pots and brushes, it’s an image that belongs in a tradition of artists painting away in Parisian garrets, only this is not that story. What Clare Strand was painting in her Paris studio during a three-month residency at the Centre Photographique d'Ile-de-France in 2017 was a translation of pre-existing photographs that were ‘read’ to her over the phone by her husband in the UK. From across the English Channel, he would give her directions that would encode an image of his choosing, and she would paint it.

2. Transmission

Strand and her husband were following an existing model. The method they were using to transmit information was described in George H. Eckhardt’s ‘Electronic Television’, from 1936, in which he outlined how a photograph can be transmitted via code over telegraph. In this system, the original image is divided into a grid, with every square being given a value from 1 to 10. 1 is white, 2 has a tinge of grey, 3 is greyer, 4 darker and so on until 10, which is black. The initial source images from which Strand’s husband chose the images he would transmit to her were 10-by-8 inches, which they divided into a grid of forty-nine squares across and sixty down, each about 5 square millimetres. If it’s boring to read, imagine the couple’s phone conversations: he would call and say 24-2; 25-4; 26-5; and so on. Through conversation, with Strand following her husband’s direction, the language would form a representation of the original image. Like a human fax machine.

3. The result

Is a series of ten black-and-white paintings in acrylic on paper. The history of art brings forth associations and relations, from the development of the grid as a foundation for perspective in the Renaissance, to the nineteenth-century illusionism achieved through Pointillism. There are Gerhard Richter’s black-and-white paintings, László Moholy-Nagy’s telephone paintings, Agnes Martin’s feather-light grids. But the connection to the history of art crumbles in front of the actual framed paintings. They’re human, Strand says, as she reasserts that she is not a painter. They’re messy, imperfect. There are hairs that stuck to the paper, dust congealed into the paint. However, in installation shots of the whole series, they look like another kind of work. Photographed, the paintings seem faultless: the black, white and grey hues reminiscent of aestheticized black-and-white photography; the paintings look clean, their edges not frayed, the small mistakes blend into the frame. It’s like they have two lives, as object and as image. When I ask Strand which one matters more, she answers, ‘I don’t know. What I find ironic is that, as much I try to push “photography” into different mediums, I can never escape the camera and how it operates as a tool of representation. With each press or catalogue reproduction, the paintings are represented as photographs, which is somewhat at odds with the concept of the work – photography transposing into painting only then to be represented by photography!’

4. Utility

To talk about the history of art and about installation shots is to ignore how the objecthood of the paintings depends on their creation. This series, titled The Discrete Channel with Noise, is at once the result of and the documentation of communication and its possible failures. Looking at the paintings, I want to say they look pixelated, but that would make them more photo than painting, more final product than process.

5.The first man who saw the first photograph

The relationship between painting and photography always makes me think of Roland Barthes writing in his essay on photography, Camera Lucida, that ‘The first man who saw the first photograph (if we except Niépce, who made it) must have thought it was a painting: same framing, same perspective. Photography has been, and is still, tormented by the ghost of Painting.’ Later in the book, he writes about photography’s relationship to reality, or to the document: ‘No writing can give me this certainty. It is the misfortune (but also perhaps the voluptuous pleasure) of language not to be able to authenticate itself.’ The photo as confirmation of fact. That fact, that reality, is communicated over phone lines in The Discrete Channel with Noise. When we look at a photograph, what we’re looking for, according to Barthes, is knowledge that a thing, an event, happened. He writes about Polish soldiers in a 1915 photo by André Kertész: ‘that they were there; what I see is not a memory, an imagination, a reconstitution, a piece of Maya, such as art lavishes upon us, but reality in a past state: at once the past and the real.’ What we see, in The Discrete Channel with Noise, is a story about reality rather than proof thereof.


Whizzing through the air
When I meet Strand, she hands me an assortment of notes. She’s hesitant about it for a minute, as if giving me homework rather than help. Or as if she expects communication can fail, and thinks a list of references may offer a way out of an impasse. The history of Morse code; pigeon post between Paris and England c. 1870–71; Eckhardt; Cybernetics founder Norbert Weiner and American mathematician Claude Shannon’s information theory, which gave The Discrete Channel with Noise its title: Strand’s research does not explain as much as expand the work. And then in the notes is a quote from the 1973 movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory based on Roald Dahl’s writing, recreating Eckhardt’s transmission of images over radio. Here the character Mike Teavee, the winner of the fourth golden ticket, who loves this technology, explains: “You photograph something then the photograph is split up in to millions of tiny pieces and they go whizzing through the air, then down to your TV set when they are all put together in the right order”
Mike Teavee, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl (1971).

That it is possible to share an image, and the labyrinthine process of it whizzing through the air is in line with Dahl’s 1971 book, in which the candy factory includes an impenetrable room-sized machine that, when operated, makes a lot of noise, takes a lot of time, and then produces a single bit of chewing gum. Unimpressive until someone chews it and realizes it is as nourishing as a three-course dinner: tomato soup, roast beef with baked potatoes, blueberry pie and ice cream for dessert.

Proof: the overcomplicated can sometimes be amazing.

A lesson: also worth exploring.

7. Thirty-six images on a journey

The ten images in The Discrete Channel with Noise were chosen from a collection of thirty-six images Strand has compiled for a previous work, The Entropy Pendulum (2015), in which each of these photographs, which were taken from a tabloid newspaper’s archive, was eroded by the weight of a pendulum over the course of one day in an exhibition, then framed. Strand rephotographed the physical photos from the archive, creating a digital output that becomes a dataset ready for reuse. The subject of those images related to what Strand refers to as the subject of her work in general – magic, illusion, the paranormal, communication, transmission, the way people thought communication technologies were magical when they were first introduced, the way Alexander Graham Bell called the telephone a way to ‘talk with electricity’. How to read the transformation of these images through the process in The Discrete Channel with Noise These images are on a journey of losing and gaining information. The project is a metaphor, if not a realization, for what images do anyway: in flux, they move and shift in meaning.

8.Shifting in meaning

Why pay attention to shifts? Because shifts in context can mean that information is lost, or misused. An art historian friend of mine regularly points out that Alexander Nix, the founder and CEO of Cambridge Analytica, studied art history in university. Art matters, images matter, she wants to say. All channels of misinformation need to be decoded. Is there a present and a real, like Barthes thought there was in an only slightly less technological time than the one we occupy, today? Or is the subject of study now how realities are fractured across channels of communication?

9 .An entire history of communication

The diagram used to explain Eckhardt’s ‘Electronic Television’ has a man sitting at a table in front of a large black-and-white image divided into a grid of a woman with short, curly hair who looks a bit like an early Hollywood film star. His sleeves are rolled up, his back a bit hunched, he is clearly concentrating. He holds a long pointer stick and taps information onto a device resting on the desk he is sitting at. The cable running from that device spirals into a growing network of telephone poles that reach a window, and from that window to a box on the wall, and straight from the box to a set of headphones that another man wearing a blazer (or is it a lab coat?) standing in front of a large grid, only partially completed with the recognisable top of the short-haired woman’s head. He holds a paint brush at the same spot the other man’s pointer is. Behind him on a table are 10 boxes of paint numbered from 1 (white) to 10 (black) and some paint brushes. The caption reads, ‘Fig. 26. A Simple Method for Sending Pictures by Wire or Radio.’

Visually, it matters that the example is always a woman and the transmitters and receivers are always men. The message is that even in new technologies, even in a new world, some old signals remain. That is what Eckhardt’s diagram exemplifies. An entire history of communication reinforces the idea of who gets to speak across these lines. It is therefore fitting that The Discrete Channel of Noise is structured and executed by a female artist.

10. A piece of Maya

When Barthes writes that ‘no writing can give me this certainty’, he is asserting photography’s relationship to what he calls ‘the real’. But as a writer, he must have known that it is the rest of the above-cited list – ‘a memory, an imagination, a reconstitution, a piece of Maya’ – that is one of the potentials of art: to reconstitute is a way of reimagining the world. After Cambridge Analytica, or in line with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I want to argue that the redefinition or the exploration of that real is the contemporary condition. We come to things with suspicion, some of which is about recognising the failures of the systems around us. But we also come to them with a sense of possibility, a remnant of the Maya or the three-course meal chewing gum: the idea that the world is a story, and it can be shared.