Mitosis: The Image’s Extended Phenotype

How images exhibit the memes that control them

This is a stream of consciousness write up, with some citations made in post, about how I think images operate.

The story of Narcissus is one of overextension. Narcissus is a character in Greek mythology, who is born handsome, knows it, and becomes obsessed with how he looks. He gazes for hours into his own reflection in a pool of water. He becomes numb to the rest of the world, desiring nothing more than the shape of his own mirror image. In the end, Narcissus becomes a puppet of his own image. He becomes an extension of his reflection.

“Mitosis (Bronica S2a)” 2021. A medium format camera lost in its own reflection. The gray camera is a 3D printed to-scale replica of the camera below. The digital scan of the Bronica was constructed using photogrammetry software.

The “Mitosis” (2021) series explores how images exhibit narcissistic extensions of themselves. The intesity of this extension is so deep that it mimics the degree of entanglement observable in biological systems. Organisms and organs in close concert appear to have a narcissistic relationship to each other — it is unclear who is the driver and who is the driven. A predator in many ways is under the control of the prey they hunt. Without prey, a predator would not exist. In an ecosystem, habitat, or niche, the interface between all organisms — predator, prey, or other — is the thin plane of water that reflects the organism into each other; a thin veil that shows the organisms each other.

Images, I think, are a kind of organism in the media landscape, obsessed with their own reflection. They seem to spawn from each other and duplicate from one another.

Marshall McLuhan points to the Narcissus myth in his 1964 book Understanding Media as an example of a biological deepness with which societies relate to technology: “Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms.” Surely this elicits dystopic imaginations, and is in fact the entire premise of The Matrix series. But McLuhan is not the fear mongering type when it comes to this, as he continues to provide examples of media-human interfaces which are more timid. He cites Lewis Mumford, who made the analogy of “city as extension of skin.” City walls, as a kind of media, are extended membranes to keep out foreign objects and keep in wanted entities.

“Mitosis (Canon 6D)” 2021.

The electrification of media made apparent (at least to McLuhan) that the interconnectedness one has to technology had a positive correlation to the new media’s immediacy. First with newspapers, then radios, then with television, each technology more immediately available, more “real time” as we might say today, and each technology amplifying a sense of biological interconnectedness to the people using it. There’s a reason people say the internet is like an extension of our nervous system — because that’s how close it can make us feel to people we’ve never met in person.

This understanding that our relationship to technology is somehow deeper than social construction, and exists at the biological level, as if it were extending our bodies, is what became more apparent to me as I worked with photogrammetry. The images were immediate. But in their immediacy they also grew into something bigger. Here I was taking and sorting images — themselves reflected shapes of reality — and re-reflecting them and morphing them into new figures. I had made hundreds of images of camera equipment, each of which I orbited and captured stills of using another camera, that when I imported them and sat together in a grid on my desktop seemed to say more that just “reflection.” The images were pressing up against each other, suggesting they could make something bigger, and suggesting that they shared some common denominator. When I ran them through Agisoft Metashape, which is software than can form 3D models from a series of similar images, the images took on an agency that reminded me of Narcissus. They became obsessed with themselves and (as a consequence) images that looked similar to it, and ultimately rearranged themselves out of a desire to have more of itself. Photogrammetry models spoke to me as a specific, algorithmic conglomerate of many images desires, clambering on top of each other, in tandem, in concert, in competition, to vie for a spot on the final 3D model.

More so now images are everywhere. There is a general sense that images flow in from a far off place, made by someone, somewhere, as a detritus of a manufactured superlarge system. But to me, images seem to come from someplace small and local. They aren’t the distillation of pure ideology, and they aren’t the orogeny of tectonic plates of huge economies and technical infrastructure (although I concede these are important factors, but they aren’t the defining ones). There is something pre-human about images, and something deeply organic about them that predates the art of mechanical reproduction. Indeed, when I listen closely, I can almost hear the images talking to each other.

“Mitosis (24–70mm)” 2021.

My idea about images is a bit similar to Richard Dawkins’ “the extended phenotype” hypothesis. The extended phenotype theory takes the gene to be the basic unit of life, and suggests that organisms exist merely as vectors for the gene’s propagation. In some cases this means that for a gene to survive it must affect the environment in which the gene’s host organism exists. The designed environment around the organism then becomes an extension of the gene, albeit many layers removed. An extended phenotype includes giving the organisms the ability create shelter, like termites making termite mounds or beavers making dams. Or it may mean endowing the organism with parasitic abilities to reproduce, like some species of wasp. In either case, the gene finds a way to exert itself into the ambient space beyond the body of its host organism. The “extension” of images, reflecting on themselves, behave similarly. The photogrammetry protocol I worked with which evolves flat images into 3D forms that seems to democratically represent each image, is a kind of extension of image, as if each image were a termite drone architecting skyscrapers larger than itself, one drop of mud at a time.

Implying that images feel, and to anthropomorphize images, is not the point. Images are not necessarily human like. Do images “want”? Not in the way we typically define it, I don’t think. Images “want” on the same plane that a host organism “wants”. The thing that really wants is smaller than the image. The gene of an image is a “meme” (which is a term Dawkins coined in 1979 in the book The Selfish Gene). Memes are cultural units that replicate themselves by extending themselves through images. The extended phenotype of images are things like photogrammetry models. They are also AI or machine learning models that extract patterns from large image datasets. Or, it could be found in the firmware of software-dominant cameras (like smartphones) which take a dozen images quickly and combine them to make one hyperrealistic image — think night mode on the iPhone. In all cases the images find way to emerge into new, unexpected, ambient, and gaseous forms that seep into the space of the media ecology.

Holding it in the real world. The photogrammetry scan was 3D printed and primed with gray spray paint. The aberrations in the scan were not cleaned up. “Mitosis (70–200mm)” 2021.

Not only does the natural world seep into images, but, as James Bridle has observed, the literal ecology now seems to mimic media ecology. It goes both ways! Things in the real world have started to bend to the image-based environment — such as the U.S. military donning camouflage with pixelated patterning instead of organic leaf-life shapes. Bridle calls this trend “The New Aesthetic” (and has a long running blog about it) but to make it more analogous to the biological framework I think in, I think of this more as technomimicry, or the inverse of biomimicry. It’s the bio world drawing inspiration from the image world.

Through all of this, my hunch is that images are vectors of a narcissistic meme. They’re important because the meme wants to extend itself into the environment — technomimicry. That is the bias inherent in the body of an image. If an image was taken in a forest, and no one was around to take it, it would still attempt to replicate itself. Their form has a tilt to it. “Mitosis” explores this space. At the same time I am ambivalent about the determinism implied by a theory where small things control the world. Images should not rule the world. Duh! I believe in agency of people, but also believe that images are distinct from people-made images. Acheiropoieta, or translated from Greek, “Icons Made Without Hands”, are historical examples of images that just… appear. Here, an image’s “want” coexists with the agency of the people perceiving the acheiropieta. A perceiver of the acheiropieta might find their own subjective projection in it, but the image itself actually holds the material that makes the imagery possible, and in some ways the perceiver becomes an extension of it. In other words, an icon that is made without hands is the peak emergent manifestation of pure meme, pure image, and pure reflection.

From the proliferation of mass amounts of images, in metaphorical heaps, there emerge acheiropieta images — which are a species of the extended phenotype of images. Photogrammetry have a acheiropoietic quality to them, in the same way Narcissus might have felt his image had it’s own acheiropoietic quality to it. This is what I felt making these pieces, and also what I continue to feel looking at them. The notion of the extended phenotype is the nucleus around which this Mitosis project orbits. Extension and reflection take on synonymous meaning. It’s a camera getting lost in its own image and making a new one. But is that new one in charge? Are these objects really “made without hands?” Where does the extension of images end? At the end of this I am left with more questions. I feel there is a whole lot more to work through.

“Mitosis” 2021.

A student of Media Ecology. More work at https://www.instagram.com/tywensnotes/