To See is to Change: Rana Dasgupta
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A Parallax View of 40 Years of German Video Art.
Over two days, ten artists, critics and enthusiasts present a "recuration" of the 40 Years of German Video Art (http://www.40jahrevideokunst.de
), a collection being circulated internationally by the Goethe Institut. These respondents brought to the archive their own urgencies and preoccupations, and suggested that this "package" is not a sealed entity, and can be re-read as a history of encounter and entanglement between disciplines, geographies, schools of thought, agents and artforms.
A package in this form this suggests a certain stability in the category "German video art". At the same time its circulation opens up the material, and its context of production and thought, its "Germany", to review by diverse and sometimes unsolicited sources. It is our good fortune to be able to promote such activity. Sehen heißt ändern, to see is to change. For more: http://camputer.org/event.php?id=45
The 2-day screening program was held on 14th-15th November, 2008, at Jnanapravaha and Gallery Chemould in Mumbai.
Rana Dasgupta is a British novelist based in Delhi. Rana offers a meditation on the "flash". Flashes of light or image occur with some frequency in avant garde film and video art. Does the flash have a history? Can we give meaning to the flash? From lightning to arc lights to nuclear explosions - a speculation.
Queen's Mansion, Chemould Prescott Rd, Mumbai
I've chosen to think about a particular aesthetic gesture that is common to many of the pieces in this package: the flash. Perhaps you can remember for instance the opening of Volker Eichelmann's Kurlichtspiele played by Mriganka yesterday. It begins with intense intermittent flashes which finally accelerate into the twenty-four flashes a second of the film apparatus, and resolve into image. We can also think of Wolf Vostell's Sun in my Head, with its continually flashing TV images and its revealing title.
The whole of this presentation is designed to introduce Fünf Fünfzig im Dunkel by Ingo Günther, which consists entirely of flashes. I'll show that work at the end in its entirety – as the title implies it's five minutes long.
My presentation is divided into three trajectories. The first trajectory is greatly indebted to the work of Wolfgang Schivelbusch.
A flash, of course, is a moment of intense illumination sandwiched in the middle of darkness, or comparative darkness. And it should be immediately clear that, for the majority of their history, human beings could not easily produce on their own what we might call a satisfying flash. They did not have light sources intense enough, and more importantly they did not have sufficient control over those sources to illuminate them for mere instants.
For the 1989 Paris Exposition, Jules Bourdais, a prominent French architect, proposed to erect a tower 60 meters high (1,200 feet) high, in the center of Paris, near the Pont-Neuf, with arc lights strong enough to illuminate the whole city. By this means, the street lighting of Paris, which at the time consisted of a thousand gas-lamps, was to be transformed into city lighting.
No one doubted that it was technically possible to illuminate the whole of Paris from one source of light. In the end, Eiffel's Tower was built, not because it was considered less far fetched than Bourdais – on the contrary contemporaries feared being blinded by such a centralized light source.
Bourdais Sun Tower (Tour Soleil) is a monument to 19th century fantasies involving light. It is no less impressive for the fact that it was never built and soon fell into oblivion. The proposed tower marks the climax of a development in which earlier technical advances led people to believe that light could be produced in unlimited quantities. They thought in all seriousness of turning 'night into day', to cite a popular expression of the period.
'The Lamp' in 'Disenchanted Night: The industrialization of light in the 19th century' by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Translated from the German by Angela Davies, 1995, pp. 3.
Until the eighteenth century, the most advanced lighting technology was the candle. It was not precisely the candle we know: it was a tallow candle whose wick required trimming if it was to stay alight, making it a fundamentally intimate light form. Goethe complained bitterly about these candles, and asked for someone to invent one that would stay alight on its own. It's a two-handed job to trim a candle wick.
Fire is the origin of artificial light. Electrical light too 'burns' as soon as it is switched off. Fire provided three great cultural services for early mankind: cooking, heating and lighting. Originally, the one undivided fire, around which people gathered after darkness had fallen, fulfilled all three functions. The unity of the primeval fire is the source of the magic that fire possesses for archaic cultures and in mythology.
The candle and the oil lamp represent the next step in the technical development of lighting. They are usually described as a scaling down and refinement of the torch. It was probably because of the aforementioned light sources [i.e. the torch] were not versatile enough, that the candle was finally invented.
'The Lamp' in 'Disenchanted Night: The industrialization of light in the 19th century' by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Translated from the German by Angela Davies, 1995, pp. 5, 6.
When we learn that the gardens of Versailles were lit at night with 24,000 candles, then, we can begin to understand what that meant. Only with a fantastic expenditure of resources could The Sun King make his majesty glimmer in the great pre-nineteenth century night. That was the story also with fireworks. And even when the Revolutionaries took over the old symbols, placing the sun of Reason, rather than that of the King, at the centre of their solar system, the blazing imagery remained fanciful in the face of the brute reality of night. As Jean Starobinski writes:
The solar myth of the Revolution delighted in the insubstantiality of darkness. Reason had only to appear, supported by will, and darkness disappeared. The myth was an illusion. France experienced the intensest moments of its Revolution in a symbolism by which the light of principle merged into the opacity of the physical world and was lost. Goya, at a greater distance from the source of revolutionary light, was in a better position to describe the grimacing face of what absolutely rejected light.
[Wright of Derby. Night intact.]
Around the beginning of the eighteenth century, new technologies of lighting emerged, very much in response to the needs of English factory owners who now needed to flood large areas of their factories with light in order to keep them going at night. The new technologies used gas as a fuel, which in England was a by-product of existing coke production processes, and they produced a much more intense light. They also represented a conceptual shift in lighting, for the source of light was no longer the flame but rather a metal gauze made incandescent in the burning fuel. This shift was bewildering to contemporaries, who asked "Where is the wick?" and "Where is the flame?" – but it was fundamental to every innovation in lighting that has happened since.
In the torch, the site of combustion and the fuel are one and the same thing, while in the candle they are clearly separated. From now on, the wick acts as the sole site of combustion, and it is fed the material the lame needs by the fuel reservoir, (the wax cylinder of the candle, the container of oil in the lamp) kept neatly distinct from the flame.
The torch had remained a clearly recognizable, if much changed, log of wood from the hearth fire. The flame flickering around a wick for the first time burned totally and exclusively for the purpose of giving light. The wick was a revolutionary in the development of artificial lighting as the wheel in the history of transport.
Psychologically, this technical innovation was extremely significant. Seeing a flame burning around an almost imperceptible wick is a very different experience from seeing a flame flickering around a log or a torch. The log and the torch are physically consumed by the process of burning, but the flame burns around the wick without any visible sign of destruction.
The wick remains unchanged and it is only the fuel feeding it that diminishes. But this takes place at a rate so slow that an observer can perceive it only over a relatively long period of time. In the torch, people experienced the elemental, destructive power of fire- a reflection of their own still-untamed drives. In the candle flame, burning steadily and quietly, fire had become as pacified as the culture that it illuminated.
The Lamp' in 'Disenchanted Night: The industrialization of light in the 19th century' by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Translated from the German by Angela Davies, 1995, pp. 5, 6.
But there was another profound transformation that gas lighting brought in. As soon as you shifted from candles or oil lamps to gas lighting, you shifted from portable, stand-alone lighting systems into mass industrial organisation. With the advent of gas, factory and home owners no longer stored their own fuel. Gas was stored in increasingly vast gasometers to which city neighbourhoods were connected by pipes. In having gas lighting, then, one was not merely consuming an intense, unblinking, white flame, which was technological shift enough. One was also explicitly participating in a mode of production, which gave this light an extra aura.
'Inflammable air' or 'spirit' as gas was called it was officially known by 1739 at the latest. But even though people knew what it was and how to make it, no one put this knowledge to practical use in the decades that followed. Like many mechanical inventions of the period, it was only for fun.
The playful phase in the history of gaslight came to an end around 1800, with the sudden discovery that it was suitable for lighting the new English factories. At the same time, these were sprouting like mushrooms, and they soon generated a great demand for light.
The Lamp' in 'Disenchanted Night: The industrialization of light in the 19th century' by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Translated from the German by Angela Davies, 1995, pp. 16.
Gas could be produced without any technical innovations. It was explained more or less by the same process as the one that turned coal into coke, first used by Abraham Darby in the early 18th century.
The production of gas for lighting merely involved exploiting a previously ignored waste product. This economically attractive quality, combined with its power of illumination, made gas a suitable fuel for industrial lighting.
The first gas lighting systems were established in the very stronghold of the British industry, Watt & Boulton of Soho near Birmingham.
The Lamp' in 'Disenchanted Night: The industrialization of light in the 19th century' by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Translated from the German by Angela Davies, 1995, pp. 18.
It was not necessarily a positive one. It was clear, even at the time, that the flickering light of flame had held mysteries that were bleached out by gas light. Gas lights left no dark corners, they left no place for the glow of embers. They seemed to destroy the world of fireside daydreams and stories. As Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opera, commented:
One feels enclosed, hemmed in by an enormous circle of fire, a sort of magnified, oppressive lens, whose rays of light seem threatening. The room is bright, really very bright indeed, but it has nothing cheerful about it. It is the false light of dawn mingling with the candlelight of a ballroom. A wonderful advantage of artificial illumination is lost: the sight of the light itself. It by far surpasses the sight of caged and reflected light, which gives the impression of a luridly glowing furnace, instead of the flickering light of a real fire.
Gas lights could be used to produce bright flashes. Flashing gas lights were used, for instance, in the theatre and in lighthouses, but of course the flash effect could only be achieved by veiling and unveiling the light. It was not possible really to make a gas light flash because the incandescent glow only rose and died slowly.
But to contemporary users there were other ways in which gas lights were more impractical than this. Gas combustion used up the oxygen in a room and led to sickness and fainting. It also generated intense heat which accumulated under ceilings, adding to the nausea. And people were nervous about the silent pipes of gas coming into their homes: they were nervous of explosions and asphyxiation. They turned them off at night, to restore their houses into reassuring, pre-industrial, stand-alone units.
Electric lighting goes back almost as far as gas lighting. Humphry Davy described as far back as in 1809 how,
When pieces of charcoal … were brought near each other, a bright spark was produced… Drawing the points from each other a constant discharge took place through the heated air, in a space at least equal to four inches, producing a most brilliant ascending arch of light.
These arc lights, as they came to be called, were so bright that they were impractical for indoor use. Humphry Davy's invention was also a step backwards from gas lighting in the sense that he ran his current off a vast battery of his own invention – this was once again a stand-alone system. It was only when Siemens invented an industrial-scale dynamo that it became possible to use arc lights for public purposes – though once again only in public places such as wharves and town squares where vast quantities of light were required.
As with gas light, there were those who found the new light uncanny.
Strollers out near the Chateau Beaujou yesterday evening at about 9pm suddenly found themselves bathed in a flood of light that was as bright as the sun. One could in fact have believed that the sun had risen. The illusion was so strong that birds, woken out of their sleep, began singing in the artificial daylight. The light, which flooded a large area, was so strong that ladies opened up their umbrellas – not as a tribute to the inventors, but in order to protect themselves from the rays of this mysterious new sun. (1857)
Indeed it was clear to many that arc lights, which produced light as intense as a welding machine and burned away their charcoal electrodes in the process, were not the end of the story of electric light. It was of course Edison who found a way of producing a viable form of this light, and in many ways he is the end of the story. The bulb he produced in 1881, though it had a bamboo filament which would be replaced in the early twentieth century with tungsten, essentially opened up the entire lighting terrain we know today. It was an incredible moment in the history of the human senses.
Its momentousness was clear to those who invented it:
The sunlight poured upon the rank vegetation of the carboniferous forests, was gathered and stored up, and has been waiting through the ages to be converted again into light. The latent force accumulated during the primeval days, and garnered up in the coal beds, is converted, after passing in the steam engine through the phases of chemical, molecular and mechanical force, into electricity, which only waits the touch of the inventor's genius to flash out into a million domestic suns to illuminate a myriad homes. Francis R Upton, 1880, partner to Edison.
In a way this can all be summarised in the stupefaction with the electric light switch, which had fundamentally different properties from the gas regulator that preceded it. In order to light a gas light you had to go up to the lamp, open the wheel-shaped regulator on the side of the lamp, and ignite the gas. In a house this probably meant standing on a chair or a ladder.
When the first electric lamps were made, manufacturers continued to put regulator-style switches on the side, forcing people to go around the room with a ladder turning on each light in turn by rotating a wheel. This showed that they had not yet absorbed the full implications of the new power. After a while they removed the switches from the lamps and put them by the doors – not anymore as wheels, but as simple on-off switches. Adults did what children still do, turning them on and off, admiring their own power to produce instantaneous day and night, exalting in the improbable miracle of the flash.
What did this flash represent? It represented an amazing triumph over nature and history – a triumph over night, which had shrouded countless dark human lives since the beginning of time, but which had just been defeated in just the span of a single life. It represented the human domestication of an incredible new force of nature, which did not use up the air, did not heat the room, made no noise, and leapt into spontaneous action when switched on. It represented the vast power of modern industrial organisation, that could coordinate far-flung elements in the world in order to produce sudden miracles in people's houses. It was a very potent flash, in short, and it's this potency that I'd like you to keep in mind as I move into the next section.
As soon as electric light existed it became metaphorised in many ways, most powerfully in the flashing technology par excellence, film. In my second trajectory I would like to consider a few of those metaphors. Let us begin in late nineteenth-century Germany where the mood, as I understand it, was anxious.
In 1892, Max Nordau wrote his famous account of the spirit of his time, Entartung (Degeneration). In it, he characterises the fin-de-siecle mood as "a compound of feverish restlessness and blunted discouragement" culminating in feelings of "imminent perdition and extinction," a sense of the "Dusk of Nations, in which all suns and all stars are gradually waning, and mankind with all its institutions and creations is perishing in the midst of a dying world."
Fin – de – siecle is a name covering both what is characteristic of many modern phenomena, and also the underlying mood which in them finds expression. Experience has long shown that an idea usually derives its designation from the language of the nation which first formed it.
The fashionable term has the necessary vagueness which fits it to convey all the half conscious and indistinct drift of current ideas. Just as the words 'freedom', 'ideal', 'progress' seem to express notions, but actually are only sounds, so in itself, Fin – de – siecle means nothing, and receives a varying signification according to the diverse mental horizons of those who use it. The surest way of knowing what Fin – de – siecle implies is to consider a series of particular instances where the word has been applied.
Book 1 'Fin – de – siecle', Chapter 1, 'The Dusk of the Nations' in 'Degeneration' by Max Simon Nordau, 1968, pp. 1, 2.
Nordau blamed the immense velocity of the modern world for this depletion of human energies. The excess of media information overloaded the mind and removed people from organic knowledge. The speed of steam and electricity was debilitating for the human nervous system: the enormous increase in organic expenditure did not, and could not, have a corresponding increase in supply.
The concern of Nordau and many others with the issue of fatigue found a theoretical basis in the second law of thermodynamics – the law of entropy – which drastically undermined the optimism inspired by the first law, that of the conservation of energy elaborated by Hermann von Helmholtz in 1847. The prospect of the wasting away of human energy and labour power generated not only anxieties of decline and cosmic death, but also a new social ethic of energy conservation and a proliferation of research programs geared to maximise the productivity of the human motor.
One of the practices that became widespread around the time of Nordau's book was the therapeutic electrocution of the body. An attempt to kick-start this human motor with electrical sparks and flashes. Inventors designed electric garments and baths that could fire energy into exhausted human bodies. New accounts of madness saw there a dullness that could be invigorated with electricity, and so began a long era of electrical experiments on asylum inmates. All these practices borrowed from a popular assumption that this youthful, vital, current of nature – electricity – must be able to stimulate the human body into becoming modern, into keeping pace with the technologies humans that otherwise threatened to leave it stupefied and defeated. (There is a fascinating history of caffeine that follows similar lines, but that's not for now.)
What is perhaps more shocking to us is that when the next major natural force was discovered a few years later, it too was thought to have beneficial effects on the body. As you probably know, a certain strand of nuclear history begins in the famous silver mines at Joachimsthal in Bohemia, which had also been found to contain the uranium ore, pitchblende. In 1899, the Austrian government sent a horse-drawn cart piled with canvas bags full of the uranium ore, pitchblende, from these mines as a gift to Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris. The Curies found that the ore was much more radioactive than uranium and concluded that another element must be present. After two years of work, they isolated from this tonne of pitchblende one tenth of a gram of radium bromide.
On the basis of their early observations of the effect of the new element, radium, on tumours, the Curies became hopefully that it could be used in the treatment of cancer, from which Pierre Curie's mother had died some years before. This was the beginning of radiotherapy. Ironically, of course, Marie Curie and her colleagues were unaware of the cancerous effects of radiation, and made no attempts to shield themselves from it. Marie Curie died in 1934 of leukaemia caused by her exposure to radioactive substances. Cancer also killed her daughter, the Nobel laureate chemist Irène Joliot-Curie, and scores of other scientists engaged in these early investigations.
In the years immediately following the discovery of radioactivity, however, such depressing realisations were far away. It was widely assumed, in fact, that radioactivity must have a generally invigorating effect upon the body; and entrepreneurs rushed to produce radium compresses, radium bath salts, radium implants, radium chocolate and radioactive inhalations. The new desire to fire up one's body with a bit of nuclear energy was good for the fortunes of the ultra-fashionable spa of Carlsbad, which was advantageously placed right next to the uranium mines at Joachimsthal. The spa began promising its visitors that they would derive new vitality from Carlsbad's "natural tonic radioactivity," and soon they built a brand new "radioactive spa" much closer to the uranium source. This radioactive chic was not entirely unrelated to the fact that radium was, at that time, by a very long way the most expensive substance in the world.
One of the things I do in my nove… Brahms, Paganini, Godowsky…
All this seems like a crude folk magic, which indeed it was. But it was consistent with a certain image of the human body very common among technocrats and scientists – the idea of the body as a mechanical object. If you saw the body as a machine it was natural to think that, like other machines, its functioning could be improved with new energy forms.
This view of the body was of course thoroughly endorsed by revolutionary artists of the same period. At the First international Dada exhibition in Berlin in 1920, Georg Grosz and John Heartfield posed with a placardsaying, "Art is dead. Long live Tatlin's new art of machines."
Constructivism has promulgated a no-nonsense acceptance of the machine as such; that is, not as a comical mimic of a man or his oppressor but as a power by which art and man can be uplifted.
Rejecting the romanticism of the Futurists and the slapstick of the Dada, the Constructivists came to terms with the 'new' machine, stripped of metaphor and sentimentality, and with its rationale of utility. Their movement brought to a head the doubts about the continual survival of art, with its historical affiliation to the handicrafts, in an age of modern production.
'Art is dead – Long live Tatlin's new machine art', declared a sign carried by the ex-Dadaists George Grosz and John Heartfield at a Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920.
'America and Europe' by Harold Rosenberg in 'The De-Definition of Art', 1972, pp. 163, 164.
For such artists of course the "Entartung" or "degeneration" to which they wanted to apply new sparks (and some will remember here the title of Lenin's underground newspaper, Iskra, The Spark) was that of bourgeois rule. They wished to electrify the mind and body in order to defeat middle-class lethargy and complacency.
What better technology could there be for the delivery of electricity than the apparatus of cinema? But already in the 1920s cinema seemed to be in decline. It seemed to have sold out to cheap bourgeois mimeticism. As Henri Chomette said in 1925,
The pictures and images had only just come to life and they were fleeing already into stereotypical formulae … the representation of what was familiar. To the eye, the screen has become approximately what the gramophone is to the ear: record and play back, nothing more.
In response to Hollywood tableaux that merely doubled and added nothing new, the avant garde filmmakers would strip away illusion and return to the pure flashing light that lay at the heart of the cinematic apparatus.
In 1924 Kinoki Group around Dziga Vertov
Our way - from the citizen writhing about via the poetry of machines to perfect electrical man - with eyes wide open, conscious of the mechanical rhythm, enthused by work with machines, recognising the beauty of mechanical processes, we compose our film poem out of flames and electrical power stations. Long live dynamic geometry, long live the sequences of points, lines, planes and volumes. Long live the poetry of mobile machines and machines, the poetry of levers, cogs and steel wings, the iron screech of movement, the blind grimaces of glowing rays.
Opus 4 by Walter Ruttman, 1925, Viking Eggeling "Diagonal Symphony", and Man Ray "Retour a la Raison."
Le Retour a La Raison
(1923) by Man Ray:
Ray could be called a "Jack of all Arts" because he constantly worked in many artistic mediums, from photography and painting to writing and film. He even referred to himself as a "practical dreamer", because of all the different art forms he chose to work in.
More a work in experimental Dadaism than a film, Le Retour à la raison was the first film to be made by the celebrated surrealist artist, Man Ray. The American-born artist made the film soon after he moved to Paris in the early 1920s to found the Dada movement. The film is very short (three minutes in length) but includes some astonishing and evocative images. The early segments of the film iillustrates a technique which Man Ray pioneered in static photography, the rayograph (or photogramme). Here, an object is placed between a light source and photo-sensitive film, in contrast to traditional photography where photographic film captures light reflected off an object.
For Le Retour à la raison , Man Ray sought to extend the rayograph technique to a moving image. He sprinkled salt and pepper on one piece of film, pins on another, illuminated the film for a few seconds, then developed the film. The resulting images resemble a seriously weird drugs trip. Man Ray added additional sequences to make the film of sufficient length to have an impact. These include night shots of lights at a fairground and a section in which a paper mobile appears to dance with its shadow. For the final few seconds of the film, Man Ray shot some hallucinatory images of the nude torso of his model, Kiki of Montparnasse, illuminated in striped light. The film was first shown shown at the "Cœur à Barbe" evening at the Theater Michel in July 6th . The film was ill-received by the audience, partly because the film broke twice during its projection.
As Man Ray in his own words expressed his photos, "deform the subject as almost to hide the identity of the original, and create a new form." He cropped, used multiple exposures, and created rayographs in which he placed objects on a sheet of paper and turned on the light. Shadowy forms appeared and everyday objects were rendered mysterious and ambiguous in form. Ray liked them because they offered a more direct relationship to subjects than traditional photography. They almost look like x-rays but instead of seeing more, things are made less clear.
In his essay on Man Ray, Rudolf E Kuenzli says "Man Ray's first film, ironically titled Retour a La raison is not an extension of painting but a kinetic extension of his photographic compositions. The film is Man Ray's exploration of the camera's potential to transform the familiar world, and thus to create surreality. The opening and closing sequences suggest such an interpretation. The film opens by introducing an apparatus of transformation: a film camera rolling film and Man Ray as cameraman next to it. In the lens we see his eye upside down, since he filmed himself filming by aiming the camera at a mirror."
He continues, "The film begins with sequences of Rayographs in rapid motion, followed by the rotating lights of a merry-go-round at night. The only sequence in which a camera is moving is the one taken from the merry go round. Otherwise, objects turn in front of the camera lens: the rotating spiral lampshade, the egg divider which dances with its shadow, and the line patterns formed by the sun's rays playing on the female torso. The realistic objects, such as the torso, seem to be caught in the motion and the lines that tend to transform them into semi abstractions. Retour a la raison, which is not quite three minutes long, establishes an almost regular rhythm through the alternating sequences which are of similar length."
Further he says, in another essay, " Given the circumstances of its first screening, Le Retour a La Raison has gone down in some histories as a confrontational work. As a montage of unrelated visual images, it may have thwarted it's audience's desire, for cohesiveness in any form it may take today, however, it is difficult to see its free spirited, uninhibited flow of sequences- some simply abstract, like the flickering points of light, or what Man Ray called '[snow] flakes flying in all directions. Nevertheless, if in Man Ray's film light and volumes do not move in synchrony, they have a persistent grace. In some way this silent, rightly two-minute catalogue of images conveys a kind of kinetic pleasure that is more likely to be appreciated than derided."
Dada in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art by Anne Umland, Adrian Sudhalter and Scott Gerson, 2008, Eds: David Frankell and Emily Hall, pp. 235. 2008.
'Man ray's films: from Dada to Surrealism' by Rudolf E Kuenzli in Avant Garde film by Alexander Graf and Dietrich Scheunemann, 2007, Eds: Alexander Graf and Dietrich Scheunemann pp. 95.
Dada and surrealist film by Rudolf E Kuenzli, 1996, ED: Rudolf E Kuenzli, pp. 3
Flashing in the darkness, pure light, form and movement, this is a dynamic celebration of the cinematographic apparatus, and it has a kind of exhuberant attachment to its fundamental aesthetics similar to what we see later in Nam June Paik's video art or indeed in the html colours of early net art.
But far more than the later period these 1920s films are consumed with a quasi religious conviction of the redemptive properties of flashing electrical light. Where, just as with the application of electrodes or radioactive compresses to the body, an essentially simple coming together of technological forces and human subject is supposed to unleash enormous energies, and so to re-vivify a sclerotic system. To see is to change.
The third trajectory is itself written as a series of flashes.
1. Not long after Man Ray's "Retour a la Raison" and in the same year as Dali and Bunuel's Chien Andalou Georges Bataille wrote his "Histoire de l'Oeil", a book whose impact was most strongly felt in the 1960s, when it became part of a number of wholesale philosophical attacks on the long history of western oculocentrism. Bataille's pornographic tale of genital and anal eyes led him on later into even more fanciful and mythic tales of vision. "If we describe," he wrote in "Rotten Sun"
the notion of the sun in the mind of one whose weak eyes compel him to emasculate it, that sun must be said to have the poetic meaning of mathematical serenity and spiritual elevation. If on the other hand one obstinately focuses on it, a certain madness is implied, and the notion changes meaning because it is no longer production that appears in light, but refuse or combustion, adequately expressed by the horror emanating from a brilliant arc lamp. In practice the scrutinised sun can be identified with mental ejaculation, foam on the lips, and an epileptic crisis. In the same way that the preceding sun (the one not looked at) is perfectly beautiful, the one that is scrutinised can be considered horribly ugly.
About 1930, Bataille tried on five different occasions to elaborate what he sometimes calls 'the myth' and sometimes calls 'the fantasy' of the pineal eye.
In July 1927, during a visit to a zoological garden, before the monkey cage the pineal eye flashes on Bataille.
The pineal eye therefore required the 32 year old Bataille to go back in writing on the bookish and pious architecture celebrated by Note Daime De Rhimes.
'The Pineal Eye' by Denis Hollier in 'Against architecture: the writings of Georges Bataille', 1989, pp. 117.
Bataille became fascinated by his own concept of the pineal eye, the eye just below the cranium that looked directly up at the sky and overturned the banal horizontality of animal seeing. The pineal eye yearned to burst from its confinement and blind itself by staring at the sun.
Whilst Bataille saw the virtues in the aspects of surrealism, he found it useless. This is not to say that Bataille cannot be recuperated as a part of surrealism, just that there was no adherence on his part, and no recognition of the reality surrealism determined to expose.
The late 1920's are a site of Bataille's first writings, which, from a distance could be seen as 'surreal'. He also founded two groups in the mid-1930: the first, Counter – Attack, which was to form a rallying point for dissident communists and leftists. The second was Acephale (approximately meaning 'Headless man').
This was the mythical figure that Bataille and Masson came up with to symbolize the ridiculous, irrational, sacrificial man coming in the wake of the dead God. It can mean headless one, but they do indicate headless man. Acephale was the source of a journal and secret society. As a journal it signaled Bataille's shift to a fully sacrificial, Nietzschean perspective. As a society, little is known of it, except, infamously, that they planned to have a human sacrifice. Apparently there was a willing victim, but no one willing to be a willing sacrificer.
'Introduction' by Paul Hegarty in 'Geroges Bataille: core cultural theorist', 2000, pp. 7
The eye at the summit of the skull, opening on the incandescent sun in order to contemplate it in sinister solitude, is not a product of the understanding, but is instead an immediate existence; it opens and blinds itself like a conflagration, or like a fever that eats the being, or more exactly the head.
In the 1930s, Bataille adopted the image of the headless, "acephalic" man as the symbol for his new intellectual and spiritual community. The journal he published between 1936 and 1939 was called Acephale. Here the explosion of the pineal eye was understood to have taken with it the head, that symbol of reason and spirituality based on the hegemony of the eyes.
2. The post-war period was ushered in by the brightest flashes ever made by humans. When the first nuclear test was carried out in the New Mexico desert in 1945, one observer wrote:
At the instant of the explosion I was looking directly at it, with no eye protection of any kind. I saw first a yellow glow, which grew almost instantly to an overwhelming white flash, so intense that I was completely blinded. By twenty or thirty seconds after the explosion I was regaining normal vision. The grandeur and magnitude of the phenomenon were completely breathtaking.
The effects could well be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous, and terrifying. No man-made phenomenon of such tremendous power had ever occurred before. The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined...
Robert Oppenheimer, of course, quoted the Gita:
If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky,
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty One...
I am become Death,
The shatterer of Worlds
3. Which is the "positive" element in the flash? Is it the moment of light? Or the darkness on either side? Which is the inside of the flash, which the outside? Does the moment of white light open up the terrain for new things to happen? Or does it rather irradiate the fertile darkness, and make it sterile?
4. What has been lost in the explosion? Not only our retinas. It feels as if duration has gone too: we have lost our tradition, as Hannah Arendt says, and all we have left is the past. The past as fragments and whispers, the past as after-flashes on the black screen of our interiority.
5. Le scaphandre et le papillon, Julian Schnabel.
6. The nightclub is a place of energising flashes. Flashing lights: the pleasure of light as a narcotic. Light revealing nothing except itself. The faces we can see, the ones singled out by the beams, cannot see us because they are momentarily blinded. The strobe light contains the dark presentiment of torture, which we know this technology is also used for, and that adds something to its pleasure.
7. This is a quote from Zizek - In David Lynch's films, darkness is really dark. Light is really unbearable, blinding light. Fire really hurts, it's so hot. At those moments of sensual over-intensity it is as if events on the screen itself threaten to overflow the screen and to grab us into it to reach towards us. It's again as if the fantasy space, the fictional, narrative space, gets too intense and reaches out towards us, the spectators, and we lose our safe distance.
8. While she was having sex with her very proficient lover, she was nonetheless distracted by the flashing of her mobile phone – on silent – in her handbag.
9. Can anything last anymore? Can joy last? Is there an unfolding of human feeling over time, or are there only digital instants? With the world burned out we are unimpressed, now, by flashes of technology and the only flashes that remain are the ones that spark inside us. Unpredictable flashes, like an ageing electricity system whose insulation is suspect. Flashes of war and the industrial age. Flashes of the people we would like to be. Flashes of warm fires in homes, whose light was sufficient, before all this began.
10. He hands his Visa card to the cashier, and she swipes it. She's quite attractive. They stand dumbly facing each other, waiting for the transaction to be improved. They invent employment for their extremities. Their eyes reach, and they both look away.
He feels vaguely exposed in this moment, as, electrical signals ferret around in his financial history to find out what he's really worth. What is at stake in these awkward moments is if he can really deliver.
She drums her fingers on the till, his card still in her hand, and says,
"Takes a long time."
"Yes," he agrees.
He and she are the unimportant characters in this exchange, and there's nothing to do or say.
Finally the printer whirrs, the numbers flash up on the screen, and he is found to be adequate. Time begins again. She hands his card back with a smile,
"Thank you, Sir."
11. How does the new enter the world? In a world where flashes are blinding and continual, how can we distinguish our own flashes of inspiration? But perhaps we are no longer looking for the illumination of the world, which is bathed in permanent, glaring light, which has been rendered perpetually present, without nuance or shadow. Perhaps we are looking to enjoy our blindness. There is something inspirational about the ghostly forms that remain behind, in negative after image, on our retinas.