Bitmapped Form*

All analyses of art might be analyses of relationality, where form distends in time, in encounter, at some distance from an author, but never severed from it—might be, if it weren’t for the fact that questions of relationality often get cleaved in two along disciplinary lines: there are those who pay attention to form, and those who pay attention to reception (with those who focus on process not usually sparking across that gap). Form seems to name something in the work, thus intrinsic, sequestered, unsullied (see Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects, 2014, for the most extreme articulation of this claim). Reception seems to name something that comes after, more social, more muddled, therefore necessarily less formal. Formalism seems, in this sense, to name the practice of eschewing reception, where reception is often reduced to something flat and empirical like experience (see Joan W. Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry v.17, n.4, 1991). We need, now and probably always, a concept that connects those realms of discourse, that sees them, not just polemically but historically, as having never been untethered.

Many things drive this need, not least the way that the concept of form suffers for its artificial sequestration behind the walls of the artwork. But perhaps most of all, we need it because that very concept was in development in Silicon Valley—as, we could provincially call it, a commercial technology—all through the years that post-war art was in development. And this technology has since become the dominant organizational structure of twenty-first century screen life, which now takes in (via mobile devices, public displays, gaming, and the ubiquity of computerized work) labor time as well as play time, productivity as well as relief from it, love, democracy, politics, and forms of belonging both local and global, both tightly galvanizing and loosely affiliating.

The bitmap, a technology (but really a technology cluster or enchainment or mapping) dating from the post-war period, is increasingly something we can’t or don’t or won’t see without. As the “bit” hints, its provenance lies in computing. Defined broadly, a bitmap is a mapping from one domain (say, that of the numbers that might define a grid as a surface for holding an image) to bits (values that are either zero or one, i.e., machine language). More precisely, bitmaps connect memory (or RAM) and the screen as mediated by the central processing unit (CPU) and the computer’s video hardware. So a bitmap is a kind of memory as well as a format for images that reside on screens. It has become, since its first conceptualizations in the 1950s, an interface with an extremely broad historical resonance, broader than has so far been acknowledged. The grid will be the figure I use to connect the bitmap to the history of art and aesthetics, but there would certainly be other points of entrée.

Since approximately 1984, when Apple released the first mass market personal computer with a graphical user interface (GUI), more and more people have engaged with their computers solely through the interface of a bitmap. In that time, more and more people have had both their work and their leisure time subsumed into the computer. For that reason and others, work and leisure have become inextricable (for more on this conjunction, see: Andrew Ross, No Collar, 2004; Melissa Gregg, Work’s Intimacy, 2011; Boltanski and Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, 2006). Or to put as Steven Shaviro does, now introducing the electronic network to that technological enchainment that also subsumes the GUI and its subtending technology the bitmap: “If you’re connected, you’re fucked.” This statement opens Shaviro’s book Connected (2003). For whatever else it performs, this introduction to an early twenty-first century text on “what it means to live in the network society” measures the extent of the problem I’m trying to map here. Whatever people who live their lives (work, play, whatever) on Apple or Windows machines see in and through their computer, they see with the bitmap (which doesn’t mean they see the bitmap itself, not in any necessarily self-conscious sense).

This history of an increasingly dominant visual technology begins at least as far back as the 1950s and 60s, when Douglas Engelbart, eventually working out of the Stanford Research Institute, was trying to reimagine computers as part of what he called a “man-machine” collaboration. His primary goal, however, was to invent a new kind of labor (he was most focused, of course, on the beneficial products of that labor), one that could effectively organize and appropriate new forms of information, the nascent glut, soon to become so iconic of a networked age (“information overload” was Alvin Toffler’s slogan from Future Shock, 1970). And so this history extends also back to Vannevar Bush’s slightly better known essay, published in The Atlantic, entitled “As We May Think” (1945). Bush also tried to imagine a kind of proto-personal computer, his famous memex. The memex, as Bush imagined it, would use photographic technology (viz. microfilm) to help people organize information, meaning, put it to work.

So labor was the primary problem for both men, especially labor understood in a post-war, newly-globalizing world in which various areas of military-scientific research were no longer firewalled behind battle lines. Implicitly, they meant white collar labor, work done in a clean office—intellectual labor done within a management structure, to give both this labor and its information resources the appropriate class inflection. More specifically, both Engelbart and Bush imagined a form of cognitive labor, new in the scope of its resources if not quite so new in its cognitive demands, that could gather, collate, and mobilize a dizzying array of information that would be made available electronically in a post-war world with no borders. The problem Bush and then Englebart confronted was how to construct a form of labor around information so that the two terms would all but imply each other. Here is Engelbart, recollecting his feelings immediately after having read Vannevar Bush: “Well, I remember being thrilled. Just the whole concept of helping people work and think that way just excited me. I can remember telling people about it. I never have forgotten that”. Engelbart was referring to passages like this:

Consider film of the same thickness as paper, although thinner film will certainly be usable. Even under these conditions there would be a total factor of 10,000 between the bulk of the ordinary record on books, and its microfilm replica. The Encyclopoedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk. If the human race has produced since the invention of movable type a total record, in the form of magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence, having a volume corresponding to a billion books, the whole affair, assembled and compressed, could be lugged off in a moving van. Mere compression, of course, is not enough; one needs not only to make and store a record but also be able to consult it, and this aspect of the matter comes later. Even the modern great library is not generally consulted; it is nibbled at by a few.

Strikingly, for both Bush and Engelbart, a computer with a graphical interface was thought to be an integral part of the solution to the problem of how to put such resources to work. That is, an interface navigated by way of graphics rendered or situated in kind of Euclidean space (navigable via the eyes and a proprioceptive keyboard and mouse, if not the entire body) rather than controllable through the command lines and coded textual instructions, as was then the norm for computer users. In this reconceptualization of the space and interactivity of the screen (of its “phenomenological vector,” as art historian Rosalind Krauss might call it), a graphicalized screen was tightly fused with a new form of labor—the two emerged together. The bitmap was the technological engine of the screen so reconfigured, such that a graphical screen or graphical user interface can be called a bitmapped screen. This research would all eventuate in Xerox PARC’s Alto, released on March 1, 1973, the first computer with a fully manifest graphical user interface. Everyone who isn’t a computer programmer, but who works on or with a computer, now uses a bitmapped interface with extremely similar characteristics, nearly the very same characteristics that Apple was the first to commercialize with their Lisa, released on January 19, 1983. The primary features are the ones most of us still use now: pull-down menus, windows, icons, all organized on or as a “desktop” space.

Given the near-synonymy between the bitmap and work organized within the rectangle of the monitor, and the massive influence if not dominance of that form of interaction as it was developing from the 1950s through to the present day, I think we need to ask how the bitmap, as an interface, appears in that other area of research that has been so obsessed with delimited visual fields and the organization of attention in and through those fields: post-war art in America and its spheres of influence. Thinking synoptically about this body of work and its relationship to the long run of modernism is what brought Rosalind Krauss to first think about grids in 1979 (“Grids,” October v. 9). There, Krauss claims that the history of the grid in modern art constitutes nothing less than the history of modernism itself. Krauss’ interest, maybe her primary interest, was in testing the value of structuralism for Art History. As a result, Krauss’ grid is static, a structure: relentlessly flat and flattening, autonomous and autonomizing. It has no existence in time because, as she says, it absolutely, even programmatically resists development. The grid can become, in this rendering, an emblem of the homogeneity of mass markets, of capitalism as understood, for instance, by the Frankfurt School critique that was so influential on Krauss. The grid is modernism’s great aesthetic gambit, and its fatal dead end. Self-reflexivity ossified unto death, and then unto myth.

One problem with Krauss’ argument, for all of its synoptic grandeur, is that it confines itself to Art, and moreover, to art in which the grid appears—to put it in the maligning language of post-war criticism—literally; that is, obviously and explicitly. But of course the grid assumed other forms. And of course it had other relations to the phenomenal. Relatedly, the grid’s inability to be developed productively, to change over time, is as much a product of Krauss’ structuralism as it is the grid’s own doing. Because of course the grid did develop through a history of uses and adaptations: economic, technological, military, commercial, etc. Hannah Higgins’ The Grid Book (2009) goes some way toward addressing both problems.

The bitmap, in a sense, distends the grid in time and space. Krauss argues that the grid becomes consequent to its plane, fully subsuming that plane to its rigorous logic. The bitmap does the same, but does so by putting a grid of pixels into contact, actual electrical contact, with a technology in a separate realm: the computer’s CPU (separate, in some ways, precisely because of the bitmap, which both connects and keeps the more esoteric workings of the CPU at arm’s length, where Apple’s designers thought it would be most adaptable and profitable). The bitmap is a map because it moves between these realms, holding them together and apart, related via a kind of parallelism. But because one of these realms is an interface, thus human-facing, the bitmap also connects to a body, a sensorium and an unconscious, however those terms are assembled into a provisional subjectivity. This, given schematically, is the mode of relationality that I mean to install (that I think history has already installed) as a dominant cultural (that is, aesthetic and economic) force in post-war American art.**

Seen in a history that takes in computing and the new forms of labor and labor subjectivities being imagined in the vicinity of computer research, the modernist grid seems, sometime between the 1960s and the 1980s, to quite literally (meaning: industrially, commercially, and culturally) have been superseded by the bitmap. If the grid was ever a static organizational matrix, now, in the form of a bitmap and its graphicalized screen, it was a relation that extended across the macro-time of capitalist progress as well as the micro-time of encounter with any particular screen and the activities it organizes. Such a form of relation relied on precisely this enchainment in which the bitmap was the hinge, both material substrate and phenomenal vector. And given this chain and its coming to dominance, there can be no cleaving of form and reception that isn’t wishful or nostaglic. In the bitmap and its ubiquity, reception is formalized, and form becomes receptive, immanently. Perhaps this was always the case with the grid; perhaps the bitmap shows this to have been the case all along.

To put this thought to work for a minute, first consider Charles Gaines’ work between the 1970s and the late 1980s, the period in which he says he first came to adopt Conceptualist tactics such as systems and grids. Gaines’ recent retrospective at The Studio Museum in Harlem, recently remounted at The Hammer in Los Angeles, is, provocatively for my purposes, named “Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974-1989.” Those dates, while delineating the period of Gaines’ experiments with gridded fields, are also the years that encompass the critical period in the development of the bitmapped interface. That concurrence might be coincidental if not for the fact of Gaines’ avowed interest in systems; systems that, for instance, distanced the author from the work, that put subjects in contact with the author precisely by circumscribing that encounter, subsuming it within an interface that seems to black box the authorial site (the way the bitmapped screen black boxed the inner workings of a personal computer) in favor of a more self-reflexive relation that was seemingly immanent in the encounter itself (the way the GUI and the graphicalized visual field makes that field personal or personalizable, more about what happens in and through that screen itself, and so adaptable to various kinds of work and work identities). My instinct is that Gaines’ complex image systems would be better understood both conceptually and historically through the figure of the bitmap, or, to put it more precisely, through the figure of the bitmap understood as part of a cluster of objects and encounters that were working in unself-conscious concert to develop a new mode of labor that should be understood as immanently relational within the strictures and norms established by the graphicalized screen.

Or Joan Jonas’ video Vertical Roll (1972). By playing with the interruptive temporality of the vertical hold function on her monitor, by throwing monitor out of sync with video tape player while attempting to synchronize her body and her body’s action with that very out-of-syncness (e.g., stamping on the floor in “time” to the vertical roll), Jonas works across an enchainment of exactly the sort I’ve been describing, that arcs (and not just conceptually or idealistically) from production to broadcast to reception—her body, the monitor, and the viewer’s sensorium tightly woven together by way of the televisual raster thrown out of sync. Out of sync but encompassed, thereby, within a new rhythm, that of the vertical roll itself, which can’t not be a rolling of the eyes as much as it is a rolling of the television signal. Such an enchainment assumes the relational form of the bitmap, an interface that likewise unites those disparate fields of activity. This conjunction with the history of the bitmap, like the one we find in Gaines’ interest in systems, is also not mere historical coincidence (although one might be willing to be convinced solely by the formal argument I’ve only just begun to sketch), for the televisual raster being disrupted and desynchronized by Jonas is closely, technologically related to the bitmap and its allover gridded organization of a visual field. The televisual raster, in Jonas’ early video, is put into actual electrical contact, by way of the graphicalized field of the monitor and its intimate connections with broadcast, with both a site of production and a site of reception. Jonas’ obsession with the television raster quite simply is a concern about the bitmap as a widespread visual technology for organizing attention.

And, maybe most obliquely of all, Morris Louis’s series of paintings known as the Unfurleds. A key quality of these works was to unify canvas and paint, to produce thereby a single entity that could be encountered not as a bifurcated thing—paint and canvas, or, paint on canvas, or, artist and product, or representation and object—but as an open field that was both bounded (by the frame) and radically undifferentiated (by the unification of paint and canvas). A thing that was thereby radically opened to an imagination of new kinds of encounter—encounters that could, for instance, be organized around what was left out, what simply isn’t there in those great expansive middles (again, think of the way that the bitmapped screen screens its users from some aspects of the computer in order to put them into better, more alluring contact with other parts of the computer, and does so precisely by unifying disparate elements of the interface within the imaginatively habitable, graphical and proprioceptive space of the GUI). Louis’ dedifferentiation of paint and canvas, their becoming transparent to one another, has a great deal to do—as a question of production and reception, process and experience, understood now as ineluctably fused—with precisely the kind of allover raster field that the bitmap instantiated at almost exactly the same time that Louis was developing what is widely accepted to be his major work.

Seen this way, the bitmap has already appeared in art. History catches up.




*The research and thinking for this essay were conducted in close collaboration with Eli Coplan.

**By using the somewhat blank and ahistorical term “relationality,” so prevalent in contemporary art history, I mean to put my account into dialogue and some tension with the literatures on relational aesthetics, participatory art, dialogic art, etc., but also to signal my indebtedness to Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s thinking, that now spans more than two decades, on new or nonce or queer forms of relation, what another field might call emergent relational form (see Caravaggio’s Secrets, The Arts of Impoverishment, Forms of Being, as well as his clarifying interview “A Conversation with Leo Bersani,” October v. 82, 1997).