Rosa Menkman, Whiteout, 2020, video, color, sound, 15 minutes. From “im/possible images.”

Rosa Menkman, Whiteout, 2020, video, color, sound, 15 minutes. From “im/possible images.”

“im/possible images”

In 2015, following the investigations into digital faults and breaks that had culminated her 2010 Glitch Studies Manifesto, artist Rosa Menkman embarked on a concentrated period of research into “how resolutions inform both machine vision and human perception.” These eventuated in the 2020 book Beyond Resolution, its epigraph “Refuse to let the syntaxes of (a) history direct our futures.” Menkman’s practice may have its roots in the post-internet art scene of the early 2000s, but it has always been guided by a para-academic enthusiasm for artistic inquiry into the technical limitations of the (digital) image and their consequences. In 2019 Menkman was awarded a residency at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in the suburbs of Geneva. Her recent exhibition project in Munich was in part a way of thinking through the responses of scientists at CERN to a question she posed: “Imagine you could obtain an impossible image, of any object or phenomenon that you think is important, with no limits to spatial, temporal, energy, signal⁄noise or cost resolutions, what image would you create?” The question underpinned the structure of this group show, titled “im/possible images,” where colored stripes on the floor and walls delineated axes that both offered orientation and demonstrated the artist’s penchant for taxonomy.

Thus an original X-ray—a once-impossible image—by Wilhelm Röntgen, here shown on a magazine page from 1896, was on the axis “chronologies of im/possibility” along with Pale Blue Dot, a photograph of our tiny Earth taken from a distance of 3.7 billion miles by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990, and a recent example of 3D medical imaging rendering visible the interior of a wrist. Another axis, “images based on speculation, dis/belief or imagination” featured a 2017 work by Ingrid Burrington in which the quotation FOREVER NOON ON A CLOUDLESS DAY aptly described the adjacent satellite imagery of the globe, revealing the absence of the night and the inconsistent shadows in satellite imagery, as well as Susan Schuppli’s Can the Sun Lie?, 2014–15, a discursive video essay about changes in the position of the Arctic setting sun detected by First Nations peoples and how this relates to climate change and the history of photography as evidence. A highlight of the “low-fidelity images” section was Peter Edwards’s Nova Drone, 2012, which created a flickering rainbow via the “rolling shutter effect” when visitors attempted to photograph the unremarkable-looking LED light at the top of this wall-mounted installation.

Two works in the show were Menkman’s own: Shredded Hologram Rose, 2021—a voice-over retelling of the corruption of an NFT, the flower of the title, ending with the repeated warning “This render may populate fungible strains”—and Whiteout, 2020, which offered a conceptual framing for the exhibition and was projected in a large, curtained-off space. Here, Menkman narrates the loss of sensory reference points as she hikes up a mountain during a snowstorm. In extended sequences with zero visibility, all we see is a blank off-white rectangle. As the camera keeps pixelating this fluctuating plane of oversaturated grays, a GPS dot tracks movements and we hear the buzzing of a device that makes electromagnetic radiation humanly audible. Menkman, in voice-over, switches to a tutorial-like excursus on the question she asked the scientists at CERN before the video cuts to another episode of autobiographical storytelling involving a road leading to “a pillar of light peeking over the rim of a mountain . . . shining with immense intensity” at a solar plant in the Mojave Desert in California. The whiteout is theorized in hindsight with a riff on lines, scales, and reterritorialization.

This collision of rationalism with the sublime recurred again and again throughout the show, pointing to a kind of mysticism that constantly builds a tension between earnest academese and a more faltering, broken, and beautiful emotional and linguistic register. If lyricism was unarguably present here, it felt, in fascinating ways, inchoate, as if its full unfolding were prevented through an allegiance to the format of the performative lecture that I suspect has to do with the implicit codes of artistic research, “media art,” and pedagogical intentions. In another artistic tradition, the muteness of the monochrome could outsource its exegesis and speak for itself.