Hito Steyerl – In Defense of the Poor Image


A nice piece on the status of the “poor image”, or digital image that has been passed along, compressed, copied and renamed until it becomes difficult to decipher and is of dubious origins and intention.

Low Resolutions

A hierarchy exists that the higher the resolution and fidelity of a still or moving image, the more intrinsic, artistic “worth” it has, even though this view is mainly propagated by a male-dominated, capitalist studio culture. The rich image established its own set of hierarchies, with new technologies offering more and more possibilities to creatively degrade it.

Resurrection (As Poor Images)

In the last few decades, the proliferation of commercial media, rise of the cineplex, and of monopolies on broadcasting has pushed the production and distribution of non-commercial, experimental works further underground. Only more recently, with the advent of digital media-streaming services, has the situation begun to change. Though the discerning viewer may expect to have to wade through a large amount of shite to get to worthy content, at least it’s out there now. Many works of avant-garde, essayistic, and non-commercial cinema have been resurrected as poor images. Whether they like it or not.

Privatization and Piracy

The condition and existence of poor images betrays their origins as having been previously marginalised and subsequent re-emergence. Poor images are poor because they are not assigned any value within the class society of images—their status as illicit or degraded grants them exemption from its criteria. There is also the issue of nations undergoing political change and cultural shifts, where new histories are created and old ones discarded. What may have once been a well maintained, high fidelity archive becomes too expensive to maintain, and eventually will go the path of re-emergence as poor images.

Imperfect Cinema

The notion, predicted by Garcia Espinosa in Cuba in 1960s, that “imperfect cinema” is a progressive antidote to capitalist, technically masterful “perfect” cinema. The rise of video technology would lead to a greater democracy of production, allowing ordinary people a voice and platform. While Steyerl draws a parallel between that development and the status of the poor image, she also makes the point that digital communication is also subject to more negative influences, such as hate speech, porn, spam and aggressive consumerist forces.

Poor images are thus popular images—images that can be made and seen by the many. They express all the contradictions of the contemporary crowd: its opportunism, narcissism, desire for autonomy and creation, its inability to focus or make up its mind, its constant readiness for transgression and simultaneous submission. 

The poor image needs to be re-assessed in this light – they are compressed and travel quickly (They lose matter and gain speed.) A parallel is drawn with the development of conceptual art and the turning away from the fetishisation of the visual, the commodity. The poor image has an inherent contradiction; while it can be seen as acting against the consumerist value of high resolution, its very nature (compressed and low-res) allows it to be easily propagated as information on the internet where market forces are waiting to exploit us with it.

Comrade, what is your visual bond today?

The reverse can also be seen to happen though, as the poor images through their circulation find and create a sense of community among an audience who are tuned in to their status as an alternative, militant collection of images. They do this by being carried by the very commercial media streams which try to utilise them for gain. They can be said to relate to Dziga Vertov’s concept of the “visual bond”, a sort of communist, visual academic language which could link the workers of the world with each other. The poor image can therefore be a vital part of non-conformist, militant movements.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *