Looking at Pixelated Images: A Deal with the Devil?


The Past or the Real Future?

I am aware the following may seem a bit grumpy and even wedded to the past. I’ll have to risk that because this article suggests that computerised images are, like painted images, removed from their original material and direct “first” experience (for example, looking at a flower or a person’s face). But in the case of computerised images, they are even further removed from that original source and, through their essential technical nature, employ a kind of benevolent deception, beyond the level of our normal sight. But what I am mostly focusing on is that pixels and oil paint are powerfully different, not one better than the other, and that those differences have consequences for our consciousness.

So, look away now if you will get irritated with the view that pixel pictures are essentially illusions. Keep reading if you feel this to be true and would like to embrace that illusion in a more healthy and self-aware way.

We can easily forget that atoms are not really little red and blue balls of finest size, joined together with minuscule match sticks. They are theoretical models, even metaphors for what is really there. Philosophers have battled down the ages about whether we can know the “thing in itself” that is “really out there” or whether the essence of things will always elude our subjective selves.

But no, an oil or water-colour painting under a microscope will not resolve itself into a series of tiny balls of colour, or little jigsaw pieces. An oil painting is not made up of a billion pixels, flashing on and off at the speed of wow.

When you plunge your brush into a pot of green acrylic and then dash it onto a canvas, you have made the world slightly differently from what it was before. There is no splash quite like yours. The “quality” of your particular quality will be utterly unique.


A Billion Pixels…

Not so with a billion pixels, even if the look to our physical eyes, unaided by magnifying technology, appears to be the same as paint.

This isn’t intended as a moral judgement (though there is a moral feel to it). It is just the way it is. Pixelation is a rendering of reality, painting is a creation of it. I’ll try to justify that outrageous statement in a moment.

Interestingly there is nothing you can do about it, even if you wanted to. Paint is always infinite in terms of its variability on the page. Pixelation is always finite to the number of pixels, (though variation in light does add another intriguing dimension in both cases).


The Infinite Quality of Quality

When looking at a picture rendered in paint, we are staring at infinity. Even if our senses on the surface are fooled by a copied picture, I believe we have a deeper sense experience going on that does “know” the different qualities of the finite and the infinite. We encounter something that is unique at a fundamental level. When looking at a picture rendered in pixels, we stare at the finite and the sense of infinity is illusory. We are either being kidded, or kidding ourselves.

One way of staying conscious when looking at pixelated images is to know this, and hold it awake within us. These pictures may be beautiful, may look utterly real, may make us laugh or cry, and they will have enormous value as artistic expressions, or as attempt to “capture” reality, but they are, at core, finite. They have much quality, but little or no “quality” to their quality in terms of being creations of infinite possibility. They are creations of finite possibility. When I look at a pixelated photo I encounter a simplification that has exchanged infinity for the finite.

In the finite, no matter how complex, I no longer enter the realm of mystery, for there are no things in-between the one and the zero, the on and the off, the dots or the squares, not even empty spaces. The binary possibility can multiply to such an extent that it fools the senses into a perception of “reality”- a reality so real that it is a bit like entering another world, a realm so similar to our own that it hardly matters to us. It is a virtual but seemingly real and highly compelling world. Why split hairs over the difference?

Yet what if the difference between the multiplied finite and the elusive infinite, though apparently sensually identical, were all and everything to who we are?


One Step Removed…

A painting of a field of poppies is not only one step removed from the original, it is also a new reality in its own right – a kind of species of one. A pixelated photograph of the same field is also removed and has unique qualities, but it is not a species of one, each pixel is a generic building block, it is about as unique as a jigsaw puzzle, replicable in its entirety, and at heart, unoriginal, unable to transform the infinite possibility that lies there, waiting to emerge. It is a kind of simplified record of what is there, a summary, a gloriously complex spreadsheet. But there are no spaces in between the ones and zeros, indeed no space for mystery.


Try this…

When you look at a computerised picture, look away for a moment, perhaps close your eyes, and imagine what you feel and think the picture might look like if it had just been painted, the paint itself still wet on the canvas. Or imagine, (if it is a scene) the spaces in between that the picture cannot capture, just a hint, even at a micro level, a wisp of colour, an accidental slip of the brush, even a stain of a salted tear of the artist. Then look back, enjoy both images, value them both for what they are, but do not confuse their essential truth with each other.

Or try this: Look at a digitised photo. Then turn away and look at something physical, perhaps the sky or your hand. Say this to yourself: this hand cannot be resolved to ones and zeros, there’s something essentially different about it. This picture is an illusion, I can enjoy it for what it is, but I shouldn’t confuse it with the infinite possibility of what I see with my eyes when looking at my hand. For the price this simplicity is that I fall asleep to the quality of quality!

Or even try this. If you’ve been looking at pictures on a computer for an hour or more, go out and take a fifteen minute walk. Stop here and there and look at things in the physical world. Look for a minute or two at a leaf, a cloud in the sky, or even the paint marking a parking space. Just look, observe, let the image impress itself upon you. And be aware it isn’t made up of a million dots. It is different. Just different.


Technical Wizardry

Digitised pictures are not “bad”. The technical wizardry they present are as breathtaking as a master painter who can create stunning copies of original paintings. And we can use computer software to create compelling and fabulous art. But the building blocks, we should never forget, are finite ones, the pixel is a departure from infinite possibility into a world where we trade that infinity for near copies. We get easy access, remarkable abilities to create, render, manipulate and recreate. As the technology develops, the number of pixels tries to fool us ever more (and succeeds if we let it)by claiming to come closer and closer to infinity, to complexity so high that it is as if infinity no longer matters.

But just hold this as a possibility at least: true infinity is transcendent, and it’s also where the human soul really lives. Give it up and you’ll be confusing your clothes for your skin.

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on April 6, 2011, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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