Before Our Eyes (part 1)

A 2018 BenQ home cinema advert begins with a white middle-aged man (with whom the target market is presumably meant to identify) settling down in an armchair next to his projector to watch three cinematic clips, each with carefully managed near-monochrome colour spaces. The first, captioned BLUE MONDAY, stands for introspection, solitude, and melancholy; the second, RED VALENTINE, for passion, drama, love and loss, the third, GREEN MIRACLE, for the awe of the natural world, as embodied by the aurora borealis, whose cosmic light phenomena BenQ are at pains to analogise with their new digital light processing (DLP) projector. The ad then cuts – in a manner popularised by late twentieth century shampoo commercials – to a computer animation of the internal technics of the projector. This sequence begins with a close-up of the viewer’s eye that quickly fades to a similar perspective on the projector lens. Beams of white light flash across the screen as the camera appears to track back into the machine, falling on a spinning colour disc divided into 6 segments, two each of red, green and blue (RGB). Moving alongside this disc, the white light is shown as consisting of these three primaries. We cut to a second animation, this time of a digital micromirror chip seen from above, a saturated spectrum of digital light reflects of its surface with an accompanying swoosh, as the earnest voiceover informs us that “only true colours convey the deepest feelings”. At this point the ad cuts back from animated to cinematographic images, now in saturated technicolour, flashing between clichés of strolling through the Casbah, a sunset embrace, playing in autumn leaves, a newborn yawn, a kiss on a window pane. Obscured behind its hackneyed equivalences of emotion and colour, and yet hinted at by the knowing analogy between human eye and projector lens, is a far deeper historical and technical connection between physiology and projection. As Henning Schmidgen has shown this connection in fact dates back beyond the invention of cinema to 1872 when German physiologist Johann Czermak pioneered the use of projection in what he called his Spectatorium: “a fragmentary cinematographic apparatus consisting of projector, screen, and rows of seats”. In this mediatised version of an anatomy theatre “cells, tissues and organs functioned in the place of recordings on celluloid” (p44). Schmidgen goes on to describe an arrangement of an eviscerated frog’s heart, two mirrors, lenses and a light source that projected an enlarged image of the contracting heart – removed from the frog’s body but still connected to its nerves – onto a screen above the audience. 

In the decades that both preceded and followed this anecdotal convergence of projection and physiology, experimental discoveries about human physiology were made by, among others, James Clerk Maxwell and Hermann von Helmholtz which comprehensively undermined the conception of human sight as objective and transparent, insisting – and indeed proving – its complexity, subjectivity, and its flaws. In these posts I will discuss the technical correspondence between the operation of DLP and human visual perception, with a particular emphasis on how contemporary projection has instrumentalised the knowledge of nineteenth century psychophysics, showing how the technical specifications of DLP projection are derived from a history of the empiricial measurement and quantification of subjective phenomena. This relationship is emblematic of what Jonathan Crary has described as “the reconfiguration of optical experience into synthetic and machinic operations that occur external to the observing subject” (p.226). The literal externalisation of the still beating heart in Czermak’s projections precedes a less violent externalisation of sight in the technics of contemporary projection. However, whereas in Czermak’s Spectatorium the frog heart projections served to demonstrate anatomical function through direct visual reproduction, in the case of DLP, knowledge of human physiology is used to ensure that its operation remains imperceptible to its audience. So, while for Czermak, projection was a transparent tool of instruction, the spectacle of DLP projection relies on the opacity of its technics to maintain the spectacle of its moving image. The psychophysical discoveries of Maxwell and Helmoltz are inscribed in DLP as a series of chromatic principles and temporal intervals within which certain operations must be occur to retain the illusory nature of its image. Whereas in the nineteenth century projection served to reveal physiological operations, projection now uses nineteenth century knowledge to conceal its operation.




On Detritus

Constant Linear Velocity installed at the Onassis Cultural Centre for Detritus Festival, January 2018.


This text is the sleevenotes written for the publication of the Constant Linear Velocity CD on Consumer Waste, which discusses the experience of rebuilding the work in January 2018 for the Detritus Festival:

The six floor cube of the Onassis Cultural Centre stands on Sygrou Avenue, an eight-lane artery running between central Athens and the coast. Opposite, flanking the hotel where I am staying stand two strip clubs: Babylon GIRLS Live Show GIRLS Night Club & the Everything you want right now!!! Dream Girls Bar, whose sign is bullet-pointed with all five senses, in case you doubt their definition of everything. Amongst the 4 star hotels, car showrooms and strip joints, the OCC, wrapped in pinstripes of white marble, is incongruously opulent.

I am here to reconstruct a work made from numerous empty desktop computer cases using end-of-life machines sourced in the city. Even on the brief walk out for dinner last night it was clear that this work has considerably more poignancy in a city and country which has borne the brunt of the last decade’s financial meltdown in Europe. I have arranged with the festival producers for the hire of 120 or more desktop computers stripped down to just their metal chassis in which I will install the customised optical drives that form the kinetic and auditory content of the work. When I arrive in the morning they are being wheeled in and unloaded, but my instructions to strip down the machines in advance have been lost in translation, most of the plastic and electronics remains.

For the next eight hours I perform the labour of low waged e-gleaners on the polished marble of the 4th floor foyer. Systematically stripping out disc drives, power supplies, fans and USB ports, occasionally watched by an increasingly concerned production team as the volume of discarded components swells into heaps. In the dynamic established by the global electronics industry this work is supposed to be invisible, it happens in the margins and the fringes, not the foyers of a ‘Centre’. For some of the OCC staff, I sense there is something shameful in this relocation of salvage labour to the gleaming interior of their privately financed art space. But this performance of manual labour, whose audience is restricted to workers of the Cultural Centre, feels more vital than the aesthetic work I am here to build for a festival attending public. Over the course of the day there is a satisfying inversion in play as cleaners, caretakers, security and reception staff – all doubtless earning less than me today – drift pass or linger to watch me hurriedly tearing down PC after PC.

I try to sort and stack the components as they come out, but the quantity regularly exceeds the spaces I have allocated. A janitor with a large roll of corrugated card is instructed to cover the floor I am working on to protect against scratches (casing screws skittering across marble make a lovely sound). Halfway through the day my proposal to keep all of this detritus, to  build it into the work, raises concerned brows from the production team and by the end of the day I am talked out of it. A team of men arrive, all hands on hips, rolled eyes and muted sighs. After the customary mutterings and gesticulations they bag it all into large rubble sacks and wheel it away, trolley-load after trolley-load. But as it is tided out of sight, the emptiness of the computer chassis feel stripped, not only of the functional parts and coagulates of dust which clung to them this morning, but also of the hierarchies of labour revealed by the day’s activity.

The next morning, to the palpable relief of the production team, I am safely back in art worker role, able to contemplate  the architectonic relation of the sculpture to the aggregated polykatoikia lining the horizon. The fringes of Athens, we are told a couple of days later, are dense with unfinished buildings, holiday homes begun over a decade ago whose completion was curtailed by the crash. Windowless, unfurnished concrete shells, projections of a future that has been denied.