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Pour, James McArdle Pour, James McArdle
courtesy the artist

The works in this exhibition and the evolving practice of these two established photographers speak to and of the journey from traditional photography to what Vilem Flusser has identified in his introduction to his 1983 book Towards a Philosophy of Photography (Reaktion, London, 2000) as the technical image. As Flusser predicted:

The universe of technical images, as it is about to establish itself around us, poses itself as the plenitude of our times, in which all actions and passions turn in eternal repetition. It is from this apocalyptic perspective that the problem of photography will acquire the shape proper to it.

The works in this exhibition, in their overt and covert digital manipulation, witness and enact this flow from the traditional photographic to the technical image and can be read as aesthetic speculations on this shift.

Armstrong’s series of digital photographs are heavily manipulated grids of astronomical images sampled from the night sky with time exposures of a number of seconds using both analog and digital recording equipment. These grids are reconfigurations of those stars that impose such presence on one’s visual nocturnal experience of regional Victoria. It is a presence that is often lost on those living with the washed out night skies common to a metropolis like Melbourne or Sydney.

Each dot in these grids retains a soft blurrable contour filled with a smudge of colour often lost on the naked eye. Though such a description highlights those painterly aspects that the digital has been perceived as championing, these clusters of light have arrived as images through decades of technical analog astronomical interrogation of the sky. They have been considered as ‘real’ technical extensions of the naked eye. They also have a presence beyond the grid as Armstrong has stretched and morphed them into three-dimensional shape.

The surface of Armstrong’s work hovers playfully in this gap between the analog and the digital. Each dot performs like a de-facto pixel that forms into a spatial relationship with others. These compositions are more technical than the ‘organic’ organization of the night sky. Whilst symbols, characters and numeric codes were historically projected onto such tapestries of light, Armstrong’s clusters have arrived from somewhere else, from within the technology itself into what would previously have been considered a fiction.

If as Flusser points out, “Ontologically traditional images mean phenomena, while technical images mean concept”, then Armstrong’s work performs a metamorphosis on the history of astronomical photography, itself a premonition of the technical image, into an abstracted perceptual field that is reminiscent of pop art and conceptual art. It is the collated data set of stars as images that is being presented for consumption here.

Daniel Armstrong, Star Map Daniel Armstrong, Star Map
courtesy the artist
In deciphering such a data-basic puzzle, we are confronted with the same dilemma that Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) faces in Blade Runner in his unfolding relationship with the replicant Rachael (Sean Young), which precariously swings on whether she is human or android (or whether he is). As in that representational hall of mirrors, even if there is no difference (and there is), something has shifted in our relationship to the image. This unease, a destabilising mix of visceral intuition and critical thought, visits you in front of one of Armstrong’s concoctions, to disarmingly cancel each other out. Like a roo caught in the headlights of a moving car, we are immobilised by reflection and physicality working on each other. What is required to address the impasse is a re-jigging of the senses and critical thoughts. It requires a new way of seeing to overcome the trauma that technology throws our way.

This infatuation with what is ‘real’ and what is ‘not,’ which is present in Armstrong’s earlier re-enactments of bogus flying-saucer imagery, reaches a new register here and contains within the ovoid and circular constellations a mischievous trace of this earlier obsession.

If you stand in front of these images long enough then the figure-ground gestalt flips to turn the lights into clusters of holes rather than imaginary objects or symbols. It is an ominous glare that seeps through these holes and can bring to mind the prowling light outside, trying to enter the darkened house, situations that often occur in horror films and those about alien visitations. It is a reversal that also brings to mind Flusser’s contention (Finger, The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism, Champaign University of Illinois Press, 2003) that the once private home has become a nomadic tent buffeted by the technological winds that sweep through the multifarious wires that pierce its perimeters. Is this Merleau-Ponty’s embodied being-in-the-world, pierced and under siege, dumbfounded by the technical image?

McArdle’s blurs and smudges come from a different dimension, not out of distance and time, but movement and time. These landscapes harness the vortex, a phenomenon I first encountered in Arthur and Corinne Cantrill’s moving image work Near Coober Pedy (15 min, 1977) and further articulated in Canadian Jack Chamber’s found footage film Hart of London (16mm 80 min, 1970)

Near Coober Pedy consists of a series of shots captured from a moving car during an interminably long car journey to Australia’s centre. The camera locks in on and tracks in short pans individual features in the flat, ‘barren’ landscape, to create a swirl of movement, a vortex, around these still points.

Hart of London, assembled out of historical newsreel film footage from the Ontario town of London, has moments of movement and editing that break free from the narrative documentation even more emphatically than the lyrical body of the film. These moments are referred to as vortices by Chambers and could also be described as windows or wormholes into more synecdochic modes of representation.

These films both perform ‘unsettling’ operations on the representation of three-dimensional Cartesian space and linear/causal time. McArdle can be read as combining such strategies within the photographic and transforming its stillness into a trace of movement. His use of the vortex and the blur as indicators of a landscape being moved through find a precedent in the metamorphosis of the senses that the train traveller was required to implement at the turn of the 19th century.

Reading the moving landscape overwhelmed the early train traveller. “The inability to acquire a mode of perception adequate to technological travel crossed all political, ideological and aesthetic lines” (Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey, Berg, New York, 1986). New perceptual strategies had to be developed that contextualised the blur and the streak. “To adapt to the conditions of rail travel, a process of decentralisation, or dispersal of attention, took place in reading as well as the traveller’s perception of the landscape outside.”

McArdle extends these ways of looking. His images of the landscape are collected in transit on car journeys through vicinities around Bendigo. A fleeting glance may fasten on some detail. This place is then re-visited on foot to gather images on the move and swivel of the body and the camera. The gestures of McArdle’s body and the camera’s movements are registered as the streak and blur and the painterly swirl, the vortex. The large scale of these images, as with Armstrong’s, also enables a bodily as well as visual response from the gallery viewer-participant.

The digital has allowed McArdle to evolve his technique in documenting such a gestural landscape into a seamless triptych where a foreground close-up, medium shot and wide angled horizon are combined into a painterly yet still photographic collage. This technique allows McArdle to increase the intensity and directions of the gestures he imparts on the landscape in his work.

I am arguing that these are not random operations but document a bodily relationship to these spaces. They add an emotional register of meaning. One of the most effective images places the vortex within the dark hole of a group of mine shafts that pepper the local landscape. It is as if the fluid landscape is being sucked into these holes. Is this an indication of a spent and unsettled landscape, a space in crisis, or are these the traces of emotion imparted from the body of the photographer himself? In such a way the personal and the local can be read in dialogue in McArdle’s work.

The ‘technical’ in these works operate differently from those of Armstrong’s. They remain hidden under the surface. This may be one of the reasons why it was the mineshafts that caught this writer’s critical eye, as they can suggest a subterranean yet historical world outside the purview of the image. For Flusser the technical image is about a preoccupation with surface. McArdle’s images tease at this concern but remain more than surface.

Armstrong’s and McArdle’s images articulate how we are now embedded in Flusser’s premonition, the age of the technical image; where the written sentence is redundant, where images speak for themselves and all at once. This may be considered magic but it is not. The pea is under every pod (or none). It is also the age in which Schrödinger’s Cat is made manifest (or not).

Finally, the fact that these techniques are being expressed through the local energises and focuses this work. That is why it was so important that this exhibition was experienced in Bendigo. Driving up from Melbourne during the day, my eye caught many moments in the landscape into which James McArdle’s technical and bodily strategies could have inserted themselves. On the way back, driving across the Westgate Bridge at night into Melbourne, there were Daniel Armstrong’s grids sprinkled across the city in front of me, framed by the car window.

James McArdle, Daniel Armstrong, Azimuth, Phyllis Palmer Gallery, RMIT, Bendigo, July 27-Aug 8, 2007

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 52

© Dirk de Bruyn; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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