Posted on August 10 2020
Mauro Zanchi + Sara Benaglia: “Report a Problem” is the message that appears at the bottom of the Google Street View screen, which allows you to report to Google any issues detected when viewing the place you are visiting virtually. Let’s imagine that you can create a system able to photograph or reveal inner images, places that live in the imagination. You travelled on Google Street View, photographing on the monitor all the “wrong landscapes” you encountered, before other users reported the problem, causing the company to fix the image. How do you imagine inner landscapes and a sort of fantagoogle that fixes people’s unconscious images? What use could unconscious images have to be made visible?
Emilio Vavarella: When last January you asked me to imagine a photograph capable of revealing inner images, I would not have imagined answering starting from the example of a coronavirus. But I would like to start from here, to demonstrate how important it is to understand the role and production of images even in a moment of deep crisis like the one triggered by COVID-19. This virus has imposed itself as an unexpected tenant of our inner landscapes, both physical and psychological. And much of our energy has been directed towards its identification and understanding. To give it a name, a code, to associate it with statistics that map its behaviour, it means to build a precise ontology. The virus becomes such only when it acquires a visual and theoretical representation of itself. But how do you recognise an invisible enemy? Until a few years ago, portraying a virus was an occupation for draughtsmen, and these, pencils and books in hand, would have given shape to more or less suggestive representations of the pathogen in question. Today, however, through the use of various scientific equipment, the representations of a virus can reach a higher level of objectivity. These representations are not only illustrative, but are also indispensable for scientific research, from diagnostics to therapeutics, and even in the development of a potential vaccine.
But it is also important to understand that there is no ontologically fixed image of something like COVID-19. You can’t produce a photograph of the virus. An optical microscope cannot focus upon it, and it is not technically possible to reconstruct a univocal image of it even when using an electron microscope. The electron microscope collects input, acquires data, models it mathematically, and returns a hypothesis. This can then be integrated with data produced by other technologies, such as x-ray micro-crystallography, which uses other mathematical models to try to trace the atomic structure of the virus. The whole process is based on the computational ability of powerful calculators, but even when using the most advanced techniques the result remains a statistical rendering. These images, the result of laborious scientific studies, are flanked by countless other images, apparently very similar, but the result of free interpretations. All these representations coexist within our media sphere, which in turn can be imagined as an extension of our collective psyche. Parallel to the advancement of the virus, its representations travel through scientific journals, on the web, in our newsletters, to invade even the media space that is not physically accessible to the virus itself. The pervasiveness of the virus, in this sense, is total. And the fight against the virus is a fight against the invisible: something we are also fighting through aesthetics.
Let’s go back to the system capable of photographing inner landscapes that you asked me to imagine.
What if I told you that such a system not only already exists, but is probably already available in all the major cities on the planet? First of all, the idea of using the photographic medium to capture inner images has accompanied the development of photographic technology from the beginning. The history of art, as much as the history of science and technology, is dotted with technologies and techniques that, at a certain point, someone has turned towards himself. One of the first techniques we learned to master, language, still has a strongly introspective dimension, for example in poetry, narrative, or psychology. The same goes for painting, which has always offered the possibility to represent the external world and to give shape to the internal one. But photography has a peculiarity that makes it even more suitable for this kind of work: it has always been linked (rightly or wrongly) to the idea of objectivity and to objectivity itself. It is notable that among the first photographs and among the first films the theme of spiritual research was recurrent. I am thinking, for example, of the studies on the paranormal collected in the early 1920s by Baron Albert von Schrenck Notzing, in his Materialisationsphaenomene, or the science fiction prototype by Sam Graves, called “electrical mind revealer,” which purported to read and visualise thought.
Ancient obsessions. The desire to objectively fix on photographic paper an ephemeral and ectoplasmic dimension can be a symptom of a culture fascinated by modern technology but also strongly superstitious, such as that of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. And it would be wrong to think that things have changed drastically in the last hundred years. The idea of being able to photograph what is unconscious or invisible is, in fact, the basis of all medical imaging technologies, from gastroscopy to the most recent experiments with neural networks to reconstruct the images produced by the visual cortex of the brain. Among the most advanced medical visualisation technologies, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is certainly the most widespread and accepted. As I was anticipating, it is already possible, in all major hospitals, to photograph our “inner landscapes.” An fMRI allows us to evaluate our neurological activity and to “photograph” it in real time, being able to give shape and colour to mental activities impossible to visualise with the naked eye. Its usefulness is proven, but more delicate is the issue related to the supposed objectivity of the images it produces. These are periodically described by the generalist press and at a colloquial level as “objective images,” “mental maps,” or even “snapshots of thought.” Instead, regardless of their effectiveness, they are nothing of this sort. As Anne Beaulieu’s studies in ethnography of science show, MRI visuals are the result of complex digital imaging and graphic processing techniques done according to statistical models, so they are far removed from the photograph of a given, objective reality. In other words, regardless of the complexity of a visual representation, it is good to remember that every form of representation remains a more or less arbitrary form, a translation in visual terms that always hides mediation: of human choices, of technical processes, and and more or less subjective intentions; but they are never neutral.
MZ + SB: You investigate glitch issues, error as a detection tool, and extremely complex mechanisms. According to your own vision and experience, what makes the error visible or reveals it? And, in a metaphotographic perspective, how could you constructively apply the consequence of error to create new aesthetic forms?
EV: I am very fascinated by the possibility of recovering what is considered a “mistake”, because behind this term there is always hidden something else. From a techno-scientific point of view the error is fundamental, but only from the perspective of optimising a technical system. According to the writings of the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, technological error must be isolated and reduced to feedback. The “sterilisation of error” is a kind of founding myth of techno-scientific progress and is one of the cornerstones of cybernetic discourse.
I believe that when we are faced with an extremely complex mechanism, one of the ways to realise how it works is precisely to wait for a mistake to make visible something that had remained hidden. I experienced it in DIGITAL PAREIDOLIA: A Personal Index of Facebook’s Erroneous Portraits (2012-2013) in relation to one of the first online facial recognition technologies, and in THE GOOGLE TRILOGY (2012) I explored this idea in relation to the functioning of Google’s digital maps. In the first case I uploaded on my Facebook profile all the photos I had in my digital archive, and I scanned all the facial recognition suggestions looking for the wrong ones. I built an archive of portraits that worked as an index of facial recognition errors in Facebook. In THE GOOGLE TRILOGY – 1. Report a Problem the unexpected error is that of the “glitchy” landscapes of Google Street View, which act as a breaking point in a system that otherwise would flow in a fluid, regular, predictable way. In the last part of the trilogy, titled 3. The Driver and the Cameras, I went in search of portraits of Google Car drivers who escaped the censorship of Google algorithms. Here the error reveals a human presence hidden behind the apparent self-sufficiency of the computer system. In THE SICILIAN FAMILY (2012) the glitch was created by forcing my personal memories inside the ASCII code of old family photos. Similarly, in MEMORYSCAPES (2012-2013) I found a way to integrate satellite data and memories of Venice collected in New York. Here, too, the forced interlocking between inaccurate memories and apparently objective data results in a series of unpredictable visual inconsistencies. Every time a system stops or is altered by something erroneous and unexpected, a new aesthetic form and a new horizon of meaning inevitably emerges.
MZ + SB: Your work sits across different kinds of boundaries: between contemporary research and modes that come from tradition, between construction of subjective sense and more impersonal modes of action, such as algorithms. What does it mean for you to cross borders and thresholds through the photographic medium?
EV: It means producing an autonomous field of action for my artistic research. I consider each of my works what remains of the artistic process that unfolds within this space of action. Ideally, each work is simultaneously both the result and the cognitive process that precedes it, which leaves traces and signs, and generates starting points, arrival points, and breaking points for other beginnings. It is a conceptual and material organisation of a non-hierarchical kind, within which more or less complete projects return to be questioned, in which ideas themselves are left free to wander and create new connections and new opportunities for meaning. The important thing is that in each of my works the tools used are those most capable of giving shape, in the most precise way possible, to my research. Photography often responds to this need, and this is why it is one of the mediums I use most often.
MZ + SB: Let us imagine that the human being is multiple, plural, and that there are multiple identities. Following Deleuze’s intuition (as individuals we are becoming divided), how do you read these aspects within your research?
EV: The passage “from individuals to dividuals” described by Deleuze is very suggestive and certainly brilliant. However, in my opinion, it should not be read as the demarcation point of a sort of technologising that has radically changed humans in an anthropological sense. It is not a passage, in other words, from the traditional human being to the human 2.0, as some would like. It is a question of management and information flows and the apparatus connected to it. But even if the apparatuses and technologies change, “being human” always means being technological. Neither cultures nor any forms of human life have ever existed in a technological vacuum.
At the same time, I have the impression that the term “human”, especially when expressed in the singular, is increasingly imposing itself as a “name” rather than an adjective; in the sense that it is as if it were something that’s a given, once and for all. But every definition of “human being” is always inevitably accompanied by a plethora of sub-categories, as has happened with every form of slavery. These sub-categories of quasi-humans serve precisely to swallow, still alive, those who do not recognise themselves or are not recognised in the proposed definition. The difficulty of the question, especially in its more properly ontological meaning, is evident, and in my work THE DIGITAL SKIN SERIES I ask myself precisely these questions, while avoiding univocal answers. I prefer to think, perhaps utopically, of the human in the sense of a process, an event, a phenomenon; something that can never be framed once and for all: a performative activity in constant progress.
MZ + SB: Will it be possible to photograph something that hasn’t happened yet, before it happens? Will overseas photography be an art of foreknowledge?
EV: If we talk about photography in the analogical and more traditional sense of the term this is obviously impossible. Only what is physically in front of the lens, and only if it shows a certain level of opacity, it can be photographically recorded. If, on the other hand, we talk about photography in an expanded sense, and we are going to include digital imaging technologies, the answer changes. In this case I can tell you that an art of foresight already exists, and that it mobilises billions of dollars every year, all over the planet. As in the already mentioned case of functional magnetic resonance imaging, it is possible to produce images on a statistical basis, and regardless of any direct contact with the surrounding physical world. These are not photographs, obviously, but photo-realistic images produced on the basis of statistical incidence calculations linked to the most varied data sets. These are photographs in which date and metadata, i.e. representation and information on representation, coincide. From a technical point of view each image is a flow of data and metadata: microscopic signs that correspond to the most basic form of representation. From an aesthetic point of view we are no longer automatically able to distinguish the difference between a photograph (translation of a physical reality) and a photo-realistic rendering (translation of a data stream).
MZ + SB: But what are the common characteristics of images produced through different data processing procedures?
EV: They are unstable, variable, virtual images, they move in many ways, sometimes in flocks, they are decomposable, often anonymous and sometimes even invisible. Among the visible ones, think of the many types of renderings that accompany us, from cinema to billboards to social media to scientific works. In the financial field these images act as so-called “self-fulfilling prophecies”. Famous is the example of the rendering of Songdo, the smart-city in South Korea where the border between marketing and architecture has been completely annihilated. Many have invested in the real estate assets of what used to be a digital postcard. But without going that far, let’s think about the economic and political function of the first renderings that circulated together with the MO.S.E. (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) project in Venice. They showed what the Venetian territory would look like a few years from now, due to the rising waters. But the character of the self-fulfilling prophecy is linked to the fact that these images were accompanying the proposal for a system able to prevent those changes. The renderings already included the photo-realistic image of a technology that did not exist, but which, also because of the power of those images, would soon be funded and partly built. It was a kind of foresight based on the ability to centralise financial resources. The prophecy, in that case, is precisely this: to show what does not yet exist in order to finance its construction.
MZ + SB: In what other ways can photography be able to “see the future”?
EV: For example, by being able to let us travel in space, as in the case of the study of exoplanets. Exoplanets are celestial bodies at such distances that it is optically impossible to capture their image. Photographing them with the means at our disposal would only be possible if we could push ourselves beyond the Solar System, which is currently beyond our reach. Yet, as a quick Google search shows, there is a huge photographic archive of exoplanets. In order to study these celestial bodies, there is a vast array of deduction techniques that allow us to reconstruct their appearance and characteristics without having physically seen or reached them. It is an art of clairvoyance which, as Lisa Messeri explained in a beautiful study of the work of groups of scientists from a Chilean observatory, MIT, and NASA, consists of the production of statistical models that give shape to collected data. Through a long chain of representation techniques, the result is a scientific description of the exoplanet accompanied by a series of hypotheses and, often, a realistic high-resolution photo image. These images are based on a concept of statistical, and not optical, vision, in which what is to be seen are not “things” but “fields of possibilities”. Our ability to see is no longer just a biological faculty; it has now become the final step of a probabilistic calculation.
Returning to your question, through this process of imaging we are able to cancel the limits of space that separate us from these celestial bodies. In short, before we can even see them with the naked eye, we have already produced thousands of images of planets that we may see in hundreds of years, or maybe never.
MZ + SB: Quantum physics questions the linear and chronological progression from the past to the future. In reality the question is more complex. Are you familiar with the latest developments related to the quantum machine? How is the theory of time as a tangled handkerchief, described by the French philosopher Michel Serres, applicable in the field of metaphotographic research?
EV: This is also an issue that has given me a lot of thought. Michel Serres has dwelt several times on the limits of an idea of temporal unfolding in which we, subjects, proceed linearly towards the future. Serres, on the other hand, had noticed how seemingly distant temporalities are actually close to each other, and how distant elements in time can influence each other. His idea is very similar to the model of space-conceptual co-determination expressed by physicist and philosopher Karen Barad. Serres uses a very evocative image and gives the example of classical astrophysics, in which we plumb the sky waiting for information about worlds already dead, which belong to another’s past, which for us is still future. If this tangled space had its own photographic counterpart it would be a sort of quantum photography, capable of going beyond the idea of capturing a given reality (as in analogical photography) or of producing a synthetic reality (as in electronic photography). This new type of photography should be able to capture, or copy, in some way, a fragment of the space-time indeterminacy that precedes our perception of things.
MZ + SB: What are the structures that a camera reproduces even when it is operated by an animal?
EV: Structures in motion, of tension, points of encounter and collision, forms of closeness, of absence, and presence of the unthought. In my film Animal Cinema (2017), shot entirely by animals in complete autonomy, movements of bodies, tentacles, tusks, claws, and paws take the place of any directorial premeditation. The result is a vortex of constantly unfolding forms of awareness and ways of being: a concatenation of actions and passions that shines a glimmer of light onto the complicated assemblage of people, animals, and technologies, of which we are all part.