As a graduate student at The University of Delaware, Minneapolis-based artist Patrick Koziol drew a portrait of 19th century Naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, and invited his fellow students to copy it like a visual game of telephone, or perhaps a tangential riff on the classic Exquisite Corpse. With Darwin and Wallace’s evolutionary theories in mind, Koziol’s intention was to see how interpretation might evolve or distort each artist’s representation of the original image when their only source material was the previous student’s rendering. Two years later, in November, 2014 Koziol, launched a new version of the experiment on Instagram, under the alias Reregrammer, and a new project was born.
Koziol uploaded the image of Wallace, a 1885 photograph he found via a Google image search, credited to the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company, to Instagram, and began methodically re-gramming it once a day. Much like countless photographers concerned with the loss of quality every time a JPEG is saved, Koziol was aware of the degradation an image receives every time it’s shared or re-grammed via app. But unlike many photographers’ battle cry for lossless file formats, Koziol approached from a different angle. “I wanted to use the software as a tool to create imagery, not just display it.” His intention was to dig beyond the technical implications, and instead explore how this loss might parallel communication and the distortion of information or language, and how people understand it.
At first, the results were barely noticeable. Slight aberrations, some distortion or slight loss of clarity. Two weeks (or about 14 re-grams) into the experiment, the quality loss became more noticeable. The once-smooth grey tones of Russel’s face began to feel over-sharp and started breaking up. After three weeks they looked filtered, the background sandy, the digital noise starting to interfere in grid-like patterns, and into the eighth week of the experiment, began to look like the flickering of an old black and white TV set losing its signal. Week after week, Russel’s likeness continues to degrade and disappear with the click of a screenshot. “I'm much more interested in the results of that degradation,” says Koziol “and how a change in one iteration would impact subsequent images. I had a notion that maybe I could ‘see’ the codes that take a screen capture and upload photos to Instagram if I kept doing it, that maybe after a while, that process would become digitally ‘etched’ into the images.” Koziol was particularly drawn to the evenly-spaced horizontal bars that began to emerge after one hundred or so re-grams. “It was like I was starting to see the inner workings of the scanning/uploading process being amplified through this feedback cycle.”
So why take an old, formally posed image of a 19th century Naturalist, as opposed to slick studio-lit photograph like so many camera-vested photographers have done to illustrate jpeg degradation? “I chose this one in particular because it had some great value contrast and texture,” he says, “things I hoped would transform in compelling ways as the project progressed.” But more importantly, for Koziol, there’s a direct connection between Wallace’s ideas, and relationship to Darwinism, and his own experiments. Unlike Darwin who believed that population changes came from competition between individuals, Wallace posited that the environment itself provided certain pressures leading to genetic changes in a population. Koziol’s Reregrammer series positions Instagram and the codes that "regram" an image as parallel to the environmental pressures that decide what data is captured and passed on to the next generation/image.
Wallaces image ultimately disintegrates into a cycling mess of pixilation and bands of noise, but Koziol continues the experiment daily without a clear endpoint in sight. “When I started, I thought eventually I'd end up with a white or grey square - I'm not so sure now…”he says. “I'm hoping to write a program to figure out the % difference between the images. Is the rate of change slowing, and if so, is there a limit to the amount the image can degrade? I have no idea, really. Maybe I'll just keep at it until either Instagram or myself cease to exist.”
Bio: Patrick Koziol is an artist living and working in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota. He received a BA in chemistry ('03) from Washington University in Saint Louis, and an MFA ('12) from the University of Delaware. With an emphasis on material investigation and experimentation, his work explores how form can be created through repetition and iteration. He examines the aesthetic possibilities of various processes, using them to imply loose narratives centered on notions of entropy and its manifestations in contemporary urban and suburban environments, both physical and virtual. Inspired by – among other things – geology, anatomy, and science fiction, his work encourages reconsideration of the mechanisms that dictate our experience. His work has been shown in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Wilmington, DE, and he is a former member of the Philadelphia artist collective Little Berlin.