Pinch & Swipe

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From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

A number of themes absolutely central to photography meet in this wonderful series of pictures by the artist Jos Jansen. He calls them Battlefields. As often enough, I come to them late. They were published in an award-winning book in September 2015. Jansen is interested in technology and specifically in the question of whether technology now controls us or whether we still manage to control it. That seems a pretty central question right off the bat, to photography as to so much else. It touches environmental issues, policy, corporate business. ‘Big’ external things like those. But it also touches ‘little’ internal things, like how we bring up our children, what we believe and what we believe in. You know, little things.

It’s patently a good question to investigate in photographs, because photography is one of the technologies that changed the way we reach the world and the world reaches us. One can make arguments for the importance of all sorts of technologies, from the hand-axe to the jacquard loom, and from the rifle to the pulley. It’s not a competition; all I need say is that photography has had a completely revolutionary effect on the way we interact. And advances in photography are always to a greater or lesser extent based upon advances in technology.

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From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

 

Jos Jansen, from the Battlefields series

From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

 

 

Jos Jansen, from the Battlefields series

From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

 

Jos Jansen, from the Battlefields series

From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

Not everybody recognizes what they see in these pictures. They are clever views of the surfaces of phones, with traces on them of all those swiping, pinching gestures that have so quickly become second nature.

It is one of many nicely layered ironies that the blind, blank screens we’re looking at are normally alive with light and bursting with jostling, urgent images.

They weren’t easy to photograph. Jansen had to get his own camera out of the reflection, had to make oblique light that picked up grease furrows no more than a tenth or a hundredth of a millimetre high. It was worth the trouble.

Photography has always been a tool for expanding vision as much as freezing it. The very stillness of photographs is in fact an expansion if you consider that by taking as much time as you need to examine a scene or a view, you always find things in it that you could have never have seen at natural speed. From the very earliest days, photographers were attaching cameras to microscopes and telescopes to look at things too small or too vast for the eye and the brain to process without help. Fox Talbot was doing that kind of thing within months of having a workable process. Time-lapse and other sequences, comparative photography of various kinds, photography as a tool of memory more accurate than memory itself…in all these ways and many more, photography has been a tool of expanded awareness. Photography bends perception. You only really notice that when you look at extreme versions. The photo-finish camera, for example, a wonderfully absurd thing that distorts the very things it purports to see, sacrificing straight vision itself to the difference between the winner and the loser, the only thing that betters care about.

Transmutation XV Clasp by David Hiscock

Transmutation XV (Clasp) by David Hiscock. Hiscock first started working with photo-finish cameras ( sometimes adapted by him ) at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 where he was an official artist. He has pushed photo- finish photography in a number of unlikely directions, notably making advertisements. But the core of what he does with it is to find an edge where legible indexical photography gives way to abstraction.

Photography has been a tool of expanded identity, too. The selfie attracts a lot of attention today, but photography has always given people the chance to identify themselves as they want to be or propose to become rather than as they are. Selfies do that, but so did the Victorian photography studio in which you could borrow the accoutrements of a class that you did not (yet) belong to, to pose for a second as what you wanted one day to become. The self-portrait has become a plaintively existentialist revision of Descartes. I am in a photograph, therefore I am. What I have been and what I will be are unknown, but at least right now, I’m in a photograph.

Cabinet Card from Wisconsin

Cabinet Card from Wisconsin

Cabinet Card from Oregon

Cabinet Card from Oregon. The studio provided the expensive-looking balustrade. The implication, that this gentleman was a man of substantial property, did not need to be stated. Portraiture is usually as much about what people want to be as about what they are, whatever technology it is made with.

We’re a long way from the tracks left by questing fingers on smartphone glass, but not too far. Jansen’s technology is maybe doing no more than was already hinted at in the earlier versions that prefigured it.

Photography has always been used to seize traces, too. The idea that what was evanescent is captured or taken in a picture is central. The fleeting, the beneath notice, the so ordinary it isn’t seen, all these things are the territory of photography. Here’s another layer. Jansen photographs actual, physical traces. They’re made by sweaty fingers, urgently running down the information superhighway. We talk about the indexicality of photography (or at least we do if we like a certain kind of jargon). It comes from the Latin for a finger: it means that photography points at things. Jansen takes that back from theoretical talk: these are quite literally index marks, fingerprints. We think of fingerprints as specifically static, where the policewoman forcibly holds your finger down on the pad to make a still image, a print. That’s nineteenth century technology, like photography itself. Jos Jansen shows that it isn’t always so. His fingerprints dance like the marks a pianist might make or a typist. Some of them actually are the marks of typing, the new grandchild of the hunt-and-peck we used to do on giant manual personal typewriters.

The very literal object he’s found allows him to make a metaphor for a subject so huge it couldn’t be photographed. Our dependence on these little phones is the big subject, as big as the Horse-Head Nebula. But Jansen finds it by looking at sweaty marks. Truly, the universe in a grain of sand. Are we somehow infected through those marks, damaged? Or are they more like footprints, showing where we’ve been in case somebody has to come along behind to rescue us later?

Jansen’s marks are wonderfully brusque. They do look a little like galaxies. Or maps or huge enlargements of we know not what. Clearly, they have some kind of order, but none that we can read. They’re certainly painterly, but they were formed by the most robotic of automatic writing. Twitch, twitch, next screen, next impression, next existence. They look panic-stricken, these marks. Look at the intensity of your fellow commuters next time you’re on a train or a bus. Commuters are pacified, numbed to the harsh rigours of urban life. We think of the ‘digital revolution’ as allowing for vast change, targeted advertising at car fanciers, that kind of thing. But it also means people don’t complain when their Tube runs seven minutes late. Dead time, swipe, pinch. It may only be a gossip feed or a game, but there’s a grimness about the haste with which we all dismiss the last message to get to the next. It’s always the next message that will change our lives, quick, swipe – out of my way !

How clever of Jansen to have put the light (the energy, that is to say, the heat and drive) into the gestures and to have taken it away from the things being gestured over. Daguerreotypes used to be called the ‘mirror with a memory’. They had a shiny surface, you see, but the picture was frozen within it. Phones really do have memory built into them, masses of it nowadays; but they don’t have a memory for all that we swipe off them. Twitch, swipe ! out of my way.

There’s an irony there, too. Can we call them the mirror with no memory?   We used to deal with bits of information. We still refer to an individual news article as a ‘piece’. That’s gone. We’re all in ‘flows’ of data now, and the Pre-Socratics knew what to make of that. In a flow, you can never catch the same piece again. It has moved on, and so have you.   Ordinary pictures of digital screens almost always have them lit, blazing with the beams of purportedly life-enhancing energy going through them. But Jansen’s right. It’s we who blaze, with panic at what we might miss if we don’t get to the next screen fast enough. The screens themselves are dark.

 

 

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From the series Battlefields, by Jos Jansen

 

I’m aware that these pictures continue a sort of theme that has attracted me for some time. I wrote about the marks in the dirt on the back of van doors, in clever photographs by James Newton ( http://bit.ly/1sSCZSI ). I wrote more recently about Alejandro Guijarro’s quantum blackboards ( http://bit.ly/1OR4wYT ). I’ve written about mark-making more generally ( http://bit.ly/1OR4mAH ). It isn’t the only theme, that’s for sure. But one thing leads to another, and I make no apology for finding I’m still interested in these things as I become aware of each next one. There’s something rather wonderful about photography – so literal a medium in its more common guises – being pushed to the very edge of abstraction only for us to find that it carries even more rich meanings and even more complex readings there.

 

Battlefields, by Jos Jansen,was published in 2015 by The Eriskay Connection. ISBN: 978–94–92051–14–1

 

 

The Cloud of Unknowing – The Momentum Series of Alejandro Guijarro

Stanford II , 2012 Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Stanford II , 2012
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

The Cloud of Unknowing is a well-known fourteenth century anonymous mystical text in Middle English.   (As pretentious first sentences go, in a blog on photography, that’s not at all bad, but let it pass). I read it years ago (in a Penguin edition) and not much of it stuck — I hadn’t spared it a moment’s thought since, and would struggle to tell you much about it beyond the title. But it’s such a great title that I’ve carried that around with me. Now I feel I have a use for it.

I have kept a few of these pictures by Alejandro Guijarro on a bad slide-show on my computer for some weeks and they stick most wonderfully in my head. They’re from a series called Momentum, and they’re simply pictures of blackboards. When he exhibits them, the photographer carefully reproduces them precisely to scale: he shows them at the size of the original boards.

Cambridge I, 2011 Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Cambridge I, 2011
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Cambridge II , 2011 Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Cambridge II , 2011
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

MIT III 2013, Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

MIT III 2013,
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Some of the originals are in lecture theatres, others in the studies of researchers.

But they’re not just any blackboards: they are in some of the most famous physics and maths teaching institutions in the world. They are blackboards used either to help explain quantum mechanics or to resolve quantum problems. That is relevant.

Quantum physics represents a black hole of mystery to most of us. If we know a rudimentary minimum — say that adding energy to certain systems can cause them to jump from one state to another rather than progressing smoothly in proportion to the increased energy; or that certain phenomena take the form of both waves and particles at the same time — we are likely to be well satisfied with that. Richard Feynman was a great populariser of physics and believed in being comprehensible whenever possible, and he wasn’t only joking when he said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Since he had a Nobel prize (1965) for his contribution to the advance of quantum electrodynamics, he knew what he was talking about.

Even rudimentary awareness of quantum thinking is terrifying simply by the nature of the people who do it. Max Planck. Erwin Schrödinger. Feynman himself. Louis de Broglie. Einstein, of course. Nils Bohr laid the foundations for some of it. These are not brains to trifle with. Remember the story of Schrödinger’s (famous) cat, which is itself utterly incomprehensible to ordinary non-physicists, since it asks for a cat to be alive and dead at the same time, was a simplifying parable dreamed up as an explanation of something even more dreadfully obscure.

Yet quantum thinking is no longer in question. We’re assured that quantum reasoning is central to the modern world, to progress, and to prosperity. The areas where quantum theories are applied are perfectly non-terrifying. Light-emitting diodes. Lasers … These might once have been the stuff of Flash Gordon but they’re hardly unfamiliar now.

The erasures mark the transfer from one state to another.   Each one, in fact, since it’s actually quite difficult to wipe a blackboard completely clean, represents a number of previous states piled on top of each other, the shadows of each both informing the next and obscuring them. These palimpsests are of course completely appropriate to the subject matter. Quantum is lots of things, but some notion of the palimpsest is certainly part of it. (Palimpsest is the term for writing that is barely discernible on manuscript that was erased and re-used: the all-but vanished layer being sometimes historically more interesting or more important than the legible one on top).

Separately, these are also pictures of the functioning of a priesthood. The strange incantatory marks are in a language known only to the inducted. If you were an English graduate or a musician (or a writer on photography) you could stare at these with as much patience and as a good a lens as you liked and still not have any chance of understanding what the marks actually say or said. It is important that they meant something: these are not abstract marks, at all. Yet the pictures tend towards abstraction. Or if not towards abstraction itself, then towards a kind of metaphor so oblique as to be all-but abstract. They are certainly not only pictures about blackboards. They hover exquisitely between direct reference and allusion.

Wang Qingsong Follow Me , 2003 (part)

Wang Qingsong
Follow Me , 2003 (part)

Wang Qingsong’s Follow Me (2003) is itself a subtle picture, being at least as much about the business of not learning and difficulty communicating as their opposites.  But Follow Me is like a commercial poster compared to the Momentum series: effective enough, but bluntly so.

As well as being neat reflections on quantum, the blackboards also represent something else about the way science itself works. It was Newton who described his own contribution to progress by saying that he was merely a pygmy standing on the shoulders of giants. You advance a theory, check it, it maybe computes perfectly with data known at that time, but then other facts come to light, and someone has to revise your theory. Rubbing out the parts which don’t work any more is exactly how science advances.

These blackboards are beginning to show themselves capable of carrying quite a metaphorical load.

There’s more: in the history of modern art, few notions are more loaded than the blank. John Cage’s famous 4:33 was far more than the pretentious absurdity it’s sometimes caricatured as. By inviting a player to sit at the piano but hold back from playing any notes, Cage filled the silence with the ambient noise, and with all sorts of echoes, too. It’s impossible to hear (is that the right word?) 4:33, still now, without one’s head reverberating with music and thoughts about music. You can trace this idea quite a long way back: Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings are the source that Cage himself acknowledged, but Rauschenberg himself was taught by Josef Albers, and so on. There’s a strong link here through the Black Mountain College, but I don’t think this notion of the pregnant blank is unique to any group or place. Malevich had painted White on White in 1918.

Kazimir Malevich Suprematist Composition - White on White, 1918

Kazimir Malevich
Suprematist Composition – White on White, 1918

Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg 1953

Erased de Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg 1953

It was Rauschenberg who made a famous work called Erased de Kooning (it dates from 1953). That wasn’t just vandalism or iconoclasm, either. It was made with de Kooning’s permission and help, for a start, and it was a complicated and subtle reflection on the act of painting itself, on reaching grand status as a painter, and on the process of questioning artworks.

Guijarro’s blackboards are not blanks. Neither 4:33 nor the Erased de Kooning were really blanks. They were simply blank enough to invite us to populate them ourselves.   We’re not far from Mark Rothko’s soulful invitations to meditation, but nor — a bit more fancifully — are we far from the late Turner’s swirling contemplation of light itself. Light, by the way, is best described in quantum terms. It still helps to think of it in terms of waves; but it can also be seen to act in terms of packets of tiny subatomic particles called photons. That’s part of Guijarro’s thought, too.

Alejandro Guijarro described somewhere how one of the more patterned blackboards was actually created by a caretaker or janitor, rubbing the board after the lecturer and audience had gone. I like the unconscious creation of that (or why not imagine the caretaker deliberately took pleasure in the measured coverage of the eraser?).  I like even more that the photographer has to be credited entirely. These are not just records of something noteworthy or important that the photographer loyally transcribed from the real world to the two-dimensional one. These are pictures full of weight and meaning, but there was neither weight nor meaning until the photographer put them there. In other words, photography here is not a dependent business, but a fully generative one. There were only marked blackboards until they became photographs. The labour of criss-crossing the world to these august institutions, seeking permissions (and, I guess, seeking blackboards themselves, for they can’t be all that common any more), shooting pictures at odd moments when the lecture theatres were not in use – all of that is the common currency of successful photographic formulae. It’s logistically demanding, and needs to be got right. But the results that you see here are far beyond simply resolving problems of access and display.

I’m fascinated that this simple gesture of rubbing out a blackboard can come to stand so well for so much. I also want to use about them a word that has almost wholly disappeared from contemporary photographic criticism: they are extraordinarily beautiful things. Photography rewrote the rule book about beauty long ago, and continues to do so. But the word still stands. How else can we describe pictures which are so attractive in their airy clouds of chalk dust, and which at the same time so perfectly marry what they’re of to what they’re about?

I regard these seemingly simple photographs as rich invitations to think. As a profoundly ignorant non-scientist, I regard them as pictures of my own cloud of unknowing.

Oxford I, 2011, Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,

Oxford I, 2011,
Alejandro Guijarro, from the Momentum series ,