How do you make a photo poem out of a city?

November 15, 2007 | By DJ Spooky | Creative

Guest blogger DJ Spooky

It’s not every day that I write from Nashville, Tennessee. I am sitting at an airport waiting for my flight to Chicago. Tonight I have a big opening at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The show is a collage-based installation about some issues that I think reflect so much of the way we live now. It’s no uncertain reality that the images, documents, and sundry texts that scroll across my screen – cell, laptop, you name it – are part of a media ecology. Things don’t live online –but the code that represents them could almost be part of an evolutionary process.


My show at the School of the Art Institute looks at archival footage as a raw source of data. It’s not just that I think of photography as static images – I think of the act of recording as an editing process. When I was in the middle of getting together the material for the museum show, I realized that the amount of images we have made in the last century not only dwarfs many centuries of humanity’s previous attempts to organize data, but that it also means that as an artist, I can move through the found media of the materials of the 20th and now 21st century, like a fish in water.

The show “Link City” looks at media ecologies – how we think of the image of a city, and how that image is a composite of so many individuals collective vision. Nothing is separate. Everything is linked. Usually an artist is someone who uses the studio to create “new” material – for me, I am an artist who uses found objects – records, photographs, films. I guess you could say my work is all about a shareware vision of art. Everyone gives, everyone takes. It’s not really a zero sum game, but the fact is that it’s a creative process means that I have to work with a lot of people from a lot of different geographic regions, scenes, and styles.

What happens when an artist looks at the representation of a city and uses the images as art – without the original material? All of a sudden it puts several centuries of art in an ontological crisis. When we were compiling images for the project, that kind of thing went through my mind: how much the cities of America have been documented, and how many perspectives we need to actually make sense of any situation.

The Getty Images material I used helped smooth over some rough spots – we couldn’t afford a helicopter, for example. The material Getty Images supplied helped make for some of the beautiful overhead shots. We sent out people to gather footage, and combined it with historical material from the archive of the Chicago’s Historical Society. Then we took all of the images and combed through them to make a multiple screen project that was displayed in the gallery spaces of the Art Institute. It took weeks of research and shooting, and the glue for the project boiled down to the archival footage that helped show how much we really can illuminate the past with imagery that lets us know that the reality we live in is always echoed by the ways that we document ourselves.

Link City is an installation and it’s also a statement about a city that is made of many cultures and rhythms. Think of it as multimedia meditation that weaves a narrative between films like Dziga Vertov’s classic “Man With a Movie Camera” and the 1921 film by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand entitled “Mannahatta” which itself is based on the poem by Walt Whitman in his infamous 1900 opus, “Leaves of Grass.”

Link City is a meditation on the way that jazz evolved out of the connected strands of many compositional strategies: it places music and visual media in a co-evolving process where neither can be separate.

“With Link City: Chicago,“I wanted to look at how Chicago – a city at the heart of the American experience – resonates with many issues that I think exist at the core of the early 21st century. Information overload, a city made of a composite of almost every major ethnic group on the planet, and the massive concentration of economic and political power that has accrued in Chicago over the course of the last two centuries – all of these make the idea of doing a portrait of Chicago incredibly compelling.

What happens when you look at the city as a record? Sampling has become urban youth culture’s basic vocabulary – from iPod playlists, to GPS maps, to Google searches and Wikipedia entries. I guess I wanted to apply the same logic to a multi-media installation. That’s a new kind of poetry I guess the new poetry of the city.


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