‘Image Engine’: Róza El-Hassan’s Latest

Róza El-Hassan. Image Engine. Budapest Ludwig Museum Budapest Museum of Contemporary Art

Róza El-Hassan is one of the great hopes among the younger generation of Hungarian artists. Since 1990 she has continuously participated in international exhibitions. In 1991, at the invitation of Kaspar König, she received a scholarship at the Städelschule in Frankfurt. In 1993, her stone and wall objects were exhibited at the Venice Aperto Exhibition, and, in 1997, she was one of the official artists of the Hungarian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

This time, the Ludwig Museum at the Budapest Ludwig Museum Budapest-Museum of Contemporary Art has opened its “Project Room” with an exhibition by Róza El-Hassan. Under this program, the Ludwig Museum invites Hungarian and international artists to install their works in the “Project Room.” The latter has a relatively separate position in the museum building, which is why the curators decided to use the space exclusively for site-specific projects.

At this exhibition, Róza El-Hassan presents her work Image Engine for the first time in Hungary. She habitually creates objects and installations but in the last few years she has also begun to collect images. In this installation, there are two projectors throwing images on two adjacent walls. These images were collected from the infinite arsenal of the internet. Róza El-Hassan found her images–with the help of the images-search option featured by common net searching programs–by entering every single word of a specific text into the computer (in this case the short text “Small Talk” by Luchezar Boyadijev). The images from her CD-Rom are projected in a random order, so that what we see is one or a couple of words followed by all kinds of images which have, in all appearance, nothing whatever to do with each other.

Before starting to work on the Image Engine, El-Hassan dealt primarily with a certain inconsistency that is typical of electronic media. For we call these media audio-visual despite the fact that the only possibility to retrieve information from them is via text-string designations. In other words, the sole access we have to the expanding universe of image-archives is offered by a system based on means that are more reminiscent of the traditional library. El-Hassan started by examining the existing image search systems that are offered by commercial search engines. Many of them have such image search features (e.g., Lycos, AltaVista Photofinder), but there is also independent search software (Image Wolf, Gif Runner) that was developed specifically for the purpose of searching the internet for image files (e.g., jpeg, gif, animated formats, etc.). When El-Hassan fed these programs with a single word, expression, or sequence of words, she received a steady flow of downloaded images, in fact thousands of images for one single word, all of them completely stripped of their context. This gave her the idea to use this tool as a kind of Platonic “browser of ideas.” After obtaining hundreds of pictures for the words “chair” or “table”, any expectation that one might be able to limit or control the results appeared to her terribly naïve.

At about that time, Róza El-Hassan started to correspond via e-mail with Luchezar Boyadjiev. When he sent her his concept for a group show entitled Small Talk, to be presented in Skopje (Macedonia), El-Hassan had the idea of applying the Image Engine to a fragment of his text, assigning pictures retrieved from the internet to different parts of his narrative. She used the search engines for finding images for the most characteristic words in Bojadjiev’s text and, at the same time, she created a database where these images were located in separate files attached to the respective words. A special program runs Boyadjiev’s text, choosing images randomly from the database and projecting them on the wall. While the system gives the appearance that what it shows comes directly from the internet, in fact, it is presented from a CD-Rom. Fragments of Boyadjiev’s text can be heard within the darkened exhibition space, while the image-search programs accompany the text with projected images from very different contexts, such as logos, emblems, sketches, paintings, old photographs, documentary photos, comic-strip figures, short gif-animations, industrial drawings, bookcovers, even stolen family portraits.

When one watches this chaotic flood of images, one might well question the originality of the idea behind El-Hassan’s work. After all, we all know the worldwide web, we know the fact that a hypertext link can point to any kind of subject matter, be it personal or public, local or global, fragmented or integrated. El-Hassan nevertheless poses some interesting questions. One of them is related to the dominance of English on the net. If the short text that was entered into the search engines had been in a language other than English, there would have been far fewer results, not to mention the fact that the images would have been different ones as well. Another question El-Hassan asks concerns the activity of associating objects or qualities with each other. This is something the brain is relatively good at, whereas computers-­despite the existing random programs and hyperlinks‹seem a little inept in this regard. The series of images El-Hassan projects on the walls is an attempt to imitate the brain’s ability to associate random objects with each other, as well as an ironic criticism of the received wisdom that the computer is able to store random associations between disparate things. For even though it is true that both HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) were created at the begining of the 90’s to fulfill this dream, and even though it is technically possible to create a connection between different ideas, these connections (links) nevertheless remain artifical, resembling footnotes or annotations more closely than “associations.”

The last issue raised by the Image Engine is a philosophical one. Róza’s searching for images on the basis of words recalls the long discussion between Socrates and Cratyl concerning the need to bring order into the dense fabric of names and essences. They argue about the correctness of names and the connection between these names and what they name. Perhaps Róza El-Hassan is driven by a similar intention–trying to grasp the original meaning, the essence of the words–by means of a kind of ready-made laboratory (the worldwide web) which is in a state of continuous change. Again one feels reminded of Plato’s dialogue, his assertion that those who created the names did so on the assumption that everything is in a state of continuous flux.

According to the original program, in the first room of the exhibition space, Róza El-Hassan was to present her hand-made albums, complete with a collection of her paintings and drawings. Yet during the organization of the exhibition, Nato began its air strikes against Yugoslavia and El-Hassan decided to leave the entire room empty, merely putting up a photocopied leaflet denouncing the logic of war.