"Pixel Stress" by Anouk Kruithof
13 - 13
The Serious Banalities of Exchange: Reflections on Anouk Kruithof's "Pixel Stress"
“More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences. One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value.”
-Walter Benjamin “The Storyteller” (1936)
“It’s all about bucks, kid. The rest is conversation.”
-Gordon Gekko alias Michael Douglas in “Wall Street” (1987)
During my last year of kindergarten everybody was obsessed with collecting stickers.1 There were stickers of all kinds and colors. Girls collected mostly horses, rainbows, suns and princesses whereas boys gravitated obviously toward sports-related stickers. These tiny images were kept in pre-made albums and organized in succinct patterns that followed the rules of evaluating the stickers’ preciousness. Just as in the grown-up world, preciousness was defined by the parameters of size, material and rarity. The more common and smaller stickers sat on the front pages while the back was reserved for the real treasures: the more refined and shiny, and even more importantly, the puffy ones.
The whole purpose of this sticker-business was, of course, to trade and if you’ve ever watched a bunch of five-year-olds who are doing so, you know how damn serious they can be about it. The rules were pretty clear. Everyone who wanted to participate needed a ‘starting capital,’ that is several stickers of different values and an album. I actually have no idea how we managed to agree upon the minute differences that made up our value-scheme. There was a general consensus that stickers of the same value category were traded on a one-to-one basis whereas a single, highly precious sticker could be traded for a maximum of ten of the most common ones.
As it is for any kind of business, demand and supply altered the status of preciousness, and the most desired stickers could drop in their value from one day to the next. Our major aim was to collect as many “high-end” stickers as possible, but without causing serious voids on the front pages, or diminishing the diversity of album subject matter. A successful sticker trader had a well organized album with only a few blank spaces left, a seemingly endless supply of low-value-but-still-popular front page stickers, and was always in the possession of the newest puff or color examples. Those kids were the trend-setters. And in order to be such, they kept themselves busy inside and outside of kindergarten. I remember play-dates to which kids from different kindergartens were invited to trade exotic stickers from different neighborhoods or afternoons when a mom drove a bunch of us to a neighboring town to generously provide us with new supplies. I guess you can call that sponsoring or, in some cases, even extended nepotism.
The truth is it wasn’t that much fun and the whole sticker thing became quite stressful at a certain point, at least for some of us. We started to miss playing outside or with other toys and decided that, apart from an everyday kindergarten routine, the stickers shouldn’t matter anymore. Yet, after a couple of days, two friends and I realized that we had to come up with a new trading strategy in order not to be entirely stigmatized in the classroom. As a result of our refusal to participate in extra-curricular exchange or supply activities, our stickers soon became outdated, hence undesirable. So, our question was how to provide these sticky images with a different kind of value – a value that was not immediately related to their superficial appearance or dependent on their rarity but would instead allude to something invisible and held within. If our stickers weren’t interesting enough in themselves, we had to create stories around them to make them interesting and appealing to others. Our stories were mostly fictional, not necessarily fantastical, but surely invented and appropriated, edited and transformed. And in fact, they worked.
As I reflect on this act of storytelling about stickers in my childhood, informed by my subsequent education in art history and criticism, there is indeed something archaic, perhaps magical in the way that our stories became inseparable from the images – and thereby created a value that went far beyond a shiny surface. Images and words ultimately always connect – they have done so ever since.
I don’t know if Dutch photographer Anouk Kruithof ever engaged in the serious banalities of sticker-albums, but I cannot help making these associations when looking at her 2013 publication, entitled “Pixel Stress”. “Pixel Stress” is the kind of book you first pick up because of its glossy pages and abstracted color-grids, and then want to peruse for the striking thoughtfulness of its multiple-layered subject matter. It is the outcome of an interdisciplinary project in which Kruithof engaged with the notions of exchange and value but also with the question of how we relate to contemporary photography and image-making. By merging internet appropriations with public performance and installation, found footage and genuine photocollage, she created an object that is just as unconventional formally as it is conceptually.
Stress – with its positive and negative effects on the human mind, as well as its physical and chemical residues inside and outside of the human body – is a phenomenon that Kruithof has been interested in for a while. For example, her 2010 publication The Daily Exhaustion, a small newspaper, contains 23 self-portraits that capture Kruithof in different outfits, sweaty and with facial expressions alluding to fatigue. Yet, what is it exactly that allows us to draw this conclusion and make assumptions of what exhaustion actually is, or looks like? Folded in such a way that each double page displays one half of the same portrait, the newspaper and its progression of images, in fact, seems to reveal a visual pattern of facial expressions of exhaustion. However, the moment you unfold the paper and take it apart new images appear and display un-matching portrait halves that rather suggest surprise or astonishment, or no clearly definable mimic at all. Whereas “The Daily Exhaustion” presents Kruithof’s playful and personal take on the subject, “Pixel Stress” is her response to a kind of stress usually associated with the life in New York City – the rush and the consequential lack of random yet meaningful human encounters.
Kruithof started “Pixel Stress” with a simple Google search for images related to this alerted state of our sympathetic nervous system. The main search results presented stock images of men and women in suits staring at computer screens, collapsed over their desks loaded with paperwork, and heads-in-hands. Kruithof ultimately chose fourteen of these images which she first appropriated and cropped and then enlarged to their maximum size (3200% in Photoshop) in order to print and frame them. On April 18th of 2013, she and two assistants brought these abstracted grids of morphing, pixilated color to sidewalks of Wall Street, where they set up an installation under a temporary scaffolding and tried to engage pedestrians, mostly business men in their lunch breaks, with the displayed works. Depending on the pedestrians’ willingness to look and interact, Kruithof initiated conversations about her pixilated abstractions, the meaning of the project and potential interpretations of the works (quotes of which are included in the publication).
During the course of this mutual exchange of ideas, Kruithof asked the people involved if they would like to buy a print and name a price they would pay. The responses varied from “Well 10 dollars I would pay,” to “I don’t know anything about art, so I can’t tell you how much it costs,” or even “I'll pay 500 dollars for it, but if I would have seen in a gallery I could have paid 5000 for it.” Kruithof ultimately sold eight of the fourteen prints, and at this point the story could have ended, and Homeland Security could have entered the picture. You see, no one living in this country on an artist visa is allowed to conduct monetary transactions, especially not in public. For this reason, Kruithof conducted an imaginary sale, which means that she actually gave the prints away for free, once a participant told her a price, but asked them to send her a picture of the installed work to conclude the trade. One would expect serious businessmen, especially after getting a free work of art, to stick to their word, but, in fact, only one person got back to her.
“Pixel Stress” is a successful book in spite of, and possibly because of its ‘incomplete exchanges’. Smooth high gloss paper reproduces the tiny thumbnails of the original internet images that sit like little stickers on open white backgrounds. These thumbnails explode into pixilated close ups the moment you flip the page. All of these pages are folded into a loose binder which is album-like and held together by an elastic band. It actually takes skilled hands to keep the book together while you make your way through it. In the center, a stapled paper insert documents Kruithof’s Wall Street installation, including snippets of her conversations, as well as pictures of the interactions and transactions that are cropped or manipulated into multiple photocollages. The men in suits are cut in half or decapitated; their shirts are merging with the white frames and pixel-grids. Kruithof appears in some of the pictures, moving back and forth, arranging her works and communicating. What is most striking about all of these images is their emphasis on gestures: predominantly hands that point, compare and evaluate; grasp and hold; at times even touch; that interact and communicate. These hands ask questions and tell invisible stories.
At this point, you might be asking yourself what answers or conclusions, or what kind of story, do we, the ones outside of the project, take with us, when engaging with Kruithof’s “Pixel Stress”? But as it is with any good work of art, there are no definite answers, final conclusions, or straightforward stories. Kruithof’s photographic and conceptual thinking does not strive for plainspoken obviousness in general and particularly regarding the notions of stress, value or exchange.
(Un-)Fortunately, we cannot know or see what kind of reasoning or value system ultimately defined the respective businessmen’s monetary offers that ranged between the discrepancy of 10 and 500 dollars. It is perhaps, a general unfamiliarity with the art market or disinterest in art (“I have no time for this”), an unawareness of the immense amount of work and risk it takes to be an artist (“Are you still busy? I’ve been watching you working out here like a dog”), or a habit of confusing the value of a creative idea with the value of the material on which it is presented (“Are they pastel, oil? – No: They are prints. – Prints, oh”).
Kruithof points her camera towards things that are “inherently unphotographable”, whether they are the complexities of stress, the reasoning behind the choices we take, or the values we find and assign. She offers a smartly assorted set of found and self-made images, photographic modes, and thereby clearly reveals her awareness of what images can do and of how complex and complicated they’ve become, especially in our visual-information based society.
For this reason, I like to think that it was the actual interactions between Kruithof and her Wall Street audience – the conversations they shared once they started engaging with the project and one another – which made them, and most likely even Kruithof herself, look differently at her works.2 And I believe that there is a lot of value to be found in that. A similar change in perceiving the pixilated images also occurs to ‘the reader’ of Kruithof’s book, once you went through the paper insert. Even if Kruithof’s “Pixel Stress” does not present a traditional form of image-based storytelling, it visually contains and conceptually reflects on the essence we need in order to keep looking for and telling stories – that is human interaction and the exchange of experiences. In the end, it’s not the bucks but the conversations that truly matter.
1. Unlike American children, German kids attend kindergarten for three to four years.
2. One of my favorite quotes that are included in “Pixel Stress”: “What’s the title again? – Stress_Frustrated.jpg – Ah I like that a lot. I am going to hang it in my office, because I am often frustrated and when I this image it will remember me of that.”
From the artist's website:
Anouk Kruithof (1981) is a Dutch New York based artist. Her work has been exhibited in international institutions, such as He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen China, The Center for Photography at Woodstock, Multimedia Art Museum Moskow, Erarta Museum st. Petersburg, Culture and Arts Center Daegu Korea, Capitain-Petzel gallery Berlin, KIT (Kunst Im Tunnel) Düsseldorf, Temporare Kunsthalle Berlin, Autocenter Berlin, ICP New York, Capricious gallery New York, Higher Pictures gallery New York, Museum het Domein Sittard, the Netherlands, FOAM Amsterdam, Het Nederlands Fotomuseum Rotterdam, MARCA museum Catanzaro Italy, MAMAC (museum for modern and contemporary art) Liege, Belgium, gallery of the city Pecs Hungary, Kunstraum Niederösterreich Vienna, Gallery 1m3 Lausanne Switserland, Australian Center for Photography (ACP) Sydney and Dutch Culture Center Sjanghai.
Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors, owner, advertisers, other writers or anyone else associated with PAINTING IS DEAD.