Not many would contest that images have become the lingua-franca of contemporary society. The capacity to which we express the wide gamut of feelings accessible to us is highly contingent on our ability to curate the perfect GIF, emoji, selfie, or still image. Whereas text once supplemented images, adding the necessary semiotic push that would cement their meaning, the relationship between images and text has reversed. Nevertheless, societal trends have always pushed the needle in favor of one or the other. A quick glance through the histories of art, media, and marketing can equip one with the understanding that without the invention of the printing press or the carte-de-visit we could not be having this discussion. In this case, the advent of social media has placed images front and center. And to add the cherry on top, the illusion of control over what images we are fed and feed to others has in many ways desensitized us to the true meaning of an image within the context of a dialogue.
A New Nothing, an online archive of image-based conversations, simultaneously complicates this role that images have acquired in daily lives through its meditated approach to hosting dialogues. In this text-based conversation, we catch up with one of the creators of A New Nothing, Ben Alper, to discuss the purpose of the project, the poetry within image-based dialogues, and the power of spontaneity.
Justin Baez: During its inception, did you think of the digital space as more suitable for a project like A New Nothing than a physical exhibition or photo-book?
Ben Alper: When my co-founder Nat Ward and I conceived of A New Nothing, we very specifically envisioned it as a web-based project. The whole idea was to create a space that was both decentralized and able to facilitate these ongoing and expansive visual conversations. While exhibitions and books are finite forms of expression - limited by the boundaries of time and space - online platforms allow for a different kind of temporal engagement. Certain conversations on the site having been evolving organically for more than four years now, which wouldn’t be possible in the same way if we had taken the project in a more physical direction.
B: Your answer really highlights how meta A New Nothing is. We often think of photographs as defying time - making finite moments accessible seemingly forever. Even the Internet complies with the characteristics of an archive. I wonder if you see A New Nothing in a similar light?
A: I’ve never really thought of A New Nothing in traditionally archival terms. Its aims exist outside of those typical associated with institutional archives – their quest for authority, preservation, historical construction and, above all, political efficacy. Taken far more broadly, I suppose any grouping of images could be considered an archive in some sense, simply through a shared locale and proximity to one another. However, I think that train of thought leads toward generalization and I’m always wary of that.
To me, A New Nothing is more a constellation of fragments, thoughts and exchanges. It’s a platform that embraces ambiguity, subjectivity and play, and thus is almost antagonistic to traditional archival objectives. It feels like the conversations on the site exist as concurrent discussions taking place in a n– each is occurring privately, but in a very public space.
B: What are the limits and affordances of image-based dialogues?
A: One thing that’s been really generative is how the project has allowed me to think about image-based communication in similar terms as written or spoken language. Literary devices have been a huge inspiration for my responses to Nat's images. Considering how images might operate as metaphors, clichés, innuendos, hyperboles, poems, or alliterations has provided an incredibly useful and surprising structure. It doesn't mean that the viewing experience follows this logic, or is any less opaque in the end though. I guess that’s an affordance and a limitation simultaneously.
B: Visuals aside, what would be lost (or gained) if these conversations were text-based?
A: This is hard to answer because the project is so fundamentally image-based. If the conversations were rooted in text rather than photographs, they would likely conform more traditionally to the trappings of language and syntax; the fact that the exchanges on A New Nothing are comprised of images allows them to exist more ambiguously. And it’s in that ambiguity that the most exciting poetic and associative things happen.
B: How does one get chosen to begin a conversation on A New Nothing?
A: Through invitation, referral or submission.
B: How have the contributions of other photographers to the site changed your perspective on photography?
A: Watching all of the conversations evolve over time (and certain ones in particular) has been incredibly rewarding and instructive. It’s reinforced just how pliable and multifaceted images are, but also how resistant they often are to categorization or “reading”. Even in the context of a continuous photographic dialogue, there are innumerable ways to generate meaning and narrative. And that’s an exciting prospect, because it allows for each viewer’s unique subjectivity to be projected onto each exchange.
A New Nothing would obviously be nothing without the generousness and vulnerability of all the people who have contributed to it over the years. And for that, Nat and I are endlessly thankful.
B: Some of the interactions feature appropriated images amongst original compositions. Did you foresee this being a part of the dialogue process?
A: Yes, when we started A New Nothing we knew it was important to be expansive and egalitarian about the kind of imagery on the site. There have been a number of conversational strategies employed by participants. Some people make work specifically for the project, others utilize existing photographs from their archives, others still turn to appropriation or even video as a way to communicate their ideas. It’s really an idiosyncratic thing. Speaking personally, a good deal of my work has engaged with appropriation, so I knew that I wanted found or vernacular imagery to play a part in my exchange with Nat.
B: Do you think it is indicative of how this generation views photographs?
A: Possibly. I think it’s also about invoking certain cultural or historical references that require an appropriative gesture.
B: Has there been anything surprising or shocking about some of the photographic interactions?
A: There have been so many surprising and wonderful gifts offered up by the exchanges on A New Nothing. Too many to list here, frankly. However, if there is one thing that has been the most consistently surprising to me is just how deeply people yearn to communicate with another person in this manner. We’ve received countless emails that articulate, above all else, that people crave the kind of connection that the project makes possible. And there’s something encouraging and deeply human about that desire to connect.
B: Some of the conversations on A New Nothing are archived, is that an indication of them having ended?
A: After 6 months of inactivity, conversations are archived. They can be returned to, or reactivated, at any time though. When they are, they’re moved back to the active section.
B: A new nothing seems to operate as a microcosm of the greater phenomena that is occurring in our current societies. Images seem to be our primary form of communication. We are constantly overly saturated with visual narratives, yet you chose to feed into that progression why?
A: Images certainly are the predominant form of communication in the 21st century. However, paradoxically, their cultural ubiquity has lessened our ability to adequately contend with them. We are simply overwhelmed by the glut
and often unable to parse through it with any thoughtfulness. Our encounters with images are often permeated by a kind of consumptive tendency. Social media platforms, news feeds and google search results all reinforce this. It’s in the cacophony of contemporary image culture that anxiety and distraction set in.
With that being said, I see A New Nothing as a more nuanced and contextualized platform, a space where willing and engaged participants come to cultivate visual narratives of all kinds. Images are considered in ways that I don’t believe they typically are in a larger cultural context; they are sent back and forth with intention, creating connections that, while perhaps not evident to the viewer, are borne out of specificity and personal experience. Ultimately, the thing that really separates this project from the broader conditions and phenomena of our digital image culture is that it fundamentally hinges on reciprocity and sharing. So much of our experience with images today is one-sided. We are “fed” content by algorithms based on perceived interests, but there’s rarely a person on the other end. With A New Nothing, each image added to a conversation is a generous act, a signal of interpersonal connection in a decentralized space.
B: On that note: What role do you hope to serve in our contemporary media landscape?
A: I guess I hope that it serves as an oasis of sorts in an otherwise chaotic and dizzying image desert. We’ve heard from many people at this point that A New Nothing operates as a place where they can come be inspired, confounded and excited by the expressive power of photographs. That’s really all we could have ever hoped for.
B: In your personal exchanges with Nat, do you have a grasp of when the dialogue will end?
A: I really don’t have any idea. I hope we keep it up indefinitely, but we’ve certainly slowed over the last few years. I often wish that we were more active, but like any relationship, there’s a lot of compromise involved in an endeavor like this.
B: When choosing the next photograph is spontaneity important, or a meditated approach?
A: For me, it really varies from image to image. Typically there is some kind of logic – formal, conceptual, thematic - that drives the way I respond to an image. And while A New Nothing is a safe place to be spontaneous and impulsive, I always attempt to balance that out with a degree of thoughtfulness when considering how my reply operates in relation to Nat’s.
B: Finally, what is the future of A New Nothing?
A: I’m honestly not sure, but my hope is that it continues to grow, thrive and inspire people. We’ve talked about doing some print publishing, so hopefully that can happen in the near future. Perhaps some thematic exhibitions as well. Right now though, there’s nothing concrete planned.
A New Nothing may be found at https://anewnothing.com