When first entering the webpage for Words and Photos by Iñaki Bonillas, you’re met with the below screen.
You are invited to enter a word and along the bottom of the screen there are two lines of seemingly unrelated words. I enter the word ‘thunder’ and nothing appears, but the word thunder moves to the bottom of the screen on the line beginning with an ‘X’. I then enter the word ‘lightning’ which appears in the line beginning with a tick. This photo emerges:
I was expecting an image of a landscape, perhaps a dark sky, a stormy scene with rain and trees bent over in the wind. But instead it’s this black and white photograph of a bookshelf and 3 frames on the wall in what looks like a living room, or it could be an office. I search for the connection between the word lightning and the image and notice the lightning bolt shapes on the spines of the books on the top shelf. This short process of discovery was enjoyable, I felt a small sense of satisfaction at finding the link between word and image. I enter another, completely unrelated word ‘lobster’:
The image shows a small, white square table on a beach with perfectly white sand. On the table is 2 lobsters, some cutlery, a bottle of Coca Cola, 2 brown glass bottles – presumably beer, a salt shaker, a plastic blue mug filled with something light in colour, maybe something creamy, a small role of crusty bread and a rice dish. In the background there’s a food cooler, some flip-flops face down in the sand and the bottom half of a man sitting on a bucket, wearing a wedding ring and a pair of shorts and holding a cigarette. I guess he is waiting to eat whilst the photographer captures the scene. This is a mundane but strangely appealing, calming image. I love art that depicts food, I can almost smell it. There are 2 sets of numbers, one beneath the box where the word lobster is, another beneath the image itself. If I click next on the number beneath the image, I’d find another image that relates to the word lobster. If I click next on the number beneath the word, I can see what other words are connected to this particular image. There are 105 including utensils, swimsuit, anonymous, strewn, emerald, odour, protein, company, carcass, fresh, fishing, patience. Some of the words [patience, anonymous] are more abstract and describe the feeling of the photo or associated concepts, others describe the objects depicted [utensils]. Other words refer to action surrounding the image, things that may have lead up to the scene captured or that contextualise it, outside of the frame but not literally depicted therein [net, fishing, grilled].
I scroll through words connected to the lobster image and settle on ‘framed’, then decide to explore further images related to the word framed. I struggle to see a connection to ‘framed’ in many of the images that come up, asides from the fact that the subjects are literally framed by the camera lens. Some make more sense, like the image below:
The man is clearly framed by the beautiful blue walls, columns or architectural structure. I scroll further through other words associated with this image and come across ‘devastation’. I learn more about the image of the man standing in the frame as a result, perhaps this structure is a ruin from war or natural circumstances. This word intrigues me so I look for more images showing devastation.
I continue in this way, searching for images that I haven’t seen before, for images that seem vastly different but which are connected by some abstract concept/ connecting word. The damaged car lead me to the word stained, which lead me in turn to an image of a chair and telephone with a coffee stain on the surface. The coffee stain reminds me that I’m looking at a digitised or scanned analogue photograph and reminds me of the origins of this project. In an art forum interview, the artist explains:
In 2003, I inherited a photographic archive made up of 3,800 images that belonged to my maternal grandfather, J. R. Plaza. My grandfather was not a professional photographer, but he took photography quite seriously because he was fascinated by American cinema. When he married my grandmother, they both decided to share their respective family albums, at which point my grandfather started to paste the photographs onto black pages inside black leather notebooks, sometimes labeling the backs of them with his feelings about that photo.Iñaki Bonillas – Source: https://www.artforum.com/interviews/inaki-bonillas-discusses-his-dia-art-foundation-web-project-words-and-photos-49258
‘Until the day he died, my grandfather did not stop amassing these photos and arranging them into these notebooks. From printed images to slides, from black-and-white to color, one can basically track the entire evolution of photography in the archive, and this has been my main artistic concern for the last ten years. […] This archive has become a sort of double of the world. When I was commissioned by Dia to create a Web project to digitize this archive, I found it enticing since the Internet is already a duplicate of the world. Because the frame was already a game of mirrors, I thought it could be profound to make another double by using words.’
My journey through Words and Photos took the following trajectory: lobster > image of lobster on beach table > framed > image of man framed by blue structure > devastation > image of smashed up car > coffee stained image > coffee > image of 2 people sitting in cafe reading ‘cine club’ pamphlet > cinema > image of man filming a Western in the desert > desert > camera > shoes
I begin to lose track at around this point. The archive soon becomes consuming as I hop between words and images, and adjust my mind to draw connections between new combinations. For me, there are 4 important aspects to Words and Photos.
- I become quickly and completely lost in the artwork – the possibilities for different combinations of words and photos and of ways to describe the images are endless. At times I’d be scrolling through different images and then would accidentally change the word and lose track of what I was searching for; I’d become a combination of overwhelmed and confused yet simultaneously motivated to keep going. There are just so many ideas, connotations and potential words associated with each image that I could happily spend hours exploring them. For example, I came across the photograph of men sun bathing (above) and was inspired to search for other images containing newspapers. Whilst having this thought and also noticing other interesting features of the image, I lost sight of what brought me to that image in the first place (I searched the word dust). I didn’t want to lose or interrupt the narrative thread I’d started to create in my mind so I chose to search for newspaper another time. I also know that at any time I can attempt to add words that come to mind when looking at an image. If they haven’t already been added by someone else they move down to the list of unfound words at the bottom of the screen. I feel satisfied when I’ve thought of a word that no one else has, I’ve contributed to the art work. At the same time, when I enter a word, I’m excited to discover what images already exist that are associated with that word. I wonder whether it’s possible to exhaust every possible combination or to get to a point where none of the images are new anymore. This feels unlikely – the archive appears to be limitless.
- The artwork is innately collaborative and networked – This thought came to me when observing the words moving around at the bottom of the screen. There were words there that I hadn’t entered myself so I assumed they’d be added by other people. This acts as a reminder that the artwork has been built up by others to its current form and will continue to be added to. Each word has been added by someone else, and not necessarily the artist. The artist himself commented that he was surprised by some of the words people had used to describe the photographs. In my mind, when I’m contributing, I’m doing so playfully in a collaborative game with other users. I imagine people laughing at the words I’ve added or attempting to draw the connection between the word and the image. There are some words not in English, so the audience I have in mind is an international one. Despite the work being 7 years old, it still feels active and fresh. This could be because of the list of words at the bottom as they judder around and move along. It could be because the page still appears to be working perfectly well, technically speaking.
- The photographs are charged with different meaning upon each new viewing – I have come across the same images after different searches. The photo below, for example, comes up when the word ‘tea’ is searched, and also when the word ‘cinema’ is searched. This artwork encourages a more thorough analysis of photographs. I find myself studying each image in great depth, not just for what or who it depicts overall, but for all the potential details and abstract concepts and subjective elements that are contained. In an interview on Art Forum, the artist talks about how the process of digitising the photographic archive removed any hierarchies associated with the images. He explained that when viewing them outside of his Grandfathers chronological arrangement and on the computer screen instead, they all appear the same size. One image becomes just as important as another when introduced to a new platform, because the way we view and interact with them also changes. They become more neutral. People can view them in any order they want to and can decide for themselves how long to spend viewing an image without social expectations or peer pressure. This can be likened to viewing art in a gallery yet without the interpretation or way finding. You can decide this for yourself.
- I can construct my own narratives – It is enjoyable to see if you can spot any photos that are clearly from the same set, same day or scene. I found another photograph which depicted a birds-eye-view of the table with the lobster on it. There was a van to the side, 2 men both in shorts and umbrella covered the table. I can see they were both using buckets as chairs. This gave me a glimpse of what the photographer was trying to capture when he took photos that day, the meaning behind it for him. Whilst this is an exciting process of discovery, I find it just as appealing to construct my own narratives. As the curator at Dia mentioned, there’s an element of concrete poetry to it. You can be creative and project your own meaning onto this collection of photographs. For example, I was inspired by a photograph of a woman (the artists wife I believe) sitting at a table painting. It interested me that she was also an artist, yet most of the photos are focused around the male photographer himself. I searched for artist to see if I could find any other female artists at work. I found another black and white image of a woman either writing or drawing, again sitting alone at a table. In response to this I searched woman and female and came across a photo of 6 young women standing in a passageway with their arms around each other, laughing. I loved this depiction of female friendship, I wonder what the occasion was. I search friendship and find another image this time of 3 women posing in beachwear, looking powerful and playful. Lastly, I searched ‘feminist’ and one image appeared (see the featured image at the top of the page). I was inspired by the photo of Bonillas’ Grandmother painting to create a narrative of feminism, female friendship, female creativity. I have only described a very small number of images and searches, but I ordinarily I would continue on this narrative trajectory for longer. As demonstrated, the archive can be viewed and used as a creative resource, I can repurpose it. This is somewhat fleeting as it’s lost when I exit the web page, but I feel compelled to begin again and return to this plentiful archive.
Here is a link to the art work: https://www.diaart.net/bonillas/index.html
And other Dia web projects: https://www.diaart.org/program/artistswebprojects