PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Peter Szendy suspects that many recent visitors to “The Supermarket of Images,” a new exhibition at the Jeu de Paume art center in Paris, expected a lighthearted and Instagrammable experience.
“There has been a huge amount of visitors, many of them young people,” Szendy said. “Maybe what attracted them to the exhibition was the title. They walked into the exhibition space maybe imagining they would find images they could easily take and share.”
But Szendy, the show’s lead curator, hopes the exhibit inspires more than just a desire to share something aesthetically pleasing. “My goal is simply to make people aware of what it means to take pictures,” he said. “It’s a political responsibility.”
Szendy is a philosopher and musicologist who joined Brown as a professor of comparative literature in 2017. He leads a Cogut Institute for the Humanities initiative called the Economies of Aesthetics, which explores economic categories in art and how aesthetic practices capture various aspects of economy.
“The Supermarket of Images,” Szendy says, explores “iconomics” — the idea that images not only have monetary value but also are themselves a kind of currency. Some installations within the exhibition explore the ways in which images influence people’s decisions, purchases and perceptions. Others creatively convey the speed and volume of online image-sharing. And still others shed light on a shadow “iconomy” that Szendy says exploits millions, from Cambodian workers paid 60 cents per meter to dig a trench that would house Southeast Asia’s first fiber-optic cable to “clickworkers” who clock 15- to 20-hour days liking and tagging social media images en masse.
Following the February opening of “The Supermarket of Images,” which runs through June 7 at the Jeu de Paume, Szendy offered thoughts on the concept and execution of the exhibition.
Q: How did you first arrive at this idea of the “supermarket of images”?
It wasn’t a deliberate choice at first. When I start working on a new topic, I don’t always know where I’m going. But I realize now that the idea is very closely related to previous research I did on hit songs. Sometime in the aughts, Apple was advertising the iPod with the slogan, “the soundtrack of your life.” I was interested in the way that hit songs were circulating everywhere in the world, out in public, in people’s headphones, in commercials, in popular culture. Hit songs define us — they shape our memories, even the events of our lives. I realized that images work in a similar way.
Q: How did the exhibition come together?
The exhibit came out of a book I wrote in French in 2017, called “The Supermarket of the Visible.” The director of the museum suggested I could imagine an exhibition based on the book. The book tries to explore a new perception of images, inspired by a quote from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze: “Money is the obverse of all the images that the cinema shows and sets in place.”
I argue that we can cut the sentence in half and it’s still true: “Money is the obverse of all images.” “Money” doesn’t just refer to the cost of images but also to their exchangeability. No image exists by itself — it exists in context of other images. So for this exhibition, I invited artists whose work somehow helps us understand this relational nature of images. The exhibition tries to make sense of what is happening to us in this “iconomic,” image-centered culture.
Q: Can you describe some of the work in the exhibition?
I divided the exhibition into five sections. The first section is related to the storage of images. It starts with a huge installation by Evan Roth called “Since You Were Born.” It’s basically an explosion of images of all of the websites he has visited since his daughter was born. It’s this idea that the hundreds of thousands of websites and images that we’ve interacted with are a sort of autobiography of us.
In another section, there’s a video by a French artist named Martin Le Chevallier called “Clickworkers.” It’s about women all over the world who are paid very low wages to click day and night to produce various things — likes on social media, tags, YouTube video views. They watch very traumatic images, sometimes for almost 24 hours a day, for very little money. This is how so much of the circulation of images happens.
The exhibition tries to explore the shadow economy of images. It’s one thing to say images are meant to circulate and that they’re defined by their exchangeability, which I argued in my book. It’s another to understand exactly what kind of economy, what kind of exploitation, this implies today.
Q: How do you think the work in this exhibition relates to people’s everyday lives?
There are billions of images circulating every day on social networks. In the time it took for me to say that last sentence, 2 million images circulated on social media. This is dizzying to me, and it is probably dizzying to many others. This exhibition is really trying to make sense of why this is happening and how this is happening, what it means for the way we see the world and what the consequences are. All of us take pictures, share pictures and see pictures every day, so this topic can’t not be relevant to everyone.
One category of work that I find particularly eye-opening in this exhibition, and highly consequential for our daily lives, is the work that focuses on images made by and for machines, which actually makes up the vast majority of images made today. This includes medical imaging, images generated by facial recognition software, pictures of license plates taken by traffic cameras and imaging devices that control the packaging or distribution of products. These are pictures and videos that control many aspects of our lives, yet we are not in the loop.
Q: You say that taking and sharing pictures is a “political responsibility.” What do you mean by that?
When people take a picture and circulate it on a social network, they should be aware that tapping a shutter button and clicking “send” or “share” is not a simple gesture. They are tapping into an international economy and relying on a huge, worldwide digital infrastructure.
I try to bring this sense of political responsibility to my classes at Brown, too. For example, I’m currently teaching a class called “Politics of Reading.” It explores what we do when we read, and it asks whether readers have certain responsibilities beyond taking in words for their own pleasure. I hope the class conveys to students a sense of responsibility to, in the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s words, “read what was never written,” to think about the historical context of words and their potential impact on society.
Q: Your work brings humanities-centered conversations like these, which are often restricted to classroom settings, to the public sphere. Why do you think it’s important for humanities scholars to engage with the public?
Again, I think it’s important for those of us who work in the humanities to bestow on people a sense of responsibility for their actions. Humanities should be where theory and practice constantly inform one another. I include in the notion of practice many apparently unnoticeable gestures that we perform, like lending an ear or taking a glimpse. I believe they are micropolitical actions that cannot be untied from macropolitical stakes.
The Cogut Institute is very focused on public engagement in the humanities. The research initiative I’m leading involves all kinds of programming that will be open to the public — conferences, seminars, concerts.