...Wim Bosch presents us with photographic works that, on closer inspection, turn out to consist of multiple layers. Each photograph can be regarded as a window on the world. That conception belongs to the long tradition of centralised perspective. Projection on the computer screen during the creative process enhances the effect of a transparent image even further...
The photographic medium
The artistic appreciation of photography has a chequered history. At first the photograph was regarded as the most adequate representation of reality. The photograph was taken to be a completely transparent medium without any influence or distortion of its own. But it was not long before the possibilities of doctoring the image were discovered. The famous photographer of Amerindians Curtis managed to eliminate the alarm clock from the wigwam, while elsewhere unpopular public figures were removed from the party platform in the darkroom. That was characterised as the falsification of history at the time, but photography did not come into its own as a medium until the era of Surrealism. Every possibility was exploited. Reality was no longer a touchstone. In the meantime the photograph turned into an omnipresent mass medium. The medium underwent a transformation with the transition from analog to digital. Now anyone can manipulate images at home and create the realities of their choice.
A photographer who deploys the medium in an artistic context cannot just present beautiful pictures without explicitly relating to the medium and its relation to reality. Even documentary images can no longer be naïvely exhibited without taking into account the specific laws and conventions of the medium that have emerged. Reality is made accessible or even produced by the media, and photography is the corresponding instrument. Artistic photography is bound to relate to the photograph as a medium. Wim Bosch does that in an inimitable way. Nevertheless, I shall try to follow him philosophically in that enterprise and critically assess his work as a form of media art.
The cycle of mediation
Even a bird’s-eye view of the history of photography like that presented above indicates that the development of the medium follows a regular course that photography shares with other media. The contemporary philosophy of technology investigates how media develop, how they are appropriated, incorporated and culturally embedded. New media alter perception and therefore call for a new visual idiom and conferral of meaning. They enable us to domesticate new technologies.
The concept of ’remediation’ indicates that new media not only replace older media but also to a certain extent repeat them (J.D. Bolter and R. Grusin, Remediation. Understanding New Media, MIT 1999). The classic camera has a recognised precursor in the camera obscura and a successor in its digitised form linked to the computer. Remediation offers an earlier technology wider possibilities, but that widening is at the expense of certain properties. That process of sifting takes place in predictable stages that we can chart one by one.
The US philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford pointed out that in their earliest form, technologies often have the appearance of a ‘pseudomorph’. That geological term refers to a process in which a mineral hardens in a form that is not its own, as in the case of a fossilised sea-urchin. In the same way, new technologies can remain lurking in outdated forms for a while. The first steam-driven tram was shaped like a horse so as not to frighten the horses in the street. A pseudomorph of that kind can persist far beyond the limits of utility and reasonableness. Likewise, the earliest cameras bore a close resemblance to the camera obscura in that they had a photo-sensitive plate which made it possible to fix the image that entered. The camera first had to break free from the early version that produced unique photographs too.
The next step in the process of embedding is that the new technology, device or piece of equipment is brought to the public attention as something new. An attempt is made to legitimate it, usually in the form of an alleged transparency or immediacy. The device is presented as no more than offering an open window on the world, without any mediation of its own. The camera did that, and so did the television. They were considered for a long time as the stewards of reality. Apparently that is reassuring. Still, it is also just a passing episode. The specific potential of the new media is gradually explored further. The medium increasingly unveils itself as a medium. It flirts with its own role in gaining access to reality, it places its own regularity in the foreground and shows how it frames and stylises reality. This is when the medium reaches the stage of ‘hypermediation’. Television, for instance, used to show trouble spots in the world as though the viewer were an eye-witness there, as though the medium were an open viewer. Today you see newsreaders with a screen above their shoulder on which images illustrate what they say, while streaming news flashes appear below in text; that is hypermediation. Photography followed a similar course.
Hypermediation leads in turn to hybridisation, to mixed forms of media. In its hypermediated state, the TV screen is barely distinguishable from the computer screen, on which text and icons to click on alternate with mini-screens of streaming video. The TV is not yet interactive, but perhaps in that case it should no longer be called a television. Or if you look at it from the opposite direction, it may be that the hypermediated TV is already a pseudomorph of the computer screen. Pseudomorphism and hybridisation are thus two sides of the same coin. A new medium is born, first looks for a refuge in an old form, then distinguishes itself as a transparent medium, before finally finding its appropriate form, only to immediately somersault into hypermediation before hybridising in the twilight zone of new pseudomorphs.
It would be a good thing if technical designers would take the cycle of mediation outlined above as seriously as the by now familiar life-cycle analysis. The latter charts the life-cycle of a device in terms of material and energy, while the former charts the cycle of appropriation. I have gone into the role of artists in the process of cultural appropriation in my previous books and explorations. Artists play a pioneering role in the coining of the new visual idiom and meanings that enable us to domesticate new technologies and to place and name the as yet unknown experiences that they open up. Artists are the number one liquefying agents. They are not content with pseudomorphs and alleged transparency or apparent immediacy, but are the engines of hypermediation and hybridisation. That is why they prefer to haunt the promising twilight zones of technology and media. At least, Wim Bosch does.
Analog photography is already an old and hypermediated medium. Digital photography is developing at breakneck speed and has not yet solidified in its most appropriate form, while it is already intensely hybridising with other digital media. That world is the biotope of Wim Bosch. It is not easy to use photography to issue a clear statement on that spot, in this stage of media development. The position adopted will consist mainly of ‘not this, not that’: settling accounts with old visual cliches and narrative conventions, while such images call for digital reprocessing and fresh benchmarking. What is at stake in the artistic relation of the medium of photography to itself?
The mediated self
New media redefine how we look, open up new repertoires of images, and demand a reshuffling of sensory arrangement. The world appears in a manner which is unrecognisable for the time being. That is exciting enough, but in the meantime the questions of who we are or how we make our mark also depend on the media we get mixed up with. If you arrange your life along the lines of a book, you do it chronologically. If you choose film as your example, you make use of leaps in time. The computer provides search instruments which link colours, places and groups of people together without smooth transitions between them, like beads in a necklace or a digital track. We introduce order into our psychological inventory in accordance with the media at our disposal. The same is true of relations. They are formed and maintained in different ways depending on whether the medium is a letter, telephone or MSN. The genesis of the self depends on incorporated media and what they offer us in the way of prototypes for self-production. Photography, its predecessors and successors also contribute to a constantly changing self-production.
Linear perspective was invented in the Renaissance, or on the eve of it. That is not the formal representation of a ‘natural’ way of looking on a plane surface, but entails a new regime of perception that is imposed on the senses. A window is placed between the world and the viewer. The viewer closes one eye. The window forms the intersection between the one-eyed viewer and what is seen. The one-eyed gaze is further promoted by placing a peephole in front of the window. In this way, all impressions become orientated towards a single viewpoint. What is near becomes large, what is distant becomes proportionally smaller. A representation of the world in centralised perspective automatically appears on the window. All that is required is to trace it.
This procedure transforms the viewer into an objectifying observer. An object that was initially experienced emotionally is now transformed into an object that can be placed in geometrical space. The objective world of science and the objective observer are born simultaneously. The medium of the sheet of glass plus the peephole transforms the world into an external scene for inspection, while the viewer has been placed outside that world as an observer. From that moment on we see and experience ourselves as observers in an external world. The scientific worldview makes its entry.
Centralised perspective and the production of the subject to which it led were automated in the camera obscura. There too we find a one-eyed gaze. Light enters through a hole in the wall of a room or closed box and is cast on the internal wall opposite. An inverted representation of the outside world appears there. Placing a mirror in the path of light turns the image the right way up. Because of the one-eyed gaze that is cast on the world in this way, the camera obscura automates centralised or linear perspective. This also leads to an automation of the production of the observer’s viewpoint.
It is only a small step from the camera obscura to the camera. We are currently bombarded every day with infinite numbers of photographs that all present the observer’s viewpoint as the normal perception of reality. The television, as the next generation of viewing instrument, also contributes to that process because it continues the production of the observer. In cultural terms, we (at least Europeans and related nations) are the products of the media with which we have surrounded ourselves since the Renaissance.
The observer’s perspective with its ideal of objectivity did not, however, remain uncontested. Early photography docilely repeated the process initiated by linear perspective and the camera obscura, it is true, but that came under fire in the hypermediatory stage of photography. Twentieth-century philosophers spoke of the ‘death of the author’ (Roland Barthes) and the ‘death of the subject’ (Michel Foucault). That is hardly surprising, for by then people were exposed to new media and the modern production of the subject, based as it was on older media, had had its day. The autonomous subject is the philosophical heir of the Renaissance observer and disappears in today’s computerised fragmentary production of self.
So if artists set up in the twilight zone of hypermediatory photography, they have to issue statement not only on the relation of the medium to reality, but also on the subject position that they occupy. In other words, what do the computer-mediated photographic works of Wim Bosch tell us about the kind of self-awareness of both the artist and the viewer? What kind of self do they provoke or encourage?
Behind the wings
Wim Bosch presents us with photographic works that, on closer inspection, turn out to consist of multiple layers. Each photograph can be regarded as a window on the world. That conception belongs to the long tradition of centralised perspective. Projection on the computer screen during the creative process enhances the effect of a transparent image even further. Wim Bosch then proceeds to project several photo screens on top of one another. From each screen certain elements are placed in the foreground and others are edited out. The result is an image that consists of many layers that have been inextricably blended with one another and that finds its definitive form in a digital print.
Window frames play a prominent role in many of his works, not only as a frame around the image but also as cross-sections of the image at different depth levels. They thus explicitly present a multiply framed reality. All the same, the content of the image that is conjured up is not compelling. The frames function not to fix the single perspective but to evoke and provide access to interpenetrating worlds whose meaning is not determined in advance. The details that populate the image are derived from bourgeois styles of retro tastelessness: curtains, indoor plants, indeterminate pieces of furniture, ghostly human figures. Human expressiveness, however, is not privileged above that of the objects. They are all equally capable or incapable of action. As a result, the images evoked suggest suspense in the literal sense of the word: both a deferral of the final judgement and the thrill of excitement or inarticulate tension. These empty worlds, the décors for probably fatal events in abandoned apartments of remote suburbs or in dilapidated and forgotten villas – what are they? We can only guess by (re)combining the elements of the images offered to us and thereby raising them from their emptiness. There is a risk of anecdotalism, but the artist does not prescribe anything; he keeps a safe distance from that. You just have to make the best of it. What is the relation between this photography and the themes of world perception and self-production broached above?
What do we find out about the world? The window of linear perspective opens on the world. It forces the world into the harness of a geometric order, but still presupposes the existence of a world behind the window that to some extent allows itself to be forced. But behind the windows that Wim Bosch places on top of one another like transparencies, there is no autonomous world. Behind each window is the next window, ad infinitum. There is nothing behind them. Not just that; there is nothing in front of them either. The endless rows of panes of glass, one behind the other, that Wim Bosch presents to us also reflect. That ought to mean that at least the front pane shows the reflection of the photographer or spectator. It does not. Conclusion: not only is there no point of arrival behind the panes – in an interior or in a landscape – but there is no real world either in front of the first pane where I am situated. The window panes probably continue in an endless series behind my back. That makes me a transparent ghost between the panes of glass with the job of determining my own position or solving the riddle of my existence by reading the clues provided. But they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. There is no point of arrival or outcome, neither forwards – towards the object – nor backwards – towards the subject. There is only an endless, suspense-laden in between.
If there is no point of arrival and no point of departure, neither object nor subject, the usual dichotomies with which we impose order on the world lose their meaning. The human subject is a part of culture, its object is a part of nature. Like inside and outside, the two dimensions keep trading places in Wim Bosch’s photographs. In the foreground there is a lace curtain with a floral motif. There are indoor plants or the reflections of trees somewhere in the background. The floral motif can also be repeated in the upholstery of a chair or in the carving on a wooden cupboard door. Nature is not simply knowable in itself, somewhere out there, but is itself already and always culturally framed or even provoked or evoked. Nature is manifested and flourishes under cultural conditions, just as culture obeys ‘natural’ necessity and bears its mark. A clean dichotomy is no longer possible. Hybrid forms are repeated at every level. How are we to read that?
The natural/cultural world can be read like a palimpsest. A palimpsest is a medieval manuscript on parchment. Parchment is the skin of an animal that has been dressed and prepared for writing in ink. Because parchment was expensive to produce, it was used several times. Older manuscripts were erased and new text was written on the parchment. At certain points, however, older layers of text remained faintly visible behind the later ones or loomed up in the spaces. The nature/culture continuum can be read like a palimpsest, or as a text with many layers. What kind of a text? A thriller in which my form of existence is at stake! After all, I have been deprived of my position as spectator; there is no longer any space outside.
The author or artist of the work runs the risk of being swept along in the maelstrom in which the spectator vanishes. At least, that is what the author would ideally want to happen, but he leaves traces behind. The work is namely a composition, in fact a meticulously arranged one. That must not be done too explicitly. The image must not be framed in a golden section, because that restores the point that creates unity, along with consistency, unambiguous truth and a coherent narrative. That is one of the not dones in Bosch’s oeuvre, the anecdotalism that he dangerously almost brushes in each of his works. Another tricky problem is the texture.
If the creator and spectator both die in the hypermedium (or are done in behind the wings; that is the actual enigma and what creates the suspense), perhaps all we are left with is a
tension-free virtual world. Suppose that the player of a computer game could be entirely absorbed in the game, in the virtual world. He would end up in a space in which all phenomena would have merely iconographic values. They would be reduced to ports that the navigator can click on. By comparison, the metaphorical space that Wim Bosch conjures up in his photographs would be the hyperspace of a purely semiotic universe, capable of being interpreted in many ways but volatile, never material. However, that is another of the terrible not dones or non-positions in the work he presents. That is why Bosch’s world is full of texture: human hair, lace curtains, fleshy plants. The materiality of the world emerges from every pore. Flesh is not beyond the horizon, but is manifest within the frames and proliferates there. There is no subject – nobody at home –, no object – no landing place anywhere –, but there is sensitive incarnation, albeit explicitly mediated incarnation! Not pure benchmark, but technologically mediated antennae that find a way through the cracks of the hyperspace in search of a foothold.
Never a homecoming
Wim Bosch’s work is definitively situated in an in-between world, and we can expect little else either. The media development that has picked up speed in the course of the last few centuries reflects our human condition. Human existence is inevitably mediated, through and through. I was influenced by the ideas of the philosophical anthropologist Helmuth Plessner, who spent a significant part of his life in Groningen shortly before my time. He considered human beings to be ‘artificial by nature’. They are ‘ex-centric’: they live through their body, but always stand beside themselves and oversee themselves too. They are and have bodies. It is in the hiatus of that inherent division that the media nestle. Human perception is always mediated by language, image and technology. That is why alienation is not an exceptional condition for humanity. According to Plessner, everyone is alienated by nature.
The great philosophers of technology of the early twentieth century – Lewis Mumford (USA), Jacques Ellul (France) and Martin Heidegger (Germany) – hammered on the idea that people become alienated, uprooted, outcast through technology and media. Plessner shrugged his shoulders at that. Following in his footsteps, I argue for a ‘technological intimacy with things’. Media are our only means of access to the world, so we had better reflect on the implications of that in order to become good at it. Wim Bosch conducts artistic research in that direction.
Without a fixed anchor-point for subjectivity, without a reliable embedding in pure nature, where does that leave us? Plessner had his suspicions. In his view, people never reach home. Only religion offers the promise of arrival. If you want to reach home, you will have to sacrifice yourself to belief. But if you stake your bet on the human spirit, you give up the idea of a homecoming and never turn back. Your fate is an endlessly delayed arrival. In that light, every definitive reading of the enigma is suspended. We live in a technological biotope, our only feasible dwelling place is in between. Wim Bosch offers us the photo album of the delayed arrival.
Petran Kockelkoren holds the chair of Art and Technology of the Department of Philosophy of the Faculty of Behavioural Sciences of the University of Twente in Enschede. He is also a tutor at the ArtEZ-AKI Art Academy. He is the author of Technology: art, fair and theatre, NAi Publishers Rotterdam 2003, and Mediated Vision, ArtEZ Press/Veenmanpublishers Rotterdam 2007.