The Shape of Things To Come

If your photos aren’t good enough, your subject is not flat enough.

 

The following text describes a photographic series of blueprints that are made by creating a digital composite of images captured by a handheld scanner, which are then printed as large format negatives on transparent material to be contact printed as cyanotypes.

What is a blueprint? A plan, a design, a skeleton, a guide, a preview, a flattened version for convenience.

The scanning process is a flattening one that requires (in most cases) that the subject already be flat.  In any case, the detail recorded lies within a single thin plane – if you are not flat enough you don’t get recorded properly.  These characteristics of the process are analogous to domestication and the capitalist, technocratic post-industrialised society.  This system is “designed” to select for the flattest and most immobile subjects, who, in the kingdom of the scanner are rendered sharpest, smoothest, and with the least imperfections.  In a sense, they appear to be loyal and noble, yet they haven’t actively done anything to achieve their status.  Their perfect appearance is simply a product of their innate properties when interacting with those innate characteristics of the system they have been chosen to pass through.

This filtering action is an obvious metaphor for the work of a photographer, but beyond that it is a symbolic journey of every single step or test an image must pass in order to travel from its point of origin or reference, to a place in which it will be seen by an audience I.e. anyone who was not present at the point of origin.  This is a simple, physical but difficult gauntlet to run, however, the real challenge lies not in relocating images, but in transferring ideas.  Once on display, the images themselves must remain in the visual field long enough for the viewer to engage their secondary thinking mode, in order to reflect on what they see.

Different methods of conquering the visual field are possible.  One example favoured by corporations is saturation: by occurring or recurring enough times in our environments, whether it is the electronic, personal and portable, domestic or public, repetition instils familiarity which is easily unconsciously conflated with various positive traits such as trustworthiness, high quality and overall “goodness”, both in the qualitative and ethical or moral sense.  This system relies however, on unconscious interactions between humans and imagery, which is precisely what the advertisers bank on, and in many ways it is the opposite of what the artist wants to achieve and how he goes about it.

The second method for capturing the attention of the audience is to simply use shocking imagery, where what is shocking is defined by the context in which the image is displayed,  But as with any method the risk is that the visual content (shockingness, beauty etc) overpowers any intellectual origin: war photography becomes collectible art, signed by the “artist”, manufactured landscapes become excellent photographs.

The third method can, and is often combined with the previous two, which is the use of bright colours and high contrasts.  This mimics the way many creatures have evolved to pay attention to the world, as it is food sources such as fruit, flowers and berries that are the most colourful, and bright colours often indicate danger in the form of poisonous mushrooms, snakes and frogs etc.  Markings on animals themselves, whether natural or man-made are also used to identify various aspects of fitness.  The superstimuli is the epitome of this third method.

So, once an image has passed the test of relocation (barriers discussed later), the mind of the audience becomes the final filter.

If we look at competitions, be they straight competitions or applications for acceptance into a gallery, or funding for a show etc as being filtering exercises, then winning amounts to passing successfully through a succession of different mind-filters, of which the artist’s own mind is the first and most important.  But like all systems, even those intentionally designed to filter good from bad (whatever that may mean), the results of the process cannot be used to make judgments about those who passed or failed to pass the filter, other than “the system’s attributes either matched or did not match those of the subject at the time.”

The term “better” hides many assumptions: better, for what specific purpose?  According to what criteria?  This is why competition is artistic suicide because the emphasis is shifted from the personal criteria of creation, to the implied criteria of the judges.  Judging panels are mutable filters, and it may take many attempts in order to pass them, but even so, we may still be no wiser as to which exact criteria they happened to be operating on, despite any publicised information.  The unconscious biases of the judges must also be taken into account.

So on another level, competitions have the net effect (pun intended) of filtering out those who are not concerned with competing.

Once the image has caught the viewer’s attention there must be enough contextual information available to satisfy the minimum amount of understanding that the creator wishes to impart.  In this way, images that are neither (designed to be) self-explanatory, nor accompanied by text can or perhaps should be viewed as purely visual, emotional stimuli.  If art has a goal, but the artist fails to put in place the necessary measures to achieve that goal, then that is creator error.  If however, the measures are in place, but the viewer fails to contemplate them, then that is user error.

But if the artist creates some work and releases it with no disclaimer, instructions or footnotes, and says “make of it what you will”, then that is a case of an artistic Xanatos Gambit.  Accepting all answers as correct ones negates the truth of intention, and behind every (artistic) act there is intention.  This is what separates a dance from a sneeze.  Intention is required to create art, therefore if the idea is a complex one, leaving it up to the viewer to decide or decipher is akin to abandoning your intention or betraying your idea. (One exception is if the artist creates works with the intention of simply provoking the audience into guessing what the intention is.)

Experience is an interaction between subject and object, and on one level the subject is a barrier or group of specific filters that prevent the object from being seen.  What does it mean to be seen?  In this case it simply means acknowledging the author’s intention, but in experiential art terms it means seeing and feeling at least similarly to the author.

So, the scanning process is symbolic of not only the photographic procedure, but of all filtering systems, most pertinently, those of the human mind.

While some works may have an overwhelming effect on the audience, there exist no universally convincing arguments, that is, no matter what you do or say there will always be at least one person who sees faces in the rocks, or who fails to, as the case may be.

Barriers/Filters:

The nature of an idea can be hidden or revealed through the addition of text, so that complex ideas without text immediately have to rely on some form of studium in order to be greater comprehended.  This studium therefore filters out those who lack the background knowledge, which could quite possibly be most of the audience.  Even if there is text accompanying the images the type of text can form a barrier to further understanding.  For example, the text may be written in a highly poetic, metaphor-laden style which could deter certain readers, or just simply fail to describe the work in any concrete or coherent terms.  Another example might be a text that is full of technical jargon, which would again function as a studium filter.  But the ultimate filter, not including language, would be length.  If the font size is large enough, but not too large, then the length of the text will serve to filter out all but the most curious and sufficiently fed and hydrated.

While an awareness of filtering effects is necessary for efficient communication or transport, efficiency is but one criteria to focus on (the ease with which an idea can be communicated acts as a filter itself to which ones get expressed, and how).  We may wish  to deliberately hide our intentions behind a series of filters, so as to select a very specific audience, or it may simply be the case that the nature of the work is such that regardless of the author’s effort, the idea has strong filtering effect that are inherent and unavoidable.  An understanding of astrophysics or quantum physics relies on an already deep knowledge of mathematics.  To attempt to comprehend the former without the latter would be to introduce metaphor and oversimplification, which is closer to the illusion of comprehension than it is to actual understanding.  This is, in a sense, what we do when we try to assess a work on its own terms when we have no prior knowledge of the author, and are therefore incapable of contextualising everything.  But unless your medium of display is the website or some other information-squashing support, practical reasons prevent new projects from being shown alongside the artist’s entire back-catalogue, and even if this were not the case, the attention span of the audience would once again provide the ultimate filter.

What this all means is that in the same way that a 2-dimensional image is not a good (complete/accurate) representation of an object, and that no photograph or image is a just likeness of the world, our own mental representations of things are also simplified, flattened, comfortable illusions about who or what things are, and how they operate.

When we say we understand something we are using an absolute term to describe an incomplete state of knowledge as if it were whole.  Of course, all knowledge and information is incomplete, however, there are varying degrees of completeness, some more so than others, but it is that which gets filtered out by any system or process which is of more importance than the things that make it through, and are thus that much more salient.  This is no more obvious than when looking at a photograph, as we immediately see the image and are overpowered by its effects long before we muster the strength to think about what lies beyond and behind it.

In the case of these blueprints, what gets left out is volume (they are not sculptures) at both ends of the process.  In other words it is poorly represented by this system.

If this system was the primary one in existence, would we come to criticise the non-flatness or mobility of certain objects?  Or we would look for alternative ways of representing them as best as we could?  Or would we simply relinquish our attachment to the third dimension?

The flat world is highly convenient, especially when pages can now be converted into “pages” which take up little, if any physical space at all inside their digital domains.  This means that humans can more efficiently carry out their task of self-preservation vicariously through the preservation of memories, events, feelings, people, places and objects, even species, which are all preserved not actually, but only metaphorically through their images, recorded voices and literary likenesses, in the hopes that one day from these frail frames preserved in the timeless binary sap, they may be successfully resurrected as mono-planar beings capable of re-counting their voluminous histories with infallible fidelity and arresting conviction.  Elongated cuboids will attempt to traverse their circular counterparts in simulation only, as a symbolic self-referential gesture of the system that created them.  There will be no spontaneity after 3.PM.  Sleep patterns will resemble empty chessboards, long abandoned by their obedient pieces who willingly took it in turns to vacate in an orderly fashion, dressed in their knight gowns.  Rook 3 to pawn 5.  Check for the king’s vital signs.  Does he still rule with a regular tape measure?  Is his heart metronome?  Okay.  Let the game proceed in accordance with tradition, as dictated by religion, in the words of that guy.

Each photograph represents an original Platonic “form”, as if in a catalogue of preserved objects and events that can be called upon at any time, but as with any method of representation there are inherent biases.

Instead of “forms” existing as fluid and incomplete entities, the recording process freezes them in time from a single metaphorical and literal angle, in a state of seeming whole.  This is true of all recording methods and means of artistic expression, however, with photography this process of setting truth in stone is mirrored by the powerful act of forging imagery that is much more instantly and instinctively engaged with and emotionally processed than writing is for example.  The description of a photographic scene would take a comparatively glacial age to understand, whereas the brain would almost instantly arrive at a conclusion as to what it was being presented with in the case of an image.  Furthermore, although texts are said to contain imagery, it is of a significantly different quality than those unshifting stone forms of the photographic realm.  Literary images are subject to a much greater degree of variation and interpretation due to the fact that they are only images of the mind; they are much more metaphorical than they are physical, and as such maintain their fluidity.  In this respect metaphorical images are capable of perhaps coming closer to more accurately imitating reality than any photograph.  With this in mind we can view the progression of art throughout the ages as an evolution towards increasing complexity in terms of the detail and realism of representation, culminating in the invention of photography (and with the projected inventions and advancements in virtual reality, brain-mapping and uploading).  This tendency toward realism is matched by a parallel trend in the diminishing effort required by any individual to simulate reality.  This power turned from the sorcery of a select few into the democratic, hand-held banality of everyday existence.

Which is to say that as with a misunderstanding of biological evolution that leaves people with the impression of a genetic destiny simply playing out along a pre-ordained route which conveniently happens to appeal to the sensibilities of industrialised cultures, the inevitable progress of representation, and therefore art, is a symbol of such societies in which progress is an attractive illusion, held in place by comforting photographic images and public veneer.

We have been led to believe that we are on a journey towards a better, truer, more just reality, when in fact our environment is becoming clogged with distracting mirages; prosthetics that replace various missing elements of our modern lives, but in form and not substance.  Fruit-shaped candies are not equivalent to fruit, trimmed hedges are not the same as forests, and a painting of a pipe is not a pipe.

The aggressive nature of civilisation is evident in the ever-more aggressive methods of representation and their rise to ubiquity.  Not only do photographs force (or at least attempt to force) a particular viewpoint on the audience from a literal physical standpoint, they also serve to reinforce certain existing ideals through associative symbol use that often exploits our biological drives, hopes and fears.  Photography represents therefore, a pertinent commentary on human rationality, and in a parable-like way is an imageless metaphorical tale of how in trying to pin things down and replicate them, we end up killing them, and as a consequence further from the truth.

This is further illustrated by our many interactions with various aspects of nature where a dichotomy and dilemma exists as conflicting forces of desire to both protect and be close to animals for example, while at the same time wanting to manipulate them to suit our own personal needs and circumstances.

Species are much easier to observe and document when in a lab, cage or under a microscope than in their habitual habitats.  This is why photography has so much in common with taxidermy.  Behind the neatly-grafted skins and apparently-realistic poses lies the key to understanding the image in greater depth.  The wrapping is not the contents, the map is not the territory, and complex information cannot be simplified without sacrifice.  Whether formaldehyde, ferric nitrate or silver, each preservation process is more self-reflective than it is representative of its subject, that is to say, the medium is the message.

Now forget everything I have said and just look at the pretty pictures.

The scanning process like taxidermy, favours dead animals, or rather their outsides for preservation.  Since the dawn of civilisation animals have become increasingly 2-dimensional thanks to humans.  Ancient Egyptians dropped huge slabs of stone on their cats, cro-magnon man parked his buttocks on an assortment of prehistoric bugs, and despite their best efforts with the aid of motorised transport, modern humans successfully remove excess innards from a wide cross-section of earthlings, themselves included.  Various species are being trampled to death by the frog-march of progress, and frogs are no exception.

The sheer abundance of possible squishable and squashable life-forms that are available to the ever-doubling hordes of humans, means that our population density alone has given rise to a flattened underclass.  But under cars and the reign of the internal combustion engine, our ability to confer flatness to others took on a new turn.  The car is a high-speed vehicle like any other projectile, and as such is capable of killing faster than any pedestrian methods.  But unlike bullets, the relatively flat external characteristics of cars is an evolutionary advantage which allows them to pass this attribute on to the next generation.  And so, just as a pig is transformed into convenient slices of bacon to enable it to reach its final destination in the hands of consumers more easily, so too wildlife must conform to certain standards of flatness in order to make the journey to the next life in a pixelised paradise.  In fact, flatness is incorporated into the highway code in a subsection of fine print dedicated to birds, mammals and insects, which can be summarised as “GET OUTTA MAH WAY!”  Unfortunately, owing to the fact that they are incapable of reading such small text, birds of prey notwithstanding, the aforementioned creatures often fall foul of these laws.  Chickens however may be the exception, as they appear to have successfully adapted and evolved alongside the wagon, the horse-drawn cart, the bicycle and the motorcar, as evidenced by numerous westerns and other films shot in poor countries.  For this reason, chickens and other poultry do not feature in this series.