The development of representational technologies such as high definition digital video has led to a visual culture defined by abstract and stylized images that contradict the promise of realistic depictions the technology once held. This essay looks at artistic practices which underline paradoxes in contemporary representational technologies, thus questioning current dominant visual regimes.
Magali Reus, Highly Liquid (2013), HD-Video, loop; colour, silent. (left to right).
…as media lose their material specificity, the body takes on a more prominent function as a selective processor in the creation of images. -Mark B. N. Hansen
Images dominate contemporary culture. The development of technologies such as high-definition digital video has paradoxically led to a representational regime defined by hyperreal, stylized and abstract imagery, contradicting their initial promise of realism. This preponderance of the visual implies a privileging of sight as the main tool to engage with the world; but it is a disembodied sight, detached from its corporeal basis. Engulfed by culture, we are also becoming visual beings, products of the interdependent actions of sight and images, corporeal objects made into immaterial entities flowing through a myriad of online and offline spaces.
Katja Novitskova, Approximation (Toucan), (2014), digital print on aluminium, cutout display, 160 x 114 x 35 cm. Courtesy of Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin.
Theorist Mark B. N. Hansen analyzes the progression of how the visual has become the main representational tool in contemporary society. He quotes Lev Manovich’s construction of the three steps in the automation of sight: the invention of perspective during the Renaissance; the development of the photographic camera, which built perspective “physically into its lens” and thereby “automated the process of creating perspectival images of existing objects”; and computer technologies of “geometric vision,” which liberated vision from the recording of “real” objects and from the limitation of a single perspective (1). Marshall McLuhan also identifies the Renaissance as the period when the Western artist started to perceive his environment primarily in terms of the visual, and when art started being seen as the graphic translation of a culture (2). According to Jonathan Crary, the discovery in the nineteenth century that knowledge is conditioned by our physical and anatomical functioning has led to the creation of an exhaustive inventory of the body, shifting representational models away from geometrical optics into a physiological account of vision. This thorough study of our bodily constitution, and especially of our eyes, is generally associated with the invention of cinema and photography. Crary associates the latter with money, both as magical forms that establish a new set of abstract relations between individuals and things, imposing such relations as real and therefore becoming homologous forms of social power. In this sense and paradoxically, from this broader understanding of our corporeal potentials and limitations, a progressive detachment of sight from its material foundation has emerged, abstracting vision and representation away from our bodies.
Neil Beloufa, Data for desire, rationalized room, small apartment and coffee (detail) (2015). Rebar, steel, resin, cigarettes but, LCD screen, Data for Desire.
Hal Foster argues that Cartesian perspective has succeeded in becoming the reigning visual model of modernity because it best expressed the natural experience of sight valorized by the scientific world view: the eye was understood as static, unblinking, and fixated, rather than dynamic. It followed the logic of the gaze rather than of the glance, producing a visual take that was eternalized, reduced to one point of view and disembodied (3). Jonathan Crary considers that new technologies expand this relocation of vision to a plane severed from the human observer in a relentless process of abstraction of the visual, producing a new abstract regime of computer code (4). Crary underlines the connection between these stages of representational abstraction, from the Renaissance to today, stating that now as in the past, problems of vision have been fundamental in the questions of the body and the operation of social power (5), the latter already hinted at in his comparison between photography and money. Similarly, Nicole Brenez states that “cinema participates in concretizing the links between scientific research on motion, military industry, and control of the body.” Brenez also notes that Étienne-Jules Marey’s laboratory was financed by the French War Ministry and considers that Eadweard James Muybridge’s critical photographic experiments “are inscribed within the context of Taylorization of labour” in the U.S.A. (6).
Antoine Catala, Empathic Paul, 2015 / Cécile B. Evans, Lost, Teeth (2014), (left to right).
Hansen, McLuhan, Crary, Foster, and Brenez’s ideas depict a web of mutual influences between scientific and economical development, representational regimes, and social and bodily organization. Such ideas echo Guy Debord’s characterization of the society of spectacle, where “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,” which is “both the result and the project of the existing mode of production.”. Debord states: the spectacle is separate power developing in itself, in the growth of productivity by means of the incessant refinement of the division of labour into a parcelization of gestures which are then dominated by the independent movement of machines working for an ever -expanding market (8). In a movement of dissolution towards abstraction, disconnecting representation from life, “the spectacle is the diplomatic representation of hierarchic society to itself.”(9). Accordingly, it is only natural that in the society of spectacle, vision, understood as the most abstract, the most mystifiable sense, should be the “privileged human sense,”, corresponding to the generalized abstraction of its social engineering (10). In line with Hansen, McLuhan, Crary, Foster and Brenez’s analysis, Debord clearly identifies a correlation between the mechanization of industrial production, defined by scientific development -itself led by economical doctrines- and the progressive abstraction of social relations, which was enacted by an abstract representational system based on the dominance of the visual.
Neil Beloufa, Maya in Lisboa (2015), mixed media. Diogo Evangelista, Untitled (hand #2), 2014, resin, light bulb, steel, 60x46x20 cm. Magali Reus, Highly Liquid (2013), HD-Video, loop; colour, silent. (left to right).
I have recently curated an exhibition at the National Contemporary Art Museum – Museu do Chiado in Lisbon where I materialized this research, exploring the interpenetration between representational systems and social structuring, and speculated on how a critique of a representational system – namely current abstract discourses- could be looked at as a reflection on social structuring. Titled Hybridize or Disappear, the show presented work by Cécile B Evans, Neil Beloufa, Antoine Catala, Diogo Evangelista, Oliver Laric, Shana Moulton, Katja Novitskova, Laure Prouvost and Magali Reus. Through permanent references to the body, seen as a material marker as well as an ensemble of flowing data, the works included in the exhibition connected the problematization of a disembodied sight with a wider reconsideration of the way we engage with our physical and social environments.
Diogo Evangelista, Untitled (hand #2), 2014, resin, light bulb, steel,, 60x46x20 cm. Magali Reus, Highly Liquid (2013), HD-Video, loop; colour, silent, courtesy of the artist and the Approach. Diogo Evangelista, Untitled (full moon), 2015, UV inkjet, polyurethane on canvas, 154 X 115 CM, (left to right).
Oliver Laric’s research blurs hierarchies between copy and original, shattering concepts such as authorship and ownership. Laric’s interest in the mutual influencing of collective and individual forms of production -as well as the mutations endured by material culture while recontextualized and circulated in online platforms- enact a playful reconfiguration of how representation and society interrelate. Similarly to capital, objects, images, and bodies enhance their value as they promiscuously flow in a flattened image economy. Magali Reus’ use of objects mostly found in urban spaces of high circulation signals the artist’s concern with public architecture in relation to the human behaviours in those sites and their usage. Reus’ recurring utilization of the modular chair, activated or suspended according to its use, might be read as an index of bodies in motion as well as in light of our blurred real or virtual presence. In line with Oliver Laric’s work and as seen in Highly Liquid (2013), Reus’ interest in the corporeal also includes references to classical statuary, even if the framing imposed on the body, reconfigured and dissolved by mimicking dominant trends of contemporary visual culture -namely those of advertising-, fragments its materiality while underlining its surface.
Neil Beloufa, Maya in Lisboa (2015), mixed media, dimensions variable.
Katja Novitskova explores the emotional and neurochemical aspects of experimental consumer products tailored for the current techno-economic expansion, proposing commercial cut-out displays as speculative tools of interaction with the human psyche. Novitskova’s analysis of the concept of growth echoes our networked environment and the functioning of financial markets, both united through her exploration of human behaviour. Antoine Catala and Cécile B. Evans also explore the role of emotion in today’s culture, underlying different dimensions of how one’s body might articulate such tensions. Catala’s practice looks at how feelings are expressed through the Internet. In particular, Emphatic Paul (2015) studies how technology increasingly mediates our everyday interaction, which impacts our physical existence, by portraying a young boy displaying a range of emotions as he follows offline cues while two animated E letters flow over his face. Cécile B. Evans also addresses the online circulation of feelings, underlining the transitory features of emotions, bouncing off from the physical to the digital and back again. Additionally, Evans’ use of serially produced objects alongside prosthetic body parts hints at how our use of the Internet as a communication platform might be employed by corporations in the commodification of feelings and how, as a consequence of this dynamic, the meaning of intimacy is currently being readdressed. Conscious of the mutations inherent to the translation between image and object, Evans’ mixed media practice reflects on the exchange between subjectivity and representation through the weight of data.
Antoine Catala, Empathic Paul, 2015, HD-video, 12:13 min, colour, sound, courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal.
Cécile B. Evans, Lost, Teeth (2014), 3D printed plaster and wax.
Neil Beloufa’s work questions the increasingly diffuse borders between the real and the fictional. Using industrial or inorganic materials, Beloufa’s constant referencing of the body creates ambiguous settings that are ordinary and yet uncanny. Producing parallel worlds that echo our own and yet are clearly not part of it, Beloufa explores social interaction as a platform to analyzse the relation between visual culture and larger dynamics of power, a concern which is formally echoed by his association of moving image with sculptural work. Shana Moulton’s videos, sculptures, and performances reflect on the mixed consumerist and spiritual layerings of an anxiety age. Moulton’s alter ego, Cynthia, moves through dream and life-like settings, creating a fantasy universe based on new age alternative beliefs and commercial pop culture images and objects. In Swisspering (2013), Cynthia’s carving away of the body to reveal an inner essence comments upon how we relate to our material and represented selves. The liminal worlds of Moulton’s work blend the material with the spiritual using the human body as a source of self-knowledge and distress, permanently disrupting stable portrayals of subject and object.
Oliver Laric, Versions (2012), HD-video, 7:17 min, colour, sound, courtesy of the artist and Seventeen Gallery. Shana Moulton, Swisspering (2013), HD-video, 9:00 min; colour, sound, courtesy of the Gimpel Fils, (left to right).
Diogo Evangelista employs subjective methods of selection, appropriation, manipulation, and mediation to sensually subvert contemporary visual regimes. His reproduction of hypnotic and trance-like states based on bodily as well as visual interaction questions naturalized forms of understanding and empower our engagement with the world. Evangelista positions the body as an expanded instrument of consciousness and -by quoting drug induced states- paradoxically breaks our mundane lethargic mode of interaction with images, making each representation a new object, underlining its potential and stimulating our lucidity.
Laure Prouvost’s videos are sensory overloads, featuring direct address, on-screen text, fast cuts, surround sound, and narrative disruption—all delivered with mischievous humor. In IT, HEAT, HIT (2010), images such as a swimming frog or a snowy street scene are followed by statements of love and implied violence and inter-cut with strange, disconnected footage, such as close-ups of flowers, body parts or food. This work demonstrates Prouvost’s interest in inserting film into reality and back again, exploring our mental and sensorial disorientation within a world in permanent reconfiguration.
Diogo Evangelista, Untitled (hand #1), 2014, resin, lampada, aço, 40x20x140 cm.
This shared interest in the multilayered dimensions of the body, referenced through representation or by the constant recalling of our senses and psyche, might be related to Mark Hansen’s argument that, as media lose their material specificity, the body takes on a more prominent function as a selective processor in the creation of images. In a progressively abstract and immaterial reality, artists have recovered our body as a reference frame from which to navigate the changes taking place in our physical world and in our social relations. Considering returning to the ideas of Hansen, McLuhan, Crary, Foster, Brenez, and Debord, could the current dominance of the visual, enacted and disseminated through stylized and hyper-real imagery, be interpreted as the result of and the current project of the existing mode of production? Could the features of the neoliberal socio-economic model, grounded in a withdrawn and elusive stance and in a perverse balance between material and immaterial, outsourced and alienated labour, participate in the commodified abstract representational system? Could our pictorial (re)existence rely on counteracting such visual models by underlining their material foundation and our physical existence? And finally, could artistic practices that ground the visual in the corporeal be understood as critiques of the social structuring resulting from and projected by such an economic model through their problematization of its corresponding visual culture?
All photos by Bruno Lopes, installation shots at National Museum of Contemporary Art – Museu do Chiado in Lisbon, Portugal.
(1)Mark B. N. Hansen, New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, Massachusetts – London, England: MIT Press, 2004), p.94.
(2)Marshall, McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage : An Inventory of Effects , (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko, 2001), p.56.
(3) Hal Foster, Vision and Visuality, (New York: New Press, 1999), xi, 5 and 7.
(4)Tim Lenoir introduction to Mark B. N. Hansen, New Philosophy For New Media, (Cambridge, Massachusetts – London, England: MIT Press, 2004), xiii
(5) Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the nineteenth19th Century , (Cambridge Massachusetts – London, England: MIT, 1992), p.3.
(6) Nicole Brenez, “Harun Farocki and the Romantic Genesis of the Principle of Visual Critique,”, in Harun Farocki Against What? Against Whom? , (London: Koenig Books and Raven Row, 2009), p.130.
(7) Guy Debord, The Society of Spectacle, (Black and Red: Detroit, 1993), unpaged, section 1.
(8) Debord, p.7.
(9) Debord, p.6.
(10) Debord, p.5.