Curated by Mohammad Salemy
TOM MCGLYNN & THE ASYMPTOTES OF OPTICALITY
Tom McGlynn is known to the art world, particularly in New York, first as a painter and second as a sculptor. This exhibition marks the first time he is showing his photographs. Produced on an ongoing basis, the works in this exhibition deserve to be considered as more than a resource for McGlynn’s known practice. Quite the opposite, it makes more sense if the artists’ minimalist paintings and sculptures are regarded as a reference to these 700 plus pictures the same way a QR or barcode refers to a longer and more sophisticated cypher. McGlynn’s photographs are the disenchanting surface encounter between two machines, photography and architecture, minus the exhausting discourse about the inherent humanism of either technologies. These pictures vividly establish how an ingenuous combination of geometry and color forms the optical core of human civilization and consequently that of the history of technogenesis.[i]
McGlynn’s photographs are neither visually spectacular nor the evidence of a singular artistic subjectivity which itself is often the undeniable proof of the existence of human ingenuity and autonomy. This self undermining deemphasizes the enthralling character of photography, pushing it further into the territory of inhumanity. McGlynn’s pictures can be called synthetic photographs in the same way that one could have condemned photography in the 19th century for being an inexpensive kind of painting. The artist’s camera should also not be conflated with today’s anthropocentric drones, which roam the atmosphere to feed neoliberalism’s obsession with world domination. More than depicting the situations in front of the camera they implicate an alien intelligence behind the apparatus, an inhuman judgment walking the earth to autonomously contemplate the unity of built environments according to its own disenchanting criteria and towards its own unclear purpose.
With these photographs, the artist appears to be taking a page out of Friedrich Kittler’s Optical Media; he disregards the burdening history of human perception and instead focuses on the monotonous phenomenality of optics.[ii] His photographs are the repetitious contemplations of simple blocks and blotches of color, or what I call geochromatic elements. These pictures only make sense and become momentous differentially, signalling their implications while accumulating quantitative differentiation. They number among empirical studies in which more is simply more, while at the same time less than the sum of its parts, the point at which quantity and quality pass a threshold and co convert.
The reason these pictures function as art has less to do with photography’s historical lineage and more with the works’ ability to not only refigure the external space in a new flat fashion but also invent a common language (logoi) for such an undertaking.[iii] They collectively “identify–measure–describe” a new space where perspective collapses and optical depth self-compresses under the weight of its own logic even before reaching the flattening machine of photography. The recognizable geometry of McGlynn’s photos also demonstrate how the transmission of optical knowledge can be looked at as the basis of other wireless methods of communication. They point to the potentials of images for carrying astonishing amounts of code in the form of abstract imagery, making the recorded signals available on the surface of the world for transactions between optically enabled machines.
In addition to the theories of Kittler, McGlynn’s photographs relate to Wilém Flusser’s concept of the technical image,[iv] François Laruelle’s of non-photography[v], and Ray Brassier’s rearticulation of the Sellarsian notions of the scientific versus manifest image;[vi] they challenge the bifurcated histories of the technical and metaphysical images while downgrading their undisputed significance as the visual source of function, meaning, or both. With this body of work, McGlynn foreshadows not only the closing of the Heideggerian ‘age of the world picture, and the decline of the optical paradigm in knowledge production but also the rise of invisible algorithms in the arts, humanities and sciences.[vii]
Before Brunelleschi, along with other European artists and architects, used Alhazen’s theories of optics to standardize perspective and construct the first camera obscura, the reliability of flat refigurations of the physical space proximate to humans was contingent on the extent of intuitive skills belonging to those studying trigonometry, light, optics and, above all, art.[viii] Even though these fluctuating competencies may have delayed the emergence of perspective, they nevertheless contributed to the invention of a variety of specific spatialization techniques essential to the study of art before the renaissance. The transformation of human-mediated models of the world into the physical space’s auto-reflectivity was neither gradual nor sudden, and its progression followed an uneven logic similar to what Thomas Kuhn proposes as the structure of scientific revolutions.[ix] The emergence of perspective wasn’t solely caused by Alhazen but contingent on the synthesis of his findings with what was already traceable, if not entirely foreshadowed, in the outer form of pre-perspectival paintings.[x] The adoption of perspective a universal epistemology compelled artists to finally ‘figure out’ how to channel the inhuman and physical logic of optics into the flat surface of the canvas.[xi] Perspective was the blueprint for building a navigable and objective virtual world baring the markers of space familiar to human eyes, i.e. dark versus light, far versus near, and depth versus altitude.[xii] Overall, the invention of perspective brought about the universalization of the optic’s singular spatial logic. In addition, by interrelating all perspectival images it substantiated their concreteness and therefore the realness of the external world.
Thus, the emergence of perspective can be regarded as the beginning of the end of the optical paradigm and the start of the longer trajectory of the algorithmically augmented knowledge. This is why even though in the beginning, the use of perspective was only meant to improve the metaphysical functions of art and provide them with a scientific material base, over the course of time, it gradually overshadowed the existing toolbox of painting, which was mostly dominated by the complex technologies of narrative, metaphor and allegory. In contrast to the secular character of perspective, these enchanting mechanisms could go beyond the geometrics of paint on canvas and transcendentalize the implications of painting. However, by restricting painting to the geometrical demands of space, the concept of perspective wound up transmuting the role of the artist to that of a programmer. Painters after perspective grew more concerned with what they placed in their picture in opposed to how they chose to visualize its space. Ultimately, perspective, followed by photography as its direct descendant, did less to advance the autonomy of images and more to limit their conditions of possibility. They opened the gates to an informationally accessible but logically closed and generally more rule-based understanding of space and, later on via cinema, of time.
Historians of modern art often insist that the programmatization of artistic practices in the late 19th century only coincided with the invention of photography and had little to do with the epistemological ramifications of the new medium. However, if, following Alios Riegl, one sees the materiality of artistic volition inseparable from that of the declining, dominant or emerging worldviews, then it can’t be that hard to see how photography may have changed the course of the 20th century art. We can at least suggest that by further diminishing the artist’s determinacy over the image, photography changed the function of the modern artist from that of a world maker to either a technician— fashioning pictures that adhered to and reinforced the age-old spatial logic of universal optics or a folk philosopher—blatantly rejecting the perspectival realism and its political implications with every new work of art. This is why the emergence of abstract painting and the Duchampian readymade can themselves be interpreted as two different sets of programmatic responses by artists troubled by the rising hegemonies of realism and photography and their decisive power of world making. While abstraction negated the representability of pictures, the readymade denounced representation all together and pushed photography beyond its limits. It removed the camera apparatus as the distributor of the world, directly offering it in the name of art to the viewers one object at a time.
It is rather easy to accept that every camera is an autonomous and intelligent machine. But to this we should immediately add that photography’s ultimate purpose is not just the autonomous production of the pictures of space and the proliferation of photography’s inherent perspectival logic. In addition, photography, like an alien life form, invisibly mass emulates its own means of reproduction within the same flat surface in every single picture by the virtue of being seen. Let’s just say that the photographic surface is much more mechanical than Benjamin supposed in his account of the reproducibility of images and what we, very late and in the form of an epiphany, took for granted as the conditions of possibility for the medium in the 20th century. Photography therefore should be understood anew, not only as a novel image technology but also as a machine for the mass multiplication of a particular spatial logic, for a cohesive mass organization of images and as a wager to guarantee the mass reproduction of photograhicality itself. If perspective had a logic, the camera and photography are carriers that spread it beyond its original function among select humans such as artists and scientists to all those who have eyes and can see.
A photograph is more than a rectangular reflection of the space. It is also an industrial surface that both exploits and mimics the propensity of life forms to optical experiences and monopolizes the portrayal of space and its substance in its own specific flat order. Photographs are the only available alternative to the space of humans’ own limited photographic consciousness, if not also that of their second-rate memory. A photograph mechanically arrests a familiar image of space not only to later mass represent it, but also to limit and regulate its viewers’ resulting range of experiences in the name of the space it flattens into a plane. Looking at a particular photograph solicits the human cognitive machine to member or collect a specific memory. The material result of this act consists of the memory of the experience of looking at that particular photograph. While we each may use the temporal trajectory of our own individuated orientation to re-member a picture, we are all nevertheless bound in doing so by the photograph’s physical limits and geometric content. Regardless of what we associate with the lines, shapes and textures that form this content, each photograph makes a very similar imprint on the neurological interior of its many viewers. In short, the second order of mechanicality that follows photography’s mass dissemination potentials takes place via this process or the twin trajectories that Bernard Stiegler calls the industrialization of human memory and the proletarization of the consciousness.[xiii]
Cameras are not isolated picture-tools bound by their objecthood. They are borderless and overlapping optical zones engaged in world making. In fact the networked machine of photography incrementally proliferate every time a new camera is put into circulation like how central banks issue currency. Thus, the third and final order of mechanization takes place rather implicitly as the production and reproduction of first the perspective and later photography and the printed photographs and lastly the camera epigenetically snowballs into an astronomical image catastrophe. Today the expansion of the space of opticality marked by every pair of eyes and each and every camera, photograph and digital screen provides the necessary interface between the political economy of what Mark Fisher has called the capitalist realism and the masses of people depending on an image economy like a monetary form of social exchange.[xiv] The inflation of circulating photographs monopolizes the visual mapping of the space, intentionally limiting, if not altogether sabotaging its future possibilities by establishing rules for how this space can properly be conceived. Like the diminishing power of fiat currencies and the impending peak oil, image inflation has its own catastrophic effects on the ability of photographs to function effectively. Photography at the threshold of the 21st century is nothing but the victim of its own success. It is achieving not much but the exhaustion of the possibilities and significance of bio-optics with every new pixel produced.
Whereas pornography and philosophy have historically mythicize photography each in their own specific manner through stretching and overstating its potentials, the biggest blow to the medium, if not its inevitable decline, is a consequence of the photography’s 21st century mass consumerization through the lethal combination of digital photography and networked technologies. In other words, the decline of the optical spectacle and its subsumption by machines’ practical inclination towards other cognitive alternatives is mostly due to the historical accomplishments of pictures and not their failure. As the photographic growth curve brushes up against its own asymptote, opticality has nowhere to go but to be ultimately integrated in the larger and abstract machinery of signal-driven and algorithmic world making. Consequently, the pornophilosophically-manufactured fog of enchantment that has so far granted the medium its aphrodisiac and metaphysical license is finally vanishing.[xv] This new postorgasmic transparency about photography’s conditions of possibility will be immediately followed by the clarification of the discrepancy between our optimistic understanding of the medium and its truly exhausting reality.
Not only the proliferation of digital and algorithmic knowledge has caused an ontological epiphany to loom above photography’s place in the history of art, it has also started to undermine art’s own place both within the world of art and in the larger context of in contemporary life. Contemporary art’s identity crisis has forced artists, critics and art historians who have invested their intellectual stocks in the aesthetic and metaphysical value of art to respond to the situation much like the Japanese World War II holdouts. They are either digging deeper into their old 20th century sacred trenches to defend the unique and embodied human experience, or are retreating to and defending the specialized fields of art and their isolated histories as the only valid sources of signification and relevance for art. Others have already abandoned the sinking ship of social, ethical and historical relevance altogether and now embrace the newly found appreciation of objects via the various shades of the object-oriented philosophy. It seems that by successfully denying their obvious debt to object-oriented media and communication technologies, the OOO evangelists and their new converts within the art world have devised a new face saving technique for retreat through which one joins the enemy forces while walking backwards into their arms.
What intuitively agonizes a large number of artists, critics and art historians today is how opticality along with various human-centered or -mediated epistemologies are gradually declining and will soon be completely subsumed by and incorporated into a new paradigm in which, not only images but also the whole physical universe can only be approached as computationally related and algorithmically relevant fragments. Today, the notions of form and materiality, which carried a conceptual weight throughout the 20th century, are increasingly becoming less relevant in relation to the invisible forms and materialisms that are starting to be recognized as a result of autonomous interventions by inhuman forces of computation and machinic cognition.[xvi] All in all, the complexity of both the physical space and what it holds can no longer be afforded to be exclusively defined in terms described and mediated by the human’s natural cognitive capabilities. If machines, which are increasingly taking over everywhere from humans, can only conceive the world in terms of digital and/or pre-digital signals, then it certainly doesn’t make that much of a philosophical, scientific or even artistic difference if the human’s insistence on the authentic and enchanting qualities of being and seeing is truly valid and sound.
Welcome to the interfacelessness of the machine.
[i]. Bernard Stiegler describes technogenesis as the science of technical evolution in which humans do not have a major role and are not “the intentional origin of separate technical individuals qua machines. [they] rather execute a quasi-intentionality of which the technical object is itself the carrier.” See: Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 1 The Fault of Epimetheus (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 26, 67.
[ii]. Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media (Cambridge: Polity, 2010).
[iii]. My use of the term “logoi” refers to Reza Negarestani for whom philosophy is a rigorous program of abstraction and a platform for automation of discursive practices whose mission is to arrive at what came to be known to Greeks as logoi or truths.” See: Reza Negarestani, “Navigate With Extreme Prejudice (Definitions and Ramifications),” Encyclonospace Iranica (Vancouver: Access, dadabase, 2013), 3.
[iv]. Wilém Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
[v]. François Laruelle, The Concept of Non-Photography (New York: Sequence Press, 2011).
[vi]. Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Naturalism and Anti-Phenomenological Realism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
[vii]. Brassier’s rejection of the split between the scientific and manifest image is tracable not only in Wilfred Sellars’ works but also in Laruelle’s: “Thus, this non-decisional immanence, which allows itself to be posited as already given without decisional positing, is an immanence that does not even need to be liberated from decisional transcendence: it is precisely as that which is already separated (without-separation) from the decisional co-constitution of given and givenness, immanence and transcendence, that it conditions its own positing as already given.” See: Ray Brassier, “Axiomatic Heresy: The Non-philosophy of François Laruelle,” Radical Philosophy 121 (2003): 24-35.
[viii]. Alhazen or Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham (965-1040 AD) was an Arab scientist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. His work had a significant impact on the progress in the fields of optics, mathematics, astronomy, and the scientific method. He wrote explicitly about Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Euclid. His scientific and intellectual contributions are documented in over 200 books.
[ix]. In The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn suggests that scientific progress follows an episodic model in which periods of conceptual continuity in normal science are interrupted by periods of revolutionary science. The revelation of “anomalies” during revolutions in science leads to new scientific standards. New ideals then put in question old discoveries, putting in motion new projects. Please see: Thomas S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012).
[x]. This should explain why Alhazen’s scientific discoveries could not have had a direct impact on Islamic art. The strong geometric and abstract traditions of visual arts and the prohibition of representational imagery in the Islamic world made the arts unable to absorb or ramify his findings.
[xi]. According to the Oxford dictionary, “to figure out” means to discover, decide, solve or decipher. Long before Deleuze, Susanne Langer (American philosopher, 1895-1985) had used Bergson’s notions of mind and memory to relate art to the concept of the virtual. She believed that figuring out the space of an artwork was no less than building a virtual world. She describes virtuality as “the quality of all things that are created to be perceived.” For her, the virtual is npt only a matter of consciousness but also something external that is created intentionally, existing materially as a space of contemplation outside of the human mind. Langer sees virtuality as a physical space created by the artist, like a painting or a building, that is “significant in itself and not as part of the surroundings.” She particularly considers architecture not as the realization of a space for being but its conceptual translation into virtuality for perceiving: “The architect, in fine, deals with a created space, a virtual entity.” In contrast to Bergson and Deleuze, for Langer virtuality is tangible and can cause a contemplative interaction between humans and the machine. See: Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 65, 114-115.
[xii]. What is usually lost in the deafening debate between technological determinists and social constructivists is the obvious bio-neuro-techno-logical fact that long before the little hole in the camera obscura became the common denominator of space, the twin translucent little holes on the human face did the equivalent of filtering the reflexive noise of light frequencies and guided the human mind in the transformation of space into a visually knowable world.
[xiii]. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 2 Disorientation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 87-189.
[xiv]. Mark Fisher argues that the best way to describe the current global political situation is through the term “capitalist realism”. This dispute in his book titled Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, is a critique and response to neo-liberalism and hybrid governments which take advantage of the logic of capitalism and and the market to all aspects of governance. See: Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (Roplet: Zero Books, 2009).
[xv]. I am borrowing the concept of asymptote from Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler who describe it as, “a quantitative limit, something like a ‘ceiling’ or a ‘floor’ that a curve approaches but never quite reaches. And the same term can be used to describe the limits of power.” See: Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan, “The Asymptotes of Power,” last modified February 2012, http://bnarchives.yorku.ca/328/02/20120200_bn_asymptotes_of_power.pdf, (accessed January 18, 2014).
[xvi]. For more on this topic, see Robin Mackay, “Metameterial: Immateriaux Art, Philosophy and Curating 30 Years After Lyotard,” last modified January 18, 2014, http://www.di.ens.fr/users/longo, (accessed January 18, 2014).