change my way of seeing
video installation with ambient sound
change my way of seeing I was shot with a super 8 camera held by the artist at arms length and turned around 180 degrees. The artist is looking at the sun trough the lens. Hence it is the sun "looking" through the viewfinder at the artist's eye. This performance lasts three minutes, the length of one roll of super 8 film.
The film captures the uncomfortable blinking of a dazzled eye as the rays of the sun finds its way trough the optics and shines straight into the artist's pupil. The analogue film transforms this into a whiteness where pain meets beauty. The role where an artist normally looks at the world through a viewfinder is now turned around.
Film transferred to HD video. Large scale back projection on free standing wall in the exhibition space. Sound and projection equipment is on purpose not hidden, but instead visible to the audience when entering – as if one enters "back stage". Preferably audience will enter the space approaching the screen from behind, passing the equipment along the way. Walking past the screen to its front one enters an empty space save for two speakers. Alternative installation: work shown on cube monitor placed on brackets on wall, with 140 cm to the underside of the monitor (i.e. monitor placed at head height). Ambient sound is brought inside the gallery. A small microphone is placed outside the building continuously capturing everyday sounds. This is transmitted in real time (not recorded) to two speakers placed in the gallery space. Placement of speakers variable. Volume will be set so that outdoor sounds are carefully brought in, but not so much that this aspect of the installation is immediately obvious to the viewer.
"Far behind the eye the quest begins."
Ill Seen Ill Said
When there’s an image on a screen, then where am I?
Right here, in front of it, the Realist will say. Oh no: inside it, claims the Idealist. That and behind it! – suggests the Romantic.
These are just three of many valid ways of seeing which A K Dolven brings up in change my way of seeing, part I and change my way of seeing part II. Right from the point of entering the show, the artist physically involves her viewers into a socio-psycho-aethetic quest, as their gaze is attracted by a small, vague image, rhythmically moving on a large screen which shields the gallery entrance from the outside. By following his curious glance, trying to identify the moving image, the onlooker finds himself immersed in the screen surrounding it: a silent foil of indefinite whiteness, reminscent of a snowy field – an environment that Dolven is often drawn to. Perhaps because the bareness of the snow heightens one’s sense of vision and physical alertness. Or, perhaps, as Joseph Brodsky points out in his poetic study of the senses, Fondamenta degli Incurabili, because “beauty at cold temperatures is beauty”? The visitor dimly discerns, on this vast plane of grainy whiteness, a classic situation in high modernist films: a playful choreography of exchanging glances between the human eye and the camera eye. Whereas Dziga Vertov’s seminal film Man With the Movie Camera (1929) celebrated the camera as an omnipotent extension of the physical eye – thereby endowing both with a preconditioned objectivity - Dolven stresses the constructive fragility of the artist’s eye. In letting the viewer feel the physical strain of her experiment - trying to let her eye tolerate the brightness of the sun for three long minutes - the artist breaks down modernist views of the camera/eye as powerful and objective, thus opening the field to a variety of points of view. It is as if her Icarus-like glance had darted dangerously close to the blazing sun, but in this case, did not fail and burn its wings. Instead, the vulnerable, daring eye discovered the strength of a manifold, constructive vision in the process: the potential of diversity.
During the shoot, Dolven turned the handheld camera to let the sunlight act on the viewfinder, thus shifting the viewpoint from an egocentric static angle to an open, many-facetted one. And by this move she invites the onlooker to leave his comfortably inactive position as a passive viewer and join in this vigorous exchange of views and glances. Here again, Dolven reflects upon a fundamental concept deeply rooted in art history: the idea of the artwork as looking back at its viewer, thereby acting as a counterpart, and creating the atmosphere of an intimate and silent thinking space.
So who or what, then, is behind this screen, which proxies as a curtain through which the visitor enters the gallery-stage? It is the viewer himself in an empty white room, the gallery bare and simple. It seems as if the artist has created this indeterminate space for the viewer’s mind to wander around in and lose itself in these meanderings. Just as contemporary neuroscience charmingly defines the mind in it’s creative, constructively “lazy” mode: as the brain taking itself off for a stroll inside itself.
Having entered the space, gradually the visitor is aware that sounds from outside filter through the emptiness, thereby structuring the time spent inside and giving him a firm sense of the here-and-now. The gallery setting is not, after all, as purist as the entrance scene might have lead one to expect. Two speakers, black and straightforward, play back scenes of everyday life from the immediate vicinity, thus letting the greater picture intermingle with the intimacy of the thinking space. The scenes are as colourful and varied as community life itself around the art space: there is a driver, angrily coaxing his car from the snow it got stuck in, a flock of noisy winter crows or children playing. Here, John Cage’s conviction that ambient sounds are our true silence, is transferred to A K Dolven’s art space.
And so it is the immateriality of the sound which gives change my way of seeing, part 1, a time-based and site-specific quality while at the same time adding the flavour of the palpable real to Dolven’s artistic probing of a mental landscape.
Gaby Hartel, January 2011
I DID DO IT
2011 - ongoing
Super 8 mm film in digital video
Installation - work in progress
When the sun is shining in the arctic in the summer – it’s strong. Very strong. There I am closer to the sun. Don’t look into the sun! Its danger. Danger. Danger. The binoculars, always on the windowsill, make the sun even larger and stronger and more dangerous. I know very well I can't look at the sun through those. Danger. My eyes could be damaged, in a second. Still, I always wanted to. The binocular are still there on the windowsill. Don’t do it, don’t do it. I did not do it. I did not. Never. I wanted to, but did not, did not do it.
I found a different way years later. At the same spot, the same window – looking through my super 8 camera – turned it around – the lens pointed at me, close up, and not the world - the sun reflected even in my eyeball – installing a 3 minute roll - the sun shot me. The sun became smaller of course through the lens. Less danger I thought, but I did do it. I did look into the sun. I did do it.
Again and again. For several days , when the sky was clear that summer. Through the 8 mm lens. That summer, 2010, I did it. Shot several 8 mm films, three minutes each.
It was painful. But I did it. I looked at the sun; it was due to the lens now a small ball, after a while I had to shift to the other eye and back again, but I DID DO IT.
After the summer I sent all the films to Berlin, got them developed and thought it might be just white light. It was not. Different stories came out. The sun filmed me and had made its decisions. The world looked into my eyes and reflected in the eyeball. The colours came out different for each film, beautiful, but the struggle, the pain and blinking shows the pain.That the pain did not last longer than 3 minutes helped.
Only one film came out white. change my way of seeing.
changing seeing, seeing change
Seeing, recording, projecting, seeing. That is the habitual order of things when seeing is turned into an image by means of an apparatus that stores its own version of an optical event and presents it for revision. In this respect, it does not matter whether the apparatus in question is called painting or film. In painting, something seen may be recorded by means of paint on canvas, and the viewer knows that the image is not vision as such but a representation or projection made in the medium of paint. In lm, a ray of light, reflected off some subject, passes through the lens during the fraction of a second that the camera shutter opens, hitting a strip of plastic coated with light-sensitive emulsion and leaving a permanent record or trace. The final projection relies on the mobilization of these frozen traces to create what everyone knows is an illusion of instant seeing.A K Dolven’s change my way of seeing undoes this order, blows it apart. On first look, the work seems to be all about pretty, ephemeral light effects in painting and lm, the iconography of an age in which the romanticization of natural light segues into a fascination with media light. On second look, however, you see more: a restless contraction, a form of vibration that seems tense and muscular, more specific, in fact, than simply flickering light. From this point onwards, seeing has become complicated and seems to indicate some kind of operation or apparatus that needs to be explored. Consulting the work’s production of vision and visuality becomes the obvious next step.
What emerges does not necessarily clarify the question of vision. On closer investigation, you encounter onlya thicket of interpenetrating visions, projections and recordings. A ray of sunlight has been sifted through the view finder of a Super 8 camera, and allowed to travel all the way through the apparatus and out through the lens so that it hits the eye of a person holding the camera at arm’s length with the lens turned towards her eye. Throughout this process, the camera is filming, yet it is hard to de ne exactly what it is recording. In a sense, it is capturing only a projection screen, filming ‘off’ a screen on which moving light effects are shown. For what is caught on lm here is in fact a projection of light on the eye of a beholder, an eye that is now forced
to function as a screen. Yet, at the same time, this eye cannot escape its duties as an optical apparatus and is struggling to handle the projector beam that hits its pupil. This particular screen is, in other words, also a lens mechanism, and has its own shutter functions so as to be able to protect itself from the onslaught of light and portion it out in manageable doses. Human eyes blink and move: this is how they manage to produce a visual impression of a stable world of things. But as in any lm, there can be overexposure, a blinding light that cancels out everything else. This eye-lens in change my way of seeing is subjected to such overexposure, and the pain it causes is registered in desperate blinking and muscular struggle. The eye-lens clearly tries to escape direct exposure to the ray of light. But since it is also cast in the passive role of screen, it has to stay put and take what comes.
The lm camera here is also made to work differently than normal: it first of all functions as a projector. At the same time, it is a projector with a memory: it passively records its own projections on the eye-screen. A lm is made, if only in a quasi-automatic way, subordinate to the work of projection: the process is a step removed from the active process of creating cinematic representations of the world. Yet, if the camera is made to act in a non- camera capacity, painting, for its part, seems to step in, to actively produce, in its own way, a quasi-cinematic record of light hitting the eye-screen. A series of small rectangular panels, painted in the bluish-white hues
of overexposed media images, functions like a series of lm stills that present us with the frozen traces of the eye-screen in operation. All that is needed is another projector to set them in motion. The eye of a viewer moving along the gallery walls where these painting- stills hang in long series might well serve that function.
The thicket of displaced or distributed visions, recordings and projections that make up change my way of seeing might simply seem like a confused mess. Yet the work does not really present disruption in relation to representational models of media and media technologies, but a different understanding of the material world. It stages a world of apparatuses that are not strictly separate and specialized entities, closed in on their own functions, but parts of a dynamic environment where each one takes on multiple functions depending on the way in which it is, itself, ‘perceived’ or ‘used’ by the other apparatuses that make up this environment. Modes of seeing that are traditionally understood as belonging to different orders intermingle as parts of the same technical-material continuum. The human eye is no longer at the centre of things, using cameras or painting as prostheses, aides or stand-ins for its visions. In contrast, the biological vision of the human eye-brain, the handicraft visions in painted images and the mechanical/chemical vision of cameras are all presented as machines of sorts. They all seem to exchange or circulate traits and functions, and they all come across as living and active. Each of them has specific and autonomous powers of connectivity and association, depending on what they encounter or connect with at any one moment.
This is a world in which matter – that is, any entity in the world – is understood to be animated or ‘seeing’, according to a mode of thinking in which no thing in the world can be approached without taking into account its active striving to connect with other things. Whether we are speaking of simple chemical processes or the interchanges of higher forms of intelligence, some sort of cognition is at work in all such events of connection. As political theorist Jane Bennett has pointed out, it is a perspective in which the efficacy of agency – the ability to act and affect the world, traditionally associated with human individuals or collectives – becomes distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field.1 Any one thing may be an actor, including a ‘passive’ light reflector or screen. A camera may not simply ‘use’ light, but may itself be used by light in various ways. It may be used as a prosthesis for eyes, but may itself connect with other eyes or seeing mechanisms. To see seeing distributed, at work anywhere and everywhere, is not only to change one’s ‘own’ way of seeing, but to change one’s way of seeing the various apparatuses of seeing with which humans have such close interaction.
This means, mainly, to view seeing itself as change, and to understand the apparatuses of seeing as active agents of change, rather than as images. From a purely technical perspective, a seeing screen is a relatively new thing in the world, and so is a projecting camera. But when they appear in change my way of seeing, the (by now) ancient mechanical technologies of lm and photography are associated with a digital realm in which such multi- functionality or multisensoriality is the order of the day, and not an exotic exception. Cameras are now everything in addition to being cameras: telephones, movie screens, pocket lights, messaging systems. Screens are not passive receptors of representations but interfaces that put you in touch with a vast multiplicity of interacting agencies, most of them non-human and operating at a level of microtemporal organization inaccessible to human perception. Thanks to such agencies, screens see and remember in a myriad ways, for instance through program affordances that observe your actions and learn to predict your behaviour in the name of increased efficacy and connective power – and, increasingly, through programs that track all the various connective activities you engage in, gathering information about your tastes, passions and interests
in vast databases for purposes of commercial and / or political exploitation. Increasingly, seeing screens are instruments of both focused and unfocused surveillance, operating on the principle that any input or information is potentially useful for something or someone in the short or long run, provided that it can be sorted and searched in meaningful ways. This scenario, and the various forms of difficulty and violence it opens onto, is the pain of seeing today, the pain of overexposure, in every sense of the term. By drawing us into the beautiful halo of media light, change my way of seeing slowly unfolds its darker powers.
1Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010)
“I become a transparent eyeball / I am nothing / I see all”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
Three weeks have passed since the opening of change my way of seeing, part I, and the memories of experiencing the first installment will ideally flavour the viewer’s mental disposition now - as will his own altered circumstances: Seen through the eyes of Marcel Proust, we all are affected by the unsettling force of time, which, according to the sensitive observer, constantly disturbs the unity of self. A K Dolven subtly draws from the mental energy set free in this process, first by making the change of points of view her artistic target, and then by relying on the visitor’s experience of his own shifting perception.
change my way of seeing, part I, exposed the audience to A K Dolven’s eye as “the thing alone, isolated by the […] need to see”, as Samuel Beckett once described his friend, the painter Bram van Velde, who then, in turn, spoke of himself as a personified glance: “the painter is a blinded eye, that can still see and sees what is blinding it”.
So what, the visitor might ask, was it that Dolven’s eye saw while it was being blinded by the sun? It is tempting to imagine, for a moment, the 140 small format oil paintings as a reflecion of the artist’s field of vision during her three minutes’ blinking at the blaze. This is, of course, a mere assumption, but an appealing one to me, as all the paintings seem to resonate with the sunlight transmitted through the painter’s eye onto the sensitive plate of the work itself. It is a hazy, misty, lively light, caught here in one hundred and forty different ways of seeing it. Just as the mood of the day or that of the viewer himself are in a constant state of change. Dolven transfers this knowledge to the vividly tactile surface of her paintings, preparing the ground for the visitor’s groping eye, so that, while looking, he feels like “a mobile subject before an evanescent object” (Beckett again).
Like film stills the rows of oil paintings float in five parallel rows along the white gallery walls, and, as if conditioned by the artistic medium of part I, the viewer might experience the paintings as small screens which show him different aspects of one moment, arrested for a short time and looking back at him. In this way the interplay of glances is continued in the mind’s eye, one of the leitmotifs weaving together the two parts of change my way of seeing.
Attempting to see life from different angles was one of the main accomplishments of the Enlightenment: Perspectivism prompted an ethical debate by questioning monolithic points of view such as the hitherto cherished eurocentric and christianity-focussed Weltbild. Witness the sharp-witted 18th century scholar Georg Friedrich Lichtenberg, who challenged his contemporaries by reversing points of view: “the American who first discovered Columbus made a foul discovery”. Lichtenberg was right to stress this prerequisite in cultured modern life: to change perspectives. This is a standpoint which was voiced again two centuries later by the Coen Brothers in their philosophical film noir The man who wasn’t there. Here, a lawyer muses on a complex case and relieves his confusion at the relativity of human motives by summoning up Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: “looking at things changes them,” in the lawyer’s words.
change my way of seeing, part II, seems at first glance, to be a silent show, as no technically redirected ambient sounds are to be heard. But on spending time with the individual works arranged on the wall like a musical score, one feels that they have a music of their own. A rythymn, softly humming to itself.
Gaby Hartel, February 2011