TOM MCGLYNN & THE ASYMPTOTES OF OPTICALITY

Mohammad Salemy

Tom McGlynn is known to the art world, particularly in New York, first as a
painter and second as a sculptor. This exhibition marks the first time he is
showing his photographs. Produced on an ongoing basis, the works in this
exhibition deserve to be considered as more than a resource for McGlynn’s
known practice. Quite the opposite, it makes more sense if the artists’ minimalist
paintings and sculptures are regarded as a reference to these 700 plus pictures the
same way a QR or barcode refers to a longer and more sophisticated cypher.
McGlynn’s photographs are the disenchanting surface encounter between two
machines, photography and architecture, minus the exhausting discourse about
the inherent humanism of either technologies. These pictures vividly establish
how an ingenuous combination of geometry and color forms the optical core of
human civilization and consequently that of the history of technogenesis.[i]

McGlynn’s photographs are neither visually spectacular nor the evidence of a
singular artistic subjectivity which itself is often the undeniable proof of the
existence of human ingenuity and autonomy. This self undermining
deemphasizes the enthralling character of photography, pushing it further into the
territory of inhumanity. McGlynn’s pictures can be called synthetic photographs
in the same way that one could have condemned photography in the 19th century
for being an inexpensive kind of painting. The artist’s camera should also not be
conflated with today’s anthropocentric drones, which roam the atmosphere to
feed neoliberalism’s obsession with world domination. More than depicting the
situations in front of the camera they implicate an alien intelligence behind the
apparatus, an inhuman judgment walking the earth to autonomously contemplate
the unity of built environments according to its own disenchanting criteria and
towards its own unclear purpose.

With these photographs, the artist appears to be taking a page out of Friedrich
Kittler’s Optical Media; he disregards the burdening history of human perception
and instead focuses on the monotonous phenomenality of optics.[ii] His
photographs are the repetitious contemplations of simple blocks and blotches of
color, or what I call geochromatic elements. These pictures only make sense and
become momentous differentially, signalling their implications while
accumulating quantitative differentiation. They number among empirical studies
in which more is simply more, while at the same time less than the sum of its
parts, the point at which quantity and quality pass a threshold and co convert.

The reason these pictures function as art has less to do with photography’s
historical lineage and more with the works’ ability to not only refigure the
external space in a new flat fashion but also invent a common language (logoi)
for such an undertaking.[iii] They collectively “identify–measure–describe” a
new space where perspective collapses and optical depth self-compresses under
the weight of its own logic even before reaching the flattening machine of
photography. The recognizable geometry of McGlynn’s photos also demonstrate
how the transmission of optical knowledge can be looked at as the basis of other
wireless methods of communication. They point to the potentials of images for
carrying astonishing amounts of code in the form of abstract imagery, making the
recorded signals available on the surface of the world for transactions between
optically enabled machines.

In addition to the theories of Kittler, McGlynn’s photographs relate to Wilém
Flusser’s concept of the technical image,[iv] François Laruelle’s of non-
photography[v], and Ray Brassier’s rearticulation of the Sellarsian notions of the
scientific versus manifest image;[vi] they challenge the bifurcated histories of the
technical and metaphysical images while downgrading their undisputed
significance as the visual source of function, meaning, or both. With this body of
work, McGlynn foreshadows not only the closing of the Heideggerian ‘age of the
world picture, and the decline of the optical paradigm in knowledge production
but also the rise of invisible algorithms in the arts, humanities and sciences.[vii]

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Before Brunelleschi, along with other European artists and architects, used
Alhazen’s theories of optics to standardize perspective and construct the first
camera obscura, the reliability of flat refigurations of the physical space
proximate to humans was contingent on the extent of intuitive skills belonging to
those studying trigonometry, light, optics and, above all, art.[viii] Even though
these fluctuating competencies may have delayed the emergence of perspective,
they nevertheless contributed to the invention of a variety of specific
spatialization techniques essential to the study of art before the renaissance. The
transformation of human-mediated models of the world into the physical space’s
auto-reflectivity was neither gradual nor sudden, and its progression followed an
uneven logic similar to what Thomas Kuhn proposes as the structure of scientific
revolutions.[ix] The emergence of perspective wasn’t solely caused by Alhazen
but contingent on the synthesis of his findings with what was already traceable, if
not entirely foreshadowed, in the outer form of pre-perspectival paintings.[x] The
adoption of perspective a universal epistemology compelled artists to finally
‘figure out’ how to channel the inhuman and physical logic of optics into the flat
surface of the canvas.[xi] Perspective was the blueprint for building a navigable
and objective virtual world baring the markers of space familiar to human eyes,
i.e. dark versus light, far versus near, and depth versus altitude.[xii] Overall, the
invention of perspective brought about the universalization of the optic’s singular
spatial logic. In addition, by interrelating all perspectival images it substantiated
their concreteness and therefore the realness of the external world.

Thus, the emergence of perspective can be regarded as the beginning of the end
of the optical paradigm and the start of the longer trajectory of the
algorithmically augmented knowledge. This is why even though in the beginning,
the use of perspective was only meant to improve the metaphysical functions of
art and provide them with a scientific material base, over the course of time, it
gradually overshadowed the existing toolbox of painting, which was mostly
dominated by the complex technologies of narrative, metaphor and allegory. In
contrast to the secular character of perspective, these enchanting mechanisms
could go beyond the geometrics of paint on canvas and transcendentalize the
implications of painting. However, by restricting painting to the geometrical
demands of space, the concept of perspective wound up transmuting the role of
the artist to that of a programmer. Painters after perspective grew more
concerned with what they placed in their picture in opposed to how they chose to
visualize its space. Ultimately, perspective, followed by photography as its direct
descendant, did less to advance the autonomy of images and more to limit their
conditions of possibility. They opened the gates to an informationally accessible
but logically closed and generally more rule-based understanding of space and,
later on via cinema, of time.

Historians of modern art often insist that the programmatization of artistic
practices in the late 19th century only coincided with the invention of
photography and had little to do with the epistemological ramifications of the
new medium. However, if, following Alios Riegl, one sees the materiality of
artistic volition inseparable from that of the declining, dominant or emerging
worldviews, then it can’t be that hard to see how photography may have changed
the course of the 20th century art. We can at least suggest that by further
diminishing the artist’s determinacy over the image, photography changed the
function of the modern artist from that of a world maker to either a technician—
fashioning pictures that adhered to and reinforced the age-old spatial logic of
universal optics or a folk philosopher—blatantly rejecting the perspectival
realism and its political implications with every new work of art. This is why the
emergence of abstract painting and the Duchampian readymade can themselves
be interpreted as two different sets of programmatic responses by artists troubled
by the rising hegemonies of realism and photography and their decisive power of
world making. While abstraction negated the representability of pictures, the
readymade denounced representation all together and pushed photography
beyond its limits. It removed the camera apparatus as the distributor of the world,
directly offering it in the name of art to the viewers one object at a time.

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It is rather easy to accept that every camera is an autonomous and intelligent
machine. But to this we should immediately add that photography’s ultimate
purpose is not just the autonomous production of the pictures of space and the
proliferation of photography’s inherent perspectival logic. In addition,
photography, like an alien life form, invisibly mass emulates its own means of
reproduction within the same flat surface in every single picture by the virtue of
being seen. Let’s just say that the photographic surface is much more mechanical
than Benjamin supposed in his account of the reproducibility of images and what
we, very late and in the form of an epiphany, took for granted as the conditions of
possibility for the medium in the 20th century. Photography therefore should be
understood anew, not only as a novel image technology but also as a machine for
the mass multiplication of a particular spatial logic, for a cohesive mass
organization of images and as a wager to guarantee the mass reproduction of
photograhicality itself. If perspective had a logic, the camera and photography
are carriers that spread it beyond its original function among select humans such
as artists and scientists to all those who have eyes and can see.

A photograph is more than a rectangular reflection of the space. It is also an
industrial surface that both exploits and mimics the propensity of life forms to
optical experiences and monopolizes the portrayal of space and its substance in
its own specific flat order. Photographs are the only available alternative to the
space of humans’ own limited photographic consciousness, if not also that of
their second-rate memory. A photograph mechanically arrests a familiar image of
space not only to later mass represent it, but also to limit and regulate its viewers’
resulting range of experiences in the name of the space it flattens into a plane.
Looking at a particular photograph solicits the human cognitive machine to
member or collect a specific memory. The material result of this act consists of
the memory of the experience of looking at that particular photograph. While we
each may use the temporal trajectory of our own individuated orientation to re-
member a picture, we are all nevertheless bound in doing so by the photograph’s
physical limits and geometric content. Regardless of what we associate with the
lines, shapes and textures that form this content, each photograph makes a very
similar imprint on the neurological interior of its many viewers. In short, the
second order of mechanicality that follows photography’s mass dissemination
potentials takes place via this process or the twin trajectories that Bernard
Stiegler calls the industrialization of human memory and the proletarization of
the consciousness.[xiii]

Cameras are not isolated picture-tools bound by their objecthood. They are
borderless and overlapping optical zones engaged in world making. In fact the
networked machine of photography incrementally proliferate every time a new
camera is put into circulation like how central banks issue currency. Thus, the
third and final order of mechanization takes place rather implicitly as the
production and reproduction of first the perspective and later photography and
the printed photographs and lastly the camera epigenetically snowballs into an
astronomical image catastrophe. Today the expansion of the space of opticality
marked by every pair of eyes and each and every camera, photograph and digital
screen provides the necessary interface between the political economy of what
Mark Fisher has called the capitalist realism and the masses of people depending
on an image economy like a monetary form of social exchange.[xiv] The
inflation of circulating photographs monopolizes the visual mapping of the space,
intentionally limiting, if not altogether sabotaging its future possibilities by
establishing rules for how this space can properly be conceived. Like the
diminishing power of fiat currencies and the impending peak oil, image inflation
has its own catastrophic effects on the ability of photographs to function
effectively. Photography at the threshold of the 21st century is nothing but the
victim of its own success. It is achieving not much but the exhaustion of the
possibilities and significance of bio-optics with every new pixel produced.

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Whereas pornography and philosophy have historically mythicize photography
each in their own specific manner through stretching and overstating its
potentials, the biggest blow to the medium, if not its inevitable decline, is a
consequence of the photography’s 21st century mass consumerization through
the lethal combination of digital photography and networked technologies. In
other words, the decline of the optical spectacle and its subsumption by
machines’ practical inclination towards other cognitive alternatives is mostly due
to the historical accomplishments of pictures and not their failure. As the
photographic growth curve brushes up against its own asymptote, opticality has
nowhere to go but to be ultimately integrated in the larger and abstract machinery
of signal-driven and algorithmic world making. Consequently, the
pornophilosophically-manufactured fog of enchantment that has so far granted
the medium its aphrodisiac and metaphysical license is finally vanishing.[xv]
This new postorgasmic transparency about photography’s conditions of
possibility will be immediately followed by the clarification of the discrepancy
between our optimistic understanding of the medium and its truly exhausting
reality.

Not only the proliferation of digital and algorithmic knowledge has caused an
ontological epiphany to loom above photography’s place in the history of art, it
has also started to undermine art’s own place both within the world of art and in
the larger context of in contemporary life. Contemporary art’s identity crisis has
forced artists, critics and art historians who have invested their intellectual stocks
in the aesthetic and metaphysical value of art to respond to the situation much
like the Japanese World War II holdouts. They are either digging deeper into
their old 20th century sacred trenches to defend the unique and embodied human
experience, or are retreating to and defending the specialized fields of art and
their isolated histories as the only valid sources of signification and relevance for
art. Others have already abandoned the sinking ship of social, ethical and
historical relevance altogether and now embrace the newly found appreciation of
objects via the various shades of the object-oriented philosophy. It seems that by
successfully denying their obvious debt to object-oriented media and
communication technologies, the OOO evangelists and their new converts within
the art world have devised a new face saving technique for retreat through which
one joins the enemy forces while walking backwards into their arms.

What intuitively agonizes a large number of artists, critics and art historians
today is how opticality along with various human-centered or -mediated
epistemologies are gradually declining and will soon be completely subsumed by
and incorporated into a new paradigm in which, not only images but also the
whole physical universe can only be approached as computationally related and
algorithmically relevant fragments. Today, the notions of form and materiality,
which carried a conceptual weight throughout the 20th century, are increasingly
becoming less relevant in relation to the invisible forms and materialisms that are
starting to be recognized as a result of autonomous interventions by inhuman
forces of computation and machinic cognition.[xvi] All in all, the complexity of
both the physical space and what it holds can no longer be afforded to be
exclusively defined in terms described and mediated by the human’s natural
cognitive capabilities. If machines, which are increasingly taking over
everywhere from humans, can only conceive the world in terms of digital and/or
pre-digital signals, then it certainly doesn’t make that much of a philosophical,
scientific or even artistic difference if the human’s insistence on the authentic and
enchanting qualities of being and seeing is truly valid and sound.

Welcome to the interfacelessness of the machine.

LAUNCH THE EXHIBITION



[i]. Bernard Stiegler describes technogenesis as the science of technical evolution
in which humans do not have a major role and are not “the intentional origin of
separate technical individuals qua machines. [they] rather execute a quasi-
intentionality of which the technical object is itself the carrier.” See: Bernard
Stiegler, Technics and Time 1 The Fault of Epimetheus (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1998), 26, 67.

[ii]. Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media (Cambridge: Polity, 2010).

[iii]. My use of the term “logoi” refers to Reza Negarestani for whom philosophy
is a rigorous program of abstraction and a platform for automation of discursive
practices whose mission is to arrive at what came to be known to Greeks as logoi
or truths.” See: Reza Negarestani, “Navigate With Extreme Prejudice
(Definitions and Ramifications),” Encyclonospace Iranica (Vancouver: Access,
dadabase, 2013), 3.

[iv]. Wilém Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

[v]. François Laruelle, The Concept of Non-Photography (New York: Sequence
Press, 2011).

[vi]. Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Naturalism and Anti-Phenomenological
Realism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[vii]. Brassier’s rejection of the split between the scientific and manifest image is
tracable not only in Wilfred Sellars’ works but also in Laruelle’s: “Thus, this
non-decisional immanence, which allows itself to be posited as already given
without decisional positing, is an immanence that does not even need to be
liberated from decisional transcendence: it is precisely as that which is already
separated (without-separation) from the decisional co-constitution of given and
givenness, immanence and transcendence, that it conditions its own positing as
already given.” See: Ray Brassier, “Axiomatic Heresy: The Non-philosophy of
François Laruelle,” Radical Philosophy 121 (2003): 24-35.

[viii]. Alhazen or Ab! "Al# al-$asan ibn al-$asan ibn al-Haytham (965-1040
AD) was an Arab scientist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. His
work had a significant impact on the progress in the fields of optics,
mathematics, astronomy, and the scientific method. He wrote explicitly about
Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Euclid. His scientific and intellectual contributions are
documented in over 200 books.

[ix]. In The Structures of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn suggests that scientific
progress follows an episodic model in which periods of conceptual continuity in
normal science are interrupted by periods of revolutionary science. The
revelation of “anomalies” during revolutions in science leads to new scientific
standards. New ideals then put in question old discoveries, putting in motion new
projects. Please see: Thomas S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
(Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012).

[x]. This should explain why Alhazen’s scientific discoveries could not have had
a direct impact on Islamic art. The strong geometric and abstract traditions of
visual arts and the prohibition of representational imagery in the Islamic world
made the arts unable to absorb or ramify his findings.

[xi]. According to the Oxford dictionary, “to figure out” means to discover,
decide, solve or decipher. Long before Deleuze, Susanne Langer (American
philosopher, 1895-1985) had used Bergson’s notions of mind and memory to
relate art to the concept of the virtual. She believed that figuring out the space of
an artwork was no less than building a virtual world. She describes virtuality as
“the quality of all things that are created to be perceived.” For her, the virtual is
npt only a matter of consciousness but also something external that is created
intentionally, existing materially as a space of contemplation outside of the
human mind. Langer sees virtuality as a physical space created by the artist, like
a painting or a building, that is “significant in itself and not as part of the
surroundings.” She particularly considers architecture not as the realization of a
space for being but its conceptual translation into virtuality for perceiving: “The
architect, in fine, deals with a created space, a virtual entity.” In contrast to
Bergson and Deleuze, for Langer virtuality is tangible and can cause a
contemplative interaction between humans and the machine. See: Susanne K.
Langer, Feeling and Form (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953), 65, 114-115.

[xii]. What is usually lost in the deafening debate between technological
determinists and social constructivists is the obvious bio-neuro-techno-logical
fact that long before the little hole in the camera obscura became the common
denominator of space, the twin translucent little holes on the human face did the
equivalent of filtering the reflexive noise of light frequencies and guided the
human mind in the transformation of space into a visually knowable world.

[xiii]. Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time 2 Disorientation (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 2009), 87-189.

[xiv]. Mark Fisher argues that the best way to describe the current global political
situation is through the term “capitalist realism”. This dispute in his book titled
Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, is a critique and response to neo-
liberalism and hybrid governments which take advantage of the logic of
capitalism and and the market to all aspects of governance. See: Mark Fisher,
Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (Roplet: Zero Books, 2009).

[xv]. I am borrowing the concept of asymptote from Jonathan Nitzan and
Shimshon Bichler who describe it as, “a quantitative limit, something like a
‘ceiling’ or a ‘floor’ that a curve approaches but never quite reaches. And the
same term can be used to describe the limits of power.” See: Shimshon Bichler
and Jonathan Nitzan, “The Asymptotes of Power,” last modified February 2012,
http://bnarchives.yorku.ca/328/02/20120200_bn_asymptotes_of_power.pdf,
(accessed January 18, 2014).

[xvi]. For more on this topic, see Robin Mackay, “Metameterial: Immateriaux
Art, Philosophy and Curating 30 Years After Lyotard,” last modified January 18,
2014, http://www.di.ens.fr/users/longo, (accessed January 18, 2014).

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