Image & Apparatus
Apparatus of Perception, Apparatus of Desire
April 20 - June 10, 2007
By Susan Edelstein

Perhaps the most important obstacle to an understanding of the camera obscura, or of any optical apparatus, is the idea that optical device and observer are two distinct entities, that the identity of observer exists independently from the optical device that is a physical piece of technical equipment … [the camera obscura] is a site at which a discursive formation intersects with material practices.

                                                                                                      ---Jonathan Crary

It is considered commonplace in the early twenty-first century, as it was in the late twentieth, to regard western society as a culture of the image. The simulacral, the appearance and the surface have replaced the ‘real’, the ‘essence’ and the depth. The importance of images to the maintenance of global capitalism and western style free-market democracy—that is, the freedom to choose between an endless and interchangeable array of commodities—cannot be overestimated. Advertising and design make use of the seductive power of images in order to deliver an almost biological imperative to consume by displaying the spoils of the good life with slick, glossy, modern representations. The quasi-moral superiority of Macs to PCs stems from the savvy deployment of images by Apple to suggest that their products are not just calculating machines but extensions of a creative lifestyle, and thus status objects.

Conversely, the urge to appear in images is taken to extreme levels, as seen in the advent of reality TV and with the current explosion of confessional culture web sites found on the Internet, such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. Self-representation is hardly new, but the speed of transmission and unnerving access to the private lives of strangers which is provided by digital technology might be seen as both cause and symptom of full-blown cultural scopomania. “Creeping” is the term that Facebook subscribers use to follow links from friends’ pages to friends of friends’ pages, often following threads of connections which dizzyingly literalize the term World Wide Web.

Our culture has an ambivalent relationship to images. Plato’s allegory of the cave demonstrates the distrust that philosophy has traditionally cast on representations as mere resemblances of ‘reality’ which is itself a second-order representation of the ‘ideal’. This idealism extends to Cartesian theories of subjectivity, which regard the information of our senses to be suspect and in which even the existence of external reality is to be viewed skeptically. However, as Susan Sontag notes, “[a] capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats…. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers)”[1]

The obverse relationship of spectacle and surveillance conditions the understanding of images, particularly photographic images, in modern society. Art historian and contemporary art critic Jonathan Crary locates the origins of this regime in the early nineteenth century scientific research and discourse of vision itself. Empirical science sought to quantify the physiological aspects of vision in order to develop criteria for ‘normal’ seeing, and in the process uprooted the relation between tactility and eyesight as it had been understood in previous centuries. Crary sees this process as a method of disciplining vision and directing attention towards the products of the newly emergent industrial capitalism for a specifically modern, ‘productive’ subject. By abstracting vision as an object of study, as a form of perception which is no longer in concert with other senses such as touch, these discourses paved the way for the detached and mobile inhabitant of postmodern society, for whom images become interchangeable with meaning, knowledge and experience itself.[2] 

Spectacle and surveillance are the two poles between which both Sontag and Crary theorize our contemporary image world. Guy Debord asserts that “the spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” and further, that “[it] cannot be understood as either a deliberate distortion of the visual world or as the product of the technology of the mass dissemination of images” but rather as “a world view transformed into an objective [material] force.”[3] On the other hand, Michel Foucault describes the disciplinary surveillance and discourses of knowledge produced by institutions and categories of knowledge such as prisons, schools, medicine, economics, and the human sciences as a type of “panopticism” where “[h]e who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.”[4]

The exhibition Image and Apparatus brings together four artists whose strategies for producing photographs problematize the insidious interplay of images with ideologies and discourses of power. Specifically, the use of the meager technology of the pinhole camera or camera obscura, presents a subtle resistance to the seamless, naturalistic representations of Debord’s “spectacle” as well as the regime of surveillance that secretes power in Foucault’s “panopticism”. This follows from the fact that images are not merely tools for domination which supply a convenient vessel for disseminating messages of power; they also contain the capacity to subvert those messages, to denaturalize the apparent naturalism with which the world is represented to us in the interests of rulers.

As quoted in the Crary epigraph which started this essay, “any optical apparatus … is a site at which a discursive formation intersects with material practices.”[5] Part of the discursive formation which drives the spectacle is a notion of modernity as an endless set of technological developments which in turn mirror social progress. One of the attractions of technically reproducible images for artists of the twentieth-century avant-garde has been the feeling of the especially appropriate relationship between the technological apparatus of the camera and the conditions of the advanced industrial society. This essay will suggest that the material practices presented by Andrew Wright, Dianne Bos, Donald Lawrence and Arnold Koroshegyi propose a type of counter-discourse to the technocratic assumptions of both the spectacle and the panopticon.

Apparatus of Perception

It seems fitting to begin this discussion with Andrew Wright’s Camera Obscura. This work, as indicated by the title, is a sort of walk-in camera which resembles the portable walls often used in gallery exhibition spaces. However, upon closer inspection, one notices a hole has been cut in one of the long sides of the wall and a door placed on one of the short edges, which offers entrance to the darkened chamber. In the surrounding gallery space, large-scale black and white photographs, paper negatives actually, depict the confines of Museum London’s Ivey Galleries as they appear in the preparation stage of the exhibition. Inside the structure, the feeble light streaming through the “pinhole” (a cut in the wall fitted with a lens from a pair of eye-glasses) slowly reveals the inverted image of the work installed in the facing gallery. If people are present in the gallery, the projection becomes animated, somewhat reminiscent of silent video footage.

Wright notes that there is “an incredible magical quality to the image created inside the camera obscura,” and a fascination which derives in part from his first experience with a camera obscura in Greenwich, England. However, at Museum London, the low light of the gallery setting provides a less-vivid projection than Wright’s initial encounter of a sunlit park in England, instead producing a more subtle image of Dianne Bos’s installation the adjoining space. This move foregrounds one of the key conceptual premises of Wright’s work—an internal dialogue of self-reference, so that the activity of seeing, perceiving our own perception, becomes the subject of the piece.

This is one of the roles that the camera obscura has historically played, as, according to Crary, “noninstrumental descriptions of the camera obscura are pervasive, emphasizing it as a self-sufficient demonstration of its own activity and by analogy of human vision.”[6] Yet Wright’s version of this demonstration also insists that the “identity of the observer” does not exist “independently from the optical device that is a physical piece of technical equipment.”[7] Instead, it points to the technological and social apparatus of both the camera and the museum which allows us to perform this looking activity. Additionally, the large scale prints, abstracted through the inversion of values, underscore the difference between the frozen image world of the photograph and the animated, but still mediated world of the projection.           

In this sense, Wright’s work shares with Dianne Bos’s a proposal of the concrete world as revealed by small holes through which light is directed. Each artist manipulates the focusing/recording apparatus in order to highlight the apparatus of looking. For both artists, the primitive technology of the pinhole, or camera obscura, makes the process of seeing more opaque and available to analysis than the less reflexive products of the spectacle. In many ways, vision is the most naturalized of the human senses, the one most commonly appealed to by mass culture. By slowing down this process and inviting viewers to consider their viewing, the work has the potential to open gaps in the illusion presented as reality.

Dianne Bos’s use of pinhole cameras seeks to undermine the received understanding of photography as an instantaneous medium. Instead, the long exposures required by the minimal amount of light reaching the film emulsion through the aperture of the pinhole reinserts elapsed time into the normally split second click of the modern camera’s shutter. The sense of the eternal present tense of post-modernity is disrupted by the indicators of movement and blurred edges in the photos. This work asks viewers to slow their habitual speed reading gaze and truly scrutinize the world presented in the photos.

These images depict architecture, gardens and the night sky. The long exposure time functions to depopulate the images as figures happen to move in and out of the lens’ frame but don’t register on the film and are thereby made to disappear or become ghostly afterimages. Bos aims to create a contemplative space where one might have the opportunity to examine the image in relationship to memory and the accretions of time layered into the multiple moments of the image.

The linkage between memory and elapsed time may be more closely examined through a consideration of the Galaxy series. The illusion that stars are pinpricks in the firmament is a familiar experience for anyone who has sat away from the fire at a campsite or in the backyard on a summer evening. This experience is taken up in Bos’s photographs, which at first appear as telescopic images of distant galaxies, but on closer inspection are multiple images of the same light bulb or candle. The photos are produced by using a metal screen punched with holes, which mimic the formations in star charts. The light source is then projected through the screen, causing multiple images to fall on the film—similar in effect to the compound eye of an insect.

Light is the base condition on which vision itself is predicated. Bos’s Galaxy project makes the record of that light both the reflexive and the metaphorical subject of her work. On one hand the photos are literal traces of light sources, bulbs or candles, caught through a process that emphasizes the material quality of light—that is, the fact of its enveloping presence that is made known to us indirectly through our sensory perception of the concrete world. On the other hand the image of galaxies reminds us that their light is not immediate to us, that in fact it has traveled unimaginable distances over the course of a time span that is cosmic rather than human or even geological. Time and memory are conflated in these photographs in the sense that each star in the night sky is merely the memory of light emitted from phenomena that occurred millions of years in the past.    

Apparatus of Desire

Bos’s photographs are taken using homemade pinhole cameras. The multiple apertures of the screens that act as lenses turn a basic light source into a galaxy. It is this simple act which calls our attention to the editing and interpreting activity of our looking. In other words, the world is not given to us through our senses in any simple form, but instead demands a constant cognitive work to decide what is important, what is significant, what is dangerous and what is pleasurable.

The provisional construction of the picture-making device is an element that all four artists in this exhibition share. However, where the apparatus used by Dianne Bos and Andrew Wright tends to emphasize an analytical approach to the conventions and properties of photographs, Donald Lawrence and Arnold Koroshegyi tend to emphasize the performative activity of photography. To paraphrase Andrew Wright when speaking of artistic motivation, whereas Bos and Wright follow an impulse to observe, Lawrence and Koroshegyi follow an impulse to invent. If the practices of Wright and Bos propose the self-reflexive record of the concrete world, by contrast Lawrence and Koroshegyi propose characters. The images and apparatuses in the Underwater Pinhole Photography Project and the Artifact and Artifice project are the residue of these characters’ action in the world.

Donald Lawrence’s practice includes photography, sculpture, film and drawing. Within this practice photography is linked conceptually to the history of the exploration and colonization of North America by Europeans. The collection of photographic views was instrumental in the process of the settlement of the Canadian wilderness, and scenic snapshots continue to be the trophy of choice for contemporary tourists. Lawrence’s photographic strategies play on this tension between exploration and exploitation by calling explicit attention to the outdoor gear that supports this activity.

Gear is an apt description of the numerous objects that Lawrence collects, builds and creatively adapts to the demands of his project. Foremost is the improbably overloaded kayak which serves as both transport into the natural world and as darkroom to process film. This vessel functions as the platform for the other activities of Lawrence’s persona of explorer/naturalist/outdoor adventurer, including meticulous watercolour studies of natural formations, detailed travel journals and, of course, photographs. Equally important in the array of gear is the underwater pinhole camera, made by Lawrence, a concatenation of pipes, plate steel and pulleys, looking very little like the sleek products of modern camera technology.

The equipment that Lawrence uses in his project suggests the seemingly idiosyncratic and highly personal aspects of the work. The conscious difference that these objects bear from modern outdoor survival gear and photographic tools resides in the fact that they are obviously handmade, adapted from other uses to the purposes of Lawrence’s outdoorsman. They signify an agency corresponding in many ways to the romantic ideals of the independent pioneer so important to the founding myths of North American culture. In referencing these myths, the work simultaneously alludes to a fiercely self-reliant spirit and to the ideologies which depend to some extent on valorizing the forceful domination of both nature and indigenous peoples as heroic trailblazing.

The objects are displayed in a manner reminiscent of artifacts in a museum, and this pseudo-historical importance works to legitimize the procedures of the alter-ego and provides a context for understanding the project. Because it is clear that although the luminous underwater photos are resolved aesthetic objects in themselves, the process and the implications of that process are the true subject of the work. This is further emphasized by the documentation included with the installation – a black and white film transferred to video for projection which details the quixotic process suggested by the relics in the show. The film shows a man (not the artist himself) paddling the shaky kayak in shallow water, while the bulky containers are barely held in balance as the underwater camera is deployed and the film is developed.

Although this gear has been built to be functional, it is barely functional. The ad-hoc design of the objects forces an active engagement with the photographic process. The tools, the materials, and the environment form a continuum with which there is an ongoing struggle. Each photograph is the result of a series of conscious actions, from the building of the camera, to traveling to the site, to the remote exposure of the film, to the development of the negatives. It refers to the activity of the tourist but reverses the passive consumption of the scenic viewpoint. 

Like Donald Lawrence, Arnold Koroshegyi inhabits a character of sorts. Whereas Lawrence’s explorer moves out into the natural world, Koroshegyi’s tinkerer works out of his domestic laboratory, practicing a “basement bricolage”. In this case, the bricolage is a homemade digital camera, built from scavenged lenses and bellows with a jury-rigged flatbed scanner as the image processing surface. The photographs are in lush colour and depict suitably domestic still-life arrangements of artificial flowers. Nature enters the image as a pre-digested cultural idea, a kind of second-hand romanticism.

Koroshegyi takes the photos on three colour channels plus grayscale. That is, the highly saturated colour in the prints result from the layering of separate scans, each scan recording a different colour of light: red, green and blue. Added to this is the grayscale layer for depth of value. Each scan is filtered through a corresponding coloured gel which is positioned over the lens by an adapted film projector reel. These layers are then composited in Photoshop to create the finished image.

This process is a peculiar hybrid of traditional photography, using a large format camera, digital photography in the actual recording mechanism and pinhole photography with the homemade apparatus and cobbled together components. Each scan takes between 8 and10 minutes, so recording one image can take up to an hour, an almost perverse reversal of the instant gratification promised by digital technology. In addition to this reversal, the process creates a time-lag from one side of the image to the other as the scanner reads across the subject in lines from left to right. During this time Koroshegyi manipulates the artificial flowers, lighting them with strobes and subjecting them to fans. The scanner interprets this movement as garbled information which results in streaks and rasterization in the final image.

That the scanner ‘reads’ the image implies a different relation to the objects recorded on the “film plane” than with traditional photography. This is no longer the ‘pencil of nature’ where the interaction of light and chemistry produces the image as a trace on the sensitized material. Rather, it is a translation process from light into information, and then a particular ordering of that information as a digital output. The construction of the image echoes the hyper-reality of the artificial flowers and in the interval calls into question the naturalism on which the image world depends for its authority. Paradoxically, the scanner camera uses advanced imaging technology to demonstrate the limits of the image that it creates.

Although Koroshegyi’s inventor persona at first appears to be a harmless hobbyist, his parasitic relationship to the technology of the dominant culture reveals a critical edge to the tinkering. In turning the apparatus of the scanner against its intended uses, he uses the commodity against the grain, creating elaborate images of artificial nature, a ruse within a ruse. His work suggests that the question of individual desire and action is circumscribed by the horizons the modern spectacle of mass media and consumption, but not exhausted by them. 

Through being photographed, something becomes part of a system of information, fitted into schemes of classification and storage which range from the crudely chronological order of snapshot sequences pasted into family albums to the dogged accumulations and meticulous filing needed for photography’s uses in weather forecasting, astronomy, microbiology, geology, police wok, medical training and diagnosis, military reconnaissance, and art history. 

                                                                                                  --Susan Sontag

Our habitual cultural relationship to photography is that of consumption. As Sontag remarks in her essay The Image World, “[a] society becomes ‘modern’ when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images, when images that have extraordinary powers to determine our demands on reality are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience become indispensable to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness.”[8] In our society images alter or replace reality and mediate our relationships while at the same time we long to appear to ourselves in images in order to establish our sense of our own existence.

The reliance of our culture on images is to some extent underwritten by two formations described by Guy Debord as the “spectacle” and by Michel Foucault as “panopticism.” On one hand, the spectacle drapes a veil of images over our perception and desires in order to distract from the shortcomings of the political/social/economic systems of postindustrial capitalism as well as to drive the cycles of production and consumption on which this system depends. On the other hand our appearance within the regime of the panopticon results from the collection of naturalistic data and evidence in the form of photographs and other information that both creates categories of deviance and provides normative means by which all activities are surveilled and rendered potentially incriminating.

However, as Crary asserts, the optical device and the observer are not, in fact, two distinct entities. This means that the specific uses to which photographs are put are in no way predetermined, they are instead as various as the people who make and use them. The pessimism of Debord, Foucault and others as to the possibilities of disentangling ourselves from the convoluted threads of spectacle and surveillance may indeed be warranted, but this does not preclude the possibility of clearing space for critical reflection through the informed use of the photographic apparatus itself.

By examining the ground of our visual perception through the use of primitive camera technology, Dianne Bos and Andrew Wright deconstruct the givenness of the concrete world. The alleged correspondence between photographic images and the world, the increased transparency of the illusionistic window which has been the goal of scientific advances in the commercial camera industry, is called into question when the mystifying technology of the modern camera is laid bare. In stripping the naturalism from the photographic representation Bos and Wright underscore the inherent constructedness of images and the interpretive work of our senses.

By actively performing the photographic process, calling attention to its action on reality, Donald Lawrence and Arnold Koroshegyi propose a desiring subjectivity in the creation of images. The insistence on an active subject through the appropriation, scavenging and adaptation of readymade consumer goods, refuses the role of both passive consumer of the spectacle and as passive subject of disciplinary categories. There is an insurrectionist bent to the idiosyncratic creation of homemade technology. It denies any direct relationship between the glossy surface of technological advancement and the progress of civilization and in that sense subverts the commonsense assumptions of the dominant culture.

The title Image and Apparatus implies a particular kind of relationship between the photographs on view in the exhibit and the optical machinery that is normally off-stage, bracketed out of the confines of the museum. The presence of the image-making devices has the effect of lifting the curtain of the magic show to reveal the wires, pulleys and mirrors. However, one should not limit this to the simple category of “art about art;” a meta-discourse which examines what is nominated as art or refused artistic status. Nor should it be understood primarily as formal play with the conventions and histories of photography.

The work in this exhibition qualifies for both of these descriptions of course, especially to the extent that artistic practice is predicated on the exploration of its own premises. This description is not incorrect, merely insufficient. In the work of Bos, Koroshegyi, Lawrence and Wright, the apparatus of photography—that is, the photo, the camera and the photographer as a single entity—is turned in on itself through simplification, active interrogation and self-reflexivity. The result belies images as mere resemblances and transmitters of meaning and postulates meaning-generating possibilities.  

[1] Susan Sontag. On Photography. (New York, New York: Anchor Books, 1977), pp. 178
 [2] Jonathon Crary, Techniques on the Observer: On vision and modernity in the nineteenth century. (Cambridge, MASS.: MIT Press, 1992). pp.14-19
 [3] Guy Debord. The Society of the Spectacle. (New York, New York: Zone Books, 1995). pp. 12-13
 [4] Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (2nd Ed.). (New York, New York: Vintage Books, 1995). pp. 202-203
 [5] Crary, p.31
 [6] Ibid, p.33
 [7] Ibid, p.30
 [8] Sontag, p. 153