THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Evan Carter
It feels like an exercise in absurdity to think about how to measure the pervasiveness of images in the modern world. They are the blood cells of capitalist culture, being pumped through the socioeconomic infrastructure, pushing our communal bodies and systems from one day to the next. Just like blood cells, images need to be produced, distributed, and discarded. It is fair to say we take them for granted, and with the exception of a just a few knowledgeable experts, the process by which they are created also often goes un-considered. One of these people-in-the-know is artist and photographer Robert Chase Heishman, who recently embarked on a creative project that digs into the culture and economy of image production on the margins of our globally connected world. With “Image Workers,” Heishman presents a series of mixed media collages that reveal a modicum of humanity from an otherwise invisible world of labor.
Elastic Arts is an all-encompassing creative space known for hosting events and live music in addition to exhibiting art. To see it empty with its eclectic lounge furniture and unused sound equipment makes it an eerily fitting venue for Heishman’s work, which is deeply evocative of a sense of alienation that is all the more ubiquitous in a mid-pandemic neoliberal society. Each piece consists of three photographic prints assembled with colored tape. At a glance they read as digital color field abstractions or cutting room floor stills from a documentary film editing studio. Heishman’s background as a set designer and painter seems to inform some of the aesthetic choices, but whereas his past work could be considered playful, the pieces in “Image Workers” are far starker.
Robert Chase Heishman, #3, 2020, photographs & tape. Elastic Arts installation. Image courtesy of Elastic Arts.
A closer look reveals procedural evidence of image production and editing. An article of clothing is photographed next to a color test strip typical of professional photo shoots. That same article then appears again in another edited image within the collage, cropped and hovering over a solid color background. Both images are adhered with tape to a third image of some ambiguous space—a room with framed pictures on the wall, a series of empty cubicles, or a cityscape at night through a window.
Robert Chase Heishman, #4, 2020, photographs & tape. Elastic Arts installation. Image courtesy of Electric Arts.
Seeing the clothing, a shirt, a shoe, my mind went immediately to the throwaway ads I see when scrolling news articles on the Internet—the cookie-generated, scattershot kind of advertising that forgoes quality of communication for quantity of clicks. These are not advertisements, but rather commissions paid for by the artist to a company in Bangladesh called Fast Clipping Path. In addition to the edited photograph of an article of clothing, Heishman requested that the worker provide an image of a familiar space from their everyday lives. As viewers we get a glimpse into the lives of the laborers who edit content that gets consumed on a near-constant basis around the world, but mostly in affluent countries.
Robert Chase Heishman, #1, 2020, photographs & tape. Elastic Arts installation. Image courtesy of Electric Arts.
The implications are many. The privileged position of viewing artwork immediately betrays our own complicity in yet another system of low-cost, globally outsourced labor. Then take into account the larger consumer-based system that drives the need for image production and the energy and resources that go into something so temporal, so expendable. I am not one to denounce digital artworks for their dependence on the grid. What is concerning, though, is the widening disparity in our economy of not only monetary but also cultural capital.
Robert Chase Heishman, #2, 2020, photographs & tape. Elastic Arts installation. Image courtesy of Electric Arts.
In just the past few days, we have seen digital art barreling toward the kind of speculative trade economy that has already swallowed up the gallery world. There has been a recent surge in debates around digitally made “crypto art,” which is authenticated as an original work by being tracked on a blockchain as a non-fungible token, a.k.a. NFT. One of these pieces of crypto art (a JPEG) just sold for $69.3 million at Christie’s, ramping up a lot of doomsaying about the corruption and demise of the art world and the exploitation of the artistic masses trying to get in on the game. It is an emerging market rife with problems but only time can tell us where it will go.
The politics and ethics of the work is not lost on the artist. Far from it. In addition to his own artistic practice, Heishman does work as a photographer and image editor. This led him to take an interest in this expanding yet unnoticed form of labor. In contacting Fast Clipping Path for their services, he paid them a higher rate than their usual 29 cents per image edit, as well as $35 for the original images, and he included them in the artistic portion of the project, treating it as a collaboration. FCP will also receive 33% of the sale price of a purchased work, and though Heishman would prefer more of those earnings go to the individual worker, it is difficult for him to control that, being a client.
It was unclear to what degree the image workers were interested in or cognizant of the conceptual framework around the project. According to Heishman, their enthusiasm was concentrated in the acquisition of him as a new client, which is understandable. But what is a business partnership on one end is an inquiry-driven artistic collaboration on the other.
Heishman is still grappling with his own position as an artist, investigator, and documenter in this whole process, but the project has just begun. He is particularly observant of the fact that as an image worker in the United States, he has access to a market that allows him to utilize his skills and education as an artist to not only earn at a higher rate but also participate in a culture that affords him some degree of prestige. The growing demand for quick labor in this industry sparked this project. He sees it as the first step in an ongoing effort to unmask a growing class-based system in the world of image production while also hashing out the politics of his own role in that system. It is difficult and challenging work, and I am curious to see where it goes next.
Evan Carter is a visual artist and assistant editor of the New Art Examiner. He joined the team in 2017 while earning an MFA from the University of Chicago and has been covering arts and culture in the city and beyond ever since. He is invested in the creative community and its capacity to make meaning and reveal truth in everyday life.
“Image Workers” was installed at Elastic Arts from November 14, 2020 to March 7, 2021 and is available for online viewing at https://elasticarts.org/gallery/heishman/. It was curated by Alyssa Brubaker.
Robert Chase Heishman, #5, 2020, photographs & tape. Electric Arts installation. Image courtesy of Elastic Arts.
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