5. The Concept of the Acheirpoieton Today


It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that, in today's media landscape, in which data flash through cyberspace at the speed of light and images become increasingly automated and processed by unmanned optical machines and computerised programs, the concept of the acheiropoieton makes a fresh re-entry in theoretical discussions about photographic images and their mediation. Indeed, the idea of a non-human life and intelligence operating as, or in the production of, an image has a contemporary relevance. Theories of emerging and future technologies, such as those related to the post-human and the cyborgian, point to the logical possibilities not just of intelligent, living and evolving images, but also of those which might (even partly) be automatic, autogenic and self-evolving. Whereas photographic images are nowadays encoded and structured by the inner workings and operative program of the camera, the flash of light, too, can now be artificially brought to life and entirely directed by a closed-circuit apparatus. This, near-total, dependence on technologically inflected vision  on the basis of which we increasingly experience, evaluate and organise our lives — has not necessarily managed to discourage traditional ideas about images, iconicity and idolatry. Our willingness to 'blindly' trust the visual data reproduced by sophisticated imaging technologies, supported by a powerful cult and economy of visibility, still depends on a system of belief in photography's unbiased powers of revelation. For media theorist Vilém Flusser, the fact that photographic images have become increasingly abstract and more difficult to decipher has created a new form of 'illiteracy'. In turn, this has led to the re-enchantment of the photographic image, invoking aspects of the acheiropoietic to explain the incomprehensible processes and phenomena related to it. In this regard, I follow Flusser's premise that the origin and purpose of technical pictures are fundamentally different from that of traditional ones. He does not suggest by this that technical procedures operate outside the human, but rather that our complex entanglement in them cannot be explained by our too narrow principles of human intentionality, free will and authorship. I put to practice his idea that apparatuses are entirely different from human thought functions, precisely because they have been developed to visualise the invisible and conceptualise the inconceivable, in an automated fashion. They want 'neither to grasp nor to represent nor to understand things;' to an apparatus, what we find difficult to see is just 'a field of possible ways in which to function.'9 And that is exactly what a photographic image is too, not only to Flusser but also in my artistic research: one blindly realised possibility, something invisible that has become visible from the mutual exchange between human manufacture, automated operations and natural processes. Every agency involved in its manifestation is not merely a reproductive but a productive contributor.

I therefore believe that thinking about flash light, perception and the photographic condition requires other criteria than the traditional systems of opposition — true-false, natural-artificial, invisible-apparent, figurative-abstract, objective-subjective, man-made-acheiropoietic, creative-automated — which claim to provide an authentic image of fundamental value on the one hand, and an image deemed inferior and somehow less true on the other. In my practice, works originate precisely from the concordance of control and disconnection, purpose and serendipity, facilitation and agitation as dialectic modes that strengthen and motivate one another. Aspects of artificiality and naturalness, human-driven operations and the participation of the apparatus are indivisible partners of the same creative process. What I aim to foreground is that one cannot be favoured above the others or called an author in its own right for they are all involved when it comes to contemplating the flash image's ownership, meaning and aesthetic. 

For Flusser, too, visual experiences opened up by mechanised processes and their computational logic do not necessarily mean anything in and of themselves; they only point in a certain direction. He puts forward several criteria, which he considers more suited to the character of automated images such as the level of uncertainty or surprise found in an image, qualities that also inform my practice. By provoking situations that turn the instrument against its own scientific-objective conditions, which can also be interpreted as a gesture of re-enchantment, I try to keep the contingencies of our complex dialogue with natural image-making forces and automated technologies open, in order to re-think the relation in more nuanced and unforeseen ways. 

If we consider the flash image not based on opposites but in terms of a dynamic exchange with a directional value, it can attain a much more active existence as but one of the possible outcomes that guides and binds thing and representation. Such an image is embedded in the performative faculties of nature, human and apparatus, as it happens to reveal itself as a phenomenon. One example that illustrates what I mean by this, and also forms the starting point of my next research project, is the use of nuclear photo-emulsions to register subatomic interactions. Composed of bulky analogue film sheets, nuclear emulsions produce an abstract three-dimensional image, with a specific direction and temporality, similar to an animation clip or to photographing in burst mode, except bundled here in one single exposure. The resulting photograph shows the interactive event in its dynamic progression. The example not only affirms that each available image-making framework prescribes how we (can) visualize the world, but also that photography can be a dynamic process that strongly engages with the future. It also suggests that facilitating and rethinking image-making and perception in terms of a process-oriented exchange can provide a way forward for photography, away from its eroded concept as a passive carbon copy of the past in which creation is set against technique, and orient it toward the future, the self-creative and other kinds of image processes. 

It therefore seems essential to me that understanding of the photographic condition and of the images it engenders be broadened beyond strictly human affiliations and attachments, and that the eventualities between human and nonhuman mediators involved in its production are kept open. This is particularly relevant today seeing that, in light of rapid geophysical changes, our notion of the human as a self-sustaining species is in need of a critical rethinking, not only in relation to the increasingly automated processes of computerised vision and representation, but also in regard to our interactions with nonhuman agencies on a universal scale. Such revision of our involvement in making (visual) sense of the world can engender a more attentive way of looking and acting, as well as a deepened perception of connectedness with other forms of life, by keeping in sight the vital roles both automated technologies and unpredictable manifestations can play in all this.


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fig. 41. Subatomic event registered on nuclear photo-emulsion
© CERN / Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare, Napels (IT)

fig. 40. Nuclear emulsion film sheet