Wrestling with Appearances… post-haste

Darren Tofts (now Professor)

Catalogue essay to the exhibition D O < R > at Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria, 2001 

 

 

“No more delay, no more relief, volume is no longer the reality of things. This is now concealed in the flatness of figures.”

Paul Virilio 1

 

I’m looking at a photograph. It is a photograph of myself as a child, probably about eight years old. It is distinctively of its time (the late ‘60s), black and white, sharp contrasts, white borders. Already, as a photograph “of me”, there is an image, an image that fulfills photography’s main project, to embody an instance, a moment “that has been.”2 Nothing more need be said of the image, save that in it I am holding a camera and taking a photograph of whoever was taking my picture. I can look at this image and see in it a certain frivolity and playfulness, a response to the self-consciousness of “being photographed.” But for my current purpose, I also see something else in it, a narrative to do with the relationship between images and technologies of memory, technology as memory. And something else, a commentary on recursiveness, the process of including the act of image making in the image itself, as if the enunciating subject is looking in a mirror – a portrait of the artist (jejune) en abyme. Quite different subject relations are intimated in the array of appearances this photograph yields, different identities, different motivations. Had the photographer recently been thinking about the paintings of Van Eyk? Was I pointing the camera at the person with the camera, or merely photographing something in the distance? How do I know the image isn’t a fake, a timely expedient photo-shopped to occasion a discussion of meta-poetics?

These equivocations, while of a hermeneutic nature, are endemic to all modes of inscription, to the general technology of writing as a sensory differential of presence / absence (photography, phonography, telephony, etc., …). Whenever encountered historically, new writing technologies have impacted on our conceptions of presence and truth, as well as the mechanisms for capturing and reproducing these elusive, problematic essences. In the age of the telephone, for instance, interpersonal communication is marked by different kinds of exchange, and therefore different kinds of presence. As Avital Ronell reminds us in her user’s manual to The Telephone Book, the time when we are not talking on the phone should not be thought of as an irreducible presence against which we should measure the dubious metaphysics of ”electric speech”: “There is no off switch to the technological. Remember: When you’re on the telephone, there is always an electronic flow, even when that flow is unmarked … To the extent that you are always on call, you have already learned to endure interruption and the click.”3 In that moment of remembrance, in memory of the technological, where are you, and who are you, when you are not on the telephone?

A century ago the visual arts responded, under the guise of various “isms,” to the threat of another writing technology, photography. Photography, as the axiom goes, could represent the world more accurately than painting and accordingly precipitated anti-mimetic strategies in the visual arts. But perhaps not recognised at the time, photography was even more dramatic in its relationship to the real. Writing with the evanescence of light, it appears to bring a facet of the world to presence, yet while apparently there, the photographed image is a trace, not of the thing photographed, but of the moment of its disappearance.4 Now the digital age, defined by another writing technology (the computer and its associated networks), must also reckon with photography, but in a different way. No longer redefining visuality, photography must now realign itself to the new perceptual paradigm of digital simulation, a cultural logic that threatens to re-define visuality with the oxymoronic reality of “sightless vision.”5 Simulation technologies remove the necessity of human subjectivity as a condition of experiencing that which can be represented. The concept of “being there,” of first hand experience of the world, is fast becoming another relic in the dustbin of enlightenment history. Under such conditions, whether they be called postmodern or trans-human, what is the nature of our relationship to such slippery images and their situation in our lives as signs or markers of identity and meaning?


Marcus Bunyan’s work involves an incursion into this ongoing tension in contemporary visual culture between images and the things they refer to. The status of visual truth in “the post-photographic era”6 is explored in Bunyan’s work in an intriguing manner, in that it involves an amalgam of traditional photographic practice and digital scanning and compositing – a dialogue between different kinds of subjectivity as much as modes of image making.  While not didactic or polemical, Bunyan’s work demonstrates that the “post-photographic era” is less a recognition of epochal change than a reconfiguration of photography’s already problematic relationship to referencing appearance. In Bunyan’s images we find a spatio-temporal confrontation of the “post” as both relay and delay, an examination of the image in transit, on the way to representation, yet not done with the business of representing (the business of signification, as we learned from deconstruction, is never finished).

The disinclination of his images to appear finished attests to their interplay between the thing seen, the seemliness of things and the subjective act of making things appear (the great flaneur Arthur Rimbaud was one of the masters of this art of manifesting multiple vision or what he called “simple hallucination”, seeing, for example, a mosque when in reality he was looking at a factory). The image of a decorative button, on closer scrutiny, yields a spectral visage that, once glimpsed, foreshortens everything around it. In his sculptural dodecahedrons, at first glance so reassuringly tactile, unequivocal and present, the image is not secure as a sanctioned reflection of something else, but is itself a reflection. In this refractive universe, things are definitely not what they seem. New patterns are constantly forming, new personae announce themselves in response to the gaze of the unknown and unknowable interlocutors who seek them out.

The concept of “[no] more relief” as a theme in Bunyan’s photographs is a double entendre, suggestive of flatness and a-topography, yet at the same time excess, speed and information overload. The singular image, it could be of feet dipped into water or glimpse of a stained glass window, apparently complete in the delivery of its presence, proliferates into previously unseen depths of field that reveal fractal patterns of difference. It breaks from its hermetic, partitioned singularity into a dynamic polysemy, succumbing to the desire, totemic of the postmodern for Umberto Eco, for more, more, more …7 The creative process, in this respect, has also broken free from a particular form of invention, what the painter Francis Bacon called “the willed articulation of the image,”8 and strayed down unfamiliar paths of distraction and strange attraction.

To articulate is to pause, to enframe and constrain the potential richness of appearance. To court strangeness is to open up oneself to unexpected, incomplete attractions – parts of bodies, both human and animal, captured as synecdoches of unseen contexts, renaissance optics imprinted on bloodied handkerchieves or lace doylies, insinuate a fullness of detail that is fugitive, imminent. In these images we see the strangeness of appearance, the making of appearance into something other than what it is, or what it seems. The Bunyan image splinters and fragments into strata of images within images. This kaleidoscopic poetic is iconographically represented in the telluric symmetry of Bunyan’s wrestlers, or symbolically expressed in the manifestation of bodies as palimpsests, archives of the markings and shadows of absent others.

In this Bunyan’s work is a kind of indirect, yet powerful meditation on the digital age and the promise of computer mediated communication as a vector of presence at a distance: presence as a trajectory of fibre-optic speed within the enframed flatness of our interfaced screens. His images are figures for the transitive nature of presence itself in cyberspace, there but not there, more seemly than apparent, mobile, nomadic, a-destinational (telecommunications displace presence and diffuse it at one and the same time: synchronicity as multiplicity). D O < R > (Depth of Relief) is an objective correlative of this strange, antipodal relation between bodies, attracted by the somatic illusion of telepresence and excited by the possibilities in this informatic space for identity to fracture into otherness; a politics that the U.K. band Joy Division seemed to have intuited in the days before we were familiar with, let alone used, terms such as virtuality–

We could go on as though nothing was wrong
And hide from the days to remain
Staying in the same place, staring all the time
Touching from a distance, further all the time.
9


This is the paradox of telepresence. The mobility of presence, the intimacy of the virtual, depends upon our collusion in accepting the simulation as reality, in believing that the extended, post-human hand that has reached out touched someone can substitute for the limited humanity of the corporeal touch. These tensions within the embrace of the virtual are played out in Bunyan’s images of constructed fracture. The flickering visuality in his work, between that which is present and that which has fractured or proliferated elsewhere, captures and intensifies, if only for the moment of its vanishing, the erotics 10 of the informatic touch. Post-haste!

Darren Tofts
2001


Darren Tofts is Chair of Media and Communications, Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.  He is a well-known cultural critic who writes regularly for a range of national and international publications on issues to do with cyberculture, new media arts and critical and cultural theory. He is the author (with artist Murray McKeich) of Memory Trade. A Prehistory of Cyberculture (Sydney, Interface Books, 1998) and Parallax. Essays on Art, Culture and Technology (Sydney, Interface Books, 1999).


Endnotes

  1. Paul Virilio, Open Sky, trans. Julie Rose (London: Verso, 1997), p. 26.
  2. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography, trans. R. Howard (London: Fontana, 1982), p. 76.
  3. Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), xv.
  4. Jean Baudrillard, “The Art of Disappearance,” trans. N. Zurbrugg, World Art, November, 1994, p. 81.
  5. Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine (London: British Film Institute, 1994), p. 59.
  6. The phrase is Bill Mitchell’s, The Reconfigured Eye. Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994).
  7. Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality (London: Picador, 1986), pp. 7-8.
  8. Francis Bacon, quoted in David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact. Interviews with Francis Bacon (London, Thames & Hudson, 1990), p. 160.
  9. Quoted in Steven Jones, “The Internet and its Social Landscape”, in Jones, S. (ed.). Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety (London: Sage, 1997), p. 2.
  10. See Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” for a fuller discussion of the shift from hermeneutics to erotics as a framework for the logic of textuality; A Susan Sontag Reader (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), pp. 95-104.

 

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