Wednesday, 15 September 1999

Andrew Wright's The Plausible Impossibility of the Here & Now (Moving Picture)

  


Primitive methods of photomechanical seeing – the pinhole camera, camera obscura and camera lucida – provide us with a view of nature that seems more direct and less mediated when compared to contemporary photographic technology.  The printed images from these antique methods lack sharp focus – edges blend, movements evaporate and figures are iconically still.  Only the most static, unmoving elements are recorded.  Spontaneous movement and surface detail – qualities we associate typically with virtuality, are absent.  The vagueness, unpredictability and fragility of the images of primitive photo-mechanisms may recall another type of empirical reality – images we experience during sleep, or of distant memory. Primitive photography may have become a metaphor for the tenuous grip that our consciousness can lay claim to on this earth.

***

The darkness seems total.  You slow to a stop, not knowing what lays ahead.  You feel for the wall, beside you, and into the dark space in front of you.  Your head scans from side to side for a ray of light.  You find a safe spot and wait.  A pinhole one quarter of an inch in diameter is the only source of light.  In five minutes your irises dilate to perceive the tones, forms and colours that the pinhole permits.  In ten minutes, it is a virtual reality -- an inverted apparition.   In fifteen minutes, the perimeter of the room becomes visible too, but pales beside the screaming aurora of light that has become the thousands of monofilament strands of The Plausible Impossibility of the Here & Now (Moving Picture).

A camera obscura is a darkened room.  A pinhole at one end of the room is the single source of light.  Remarkably, that single pinhole of light causes an inverted image of what is outside the room to appear on an inside wall.  This is the basic mechanical principle behind all photography.  Andrew Wright's The Plausible Impossibility of the Here & Now (Moving Picture) is a modified camera obscura.  Here, the image falls not on a two dimensional wall, but rests on and travels through a three-dimensional "screen" made up of thousands of hanging strands of monofilament line.  These lines hang thickly, like thousands of strands of transparent hair.  Suspended from above, and weighted from below, they occupy an area measuring 4 x 6 feet, reaching from ceiling to floor. 

***

The notion of "photography" -- drawing with light -- still lingers on the edge of the conceivable.  We know photography works, but just how and why remains a bit of a mystery.  The irony of this incomprehension is that the basic principle of photography closely follows the physiological mechanics of seeing.  The components of the eye -- the lens, iris and retina correspond to the camera components of lens, aperture and film.  What could be more natural?

The "naturalness" of photomechanical processing may in fact be its most confounding aspect.  One can marvel at the evolved, bio-mechanical complexity of one's own hand, or transfixedly watch an exposed beating heart on the Learning Channel, but only those who have lost their sight truly appreciate the phenomenon of seeing.  Unlike our extremities, which respond to our commands, or our cardio-vascular system, which functions discreetly in the background, sight is a constant part of consciousness; and sight is perhaps associated with the conscious existential condition more than any other sense.  As a metaphor of human consciousness, sight is related to understanding -- one "sees the light," "has one's eyes opened," or "gains insight."  One can also be "blinded by passion," be "left in the dark," or "loose sight" of something significant. "Seeing," it is often said, "is believing."

The ubiquity of photographic imagery in the mass media defines our knowledge of the visible world.  We know the world not through direct contact, but through its photographic record.  Moreover, where at one time a photograph may have been considered a statement of empirical truth, it is now widely acknowledged as manipulated and political.  Developments in photomechanical technology -- from still prints to moving pictures, from black and white to colour, from film to video to digital manipulation -- have permitted not only greater verisimilitude in the recording process, but have also permitted the creation of sophisticated images of fantasy and fear -- images whose contours often appear to blend with reality.  These images are a persuasive rhetoric that has the power to influence social, political and economic behaviour.

Contemporary photo-based artists experiment with primitive photographic models in part to reestablish contact with the natural world.  And like all contemporary embraces of the natural world, it is an act of resistance to our contemporary monolithic political economy.  Rudimentary tools and processes may free the individual artist from dependency on expensive equipment, materials and processing costs.  Fragile, hesitant and technically naive images are a rhetorical antithesis to a photomedia environment of lurid fantasy and fear fabrication.  Stripping the photographic process down to its basic observable phenomena slows the machinery of seduction and makes us reflexively aware of the physical reality of this giant hall of mirrors in which we live. 

***

Fifteen minutes has passed since I entered the room.   In a very real and perceptible way, sight has come into existence, from nothing -- first, as indistinguishable and vague forms, and then as recognizable images.  My irises are now completely dilated.  The Plausible Impossibility of the Here & Now (Moving Picture), which was initially mostly white light, shows blue toward the bottom (the sky), and across the top there are contour shadows and movement.  I make out that this movement is the image of cars on the street outside, and begin to associate this form and movement with the sound of their passing.  There is a wide angle effect to the projection, which makes each passing car gradually larger as it approaches the pinhole, diminishing in size as moves away.  I track the sounds and the shapes as they increase and diminish in turn.  I am completely enthralled by this phenomenon.  I am watching cars pass on the street.  I see light captured.  I am observing nature.  I see, and I am aware of it.

Gordon Hatt



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