Noise has creative energy, but it is not focused on anything — it is everywhere and limitless, but still active in any true event. It is also here, in the tip of the pen drawing these letters. A pen touches the paper and starts to move, or a typewriter if you prefer, it is the sound of typing which arouses the feeling that things are rolling, flowing. Then it stops. I am thinking about the next sentence, the pen is in the air and I hear the refrigerator, it fades again and the mind takes over and the writing continues.
It is the same sound as in Philippe Parreno´s film Marilyn (2012) where the robot hand imitates Marilyn Monroe´s handwriting. The first time the writing is shown the viewer imagines a person writing it. But when identical writing appears overlapping the first one, the concept breaks apart: it is a ghost, it is madness — it is not written as a message nor with a message or a meaning – it is blank writing. The sound of the pencil expresses everything: no letter needs to be read, no signal needs to be decoded – it is the pure act of repetition that reveals the anxiety and the madness.
Surrealists used a different kind of automatism in their artistic practises. In the automatic writing method one is supposed to give one’s hand to the spirits and then the spirits will use it to express themselves (and hopefully leave an understandable message from the other world). Now, there is something terrible in the fact that it is not a spirit controlling the pen in Parreno´s movie. It is a machine, an algorithm without feelings of loneliness and despair.
André Breton writes in the The Surrealist Manifesto: "Put your trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur." (Breton 1972, 29-30) This request is tempting but dangerous as it guides towards the border where one has to give up one's identity.
And then some thirty years later, Breton still returns to this question in a radio interview when he paraphrases Victor Hugo by saying: "I still think it's incomparably less difficult to satisfy the demands of reflection than it is to put one's mind in the state of total receptivity, to have ears only for 'what the mouth of shadows says'." (Breton 1993)
Here we are at the limits of the translation where the new names are born. They are all coming from the mouth of shadows that has no name for itself. Was it the open sea at night that spoke to Victor Hugo when he was wandering around the peninsula on the Jersey Island? What was there in the shadows? The origin remains unknown and transcendent.
Tuomo Rainio: VIew (2015), digital HD video
400 000 pixels digitally explosed from the digital scan of the world's first photograph.
Translation in the context of artistic work and research points out the distance and relation of different forms of writing in the case of artistic work – photographs, painting or any other medium – and in research-style of writing and abstract constellations. My approach to this broad understanding of the term follows Walter Benjamin's notion of two different tasks of translation – fidelity or likeness to the original and reproduction of meaning – where the latter underlines the fact that the original text appears to be neither of the translations but something that happens only in the very act of translating. In the context of artistic work, I suggest that the translation is constantly made so that the origin remains unknown and the act of translation should be emphasised. This notion further suggests that the medium of artistic practise should remain undefined and the artistic research should then work as expanding the field of artistic work rather than defining it.
How should we navigate through the world of digital images? What are the coordinates for it? Is there any map for it?
I will start once more — this time from a point of digital sphere, a pixel. It is homogeneous, indivisible, a kind of atom that represents nothing other than itself. To represent something one needs to collect a group of these small pieces and make a map out of them, a bitmap.
The logical consequence of this structure is that the amount of variation is finite. It also means that images are not only somewhere in the world to be captured, but already latent in the array of the pixels. Most of the combinations in this array are of course nonsense, visual noise, but among them there are also all the possible representations i.e. images.
Laura Marks elaborates this idea further in her book Enfoldment and infinity. Instead of thinking of image as a representation, the digital image can be understood as an interface that opens an access for the viewer to information, the space of images, and the information is an interface to the infinite. (Marks 2010, 6)
Although Laura Marks makes an interesting remark by relating the digital aesthetics with the classical Islamic art, I would like to underline that the relationship between the image and the infinite is not evident. Rather, I would like to remind that in the contemporary digital technologies we are still dealing with finite values no matter how vast they appear. The infinity plays the crucial role only in the interpretation of the data or in the understanding of the abstract structure that defines it. Here the question of translation — or translatability — once again returns. The translation, in the sense that Benjamin analysed it, takes part in "the maturing process of the original language". The notion of the interface operates in the similar manner as translation: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.” (Benjamin 2002, 260)
What seems currently also relevant is the way of thinking, where non-figurative image appears representational through its arithmetic logic. This canon of image making, developed in the context of iconoclasm, offers a fresh point of view when reinterpreted in the context of digital aesthetics.
Another consequence is that all these bitmaps have a common structure, which establishes relationships between them. As I mentioned earlier the identity of an image is multiple and without a centre/core. It is not only the similar images that relate to each other: all the possible images do. Images that did not earlier (that is before digitalization) have any relationship with each other are now relatives and originate from the same mathematical foundation.
Every image is an opening of one specific fold in this map of images. Now we can open multiple folds and research the relationship between those images. In the context of art every new link, every hypothesis can be an opening of a story, fiction – but fiction as one possible truth. And it's all about parallel truths.
What is there outside of one specific image, what is there within those folds yet unopened? The act of unfolding is like removing the curtain from the unknown masterpiece. There is nothing and everything at the same time; the estimation can only be done afterwards and it is only we humans who can valuate what we see. It is about perception; the question is can we see the figure? Or in other words: can we name it, can we recognize what we see and give it a meaning? At this point we enter the space of fiction and confront the question from Balzac's story: “Is he more of a poet than a painter?”
All these lines of thought come together in the conflict between the image and the ground of the image. This is also present in the beginning of photography.
The first photograph taken by Nicéphore Niépce reminds us about the conflict between the image and the material. The eight-hour exposure has lit up the buildings from both sides, and the light literally shines into the shadows. This twisted light deforms the view and makes it difficult to say where exactly the image ends and the ground of image starts.
There is also another conflict going on, the conflict of streaming light and the stillness of its image.
The starting point could not be more substantial; a plane of glass was covered with bitumen. It was already the people of antiquity who used to collect it. It surfaced from the bottom of the Dead Sea. Who knows, maybe it was used already in the embalming of the mummies or in the Babylonian terraces — maybe even on the steps to the tower of Babel. The choice of the material alluded to the two-sided nature of a photograph where the rivalry between presence and absence would always overshadow its reading.
The battle between the image and the material, the figure and the background creates the noise. The image needs its ground, its body. Sometimes the figure is vague and the background takes over: when it happens, do we know how to confront that sort of visibility?
Tuomo Rainio: The Stream (reconfigured), 8 min. 15 sec. digital HD video, 2015
Still images from the video.
An example of this journey into the digital space might be found in the video work The Stream (reconfigured) in which a digital copy of Gustave Courbet´s painting is transformed into nonsense, noise, when at the same time the data remains identical to the original file. Colour values of pixels remain unchanged only their location is changed. When this swap between two pixels is repeated millions of times, the original image loses its characteristics and becomes another image? For a computer this change is far less radical than it is for a human. (As a side note, I find it very awkward to do this: to take, capture something as perfect as Courbet´s painting and handle it as a digital file, make operations with it.)
What if we are not looking at the world anymore, but the data of the world? Isn't that already the case in science? But how about in art, or in photography? Is there art beyond the perception, beyond the aesthetic? Art of the logical? Mathematics! But wasn't that already the case in art, if art originates in the translation of the invisible to the visible, aísthesis?
The artist’s task is to go off the track, to go beyond fixed and familiar points and to wander around and get lost. And yet it is essential to stay attached to the points of access i.e. the representations in the “space of images”.
So, is there any map that we can use when it is not even clear what we are looking for?
I will conclude with a poem The Hunting of the Snark (1876) by Lewis Carroll. In the story the hunting itself is without a clear goal. Nobody really knows what a Snark is or where to catch it. During the sail this search of the unknown is expressed through a metaphor of a special map that will take the crew and the reader to the limits of our knowledge. (Carroll 1995, 185-186)
In March 2014 millions of people online were looking through a collection of random satellite images and trying to find traces of a missing airplane — the flight MH370. Browsing through image after image, the surface of the Indian Ocean seemed endless. Already after a short while it was difficult to stay focused — and sooner or later one started to imagine things, not necessarily airplanes but all kinds of stuff floating on the sea. There is no end to the endless sea. There is nothing, just the noise, the repetitive forms of water — and some clouds here and there.
After seeing the image of a possible object on the news I started to hesitate — was there something that I had missed, or did I see something similar there? So I returned to the sea and asked myself: Where do the images come from? Where do they grow, form themselves and appear? Do they originate in the noise?
This article consists of a series of translations in which I hope to reconstruct the process of my own artistic work. The exposition is composed of three cycles that repeat the same themes within them. I try to follow the loop of thinking and its errors and reveal the iteration of the process influenced by chance. This way I try to document the way an artwork is developed.
This text will concentrate on the moment when the translation is about to happen, at a point when it is still undone and only in a state of becoming. With any concept that has the prefix trans-, one should be prepared to stay in the middle, in-between and bare the uncomfortable fact of not finding any permanent results.
In the text I will go through some of my own artworks that are related to the theme of translation. Most of the works are from my solo exhibitions “Notes from the Mouth of Shadows”, "Reconfigured image" and "Possible object" which took place in Helsinki in 2013—2015.
Lewis Carroll: The Hunting of the Snark, 1876
He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.
"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
"They are merely conventional signs!
"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we've got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best--
A perfect and absolute blank!"
The diptych work "Cause-effect" could be regarded as a visual introduction to the theme and as a starting point to this text. The work consists of two photographs that represent the opposite walls of one room. My attempt was to study what happens in the relation between these two images. The two views, which are photographed from opposite directions, can be easily placed next to each other without questioning their perspective truthfulness. This is an example of transformation where one has to think through the logic of the images. Between these two views is a tension that underlines the process of mutation.
The question of space is at the heart of the photographic apparatus. The camera obscura is a room where the space of images opens. In this case it is also the space of translations. Instead of looking at what comes out of it, I will try to examine what happens inside it.
Later in his book, Serres goes extensively through a short story by Honoré de Balzac titled The Unknown Masterpiece. The story is about painters of different ages. The oldest of them, Frenhofer, the maestro, is troubled by his unfinished painting called Belle noiseuse (“the beautiful troublemaker”). He has already lost hope in finishing it due to the lack of a perfect model to which he could compare the painting. The youngest of the three painters comes up with a plot. He offers his mistress to model for the old master, but wants in return to see the unseen masterpiece.
In the exchange both must give up something they love, but they both do it for the love of painting — for the absolute of painting. The old master soon comes to the conclusion that the painting is finished. But when the curtain arises and the two younger painters see the masterpiece, they only see a canvas filled with random dots and strokes of paint.
Balzac composes the story by contrasting nature and a picture. The absolute of painting is reached by the liveliness created within the picture. In the end, this absolute seems to be valued only by the capacity of the viewer, and that is also why the masterpiece has been hidden for so long. In front of Belle noiseuse the two younger painters are incompetent to see the form (figure) among the splashes of paint. The question remains open: was there an image at all or was it all fiction.
What makes this story interesting is the fact that there was something recognisable in the painting. A foot, a perfect foot appears in the corner of the canvas. This detail makes it possible to imagine the rest of the figure. And even more as Serres claims: "Everything is founded in the possible, all representations originate in the belle noiseuse, all states come to us from chaos." (Serres 1997, 24) So in the masterpiece there is everything, but it all remains hidden, lost in the chaos and noise; maybe it was too perfect, too much like nature, alive, and thus impossible to grasp with perception. And maybe there is something imperfect in the foot, something that parts it from the absolute and makes it human.
Alberto Giacometti describes a similar experience and gives it an important role in relation to his artistic work. "I remember exactly that day in 1945 at the cinema in Montparnasse. I didn't see the image on the screen but moving spots instead. As for the people sitting next to me, I felt I saw them for the first time. As if I saw the world for the first time, without the veil that was there before. Since that moment, I've felt the need to try, to account for what I see through my painting and sculpture. Knowing at the same time that I'm bound to fail, but it is only the failure itself, that leads you to the truth." (Drot 1963)
When pointing at the masterpiece, one of the younger painters comments: "Here is the end of our art on earth. From hence, it will be lost in the heavens." Yet, even if the artist colleagues in the story could not relate to the painting, Paul Cézanne did while reading Balzac´s story. Maurice Merleau-Ponty mentions this in his text "Cézanne's Doubt": "Cézanne was moved to tears when he read Le Chef — d´oeuvre inconnu and declared that he himself was Frenhofer." (Merleau-Ponty 1964, 243) In the same text Merleau-Ponty writes about Cézanne's work in a way that resembles Balzac's text: "he [Cézanne] wanted to depict matter as it takes on form, the birth of order through spontaneous organisation." (Merleau-Ponty 1964, 238)
August Strindberg: Celestograph (1894), modern scan from the original
(Original: The National Library of Sweden: Flickr Commons: no known copyright restrictions)
Let me begin again (and this should be the second cycle of the loop). I would not have thought of the chaotic movement of the boat in the first place, if I had not just earlier read this short passage from Michel Serres´ book Genesis:
"As I was sailing along that summer, under a dazzling sky, and drifting lazily in the wind and sun, I found myself, one fine morning, in the green and stagnant waters of the Sargasso Sea, at a mysterious spot where thousands of tiny sparks, all shapes and all colours, were glimmering crazily in the morning light. Bearing off, I was dumbfounded to see an area almost two hundred and fifty acres square entirely populated by dancing bottles. There were countless little vessels, and each had its freight and each had its buoyant little roll, ballasted with sea wrack and rockery; each carried its hope and its despair. The coiling winds had compelled them all there, from far and near, from a thousand different quadrants. Their constant and perilous collisions made for an acute and cacophonic carillon, and this noise mounted heavenward, wafted to the horizon, it filled all space with giddy ecstasy."(Serres 1997, 1)
This passage, almost like one of those messages in the bottles, followed me for a long time. It is an introduction for the book, but not in a typical manner. It is an anecdote that is clearly remote from the rest of the book.
In the recent image of the cosmic microwave background radiation we can see the universe in its early state. The image shows the temperature differences of radiation, very weak signals that used to be light. These differences represent the structure of the universe when it was approximately 400 000 years old. The image is actually an image of an image, imprinted into the sky by the oldest light of the universe over 13 billion years ago. The recent explanation by contemporary physics states that the differences in the structure are created by quantum fluctuation during the very first moments after the Big Bang. This microscopic fluctuation was then scaled up to cosmic dimensions in a fraction of a second (10-36 seconds). What we see is a trace of this event some hundred thousand years later when the light and the matter were separated from each other.
It is not only the stars shining far from the past to the endlessly dark future; engaging us with the gigantic time scale with the concepts such as past, present and future. But it is something else; it is an image, a photograph, fixed into the background of the universe — and it appears the same no matter from where and which direction it is observed: past, present and future become irrelevant.
In 1894 August Strindberg used photosensitive plates to capture the light of the stars. He finished a series of sixteen images which he called celestographs.
Strindberg´s relation to the photographic practice follows two very distinctive paradigms. Firstly, he has an evident mistrust of the effect of any lens (even the lens of the eye). Secondly, there is a strong belief in indexicality as a principle of nature in Strindberg’s thinking.
In the same year when the celestographs had been made, Strindberg wrote a short text "The New Arts! or The Role of Chance in Artistic Creation". It is a manifesto or an artist´s statement, where he suggests that the artist should work like nature itself and not by imitating nature: "The art of the future (which will disappear, like everything else!): Imitate nature in an approximate way, imitate in particular nature's way of creating!" (Strindberg 1894)
This idea claims an even more significant role when we look at it from the historical perspective — and I don't mean only in the history of thinking, where Strindberg's aleatory method in art-making was clearly ahead of its time — but from the history of the material itself. Douglas Feuk points out in his remark: "It is highly likely that these clouds or this circular nebula are details that Strindberg himself never saw and that they only appeared much later." (Feuk 2001) According to the manifesto I believe that is exactly what Strindberg would have liked to happen to his images. But is it only these chemical traces that create the image of the stars? The answer is yes and no! The traces on the paper are completely random — accidental like a pattern of noise — and without a name or a story, they represent nothing.
Douglas Feuk also poetically calls the celestographs a "heavenly script" (Feuk 2001), but I would like to think about their relationship to language with a quote from Adorno's Aesthetic theory: "- - art in general is like a handwriting. Its works are hieroglyphs for which the code has been lost, and this loss is not accidental but constitutive of their essence as art works. Only qua handwriting do they have a language, do they speak."(Adorno 1984, 182)
It is clear that Strindberg's manifesto takes significant steps towards the ideas of surrealism and introduces concepts such as chance and automatism in the context of art over twenty years before the first surrealist manifesto. That is why it is surprising that even though André Breton gives Strindberg himself a particular position in his personal pantheon, the surrealists found Strindberg's essay "The New Arts" only in 1962. (Abolgassemi 2012, 71-88)
First, it all seems like a thing from the past, but a more careful examination shows that we can find something very similar in today’s digital technology. In every electronic device there is noise; every signal is opposed to noise, just like a figure is depicted with its background.
I started to work with computational photography in 2004. The first project was to develop visual language that would not depict world/life as stable and fixed but as living processes. In the series of video works I was using a self-made computer program to calculate the differences between frames in order to create images of movement. These Tracescapes documented the differences between frames and layered them into a single image. The result was almost like a statistical map of movements in the depicted view. Later I found out that even when the position of the camera and the subject were both fixed and there should be no changes in the image, all the frames were different from each other. The camera itself was producing the differences between the frames. These differences are noise, electronic dust, impossible to avoid in any electronic device. There are several different sources of noise; among them is the radiation from the birth of the universe that passes through all matter. In the case of a digital camera the noise is not purely random, but emerges in relation to the depicted view since that creates heat variation on the light-sensitive cell. In the end I find it comforting that it seems impossible to take the same photograph twice. Through these findings, I could return to my starting point and argue that digital photography technology in its material level matches well with my artistic hypothesis of the ever-changing nature of reality. It all comes back to the impossibility of pure repetition famously expressed by Heraclitus: "Everything flows, and nothing stands still."
This notion of noise also allows us to reconsider the identity of the digital image. One specific image can vary without losing its identity. And this means that there is not one original but a set of images that represent the same “identity”. The borders of the identity of the image are blurred and the transition from one to another is gradual. There is nothing specifically digital in this notion but it is the digital technologies that have brought us to the verge of the new interpretation.
It seems that the opposition between the image and its material background has to be reformulated in the digital era. The fundamental connection between them has become loose: digital images seem to have very little to do with the screens where they are presented. Images can come and go, leave their bodies and travel around. The bodies themselves have become empty. The screen can receive a multiplicity of images, it can present any image — and at the same time — one image can be presented simultaneously in every screen.
The sky is the first of all screens. Changes of colour, clouds forming and deforming, storms arising and settling: sky is the infinite surface for prophecies and legends. The clear sky in the night waiting to be cultivated by thought: tiny spots connected and named, constellations representing imagined figures — or a signature as Sigmar Polke in 1969 pointed out. Any image might occur, any object might be found. And there is still much more hidden.
Tuomo Rainio: Mountains (phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be) (2013), SD video loop
Instead of looking for a message written in the stars, I let the stars write. And instead of any poetic expression, these photographs — drawings of light — are statistical figures of the variation in the boat´s movement (tilting, shifting and rotating) during those 30 seconds. The resulting image represents the reduction of those three parameters onto a two dimensional image plane. Simultaneously it shows a clear track of the chaotic movement I was experiencing. Afterwards, when looking at the photographs, I started to imagine a handwriting appearing from those lines.
It seems to me that the stars and photographs have a very special history and future together.
In the following passage I will introduce the beginning of a project that was later realised for the exhibition “Possible object” in 2015.
The boat was anchored at the small bay of Kalymnos in the eastern part of the Aegean Sea. It had already become dark and I was staying inside. Waves were slowly rocking the boat. I was trying to stay in perfect balance standing in the completely dark cabin. This simple bodily act turned the relations of the surroundings and the subject backwards; for a short moment I could imagine that my position was fixed and it was the world that was swaying. I wanted to record this experience.
First, I tried to photograph a flashlight hanging freely from the roof, but I soon realized that the kinetic energy of the bulb was predominant and its track followed a pattern different from the waves. I needed something less heavy and more reactive to record the subtle changes of the sea – or the other option was to find something more stable and fixed. I went outside on the deck. The sky was perfectly clear and there I found my reference point, the stars. Between the star and the image plane there was a line of light, an astronomical pen. The pen was fixed but the paper kept moving and so the light of the stars drew a trace on the light sensitive cell of the digital camera. I made a series of photographs with a 30-second exposure time.
August Strindberg: Celestograph (1894), modern scan from the original
(Original: The National Library of Sweden: Flickr Commons: no known copyright restrictions)