Cassandra Zampini: Data Mine @Rick Wester

JTF (just the facts): A total of 7 large scale black and white photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are archival pigment prints, mounted to Dibond, made in 2018. Physical sizes range from roughly 50×30 to 88×53 inches, and all of the prints come in editions of 3. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the major consequences of the widespread digitization of photography in recent years is that our stored and shared images immediately became electronic entries in very large databases. This has made them available to the many algorithmic software tools that had been developed over the past several decades, and these programs have the power to extract relevant examples from large data sets based on search criteria, classification tags, and other pattern recognition methods. As a result of this confluence of photographic technology transformation and software availability, it suddenly became relatively easy to pull clusters of picture-based information out of the massive torrent of data flowing by.

In terms of raw numbers of photographs, Instagram is a major contributor to the buildup of these gargantuan digital image archives. According to recent data, there have been some 40 billion photos posted to the site since its launch in 2010, with some 95 million now being added each and every day by the smartphone-enabled masses. From an art-making perspective, these ever growing image data stores represent a huge new resource/opportunity for those who can figure out how to harness their immensity.

Cassandra Zampini dives into the deep end of this rippling pool of available imagery in her new series Data Mine. Her particular interest lies in the selfie, and in what patterns start to emerge when we look at large numbers of the pictures that we take of ourselves. Several of the works in the show are based on an astonishing statistic – selfies are uploaded to Instagram at a rate of roughly 750 new selfies per second. Zampini has turned that structural idea into works that gather together 2 and 3 seconds of selfies. After turning all of the sourced images black and white and harmonizing them for size, she has arrayed them in dense edge to edge grids. In these works, there is no visible sorting for obvious variables – gender, race, age, nationality, and other potential identifiers are left to arrive at random rates, mimicking the melting pot of humanity that posts to Instagram at any given moment.

From afar, many of these images are reduced to something like old school television static, with buzzing layers of black and white seeming to resolve into stripes, but then dissolving back into crackly noise. In others, Zampini has added a gradual gradient twist, starting with dark black, negative tonality images at the top, which then lighten and move to positive tonalities in the middle and then reverse the progression back to black at the bottom, almost like the slow undulation of a wave. In both cases, up close, the amazing diversity of humanity seems to be collapsed a bit, each of us looking largely like our neighbors and friends when placed in front of a mirror with our smartphones. At their core, her intricate composites find anonymous universality in large numbers of singular individuals.

Zampini’s data mining gets more sophisticated, and the resulting artworks get more intriguing, when she starts to look for commonalities in selfie posing. Three of the works on view reduce the image data set down to one second of selfies (still roughly 750 individual frames), but limits the images to specific poses – the look-at-my-muscles single arm flex, the seductive over the shoulder look while perched on the edge of the sink in the bathroom (showing off the curves of the person’s rear end AKA “sinkbooty”), and the standing pregnant woman showing off the enlarged curve of her belly (from the front or the side). Here again, these private moments where we are showing off for the camera (and by definition indirectly for others) have a remarkable sameness when compared with images draw from the broader Instagram population – we are all doing the same things with undeniable conformity, even though we think we are being clever.

It’s certainly possible to see the commonality that Zampini has arranged in these artworks as both negative and positive. Negative, in that perhaps we aren’t as special and different as we expect, our individuality just a mirage. But also positive, in that we are all connected via these same elemental human behaviors, regardless of the usual categories and labels that are typically used to divide us. My personal reaction to the endless parade of faces and bodies doing the same thing was tilted more toward the optimistic, recognizing that so many of us are following the same paths in our diverse lives. There is indeed humanity to be found in these unfathomable heaps of image data.

These works feel like they are just scratching the surface of what sophisticated data mining approaches combined with artistic thinking might produce, so there is plenty of further room to run for Zampini and this larger idea. I, for one, am supremely glad she has not tried to arrange the individual images into mosaics that resolve into one large image when seen from afar – that aesthetic trick feels bankrupt at this point, so she has done well to avoid it.

Given the cultural ubiquity of the selfie, few artists have really figured out how to tap into its truths, particularly with respect to how social behaviors and aspirations are embedded in its inherent processes of self examination and identity construction. Zampini’s works are encouraging first steps, testing some of the limits of scale and legibility. She’s found an exciting vein for ongoing artistic exploration, so we should watch carefully where she takes us next.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $5000, $10000, or $12000, based on size. Zampini’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Little Big Man Books (here). Softbound with dust jacket, 10 x 7 inches, 292 pages with numerous color photographs. Includes a text ... Read on.

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