Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Modeling: A View from London

Modeling: what is it? The video posted above is Depth Perception, a film created by Dr. Pauline Bennett at Guy’s Hospital in London that renders muscle movement inside the heart. What we see are electron-tomography-enhanced interactions between the heart’s fibrous cytoskeleton musculature, which appear here as roughly regular, vertical striation, and the intercalated disc—that jagged, fluxing slash running through the center of the picture plane. The intercalated disc is a crucial if poorly understood mechanism of communication between muscles in the heart.

While filmic techniques allow Bennett to visual aspects of the intercalated disc in motion, she also works with colleagues to render the disc's structural features using architectural modeling software like AutoCAD. As at right, we see a schematized simulation of the disc’s three dimensional structure. Electron tomography visualization of microscopic cell contractions in the heart thus lead to an architectural modeling of the parameters of a feature of special interest, the intercalated disc. So, if visualization begets architectural modeling, Bennett and her colleagues also return to the lab where they treat the diseased hearts of mice as surrogates for—model organisms of—pathological human hearts.

 A comparable to-and-fro can be found in conservation and materials science. At the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, conservator Christina Young aims to understand and ultimately minimize sagging canvases and the havoc they can wreak on the painted images they carry. To study the strain levied on fabric supports when pulled taut on a stretcher to form vaunted Greenbergian flatness, Young prepares an idealized model canvas—one free of all the shortcuts, material weakness and other contingencies of normal artistic practice. She then subjects it to a battery of tests under laboratory conditions and studies their tensile filaments under pressure with a microscope.
Then, she studies the manipulated model object with an electronic speckle pattern interferometer whose laser refractions can be measured by a digital camera. These data are then modeled in the computer simulation we see at left where the effects of tension on the fabric surface are visualized (in completely arbitrary assignments) with red for most intensive strain, blue for the least.

Meanwhile, just across the Strand at the London School of Economics, philosopher of science Roman Frigg theorizes these iterative procedures. Modeling, Frigg argues, is a two-part enterprise. The model is what philosopher Kendall Walton calls a "prop" in a game of make-believe. That is, the modeler creates an idealized, exaggerated or otherwise fictionalized version of the object or phenomenon under investigation. This “p-representation” (prop-representation) is then run, manipulated or otherwise explored. Mathematical coordinates are possibly applied as a means of fleshing out the implications of rules instantiated by the prop’s design. Secondly, in t or target representation, the modeler contrives a method—so far as that is possible between the conclusions yielded by exploration of the prop in the modeling scenario and what is known about the "target system," whether this be the effects of economic policies, the physiological structures of the heart or how a seventeenth century canvas will behave.

Crucial for all of these strategies is that a simplified, exaggerated or otherwise fictionalized model becomes the object and field of inquiry from which knowledge about a real-world target is built indirectly. “Model systems are interesting,” writes Frigg, “exactly because more is true of them than what the initial description specifies; no one would spend time studying models if all there was to know about them was the explicit content of the initial description.” Or, as philosophers Tarja Knuuttila and Atro Voutilainen have pithily put it: “A model has an existence of its own. For this reason we cannot be totally in charge of it, however purposefully fabricated it may be.” How might we use this approach to think about the ways that artists use models?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Risky Business, Business as Usual

Meeting our group last night, Fiona Annis welcomed us into her "live/work" space in Griffintown for a memorable introduction to the art and science of wet-plate collodion photography. As suggested by the impromptu portrait session depicted above -- Jeff donning a fur, Fiona lighting her target as the rest of the group looks on, slightly stunned -- the spirit of "making do" or bricolage in the Levi-Straussian vein would seem to be central to Annis's practice. A credit card has been bent to hold her aluminum plates in place inside the gerry-rigged plastic cartridge she attaches to a thrift-store camera. An ice-fishing tent draped with light-blocking cloths becomes her portable darkroom. And the accreted condensations of silver crystals on and around the corners of her plate holder become the noisy artifacts of her photographic images.

But, how much of these menaced, compromised or otherwise accidental mutations can really be explained by the "inevitable" constraints of those improvised situations? That is to say, Annis's own attractions to sublimity, darkness, and a Surrealist-informed aesthetics of monstrosity feel much more compellingly present as the gravitational force propelling these occasions for decay. As we canvassed her collection of dripped candles, books on the art of Joel-Peter Witkin and other items worthy of what Restoration poetaster Ned Ward called a "Ware-house of Egyptian Mummies, old musty Skeletons, and other antiquated Trumpery," we heard tell of her friend's 32-page suicide note as "an extraordinary document." We saw her images of sites of famous, melancholic deaths. We smelled unfurling around us the pungent odors of the highly toxic ether, collodion and silver nitrate requisite to this procedure with which she works and sleeps

Annis claimed at one point that her art aims for "a sense of meaning without actually making sense." Wet, wooly and intentionally designed to court visual danger, I think there actually is a very clear way in which it does make sense—as a risk-seeking indulgence of a full-throated death drive. Fluid this work surely is in its material making. Liquid it may be in its squishy, morbid reflections. But, is it intelligent? More broadly, does an account of liquid intelligence need to breed in the dark, marshy backwaters of this plangent lugubriousness? Or might we model its movement—as with Fiona's posing of Jeffacross the face of brighter, lighter surfaces?

Monday, November 12, 2012

"A Resemblance too Perfect"

Lost has Sanford Sanchez been to the world of blogging these past months. Lost, it must be said, beneath a brimming pile of academic nonsense—as much a pile, often it has seemed, as a pyre alight with flames that needed to be extinguished before they got too far out of control. With the final weeks of courses now virtually in hand, I find myself drawn back to you with the discovery of a wondrous gem.

Let me set the scene: last weekend, I was prepping for a PhD defense on eighteenth century French anatomical culture and I wanted to check my facts on anatomical instruction at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. So, I went to the library where I consulted a copy of Paul Duro's The Academy and the Limits of Painting in Seventeenth Century France (New Haven: Yale, 1997). There, I found the notes depicted above leaved into the book—notes not only on academic practice but on the very practices of wax modeling that figured prominently in the very dissertation I had been reading! While the notes are slightly ... well, I'm sure they merit transcription and your consultation as follows:

"Relationship between wax & art theory, part of a greater epistemological shift --> naturalism --> secularism + scientific knowledge, reconstituting art as knowledge. Issues of resemblance. Perhaps it is not surprising that a material that has an uncanny ability to imitate reality would be used for religious purposes in a religious society & scientific (anatomical) purposes in a more secular society. Begins with with Charles Sorel, the satirical portraitists, & the assault on the masked man --> interesting because Sorel is a satirist. The question of what is naturalistic (<<au naturel>>): on the one hand the portrait is denigrated within the hierarchy of genres because it reproduces nature without invention --> a slave to nature. On the other hand, here the average portrait is equated with distortion and deception --> the portrait projects the wishful fantasy of its patron. It is the satiririst -- and Soerl's satirical universe is both wild & absurd -- that provides the true image <<au naturel>>. The paradox of the mask in satire --> with the presentation of explicit masks - exaggerated portraits & invented caricatures -- that the satirist seeks to strip off the 'masks' of unreflective hypocrisy and vanity. Negotiating the relationship between wax sculpture and art theory. A resemblance too perfect: wax sculpture & art theory."

I bet that was one sweet paper!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Confronting "Neoliberal Aesthetics": Part I

Since the mid-1980s, Walter Benn Michaels has been one of Michael Fried's biggest backers and most interesting interpreters. Yet, in a humdinger of a critical article from early 2011, Michaels lumps Fried and Jacques Rancière in with what he calls "neoliberal aesthetics." Is he serious? Is this all just some storm in a teacup drummed up to stir the pot, as it were? And what would does Michaels mean with that label anyway?

Let's back the boat up for a moment to the most interesting bits of Rancière's Notes on the Photographic Image, a piece singled out for scrutiny by Michaels.  Rancière introduces a meditation on Hegel's reading of Bartolome Esteban Murillo's Two Boys Eating Grapes and Melon (oil on canvas, ca. 1645; Alte Pinakothe, Munich), which we see at left. Hegel, Rancière reminds us, had called attention to the "carefree" attitude of Murillo's boys; they seem to possess such brio and nonchalance that they transfigure both the generic type of the picture and the low social class into which they would have been categorize by the elites of the ancien régime who commissioned such pictures. The boys' unexpected self-possession—this "suspension of the opposition beween activity and passivity" (14)—marks an important departure from the alienation of the beholder from the image that Rancière sees as the legacy of Michael Fried's absoprtive tradition. "Presenting the characters in the scene as completely absorbed by their task is, for him," Rancière writes, "the means by which the painters of that period ... posed and resolved the big question of artistic modernity: how can a work be made coherent by excluding the spectator from its space?" (14) 

Defining and defending the "fourth wall" of the picture-plane, painters of absorptive pictures were not simply attempting to compel visual attention by making their figures appear to flee in horror from the beholder's ambit—as Fried famously proposed of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa in Absorption and Theatricality. Instead, by Rancière's account, they were simultaneously imposing a conception of art as a disciplining mechanism, policing life inside and beyond the image. The logic of absorption, he contends, runs this way: "The active absorption of characters by their task is, ultimately, only their passive absorption into the space of the painting. What they are or do matters little, but what is important is that they are put in their place." (14) What he is proposing, I think, is a conception whereby art is made—or, art registers—the resistance between the aesthetic aims of the image-maker and the subject being depicted. 

And photography is privileged medium for this kind of confrontation as artist and non-art (photographic subjects) stare each other down so repeatedly in it. Thus, what we see when Walker Evans makes a pictorial masterpiece by photographing the kitchens of poor farmers in 1930s America is not only his compositional genius: "it is the correlate ability acquired by the characters themselves [that is, the poor farmers] to play with the image of their own being and of their condition, to post it to walls or to set it up before the lens." (15) Photographed subjects matter, Rancière claims; they help make the art. Far from being the extension of the modern tradition that puts beholders in their place by systematically excluding them, then, photography is "the bearer of this tendency to break the [alienating] historical complicity between the art of the photographer and the aesthetic capacity of his subjects." (15)

Fair enough, one might be tempted to say, but how does this have any bearing on neoliberalism? By what means can we draw connections between Rancière's conception of the photograph and a globally-diffused economic ideology privileging "privatization, deregulation, and financial and trade liberalization" (8) backed by the strong military force of an otherwise weak state, as one recent analysis defines neoliberalism? Yet, these are the connection for which Walter Benn Michaels tries to argue in a typically gnarly article. Taking up the kind of low-genre picture lionized by Rancière, Michaels begins with the seemingly innocuous question of why Diderot didn't like still life painting according to Fried. Rehearsing arguments from Absorption and Theatricality, Fried's Diderot appears either unmoved by the lack of difficulty in convincing the beholder that his/her presence had been effectively negated before a still life or, paradoxically, irritated by the theatricality that comes with the inevitable recognition that the painter must have set up this arrangement only to make a picture that would deny the beholder's presence. (2) For Michaels, this paradoxical demand "that the painter be as unconcerned with producing an effect on the beholder as the young girl reading [in the painting he has made] is" (2) has less to do with Diderot than with the post-modern present. In our times, it defines "an antimony—the works of art we value are those which seek to produce no effect on the beholder, but without the effort to produce an effect on the beholder (without the effort, as we might say, to make something that can be seen), there would be no works of art." (2)

Often conceived as split between nature and culture, man and machine, intent and accident, photography's great contemporary allure -- and especially that of Roland Barthes's concept of the punctum, the incidental photographic feature that idiosyncratically "wounds" a beholder by accident -- is that it offers a means of addressing the contradictory demands of this antimony in one coup. The fact that photography "characteristically displays images over which the photographer does not have complete control and thus makes it possible to value just those images (the punctum) means that what the photographer has tried to do ... may have nothing to do with the beauty, value or meaning of the photograph. The difficulty of imagining an artist who isn't trying to create a work of art is resolved by imagining instead an artist whose efforts to create the work are irrelevant to its meaning." (3-4) But, by arrogating Barthes and the punctum's unknowable effects into his absorptive tradition, Fried has made for himself some truly unholy alliances. "Probably no one would think to call John Cage an absorptive artist" (5), Michaels quips with wry understatement, before provocatively narrating the structuring parallels between Barthes's anti-intentional, "death of the author/birth of the reader" model of textuality and Cage's refusal to dictate to musicians and audience in pieces like 4'33", which leave composition to sonic concatenations of chance.

With the connection to Rancière's arguments now shifting into view, Michaels summarizes the position this way: "4'33" can thus be understood as an exemplary case of the way in which a radicalized absorption—produced by the commitment to not impose one's intentions on the listener/beholder/reader, to not perform for an audience—becomes indistinguishable from an account of the work of art in which it is theatricality that's radicalized—the only thing that matters is the audience's response." (6) Where Rancière had viewed photography as exemplary of art's fundamental co-production between artist and subject, Michaels sees resolution to the paradoxical demand that the effective work can't be intentionally made to work effects in the erasure of boundaries between work and beholder's experience of it—the very theatrical condition that Fried had abhorred in Minimalism!

All of this, we might imagine, could make Rancière very happy as his is a critique Fried's view of art. Yet, Michaels then turns the argument another way. Just as it is specious to massage the definition of effective art into that which has to be made free from the intent to produce effects, it is even more misguided to try to claim that embracing a view of art that ennobles to co-producer its degraded, down-trodden subjects thereby empowers them. The differences from the modernist tradition of, say, James Agee and Walker Evans are here stark: "Where for Rancière ... photographs are an occasion for the peasants to assert their aesthetic capacities, for Agee they are a kind of demonstration of what it is to be so 'appallingly damaged' that you no longer have any such capacities ... The crucial difference here is just the difference between seeing the beggar boys and peasants as damaged by our falsely hierarchical vision of them and seeing them as damaged by conditions that our vision may sanction or critique but that it did not produce." (12) Capitalist economics and not elitist "ways of seeing" have produced the misery depicted in these scenes and it is a piece of romanticizing clap-trap, Michaels claims to imagine that a theory of photography that gives agency to the represented dispossessed does anything to alter their dispossession.

What, though, is the connection between the crisis of confidence of Fried's absorptive object and Rancière's identity politics? According to Michaels, they are knitted together by the massive increase of economic inequality resulting from neoliberal policies of the post-War era. A neoliberal problematic thus informs:

"the relation between both the rise in economic inequality and the hegemony of anti-discrimination[,] on the hand[,] and the crisis of absorption and the emergence of a theory of the work of art which, imagining the escape from the artist's intention, insists on the primacy of the beholder and (especially in the photograph) of the subject, on the other. If, in other words, Rancière is right to see a certain egalitarian ambition in a photography that seeks to embrace its 'poverty' ... it's an egalitarianism of a very particular kind—the kind that's critical of hierarchies of vision but has no purchase on the hierarchies embodied in rising Gini coefficients and the redistribution of wealth upwards that is at the heart of neoliberalism. The political meaning of the refusal of form (the political meaning of the critique of the works's 'coherence') is the indifference to those social structures that, not produced by how we see, cannot be overcome by seeing differently. It's this refusal of form that is thus as [surely, should be "at"] the heart of neoliberal aesthetics." (15)

So, whereas Rancière's beef with Fried is for being to much of an elitist modernist whose absorptive tradition wants to keep the great unwashed out and put them in their place, Michaels's Fried is not enough of a modernist—who gives up on intentional form to quickly and capitulates to postures of identity politics that have been fellow travelers with a period of unprecedented accumulation of capital in the hands of the wealthy. Michaels fleshes this last point out instructively at the end of the article: "The crisis in absorption produced an aesthetics that proved to be deeply compatible with the changes in capitalism which ... emerged politically in the late 70s and have flourished ever since. At the heart of these changes was a commitment to the importance of efficient markets and an egalitarianism defined as equality of access to those markets. ... Thus the emergence of a theory of the work of art ... as offering above all the opportunity to see and be seen differently has its political role to play, simultaneously advertising the attractions of neoliberal equality and serving as its good conscience." (19)

Before I go back to read the portions of Fried's work on photography most under scrutiny here, I want to jot down the following question, which came to mind while re-reading this material. That is, the confusion of art and nature to which Michaels refers (6-10)—the demand that art aspires to the "condition of nature" whereby it seems to be formed without a purpose or intention—and the "perfect equilibrium" (13) between art and non-art to which Rancìere appeals ... all of these (often directly) betray debts to the aesthetics of Kant. Kant is more or less contemporaneous with Fried's hero, Diderot. But, he is also coeval with the prophets of economic liberalism like, say, Adam Smith. So, if Reaganism/Thatcherism produce the neoliberal conditions for the rebirth of this Kantian problematic, did Smith's classical liberalism in the late eighteenth century similarly produce the conditions for a Kantian aesthetics—or even for the emergence of the Diderotioan absorptive legacy itself?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Re-Reading Walter Benjamin on Photography

Confession time: it has been a while since I last encountered them, but I found it totally delightful to re-read "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (from Illuminations) and "A Short History of Photography" (from Classic Essays on Photography, ed. A. Trachtenberg, p. 199-216). I had forgotten how interconnected—and overlapping—these essays are; yet, each has its own curious aperçues and discontinuities.

After several readings in past weeks (esp. Barthes and Bazin) that make no meaningful engagement with the technical processes of photographic image-making, Benjamin's attention to more of the nitty gritty was very welcome. Consider his notes in "Short History" on the interplay between posing and exposing in the 1850s. "The procedure itself," he writes, "caused the models to live, not out of the instant but into it; during the long exposure they grew, as it were, into the image." (204) Poses and photos alike were "set up to last"—forged in the 1850s to endure long exposures and then to last thereafter. Hence, Benjamin claims, the props and supports found in these pictures (the stools, columns, and so on) are not only the iconographic markers of stability as they had been through the portrait tradition descending from Van Dyck, but they were also functional objects that register the conditions of the protracted making of the pictures themselves. (205-6) Equally interesting is his note early on regarding the fact that Daguerre's photos may have been mechanical, but they were hardly reproducible: "They were unique and they cost, on average, 25 gold francs per plate." (201)

These notes are interesting as they remind us how Benjamin knew full well that photography was not a monolithic entity that eradicated aura from art via its reproductive function from the get-go. Indeed, as he observes in "Short History," early photographers themselves created a kind of aura, casting the sitter into a shadowy world of darkness and mystery. (207-9) Thus, the function for photography diagnosed in "The Work of Art" needs to be seen as a historically-evolved one. That withering of the auratic, cultic dimensions of the art-object achieved only once Atget and others had come to practice photography as a tool of demystification—so they could "suck the aura from reality like water from a sinking ship." (209) (Further comparison could be made as well between the highly dialectical presentation of interaction between photography and other hand-made pictorial productions in "Short History" versus the far more oppositional conception of photo and painting in "Work of Art").

But, in what sense is photography meaningfully understood as "reproductive"? And exactly what is at stake for Benjamin in conceiving it in those terms? In "Short History," he claims things like this: "While it is possible to given an account of how people walk ... we know nothing definite of the positions involved in the fraction of a second when the step is taken. Photography, however, with its time lapses, enlargements, etc. makes such knowledge possible." (202-3) Following on from Josh Ellenbogen's piece, we might well say that, in such cases, the photographs enabling these insights are productive—not re-productive at all. "Because Marey's devices charted displacements that humans had never observed on their own," Ellenbogen argues, "the data his devices produced were simply free standing relative to observation by human scientists, not better or more objective substitutes for it. Marey's data exist beyond human sensibility and so 'cannot be characterized as especially accurate visualizations of what might otherwise have been registered by an illustrator or scientist.'" (Ellenbogen, 91)

So, why shouldn't we say that photography doesn't make new objects of inquiry rather than reproducing familiar ones, albeit in new ways? I think this is where Benjamin's class story comes in. First, he wants to claim that embrace of reality even through reproductions is a defining factor of working classes in the industrialized world who, of course, have been defined historically through relations to the factory and the machine. "The desire of contemporary masses to bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly ... is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction." Further, historically forged through their interface with the machine, the masses also gain critical self-consciousness through the reproductive media by which they encounter reality. Since the film actor can't adjust to the whims of an audience before him, Benjamin claims: "This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience's identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera; its approach is that of testing. This is not the approach to which cult values may be exposed." Reading, say, Marey's images as reproductive—rather than as productive creations of new domains of scientific inquiry and expertise—thus enables a story whereby industrial workers laboring in factories producing mechanical replications come to forge class-consciousness through identifying with the mechanical medium by which they view the world and to adopt that medium's iconoclastic criticality.

The Cloven Image: Barthes, Bazin and Ellenbogen

Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida acts as a nearly talismanic force in recent writing on photography. No less influential in cultural studies of the 1980s, Barthes early work on the photographic image—work produced under the influence of major historical factors like the influence of structuralist linguistics, the force of abstraction in art, and the coming of American-style consumer culture to post-War Europe—has not stood up as well. That said, the writing of the early Barthes, like that of his contemporary André Bazin, betrays an interesting and enduring conception of the photographic image as importantly cloven, cleft in two.

This point becomes readily apparent in Barthes’s “The Rhetoric of the Image” (1964), an essay that heralds a by-now-totally-second-nature reading of visual strategies of mass-media advertizing images such as this one at left. There, Barthes shows us, text and "connotative" cultural values struggle to apprehend and give order to the fundamental, "denotative" order of photography, which amounts a primitive ostention of the real. “From an aesthetic point of view,” he writes, “the denoted image can appear as a kind of Edenic state of the image; cleared utopianically of its connotations, the image would become radically objective, or, in the last analysis, innocent.” (277)

This utopian possibility of image freed from cultural codes manifests uniquely in photography because of certain ontological considerations:

This utopian character of denotation is considerably reinforced by the paradox already mentioned, that the photograph (in its literal state), by virtue of its absolutely analogical nature, seems to constitute a message without a code. Here, however, structural analysis must differentiate, for of all the kinds of image only the photograph is able to transmit the (literal) information without forming it by means of discontinuous signs and rules of transformation. The photograph, message without a code, must thus be opposed to the drawing which, even when denoted, is a coded message. [...] [end 277] In the photograph—at least at the level of the literal message—the relationship of signifieds to signifiers is not one of ‘transformation’ but of ‘recording’, and the absence of a code clearly reinforces the myth of photographic ‘naturalness’: the scene is there, captured mechanically, not humanly (the mechanical is here a guarantee of objectivity). Man’s intervention in the photograph (framing, distance, lighting, focus, speed) all effectively belong to the plane of connotation; it is as though in the beginning (even if utopian) there were a brute photograph (frontal and clear) on which man would then lay out, with the aid of various techniques, the signs drawn from a cultural code. Only the opposition of the cultural code and the natural non-code can, it seems, account for the specific character of the photograph ... (277-8)

So, where painting, drawing or any other hand-made visualizing strategy can only ever move within always-already coded cultural planes, the “causal” role of the depicted target in photography means that it marks a confrontation between nature and culture, the pre-linguistic real and the orders of coded language. (278) As Bazin will do in even more high-flown ways, Barthes sees the photographic image as an epochal coupure—as necessarily and fundamentally other than those images made by hand. Photography finds “humanity encountering for the first time in its history messages without a code. Hence the photograph is not the last (improved) term of the great family of images; it corresponds to a decisive mutation of informational economies.” (279) And part of the point of this kind of semiotic analysis is to show how and why that otherness is being co-opted, subjected to the tedious banalities of commercial language to shift units in advertizing.

In his roughly contemporaneous “The Photographic Message” (1961) Barthes gives a concise mission statement for cultural interpretation of this kind: “The analysis of codes perhaps allows an easier and surer historical definition of a society than the analysis of its signifieds ... We can perhaps do better than to take stock directly of the ideological contents of our age; by trying to reconstitute in its specific structure the code of connotation of a mode of communication as important as the press photograph we may hope to find, in their very subtlety, the forms our society uses to ensure its peace of mind and to grasp thereby the magnitude, the detours, and the underlying function of that activity.” (210) So, rather than asking what a society believes, we ask instead how it implements or constructs those fantasies it wants to believe. That seems like an interesting and productive enough idea.
            But, in what follows, it is hard to know if Barthes is attempting to diagnose the ideological beliefs of post-War consumer society about photography or if he is “telling it like it is”? What he claims certainly stretches credibility: “What does the photograph transmit? By definition, the scene itself, the literal reality. From the object to its image there is of course a reduction—in proportion, perspective, color—but at no time is this reduction a transformation (in the mathematical sense of the term.” (196) The photograph is a “perfect analogon” from what it depicts, a message without a code. (196) Just as he frequently presents statements like these in incredibly cagey ways—undercutting them with subclauses like "so it seems" or "as it were", subtleties that Krauss usually effaces—so Barthes complicates this position somewhat. He separates the culturally-laded, connotative dimensions of photography (what will later be called the “studium” in Camera Lucida) from the denotative act (of the punctum). (197) Then, he likens the sight of photography to interpreting an ideographic language, “which mix analogical and specifying units, the difference being that the ideogram is experienced as a sign whereas the photographic ‘copy’ is taken as the pure and simple denotation of reality.” (207) Again, is he endorsing this view or is he just reporting? It's not entirely clear.

We might take Barthes’s formulation of “message without code” recited by Krauss as a useful shibboleth for parsing the pieces by Bazin and Ellenbogen. For, where Bazin wants to see photography as not only a message without a code but effectively a union of message and messenger, Ellenbogen casts photography as all code. Indeed, contrary to Barthes, Bazin is entirely committed; he begins “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1960) with a series of weird claims about how photography should be seen as an expression of an undergirding “mummy complex”—a drive to embalm, encase, or otherwise protect human life against the ravages of time. (5-6) If the arts from 1500 are marked by a new demand for “realism,” they are also ruptured by the invention of pictorial perspective—an “original sin” which puts into opposition the idealizing aesthetic demand for representation of spiritual ideas with the primordial, psychological demand for “the real.” (7) With the coming of photography and then film in the nineteenth century, this intolerable tension was relieved. Painting and sculpture could abandon representation entirely, while the photo-based media could satisfy this fundamental human need for “realism.” (7) For this reason, Bazin views photography as “clearly the most important event in the history of the plastic arts” (9) since it delivers something absolutely, qualitatively different from any other kind of visualization previously known: “Only a photographic lends can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation, a kind of decal or transfer [so, indexicality of the physically-proximate/causal variety is very much in play]. The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction: it is the model.” (8)

We get a very different story in “Camera and Mind” where Josh Ellenbogen examines Marey’s photographs of targets invisible to the human eye. Unlike the depictions of objects or people implicitly imagined in the photographic practices discussed by Barthes and Bazin, Marey’s events have a completely non-optical existence: 

“If we put the matter into Peircean terms, we can say the photographs are indexical relative to the events they picture, in that a causal link exists [end 92] between them and their referents, but that their status as icons has become problematic, at least as the idea of iconicity is typically understood relative to photography. That is, to the extent that by iconicity we mean a match with a sensory counterpart, such a match is not possible for photographs of the sort Marey made, as they have no counterpart that they can try to match.” (93) 

Indexes without iconicity, these images don’t represent the data that Marey wants to study; they are his data. Thus, contra Barthes: “Marey’s practice centers on interposing a code ... between the observer and the event he or she studies, creating a visual trace that makes the event register in a scientifically useful form. Minus this interposition, this willful presentation of events in a language of glowing lines and sinuous curves, Marey would have had nothing to examine.” (93) So, far from being a message without a code, Marey’s images can only be a message because they are encoded. While Ellenbogen goes on to make a convincing case for how Duhem’s conception of the idealization of objects into abstracted categories is necessary for scientific thinking can serve as a useful framework for understanding how and why Marey’s images were supposed to work, he makes some interesting comments on Duhem’s conception of translation. (101)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Chance? Skill?

Robin Kelsey’s account of “historical action photography” is the visual practice most extensively reliant on accidents, luck, or chance. Indeed, this is the point as Kelsey’s argument holds that neither modernist nor postmodern views of photography have been willing to allot any space to chance: “Chance is the ontological vacuum and historical orphan around which the more favored subjects (institutional, discursive, individual) of writing on photography have for decades swirled.” (Kelsey, 60) The modernist point of view is basically a straw man in this narrative. Examining the case of the famous image of Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima, Kelsey stresses how—contrary to the “thin-slicing” of perceptual data by which the modernist photographer a la Henri Cartier-Bresson was able to intentionally grasp a crucial historical moment in a decisive photograph (Kelsey, 70-1)—photographer Joe Rosenthal not only restaged his shot (the flag-raising he shot was actually to replace another, smaller flag), but he actually imagined that another photo in his batch had won such acclaim. (Kelsey, 63; 65-6) Even if we shift the credit from photographer to editor in locating intentionality, the whole business begins to look pretty fishy: “When a photographer wheels around and with a click takes a picture that he or she has never envisioned, and then sense the film off for processing, editorial selection, and cropping, the relationship between the resulting photograph is more arbitrary and parasitic [than, say, with Jeff Wall or Walker Evans].” (Kelsey, 68) While he is willing to allow that great photographers higher probability of producing good shots than amateurs who just get lucky, Kelsey contends that this probabilism “does nothing to ease doubts about the meaning of any individual image.” (Kelsey, 74) And, by Kelsey’s reckoning it is this kind of fine-grained explication of images in institutional and discursive terms that has simultaneously marginalized chance from postmodern photography discourse: “The moderns have downplayed chance because it threatens the heroic intentionality and momentary revelation of the action photograph. The postmoderns have downplayed it to emphasize the institutions and discourses that manage all contingencies of meaning with scrupulous efficiency.” (Kelsey, 76) Although I am not sure that this account is being fair to either camp, the argument is that chance needs to be seen as a central, pervasive force when dealing with photography: “The camera, as an automatic picture machine, substituted the action of light for human labor, opening up new possibilities for chance.” (Kelsey, 75)

Second most chance-based by my reading is James Nothcote’s vision of Reynolds’s painting technique. Opening with a discussion of Nathaniel Hone’s The Conjuror of 1775, Northcote goes on to note how, despite Reynolds’s roles as President of the Royal Academy and the leading portraitist of his generation, he claimed that “there was not a man then on earth who had the least notion of colouring.” (Northcote, 17) To remedy the ignorance of the age, Reynolds was in possession of a theory. Northcote tells us: “It was Sir Joshua’s opinion, that if the vegetable colours (which are infinitely the most beautiful) were enclosed by varnish from the external atmosphere, they would not fade.” (Northcote, 20) However, not only was Reynolds wrong in point of fact as his notoriously fugitive paintings show (p. 18-19), but he became the docile subject of his advisors and his business. Northcote puts it this way: “In his own practice, … he would venture on whatever experiment was recommended to him by any advisor that came his way; and when he was at any time accused of having spoiled his portraits, by trying experiments upon them, he answered that it was always his wish to have made these experiments on his fancy pictures … but that he was prevented from practising thus, by his being at the time perpetually employed in painting portraits; and therefore obliged to make his trials on those, as eagerness in the pursuit of excellence was, in him, uncontrollable.” (Northcote, 21) So, despite his training and knowledge, Reynolds was unable to control his pigments or himself—deficiencies made particularly dangerous by the dubious adulterations practiced in London’s commodified color trade. (Northcote, 22) Also intriguing is the fact that Northcote closes out his account with an array of “accident” stories (p. 24-28)—of the fallings and befallings in the studio, including one tale in which Reynolds instructs him to achieve the best posture for depicting drapery not by elaborate posing, but “by taking the chance of another toss of the drapery stuff, and by that means I should get nature, which is always superior to art.” (Northcote, 28)

Chance and accident figure significantly in Reynolds’s reading Gainsborough. Not only did Gainsborough not enjoy the stabilizing, ennobling guidance of a trip to Italy, but his manner of working was significantly beholden to what he happened to come across in his daily life: “He had a habit of continually remarking to those who happened to be about him, whatever peculiarity of countenance, whatever accidental combination of figures, or happy effects of light and shadow, occurred in prospects, in the sky, in walking the streets, or in company. If, in his walks, he found a character that he liked, … he ordered him to his house: and from the fields he brought into his painting-room, stumps of trees, weeds, and animals of various kinds; and designed them, not from memory, but immediately from the objects. He even framed a kind of model of landskips, on his table, composed of broken stones, dried herbs, and pieces of looking glass, which he magnified and improved into rocks, trees, and water.” (Reynolds, 250) Not only is the artist beholden to what nature happens to throw before him, but those accidental specimens were treated by Gainsborough outside of classicizing imitation; they were merely copied. Yet, like Cozens’s attitude toward the blots—and perhaps even as with Duchamp’s view to his readymades in De Duve’s reading—Gainsborough’s “models thus accidentally found” were treated with their own kind of judgment and choosing informed by an extensive knowledge of the Dutch/Flemish schools. (Reynolds, 253) Thus, what appears to be accident and chance in Gainsorough’s finished paintings is judiciously seen as altogether different: “All those odd scratches [end 257] and marks, which, on a close examination, are so observable in Gainsborough’s pictures, and even to experienced painters appear rather the effect of accident than design; this chaos, this uncouth and shapeless appearance, by a kind of magick, at a certain distance assumes form, and all the parts seem to drop into their proper places; so that we can hardly refuse acknowledging the full effect of diligence, under the appearance of chance and hasty negligence.” (Reynolds, 258) So, although it does indeed have skill/artistic order within it, Gainsborough’s products—like his process—appears to be swamped by chance.

Since it uses accident and chance to achieve “dry”, rational results, I would put Alexander Cozens’s method slightly more to the skill end of the spectrum than Reynolds’s Gainsborough. The technique came to him, Cozens tells us, while working with a gifted pupil whose drawing he wanted to give more vigor: “At this instance happening to have a piece of soiled paper under my hand, and casting my eyes on it slightly, I sketched something like a landscape on it, with a pencil in order to catch some hint which might be improved into a rule. The stains, though extremely faint, appeared upon revisal to have influenced me, insensibly, in expressing the general appearance of a landscape.” (Cozens, 167-8) So, depiction of nature gives rise to an artistic idea that is, in turn, influenced by the inferior materials that happen to be to hand, which inspires the method. And that method is to begin with rough forms called “blots” (“an artificial blot is a production of chance, with a small degree of design” [Cozens, 169]), that are made to suggest landscapes; then, unctuous, transparent paper is set over the initial blot-page and a drawing is made by choosing key features in a project of graphic rationalization. That is, “the spirit of the blot as much as possible, by taking care not to add anything that is not suggested by it, and to leave out whatever appears to be unnatural.” (Cozens, 181) So, the artist had a key role in filtering and processing the chance-like forms; but, they also exert their capacity for suggestion back though the finished drawing.

By de Voogd’s reading, the marbleized paper printed in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy acts as “emblem” of the novel. That is, like the blotchy, stained paper produced from “a specially prepared liquid ground, [on which] blobs of paint were dropped, allowed to expand, and then drawn into a pattern by means of a comb” (de Voogd, 284), the novel appears to be artless, chaotic and ridden with accidents. This is just a clever ruse: “That novel, like the marbled page, is seemingly haphazard, the child of contingency, accidental, utterly dependent on the whims of chance and circumstance. Seemingly, because the expert marble can, and will, to a very great extent determine beforehand the outcomes of his design. Similarly, Sterne’s amazing novel is, appearances notwithstanding, tightly constructed.” (de Voogd, 285) So, there are some contingencies—exactly what form the marbling would take was left with the artisan, how the marbling would be affixed into the book was left to the bookbinder, and how the novel was read relied on the reader; but, overall, this is a feint of chance covering ingenious authorial skill.

Reynolds’s Discourse VI is extremely interesting as a meditation on relations between chance and skill. On the hand, the text opens as a direct rebuke to theories of genius, to those who would make art inexplicable and thus ultimately reliant upon some lucky gift from the gods. Reynolds, the hard-working painter and intellectual, has no time for this talk: “It is very natural for those who are unacquainted with the cause of any thing extraordinary, to be astonished at the effect, and to consider it as a kind of magick.” (Reynolds, 94) Consequently, it follows for Reynolds that, if they can’t be understood by the common herd, there are indeed rules for genius and, ultimately, that art is a knowable matter of science, of causes and effects—not of random, geistlich contingencies: “It cannot be by chance, that excellencies are produced with any constancy or any certainty, for this is not the nature of chance; but the rule by which men of extraordinary parts … work.” (Reynolds, 97-8) Now, if this all sounds very skill-oriented, lots of interesting liquid-talk begins to enter the conversation here with very curious consequences. First, Reynolds tells us that “Nature is, and must be the fountain which alone is inexhaustible; and from which all excellencies must originally flow.” (Reynolds, 101) Further, the path of true art is not obvious; its principles “do not swim on the superficies.” (Reynolds, 101) So, an eclectic path, drawing from a range of schools and artistic traditions is the best way forward. While navigating these water-ways of the modern schools, the artist should always “trace back art to its fountain-head; to that source from whence they drew their principal excellencies, the monuments of pure antiquity.” (Reynolds, 106) And, here is where we get the fabulous paradox about the roles of accident in the forming of artistic invention from imitation of past masters. On the one hand, the artist performs some (Duchampian?) choosing, alchemically converting dross into art: “He will pick up from dunghills what by a nice chymistry, passing through his own mind, shall be converted into pure gold.” (Reynolds, 107) Art-making is intentional choosing and skillful, alchemical transformation. Yet, to conceptualize how it is that new inventions can be made from old works, Reynolds’s appeals to a liquidy, alchemical accident in the forming of Corinthian bronze at the burning of Corinth—a chance event that no one intended. So, as much as this essay is aiming to rescue art as cause and effect from talk of luck and genius, that business is nonetheless tucked into the alchemical trope he deploys in this crucial passage.

To my reading, the de Marchi/Van Miegroet article was the most committed to a vision of artistic practice organized around skill—even if it does so while flirting with risk, accident and contingency. The story that the authors tell is, in a certain sense, a performance of their argument as they link together two agents, Joshua Reynolds and Adam Smith, who have lots of superficial, historicist connections in Enlightenment Britain, but seemingly little in common beyond that. Sharing a similar conceptions of market conditions and the circumstances that could drive prices, what ultimately bound Reynolds and Smith together was a conception of ingenuity or “intuiting ways to link causes and effects that seem remote from one another. The appearance of remoteness means that there are no obvious connections. The ingenious inventor, then, is one who forges those connections via many small links whose eventual chainlike character strikes the outside observer as ‘strange and wonderful’—precisely because it is more or less unexpected.” (de Marchi/Van Miegroet, 383) So, as with Gainsborough’s optical “magick” by which Reynolds himself is taken in, the pleasure of the ingenuity is in inverse proportion between means and ends—of the distance between parsimonious means and spectacular ends. (385) And setting out Smith’s theory of pricing—whereby manipulation of supply, vanity/fancy of consumers and market-share drive up prices, while also allowing the maker to cut labor-time—the authors argue that Reynolds’s unstable, experimental pictures were highly rational enterprises. (393-398) Far from being detrimental to his business, building some calculated obsolescence into the works was a shrewd calculation: “Even if only 10 or 20 percent of Reynolds’s pictures cracked badly, lost paint, or faded, … would be buyers were necessarily entering into a wager when purchasing a picture from him.” (401) What appears to be chance or accident in Reynolds’s facture thus needs to be seen as resolution born from a cold, rational examination of the conditions of artistic production and the formulation of a practice best calculated to succeed in that environment.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Transit of Venus ... Sort of

In my last post, I mentioned that my grandmother recently died. Now, before you think I've gone all lugubrious on you, hold up for just a moment as I want to tell you a story. It was the autumn of 2010 and my grandmother had taken very ill. While we later learn that she was suffering from low blood pressure due to a badly-prescribed blood thinner, her health and spirits dipped markedly. She was exhausted all the time, described her legs as "dead" and could barely take care of herself. To his credit, my father performed some heroic acts of piety in nursing her away from the brink. And, as he did so, my aunt suggested that I should try to write to my grandmother on a daily basis as a means of lifting her spirits.

My grandmother was something of a technophile; into her 90s, she checked her email avidly, streamed videos of political debates and wrote all of her commentaries on the little laptop she always had by her side. Thus, once "commissioned" by my aunt to do so, I began collecting stories, anecdotes and other bits of information that I could pass along to her in these daily emails. My grandmother took great interest in history, the natural world and occasions for indulging cruel delight—Schadenfreude—in my travails. I share the following story with you in her absence as she would have loved this.

I'm sure you saw the stories over the past couple days about the Transit of Venus, right? This is rare astronomical event in which Venus becomes visible passing across the face of the sun. It has only happened something like seven times since the invention of the telescope in the early seventeenth century. It prompted celebrated journeys to far-flung places in the 1760s as explorers like Capt. James Cook sought to bring back data on the time and phenomena of the Transit, which would help to establish the distance of the earth from Venus and the sun.

So, when I got a call yesterday from a colleague asking if I would be interested in witnessing this event that will not happen for another century, I was delighted to join in. The conditions looked auspicious as we hiked up to the mountain-top campus of Université de Montréal.

We arrived at about 5 PM, a good hour before the Transit was to begin. We found the joint already jumping with amateur astronomers, curiosi and gawkers.
As you might imagine, some craft is needed to watch an event like the Transit. You can't just stare at the sun! So, we kitted ourselves out with the eclipse goggles that this dufus is wearing.
The proceedings were deemed worthy of television as the interview unfolding in the central foreground of this photograph suggests. And, indeed, all looked like it was going swimmingly on this beautiful, sunny day.

However, about fifteen minutes before the contact was to begin, a thick blanket of cloud rolled in from the northeast. It completely blocked out the sun for the next hour and a half as the wind swirled up and lightning cracked through the sky in the distance. As the sky blackened, we made a quick exit for the Metro around 7:30 PM having seen neither hide nor hair of the Transit. By the time I got out of the Metro, the rain was bucketing down and I got properly soaked as I ran home. I think I can hear my grandmother laughing as I write this. Oh well; I can try again in another hundred years or so.

*   *   *
Just as a little post-script: you may be interested to know that I was later able to see the transit of Venus. Or, I was able to model it while making enchiladas where the boiling sauce became the sun and the cap for the soy sauce was Venus. Spectacular!

Friday, June 1, 2012

My Grandmother's House

My grandmother died about a month and a half ago. In this photograph, taken the day after she died, I see some of the abiding features of her long, rich life. Take the yellow plastic telephone perched at the back of the wicker chair's seat, for example; it is one the many strange toys—the rusting metal trucks, the hairless dolls—she kept around in the event that children came by. Children were hugely important in her life; she worked with and thought about children constantly. Mother of four children, she collaborated on the reform of religious education after she finished seminary in the 1940s. She wrote numerous articles and several books about children and their confrontations with the kinds of questions traditionally answered by religion including her most famous book, which was in print for nearly sixty years. Although (as Mrs. Sanchez has astutely observed) my grandmother was one of the least overtly maternal people you could ever imagine, she took marveled at children and their ways. Putting an eye-catching prop like this yellow plastic phone well within their reach was sure to generate delights for her.

But, notice too how the seat of the wicker chair has been strengthened by a square of plywood. Born in Irish south Boston in 1919 and then made a child of the Depression, my grandmother hated to see things wasted. And, on the surface at least—that is, as here, on the outward-facing porch of her house—she liked to show that frugality with an aesthetic of practically-minded functionalism. If you think this plywood patching job is crude, you should have seen the knotted messes she made of my (fashionably) holey sweaters, which she often offered to darn.

I stress the outward show of this frugality as her house itself held a remarkable array of treasures. The story goes that many of the artifacts and the bulk of the library had been amassed by my grandfather's great uncle in late nineteenth-century Philadelphia. His ne'er-do-well children squandered his fortune and what remained of his prodigious collection of books and Arts and Crafts-era work (William Morris was a particular favorite, as this totemic portrait will suggest) was brought north by my grandfather's two spinster aunts in the 1960s. Amazing things remained; a Gutenberg bible, an invitations to Dryden's funeral, a letter of introduction for Gandhi. In the 1980s, an insurance appraiser found a Rembrandt print in the attic.

But, only to a keen eye would the loot that loot be visible. Typically, visitors would enter from the porch—by-passing the weird dolls, phone and busted trucks—into the kitchen where my grandmother would inevitably be seated by the soap-stone wood stove in her rocking chair. You would be ordered right back out of the house and into the garage to retrieve an armload of wood had you been so foolish as to come unprepared.

Inevitably, this would lead to some banter about navigating the Scylla and Charybdis that barred the completion of such tasks. As she had slowed down in later years—intermittently hobbled by a bad hip and then persistent shingles—she increasingly insisted upon "saving steps!" Doing so required contorting the body into a ruthless, Taylorist fantasy of totally efficiency of movement. However, saving steps was not to be taken so far that the would-be helper ended up carrying a "lazy man's load." Contrary to common sense (at least as I saw it), a lazy man's load denoted carrying so much that the job could almost be done in a single trip ... but would invariably go pear-shaped and require picking items up off the floor once dropped. I loved to tease my grandmother with the apparently contradictory instructions she dealt out as we tried to name precisely where a given load of wood fell on the step-saving/lazy man's load continuum.

As you may have guessed, precision, accuracy, getting things right were hugely important to my grandmother. If the hundreds of commentaries she read on her local radio station exemplify that conviction of voice, then this grimy fingerprints on her well-turned copy of Louis Leslie's 20,000 Words indicate the hard work—the commitment to craft—through which that clarity was achieved. Invariably, the public radio station would be on when I came into the kitchen. After running the gauntlet of the wood, she would tell me to turn the radio off. I would sit opposite her by the fire and she would start in with her standard, inquisitorial practice. When would I finish my dissertation? Would I ever get a job? Was I going to get married? How about children?

When I was a child myself, we would occasionally be received into the adjoining room to the west, the "fern room" (so-called on account of the wallpaper). That table in the lower right hand corner of the photography and the rotary phone used to flank the northern wall of the room. I remember my grandfather sitting in that chair, drinking a whiskey at holiday gatherings. 

Holidays were the only occasions when we were allowed to go into the formal dining room on the south side of the house. Prior to my grandmother's death, I never really had the opportunity to look at the silverware in the room. As a kid I was always too busy hustling dishes in and out of the room, refilling the water pitcher or keeping myself alert to this cruel game called "pig" that was sometimes played during the meal.

I realize now that many of these games were played with the silverware, but in a scrupulous effort not to see it as such. One such game involved an initiator performing a wondrous act of fiat whereby the saltshaker became "the cat" and the pepper-shaker became "the dog." One newly-minted animal would be passed ceremonially around the table clockwise, while the other moved counterclockwise. With every transfer of fauna, the carrier was required to introduce the relayed artifact by saying either "this is the cat" or "this is the dog." All of this was straightforward until the trajectories of cat and dog overlapped; two nearly identical, silver objects would descend from opposite side with relatives simultaneously declaring them to be household animals. The trick was to receive them both and pass them on appropriately without confusing their stipulated values. On this day after my grandmother's death, I was happy to have a moment to contemplate the silverware in its silence. Obviously, these pitchers aren't cats or dogs at all; they're geese.

Just west of the dining room is a formal entryway lined with portraits of long-lost relatives. My grandmother affixed index cards in the corners of many, as in the mustachioed gent at upper right. I don't think she ever troubled herself with the question of who painted these pictures. Then again, they are hardly masterpieces. But, the richness of pattern visible here—the gilt edging of the lacquered chair, the competing Anatolian carpets at right foreground and left middle-ground, the floral print of the wallpaper—this all spoke to me of a sultry, aging hedonism concealed behind the white-washed Yankee frugality of the house's front.
Walking through the house on that April afternoon, I was struck too by the glorious light captured in those far western rooms ...
... and by the baffling, distant books my grandmother liked to read: The Bible of the World, The World of Washington Irving. (In her defense, I doubt she ever read The Negro Caravan, which is second from left!)

What else is there to say that is not already latent in these images of her house? My grandmother was a great lady and a strange bird.