Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Imperfect Perfection

The real world is physical. Made of stuff, star stuff, the astrophysicists tell us, forged in the crucibles of exploding stars, aeons ago. Dust, most of it; interstellar, intergalactic. We are made from dust, Scripture reminds us; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We are reminded of this when sunbeams shine through a window, illuminating a darkened interior, wherein we can glimpse a myriad of dust motes, borne on the air by the minute forces of electrostatic attraction and thermal air currents. Enlarged a thousandfold, they would fail to float at all, but the Scale Effect ensures that the forces acting on their surface area are out of proportion to the mass of their volume.

The real world is physical, far less perfect than some idealized Platonic solid, yet far more perfect than we can imagine. Magnified up close, we can glimpse the seeming randomness of a surface's microscopic crazing, within which, if our microscope permitted, would be revealed further details to dazzle our imaginations. Inward we go, through one dimension after another, wherein patterns of detail seem to be replicated at multiple dimensions of scale; complexity, nonlinearity, chaos.

Contrasted to the seeming theoretical perfection of an abstract data file, the real, physical world of material substance reeks of the dust from creation. Real lines aren't straight, real planes aren't flat, real empty space is anything but. Clean air is an idealized abstraction; real air, regardless of how clean, is saturated with pollens and grains and motes and fibers from sources natural and manmade. This is reality, in all its messy sordidness.

Information in its purest form is abstract and nonphysical. Because it doesn't exist in Einsteinian Space-Time as matter or energy, it therefore is exempt from the limits imposed by physical laws. However, information - pure information - cannot be interacted with unless it modulate some physical parameter of matter or energy. Electromagnetic radiation is imposed upon by the limits of Space-Time, represented as quantized wave phenomenon whose limits of propagation are defined by the Speed of Light and discrete quantized energy levels. Information, once encoded into the matrix of Space-Time, takes on the limits of the medium within which it is bound, regardless of its idealized initial state. There is found therefore a dichotomy between the ideal state of pure information and its real-world actualization. We experience limits on how fast data can be transferred, or how clear one's intent can be understood. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Within the messiness of the real world, within the sordid unkemptness of life in all of its incongruity, I've attempted to carve out a small niche of creativity, an internal place wherein I can unfold myself, unguarded and unprotected, sheltered from the storm, to find direct contact between my deepest self and external reality. Some people have called this place "art", although I find the term too burdened with cultural baggage for my comfort. Creativity is a condition of the spirit that is quiet, nonjudgmental, uncritical and life-affirming. It is a journey, an ever-present practice, rather than a skill or accomplishment. Creativity is impossible to measure on the merits of competitiveness; it is qualitative rather than quantitative. Creativity doesn't keep score.

Contrasted with true creativity, there is the messy business of contemporary media and technology, within whose maw more and more of the totality of our lives are being subsumed. Where once a letter would be penned to a relative or friend replete with the unique attributes of one's hand, pen and stationary, we have now substituted the impersonal perfection of email, in all of its sterile glory. Even the words themselves carry less and less meaning, the rules of diction and grammar once deemed inviolable are now being substituted by 140-character sound-bytes and impromptu acronyms. We seem to be led down a path of conviction whose end state resembles an idealized Platonic solid that remains merely theoretical in the real world. The process of social and technological evolution we are experiencing seems to resemble the spell of some dream state that is far removed for actual reality. It is as if the culture were, en mass, falling asleep.

The place of creative art-making that I have explored most deeply is that of the photographic image. No form of mediation is closer to the front lines of social change than is photography, yet no form of mediation is lesser understood. Humankind for millenia has demonstrated a remarkable propensity for image-making, such that it is no mere coincidence that the power of imagery and image-making is intrinsic to many historic systems of politics, religion and spirituality; the term idolatry itself is a homage to the power of art to reveal and transform; a power not always accepted openly, but guarded and protected for the culture's power elite. In the era contemporary to the Industrial Revolution, the rise of photography paralleled the rise of the Nation-State, protected by the discovery of managed information flow, embedded media, propaganda. It is no mere coincidence that, in this era of idealized image-making symbolized by the dominance of digital photography, the control of information by governments has never been more crucial to their sustenance. Photography, rather than representing objective truth, disguises the ulterior motives of the Propaganda State within an exterior sheen of pseudo-objectivity. The medium's power lies in its ability to simulate objective reality through an optical mapping of the external world into a subjective image plane. The camera's lens casts an image; however, an image is but a mere symbolization for the real, a lesser-than thing, like seeing through a glass darkly. The complexity of the real world is collapsed within the camera into a flattened shadow-like plane, a third and fourth dimension represented by mere geometric projection from a narrow sliver of time, as if objective truth could be mapped and charted by some convenient spreadsheet. The veracity by which photography performs this trick of simulating objective reality is at the heart of its power to manipulate and propagandize.

Today I trudged out into the real world in search of a photographic image that reveals some pattern of objectivity, while simultaneously refusing to mask the imperfect reality of the process of image-making within some supra-real veneer of fantasy-like perfection. I'm interested in seeing what things within the complexity of the real world look like when represented in an imperfect media, exploring the cusp between the idealization of fantasy and hard, cold reality. My media of choice for the last several decades has been pinhole photography, collapsing multi-dimensional reality into softly-focused imagery onto black and white silver gelatin paper. A mere glimpse into the heart of things, a flicker of the candle against some invisible current, as if seen through a glass darkly.

The process remains entirely physical: a paper's surface, coated with a thin layer of optically transparent gelatin, suspended within are multitudes of minute, light-sensitive silver halide crystals, is exposed to a phase-limited optical wavefront from a pinhole aperture. An image is formed, latent and unseen, of dislodged electrons within these minute metallic crystals. Being entirely physical, the process reveals the artifacts of its environment. Dust motes spot the paper's surface, rendering the otherwise pristine image spot-laden and flawed. The heat from one's fingers, handling the paper in the developing bath, can locally accelerate the process, and scratches can crease the paper's surface, such that a blemish or flaw is revealed in the otherwise dream-like fantasy of an idealized photographic image, reminding me through the less-than-perfect character of the finished image that information is limited to the conditions of the materials and process within which it is embedded, an imperfect perfection, a mere reflection of objective reality in this imperfect world, a bastion of sanity revealed through the very flaws in the materials and process used, like a splash of cold water upon one's face, awakening and revitalizing me from the dream-like spell of our over-mediated information world. It is real and physical, this finished image, unperfect and flawed yet perfectly replete with character, reminding me that the totality of the process is embedded within a real world that is messy and unforgiving, but ever-present and real.


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