Shadow plays

Artist David Maisel is currently doing a series of re-photographed x-rays of art objects from antiquity to investigate the blurring of boundaries between art and science,  the literal and metaphorical, inner and outer materiality, past and present dynamics that such images can hint at. As Maisel states in his introduction to the images,

The x-ray serves as a means to explore mythological themes expressed through ancient objects. The shadow-worlds they occupy are informed by the black space surrounding the images, which in some instances becomes a vast nether world, and in others becomes the velvety ground of some kind of brain scan/portrait. The project’s title of History’s Shadow refers both to the literal images that the x-rays create as they are re-photographed, and to the metaphorical content formed by the past from which these objects derive. […] Rendering three dimensions into two is at the heart of the photographic process. With the x-ray, this sense is compounded, since it maps both the inner and outer surfaces of its subject. The mysterious images that result seem to encompass both an inner and an outer world, as the two-dimensional photograph brings us into a realm of indeterminate space, depth, and scale.

This week I’ve been delving into theory on visualization in sciences for the first time. One particular piece that seems of interest in relation to Maisel’s work is Johanna Drucker’s short essay, ‘Digital Ontologies: The Ideality of Form in/and Code Storage–or–Can Graphesis Challenge Mathesis?’ (Leonardo – Volume 34, Number 2, April 2001, pp. 141-145).  In it Drucker suggests that the very basis of digital imagery as consisting of an underlying coded existence bestows a perceived quality of harmonious and interchangeable unity on the digital image and its code. Furthermore, the sense in which the ‘pure’ coded form of the image can exist outside of any actual graphic manifestation of it lends digital imagery a quality of Husserlian ideality of form, whereby “the original condition of their existence is not dependent on human constructs.” (141) For Drucker, this has the affect of changing our understanding of images as graphesis (“knowledge manifest in visual and graphic form”) into an understanding more akin to the ideality of mathesis (“knowledge represented in mathematical form, with the assumption that it is an unambiguous representation of thought”),  thus fundamentally challenging the sense of irreducibility, materiality and uniqueness that we have often associated with images in the past.

But what is at stake is not the question of whether there is a ‘truth’ to this idea that the stored ‘code’ exists and can be made use of without graphic manifestation, and that it is stored materially. What is at stake is that this idea pushes the cultural status of the digital to a place of mythic ‘mathesis,’ in which the sense of an inevitable and seamless interchangeability replaces the idea of a differentiated and resistant instantiation of form. (Drucker, 144-5)

Drucker argues that this transposing of the material into an immaterial type of abstract ideal is a misleading and “overreaching” perception that we can easily develop, often unconsciously, in our understanding of the nature of digital imaging and imagery.

the argument that must be made is for an investment in reinscribing, always inscribing, form into matter. This act situates representation in human cultural and social systems where the condition of materiality permits and/or requires critical considerations of the ways material form participates in and helps replicate cultural mythologies. In the case of digital images, this is a mythology in which code passes for truth, as if the easy and complete interchangeability of image into code and back into image is driven by a myth of the techno-superiority of mathematical premises. As a cultural myth, this is a ‘truth’ so fundamental it is never (or rarely) questioned. In mathesis, code presumes self-identity as a premise, with no critical distance, in a system in which everything is reduced to data and equivalents.  Mathesis makes this claim, and when it makes this claim within the cultural realm of representation, then it needs to be beaten back into its place—a kind of whack the mole approach to overreaching ideology— since its claims presume a premise that brooks no interrogation. Graphesis, on the other hand, is always premised on the distinction between the form of information and information as form-inmaterial. Graphesis is premised on the irreducibility of material to code as a system of exchange; it is always a system in which there is loss and gain in any transformation that occurs as a part of the processing of information. (Drucker, 145)

Returning to Maisel’s images, perhaps part of what gives them their mysterious power is the way in which they could be said to superimpose Drucker’s notions of graphesis and mathesis upon one another, in such a way that the ‘shadows’ cast by each side of the argument plunge their respective cases into heightened disarray. Artistically, Maisal is heavily invested in the use of the mechanical means of x-ray, a technology that can be said to produce images that in their making the invisible visible, have a very digital, binary quality to them. As he states, “The prints of these x-rays are thus encrypted codes for the viewer to decipher.” But in what way are they codes? Are they the mathesis like codes of a scientific mode of imaging in search of some sense of an ideal and objectively decipherable truth? Do they give us a notion of a type of shared, universal code beneath the surfaces of these disparate artistic works? Is there a kind of similarity to the distinguishable artistic qualities of these blueprint forms that suggest an interchangeable nature, a mathesis of form and craft, underlying their graphical representations?

Or do the images instead highlight the irreducibility and enduring mystery of graphical representation, regardless of what form it may take? Are the images not unique and different from their originals, losing some qualities while gaining others? Are we not being shown the way images – whether digital, x-ray or otherwise – still have at their heart an independent and unique nature to them, one that resists the ‘overreaching’ mindset of mathesis? Do we not also detect the inescapable material senses of Maisel’s own hand at work in the images, the technology’s part in this, and also the hands of the original artists, with all of the various artstic, material and historically specific aspects that they hint at?

Maisel states that, “the artworks of origin become de-familiarized and de-contextualized, yet acutely alive and renewed.” Drucker suggests that, “it is in the gap between mathesis and graphesis that the resistance to the totalizing drive of the digital can be articulated.” (145) Here then perhaps we discover just such a resistive space of fertile ambiguity within which both parties in Drucker’s debate can enact their furtive ontological shadow plays.


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