A second aspect of my experimental attitude involves speculation, and for me that means asking about the reality of the relations between things, relations that are not dominated by the human experience of those things. That is a hard task, for how do you imagine the relation between a snail and the leaf it is eating (which is perfectly real as a relation) without anthropocentrism, without scientific reductionism, even without language?
— Muecke, Stephen. “Motorcycles, Snails, Latour: Criticism without Judgement.” Cultural Studies Review 18.1 (2012): 40-58. Print.
A camera obscura creates a projection from light on the other side of an aperture. It shows the outside on the inside. The light that you might typically experience hitting your eyes is instead hitting a wall, a bathtub, a door, or whatever solid surface is there, and then reflects back into your eyes or camera. This adds an extra step, a step that helps create something new and unexpected.
This year-plus of lockdowns, shelter-in-place orders, and the sudden forced insideness of pandemic life has in many ways, more and more as I continue to think it through, made the meaning of this camera obscura project that much more significant and intense for me. I live in a small town in a low population area and see very few people (outside of my family) in real life. The images projected on the walls really do, in many ways, match my world. The upside down ephemeral images now seem right; they are an accurate reflection. This year has often felt surreal and incomprehensible.
This is how it works: light from outside a black box projects onto the wall opposite the aperture, creating an inverted image of that view. One of the interesting things I had not been considering was the nature of that “wall.” I set up this project in my mostly unused attic bathroom in our temporary on-campus housing, and I had very pragmatic reasons for it. It has only one window (so it is easy to set up the blacked out window; I covered it with cardboard pierced with one small aperture hole); no one in my family really uses this bathroom, so closing off the window doesn’t matter much (I had started this project in my home office but it was unbearable to be in that dark of a room for long); the room is pretty empty so the projected images are not obscured by the objects of our daily lives.
Deeper than that, past the pragmatic reasoning, I have made other choices that I had not given much consideration to. I could hang a sheet on that wall to create a clean and simple surface for the projection to show; instead, I am projecting on a wall with a door, a clawfoot bathtub, and a built-in storage unit. My wife commented that the photographs resemble something that David Lynch might make, in that they are surreal, unheimlich, uncomfortable, and sometimes maybe beautiful. The mundane everyday (but also mostly abandoned) space becomes elevated; the space is reconceived and made special in some way. Where a photo of my bathroom’s view of winter trees or a photo of my bathroom wall would not be interesting or worthy of much comment at all, the combination is something new, a bit strange, and strangely interesting. The materials, the process, the documentation, these all work together to make something worthwhile and maybe wonderful. I’m beginning to realize that all of my pandemic-thesis projects are like this.
The actions, or really lack of actions, needed to make this work—the sitting and waiting for your eyes to adjust to the light/dark of the room and the for the projections to become clear—reminds of a James Turrell piece viewed in a nearly pitch-black room that you have to just sit and wait for your eyes to see. I have entered one of these Turrell Dark Spaces at MASS MoCA, and find viewing it slightly uncomfortable. I start to get bored sitting looking at nothing, but then as I begin to make out something, it becomes clearer and more apparent, and I wonder how I didn’t see it before. The experience is something simple and maybe profound. The creative network of things (light, wall, bench; and then sometimes also eye, brain, me) has been there working together the entire time; it has not needed any audience to activate it in any way.
My camera obscura project is a collection and collaboration of objects acting as tools, acting with a sort of agency, and participating in a network of ideas and things and idea things and things that are ideas. Each time I go into the attic bathroom to take these pictures projected light bouncing off walls, or as I sit and wait as my eyes adjust to the dark, to the faint light of this process, I am merely observing something that is happening with or without me present. The light streams and the photons bend and bounce, creating these images whether I can perceive them or not. The light, the cardboard, the enamel of the tub, the paint on the walls, door and cupboards are all part of the network making these images in ways I can’t fully understand, sense, fully grab hold of or in any way define, but that I can be a part of and document some aspect of. Not all of it, but a bit of it. The tip of an iceberg of making. I only need to sit and wait and trust that something worthwhile is happening.
This is an ephemeral experience; it does not make a record, it does not leave any trace. I have to do that part. To document the experience, you have to use some kind of long exposure camera with something like film. My phone’s camera app has a machine learning enhanced Night Sight setting that functions similarly to a long exposure setting on a film camera.
Taking a picture with a camera while sitting inside a camera is an odd experience, like being in your car while traveling on a ferry. While not profound, unusual. When you pay attention to it.
Chapter 2 — Hybrid Posters.