Finnish educator, Pauliina Rautio’s advises materialist researchers to:
Replace categories and themes with tangents and rhizomes to explore ever proliferating and mutating connections that condition human existence. (Rautio, 2013, p. 404)
Rautio’s words make an apt starting point for this week’s blog post as I continue to think about how, when and if art can be a catalyst for transformational encounters. Within this search I am looking for, and considering, threshold moments where we step from one place to another, or indeed from one state of being to another, with the new place or state illuminating or recalibrating our relationship and response-ability to ourselves and to the world.
It is my proposition that the work of contemporary artists presents us with threshold moments, moments that hold within them the potential to experience knowledge in the making that can re-make and transform our world. It is also my proposition that these threshold moments are often held within a matrix of threshold moments. The moments I am particularly interested in, happen most often but not exclusively, in galleries, art books and arts festivals, or in that monstrous and phantasmagorical rabbit hole replete with ever multiplying thresholds – the world wide web.
I am using the concept of threshold in the following ways:
- the moment when you move through a doorway into a room or building, specifically in my research, doorways into galleries
- the moment when you cross a threshold into a book, or onto the web
- the moment when you enter into encounter with a festival or arts event
- in its phenomenological definition as ‘the magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction, phenomenon, result, or condition to occur or be manifested.’ Lexico online dictionary.
- as a signature feature in acts of endurance, pilgrimage, penitence, consciousness, celebration and grace.
I also want to acknowledge that the thresholds we cross to enter galleries, books, art festivals and the web, all hold within them ever multiplying thresholds into ideas, relationships, knowledges and states of being.
The following writings also informing my thinking as I venture further down the rabbit hole:
- Ariella Azoulay in The Civil Contract of Photography, (2013) and the journal article Threshold as place: Ariella Azoulay talks with Aïm Deüelle Lüski, 2013
- Sarah Sentilles, in Draw Your Weapons, (2017)
- Karen Barad, (2008) Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter and (2007) Meeting the universe halfway : quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning,
- SusieLinfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, (2010).
- Ellsworth’s Places of Learning particularly prompts my thinking about thresholds:
If the experience of knowledge in the making is also the experience of ourselves in the making, then there is no self who pre-exists a learning experience. Rather the self is what emerges from the learning experience. The experience of being radically in relation to oneself, to others and the world… when myself and what I know are simultaneously in the making, my body/ brain/mind is participating in an event that exists outside the realm of language. As a non-linguistic event, the experience of knowledge and self as simultaneously in the making can even be said to pre-exist cognition. (Ellsworth, 2005, p.1 – p. 2)
This week, I am considering Aïm Deüelle Lüski’s cameras and Erkan Özgen’s, projected video works in relationship to my area of research – how do encounters with contemporary art, in particular photography and video art operate, and can these encounters open a space for, and contribute to, personal and civil transformation? My encounter with Deüelle Lüski’s work was a digital and text-based encounter, whereas Özgen’s was gallery-based.
Focus Artwork 1: Aïm Deüelle Lüski’s cameras (a digital encounter)
Aïm Deüelle Lüski, creates cameras, with no viewfinder for the eye of the photographer to claim the image produced. Deüelle Lüski cameras are based on the structure of pinhole cameras, and he positions them in places of conflict or violence. The nature of this kind of slow-photography is that it is time based; for as long as the aperture of the camera is open to the site addressed, an image will slowly imprint itself on the light sensitive material inside the camera. Removing the controlling eye of the photographer challenges contempory hegemonic and colonizing roles of photographic images that claim, order and ‘own’ what they capture. I discovered Deüelle Lüski’s work whilst down a digital and conceptual rabbit hole, after listening to Sarah Sentilles talk about her book Draw Your Weapons. Sentilles introduced me to the writing of Ariella Azoulay and her work on the relationship between photography and the construction of history. Azoulay’s conversation with Deüelle Lüski, evolved over twenty years and in a 2013 interview about his creative practice the artist said of his work:
The key concept here is ‘threshold’. Photography that has not yet devoted time to actions and events taking place at the threshold has not opened this question nor extended this moment. I want to extend this time and to think about it, not necessarily through the image as an end. I suspend light before it is caught in the shape of a picture, or an image, that would be the end and summary of the process and turn it into an essence. It is not the image that matters in my photography, but rather the attempt to think about this significant moment, as a metonym of the world.
Azoulay responded saying: You are in fact turning the threshold into a place? (Azoulay and Deüelle Lüski, 2013, p.13 – p.14).
The suspended ‘threshold’ moment they speak of is ‘the artwork’. Deüelle Lüski’s creation of the threshold as place gives us a vehicle/space to consider how ideas are communicated, translated and captured, even while the image is still ‘in the making’. It is the reach towards the idea that is generative, artful and full of potential. The final image is a secondary outcome and could even be described as an incidental or arbitrary result. My research focuses on the moments before the ‘capture’ is complete, before the traces created by the encounter between light and light sensitive material have congealed into an image that is caught, like an insect in amber.
Galleries as Thresholds
The metaphor of camera as threshold: with its apertures and light catching surfaces; and the idea of ‘threshold as place’, as suggested by Azoulay describing the work of Deüelle Lüski, resonates with my experiences of encounters within contemporary art galleries. I contend that galleries hold within the body of their buildings’ multiple places where ‘suspended threshold moments’ await our engagement. For these ideas to become activated, they require a reaching out, a reaching in, or perhaps a reaching through, to cross the threshold between the work and the audience. This reaching occurs as a diffractive encounter, within the contours of the gallery space, as occupied in that moment, by particular human bodies and other non-human agential materials. (Barad, 2007). In this encounter we have the opportunity to suspend our judgement, even momentarily, to engage with the world/work as an ethico-onto-epistemological event. Within these events, knowing is a material practice of engagement as part of the world in its differential becoming. (Barad, 2007, p.80 – p.90).
Here I am amplifying Deüelle Lüski’s description of the significance of what occurs in his work, where light is held in a suspended moment before its meaning is reduced to a static, final of perhaps exhausted conclusion. This, potentially, represents how all artworks operate, offering us a place, or space, where we can encounter art as a ‘metonym for the world.’
In Barad’s world, everything is entangled. There are always politics/ethics/agencies in any act of observation and in any kind of knowledge practise. Any active observation makes a cut (Barad, 2007) between what is excluded from what is being considered; nothing is inherently separated from anything else, while separations are simultaneously and temporarily enacted for long enough to gain knowledge about it. This view of knowledge provides a framework for thinking about how culture and habits of thought can make something(s) visible, and others easier to ignore and perhaps even un-see-able. (Barad, 2007, p. unknown.)
Focus Artwork 2: Erkan Ozgen’s, Wonderland, 2016
In considering a gallery as the body of a camera providing threshold moments, I recall my recent visit to The Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, to see Nirin, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney. The threshold moment that most strongly affected me during this visit occurred in the south gallery on level one. This gallery with its low ceilings and dim lighting lent itself very strongly to my metaphor of gallery space as the body of a pinhole camera, with us, the viewers, acting as the light sensitive material. The exhibited works became individual apertures allowing the ‘message as light’ to enter our consciousness’. It was here, I encountered Wonderland, (2018) Erkan Ozgen’s single-channel digital video projection, emitting light that remained suspended in my mind, troubling my perception, turning ‘threshold into place.’ (Azoulay).
Erkan Ozgen’s Wonderland, as I have previously described, featured Muhammed, a twelve-year-old Syrian boy, sharing his first-hand experiences of the atrocities he witnessed during the war in Syria. Wonderland offers us one threshold moment within the multiple thresholds of The Biennale and the MCA. Muhammed is deaf and mute and yet his eloquent signing crosses the barriers of national language to draw us into a searing, intimate encounter with his traumatic, lived experiences. Operating somewhere between contemporary art and reportage without the journalistic commentary, we encounter Wonderland as a light-filled trace of the world presented as a large video projection in the darkened cavern of the gallery. The scale of the screen and the darkened space offers a cinematic quality to the encounter, bringing with it an expectation that we will cross the threshold to enter Muhammed’s world. In doing so we willingly suspend our disbelief and open ourselves to “a learning experience”; an experience of “being radically in relation to oneself, to others and the world… when myself and what I know are simultaneously in the making, my body/ brain/mind is participating in an event that exists outside the realm of language.”(Ellsworth, 2005, p.1 – p.2)
Barad again helps me critically consider my experience:
We do not obtain knowledge by standing outside of the world; we know because ‘we’ are of the world. We are part of the world in its differential becoming. The separation of epistemology from ontology is a reverberation of a metaphysics that assumes an inherent difference between human and nonhuman, subject and object, mind and body, matter and discourse. Onto-epistem-ology—the study of practices of knowing in being—is probably a better way to think about the kind of understandings that are needed to come to terms with how specific intra-actions matter. (Barad 2008, p.147)
Ariella Azoulay describes the ability of photographs to be an agent of change as “transit visas” in her book, The Civil Contract of Photography. Lindfield in The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, argues passionately that looking at photographs of political violence …is an ethically and politically necessary act that connects us to our modern history of violence and probes the human capacity for cruelty. (Lindfield, 2010, publisher’s introduction) These two theorists are accompanying me as I investigate and navigate the ethical implications of looking at photographs that capture or evoke violent and contested spaces and actions. My entry into this dialogue is through my consideration of these ethical implications in relationship to photography and video in a contemporary art context. Particularly photographic and video art that features the body of the artist performing political activism or where the protagonist represents or acts as political metaphor. As agents of change, these mediums,
grants a kind of citizenship that transcends borders. Through the taking and viewing of images, new lines of belonging are drawn. We are citizens not of nations but of images. We are accountable to one another, responsible for what the camera lets us see. (Azoulay as cited in Sentilles, 2017)
Lindfield repositions the question of how we use images of violence and whether these images can help us make meaning of the present and of the past. She also offers the provocation that ‘the ultimate answers to such questions reside not in the pictures but in ourselves.’ (Lindfield, 2010)
Photojournalists (and artists) are responsible for the ethics of showing, but we are responsible for the ethics of seeing. ‘It is our historic responsibility not only to produce photos, but to make them speak’ Ariella Azoulay has written. This requires transforming our relationship to photography from one of passivity and complaint to one of creativity and collaboration… (Lindfield, 2010, p.60)
Lindfield and Azoulay, like Rautio who I cited at the start of this post, provoke me to think more about how we can translate our cultural ‘knowing’ at a minor or personal scale to inform/transform our relationship to ourselves and to each other, and further, how, when and if art can be a catalyst for transformational encounters. And within that thinking, I hope to work out how to amplify the potential of contemporary art to be an agent of change, transforming our understanding of our imbrication and entanglement within different ethico-onto-epistemological contexts. (Barad, 2007).
Azoulay, A, and Deüelle Lüski, A., (2013), Threshold as place: Ariella Azoulay talks with Aïm Deüelle Lüski. Philosophy of Photography Volume 4 Number 1 © 2013 Intellect Ltd Photoworks. 2013 P13 doi: 10.1386/pop.4.1.13_7 POP 4 (1) pp. 13–23
Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the universe halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter. Durham, UK:Duke University Press.
Barad, K. (2008). Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. In Alaimo, S., & Hekman, S. J. (Eds.), Material feminisms (pp. 120-156). Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Ellsworth, E. (2005). Places of learning media, architecture, pedagogy. New York: Routledge Falmer.
Lexico online dictionary. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/threshold, retrieved 31/07/2020)
Linfield, S. (2010). The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, University of Chicago Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uwsau/detail.action?docID=616045.
Rautio, P. (2013). Children who carry stones in their pockets: On autotelic material practices in everyday life. Children’s Geographies, 11(4), 394–408. https://doi.org/10.1080/14733285.2013.812278.
Sentilles, S., (2017) How We Should Respond to Photographs of Suffering, New Yorker, August 3, 2017 https://www.newyorker.com/books/second-read/how-we-should-respond-to-photographs-of-suffering