Jim Campbell’s Discorrelated Images

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Last evening I had the pleasure of discussing Jim Campbell’s work with him at the Anderson Collection at Stanford, where he has a wonderful exhibition of LED-based works up right now. It was a far-ranging discussion, in a packed gallery, and great fun all around. Here are my opening remarks:

Before we start our conversation, I have the honor of offering some framing thoughts about Jim Campbell’s work. I want to use this opportunity to put that work into dialogue with some of my own interests and concerns as a theorist of the intersection between computational and moving-image media. I am concerned, in other words, with the historical and phenomenological encounter between the invisible processing of digital information and the visible forms that result from it—and it is precisely this encounter that Jim’s LED-based artworks enact or perform in a variety of thought-provokingly deformative ways. This is to say that his work, by means of occluding, blocking, and de-focusing our view, ironically makes perceptible the very mismatch between perception and computational processing that lies at the heart of digital video as it circulates online, on our smartphones, on DVDs and BluRays, on digital cable and satellite TV, and in the digital projection systems of contemporary movie theaters. In all of those contexts, digital processing remains resolutely invisible to perception (except, that is, through exceptional moments of glitching, buffering, and the like); but, those exceptional and denigrated moments aside, the perceptual “content” of digital video is privileged, thus blinding us to the ways that the medial form of video’s computational processing is changing the very parameters of our embodied perception, or the ways that, as Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan put it, our “sensory ratios” are being reformed by our encounter with a new media environment.

By re-valorizing the exceptional, or that which disrupts or impedes the easy transmission of visual “content,” Jim’s work offers an oblique view of the hidden parameters of this new environment; he makes what I call the “discorrelation” between our perception and its infrastructure perceptible—if only in a necessarily incomplete and volatile form. And the volatility of these operations is key: Jim’s works keep our eyes and our bodies moving, making us move now closer and then farther away, causing us to squint and then relax our focus, in order to catch a glimpse of something figural, recognizable, the so-called “content” of the moving images. Certainly, this content is not irrelevant, but it is hardly the ultimate telos or desideratum towards which the work directs our attention. The works are not simple puzzles that are “solved” once we identify their contents. Rather, the incessant oscillation between perception and non-perception, between seeing and not seeing, would seem to be closer to the point, as it is this oscillation that keeps everything at play, unsettling basic categories and forms. We shift our focus between individual LEDs, the screen or wall upon which they reflect, and an indirect, sometimes volumetric illumination of bodies or objects in motion. Our perception doesn’t come to rest upon a stable object or meaning, and this instability infects the broader conceptual context within which our perception is situated: Jim’s work upsets and makes us question so many basic distinctions—for example, between video art and sculpture, between art and engineering, between material substrates and perceptual forms, between perception and imagination. Through his destabilization of perception, he re-opens also the gap between art and technology, a gap created around the time of the industrial revolution, when thinkers like Immanuel Kant helped engineer a split between the aesthetic and the technical, or between the fine arts and the applied arts. Earlier, both the Greek term techne and the Latin ars referred indiscriminately to both arts and technologies. Now, the poets were to work with words while the engineers worked on steam engines; artists concerned themselves with the non-utilitarian forms of aesthetic experience while technologists made the machines that kept the factories running. However, in the space cleared between art and technology, a third thing emerged, a common ground for aesthetic and technological production alike: namely, media in its modern sense. A medium in this sense is not reducible to its “content” in a narrow way; rather, it is something that straddles perceptual form and infrastructure. Take, for example, the way the Sunday comics capitalized on innovations in four-color printing processes, or the way cinema responded to synchronized sound with new genres like the musical or the horror film, which involves its spectator through an offscreen space of screams and bumps in the night. It is in this sense that McLuhan proclaimed that “the medium is the message”—a claim that he explained with the example of the light bulb, a content-less medium, the message of which is the electrification of the world and the resulting transformation of agency, perception, and social relation. In order to explore the message or the meaning of more recent shifts in the media environment, Jim replaces McLuhan’s light bulb with LEDs—the same light emitting diodes that provide backlighting for flatscreen computer monitors and television sets, that power digital projectors, or that illuminate our increasingly “smart” homes. Routing perception through these characteristically digital-era lights, and powering them by way of unseen “custom electronics,” Jim defocuses intentional perception, foregrounds the obfuscation of infrastructure, and indirectly illuminates a media environment in which computation has finally (arguably) rendered the industrial-era split between art and technology untenable.

When I recently spoke to him on the phone, Jim identified himself not as an artist but as an engineer—and certainly he holds the degrees, the patents, and the experience to justify that statement. But he is an engineer of a special sort: an engineer of perception in an age when perception teeters precariously atop invisible circuits and computational infrastructures not cut to our measure, an engineer of experience when experience is routed through ubiquitous circuits of computational processing. Occluding both the image and its digital infrastructure, Jim’s work puts our perceptual experience in motion, incessantly circulating between what we can and cannot see. The work arouses a curiosity about the conditions of this circulation, including the means by which the LEDs, and hence also our perception, have been programmed. In the context of nineteenth-century magic shows and scientific expositions, this curiosity about how the spectacle works has been called an “operational aesthetic”—an aesthetic that, fittingly for the era of industrial media, includes an enjoyment in the sight of technical operation. In the twenty-first-century context of ubiquitous computational processing and experiential engineering, Jim offers us something slightly different, I suggest: an operational aesthetic of perception itself, a questioning of our ability and the means of seeing in an age of discorrelation, when visibility is rendered ambiguously at the margins of human signs and invisible informatic signals.

Critical Practices Unit (CPU)

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I am excited to announce the inaugural session of Critical Practices Unit (CPU), on November 19 at 6:30pm (in McMurtry 360).

In this interdisciplinary and practice-based group, with support from the Vice President for the Arts, we hope to stage collisions between the various epistemes and critical frameworks we all know and love through performances, art-objects, interactive media, and “critical making” projects, which, in some sense to be explored, materialize critical reflection.

In fidelity to these objects’ disobedience to any specific field, we want to stress that CPU is for those in the humanities, sciences, and arts. These conversations—spanning computation, performance, race, personhood, gesture, interaction, and more—will be made all the richer by a diversity of perspectives.

For our first event, we will be playing with haptic devices for underwater robots graciously loaned by The Stanford Robotics Lab, involving ourselves in a live performance piece / installation by Catie Cuan, and settling into a conversation about the grafting of robotics and performativity. We are overjoyed that situating this discussion will be Sydney Skybetter, Lecturer in Theater and Performance Studies at Brown University, and Matthew Wilson Smith, Professor of German Studies and Performance Studies here at Stanford.

APPROXIMATELY 800cm3 OF PLA — Exhibition Catalog

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The exhibition catalog for APPROXIMATELY 800cm3 of PLA, curated by Gabriel Menotti at last year’s Center for 21st Century Studies conference on The Ends of Cinema (May 3-5, 2018 at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) is now online.

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Among the pieces featured was DataGnomeKD1.stl, a generative/deformative 3D-printed garden gnome that Karin Denson and I made a couple of years ago in the context of a larger project at the Duke S-1: Speculative Sensation Lab. (You can check out our publication here.)

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Thanks to Gabriel Menotti for putting together this playful show!

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Michael Richards: Winged

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The other day I promised (or threatened) to reactivate this blog for things other than announcing talks, publications, etc. It remains to be seen how much time I will actually devote to this, but my thought was anyway that I should reclaim the time I waste on social media (especially Facebook). Accordingly, why not post just the pictures I would otherwise be sharing there here instead? Of course, these are not just any pictures…

These are from the moving show Michael Richards: Winged, which is currently up at the Stanford Art Gallery (but ending this week, so hurry if you plan to see it!).

Michael Richards, whose work powerfully probes race in American culture, tragically died in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, where he was working in his studio on the 92nd floor of Tower One.

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The show was recently an Artforum Critics’ Pick.

Check it out if you can!

 

Plastic Dialectics: Community and Collectivity in Japanese Contemporary Art — Miryam Sas at Digital Aesthetics Workshop

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What do we mean when we speak of “collectivity,” collaboration, and community? How have artists and theorists in Japan questioned and created experimental practices that reframe these terms, so crucial to discussions of the arts today? Sas will reflect on issues of collectivity and assemblage as manifested in Japanese contemporary art, drawing examples from 1950s art theory, late 1960s intermedia art, 1970s site-specific photography events, and post 3-11 sculptural installation. Through site-specific critique and new modes of engagement with local space, artists in each of these distinct moments engage in a subtle but powerful rethinking of the frameworks and practices of collectives past and present.

At the next meeting of the Digital Aesthetics Workshop, Miryam Sas, Professor of Comparative Literature and Film & Media at UC Berkeley, will discuss Plastic Dialectics: Community and Collectivity in Japanese Contemporary Art. As we have throughout this quarter, we will meet on Tuesday, Dec 4, from 5-7 at the Roble Gym. RSVP to deacho@stanford.edu – we expect there will be a paper that we will pre-circulate this weekend.

Sas studies Japanese literature, film, theater, and dance; 20th century literature and critical theory; and avant-garde and experimental visual and literary arts.  She is the author of Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return  (Harvard, 2010); and Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism(Stanford, 2001).  Sas is currently working on a book on media theory and contemporary art in Japan, Feeling Media: Infrastructure, Potentiality, and the Afterlife of Art in Japan, for which she was awarded a President’s Research Fellowship in the Humanities (2017-18).  She has published numerous articles in English, French, and Japanese on subjects such as Japanese futurism, cross-cultural performance, intermedia art, butoh dance, pink film and Japanese experimental animation.

On Display: Immemory, Soft Cinema, After Video

About two years ago, the exhibition On Display: Immemory, Soft Cinema, After Video at Bilkent University in Ankara brought together projects by Chris Marker, Lev Manovich, and the contributors to the “video book” after.video — including the collaborative AR piece “Scannable Images” that Karin Denson and I made. Recently, Oliver Lerone Schultz (one of the editors of after.video) brought to my attention this “critical tour” of the exhibition, which takes the form of a discussion between Ersan Ocak and Andreas Treske. It is audio only, and you might need to turn up the volume a bit, but it’s an interesting discussion of video and media art.

(See here for more on after.video. Also, I should note that the AR on “Scannable Images” is currently not working due to the ephemeral business models of AR platforms these days, but I hope to port it over to a new platform and get it up and running again soon!)