Penny Goring and Michael Hessel-Mial, MACRO: an anthology of image macros, boost house, 2016
Reviewed by Miriam W. Karraker
I've had a copy of Penny Goring and Michael Hessel-Mial's MACRO: An anthology of Image Macros on my desk at work for a couple of months now. It lives in my office on my desk next to a pile of art theory books, a sheet of Lisa Frank stickers, a dirty coffee cup. More than once this semester a colleague or student has glanced at MACRO and asked, "What's a macro?" I say, "You've seen dark Kermit, right? Doge?" and they just give me these funny looks. I tell my students or colleagues to open the book, see for themselves. People usually smile a little or look slightly perplexed seeing such a digital artifact in a physical format. A colleague asked me, "How do you even read this?" and all I can say is that as a scholar, I'm still figuring it out along with how the macro functions as a unique poetic genre/artistic medium. Goring and Hessel-Mial's anthology serves as a case study in new media art at this historical moment.
Macros are precarious artifacts of and for a precarious time. This anthology's project is to document the years 2011 to 2015, a juncture Hessel-Mial identifies as "a unique moment when digital life firmly became a part of common experience. These were the boom years for social media, when interactive digital tools didn't just contribute to society, they restructured it fundamentally." The anthology is composed of a brief but useful introduction, followed by macros themselves (grouped into sections based on the anthologists' perceived "themes, styles and moods" while standing alone without textual interpretation), and a list of contributor names and bios. Hessel-Mial's introduction establishes the importance of this anthology as both a set of characteristic or weird internet poetics, as well as a physical arrangement of disparate poetries. MACRO aims to both "create and explore a poetry for the internet age" while documenting certain image macros in an ever-changing digital world, before they get buried or disappear due to deactivated accounts, or are simply forgotten. Beyond this, though, MACRO is concerned with a new form of meaning making happening between self-identified artists and non-artists, across online communities and aesthetics.
It's useful to consider image macros as artifacts in both the archaeological and digital senses of the word. On one level, macros are artifacts insofar as they are things made by people in an attempt to render experience. On another level, "artifact" is used to describe digital errors, anomalies, or malfunctions. For example, in signal processing, an artifact is any error in the way we see or represent data, caused by equipment or processing technique. The key idea here is that the change in data representation is undesired or unintended, and can arise due to any number of structural or environmental factors. When making a macro, images can be copied, cut, and pasted alongside other images or pieces of text, original or otherwise, without credit given to the original source of that particular image—willfully, unwillfully, or purely due to the nature of the form. Hessel-Mial's introduction to the anthology concisely describes the genre of image macro as a pairing of image or text created for digital circulation," but I also want to consider macros as artifacts that can reveal capitalism's failings.
Many image macros are created by a method not dissimilar to collage; people often use Photoshop, MS paint, GIMP, or assorted smartphone apps. Images are often used without citing or attributing their original source, maker, or context. Though technology allows people to render a very precise image, it is still an image divorced from its context to serve a new purpose alongside found or original text. This is how the image macro upends the intended interpretation of an image and makes one of its own.
Furthermore, this creates a kind of tear in a digital market where things are hyperlinked, cited, or otherwise attributed to their maker and market value is assigned. As Hessel-Mial states, "the poetry of image macros is based on the relationships between image and text. The result is more than the sum of its parts. Words don't simply explain the images, and images don't simply serve as a support to the words. They interplay." In an interview with Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hessel-Mial makes it known that the image macro isn't simply "taking the old poetics and just putting them online." Rather, the image macro is a distinct genre of poetry born of and for a digital context; it resists legibility while being imbued with a relational and/or populist aesthetic. Further, I think this aesthetic is one that engages with, and undermines a digital content creation economy to varying degrees.
The macro succeeds in its openness to subjective interpretation, and multiple levels of access for both experiencing and making them. As Hessel-Mial puts it, the macro is "a genre of poetry, available to be taken in any direction you wish. If you've ever made an image macro, you are a poet. That's the good news." And these images' "ultimate meaning...lies in the hands of users." And further, a macro can be interpreted or appreciated on an intellectual level, or for pure enjoyment as somebody might stumble across one on Tumblr or Weird Facebook. Because the macro is a form that is representative of the democratization of tools and methods for making, sharing, experiencing and/or analyzing, it creates opportunities for greater participation and diversity in digital arts.
Explore the infinite scroll of the Internet Poetry tumblr long enough and you'll see what I mean regarding the image macro's relational and/or populist aesthetic. There is definitely something gained by paging through MACRO as a physical object, and seeing the juxtapositions that arise. On page 86, I find myself looking at two macros. The first by moon temple, which features two butterflies on either side of a screenshot of text which reads:
The text is superimposed over a pretty pastel rainbow gradient. On the same page, there's another macro, this one by ashley opheim, whose centered text reads:
Opheim's text is superimposed over a similar color palette as that of moon temple's. Though this rainbow is heavily pixelated and the colors are scattered, they do not form a smooth gradient. On the facing page, a sun fox macro features the text "Can't wait to hold and smell you!!!!!" on top of an image of a lamb's head and shoulders directly facing the camera, seemingly smiling. Together, these macros are a dialogic exploration about how we see ourselves in relation to one another in a world where the irl and url are inextricably linked. They enact the particular brand of eros unique to their contemporary context. Or perhaps these are just cute/bittersweet/tender images that are aesthetically pleasing and fun to screenshot and send to your friends or reblog on tumblr.MACRO provokes other such juxtapositions throughout, dealing with raw confession, political discourse and activist language, pop and celebrity culture, etc. I appreciate that the anthology allows for individual macros (and groupings of macros) to speak for themselves. The editors published a breadth of macros made by self-identified poets and artists as well as people outside those categories. The image macro as a form resists singular interpretation as well as disciplinary categories. The form remains quite open with respect to content and its generative methods. Criticism of macros is also fluid, particularly the way in which intellectuals will or will not engage critically. Hessel-Mial calls the future of the image macro, "five years from now, or a century from now...wildly uncertain," all the while suggesting this is good news.