The Steganographic Image
It’s the Conspiracy week at the Photographers’ Gallery in London and I was asked to write a short text on what lies inside the image (code). In other words, I wrote a short text on the Steganographic Image, and hiding messages in plain sight, although in this case, encoded “inside” a digital image. The image that tricks, the image that operates behind your back, or more likely, triggers processes front of your eyes, in plain sight, invisible. As I was reminded, this is also an idea that Akira Lippit has in a different context developed through Derrida. To quote Lippit (quoting at first Derrida): ‘”Visibility,” he says “is not visible.” Invisibility is folded into the condition of visibility from the beginning. There is no visibility that is not also invisible, no visibility that is not in some way always spectral.’One would be tempted to argue that this is where this consideration of the visual meets up with the history of cryptography, or ciphering and deciphering. Or as Francis Bacon put it in 1605 in ways part of the longer media archaeology of the steganographic image too: “The virtues of ciphers are three: that they be not laborious to write and read; that they be impossible to decipher; and, in some cases, that they be without suspicion.” It is especially this third virtue that remains of interest when looking at images without such suspicion: the most banal, tedius of pictures; a spectrality that conjurs up hidden passages, triggers and operations.
My short text can be found here online. It’s only scratching the steganographic surface.
A short preview of the text.
Hidden in Plain Sight: The Steganographic Image
Who knows what went into an image, what it includes and what it hides? This is not merely a question of the fine art historical importance of materials, nor even a media historical intrigue of chemistry, but one of steganography – hiding another meaningful pattern, perhaps a message, in data; inside text or an image. This image that is always more than. More than what? Isn’t it obvious from the amount of work gone into art-theoretical considerations of the inexhaustible meanings of the photographic image that it has always been a multiplicity: contexts, fluctuating meanings, readings and the insatiable desire to look at things in order to discover its depths.
As such, a steganographic inscription is neither a depth nor the plain surface but somewhere in between. In contemporary images made of data it refers to how the image can be coded as more than is seen, but also more than the image should do. The steganographic digital image can be executed; it includes instructions for the computer to perform. Photographs as part of a longer history of communication media are one particular way of saying more than meets the eye, but this image also connects to histories of secret communication from the early modern period, to more recent discussions in security culture, as well as fiction such as William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition (2003). Were J.G. Ballard’s 1950s billboard mysteries one sort of cryptographic puzzle that hid a message in plain visual sight?
is a writer, media theorist and professor in technological culture & aesthetics at Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton). He is also Docent of Digital Culture Theory at University of Turku, Finland and Honorary Visiting Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.