Talk at Residency Unlimited, New York: 'Following the Indexical Line' 26/02/2018

March 7, 2018

E. J. Marey and G. Demenÿ at the Station Physiologique", 1887, Marey Musem, Beaune, France,. Photo: J.-D. Lajoux.

 

 

This is a small excerpt of my talk about lines, scientific imagery of the nineteenth century, the machines that produced it and its potential dialogue with conceptual art.

 

When asked to visualise a line, most people think of things (noodles, curbs, strings, etc.) or of a single regular or irregular black or white line on a white or black background. Some people associate the line to the horizon, or infinity, for instance - that is to conventional concepts of abstract lines.

 

When you take away the figure and leave a line, you are focusing on the potential dynamic relationship between two dots, a plane or surface and the tools that materialise it.

 

The line is not a shape, a figure, or even, according to Euclides, 3D. It is, according to him, an extension without depth. It is far more cerebral than it is material. Even if we can materialize it.

 

Sol LeWitt explained it better when he said that if you draw a portrait of a person, the drawing is not the real person; but if you draw a line, the drawing of a line is a real line.

 

 

If one thinks about LeWitt’s line as real one can ask: but what kind of reality is it? Is it the same kind of reality a unicorn or an image of a unicorn has? No, that would be a symbolic reality, that is, something that we have culturally agreed upon.

 

Here I am referring to Charles S. Peirce's triadic modality of signs. Peirce (1839 - 1914) is the father of semiotics and always devised a tripartite system to clarify functions and the dynamics between the sign, the interpreter and the context.

 

 

 

So is does the line establish the same kind of relation to reality as a that of resemblance, is it an iconic sign? Not really because the sort of relation between a portrait and its source is that of artifice and distance. A portrait is said to resemble something because we recognise it to be physically like the real thing despite not being the real thing. The more we say that something visually resembles another thing, the less it shares its real existence. The Portrait of Dorian Gray fantasises the possibility of an iconic relationship being also an organic one. The drawing of a line is a real line. It is a form of basic language, of pre-figuration perhaps. My point of view is that it is an indexical reality.

 

Unlike the icon, the index entertains a direct relationship between the sign and what it represents: it’s either a trace of a presence, or a product of its referent. Think of a shadow, a pointing finger, a screeching noise, a photograph - they are all indexes. They establish a contiguous relationship between the speaker, the context, the sign and the object. We always point at something, a footprint is always a footprint of something, that both expresses and marks a former presence or a causal relation.

 

Every sign has an iconic, a symbolic and an indexical aspect. Take the photograph I used to announce this event (first image above).

 

It is iconic in the sense that it bears a visual resemblance with reality and that is why we can identify its objects. However, it also states the existence of the moment, of those people. It is proof of the experiments having occurred. It is indexical too. The light chemically affected the paper thus marking an existence (or a "having existed") through this sign that we conventionally call photography. Analogic film and photography theory uses this notion of the index to mark its peculiar way of forcing the iconicity of the sign into the territory of the trace and of reality, and that is where I took it from.

 

However, the people in this image had no interest in this kind of association between the index and the icon in photography. Someone took this photo, probably an assistant, perhaps for a newspaper article. The interest these men had in photography was its capacity to extricate lines from reality, like a drawing, or a graphic machine.

 

It’s a funny image. A baby goat is at the centre, surrounded by at least one man urging him to move and two other men smartly dressed, especially the one on the left. This took place in 1887 at the Station Physiologique /Physiological Station in the Bois de Boulogne where one of Roland Garros’ courts is now placed. Unfortunately I cannot tell who the dashing men on the right is, but the one in the middle is Georges Demenÿ, assistant to the one on the left whose name is Etienne-Jules Marey (1830 - 1904). I don’t know the goat’s name, but I do know that for these men he is a diagram. He is made of dots and lines. Once he starts moving, these dots and these lines will create a diagram describing the exact stages of his walk.

 

The man on the right, Etienne-Jules Marey, is the man responsible for such conceptions that he put into images – one might say that his first images weaved together a certain notion of timespace and of its visibility. Before I explore dialogically, that is, along different times, this notion of diagrams and time and space, I would like to introduce this figure who is, in a way, the axis of my research.

 

 

No one knows who took this photograph. It may have been Nadar, who photographed everyone, Baudelaire, Delacroix, Debussy, Liszt, Sarah Bernhard, Zola and many others. He was a very good friend of Marey's and once described his laboratory as such:

 

“cages, aquariums, and beings to live in them: pigeons, buzzards, fish, saurians, phidians, batrachians. The pigeons coo, the buzzards don’t breathe a word… A frog who… has escaped from a jar and absentmindedly jumps in front of you to escape the caress of your shoe. Full of gravity, a tortoise proceeds… with an obstinate continuity over different obstacles from one corner to another. He is tireless in his task, as if in quest of some problem under the force of an idée fixe… Under the ladders of a trellis, the yellow-collared grass snakes enervatingly distend their muscles, enjoying the tepid temperature and in the neighbouring compartment the wide little bright eye of a grey lizard lies in wait – just in case – for the passage of some imprudent ephemera, visible almost to him alone. Everywhere, in every corner, life.”

 

Here, we don’t see the animals. Marey is surrounded by the tools, the clock, the books and the cameras he used in his experiments and he is deeply immersed in his work. I tend to think that what appears to be a highly rehearsed picture is perhaps exactly how Marey worked and it may have been taken by one of his assistants. From this image we can gather that his work as a lot to do with measuring, precision and technology. He is often compared with Eadweard Muybridge (1830 - 1904) but there is an essential difference: Marey was not interested in being an artist. He was an accomplished inventor, scientist, photographer, physician, physiologist. A typical XIXth century man.

 

 

Marey is considered to have been the French Eadweard Muybridge. His fascinating work was a ground-breaking discovery for Marey in 1878. But they were very different. Muybridge was a maverick, a self-made man and a murderer (he killed his wife’s lover and was acquitted). He moved to America allegedly refusing his grandmother’s money, claiming he would not come back if he didn’t make it on his own. Also a typical figure of the XIXth century. If you look at Muybridge’s two images here presented, one is a perilous exercise of rendering the movement of a horse through its skeleton. Probably not as accurate as it should have been. Especially considering that Muybridge was the first person responsible for a whole breakthrough in painting whereby quadrupeds in motion could finally be done with precision. Also, in the other chronophotograph you see Muybridge himself, as his own object of study, which was not a well received scientific method. Moreover, all the grids Muybridge used in his photographs did not serve a purpose, whereas in Marey’s work everything has a reason to be there.

 

Sol LeWitt was fascinated by Muybridge and although in his library he has a book about Marey published in 1977, it was in his home that he kept the whole set of published images of Muybridge's Pennsylvania project, "Animal Locomotion". In the beginning of the 1960’s LeWitt was seriously thinking of Muybridge.

 

How did these chronophotographs (sequential photography depicting the different stages of the same movement), that implied lines but had none in them, influenced Sol LeWitt’s extensive use of the line?

 

My theory is that this fascination is better understood by understanding what LeWitt saw in Muybridge's work but also, and mainly, by looking at Marey’s work. 

 

So how can photography lead to the use of the line?

 

 

 

This is his first invention that Marey perfected in 1863 at the ripe age of 33. All of Marey’s project was to grasp, dissect, measure and understand movement. This device is a pulse reader and produces the kind of patterns you see here.

 

 

It was only logical that Marey was dissatisfied with photography due to the blurriness that prevented the diagram of movement do appear. Actually both Muybridge and Marey redrew their images and extracted a graphic rendering of the movements they captured. There is a connection with the beginnings of photography: this new technology was understood as drawing much more than through the framework of painting.

 

 

In the image above it is clear that after 1878, Marey started using photography in a very specific way: to extract diagrams that would have been impossible to get from the recording machines he used before. He asked a man to run along a black background wearing a black suit with white dots drawn on the articulations and white lines along the limbs. But that was not enough. A "geometric purification" would be produced from the photograph so as to understand graphically the movement in question.

 

Moreover, there is an uncanny aspect to the image here: whereas it is scientific, stating a law of physiology for example, it does not resemble anything we can spot with the naked eye. It is abstract and graphic. It does not reproduce nature, it produces data (Ellenbogen, 2012 : 3). Marey called his use of "recording machines" the the "graphic method", where photography plays an important role but is actually part of a wider project of making nature speak: and it speaks in lines.

 

Marey had an acute awareness of the fact that this was a new language that he deemed the universal language of the future.

 

That is why this strange last project of Marey is so uncanny.

 

 

It was this last work that confirmed visually how movement is a flow and the flow is a line or a number of dots in motion. Marey sought sponsorship from the Smithsonian Institute to pursue this project but ended up telling Professor Samuel Langley that he did not have the mathematical skills to analyse his findings. Langley managed to convince him to pursue the project nonetheless.

 

This means that Marey knew the mathematical complexity of these graphic renderings of air flows but also that he did not use maths to produce these shapes. He used machinery that produced the drawings.

 

In the same manner, LeWitt was also not a mathematical genius. He always sought basic mechanics to produce his wall drawings. In his fascinating wall drawings in the Bonomo Tower (Spoletto, Italy, 1976), for instance, he simply used dots and lines referring to the architecture.

 

 

 

Drawing 288 is an extraordinary group of playful and inventive ‘location drawings’ in which he uses written instructions to describe geometric explorations of the wall.

 

Here the line is self-referential, tautological. The usual use of instructions by LeWitt is directly associated with the drawing instead of being separate from it, as it usually happened.

 

The use of language is important and it’s another one of the connections with nineteenth century science and Marey in particular. Experimental science rejected language and the senses as being untrustworthy and imprecise. Therefore, the use of the language was descriptive, to establish the experiments that were to take place.

 

The same goes for conceptual artists, whose use of the language replicates a scientific, detached, descriptive, language that is bypassed by the graphic expression of its rules.

 

Here, the distance between the description and the linear meanderings of the drawing is measured side by side. But there is also an indexical relationship whereby one is affected by the other and they are contiguous – here, quite literally.

 

LeWitt’s interest in Muybridge was that of “objectivity” according to him. This means that he was looking for images stripped of an emotional projection either from the author or the viewer. He was also fighting illusionism, which he found “unethical”. There is, for LeWitt, a politics of the indexical line even if he doesn’t call it so. Therefore he worked on his fascination of Muybridge to attain the objectivity he was looking for.

 

 

 

Here the camera moves towards the seated woman, and in Muybridge I, the woman walks toward the camera. This also expresses another one of the goals of many conceptual artists: the dynamic relationship with the viewer obtained through a mental exercise combined with visual data.

 

Is it a coincidence that the image frames the belly, where a dot and a line are suddenly made visible?

 

In 1960, however, LeWitt was still playing with language, the colours he would add later use in his wall drawings in the 1980’s and Muybridge’s running men.

 

 

 

 

            It's difficult to spot, but in the last painting assemblage each light and dark blue square showcases an image of the same man running, flipped in different directions. The man is as if sculpted on the paint, as if LeWitt did not want to yield to the rules of painting and wished to materialise this optic movement. The eyes, going from one square to the next, are making the man do what the central square tells him to do. There are no lines, not dots, but the work induces a dynamic relation between the elements it contains, between the language and the gaze, between the action of the viewer and the concept explored.

 

            This interactivity with the spectator and the use of lines and dots was a technique employed many times by Douglas Huebler, and artist concerned with not adding any objects to the world. Or so says the first much quoted sentence of his 1968 statement.

 

The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.

   I prefer, simply, to state the existence of things in terms of time and/or place.

    More specifically, the work concerns itself with things whose inter-relationship is beyond direct perceptual experience.

   Because the work is beyond direct perceptual experience, awareness of the work depends on a system of documentation.

   This documentation takes the form of photographs, maps, drawings and descriptive language. (December 1968)

 

            Huebler here fits Marey project to a tilt: suspicion of the senses and use of descriptive language and, more precisely, the work is beyond perceptual experience just like the graphic method was an indexical awareness of the laws of nature around us. Just like the graphic method produces a system of documentation.

 

           It is no wonder that Huebler’s work used photographic, graphic (the dot and the line) material, as well as maps (another indexical set of lines) and photographs.

 

           However, Hubler’s work is “lyrical” in the words of the art critic and curator Lucy Lippard, and of course explores the gaps between the language and the graphic and photographic renderings of the work. He provokes laughter, or a sort of amused mental discovery, when the mechanics of the work operate between the different orientations of the gaze, situating the work in this relationship. Huebler’s work is all about contiguity between the “percipient” as he calls us, and the documentation that works like a stage direction almost.

 

 This work was a gift to Sol LeWitt and thus Huebler incorporated the artist into to play with words, gaze and the dot. He used several manifestations of this particular structure, be it in drawings, on book covers or in catalogues.

 

 

         The index, such as a footprint, a photograph or an indexical tracing, overcomes the supposed barrier between life and image by shedding the status of symbol or icon, almost by embodying and certainly by figuring abstractions and concepts. The more abstract the indexical sign is, the more it penetrates life and obtains its pulse. In that sense, the indexical line is almost a life line, containing all the variations, intrinsic patterns of a specific being or phenomenon. Douglas Huebler recalls being on a plane, arriving in New York, and looking outside, locating where he thought Lippard lived and where he himself had lived, “measuring sense impressions against conceptual knowledge, the conceptual knowledge being maps”. Not really indexical lines, frontiers are nevertheless conventional separations that turn the landscape into meaningful information for the subject’s position in space and time. In fact, the medieval page and the printed page have been compared to territories and maps. While the medieval page was a space of wayfaring, the printed page is akin to a cartographic map:

 

To follow the plot is like navigating with the map. Yet the map effaces memory. Had it not been for the journeys of travellers, and the knowledge they brought back, it could not have been made. The map itself, however, bears no testimony to those journeys (…), the map eliminates all trace of the practices that produced it, creating the impression that the structure of the map springs directly from the structure of the world (Ingold, 2007:24).

 

The map, that Huebler used extensively in his work, and as described by Ingold in the excerpt above, rather than a testimony of past experience, is a deictic, it points to real space, to an activation in the present. Although it “effaces memory”, it nevertheless carries the promise of experience. It is indeed an empty vessel waiting for an experience to complete it. Our GPS systems and SatNav devices take this multidimensional characteristic to another level nowadays. They break the unicity of a designated territory - the map - and adapt it to the location of the user by tracing and re-tracing lines that react to the incoming information about traffic and construction works. Locating and location is a deictic quality and will be thoroughly explored by Douglas Huebler’s work, as I’ll discuss further.

 

 

 

        These two conceptual artists follow the indexical line, or incite us to do it, instead of using the index as a device pointing to the past as a testimony of a presence or of truth as photography is usually used. Stripped of its iconic status and turning to its debut as a graphic device, photography here joins the use of the line, the pattern, the diagram as an abstract, conceptual tool that reverts to concreteness in the dynamic experience with the viewer.

 

                                                      Brooklyn, 26 February 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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