Multi Perceptions / Multi Portraits

Multi Perceptions / Multi Portraits

One evening I had a near-hallucinatory vision. The question-and-answer session that led up to this vision went something like this: Suppose you shoot a whole movie in a single frame? And the answer: You get a shining screen. Immediately I sprang into action, experimenting toward realizing this vision. Dressed up as a tourist, I walked into a cheap cinema in the East Village with a large-format camera. As soon as the movie started, I fixed the shutter at a wide-open aperture, and two hours later when the movie finished, I clicked the shutter closed. That evening, I developed the film, and the vision exploded behind my eyes. This idea struck me as being very interesting, mysterious, and even religious.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

The idea of the “complete” portrait, or the “complete” reproduction is not new. It is now nearly a century since Walter Benjamin announced that the future will be defined by reproduction, in what became one of the more suggestive texts of the twentieth century. Its very well known essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, published in 1935,[i] addresses a modern, technologically effected transformation in the nature of art and, also and by extension, the political implications of that transformation. The idea of being able to transform a single object, or piece of art, into a non-unique object or performance that could be experiended not only by audience members willing to make a pilgrimage to the artwork’s location was clearly one of the ideas due to change art theory in modernity. Benjamin contasts the traditional art objects with modern artworks, whose broad spectrum of reproductions, as images, sound recordings or film reels, were going to be mechanically copied and distributed widely. A few years earlier, the french thinker Paul Valéry wrote, in the article “La Conquete de l’ubiquite”,[ii] that we should “expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art”, and having clear that in all the arts there were a physical component which could no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which couldn’t remain unaffected by modern knowledge and power. For that last years, and setting a departure point in the turning from XIXth to XXth century, neither matter nor space nor time had been what it was from time immemorial.

Actually, both Walter Benjamin and Paul Valéry were necessary to set up a scenario for the theoretical principles that were going to frame contemporary culture in our time, nearly a century later. And, also realized by the increasing number of contemporary thinkers that continue quotating them, their manifestos are still more than alive. What we should consider nowadays, in our actual time, is not only the possibility of having our artwork reproduced globally, hanging in the walls of our every living room, but the possibility of having the whole reality reproduced, even in real time, and transmitted to every other location. The analogue reproduction is being replaced by the digital, opening the field to the infinite, as reproduction is never again linked to any kind of size, format or media and, what it is maybe more important, not linked to any specifical or geographical place where has to necessarily be observed or exposed.

In short, as some recent writers like Jacques Rancière have stated, the concept of image is not unique, nor double, or even triple. The artistic image separates its operations from the technique that produces itself. But it does so in order to discover a different resemblance en route: a resemblance that defines the relation of a being to its provenance and destination, one that rejects the mirror in favour of the immediate relationship between its origins and results. Resemblance is, now, the one that not provide just the replica of a reality but attests also directly to the elsewhere whence it delivers and also to the everywhere where it is going to be reproduced.[iii]

And somehow, this is what made that idea of multi-portrait even older. Painters, architects and photographers had travelled together, side by side, in order to create, of better re-create, reality in the more absolute way as possible. The portraits of the mega-cities of the turning XIXth to XXth century, let’s say Eugène Atget’s Paris, or Berenice Abbott’s New York are, somehow, the direct translation of Balzac “La Comédie Humane”, in what was defined as a way to transpose reality into direct visual reproduction. Multi portraits of cities, in addition to the “invention” of photomontage by the constructivists, was a key point in the history of picturing / reproducing cities and, in extension, reality itself.

Portraying reality now is no more a simple operation. It becomes not only a reproduction act but also, and what it is genuine contemporary, a productive act. We might think of the works and programmes of the Futurist, Constructivist or Simultaneist age. Painting and photographing conceived by Boccioni or Delaunay, with its absolute plastic dynamism, embraced the accelerated rhythms of modern life. Cinema with Vertov’s eyemachine, for example, rendering all machines synchronous, transformed the act of seeing into something mechanical. Also, suprematists and constructivist architects transmitted messages and forms as the represented dynamism of builders and constructeurs. In all these cases, mediating with images is not any more just passive, but implies mediation of act, transforming, with no return, art as an active identity, that focus more deeply into their re and pro – duction, and less into the essence of what traditionaly has been considered as an artistic procedure.

This is exactly what Sugimoto, in its absolute and complete portrait of a film, is doing. The artists is producing its work by selecting an scenario, sitting and watching through a couple of hours, in order to get produced a pure and blank square that contains a whole universe, as if it were Borges’s aleph: that miraculous point of space that contained all other points in the universe. In Borges’s story, the one who gazes into it can see everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, without distortion, overlapping or confusion. Sugimoto’s aleph contains not only every single frame of the movie, but also every single experience of the spectators, and all of them into a single unique blank square that provides a fully abstract view. He is able to translate the representation of the whole, moving image, into something specifically statical and abstract. In a society where we are surrounded, everywhere, all the time, by hundreds of arrays of multiple and simultaneous images, in airports, shopping centres, streets but also on our computer and television sets, the idea of just having a single and silent image commanding our attention becomes absolutely rare. As Beatriz Colomina suggested, it seems as if we need to be distracted in order to concentrate. As if we –all of us living in this new kind of space, the space of multiple information- could be diagnosed en masse with attention deficits disorder. Rather than wander cinematically through the city, we now look into one direction and see many juxtaposed moving images, more than we can possibly synthesise or reduce to a single impression.[iv]

Because it is now, in present time, that contemporary society is not any more into just the reproduction age, but into streaming age, where there is a another reality, as a illusion, streaming itself online, even more real than the real one where we are living. We have got examples, never imagined by Benjamin, Atget or Abbott, as global webcams, global satellite streaming images or even global on-time geo-location, that makes possible having our world pictured several times at the time, in what has been defined as the contemporary multi-perception.

Title: Multi Perceptions / Multi Portraits
Editor: New Architecture Magazine, Huazhong University of Science & Technology, Wuhan, China, 2/2010
Autor: Rubén A. Alcolea

ISSN: 1000-3959 – CN 42-1155/TU


[i] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, London: Create Spaces, 2009.
[ii]  Paul Valèry, “La Conquete de l’Ubiquite”, Oeuvres, tome II, Paris: Pièces sur l’art, Bibl. de la Pléiade, 1960, pp. 1283-1287.
[iii] Jacques Rancière, The Future of the Image, London and New York: Verso, 2007, p. 8-10.
[iv] Beatriz Colomina, “Enclosed by images: The Eameses’ Multimedia Architecture” in Tanya Leighton (ed.), Art and the moving image, London: Tate Publishing, 2008, p. 75.