The Nature of Digital Image: A Conversation with Thomas Nail (transcript)

B.A. Gonczarek

I’m here with Thomas Nail,  the Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver and author of recently published book Theory of the Image, welcome Thomas.  I must admit I was really looking forward to our discussion. When preparing to our conversation I did my research online and I was taken by how well you’re received by your students. You students describe you as very knowledgeable and approachable. Your openness is something I experienced myself, so thank you for the opportunity of doing this podcast together. And to explain to our listeners  – what we’re trying to do here is to (possibly) bridge the gap between abstract thinking and acting, between thought and execution by an exchange between you, as a philosopher and me, as digital toolmaker on a topic of digital image.

My main goal for today is to hear your point of view on the future and possibilities that technology gradually unlocks.  Now, I’m aware that the digital image is only a short chapter of your recent publication but I believe that limited scope of our discussion is enough to inspire our listeners. After all, we’re all users of digital devices don’t we.

To begin, describe to us, if you will, your way of working. What is New Realism and what is your method of approaching problems?

Thomas Nail

If I had to sum up main findings of the book that guides the whole project is that the image we often think about as a mental representation, something as in our brain (in our minds) which is a copy or resemblance of the world outside. I think that’s not right, there’s definitely something going on but that’s a very narrow way of thinking about what an image is.

An image is a real thing, it is something that happens in our eyes and in our brains, that is related to the external world, but that is a tip of an enormous iceberg. That’s the part that we see on the surface.  Below the surface of the water is this enormous process of the rest of the world, of the enormous processes that we don’t actually see which are part of the fabric of the world and forms and media that we use, and it’s very active. What we have in our brains is not a copy of the world, it is the world itself just by other means. It is a continuation of the world inside of us just. It’s not a question of resemblance but interactivity, of performativity. We are interacting with the world when we see, although we often experience vision as a passive thing that sort of happen to us, but that’s actually very active both in our bodies (in our eyes the way they seek out, move and follow and respond to the world). One of the main takeaways was to think about much larger context what an image is but also what the world does. Whether are humans there, or not, there are images, as they sort of they engage each other. The way we interact with the world those images interact with themselves and that interaction is what produces an image. That’s a broad definition of an image but the shift is from thinking about images as representation to thinking about images as processes with their own habits, cycles, they sort of interate and respond to each other to produce meta-stable states. They are flowing and moving, but they are also stabilized, so they look static. If you look at an object on a table – it looks like it is just sitting there but it’s not. And even when we weren’t looking at it, the image is still because the image is real and material whenever we think about that. We’re part of it when we view it.

B.A. Gonczarek

As you describe in the book the image is a process by which matter twists, folds, bends and reflects itself into sensations and affections. What was the inspiration to arrive at such viewpoint on the image itself?

Thomas Nail

It’s an old inspiration actually, it goes back to the Rome and poet Lucretious. We only have one book of his philosophical poetry – De Rerum Natura. In the book, inspired by Epicurus, who said that the earliest Theory of the image as a material process that we have in the history of the west and it’s since been transformed by other ideas, but I do think there’s something to go back to. For me the inspiration was his poetry and ‘Simulacra’ – Everything in the world is radiating out images. Images are bouncing off each other, eventually they get to the exterior and fly off to collide mid air with other images. Some people interpret it as there’s ghosts flying off of things, but that’s not what he says at all, it’s actually closer to modern physics and light. He didn’t use the language of photons, he used language of simulacra but that’s essentially what it is  – that things inside of themselves are vibrating with photons. Photons are heat, photons are light, they are constantly vibrating and release waves of photons, and photons collide in mid-air. And for that reason at every stage they actually are making something, they performing and producing. There’s no resemblance, but no genuine copies, no originals, there’s just these singular processes that refract  (like you drop two paddles into a pond and the ripples would key each other and make a new pattern – at every stage you’re always looking at some specific pattern of the photons  interact with each other. So it’s a very materialist way of thinking about what an image is as opposed to the idealist way, which is – it’s an idea I have in my brain. And if that’s what you think an image is then only humans have them, only humans can sort of talk about them and they always will fail in representing the original image. There will always be some poorly construed copy of what’s out there. If you think of an image of a real, material, singular process, then it changes the way you think about what an image is. What an image is is what an image does. It doesn’t represent anything, it moves, it does. So the question is – what are the patterns? That’s why I think the visual aspect makes a lot of sense because to understand what images are you need to have an interactive and visual tools to map out what that image is doing.

B.A. Gonczarek

And I believe that’s also applicable to the digital world. I found it actually fascinating of how you’re shifting perspective here.  You name three features of mobile nature of the image and I’d like to ask you about hybridity that you list as one of those defining features. You call it a pinnacle of fragmentation, I’m curious what opportunities fragmentation opens`?

Thomas Nail

When I say fragmentation I don’t necessarily mean complete isolated fragments. They are little knots and pieces of strings, always related and connected with another pieces so that the pieces are never fully cut off from one another. This is the way people tend to think about digitally as just fragmented bits and bites, ones and zeros – but there are no fragmented ones and zeros that are fully cut off. That sounds opposite to the definition of what we think of binary. The truth is if you just dig below that level – is a signal on or of (basis of digital communication) and look at the material structure of transistor – it doesn’t work like that. There is a constant flow of electrons and photons moving through that transistor and they do not always stop at the gate when the signal is supposed to be off – they jump the gate. It’s a quantum effect called tunneling in which electron movement actually passes the barrier. The smaller technology gets, the more data we can store, the tinier the gates get. And the tinier the gates get the easier it is for the flor of electrons to pass through the gate and then you get an error, and your computer crashes. And these are happening more often than used to because of the technology. When your computer crashes there’s a good chance that’s because of the quantum effects of the material movement of the electrons. So thinking about all these pieces it really draws your attention to the creativity and the agency of the matter itself that we’re dealing with. We try to represent things of ones and zeros but what we’re often encountering is this very fascinating resistance of the matter itself and that opens new possibilities of working with that matter as opposed to trying to dominate it and trying to stick it into a binary code. Oneinteresting question for the digital age and XXI century is what new things might we discover? What new visual or communication aspects if we let the materiality, if you will, to play a role and speak instead of trying to silence it or make it your bidding. What might it say to us? How might we use it by working with it as supposed to trying to master it.

B.A. Gonczarek

Absolutely. I remember from your book when speaking of hybridity you touch the digital foundation of the image saying that

Anything that can be coded can be transcoded and then turned into a hybrid of something else.” So the beauty of transformation and allowing for new thing to arise from something that preexisted before opens a lot of new possibilities. 

The other defining feature of Digital Image that you write about is the Kinetic feedback. The way I ready it, is that the matter interacts with itself to form of a feedback loop. I kind of understand that when thinking of computer software opening greater degree and range of aesthetic transformation, but what about a kinetic feedback when, let’s we say passively consuming content, by looking at a paining?

Thomas Nail

One of the interesting things in the book that I figured out by researching material structures is that some of the features of the digital images are common to the analog things, there not really this absolute division. If you think about digital culture as immaterial, in the cloud, virtual – it’s not. It’s fully material. A “cloud” is a huge building filled with hard drives. This vast Internet infrastructure all have material basis and in that sense it is still very analog. And in that sense analog still has many of these features as it has aspects of hybridity. An collage is an instance where you can break things up and reassemble it. You have a kind of hybridity in analog things. But as just in your example in looking at a painting there’s a feedback that happens, but we don’t often think of it as a feedback. We think of it as a noisy signal on a digital level, a negative feedback loop where we don’t want it to go. But that’s partially what interesting in analog and digital feedback is that it is taking us somewhere. There’s a feedback happening between two systems where both are sort of in control but neither are in total control, and the result is something genuinely unique (kind of simulacra experience, simulacra are meeting, refracting and making something new. When we think about looking at a painting we think of that as a passive reception of an external object. But the viewer is participating in that work of art just by being in that room, even if we’re talking at basic photodynamic level of photons radiating off your body as heat, and they are heating up at a very small level that painting. Light is reflecting off that painting and degrading it. By looking at a painting with light we’re destroying that paining at a very low level and over time it ends up totally destroying that painting and that’s why we have curation. Curators are in this unique position to really see and feel and understand the materiality of works of art. That’s a lot of what museum goes don’t think about. They feel like these are preserved work with ethereal structure to them. But the preservation process never ends, it’s ongoing. It has to constantly struggle agains the effects of decay, heat, and light-destruction of the painting. So I think they realize that the paining is more of a feedback loop that you think it is. And it’s also affecting you that you’re not fully aware either. Its light and coloration is making you more sensitive to subtle differences in light and coloration. Even if you think that you’re thinking about the symbolic meaning of such and such. A man by a river or something like that, or narcist looking at himself in the pond were thinking about symbolic representation of the paining yet there is a material basis that is also working on you that you might not be even thinking about, but it’s affecting you. And it is the same way with digital culture and the studies are now accumulating on that for sure. What is the Internet is doing to our brains? What is digital culture? How is it changing us? We’re using it for symbolic and representation purposes, but there is wast iceberg of material consequences to the environment, to our bodies, to our brain. To undergo the performance and the feedback that we enter into when we look at the screen and use some kind of digital device.

B.A. Gonczarek

When speaking of affecting and changing us by exposure to images, you see I’m in a business of supporting understanding, you can call it knowledge communication with the use of interactive whiteboards. And I have a front seat view on feedback loops and transformations of the content. I see how those work as a key to unlock human understanding.  In the past the knowledge or concepts were conveyed by text paragraphs and static slides. Now those turn gradually into more visual forms, animation,  ad-hoc drawing, into whatever works. So the way I see it, is that we’re on a path of getting away from the rigid, formal representations into a realm of smashing bits and pixels, so to say,  to form new perspectives and gain new insights. I guess that’s in line of your thinking?

Thomas Nail

I think that’s right, I think that communication has significantly changed such that it is absolutely much more about feedback and with that feedback comes novelty. Feedback isn’t always what you want it to be. And with that what is interesting to me is that when images and words and material structures of how those are communicated – when you get all of those mixed together, when you have text, with digital speed of social media and users – when you get all of that together you’re getting some serious feedback transformation in which all of those are kind of pulled out of their original context and make possible new ideas that aren’t necessarily what we originally planned them to be. I think the feedback, even being explicitly interactive process, the interactivity makes us realize that we’re performing, that we’re doing something, not passively consuming. Even if we think that we’re passively consuming you’re actually generating something to. I think it makes us think deeply about the participatory nature that has always been the case with communication, visual or text-based that we’re involved in it, and that makes us responsible for intentionally shaping it, and not thinking that it’s this big structure and we cannot do anything. The mutability of communication is higher and more diverse that has ever been.

B.A. Gonczarek

Absolutely. The way I see feedback is that we always thought of the feedback on the cognitive level what worked? What triggered understanding? Was it a (so called) picture superiority effect where visuals work better then words, or spatial processing evolved in understanding of a concept or visual metaphors. But I guess thanks to your insights, I see that it’s possible to go deeper, beyond sensations to see the inner-working of three distinctive features of the digital image that you list: kinetic feedback, random motion and hybridity.  So I wonder, from your perspective, do you see technology a one-directional enabler that gets us closer to the understanding of reality? Is it so?

Thomas Nail

That’s such a great question. On a one hand I want to say – it just depends on how you define digitality? But I think that the other definitions are typical ones of binary structure, so let me give you two answers to that question:  Yes, digital world gets us closer to objective knowledge, more communication, transparency, more accuracy. Our pixels get so close now. The term ‘Retina’ it’s such a great term because that’s the limit where they eye can no longer distinguish the pixels. So what you could say on that front – yes, we’re definitely getting closer. Look how small the pixels are now, we are getting higher resolution and better accuracy on the world. If that’s a description – I disagree with that, i don’t think that’s why digitality is getting us any closer to reality or anything like that.

My answer would be – yes, I do think that it actually is but not in that way. I think that the thing that getting us closer to really thinking about reality in a different way, is that it’s forcing us to realize something that always been true about the nature of the image (whether analog or digital). The closer we get the closer we drill down to that binary structure of ones and zeros the more non-binary processes we start to discover. That’s what’s interesting about digital. It’s the actual conclusion that if we push it far enough we see it break down and see that below that it’s actual continuous fluctuation of quantum processes that are not under control. And this reveals to us something novel about matter itself. Something that always been novel, but we haven’t comforted it in that precise way. The history of art and media is typically Humans trying to control the world and make it look their way, and do it certain something. There is a minor history to be said there, but for the most part the western history of media and use the technology is to control the nature. But what’s interesting to me is that we’ve reached limits of that control and we’re forced to realize that it is impossible project and what we’re really have been doing is not successful domination to completely get access to objective reality but that we’ve been engaged in this kind of feedback look where materiality of media has shaped our bodies, our senses, our brains just as we’ve been shaping the world thought all of this media – and that’s what I think the truth is to be realize in the digital age. It’s not the superiority of the digital image but precisely what the digital image is exposed to us explicitly. So we have to confront that fact.

B.A. Gonczarek

It’s certainly getting our thinking less infantile, but do you see any risks that we might not be aware on this path?

Thomas Nail

For sure, the risk is that we will keep trying to find the ultimate way to bypass material processes and the performative act of interpretation. What I mean there is that if you think you can break down the world into totally discreet bits and bytes – that’s the danger, because it will drive you absolutely mad trying to produce a clean-cut distinctions between ones and zeros and not realize that there is this material process that will always spoil this effort. The danger is to use technology and media to try to control and essentially dominate meaning and leave out interpretation. Some philosophers that really herald the digital age they imagine – oh, we’ll just put jacks into our heads and we will just communicate with binary code, and that we’ll bypass all of the messiness of the language. I said this word that might mean something different to me than it means to you and we have base for this messiness which is, in truth, the beauty of poetry and literature. We can just get rid of all of that and just have purely objective truth with binary code. And I think that is the danger, thinking that you can avoid the material and what we call ‘an interpretation’ but it’s essentially performative, collective feedback that is generating something news not understanding some objective state of the world

B.A. Gonczarek

Before we close, what you see as a possible outcome of increasing software capacity in transforming digital images? Given the nature of digital image, what do you expect to happen in the near future?

Thomas Nail

Guess this depends how pessimistic or optimistic I am.

B.A. Gonczarek

Give us your best shot.

Thomas Nail

I’ll give you both. What I expect when I’m feeling pessimistic is that we will continue with quantum computing to try practically to keep pursuing to break world down into ones and zeros and master quantum flaws and erase any errors, any noise, any fluctuations which we don not want to happen in electron flow. That we will keep on that path and try to continually break things down in an attempt for absolutely non-interpretive objective reality. To think that we’re getting closer to that is to me absolutely the danger when I feel pessimistic.

Optimistically I think that technologies that emphasize and take seriously the materiality of the media that they using, (not just as a neutral media to facilitate communication, but as itself a creative thing, something that is changing the world).  To recognize the changes that it’s having both on the environment, on material world, but also changes that it’s producing in us, in our bodies – and to take that seriously and ethically to treat it more as a work of art. The sharing of images, the sharing of text is not neutral communication, it’s transformative, it’s doing something to us. I think that if you think that’s its neutral communication that’s subjective you’re going to miss that ethical moment. So you’re really need to think about that ethical moment. We’re responsible for what we’re doing to ourselves and what we’re doing to each other, and what we’re creating. So taking ownership of that essentially and we supposed to be being serious and intentional of what that is the optimistic outcome

B.A. Gonczarek

And I join you on this optimistic end. Listen Thomas, it was a great pleasure to talk to you today. It certainly helped me in my exploration of verbal-visual field of communication. But I also believe that your perspective is fresh to anyone that is trying to understand the direction that technology is taking. Many thanks for sharing your insights with us today! And good luck shaking off human’s immaturity of perception!

Thomas Nail

Thank you.

The Nature of Digital Image: A Conversation with Thomas Nail

The nature of digital image

A conversation between Thomas Nail, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver and the author of the recently published book “Theory of the Image,” and B.A. Gonczarek, your host.

 

A philosopher’s perspective on the nature of digital images, their material roots, and various consequences which escape our consciousness. Why the digital is more analog and material than we think and how the origins of this revelation go back to Rome. How viewing a painting makes us a part of it? An attempt to explain communication on a more fundamental level than the cognitive. How we’re progressing with the development of technology, how new frameworks can support our understanding, and how we continue to risk missing the point with existing frameworks.

Listen to the conversation:

New Materialist Aesthetics and Pedagogy: An Interview with Thomas Nail By Katherine Robert

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New Materialist Aesthetics and Pedagogy: An Interview with Thomas Nail

By Katherine Robert September 19, 2019

Katherine Robert: You taught an aesthetics course this year and started the first day by saying DU has not taught aesthetics in a long time and it is taught less frequently in US philosophy departments than other areas of philosophy. I was intrigued by that. So, if you could if you could elaborate on that.

Thomas Nail: I was told DU has not taught aesthetics in 14 years. It is probably the least taught philosophy course of the core areas of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and moral theory. It also has some of the fewest publications of the core areas. I think there are two reasons for this. The privileged areas of philosophy are metaphysics “what is” and epistemology, “how we know what is.” Western idealism has made those the foundations of philosophy. Aesthetics is often not considered to be a foundational philosophical discourse because it does not answer these two questions in universal terms. There is also a long history of suspicion of sensation and perception in Western philosophy. Philosophers and scientists have almost always thought that the body is out there to trick us. The senses deceive you and knowledge and the intellect are what is true. So that’s one reason.

The second reason is that aesthetics is not useful or instrumental like most moral theory: ethics and politics. People often argue that it is important to teach moral theory because it is directly relevant and useful for people’s lives. It might help them make important political decisions like voting or ethical action. But aesthetics is not instrumentally useful like this so it is quite literally the most “useless” of the philosophical areas.

KR: So, it’s not pragmatic or utilitarian.

TN: Yes, aesthetics doesn’t, in my thinking at least, get at universal truths and it doesn’t give you any instrumental value. It doesn’t give you any categories to judge the world; it doesn’t help you in any clear instrumental way. It changes who you are. So that’s why I think aesthetics is not taught. It doesn’t fit those prevailing dominant categories of what is philosophically important. I personally think, however, that aesthetics is absolutely crucial. Sensation is what life is about… (laughs). Everything has sensuous qualities that cannot be abstracted or reduced to the other areas of philosophy. All the core areas are inseparable. Its a fiction of the West to have divided them up this way in the first place.

KR: So how did [the class] emerge?

TN: So my research is very much focused on inverting the hierarchy that says that the senses and materiality deceive our quest for universal truth. I think sensation is primary for nature and for humans. In my book Theory of the Image I wanted to think about aesthetics from a new materialist perspective and from a non- anthropocentric perspective. There was not a single book about new materialism and aesthetics at the time, and that’s why I wanted to write it. I wanted to start with materiality and sensation and show the entanglement of all four core areas. So that was my interest going into the course: to teach aesthetics from a materialist and non-anthropological perspective based on my research.

KR: So… your co-instructor, how did you end up co-teaching it and why him- cause he’s a rationalist. How did that come about? And what did you learn? Because it was fascinating to be in the class and watch the tensions and watch two philosophers at work, doing the work of philosophy.

TN: That was for me what was most fun about that. I didn’t realize how different we were until teaching the class so part of it was just discovery of figuring out where this other person is coming from and over the course just watching that unfold. It wasn’t even obvious immediately what, how, and why his perspective was so different. So I learned a lot about where he was coming from and how far his argument goes and how it works. That was beneficial to me personally. There are a lot of people who are anthropocentric rationalists and who still have an investment in metaphysics and epistemology as the true foundations of philosophy and who don’t see aesthetics to be equally fundamental. They have lots of reasons for that. They might even like art and music too—but they do not agree that everything is fully sensuous. They believe that there are also “abstract mental objects” like the idea of a triangle that are fundamentally non-sensuous and immaterial. For me this belief is a speculative metaphysical claim neither provable nor falsifiable. So it was interesting to see how we differed and why. Definitely the fun part was having that dialogical experience of walking through the argument in ways that I don’t usually start from. So, bridging those two gaps I think was good for the class and also a challenge to try to teach.

KR: So, would you co-teach a class again with someone with a very different mindset, or are there pros and cons to teaching with someone who is really similar and on the same page versus being with someone who is coming from a really different perspective?

TN: Yes, and yes.

KR: Let me ask it this way, where do you want to go? Or is this Making Media Matter class the next step for you?

TN: Yes, materialist pedagogy is what I would like to work on now.

KR: So, this is an emergent process…? Pedagogically for you?

TN: Yes, the Making Media Matter class is the kind of co-teaching which is not just co-teaching, it’s collaborative; we’re doing something together and it feels very generative. Everybody is putting something into making a new class none of us had ever taught. From the get-go it was structured in a really organic and participatory way where everyone, including the students, were all doing and contributing and designing the course together. It has been rewarding, novel, and it’s pushing me in really interesting ways and directions that I had not anticipated—and that are great.

KR: You’re describing the differences in your pedagogical practices… the one was a traditional lecture, a theoretical lecture…

TN: For me, the lecture structure has not been as good for teaching new materialism.

KR: You weren’t doing new materialism, we were studying new materialism.

TN: That’s right. We were just reading people who had written about new materialism.

KR: So, it’s that “doing” pedagogy again, that active moving pedagogy.

TN: It was cool to do another aesthetics/art and new materialism related class that was so different in material format and just to feel how really different they are. Especially doing materialist pedagogy. I am just at the start of my experiments in materialist pedagogy but this MMM class has really got me thinking in a new way. Everything has to change now.

KR: Which is again the structure of academia and what we all are expected to do and fall in and if you want to break out of that you have to figure out how to do it- no one is going to support you with it (laughs).

TN: Well, that’s the thing that’s also very special about this three-way highly experimental co-taught class: its only happening because of special provisional funding. The class and all our public events and invited speakers have been amazing but it is all impossible without money.

KR: It’s lost revenue.

TN: It’s expensive if you want to have this kind of experimental education that is driven by methodology; the college gave us this money in order to experiment with new pedagogical methods and we are grateful. But it rarely happens. I would like to see it happen in the future of course but it’s not certain. Most people teaching do not have this opportunity and face all kinds of constraints. Innovation is too expensive…

KR: In the current model…

TN: In the current model it is too expensive to have three faculty teaching thirty students and then to triple cross list the course. There’s also a barrier that we could only triple cross list in our college; if we want- ed to do anything with the college of education or Korbel or the law school we actually could not do it be- cause they cannot figure out how the credits will overlap between colleges (laughs). Its such a barrier to genuine interdisciplinary teaching and research.

KR: Wow… isn’t that amazing. Well, thank you!

A Short History of Aleatory Art

There is a long, albeit minor, tradition in Western art of emphasizing pedesis and feedback to varying degrees. In A Deluge, with a Falling Mountain and Collapsing Town (1515; figure 16.1), for example, Leonardo da Vinci states that he used the appearance of humidity and condensation on windows and walls as an inspiration for painting landscapes, rocks, and rivers or unstable phenomena like fluids, smoke, or clouds.3

 

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Figure 16.1 Leonardo da Vinci, A Deluge, with a Falling Mountain and Collapsing Town (1515)

 

The pedesis of the hairs on the brush as they are mashed on the surface of the paper can also give rise to disorderly patterns on which disorderly images of the sky and earth can be figured, as in Alexander Cozens’s Streaky Clouds at the Bottom of the Sky (1786). Other techniques like frottage or rubbing use a pencil on paper over an uneven surface that produces a pedetic pattern to be elaborated on, as in Max Ernst’s Le Foret pétrifié (1929). The pedetic element here is the arbitrary nature of the rubbed object and the stochastic bouncing of the pencil over the surface.

The pedesis of the air itself has also been used as important way to increase the pedesis of the work of art. Marcel Duchamp’s Trois Stoppages Étalon (1913; figure 16.2), for example, uses the aleatory fall of a single meter-long thread to remeasure a meter. He writes, “If a thread one meter long falls straight from a height of one meter onto a horizontal plane, it twists as it pleases and creates a new image of the unit of length.”4 Since the thread is so light, the slightest bit of turbulent and stochastic air movement will cause it to fall in a slightly different configuration each time.

Painting can benefit from a similar aeropedetic method, like John Cage’sStrings 1-62 #45 (1980) inspired by Duchamp, or John Arp’s method of dropping cut-up pieces of colored paper from a height onto paper, Grand Dessin (1917). Or, more notably, in the work of Jackson Pollack. For example, Jackson Pollack’s No 31 (1950) relies on the effect of pedetic air currents on a liquid medium (paint) to pedetically reshape flung or dripped paint onto the canvas. Prereflective arm movements scatter the paint into the air, where the real painting is done not by the hand but by the air and paint left to itself in the air, and then the canvas as it shapes the splatter. Aerodynamic and fluid dynamic processes can be used together to introduce pedesis and material generativity into art. For example, Andy Warhol’sOxidation Painting series (1978) uses the pedetic flow of urine through the air to oxidize copper paint on canvas. The flow of liquid in air is subject to all kinds of stochastic turbulence and splatter, and the chemical reaction itself is subject to unpredictable shapes and speeds of oxidation.

In Francis Bacon’s work, we find paint splatter and rubbing combined.Figure in Movement (1978), for example, begins with splattering paint randomly on the canvas, painting with it, and scrubbing it out in a continual feedback loop of formation and deformation of the figure. Bacon’s aim is not to reproduce the photographic movement of the body (inspired by Muybridge) but, as he says, “the opposite of natural movement.”5 “I work much better in chaos . . . chaos for me breeds images.”6 And “The way I work is totally, now, accidental, and becomes more and more accidental, and doesn’t seem to behave, as it were, unless it is accidental, how can I recreate an accident? It’s almost an impossible thing to do. . . . [An accident]

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Figure 16.2 Marcel Duchamp, Trois Stoppages Étalon (1913)

 

out of which [the bodies] could move as though out of pools of flesh rose the images.”7 Images, for Bacon, are not something that preexist the material kinetic process of their generation. In contrast to the classical image of the eternal unchanging god which the artist copies, inspired by the muse, Bacon’s work shows how images emerge from the bottom up, through material pedetic genesis.

Not only in painting but in literature as well, pedetic methods have been used give agency back to the matters themselves. Tristan Tzara, for example, popularized the découpé, or “cut up” technique, in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text from the random juxtaposition of the fragments. Brion Gysin and William Burroughs invented the similar “fold-in” technique, in which two pages are folded in half and stuck together to create a new page. B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969) is composed of twenty-seven unbound sections, with a first and last chapter specified. The twenty-five sections in between, ranging from a single paragraph to twelve pages in length, are designed to be read in any order. All these techniques allow the image to be determined increasingly by the matter itself. The aim is not to force matters into predetermined patterns of action but, rather, to allow the matters to unfold and express themselves. The artist is only there to facilitate, not to dominate the process.

We also see similar methods at work in the history of Western music. Mozart’s Musikalisches Würfelspiel (Musical Dice Game) (1792), for example, is a minuet made by cutting and pasting together prewritten sections determined by the roll of a die. Following a similar inspiration, Marcel Duchamp composed Erratum Musical (1913) by randomly picking from a hat twenty- five notes ranging from F below middle C and up to high F, then recording them in the score according to the sequence of the drawing. John Cage, again following Duchamp, wrote Music of Changes (1951) to give musical performers the freedom to create unforeseen sounds during performance. Pierre Boulez did the same, but for the composer.

Boulez’s Third Piano Sonata (1955–57/63), for example, allows the pianist to choose different routes through the score, and in one of the movements has the option of omitting certain passages altogether. In Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI (1956), however, pedesis is given to the ordering of the sequences of musical fragments. Even more radically, Morton Feldman’s Intermission 6 (1953) for one or two pianos begins with fifteen fragments with the instruction, “Composition begins with any sound and proceeds to any other.”8 In the same year, Earle Brown composed Twenty-five Pages (1953) for one to twenty-five pianists, in which the pages are to be arranged in a sequence chosen by the performer(s), and each page may be performed either side up; events within each two-line system may be read as either treble or bass clef.9 In all these cases, the composers have attempted to introduce a degree of pedesis and interactivity into the musical work of art.

Sculpture, in turn, has invented its own attempts at pedesis. Alexander Calder’s Mobile (ca. 1932), for example, balances various shapes that hang in the air to be moved by pedetic currents of air. In doing so, sculpture is given pedetic motions depending on the temperature and viewers in the environment. In fact, it was Calder’s Mobile that inspired the aleatory music of Brown and Feldman. All manner of kinetic sculptures have since

Image result for Hans Haacke, Condensation Cube

Figure 16.3 Hans Haacke, Condensation Cube (1963–1965)

been created that use aleatory wind patterns to influence their motion, including various musical sculptures like wind chimes and fabrics like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Valley Curtain (1972), The Gates (2005), and Floating Piers (2014–2016). One of the most interesting analog pedetic methods, however, is Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963–1965; figure 16.3). Haacke took seriously Leonardo’s advice about humidity on the walls, but instead left the condensation to move on its own, heating, cooling, drip- ping ever new in its own enclosed cube. The stochastic patterns of water molecules give rise to unpredictable patterns of accumulation and dissolution on the sides of the cube in direct feedback with the season, temperature, and viewers in the room.

From Theory of the Image, 343-347.

The Migrant Image

 

How can we think of art history as a discipline that moves process-based, performative, and cultural migratory movement to the center of its theoretical and methodical analyses?

With contributions from internationally renowned experts, this manual, for the first time, provides answers as to what consequences the interaction of migration and globalization has on research in the field of the science of art, on curatory practice, and on artistic production and theory. The objective of this multi-vocal anthology is to open up an interdisciplinary discourse surrounding the increased focus on the phenomenon of migration in art history.

Buy here and here.

Here is an extract from my contribution to the collection.

You can read the full chapter here: “The Migrant Image.” in Handbook of Art and Global Migration, ed. Burcu Dogramaci and Birgit Mersmann (De Gruyter Press, 2019); 54-69.

Migrant aesthetics
The mobile image and the centrality of the migrant mark a new period in aesthetics. The digital image is not only mobile by virtue of its form but by the mobility of its content and author. Some of the most shared and viewed images of the past few years have been digital images of migrants, refugees, and the conditions of their travels, and even their death. The image of Alan Kurdi, the dead Syrian 3-year-old is now one of the most influential images of all time. The popular media has been saturated with migrant images and has thus been confronted in a new and dramatic way with the visible lives and deaths of migrants.

Furthermore, the widespread access to cell phones with digital cameras has also made it possible for migrants and refugees themselves to generate more images of their own movement and experience than ever before. The itinerant, grainy, handheld, and “poor” images of migrant cell phone cameras have become their own film genera: the “wretched of the screen” (Steyerl 2013). In these videos migrants are not silent victims but creators of new aesthetic forms, “an imperfect cinema” (Espinosa 1979) as demonstrated in Elke Sasse’s 2016 film #MyEscape.

Cell phones have also become literal lifelines for migrants to obtain travel information in isolated areas, to share videos, sounds and images with friends, family, and authorities. The digital visua l and sonic images produced by migrants have become the material basis of the aesthetic threads that hold together numerous committees across borders, not just refugees. Although it is most obvious in the case of refugees, these are the same aesthetic lifel ines that make possible sustained social and informational communities around the world. The migrancy of the digital image is what allows for community in a world of global migration, continuous mobility, and displacement. What would global migration look like without without the migrancy of the image and the images of the migrant,

The migrant image thus marks the limits of the previous century and the outline of a new one defined by the mobility and migration of the image. This requires a new approach both to the politics of migration and the aesthetics of the image. However, the advent of the present is never limited to the present alone. Now that our present has emerged, it has become possible in a way it was not before to inquire into the conditions of its emergence and discover something new about the nature and history of art. in other words, the present reveals something new about the nature of sensation and what it must at least be like so as to be capable of being defined by the primacy of motion and mobility as it is. At no point in history has the image ever been anywhere near as mobile as it is today in the digital image.

So, what does this say about the nature of the image such that it is capable of this mobility? lf the image is defined by the primacy of mobility today yet existing theories of it are not, then we need a new conceptual framework. We need to produce such a new conceptual framework based on the primacy of motion to better understand contemporary sensation and aesthetics, as well as the historical events from which it emerges. in short, the rise of the mobile digital image draws our attention not so much to its radical novelty, but to a previously hidden dimension of all previous images throughout art history that can only now be seen (Hansen 2004; Hansen 2006; Manning 2012; Massumi 2007; Naukkarinen 2005; O’Sullivan 2001; Gregg/Seigworth 201 0).

The research program proposed by this chapter is therefore neither a theory of the migrant image that applies strictly to the novelty of the digital image nor an ahistorical theory of the image that applies forever and all time to all images and media. It offers a different approach…

The Migrant Image

Theory of the Image is back in stock

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Theory of the Image sold out in the first few days. Back orders are now shipping and the second printing is now available!

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Read the introduction here.

Read some selections on Cinema below.

A Kinetic Theory of Cinema

On the one hand, film is nothing other than a series of static freeze-frames moving extensively from point A to point B across a lens and through a beam of light. However, these discrete frames are also nothing other than images on a single vibrating and continuous strip of celluloid. The condition for the extensive movement of a frame is the intensive topological transformation of the whole reel. Furthermore, what seem to be discrete shots of different people and things extensively moving on the screen are also continuous flows of modulated light from the projector. The waves of light are continuously vibrating and changing in order to give the appearance of discrete persons and things on the screen. All perceived division and extensive movement are predicated on the intensive continuum upon which they are the topological regions, like boats bobbing on the ocean.

Bergson wrote that cinema was a bad description of perception, as if we perceive only snapshots of reality plus movement and get continuous reality. He is correct that this is a bad theory of perception, and it seems to be part of cinema from the perspective of the viewing subject who experiences the “illusion of movement” when people “move around” on the screen. However, from the perspective of the movement of matter itself, this is an inaccurate description of the cinema. The material conditions of cinema presuppose both the continuous intensive change of celluloid and flows of light and, at the same time, the extensive movement of relatively discrete figures on the screen and photos across the lens. They are two aspects or dimensions of the same motion.

Films like La Jetée (1962) and San Soleil (1983) by Chris Marker, for example, demonstrate this explicitly by filming photographs and for extended durations where there is no visible movement on the screen or any characters doing anything. In this case, the viewer sees a seemingly immobile photo whose very conditions of extensive “stasis” are the intensive motion of its material body (celluloid and light). By inverting the relationship between perceived extensive and intensive motions in film, the true material kinetic structure of cinema is revealed directly to the viewing audience.

All movement is therefore revealed as both extensive and intensive at the same time. The two occur as dimensions of the same process, but the former is always derived from the latter and not the other way around. Snapshots, for example, are aspects or dimensions of the material flow of celluloid and light, but continuous celluloid and light can never be the product of discrete snapshots. The two are present together when we watch a film, like the latitude and longitude of a kinesthetic cartography.

Cinema also uses long takes of relatively fixed scenes in order to render sensible the interval series that makes the frame series itself possible and mutable. In between every photographic frame is an interval, a difference that makes a difference between frames. While montage renders this interval sensible only indirectly through the decomposition and recomposition of the frame series, the still shot renders this interval sensible as a simple passage of time during which relatively “nothing” is happening in the dramatic action of the film or in the frame itself. Cinematic temporality is a temporality made possible by difference and differentiation in the frame and between the frames. Time passes, but only on the condition of a more primary differentiation or division between distinct images made possible by the continuity of the filmstrip and continuous movement of the film projector.

In Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), for example, the stillness of the shots and the use of photographs makes explicit the difference between the photographic image and the cinematic image. When Marker films a photograph, he renders sensible the duration and movement of the film itself as the kinetic condition of the relative immobility of the photo image. This is the great inversion of postwar cinema: only by filming something that does not move is the movement of the camera itself made sensible. The series of intervals between the frames is exposed as the condition for the frame series itself and the persistence of the immobility of the image.

In Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), for example, the face becomes frozen, but as frozen the face exposes the implicit movement of the camera itself and the mobility of the dark intervals between frames. This invisible darkness is depicted visually in the black pupils of the eyes. The eyes are the black holes or intervals of the face frame. In Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), the duration of the unedited film merges with the real-time duration of someone actually watching the Empire State Building. By merging the duration of the camera and the body, the kinetic condition of both is made sensible. The eye blinks just as the frames pass through intervals.

In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), the filmstrip burns and rips off the reel, exposing the intervalic gaps and their material conditions of celluloid, light, and motion that sustain the frame intervals themselves. The continuum of white light is shown as the pure kinetic condition of the film, but only on the condition that the actual film Persona remains intact, framed, and not burned at all, even if what it shows is burned frames and white light. It is still a white light divided by the frames of the celluloid film itself. Film cannot escape its own material conditions; it can only reveal them: light, motion, frame, interval. During the duration of this white light in which nothing happens and no one is there, the differential kinetic interval comes to the fore as the condition of du- ration (figure 13.4).

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Theory of the Image (OUP, 2019) OUT NOW!

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Read the introduction here.

Read the Conclusion below.


The Mobile Image

 

We live in the age of the mobile image. Today, more than ever before, we are surrounded by hybrid images of all kinds that circulate freely and mix with contemporary images. This incredible mobilization and proliferation of images forces us to rethink the basic structure and definition of the image itself—as something fundamentally kinetic. The advent of the digital image, defined by a continuous flow of electricity, forces us to see that the image is not and never has been a representation of a static model. Images have always had a material agency. Movement, and not representation, has always been central to the image, making possible a new materialist aesthetics. This book thus has made three main contributions to the philosophy of art and aesthetics.

 

THE KINETIC THEORY OF THE IMAGE

Its first contribution is to offer an original kinetic theory of the image. Traditionally, the image has been viewed as either objectively or subjectively derived from something else. A relatively static object, subject, or human structure was assumed as primary and the image was what moved in between them. Even when the image has not been treated explicitly as a representation, it has typically been thought of an expression or production of something else. Even contemporary theories of images as a copy of copies or copies without originals, still miss the point. The image is not a copy and there was never a model to have gone missing. In contrast to these previous theories, this book proposes a new definition of the image as a reflection, a duplication, or a fold in moving generative matters. All images are sensuous and all sensations are images. Images both sense and are sensed. The image is thus not something strictly visible. There are images of sight and sound, just as there are images of taste, smell, and touch. The image is also not unique to humans or to organic life.

 

The original contribution of part I, then, is to have provided a kinetic and materialist theory of the image defined by the flow, fold, and field of sensitive matters. As such, it reorients the central problem of aesthetics and art history, moving it away from the question of representation and anthropocentric constructivism, whether linguistic, social, psychological, or otherwise, and toward the distribution and analysis of regimes of moving images with their own material agency and generativity.

THE HISTORY OF THE IMAGE

The second contribution of this book is that it offers an original conceptual and historical methodology for the study of art and art history. If the study of the image is not a question of representation but, rather, of kinetic distribution, then we need to understand what kinds of distributions have been invented and to what degree and with what mixture they persist in the present. Part II of this book thus presented neither a universal ontology of affect nor a merely empirical history of works of art but, rather, a study of the kinesthetic patterns or historical regimes of aesthetic motion.

Unlike merely empirical art histories, kinesthetic regimes of motion prefigure, persist, and mix well beyond their initial empirical manifestation, making their analysis much more broadly applicable to the study of art, art history, and sensation widely construed. Thus, the kinetic method of this book makes no attempt at an ahistorical ontology of sensation, affect, or image; rather, it offers a regional ontology from the perspective of the early twenty-first century. Based on the apparent primacy of mobility revealed in the digital image, it proposes an answer to the simple question: What must images at least be like for them to be capable of this kind of motion? In doing so, it thus discovers a previously hidden dimension of all hitherto existing images: the primacy of their motion.

 

THE CONTEMPORARY IMAGE

The third major contribution of this book is its offer of an original theory of the digital image defined by its materiality and mobility. In contrast to the first wave of new-media scholarship that defined the digital image as largely immaterial and virtual, this book provides an analysis of the material and kinetic dimensions of the digital image and its conditions of circulation. While more recent new-media scholarship seems to be taking the material dimension of the digital image more seriously, this book adds to this literature a complete conceptual and analytic framework that connects the study of the digital image with the rest of art history and the structure of affection more broadly.

The electrical flow that defines the digital image is historically novel in some ways, but not in others. The digital image thus allows an incredible degree of hybrid mobile images, but in a more general sense, electrical flows also pervade all material images. The digital image is not just about hybridity and remediation; it is also about the creative pedesis and feedback of the electrical flow itself: its generative power. This includes both contemporary digital and historical nondigital generativity. The digital image thus presents the twenty-first century with an incredible aesthetic decision: how and to what degree to treat the digital image as an instrumental tool for merely replicating images or as a means for releasing a more generative flow in all matters, thus generating completely new images.