“2011–present” is an ongoing daily archive of one composite image (photographs and screenshots taken that day) and one quote (heard or read that day). I’ve added an image and a quote for every day since December 23, 2011, and I plan to continue until I’m dead.
The project currently lives on 2011-present.bendenzer.com.
The site has two columns. A small column on the left has my name and the name of the project. Below that is a search bar and a stack of months with their dates listed backward in time. The days of the week are in the typical format of American calendars, Sunday thru Saturday from left to right in each row, but the rows are stacked with the later weeks on top. This is so it can be legible as a calendar in the sense that we typically understand Saturday on the left and Sunday on the right, but moving through it from top to bottom takes us backward, rather than forward, in time. The righthand column is wider and has an image, followed by a date, followed by a quote and attribution, followed by the next day’s image, etc. Double clicking an image opens it as a larger file.
Both columns scroll independently. As you move through the images and quotes on the right, you are scrolling backwards in time day by day. An underline tracks the date on the calendar. You can also click a specific date to jump to its image and quote, scrolling up and down to move forward and backward around that moment in time.
The search bar can be used to find a specific date. For example, typing “April 9” brings up the past 11 years of April 9th. For about a year and a half, I’ve been adding metadata to the images. Typing “I(spiral)” brings up images that have been tagged with “spiral.” Typing “L(providence)” brings up every day I’ve ever been in Providence my first time in Providence was June 26, 2021. For each search, the calendar column highlights in yellow the relevant dates that are being shown on the right column scroll. You can click on the names of the months within the calendar column and the site shifts to a full calendar view, with the calendar taking up the full width of the screen and a thumbnail present above each date. Clicking the names of the months again zooms out to three columns of months with even smaller thumbnails. Clicking any date or image within either of these views opens up that date in the original page view.
The project is an obsessive collection. It started as one thing a reason to use a camera and now is something else. It’s become my memory. A way for me to use the whole of my life. A way to preserve it. A way to make everything valuable. A way of making references my own. A way to always have something productive to do. A way to make something substantial. A way to share. A way to have people understand me. A way to prove I exist. A way to be remembered. A way to do something that won’t end before I do.
The few times I’ve introduced the project, I start with how I got my first DSLR camera. A Nikon D7000 which I used until December of 2020 when I bought a Nikon Z7II. At the time December 2011, I had an iPhone, but the DSLR was my first real camera. Something physically big and specifically made to take photos. My grandpa Jack was a black and white photofinisher in Kansas City. He did a lot of work for the Truman Library. When I was growing up he had a darkroom in his basement. He would show me and my friend Spencer how to develop film. I remember being in awe of his big conveyer belt of metal baskets that rocked and flipped pictures through the development solutions. An expensive holiday gift from my parents, I wanted to make sure I learned how to use my new camera, and I wanted to make sure I would actually put it to use.
To give myself some accountability, I started a Tumblr, making a rule that I would post a single photo I took each day.
The project’s publicness began as a means to make sure I actually followed through I’ve written thoughts and made drawings in various private notebooks throughout my life, but I’ve never been consistent about it. I think I stop because it only feels useful in a limited way but it also made the project real. Things eventually need an audience or they don’t exist.
I don’t make these images and post them on the web because I have a desire for people to see them, it’s more that I want the project to exist in the world, and for that to happen it needs to be able to be seen. This project as a form of public art is something I never thought about at the beginning. But by writing this essay and having it online, best viewed on a desktop browser so you can hover over the links, it’s something I’m thinking about now. Publishing is a public act. Despite this, as much as I can, I try not to think about the fact that people can look. A few more people know about my work and about this project now, and obviously I’m writing about it here, but when I’m making the images, I still try to ignore this fact as much as I can.
Scrolling through Tumblr templates, I decided that if I was posting a daily image, I might as well also record a quote. I was halfway through my freshman year of college, underlining things as I read, writing down lines from lectures, collecting phrases from friends. I wanted to have a way to keep or use, or hold onto, these moments, rather than having them disappear or be buried in my various notebooks. It was winter break and I had just taken a sculpture class with Martha Friedman. The best part of the class were the conversations. I was stuck on the idea of what makes things ‘valid.’ Martha recommended I read Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. With my constraints decided, I started the blog. To myself and my family, I still call the project a blog.
The first months of images were mostly me figuring out the camera. Playing with composition and light and shutter speed. I was intent on trying to make ‘nice’ images, while also trying to capture something that seemed worth remembering, or was related to what I was thinking about, or would jog my memory.
The first few years, I mostly posted a single image for a single day, normally a photo from my DSLR camera and occasionally a screengrab from my computer. There were occasional moments where I played with combining multiple photos together, but these were mostly ways to explore compositional ideas.
Over time, I started experimenting more. Combining multiple images, playing with GIFs, making the images really tall to be scrolled through. In retrospect, this all might have been an attempt to try and make the project more my own. To move it further away from a typical blog project and make something I could feel was truly mine. I realized that packing more content into each image made it more useful as a personal archive and more visually interesting as a collection of images.
I began using my big camera less and less. The things I saw and wanted to photograph were happening during my day and I needed to be quick to capture them. I carried my phone everywhere and my big camera not so much. So my ‘real’ camera became more of a specific tool, something for making images for book covers or editorial illustrations or ice cream on books.
I think there is a power to images that feels produced, that there is a specific validating quality about a photo that feels ‘real’ or ‘professional.’ This changes over time with technologies and culture. I use my large camera to make these types of images as documentation.
In a related way to making something public, I think that documentation makes things real, and that documentation is often as or more important than the thing that is being documented itself. I make physical things, but I know that the images I make of these things will be seen by more eyes than the actual objects. And in most cases, the images will eventually be the only thing that remains. I think there’s a power in acknowledging this, but it’s a balance. Documentation also allows for some slipperiness. I can show a book cover that never made it on the actual book as if it’s real and in stores by printing it out and photographing it wrapped around a real book. I’ve encouraged students to design two or three book covers within a series, but make many more spine designs, so they can photograph their pile in such a way that seems like they’ve done more work than they really have.
Every day I photograph lots of things. A brick detail on a building. A particularly shaped lamp post. A graphic choice on a sign. I think there so many fascinating things in the world, so many weird products of individual human decisions. The way the light shines through a flower. A funny goose. A cute dog. How I arranged my food for dinner. License plates that accidentally say things. Lily laughing. A project I’m working on. A piece of art I like. Images I’m Googling. A plastic bag in a tree. The sky. Current events. Something I’m fiddling with. An apple I’ve cut and rearranged. A ping pong ball on a neighbor’s roof. I’ve found a ways to put some of these images to use, making books that catalog things like building details and stamp compositions. I think there’s a power in focusing a view, and that the form of the book is well suited to it.
“2011–present” is a way to make all these photos useful. To give a purpose to my looking. When I studied architecture in undergrad, Jeff Kipnis said something that has always stuck with me. He described architecture as being great because it makes your whole life ‘deductible,’ in the sense of being able to subtract from your taxable income. Going on a road trip? Look around at the buildings and it’s a business trip. Walk down the street, it’s deductible. Everything around you is architecture, so all your experiences are relevant. I like this idea that everything can be useful or valuable.
Collaging photos together day by day, the resulting images became a visual journal, and eventually a sort of commonplace book. The project contains other people’s art because I look at other people’s art. It contains other people’s Instagram posts because I look at other people’s Instagram posts. It’s become a way of cataloging the things I see, a way of marking my references. Laura Owen’s show and catalog at the Whitney, Seth Price’s Fuck Seth Price, Robert Caro’s book, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, Tauba Auerbach’s S v Z, to begin listing a few. I forget things so quickly and it’s nice to have them all in one place.
It allows me to see how things sit and linger. I can look back and find nuggets of where things started, and I can track the trajectories of my work and ideas forward. Lately, I’ve been thinking about money and coins and numbering and counting.
References are used in different ways. They can be visual fodder. Jason Booher my first boss and art director at Blue Rider Press taught me to look at things that were made in the past and isolate specific formal relationships so I could pull them into the present. He also told me not to look at book covers for a while. He would let me know if I was too close to anything, freeing me to try and be different. References can also be used to position work in a specific context, giving an audience a roadmap or a shortcut or an entrypoint, relating the new work to things they already know. I made books for the Whitney Museum shop because they referenced work that was on display.
Collaging images of my references together is a way for me to remember them, but also to immediately use them, to make them mine, to make them part of my work and part of my life. I was once told that I had to write out the Gettysburg address to really understand it. I think there’s something here that relates.
For the first few years of the project, I didn’t tell anyone about the website outside of my family. It was really just a reason to use my camera. I didn’t and still don’t call home enough, and it became a way for my mom to see what I was up to at school, for her to know that I was alive. I’ve thought about the project in relation to On Kawara’s date paintings, but I mentioned this thing about my mom using it to know I was alive recently, and I got pointed to On Kawara’s “I Am Still Alive” telegrams, which I like much more as a reference.
Besides my mom, I was my audience. I would post for the day and then scroll back to look at my recent past.
There’s a tension for me between the project’s personal and publicness. It’s both a personal journal and a sort of public artwork. I’ve always held things relatively tight to the chest, and as much as I try to ignore the publicness of the project, it impacts how I decide what to include and ultimately what I take photos of throughout the day. I find that I only really take photos now of things I’ll include in these collages, besides the project I don’t really have a use for my photos.
There are often moments thoughts and images I want to remember to have as part of this larger collection which I use as my memory but I don’t want to be explicit about. There are things I’d write in a journal that I wouldn’t share.
I’m also hesitant to make this decision for others. My life happens with other people, but I’m wary of sharing too much on their behalf. My project is different than social media, but it’s similar in that it’s public and different people have different feelings on how they like to control their images online. Because of this, I often end up not taking as many photos of others, and I find I miss some of those memories.
Early in the project, to resolve this tension, I would be obtuse or vague, relying on my outside memory to hold the keys to a specific personal meanings. Looking back now, there are images and quotes where I remember exactly what I meant by them, what I was thinking, or experiencing, or struggling with, what I wanted to remember but not explicitly share. And there are images where I look back and remember that there was a specific meaning, but I can no longer recall the significance. Images and quotes too opaque to be legible to myself a few years after I made them.
Now I lean into quantity, packing more and more images into each day’s composition. It’s both a way to collect everything I want to remember and also a way to conceal. Not so much hiding as it is pushing things to the background, making it more work to stumble upon them. It allows me to be more personal. I also think there’s a richness that can come from exploring a dense thing if it is understood to be intentional.
As I made the images more and more dense, the single quote started acting as an entry point. As the most accessible bit of information on the site. Always a small clump of text, always below the image, always the same type size, and always attributed. Sometimes I would conceal the attribution, and there are a few I forget, but I now have a process of leaving a non-public notes for myself and marking the attribution with an ‘*’ to denote this. The quote is the most direct moment of editing in the project. Some days I have too many bits of text to choose from, too many ideas or moments that I want to remember other days I strain to remember something worthwhile.
I’ve always underlined in books. I like the idea of a book as a record of the experience of reading. There’s also the practical aspect that as much as I enjoy something or get a lot out of it, I tend to forget what I read far quicker than I’d like. Should I ever return to a text, my underlines are abridged editions of all the moments that resonated with me.
It wasn’t really until I started listening to audio books, ‘underlining’ by typing out quotes and taking screenshots on my phone, that I put together what I’d already known in other contexts, like designing book covers that text is also just an image. So I started collaging these screenshots of words within my daily compositions. Taking photos of my underlines in physical books and including them as well. The single quote under each image still holds an outsized importance because of its legibility, but now there are also lots of quotes within the images themselves.
In college, I audited a lot of classes. At one point, I was auditing 4 classes a semester and by my senior year they ended up changing the policy because of me. I loved auditing because you got to sit there in the class absorbing the relevant interesting bits and not stressing about the rest. I listen to audiobooks in much the same way. I started using Audible on my NYC commute, initially on the subway but eventually on my hour walk to work. I also listened while I bound books. I listen to nonfiction, biographies mostly. I like biographies because they help me get a better grasp the world, and everyone’s life is like a novel. I don’t have a very good memory. I will be totally engaged and the next week I won’t remember basically anything. I come across relevant and odd bits and I write them down.
When I audited classes at college, I did so officially, so on my transcript it would say the class and “AUD.” I’m not sure I would have attended all the classes I did if they weren’t documented. I think I needed to get more than one thing out of it, both the use in the moment, but also the credit of being there. I think collaging underlined quotes from books is similar for me, it’s also a way to keep track. I find that if I walk into a museum and they don’t allow photographs, I either try and sneak photographs or I walk faster than I would before. It’s not because I don’t believe in living in the moment, I think it’s more that the documenting and the remembering and this “use” is an important part of how I experience the world.
I’ve recently been thinking about this idea of ‘credit.’ I think one of the reasons I like designing book covers is because you get ownership over a small thing and then you get credit for it. Your name is on the jacket. I’ve also been thinking about sharing credit as a way to document and celebrate relationships. I got my mom’s handwriting on a book cover and my father-in-law’s photo of an eclipse. I’ve used many of my families and friends’ images as the source photos to make editorial illustrations. Part of this is just for the fun, and part of it is liking the idea of preserving these relationships within the credit line of ‘the paper of record.’
The time it takes me to make a single day’s collage depends on how many images I took that day. Some are quick, and some take an hour or two. It’s a lot of time to spend, but it’s usually relaxing, and I can listen to things while I do it. Often books or podcasts or YouTube videos, things I usually wouldn’t allow myself to consume without multitasking. I’ve always relished tasks that are both enjoyable in the moment, have some use or worth in the long run, and for that reason feel productive. Most days, this project is those things for me. It’s also something I can do when I can’t get myself to do anything else. I’ve always found it useful to productively procrastinate, to have multiple things going on at once, so when I’m stuck I have something else useful to do.
The current ritual usually goes like this:
I move photos from my phone to my computer. I used to use Image Capture and now I use AirDrop. I go through a single day’s worth of photos image by image, dragging the files I’d like to use into Photoshop. I select one image to be the background and change its size from 72dpi to 300dpi. This size has grown as I’ve taken more and more photos throughout the day. Originally, I collaged images together in their native 72dpi, but as I wanted to add more and more images without shrinking them down, I began making them 150 dpi. I eventually moved to 300dpi as I wanted more and more content in the frame while still having a high quality file should I ever want to look at or print the details. Because of this procedure, the aspect ratio and ultimate size of the images is based on the default iPhone formats, and so has changed a few times as I’ve updated my phone. While playing around with size and occasionally GIFs earlier in the project, the thought of maybe one day printing these, potentially collecting them in a big book, and the desire to minimize some of the variables to let the other differences in the images come to the fore, has led me to a somewhat standardized landscape format. The images I currently make, at their full size, are 56 x 42 inches at 300dpi. I go through each photo in Photoshop and select usually using the lasso, polygon lasso, or rectangular marquee tools the bits that I want to collage onto the base photo. I place these bits one by one and normally don’t move or resize them that much if at all once I’ve set them down. I also hardly ever rotate them. I put these collaged bits in quickly, trying not to be too precious. But I always struggle to decide where to put the last one. I often try a few places before it seems right.
Sometimes I dislike the collages after I make them, but I just flatten the file and save it so I can’t go back. I often think they’re less bad with time. And I know they will be one among many, propped up by the quantity of the entire project.
I’ve found I can only really work through a process of collaging. I’ve never been able to successfully begin from a blank page, so I tend to start with something that already exists.
For graphic design, this is inherently how the discipline works, you’re given content and constraints to work within. If I’m working on something like a book cover, my process is one of gathering, experimenting, collaging, and then editing. I start by reading the book and jotting down notes and phrases and imagery. I collect as much as I can, different typefaces that might be right, images from people I know or from stock sites, bits of my own ‘killed’ work that might be applicable, I try and give myself time to do experiments with different materials or tools or processes. When I’m stuck, I try to do things physically. Then I take that whole pile of things and try collaging it together in as many different ways as I can. For things that are more ‘art’ than design, where there aren’t external content or constraints that are prescribed I find that I still need something to grab on to, an expectation or object to work within or against. I think this is how life works too.
Because of the consistent process in which I make the collages, the images usually share formal qualities. Typically but not always I end up making some sort of image frame around a central focus of the background image I select. Sometimes, it becomes more of a texture.
I’m always trying to make intentional decisions. Sometimes this plays out in specific formal moves within a single image like aligning a moment in two collaged bits, or making things symmetrical, or repeating an element and sometimes this plays out as consistent choices or placement of similar elements across multiple days’ images..
I think meaning comes from having things feel intentional. I also think that meaning is somewhat flexible or rather it gets added by different people in different ways for different reasons I find that when I look at anything be it a flower, or a piece of art in a museum, or a drain cover I end up using it for my own purposes regardless of what the meaning or intention was. Everyone sees through their own framework, and people engage with and use whatever they have a place for. I trace some of my thinking on this to my time at Penguin. I agree with Jason when he said “a clever concept is not as strong as formal innovation.” It’s not that I’m against providing meaning or entry points for an audience, it’s more that I think people will make their own meaning out of things no matter what. I’ve been looking at license plates and finding meaning. Because of this, I think the work is always paramount. Just having the stuff there and existing I came across Sister Corita Kent’s “Rules for Students and Teachers,” and I really like them. One is “don’t try to create and analyze at the same time.” When I teach I have the students read all the rules and we talk about them. As long as the choices are intentional, I try and trust that enough meaning is there.
In 2018, I decided to make a more intentional container for the project. Tumblr templates worked well enough as an easy way to make the images and quotes public, but I wanted to push the site further away from being understood as a ‘blog’ and more towards being understood as a ‘project,’ Something that was more intentionally made and could exist on its own. Something that might be understood as ‘art.’ Tumblr was also an unreliable service that could and would change. Ultimately, when they decided to ban nudity, their algorithms misread many of my collages and removed them. I was thinking more about audience. Myself, my mom, but also potentially others whom I might want to have view me as someone who makes ‘art.’ I had been making images for 7 years and thought I had enough for the project to be positioned as an ongoing art piece. I wanted the images and quotes to be searchable, and for there to be a calendar to help orient a viewer in time. I also wanted to add metadata to the images so they could be parsed and sorted by what and who was in the pictures, where I was during the day, what I was reading, and what I was working on. I mocked up how the site could work and hired my friend Eric Li to code it. It was the first time I hired someone to help me make an art project. Eric is great, he also coded the site this essay is on and he developed a backend solution where I save each day’s image to a Dropbox folder. I have a photoshop script that, once I’m done making an image, resizes and saves it into three different sizes for different aspects of the site. I use a Google Sheet to log the quote, attribution, and metadata tags, and then from this Google Sheet, I push updates to the site.
I don’t make the images daily, but I do eventually make one for every day. Sometimes I get a few weeks or months behind, but I always catch up. I think the quantity of images as they build day by day has a lot to do with why the project remains valuable to me. I think it will only get better if I keep doing it.
I believe there is something about rigor and quantity and commitment that is inherently valuable. I like things that are often called folk art and I think this is partly why. I think quantity is a quality. In undergrad, I was given a studio space and told to make art. Junior year I made 500 or so collages. I think that the quantity of that body of work was really important. I made so many because I didn’t know when to stop and because I was sure that if I made 500 a few would be interesting as individual pieces. But as a group, I think they prop each other up in a coherentist way. They all benefit from being part of the larger collection. I think there is something about feeling time or labor or commitment or size that is immediate. I’ve also always been, and still am, fascinated with the idea that with enough of anything you can make anything else. I think this started with Legos, and then I spent grades 3-11 making things out of masking tape in my basement. In college, I took a computer science class and learned about how minesweeper and urinal-flushing mechanisms could be Turing complete.
I also think ‘art’ and ‘design’ can be a reason or excuse to live a certain way, a means to engage with the world. This may be overly idealistic or sentimental or selfish, but I like the idea of ‘a practice’ the time one spends ‘working’ and making things as a reason or excuse or justification to live an interesting and full life.
Two years ago I stumbled upon the story of Joeseph Mikulec. Born in Croatia in 1878, he started walking from town to town. At some point, he began collecting autographs from people often town officials in the places he visited. I imagine it started as a way to prove that he had actually walked there. He kept this up and eventually walked the globe, on official documents he often listed his occupation as “Pedestrian” and once “Traveling and Writing a Book” carrying at multiple times different volumes of a huge oversized book from capital to capital that he would slowly fill with signatures and notes. I got sucked into his story, corresponding with a Croatian scholar I found online who had mentioned him in a blog post, starting an ancestry.com trial to download all the documents I could find that included him, attempting to piece together where his books might have ended up, and dreaming about finding them or their scraps and one day writing his biography. More realistically, I think his story might make a nice exhibition, and I’ve been slowly collecting postcards and other trinkets he made to support his travels. Every few months I get an eBay alert.
Mikulec’s oversized books are records of his journey and the people he met, but more importantly, I think they are his reason to exist; his reason to interact, to meet people, to walk, and to engage with the world.
Ultimately, as much as it feels contrived and to write, I think this project at its core has become about me wanting to shape my life and what I leave as a trace of it when I die. It’s a project that contains all my other projects. It’s a project that contains my whole life. It contains my contradictions. It’s my memory, a documented performance of my seeing.
I don’t have grand ambitions to have lots of people know me, but I’d like someone to. Early on when I started dating Lily, I showed her the project on Tumblr and she showed me her Tumblr where she posted occasional thoughts and images. It was a way for her to know me and for me to know her. Maybe a future relative. Sometimes as I’m making this, I think about how I would probably be interested to see what my grandfather saw and thought everyday when he was 29. But I probably wouldn’t spend a crazy amount of time with it. Everyone has their own lives to live.
There are times when I’m frustrated with the project, and times when I think it’s the best thing I’ve done and will ever do. Right now, it’s the most personal thing that I would call ‘a project’ or ‘work’ or ‘art.’ But it’s also somewhat of a compulsion.
I think sometimes about how all these images are digital. I try to always have my data on two hard drives, and I know the best way to preserve something is to keep copying it. But, it’s not impossible to imagine a world where digital things break. Everything disappears eventually. Lately, I’ve been thinking there’s something appealing about a medium that physically lasts for a while longer than we do.
All this the words above is not what “2011–present” started as, but I think it’s all part of it now. It’s a way for me to make use of my time alive. To have something to show for it.