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Published by: jimenacanales on Nov 30, 2012
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“Our Fine Arts,” explained the poet Paul Valéryin 1928, “were instituted at a time very differentfrom ours.” The main difference between Valéry’sinterwar world and the time when the finearts were instituted during the Renaissanceresided mainly in the discovery of new waysof transmitting, reproducing, transporting,andreconstituting images. Valéry witnessed stunningdevelopments in means for producing imagesand reproducing them. But most importantly, hewas able to see a revolution in the way in whichimages were transmitted. “As with water, gas, andelectric current that come from afar . . . so we willbe fed by visual images or auditory ones, bornand disappearing at the faintest gesture, almostby a sign.” The poet was fortunate to see for thefirst time visual and auditory images sent throughtelecommunications networks, first throughtelegraph and telephone wires and then throughthe air. Valéry was at a loss when trying to explainthe repercussions these change would have on art.“I do not know if any philosopher has dreamt ofservice for the home-delivery of Sensible Reality,”he wrote.How, may we ask, does the work of SharonHarper deal with the contemporary trans-formations marking her career—changes whichare even more momentous than the ones thatValéry witnessed?On April 4, 1925, only a few years before Valérywrote his essay, AT&T started the first commercialpublic service for sending photographs bytelegraph wire, charging $50 for a 5 x 7transmission from New York to Chicago and $100from New York to San Francisco.
Now manymore images can be made, copied, transformed,sent, and received with greater ease, but thehome-delivery service of “Sensible Reality”dreamt of by the poet has still not reached us.Valéry predicted that, because of these changes,works of art “will no longer be in themselves,but all will be one, and which apparatus.”The apparatus involved in transmission andreconstitution, he surmised, should be henceforthconsidered part of the artwork itself.Valéry’s essay, tellingly titled “The Conquest ofUbiquity,” inspired the writer and critic WalterBenjamin to pen his famous “The Work of Art inthe Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjaminselected a few lines from Valéry’s text andincluded them as an epigraph. He then continuedhis essay by exploring how art and technologychanged alongside time and space. With thedevelopment of mechanically reproduciblephotography and phonography, he explained,“the cathedral leaves its locale” only “to meetthe beholder halfway.” These technologicaldevelopments warped our traditional view ofspace and time as well as orthodox conceptionsof art. Harper’s experiments convey an additionallesson: her images do more than simply meetus halfway. The cathedral lost its place in themid-nineteenth century with the invention ofmechanically reproducible photography. But nowat the turn of the second millennium, the wholeuniverse has lost its footing.Benjamin’s paradigmatic essay consolidateda theoretical framework for thinking aboutphotographic and cinematographic work in termsof “its lowerings and liftings, its interruptionsand isolations, its extensions and accelerations,its enlargements and reductions”—throughoutthe essay he assumed a stable Earth. Benjaminalso defined close-up and slow motion interms of these surface spatial and temporaltransformations: “With the close-up, spaceexpands; with slow motion, movement isextended.” Since its invention, the microscopewas considered as a means for expanding space.With the invention of flash and strobe, time wasconsidered to expand and contract in the sameway as space did.
Time and space, in Harper’swork, no longer functions in this way.
never and nowhere
1. A. J. Ezickson, “Wired Photos,”
The Complete Photographer 
, no. 54(1943): 3518.2. Jimena Canales,
 A Tenth of aSecond: A History 
(Chicago:Chicago University Press, 2009)
SH_finalpages.V3.indd 15/9/12 3:21 PM
Benjamin’s method of analysis appearedstunningly close to the work of experimentalpsychologists. It is not a coincidence thatHugo Münsterberg, who used a bevy ofcinematographic-like instruments in his laboratoryof experimental psychology, also wrote one ofthe first books defending the artistic value offilm.
For decades, the main task of experimentalpsychology was to explain the link (or disconnect)between
 perceived reality 
. Perceptionand reality were installed as privileged topics foranalyzing the relation between art and science.For certain artists, they were two categories thatrevealed the power of art and the deficiency ofscience. For some scientists, they often revealedthe power of science and the deficiency of art.Many practitioners and critics settled on a neatdivision of labor where art was charged withinvestigating perceived reality and science withreality
tout court 
. Science and art, in the work ofHarper, no longer function in this capacity.From the first decades of the nineteenth centuryonward, many writers, philosophers, and scientistslamented the increasing transformation of theworld into an illusion. In the twentieth century,Oliver Wendell Holmes’s exclamation that withphotography “form is henceforth divorced frommatter” seemed more prescient than ever before.During the post-war period, many continuedtheir endless complaints and investigations ofthe gap between the world as it was actuallyperceived and the increasingly rarified scientificdescriptions of it. The dominant philosophicalschool that developed during that period—phenomenology—was wholly designed to reversecontemporary hierarchies between reality andperceived reality. Even artists themselves wereenlisted into this mission—buying into the globaltask of revealing, twisting, or playing with thelaws of perception. Early scientific laboratoriesfocusing on spectacle, like Münsterberg’s, gaveway to amalgams between factories, studios,and laboratories.
The century ended with theparanoid fight against the simulacra described byJean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida’s obsessionto join “the world” and “lived experience” withwhat he called the “trace.”
Harper’s work no longer revolves around thetired intrigue of perception versus reality. In herart, the central plot—and the main categories ofinquiry—are radically different.In the 1960s the entire plot of a blockbustermovie could revolve around the theme of realityversus perception. A scene would climax with thecamera’s zooming-in on a photograph that wassuccessively enlarged for the thrilling search formore and more information. The plot would startto unwind after reaching a critical point,
whenthe selfsame photograph became so grainy thatnothing more could be seen. In this way, viewerswere captivated by Michelangelo Antonioni’sfilm “Blow Up” (1966), when the main characterfound evidence of a gun murder by enlarging andenlarging photographs.Obtaining new evidence through the successiveexpanding and sorting of photographic imagesconcerned astronomers and nuclear physicists asmuch as Hollywood producers in a society thatrevolved as much on spectacle (as described byGuy Debord) as on surveillance (as described byMichel Foucault). It seemed utterly thrilling torealize that images contained information andthat a noise-to-signal ratio impeded total recall.It was exciting to see how this logic was based onthe laws of thermodynamics—the same ones thatexplained why the countercultural lives of artistsin the60s also ended in dissipation and disarray.ike all good stories, this one had its own moral.Blow up, or in broader terms, the thrill of thinkingthat something can be found in an image—evenat a price—seems quaint when we considerHarper’s work. Not only does her work ask
.3. Giuliana Bruno, “Film, Aesthetics, Sci-ence: Hugo Münsterberg’sLaboratory of Moving Images,”
Grey Room
36(2009).4. Peter Galison and Caroline Jones A.,“Factory, Laboratory, Studio: DispersingSites of Production,” in
The Architectureof Science
, ed. Peter Galison andEmily Thompson (Cambridge, Mass.:MIT Press, 1999).5. Jean Baudrillard,
Simulacra and Simulation
, The Body, in Theory(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press,1994). Originally published in 1981.Derrida described the “trace” as alink between the “world” and “livedexperience”: “The unheard difference …(between the ‘world’ and ‘livedexperience’) is the condition of allother differences, of all other traces, andit is already a trace.”Jacques Derrida,
Of Grammatology 
, 1st American ed.(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UniversityPress, 1976), 65.
SH_finalpages.V3.indd 25/9/12 3:21 PM
viewers to consider an entirely different plot,it asks them to consider a completely differentmoral order.Harper does not use a photographic camera,since we cannot know when the instrumentbegins and ends or when the work of the artiststarts and finishes. When the movements inthe work become extreme from gliding ontrain tracks, powered by jet-turbines, or movedby the rotation of the earth at the vertiginousspeed of 300,000 km, they are part of thephotographing instrument itself. Beginning withthe astronomer Johannes Kepler and ending withthe psychologist James J. Gibson we have cometo think of vision in terms of camera-obscuraoptics. But in Harper’s work the eye is no longera camera and the camera is hardly an eye—bothare salient singularities inamuch larger set ofsystemic transformations.We see the rotating Earth, not in the slowindications of a swinging pendulum, but instantly,by the starlight that scratches a negative.She thus produces snapshots of an order ofmagnitude comparable to the very scale of thesolar system. Triggers, so closely connected tocameras (since Daguerre), guns (since Marey)andmurderplots(since Antonioni), are suddenlyviscous—grabbingontoa finger on a body ona planet on an infinitely expanding system. Theviolence of the image and the technique is nolonger that of a singular shot; rather, the terror ofboth is indefinitely extended.Harper plays with sequential photographsto expand time. Images sometimes appearvertically instead of horizontally and sometimesgo right to left. Her sequential images are alsouniquely singular, taken at a glance. The order ispoetic, in the sense of literary experiments withanagrams or palindromes. With them we aredrawn to question the tired practice of readingsequentially from left to right, a habit hammeredinto counter-reformation viewers by proliferatingrepresentations of the stations of the cross andby increased literacy. Yet we no longer inhabit aworld where time is seen as expanding like space.Harper’s work is temporal and historical. But itis a history that is anonymous, unconstrained bydates and calendars, and eternal. Nothing is lost,nothing discarded. Yet this plenum is “framed”in the tradition of classic, modern art. Her work isiconic—but in a different way. We absorb it in thecontext of the repertoire of stock astronomicalimages, from Galileo’s to Hubble’s, that surroundus. Yet her work disturbs this tradition. Testingout her images again and again to find onethat “proves” to be a moon, tacitly comparingthis view of the moon against an implicit set ofbona-fide images known from science, we arein a world where we cannot trust our memories,our scientists, or our nature. Against what dowe compare an image of the moon, while weare really looking at it? We can safely assumethat the iconography NASA has provided us isaccurate, but when Harper uses a camera and atelescope, we are no longer so sure.Harper continues a tradition (represented by thepaintings of J. M. W Turner and Caspar DavidFriedrich among others) that explored (andsometimes contested) traditional boundariesof science and art. By using a variety oftechnologies (analog, digital, video, high-speed)and coupling these instruments with lensesand telescopes, Harper’s work provides uswith visual imagery clearly connected to well-known scientific icons, but that differs from it inessential ways. In her work, the moon may appearimperfect (cloudy, blurry, or in daylight), andits sequences are not cinematographic: framesdisappear and the indicated time is that of theartist—not of the phenomena. Astronomicaliconography is deliberately profaned. The
SH_finalpages.V3.indd 35/9/12 3:21 PM

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