Online program. PROGRAM EXPIRED
PWYC rental July 15 to 22, 2021
From antiquity to the enlightenment, into the present day, philosophers and scientists have taken great care litigating the role of human sense perception in constructing meaningful models of the world. As these philosophical questions have gradually become tied to material powers, however, amplified by increasingly sophisticated technologies for sensing and recording the world, a sharp political edge has hardened along these sensuous discursive lines.
The development of aesthetic strategies provokes unexpected responses in seemingly unrelated fields. A camera obscura could both help plan a renaissance masterpiece and execute a military defence system; advances in X-ray technology could prolong human life and accelerate diamond mining; colour theory could become camouflage.
Bringing together a mix of essayistic and formalist video works, VISION CREEP takes a bifocal survey of the techniques and technologies of aesthetic perception, tracing their creep and drift, as they form unlikely affinities connecting histories of art, ecology, war, medicine, and magic.
Viriditas (In the Future Perfect), Jol Thoms (UK, 2019) 20:00 mins
Hypnagogia, Pierre-Luc Vaillancourt (Canada, 2018) 05:35 min
Ellie’s Eye, Jeamin Cha (Korea, 2020) 11:00 min
Tricotone 01, Sam Meech (UK, 2019) 02:43 min
Special Works School, Bambitchell [Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Mitchell], (Canada/Germany/UK, 2018) 27:00 mins
Transmission 1: 34 OD, Jim Matlock (Atikamekw, 2017) 03:36 mins
Total time: 01:09:54 min
VISION CREEP by Miles Rufelds
Contentious as the historical records from 6th-century BCE are, scholars seem relatively sure that the Greek mystery cult of Pythagoras had musical origins. It’s said that the Pythagoreans, known for their belief that the true nature of the world could only be grasped through numbers, came to this understanding by tuning the strings of a lyre, and observing that the most beautiful scales corresponded to strict mathematical rules. Strangely, through this heightened sensory experience, these philosophers became assured of sensation’s non-existence, and of a world governed by hard rational laws. Though not always treated quite so contradictorily, the nature of sense perception has persisted throughout the long history of philosophy and science as an often incoherent, and consistently volatile, subject, from antiquity to the enlightenment, into the present day.
The function and reliability of the senses appeared for centuries as one of Natural Philosophy’s animating questions, constituting a central point of disagreement between Platonic and Aristotelian cosmologies, and serving as ballast for a range of early and influential theories of geometry and optics from Euclid to Ptolemy. Ambivalent but never indifferent, these questions betrayed an intimate relation to the senses, an appreciation for the holistic unity of sense perception with every facet of experience. To theorize the senses was to begin theorizing the world. Not long into the Common Era, as Christian dominion came to subsume these questions, and Natural Philosophy became Natural Theology, the philosophical intimacy of sense perception seemed to die out, only to later reappear in a more urgent, material, and political guise.
For centuries, the Augustinian disregard towards sensory knowledge held firm. Around the 10th century, however, monastic scholars began to reconsider accepted Christian ideas that the human body, including its sense organs, were left irredeemably flawed after humanity’s rejection from the Garden of Eden, with only reason and faith as means to recovery. Some monks and mendicants began to propose that, though The Fall from Grace had left the human body flawed and weak, through the proper synthesis of sense perception with godly reason humans could manipulate the natural world to correct these flaws, enhance the senses, re-establish dominion over nature, and restore more and more their lost godliness.
Though diffuse and slow-moving, this new approach came to predominate; engineering, architecture, optics, medicine, navigation, nutrition, warfare, and every other conceivable manner of technical craft came to insidiously serve an expansionist, technocratic project, the shadow of which covers us still today. This process began to detach the senses from their functional unity, to hone them with tools and abstract them within disciplines and specialties, significantly helping lay the ground for what would become the joint enterprises of European science and European imperialism. In the ensuing centuries, human sensory inputs became increasingly tangled in complex and contentious technical “assemblages,” shaping and being shaped by a host of unlikely material discourses.
The examples abound. As geometric perspective developed in tandem with Renaissance figuration, it took important cues from extant techniques of land-surveying, then went on to serve as key inspiration for later developments in military architectural surveillance. The spread of telescopes in the early 17th century drew from both ancient Greek optical theories and medieval forms of eyeglasses (including those of Roger Bacon, a key champion of militant Natural Theology); in developing key refinements to the craft of telescopes, Galileo believed that the tool would be more useful for military positioning than astronomical observation; in fact, the telescope’s greatest immediate impact was in seafaring and naval warfare, vastly abetting the advancement of cross-oceanic travel, trade, and imperial expansion. This spiraling dialectic has carried on, more or less uninterrupted, into the present day. We see their clearest parallels in contemporary discourses regarding ubiquitous surveillance and the militarization of civilian platforms.
Though these politicized lineages implicate a full spectrum of sense perception, from sound to smell to touch and beyond, VISION CREEP takes specific focus on “sight” as a key thread in the material dialectics of sensation. A play on the military term “mission creep”—the tendency for military operations to gradually enlarge the scope of their objectives in order to escape oversight or flout restrictions—this program considers the ways that visual techniques and technologies embody this creep and drift. Here the action is twofold, as aesthetic techniques shed influence to far-flung discourses in unintended ways, and as they insidiously absorb and encode strategies from unlikely or unseen interests. Composed of 6 contemporary video works, representing a range of essayistic and formalist approaches, the program features a cross-section of contemporary filmmaking that alternately interrogates and embodies the ambivalent legacies sedimented within aesthetic discourses, hardened within technique and apparatus, accrued over centuries of creeping influence.
Jol Thoms’ film, Viriditas (In the Future Perfect), crucially sets the terms by inviting the viewer to abstract from a realm of stable categories, to enter a “timespace where borders and limits no longer reign.” The video asks us, in poetic and speculative terms, to temporarily refract our perspective between a medieval alchemist and contemporary nuclear scientist, in order to see how these histories are nested within each other. Tracing cross-temporal contrasts between alchemical pursuits of “the greening green,” a theorized fount of infinite abundance and regeneration, and contemporary nuclear fulcra balancing infinite energy or immediate annihilation, Viriditas narrates a long and still-unfolding contest between genuine utility and abstract power. The film’s imagery often cleverly montages dozens of alchemical engravings with rich green, yellow, red, blue, and variously colour backdrops, these monochormes serving as both precise descriptors of specific, colour-sensitive alchemical processes, and as a reminder that a sharp aesthetic sense has always operated at the core of both magic and science.
Pierre-Luc Vaillancourt’s Hypnagogia is a sensory gauntlet, serving as more of a performance of techno-sensory creep than an essayistic exploration. A pulsing synth score by Jon Claude Bieschke propels the film’s dizzying flicker, which weaves a series of colour-bent images into a kind of volcanic cascade. Fragments of trees, rocks, or rivers are visible at times, but the assembly makes the eye feel distinctly broken, unequal to the task of deciphering, as if the film was made to be read by different media than our perceptive organs. The occasionally discernible fragments of trees and rocks flashing through the scrambled data take on an uncanny quality, familiar but alien like a Generative Adversarial Network photo, highlighting the remoteness of the many technological gazes as they deign to perform for human eyes.
Jeamin Cha’s essay film Ellie’s Eye expands on these issues as a central concern, meditating on the material limits of biological sensation, their historical interpolation by technological modifiers, and the ethical quandaries that these material interventions elide. Progressing at a confident, deliberate pace, the film offers a two-step poetic history synthesizing developments in technologically-aided sense perception (x-rays, ultrasonic noise, penetrative vision, etc.) with material nuances between human and animal sensory biology. Cha’s use of an ultrawide aspect ratio, the screen split between image and text narration along a vertical axis, cleverly mirrors the film’s broader structure in its formal composition. Technical expansions to the human perceptual range recur as metaphors and stand-ins for ethical questions, always at a slight displacement; most consistently Cha returns to the dog as a key metonym for the many non-humans alongside which we coexist in mediated relation, whether mammal or machine.
From the pensive conclusion to Ellie’s Eye, Sam Meech’s Tricotone 01 erupts in a flurry of imbricated sound and motion, pivoting from the former in tone and pace, litigating its questions through material and affect rather than language. As they explore the creep and interchange of visual and sensory media, many of the films in VISION CREEP gesture to ideas of synesthesia, the biological phenomenon in which distinct human sense confuse their signals and process one another’s mismatched inputs. The synesthesia that Tricotone 01 performs, however, is one mediated by multiple generations of in-folded technologies, a kind of immanent display in which the passing yarn patterns mirror the waveform patterns producing the audio track. Doubly significant, the film’s process also obliquely references the Jacquard machine, 19th-century engineer Joseph Maria Jaquard’s modification of Jacques Vaucanson’s automated textile loom, whose innovative use of punch-cards to map yarn patterns is said to have served as the earliest example of what would become designs for the first computers. The performance grows more complex as we consider how the computational abstraction of all data to 0s and 1s abets our now-ubiquitous synesthesia, the monism of vision and sound at the heart of all contemporary digital media.
Bambitchell titled their essay film Special Works School after a group of British artists hired by the military to experiment with camouflage during the First World War; the film may not formally explore this group’s story in any nominal sense, but the hallucinatory and foreboding layers that Bamboat and Mitchell trace throughout the work make clear that the material stakes of these issues include global conflict and mass death. Narrated by a musical chorus and three disembodied colours—Purple, Cyan, and “Sand”—the film fluidly alternates between exposition and speculation, gradually coming to focus on “Sand” as the jointly symbolic and material centerpiece. In a physical sense, Sand literally stands in as a substance connecting a thousand years of surveillance and power (glass lenses, concrete, windows, screens, silicon/electronics, etc.) and symbolically stands in as a kind of Hegelian “Geist” representing the film’s historical antagonism: the shifting ratio between what is allowed to be seen and what is allowed to remain hidden. As Sand’s ability to narrate its own lines degrades throughout the film, we’re reminded that a world of real bodies subtends any poetic narrator or Geist; the history of vision and power is a history of fragmentation, materially exerted through the abstraction of sense, space, time, and experience.
Jim Matlock’s experimental short, Transmission 1: 34 OD, winds down from the previous headier works, ending the program on a less settled, more mysterious tone. An opening sequence reminiscent of “found-footage” horror becomes the backdrop for a cascade of scrambled audio and video signals, coded overlays, and ambiguous text lines. On a surface level, Matlock’s film reads like a tour through the junkyard of recently outmoded or crumbling aesthetic codes—telegraph signals, walkie-talkie mics, magnetic videotapes—doubled in the camera’s desolate, almost post-apocalyptic treatment of its setting. But it’s consistently clear that these genre tropes are a form of misdirection, and that a message is coming through these layers of coding; as the film progresses and the subtitles start to hang together, this message comes into focus as both a call for help and a call to arms.
Matlock has described this film as simply “an encrypted message that will open your mind.” An immediate question then arises, as to who is it that’s sent the message, and who they imagine is on the other end, putting the tape in their VCR. Whether emanating from the wastelands of a post-apocalypse genre film, the graveyards of obscure sensory technologies, or the sacrifice zones of colonial capitalism, the message doesn’t just push through these filters of scrambled audiovisual code, but appears to mobilize or counter-mobilize them. VISION CREEP’s survey of vision and sense activated and captured by technical prosthetics, closes with a note of ambiguity. These signals are beaming from the situation as it currently stands, compromised and grim but not hopeless.
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