Fields of Resonance: An essay by Lutz Koepnick for COOP Collective
Fields of Resonance
An essay by Lutz Koepnick
Resonance is first and foremost a concept associated with the world of acoustics. It describes how the vibrations of one object can create reverberations in another, how seemingly invisible sound waves touch upon and activate neighboring matter. A string’s tone would have little effect on the listener without the resonant body of a musical instrument; the walls of cavernous places cause human voices to resound differently than boundless spaces. Similar to how it takes a leaf whirling through the air to visualize the wind, so does resonance involve processes that play tricks on our perception and energize our imagination. We can sense resonant phenomena, but in many cases we are not able to see their precise operations. Resonance is unthinkable without different materials touching on each other, yet often we think of it as immaterial, as something that connects different bodies without physical impact. Because states of resonance are haunted by bewildering mysteries and wondrous ambiguities, the concept—perhaps not surprisingly—has also come to describe human affairs themselves. Whenever we cannot name exact causes and rational influences, we say that certain emotions, images, thoughts, or memories resonate with us, the term’s presumed vagueness being its very strength, a reminder that the human exceeds logic, causation, and predictability.
The photographic image was once assumed to offer an indexical image of the real. Like footprints in the sand, it rested on the physical imprint of light particles onto a chemical substance, a procedure which in the eyes of many critics warranted photography’s realistic qualities, its ability to offer faithful reproductions of the shapes and movements, the weight and lightness of world. Our age of digital image capture and manipulation has made us unsure about the indexical, its value as much as its very existence. Photography’s relation to the real has become one of resonances today. Even the most realist image makes, or should make, us wonder about the nature of the trace it presents to the eye, the process of inscription to which it owes its existence. Though only half of the works that are part of Fields of Resonance involve photographic means, and none feature sound as their primary medium, the photographs, films, paintings, drawings, and installations pieces that constitute the exhibition all respond to and rub against the perplexing state in which photography finds itself today as an art of resonances. At once rigorous and playful, what the work on display probes is nothing less than art’s relationship to the real; to the materiality of human experience as much as the physicality of the respective medium itself; to the physical marks and imprints of things past whose exact location in the present have become elusive. Each work sheds light on the subtle line between the present and the absent, between what is visible and what not, yet not to pronounce the utter disappearance of the real in an age of digital virtualization, but on the contrary to draw our attention to the obstinacy and the continued promises of the sensory world: to how the matter of the world matters to us, to art, even—or perhaps: in particular—if the real is increasingly known to us through technological processes of mediation, as a phenomenon of resonance as tangible as imagined, as virtual as it may be actual.
Kristi Hargrove’s photographic images, Repercussions of Time: No 1 & 2, Shirley’s House (2015, top image), at first, and with some nostalgia, appear to allegorize the indexical power of pre-digital photography. The outlines on the yellow walls, left by picture and mirror frames that once decorated this domestic space, feature the presence of the past like a photograph preserving historical moments for the futures. And yet, whether sensibly illuminated from the right through natural light or with the help of an electric wall lamp, and unlike what we would expect from a traditional photograph itself, the markings on the wall tell us very little about what once may have hung here in the first place. They evoke various possibilities; they appeal to the viewer’s imagination to fill in the picture. Like a digital photograph, Hargrove’s images resound with multiple versions of past realities. They fuel our curiosity about what transcends the logic of the physical imprint, the curtains on the edges of the images defining the wall as a stage on which the real and the projected may go hand in hand.
Jonathan Rattner, For Issa, HD 1080p, 2013, Running time – 11 minutes
In Jonathan Rattner’s video, For Issa (2013), the viewer is transported to unidentified Asian settings. In a series of vignettes set to contemplative music, Rattner gathers delicate impressions of past travels as sensory as they are understated. We see, among other: colorful fans slightly rotating in light wind; the spray of a boat moving at high speed, captured in slow motion; a small bridge on which falling rain drops create faint ripples in small pools while the light of motorcycles reflects beautifully from the wet asphalt; an ornament that dangles from a car mirror, swinging to the movement of a car. In each of these shots, the visible registers and resonates with the impact of largely invisible forces. Each of Rattner’s images speaks to our sense of touch, to our haptic sense, yet all of them carefully withhold all kinds of references so as not to drain the viewer’s inner eye. In For Issa, the screen emerges as a skin connecting distant realities while at the same time separating them, marking them as intangible.
Alex Blau, Wipe Out, acrylic on paper, 12”x 12”, 2015
If both Hargrove’s and Rattner’s work explore slippages from the tangible to the abstract, Alex Blau’s painting Wipe Out at first encounters the viewer as a thorough exercise in abstraction, candidly removing the canvas from any demand to represent or refer to anything, engrossing the eye with an autonomous world of dots, lines, and graphic patterns of varying clarity. And yet, what energizes the elements and shapes on this canvas are elements that point beyond or intrude upon the image space from outside the frame: accidental blots of mere paint whose initial presence stand in stark contrast to the geometric structures in which they finally appear. The visual pleasures of abstraction, here, are as much borrowed from concrete matter as the geometric order of the grid relies on, but does not entirely deface, the unintended signatures of the real. The abstraction of Wipe Out is comparable to what people call abstract about music: it may not represent something we can name by name, but it puts elements into play that touch on our ears and senses, that make us swing, as if our hands directly rested on a musicians’ instruments.
In her recent book Vibrant Matter, political theorist Jane Bennett encourages us to think of nonhuman bodies as lively and animated, as being endowed with a certain sense of agency. What would happen, she asks, if we assumed that objects and so-called dead matter had a will, a life, a vitality of their own? Wouldn’t this finally help us revise the earth-destroying fantasies of consumption and conquest humans have relentlessly pursued for many centuries? If Hargrove, Rattner, and Blau invite the viewer to attend to echoes of the sensory amid a world increasingly hostile to the senses, the works of Paul Collins, Ron Lambert, and Jana Harper all play with the idea of reversing the gaze, of flipping established relationships between inside and outside, of upsetting what an exclusively human perspective considers an object’s surface, and hence of allowing the material world of things and objects to speak to or look back at us, to animate us.
Paul Collins, Night View From the Hideout, ink and watercolor on paper, 18”x 24”, 2013
Part of a series of ink and watercolor images, Collins’s Night View from the Hideout (2013) seems to make us look, through the peepholes of a mask, at the signposts of urban or suburban life: electricity cables and wire poles, the (ugly) guarantors of human comfort, communication, and commerce. But the longer we look, the less we know who is doing the looking; the more we feel that the mask’s eyes may be looking at us rather than structuring our view of the world. The longer we engage with Collins’s image, the more we sense that, instead of resting safely inside a hideout, we find ourselves ejected into an unknown outside, stared at by the very tools of modern progress we invented to make us at home. Nothing could be more lonely than to be on this side of the mask. And yet nothing is perhaps more illuminating than this: the experience that the utensils we create to dominate the earth may develop a life of their own and question our very fantasies of sovereignty and control.
Ron Lambert, Hidden Ship Sinking, 2014, 49.5”x 38.5”x 90″
Ron Lambert’s site-specific installation work—as it appears to expose hidden architectural layers of the gallery space and mimic patches administered to fix crumbling walls—makes us deeply suspicious about our desire to design environments solely according to our needs and intentions. Lambert’s patches and imaginary structures reverse the relationship between interior and exterior spaces, between means and ends. What is meant simply to correct the instability of human constructions, emerges as something that has a beauty, an existence, a vibrancy in its own right. Much more than just lifeless material obedient to the human hand, the patches of Lambert’s installation reveal nothing less than the inevitable failure of any human effort to impose fool-proof systems onto the matters of the world, to dominate the non-human at all cost. In Long Lost Sight, the gallery’s walls look back at us, make us sense what it might mean to live in a world which can afford to tear down hierarchical conceptions of and boundaries between subjects and objects—a world in which matter could freely resonate.
Last but not least, Jana Harper’s collages Remains of the Real (2015), part of a much larger artistic investigation into the other and forgotten faces of familiar things, display the back of various unnamed book covers as captured with the help of a photocopy machine, a once revolutionary technology of reproduction designed to duplicate flat surfaces. In Harper’s images, the presence of intricate shadows, lines, gradations, and discolorations evoke—at once beautifully and uncannily—the three-dimensional presence of the book, its existence in time and space, its materiality. As they suspend common expectations of the book as a mere servant of human reading, these images approach the abstract and intangible. They do so, however, not—as so many desire today—to put Gutenberg’s galaxy to rest, but to remind us of the fact that ideas and matter, text and body, the physical and the spiritual require each other in order to take any effect. In Harper’s work, the book is far more than a mere container, an outmoded technology for the delivery of knowledge and information. The shadowy lines and luminous gradations of Remains of the Real hint at possible worlds in which material objects can have thoughts and languages of their own. They communicate a strangeness and recalcitrance that defies the way in which we tend to subject the given world to our will and perception. What may at first strike the viewer as illegible and elusive in these images, gently encourages us to transform our attentiveness to the vibrancy of matter, to resound in the shared materiality and vitality of all things.
Jana Harper, Remains of the Real, ink jet and photocopy collages, dimensions variable, 2015
Our present is one deeply troubled about the role of touch and the traces it may leave. Computational devices carry their users ever more swiftly into remote elsewheres and elsewhens, at the cost of extracting us from our physical environments and communities. Ubiquitous touchscreens engage the haptic and tactile at all times, but—like every screen—they at once unlock and obstruct the unexpected. It is often claimed that our present is driven by deplorable abstraction and dematerialization, by processes replacing the sensory with the virtual. Fields of Resonance, as it investigates the zone between the abstract and the material, the absent and the present, the look of subjects and the look of things, offers a delicate reminder of the claims and promises of the sensory world. Mapping physical as much as imaginary resonances of the real, the works of this exhibition evoke what exceeds our control and intention, and precisely thus these works, ever so quietly, reshuffle the realm of the sensible. It would be foolish to think that we could ever enjoy immediate access to the real or really own the things of the world, including the materiality our own bodies. Whatever we perceive as something has always already moved through various filters of mediation; whatever we touch is borrowed from the entropy of time. And yet, at a time when many are eager to say farewell to the real, Fields of Resonance makes a persuasive case that contemporary art, as it probes wondrous tensions between the seen, the sensed, and the known, can play an indispensable role in (re)defining what it means to be in and resonate with the world.
About the Author:
Lutz Koepnick has published widely on film, media theory, visual culture, new media aesthetic, and intellectual history from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. His most recent books include On Slowness: Toward an Aesthetic of the Contemporary (2014) and Framing Attention: Windows on Modern German Culture (2007). Koepnick is currently working on a book entitled Unframing the Long Take: Contemporary Art Cinema and the Wondrous, a project investigating the representation of time and duration in international art cinema and video art today; and on a monograph on filmmaker Michael Bay.