nō way out

Matthew Fuller, in his chapter “The Camera That Ate Itself”:

There was an old woman who swallowed a fly. The orthographic space of writing needs to trick itself into growing a digestive, circulatory, and immune system in order to cope with the complexity of the interrelations Flusser begins to signpost. I don’t know why she swallowed a fly. I guess she’ll die. How to navigate a thousand stomachs and their attendant bodies all stretched around each other and sequentially digesting? The programs that interweave to synthesize the camera also sprawl outward denying the possibility of a fundamental or originary procedure of knowing. The smallest speck of fly at the center is compressed into a speck of pure inflammatory antidigestive corpus at the center. The shit-slurping bacteria clinging to its feet multiply and leak out across the red fissures of a thousand layers, erupting as an oracular pustule in the gut of the camel sent down the stomach of the old lady to rid herself of the problem of the yak.

Photos of code are a topic of discussion in the current session of Nō Code at UnderAcademy College. The animated nō filter GIF above is cycling through a single photo of the little piece of code which originally announced the course. Taken with the Instagram app for Android, the photo has been passed through each of the 17 filters that come bundled in with the app, from left to right in the sequence in which they appear in the interface, and back again in reverse order, returning to the original “normal” filter.

It’s a simple enough trick, one that has been done in the past in various guises and on a variety of apparatuses. Scott Short’s The Excluded Middle show is a recent variation on the theme, employing a photocopier as a way of exploring “the copy machine’s unpredictable translations of patterns and abstract marks,” while Fuller’s essay begins from the starting point of John Hilliard’s 1971 piece, A Camera Recording Its Own Condition (7 aperatures, 10 speeds, 2 mirrors).

Scott Short, The Excluded Middle, 2012
John Hilliard, A Camera Recording its Own Condition (7 aperatures, 10 speeds, 2 mirros), 1971

“Procedural workouts” (Fuller) such as these can help to map out the affordances of the technology as assemblage, trace the dimensions of what de Landa calls the “phase space” of the apparatus, and expose certain patterns of rhetoric therein. In the case of the current default range of Instagram filters, it comes as little surprise that saturated hues and pinhole effects and are prime movers. A burned out, nostalgic nerve for analogue forms wired into this instantaneous digital dark room. Where Benjamin spoke of a loss of aura in mechanical reproduction, there is a way in which the continued applying of one filter upon the other creates a sequence that oscillates between washing out entirely and then recovering new forms of filtered vibrancy in still further exposures. A visual form of machine on machine feedback such as Fuller speaks of, one in which “The system becomes cyclical and positive – it begins to amplify its own amplifications.”

In the first cycle of Nō Code, Sonny Rae Tempest filtered each of Hokusai’s famous colour woodblock prints into one pixel compressions, single-hued and logographically watermarked with the kanji titles of the originals (Thirty-Six Hues of Mount Fuji). At certain moments in nō filter the colours also wash out into near monochromatic canvases, but (at least in this limited run of the procedure) just as the process seems ready to fizzle out, the pinhole effect burns through the canvas yet again. At this point the earlier resonance with Fuji-san erupts, spewing out another Japanese icon in inflammatory metamorphosis, the recursive flares feeding back a molten, photonegative Hinomaru.

The helix like drives of the pinhole and saturating effects enact a continuous tug-of-war, the images becoming now more layered, now stretched out into more singular planes, the digital skin of this pseudo-papyrus recoiling in frayed, entropic effacement, then flexing forward again with further forensic reveals of autopoietic granularity.

Fittingly, nō filter ends up consisting of 36 frames, calling to mind a bit in the Nō Code syllabus: “A sustaining, sustainable quality of nō code: that it too might in turn be nō coded” [edit: Sonny went on to recode nō filter with a “modified 8-bit meets cross-stitch symbolic patterns” GIF of his own]. Yet, while this piece sprouted from the domain of Nō Code, it can also be seen to be under the influence of another course currently on the go at UnderAcademy, Talan Memmott’s Catabolic Poiesis. As part of Memmott’s course description we read that,

In biology the term catabolic refers to the breaking down of complex substance into simpler ones, with a release of energy. In rhetoric and poetics we can use this term to indicate the breaking down of epic works, long poems, and analects into a simpler, unified form through reductive prosody.

Such a fissiparous breaking down into simpler parts readily echoes the kind of self-disemboweling drive that Fuller speaks of in relation to A Camera Recording Its Own Condition…:

As well as teaching itself its own typology, marking out its body, the camera measures out its collapse – its capacity as a machine to produce acres of monochrome, irredeemable as “pictures.” Hundreds of thousands of such choices, to avoid the collapse into whiteout faintness or black unreadability.

Fuller’s aim is to highlight the “compositional drive” in apparatuses, those many enticing and readily iterated upon potentials that infuse and even possess those things that they come in contact with. Such a compositional drive can of course also be decompositional. A decompositional procedure is a key feature for exploration in Catabolic Poiesis, and is also partly what Nō Code hopes to explore in its own fashion. Teasing out typologies. Teaching faintness and unreadability. Inviting collapse and its irredeemable capacity to produce.

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