Googlegrams

Friday lunchtime I escaped the shackles of my desk for a rare, UK exhibition of the work of Catalonian artist Joan Fontcuberta at Nottingham’s Djanogly art gallery. According to the curator, Neil Walker, Fontcuberta’s work questions the nature of truth and, in particular, the reliability or otherwise of photographic documentary evidence. The artist’s previous works include a complete portfolio of faked photographs purporting to document a Soviet space mission that went badly wrong in which a cosmonaut was lost in space. However, that’s not the TechLunch link. What interested me was the current display: Googlegrams.

Googlegrams are large photographs (about a metre square) constructed from thousands of small photo ’tiles’ in the style of a mosaic. Each tile consists of a tiny image taken from the Web, sourced from Google’s image search engine. Fontcuberta takes an image from current affairs, for example there is one showing a number of drowned African refugees who have been washed up on a Spanish beach, and replicates it in Google-sourced tiles.

In order to make this work, Fontcuberta has doctored a piece of freeware software, used for what’s called photo mosaic-ing, which selects tiles that correspond to the colour and shading of the large image. The software works out that it needs, say, 80 tiles that overall correspond to a particular shade of light blue and when it finds a tile that fits its requirements it will fill in the image accordingly.

In order to source the tiles, the ‘artist’ has to type in search terms to query Google’s image search engine. In the case of the refugees, Fontcuberta typed in the names of the twenty-five richest men in the world. The images that Google throws up are used by the software to find the right colours and shades to use as tiles.

Walker argued that the artist is setting out to challenge the prevailing view that accurate information is available from the Web. Fontcuberta is sceptical of the idea of a universal, democratic source of truth, exemplified by the work of Wikipedia. The Googlegrams are metaphors for the inherent instability and transient nature of the information and truth on the Web.

The exhibition not only shows various examples of Googlegrams, but there’s also a live demonstration of the software that allows you to construct your own image. The gallery is also right next door to its own eatery – so a bit of tech and a spot of lunch – although I’d advise you to eat before one o’clock as the servery is pretty much stripped bare by then.

The exhibition runs until 14th June, but if you can’t get to Nottingham, the gallery has produced a YouTube video, including an interview with the artist.

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