A tidal wave of images engulfs us every day. Pick up your phone, scroll through any app, walk down the street, turn on a screen, flip through a magazine. The images are endless, constantly crashing down upon us. Yet it doesn’t feel that way because we have become accustomed to this state. Visual culture, from photography to painting to illustration, has become similar to the air we breathe; it is all around us, yet it smothers rather than sustains. And as the Latvian artist Alnis Stakle points out, sometimes it feels as if we have become helpless in the face of this flood, as if living in this world of images has led to a kind of illiteracy. “It becomes ever more saturated and our capacity to grasp and comprehend it is becoming more and more limited,” he explains.
Mellow Apocalypse, the title of Stakle’s photographic series, has a particular ring to it, modifying a frightening word with a soft one. It speaks to a sense of gradual evolution; a new normality that creeps up on us in which a major change takes place in a way that seems slow; in steps that are easily absorbed into our daily lives. For Stakle, “the availability of images and the scale of their circulation are truly apocalyptic.” But, despite the scale and drama that the word conjures, it’s an event that he feels somewhat “mellow” about. “I actually do not think it is bad or good. The apocalypse has not actually happened.”
Stakle’s series is a jumping off point to explore and revel in the depths of this mass of imagery. In his intricate, digitally-collaged compositions, history is layered and canonized images resurface to speak in contemporary terms. Mining institutional archives, he focuses on iconic events, incorporating imagery from various collections to build new compositions. Using algorithms to extract certain fragments of images, patterns emerge. When amassed together, hand gestures, body poses and architectural structures gain power in numbers to form reflections on our societal ideals.
Working in cohorts with the algorithms, Stakle explores a novel form of collage which has gained emboldened rummaging powers and insightful new modes of analysis. The images become a form of data, which when processed can help reveal societal trends repeated through time. For example, in one collage of well known figures of a certain bygone era, the men, seated or standing in dignified positions, contrast the women, nude or partially clothed in passive poses—the tropes of patriarchal society are laid bare in images. A picture may be worth a thousand words but the reverse may also be true; a thousand images can point to one word.
An openness to chance and accident prevails through the project. At times Stakle’s search keywords are direct, straightforward queries into the archives. At others, the terms shift, taking into account the unexpected twists and turns of databases. “When working on my collages, it is relatively clear to me what I am looking for initially and what I need to get started. But in the process I discover a lot of images that change my preconceptions about things I thought I knew about. That certainly influences the way a collage is made,” he notes.
“For instance, when looking for panoramic images, I accidentally came across a picture of an execution, and that very much changed my feelings on the previously discovered images of the same period that portrayed large groups of people in urban environments. I could no longer fight off the idea that all these people hung in the gallows were part of a bigger show and that the people depicted in group portraits of the same period were intimately connected to the death penalty and its portrayal as a show for their own delight.”
Visual culture and the institutions that collect and preserve it hold huge sway over the narratives we tell about the past—and the way we live in the present. In his research, Stakle tried to look beyond the official triage logic of the archives he encountered. “We are familiar with a very narrow set of photographs which are selected and recognized as an iconic representation of any given event. Yet behind each so-called ‘iconic’ photograph there are thousands of seemingly uninteresting and clichéd images. I was interested in directly addressing this ‘dull’ set of pictures,” he explains. “In the pictures I found of the Great Depression in America, I was moved by the myriad landscapes of wooden structures with children standing in their empty doors. From the perspective of the history of photography, these photographs are not particularly interesting but when amalgamated in one collage, they bear testimony to the fatal poverty and despair of the time.”
Stakle’s earliest work began with rephotographing images from Soviet printed matter and horror film stills on television screens. The process of reusing and rephotographing fed seamlessly into his process of revisiting old ideas and returning to certain types of imagery. Collage is a cyclical medium, moving between the old and new. For the artist, “collage lies somewhere in the middle between the unconscious natural qualities attributed to photographs and the more constructed design of text.”
The outcome of his latest rendition of collage, shaped together with his algorithmic aides, embodies an excess deeply characteristic of our digital image culture, laced with a dark undertone that speaks to the chaos of our times. The medium—whether it is enacted by physical cutout, mixing of material, or digital methods—is no stranger to political, cultural, or social moments of upheaval. Throughout modern history artists have used collage as a means of making sense of events or countering propaganda, extending all the way back to photography’s infancy. Early spiritualist photographers sprang up in the wake of wars and technological revolutions. They used forms of assemblage and layering in the darkroom to create the ghosts and ectoplasms they claimed the camera could capture.
Our modern understanding of photo collage can be traced back to the Dada movement which emerged in part as a response to the First World War. The Dadaists were anti-war, opposed to conservatism, and conformity. Artists associated with Dada used montage, exquisite corpse exercises, cut-up writing and theater to express themselves. Hannah Höch’s photomontages questioned notions of gender and the place of women in a rapidly changing Europe. John Heartfield’s series Photomontages of the Nazi Years was a pointed rebuke to fascism and a means of using visual culture as an activist weapon. In the Soviet Union, collage was used by avant garde artists and designers for both personal and commercial work as well as Communist propaganda before social realism was declared the official style of the state in 1934, presaging the arrest of the artist Gustav Klutsis, considered a father of Soviet photomontage. In sourcing imagery—pulled from the land of fine art as well as commerce—artists have used existing visual culture not only to comment upon the world but also to urge viewers to think, question, and act for themselves.
Today, media literacy might be one of society’s most important tools against a wide array of issues—from authoritarianism, strains of anti-science skepticism to body dysmorphia and climate catastrophe denialism to name just a few. For Stakle, a grasp on visual culture and media literacy is an important part of his art making as well as a more generalized understanding of society. “Our world of images can only be deciphered and understood if you have some idea of the basic developments of cultural history. Artwork is made through a symbiosis between the collective and private meanings that it carries.”
Throughout Mellow Apocalypse, Stakle dives into the ocean of images, pulling together fragments to create a vibrant, detailed take on the meanings of art and society, asking the viewer to find their place within.