Tom Critchlow
experiments in hypertext thinking
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Image and imagination

I worked as a visual librarian when I was a young man living in Paris. A custodian of all the images, photographs, paintings and media humanity had produced.

My job paid pennies and the collection was poorly organized but I enjoyed spending my days unearthing and exploring the image library. Removed from the fast paced urban living this collection of images - most designed to excite and stimulate - were calm and serene. In between boxes of photos I would stumble on advertising slogans and catalogs of rejected logos. Life size prints of magazine covers. Dust motes in the air somehow the disjointed hyper-stimulating collection calmed me.

But frustration walked in the door one day in the form of the professor. I never learned his name but I did learn to despise him. Trained in architecture and working at an advertising and communications agency (while painting at night I came to understand) the professor exclaimed that he had seen every kind of image. No new images or visual media were left in his life. And he blamed me for being unable to find him new images.

His imagination he claimed was exhausted. There was no more progress possible. And it was my job to satisfy him. To present him with some image or style or visual that he had never seen before.

At first, as custodian and, humbly, expert of the visual archives I thought it a fun challenge to find something new.

Gaudi. Pointilism. Chinese architecture. A catalog of colors. Pinhole photography.

Everytime I brought the professor something he would take it in silence only to return the next week and proclaim that he had seen it before. Or that it was nothing more than a simple recombining of other derivitive forms.

A book of germs was my greatest mistake. A rare 1929 thick leather bound book filled with plates painstakingly photographed through a simple microscope I thought the images arresting and fresh and somehow more urgent and important than anything else I’d give him.

But when he returned with the book the look on his face was thunderous and he proceeded to lecture me until the sun went down and I missed my train home on the essence of originality and how biology and life was the most banal and reducible forms of image. Everything was biology! He exclaimed. These germs are the very mother of all images! I see them in literally every single visual scene I can imagine!

And he proceeded to tear down stacks of books and empty drawers of posters as he pointed and demonstrated what was to him the same image again and again and again.

My mind has not seen a new image in 20 years! Everything is but a shadow of what I have already seen! There are no new mediums and no new images! I fear we have reached the end of the visual medium!

And clutching his head he rushed from the library leaving me with nothing more or less than settling dust, a single dim light overhead, scattered books and images and the crushing emptiness left behind by the weight of the end of image.

Already late at night and with much tidying to be done (and anyhow as mentioned I had missed my train) I resolved to spend the night in the library. I would find an original image. I would search and strain until no image had been left un-looked at.

Slowly the library returned to order. I swept and cleaned and tidied as I went but slowly and methodically as I went row by row browsing and considering all materials. I vowed to find the orignal-image-needle in the library-haystack.

Eventually. With a tidy library and a fresh stack of items pulled and assembled from the archives I saw the sun peeking up out of the windows and I went home. Over tired and exhausted but quietly confident I had found original image. Surely they were obscure and to my eyes (young though I was) shared no lineage with images before or after.

All through that week the stack haunted me. I knew it was a promising collection:

A book on pirate flags from 1830 - written and illustrated by a real seafaring pirate.

The complete archives of a small accounting firm which included diagrams and doodles in the margins of the paperwork quite unlike anything I had ever seen.

A set of photographs that were untagged and unlabelled found nestled in between old magazines. I could not make out the subject or even how they had been taken but they possessed some quality that deeply unsettled me.

And finally, fresh the day before, the full rejected suite of marketing materials for a brand of men’s suits that folded before the marketing materials could be unveiled. Created by a young advertising student at a local University the marketing was at once bad and original. Too literal and boring while containing some desirable insight that made me want to question every fashion decision I had ever made.

The week passed like agony. Time dragging and my stack of materials taunting me with their immovability. Until eventually the professor returned.

He swept in Saturday afternoon. It must have been raining outside because his rain jacket was dripping and he had the air of someone who’s head has been ducked down to avoid the wind and rain.

Without stopping to take off his jacket or remove his hat the professor strode confidently into the library and with a small nervous nod from me picked up the stack I had prepared.

Perhaps it was the tension in the air. Perhaps it was the rain outside and the professor did not want to leave. Perhaps it was simply the urgency he felt but the professor stopped at one of the tables by the door. My curated images in his hands, the rain dripping from his coat sleeves still he flipped quickly but methodically through the images. Making sure he saw every one.

I looked at him without breathing. Waiting with tension for his verdict.

Once he had finished the professor slumped back in the chair. A raindrop fell from his hat onto his cheek and rolled mournfully down his face as if the heavens were crying through him.

Enough. He said. Almost too quietly for me to hear. And then again. Louder.

Enough!

ENOUGH! How is it that there are no new images left! How is it that I am able to understand and anticipate and deconstruct every single thing you show me? Nothing here is more interesting than a row of grey bricks on an unremarkable house in a grey city of shallow visual boring nothingness!!

He was shouting now. And standing. Arms raised above him clearly aiming his frustration and anger at me but broadcasting at the same time to the gods in case they happened to be watching or listening too.

You might think this powerful man with some heroic ability to understand all imagery would have cowed me but something in me snapped. I had been dancing around this library for months attempting to please him and I had worked hard to discover original and obscure works but nothing had been good enough for him.

Taking the professors anger as my own I jumped to my feet shouting words that are now lost in history. Like a madman I was screaming. Whatever it was I said it clearly took him by surprise because he staggered back, taking the rain hat from his head with eyebrows raised.

But something had changed in me. I stormed to the nearest pile and started ripping and tearing up pages, taking posters and making confetti, turning books into crumpled balls of paper. Scientific papers filled with diagrams from hundreds of years before fell in tatters at my feet.

None of this sated my rage though and with temperature rising I continued to destroy and remove images from where they had been filed and bound and organized. I grabbed a pen - whatever had been at the front desk and I scrawled on the back of a shred of poster I had just destroyed:

Original never before seen images.

And then in a bundle under this “cover” page I shoved scraps of books, photograpsh, canvas, art, science, words, diagrams and every other thing.

As I assembled them I kept scribbling and writing putting words on and across and over the images. “Original”, “new”, “image” or on a photograph I would write “boring” and on a painting I recognized as a piece of cubist art on canvas I wrote “lines never seen”.

Eventually my whirlwind energy began to die and I felt physical exhaustion setting in. I took two large binding clips and bound my “book” together and thrust it into the professors hands.

There! I proclaimed. Original images!

And it was my turn to collapse into the nearest chair. Full and utter bone bending tiredness overtook me completely.

The silence hung in the air and eventually I looked up at the professor.

With a thin firm smile spreading across his face my eyes met his and we knew. Somehow. I had done it.

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@tomcritchlow