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Transparency: September 2012

SALT. Issue 2

‘Transparency simply means we are unaware of the medium through which information reaches us…we do not see neurons firing away in our brain but only what they represent for us’ [1]

Feminist politics affects our lives, and by extension art practice, in ways so nuanced and complex they’ve been rendered invisible. The patriarchy is constantly trying to conserve transparency by concealing the means through which oppression is mediated; we need to navigate the grey areas and find some visibility, to become less transparent. This issue is an attempt to unveil. The methods by which Western politics have adopted feminist rhetoric to police the other, from religious fear mongering to the control of women’s bodies and sexual autonomy by the media, are a case in point. This refusal, or negation, of objectification is reflected in the imagery and works chosen throughout the issue; photoshopped, polished and perfected, art objects become stand-ins for women’s bodies echoing the portrayal of women in advertising. In emulating a set format, its absurdities are exposed.


Adrienne Arcilla, Mali Collins, Giulia Damiani, Molly Davy, Freya Field-Donovan, Jack Halberstam, Saira Harvey, Caspar Heinemann, Eve Lacey, Kay Law, Hannah Regel, Thea Smith, Vicki Tingle, Giulia Tommasi, Villa Design Group, Jala Wahid.

[1] Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of The Mind and the Myth of The Self, Basic Books, New York, 2010



by Rosemary Kirton

Almost a year or so ago, I was writing essays about tumblr bloggers who made animated gifs, which was then still a relatively unusual activity. I wrote about how it was one way to get followers on tumblr. Artists and tumblr users alike use photoshopped/designed imagery in their practice. The increasing accessibility of design/use of photoshop (amongst da yoof) can be seen in the frenzied production of animated .gifs and .pngs-transparent images, on tumblr- the content of which ranges from the banal to the sublime and the ridiculous.

There are many instances of the collage-like melding of high and low culture material and cross cultural material through both these formats on tumblr, that perhaps originated in sites like and is perpetuated by sites like

I tried to think of an obvious cultural historical canon of ‘transparent’ images to contextualise and contrast this: I thought of the damocles sword, the dagger in Macbeth, the warped skull in the vanitas painting by Holbein, amongst others… they are motifs that engage with perception, with visions that are in particular, gravity defying. I also thought of the doctoring of photos etc to include floating objects- like reports of U.F.Os and ghosts etc and how the defiance of gravity is a very natural human obsession/aspiration. Objects that are suspended inexplicably suggest a ham-fisted break with reality- a sublime/supernatural occurrence- and ultimately- human mortality.

3BAY: Maybe a bit of a stretch (link between suspension and mortality)

I am not sure if there is a link between the transparent image and aberrations from reality/gravity-defying. It is more to do with the separation of the object from its original or usual surroundings. I think it would be unusual for an image creator to remove an object from an image where the object is represented in unusual surroundings. and often, an image may be 'transparified' in order to juxtapose it with other unrelated objects to itself. So I think it is a break from connotations rather than a break from reality.

For me, the apparent ability to isolate the object by transpirifying it was what I found fascinating about the PNG. I am fairly sure – if I recall correctly - that Derrida said something along the lines of no-one can ignore the frame of an artwork (paraphrasing because idk the source). It has the illusion of being backgroundless, but the institutionalisation of the transparent image brought about a whole new set of connotations to the transparent background. The transparency is the frame, and it brought about a whole new set of connotations. what is truly horrifying is the idea that the transparency is not the frame any more, but the ‘image’ is the frame and the transparency has taken the role of the image – it is the thing that is glorified.

GROSSMARY: I agree with 3bay on this particularly about the framing afforded to the .png by it's recent resurgent appropriation. The spectacle of the images I originally cited- the vanitas skull and shakespearean sword were both references to mortality in their respective texts. The UFO reference was thrown in to tie up the contextual history of doctoring images to present them as 'authentic' spectacles.

The dichotomous relationship between reality and illusion that I called out was to contextualize how there is a history of associating gravity defying objects as spectacular or sublime- seeing as gravity is kind of unavoidable to us earthbound folk.

The flippancy of the process of making images in these formats, often sits in contrast to the initial labour intensive production of the image/object pictured. The quality of some .pngs can appear like stickers, quite flat and graphic or have shadows/highlights which increase the kitsch floating 3D factor. Taking an object or icon out of its context gives one the opportunity to consider the object in isolation. Rather like the process of viewing an art work in a white cube gallery, or emblematic- like the stickers one may have adorned ones pencil cases, lockers, folders etc a a child.

3BAY: This allegory of PNGs as stickers is really interesting, something that has been on my mind since I first read this essay. Stickers are somewhat like the physical counterpart of transparent images.

One often sees low culture imagery-like games, toys, celebrities and cartoons made into these kitsch digital spectres. The replication particularly of game ephemera (wherein one can customize ones character/adventure/etc) reflects a generation that desired and so forth took the measures to be able to edit and customize to the nth degree the means with which they encounter the world- to make transparent, accessible and interactive their every vocation.

3BAY:There appears to be a scale of transparent image. on one end there are these sorts of images of tongue-in-cheek tropes, nostalgic things and stuff you’ve mentioned above, and then on the other end images or signs that seem to take a more serious note, almost as if asking the user to reflect on the image represented. The latter are usually rendered with a higher skill level, sometimes with shadows, translucency etc.

GROSSMARY :Even lately I've observed how flawed .pngs are becoming popular, where small areas of the original background remain, making for a somewhat unnerving perceptual experience. Almost as if the author of the image is trying to communicate the very flippancy of the process of 'transparifying.'

On tumblr, an image/video/text/etc is ordinarily viewed in the form of a square or rectangle, I've yet to come across a theme that allows for anything else. A .png attempts to break with that tradition to a certain extent, the boundaries remain but won’t be visible.

As a platform, tumblr has been repeatedly expounded by artists, exploring the limits and extents to which it can be manipulated. Tumblrs likeGree and Hypergeography take the idea of the formal and accessible, quadrilateral framing of content to the extreme due to the formatting of their blogs.

These ‘transparent’ images are something that is translated into contemporary art and culture quite a lot too. I feel the artwork used in a certain DIS magazine shoot , exemplifies this. There seems to be an understanding amongst tumblr users that this .png filetype is something ubiquitous and necessary in design, we encounter it in the everyday, on all forms of products and in advertising. Some blogs reflect this and source these images from other sites in an archival manner and some fabricate/manipulate them, like3bay /lois hopwood / kiddyp00l amongst others.

This activity is clearly a reflection on the brand identities, products/subjects, icons etc that populate our recent history/or current culture. It’s also a meditation (if you want to go that far) on the proximity of our own personal brands with that of brand/corporate powers which now also populate social networks like troublesome vermin. And if you wanted to push just a little fruther it’s also a making sense of the brands and icons of yesteryear and the horror/eventuality that parallels their/our decay/ becoming obsolete, or perhaps unifying…

This is much the same with the representations of technology of yesteryear/month with blogs devoted to archiving obsolete models of/technology- the volume of which increase exponentially in line with the doubling of technological prowess, year on year- evidently also a comment on consumerism blah etc. See below archival type tumblrs that act as obselete technological tombs.

Isolating a pop/subcultural phenomenon that was once popular through a nostalgic .png is an effective way to garner feelings of familiarity, acknowledgement/identification from your followers- the qualities that most imagery on tumblr possess if they become popular.

It’s also a way to explain why revival of 90s imagery is popular because those in their late teens/ twenties (early adopters of tumblr/popular/influential bloggers) grew up then. They interact through this convivial activity- of reviving and archiving their pre-web 2.0 culture, or less reflective internet practices, which include early-millenial too, seen in blogs like Dora’s Moutout’s collective-self-mythologizing

One kind of .png/animated gif that persists is what one could probably consider in the vein of Below are some .pngs that reflect their medium or have an art-historical relationship that was exemplified in the blog last linked.

These .pngs and .gifs jam art-historical monuments, high culture, into contemporary everyday tools. The dominance and wide use of these tools is set in contrast to these pinnacles of fine art, the production of which is associated with skill, genius and elitism. It’s more likely that the average person could name the brands of Facebook, Google and the Adobe suite, than they could name these artworks, in terms of value these companies out-rank the artworks in value too. To appropriate these works in the form of a .png/.gif is the closest one could get to interacting with these heavily protected site specific works- to contrast them with these ubiquitous corporate logos/tools that exist for the purpose of interaction has a humour and sense of reflection that brings up all sorts of questions about value, status, time, art etc.

3BAY: I think it might be interesting to talk about how users use PNGs as a way to personalise their blog and place them within the ‘transparent blog’ archetype. I’ve said before that it’s peculiar how even though the transparent image is displayed in the same way as the white background image, there is a preference of one over the other. One can remember the .gif white background + goldfishes that got about 5000 notes (likely more now), and then when someone reuploaded them as transparent it exploded much faster (not sure how many notes it got but it got about 3000 in something ridiculous like 24 hours) so it’s basically a way of getting followers right now because it’s enjoying a bit of attention.

Maybe there is something to be said about the satisfaction of dragging a transparent image, too.

GROSSMARY: The grabbing and dragging of an image to assess whether it's a .png is a bizarre habit I've picked up myself. I think the priding and preference of .pngs lies in the fact most peoples do not have a white background to their blog, or that the imagery they choose to blog may have a jarring aesthetic. Some themes facilitate the layering of content now and .pngs compliment that mild perceptual shift.