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Everything that shines sees. A media-archeological investigation into flash light as a creative concept within contemporary artistic practice

Project: PhD-project

The starting point for this research proposal is a substantial analysis of the ways in which conditions, themes and functions of flash technology developed over its history are becoming (or have become) components of an artistic practice, and how they no longer function solely as a paradigm of a particular way of seeing, but also as a way of experiencing and even thinking. My research will take a media-archaeological approach to sketch out a theoretical and practical framework for tackling the following questions: How and why did flash technology evolve to become the vital aspect of photography that it has become today? Which (originally) technology-related conditions for flash are now used in a generic manner- self-reflexive, parodical, formalistic — in a wide range of photographic strategies?  How has flash light led to a generalised cultural perception which even seems to be driving away the original experience? How is the aesthetic of flash light and the equipment used to produce it brought in to other artistic disciplines? And how is flash light evolving in the digital environment where time and space are becoming more and more dislocated?

The research will be arranged in two parts:

1. Mapping out the history of flash photography and its mobilization within an artistic discourse, using technical equipment and photographic images. This analysis will take as its starting point the historical collections of photographic images and equipment in the FotoMuseum Antwerpen (Antwerp Photo Museum), which I have been studying for a number of years as a staff member. Juxtaposing images with machinery will result in a loosely thematically constructed summary exhibition and a substantial publication with texts and image portfolios.

My research will certainly consider exemplary works, including those by William Henry Fox Talbot, Félix Nadar, Charles Piazzi-Smythe, Etienne Trouvelot, William Jennings, Carsten Nicolai, Hiroshi Sugimoto, American Abstract Sensationalism (Weegee & Co) -  paparazzi photography (Pigozzi, Galella, Secchiaroli, Quinn) - La beauté convulsive of modern avant-garde movements  - Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine en de FSA - Brassaï & Bill Brandt - Diane Arbus - Hollywood glamour studios - crime scene photography - Wolfgang Tillmans - Paul Graham - Michael Schmidt – Japanese graphic style (Yoshiyuki, Kurata, Moriyama, Yokota) - Chris Verene - Harold Edgerton and photos of American nuclear tests - Dirk Braeckman - Joelle Tuerlinckx - Edith Dekyndt - Christian Andersson - Gerhard Richter - Luc Tuymans - Ann Veronica Janssen - Walter de Maria - Henri Michaux - Allan McCollum.

2. Starting from my own artistic practice, test how flash light can be mobilized within a conceptual model to get to the essence of (photographic) perception. The research theme will serve as a test case to explore the general core ideas within my pictorial work: a phenomenological dissection of perception and its limitations, and the undermining of institutional codes via small-scale interventions with a humoristic undertone focusing on the banal (cf George Perec’s infra-ordinaire), the failure of the temporary process. In analogy to my wider artistic research into the periphery of perception (after-images, blind spots, mental lapses), I seek to study the range of flash light as an artistic concept on the basis of the following specific questions:

-       What makes the fascination with the flash image so compelling, despite the confusion and danger that it holds in store for the viewer, both on a physical and a mental level? Is it a sort of entrancement, an evocation of a pure, or even a ‘higher’ energy? Or is the act of rebellion and dislocation that this caesura creates, overwhelming human perception, surrendering to a power that lies outside ourselves?

-       How can I approach in a representative way the line between beauty and aggression, between control and release, the essential opposite poles of flash light? Is perception — and by extension photography, and visual art as a whole – in the position to grasp its sublime nature, and/or interpret it? How can we evoke artistically the complex experience of the light pulse? And – within this - what role does the machine play?

-       This extreme form of light both exposes and dazzles – where do these two factors meet? And what happens at the moment when the flash overcomes us, blocks our view and turns back on to itself and its own reflection? What does this imply for the function, power and symbolism of the eye, of the optical equipment and for the person who is operating it?

-       How can I approach the core of the flash from an artistic or a phenomenological point of view if I cannot look straight at its source without being blinded, without it being replaced by a blind spot, by the creation of an after-effect? Do I approach it from its periphery? From its limit? From a point of denial and avoidance? Or from its absence, meaning from dark and therefore its invisibility?

-       To what extent does flash light force us to re-formulate the question “what is visible”, and how far does it itself not give up the means of making everything perceptible because it de facto destabilizes perception and by extension reason? Is there not a hidden Catch 22 situation here, as reason and the visible can only be addressed via a caesura, a hitch, a black hole?

-       Can flash light indeed creative a convulsive beauty, an aesthetic that can be translated by a visual ‘print’ of it? Is this then an essentially picnoleptic image, constructed of ruptures, absences and dislocations, which evolve out of the white-out (or is it a black-out?) and which provide an answer to Virilio’s aesthetic of disappearance?

-       How and in what form can flash light be translated in an artistic concept which remains faithful to its self-reflexive nature, allowing it to be not only a ‘portrayal’, but also the ‘cause of the portrayal’?

The new works that will result from this doctoral research will also feature in the exhibition and publication referred to above.  


StatusIn execution