How it Feels to Download 18,000 Images 90 at a Time.

I have been making new work for an exhibition in Nottingham. Continuing the conversation (I am having with my self) below, I have been researching massive online image archives so I can produce massive image sequences. There are more and more on the web, as institutions put their collections online and into the ‘public domain’[1]. Not a week goes by without a new slew of data being released (this week it was the BFI’s footage of Britain Collection). I’ve done this once before, on quite a small scale, with a zip file containing a few hundred hi res images of paintings from the MOMA collection. When I was playing with this large image sequence in Premiere I realised they were, obviously, all different shapes. Some were long and thin, portrait wise, others wide, landscape. I decided to order them by size, widest first, narrowest last, with one frame per painting at 24 frames per second. Playing this back produced a strange movement, like compression or expansion as the edges of the painting moved inwards. Despite the imagery on each painting being barely visible as it flashes past, you get a sense of the paintings as a body of different things. The digitality of the image sequence does not help you better understand any one painting, but perhaps helps you to understand painting. I, for one, realised how idiosyncratic paintings are in their size. The same cannot really be said for digital images, which tend to conform to screen size (800×600, 1024×768 etc etc). This somewhat confirms, on quite a technical level that digital image making is about standardisation. The technology itself ‘orders’ the world in a very machinic way.

So, to test this further I have been looking for larger image archives to work with. I settled upon the 40,000 lo res images or objects, and artworks available at the Met website. They only make them available 1 at a time though, it’s not like you can just click and download all of them at once. There are surprisingly few compressed image archives (that I can find) other than pornography. So the only option is to sit and download them one at a time. If it took me 60 seconds to download one then it would take me 27 hours to download them all. Non stop. Using a programme called bluk image downloader I can download 90 at time, which is a bit easier but is still a lot of downloading. Not being sure if I can even process 40,00 images I decided to focus on the photography category of 18,000 images. Even at 90 at a time it has been 200 downloads.

Once I had these images locally I could begin processing them, setting up batch image processes using photoshop that took hours to finish.

One thing that I have experienced while downloading these images and working with them is waiting as the data moves to my PC and gets changed into a format I can use as a series. Bulk image downloader gives you a progress bar for each image it downloads, the bar flashes up, fills, disappears then the programme moves onto the next and the process is repeated. There is also a spinning wheel type ‘working’ icon. A particularly ugly one at that. I have been interested in that state of suspended animation that comes with watching progress bars. I have done alot of this, having been a programmer, had a job printing large format image files which might be over a gb each and now working with video (and watching netflix) means that progress bars have been integral to my life for nearly 20 years. Prior to that there were no progress bars, back in my home computing commodore/spectrum days you just stuck a tape or floppy in and waiting for it to load, not knowing how long that would be….

Anyhow, this sense of waiting is a peculiar one, or maybe not. Perhaps it is no different waiting for a bus, for a service to arrive. It is daydreaming time, but the difference is, I suppose, that while I am waiting for the latest batch of 200 images to arrive, I am fiddling around on Facebook, or writing this. I am distracted. Distraction is key.

[1] I use quotations here as ‘public domain’ actually means ‘anyone with access to a computer who can access a web connection’