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23.04.2009 / New York University

Image and Imagination

“What happens when one closes the eyes? One does not stop seeing. What one now sees is not related to the eyes.” (Wittgenstein, Philos. Betr. 103)

Recent research in the neural-sciences has gathered rich knowledge about seeing as the physiological process of image making in the brain. This research has contributed a great deal to the understanding of mental images as fragments of the human consciousness. It has put to rest many inherited speculations about the nature of images as well as a narrow concept of images as realistic representations of reality. Yet, philosophical questions have not become obsolete. As far as the image/reality relationship is concerned, questions in relation to the function of the imagination for the production of images remain an unresolved issue. It needs to be reconsidered in the light of empirical research, recent collective experiences with photographs from war and disaster zones, and new high tech imaging processes in medicine and military information gathering.

There is no doubt that individual and collective images are to a considerable degree the product of the human faculty to imagine and fantasize. It is the conference’s contention that an understanding of the complex process of images making cannot be reduced to physiological processes only. All three aspects of image making, physiological, technological, and imaginative, need to be kept in focus. Following a conference that focused on images and the sciences, we are now shifting attention to the conscious and subconscious contribution by the subject to the creation of images. The conference will focus on aspects of the imagination in the process of creating images, both mental images and images before our eyes, and their mutual relationship. A distinction between the eye as optical and neural organ of seeing and the gaze has proven productive in recent debates in the emerging field of ‘image theory’. The relationship between the eye and the gaze will be addressed and questions concerning the constitutive role of the imagination for the gaze explored.

During the last decades, an intensive debate about images has emerged. A collection of essays entitled “What is an Image?” (ed. Gottfried Boehm,1994) reconstructed the debate concerned with pictures and images in Philosophy, Psychology and Art History during the second half of the 20th Century. Ten years later, a new anthology (edited by Christa Maar and Hubert Burda) collected recent and important contributions to this international debate and was appropriately subtitled “The New Power of Images”. Its title “Iconic Turn” is a reflection of the term “linguistic turn” created by Richard Rorty which for forty years has served as a common reference signifying a fundamental change in the conception of the humanities that turned away from questions concerned with consciousness and replaced them with theories of linguistic structures. This turn was significant of the definition and self-image of the humanities for the entire
20th century. It is not unreasonable to assume that he current turn towards images could lead to an equally fundamental reconstitution of the humanities and affect the foundation of all disciplines focused on the understanding of the arts, the sciences and cultural processes.

This debate is paradigmatic for a transatlantic transfer of ideas and, furthermore, an example of the dense network of German/American theoretical discourse. Its origins can be traced back to the Viennese school of history and theory of art (Alois Rigl and others) that was instrumental for the creation of academic art history in America. During the last twenty years, American empirical research radiated back and became influential in German theoretical discourse. It is certainly no coincidence that W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago) and Gottfried Boehm (Basel) suggested the term “iconic turn” and “pictorial turn” respectively in the same year (1994).

We are witnessing fundamental changes in the production and dissemination of images. Digitalization and new image creating apparatus and techniques require a fundamental reconsideration of our theories of images. The face is a striking case in point. Surveillance techniques concentrate on the human face not because it is the most obvious expression of a unique individual, but only because facial recognition techniques can read visual data and translate them electronically into numerical patterns that can be stored in an the electronic memory. The electronic image of a face can then be compared to all other images of faces fed into a flow of abstract information. Similarly, images produced through advanced medical technology are no longer based on a concept of mimetic representation. Instead of using light waves or X-Rays they are based on abstract models of cells, molecular structures and atom movements. Computer programs are designed to determine combinations of geometrical structures and colours which then appear on the screen where they look similar to conventional images. These images are constructions of a reality that is invisible not because it is too small or too fast for the anatomy of the human eye but because it is an invention resulting from abstract theories. Yet, the words image and picture continue to be used in processes of visualization
that no longer apply techniques of analogous representation but are the product of a combination of advanced computer technology and scientific imagination. What are the consequences for our understanding of the image? The invention of photography gave rise to a debate about the elimination of subjectivity through its mechanical-chemical process. Has the history of the image now reached a point where the mechanization/imagination relationship is reversed? The large canvas, once the most important arena for representing the world has become marginal whereas imaging technologies have opened up the image to indeterminacy and the image producers’ and viewers’ imagination. Image creating technologies are experimenting with techniques such as blurring, extreme large/small formats or digital manipulation that seem to give the coup de grâce to the ideal of true representation and make the imagination go wild. The image seems to turn into an attack of the imagination on reality.

Following an international conference in 2003 on the relationship of public images and the sciences, this year’s conference is devoted to the complementary aspect of Picture Theory, namely the role of the imagination in the process of making and perceiving images. Speakers from the USA, Germany, Switzerland and France who have made substantial contributions to this ongoing debate will participate and the artistic project of Berlin based artist Gabriele Leidloff will provide the example of the new interrelationship between the arts and theories of the imaginative.

For years, she made use of conventional camera work; yet, at the same time, she created images with a virtual surface satirizing the image industry. Her X-ray images of death masks give a “cold foretaste” (Hajo Schiff) of the other side of the sciences and of cyberspace. By using image generating techniques, e.g. radiography, ultrasound, computed tomography, magnetoencephalography, and eye-tracking, she is now developing a method of producing a creative paradox in which scientific images do not represent the human body but, on the contrary, create pseudo conventional images of a view from nowhere. Her project called l o g - i n / l o c k e d  o u t, http://www.locked-in.com, is an experiment with innovative forms of interaction designed to bring in contact specialists from the neural sciences, image theory and artists who usually work in isolation from each other.

Locked-in is the medical term for the rare syndrome. Such a defect of the neural system makes it possible not only to gather information about this specific psycho-physiological phenomenon but also offers insight in the construction of the regular processes of active and passive perception and communication. Scientific observation uses the syndrome in analogy to a scientific experiment that avoids interfering with a natural process. Through the locked-in syndrome nature itself creates an pathological condition that makes possible insights in its own constructions. By imitating this condition, the artistic project l o g - i n / l o c k e d  o u t  makes visible the elements of the mental state resulting from interrupted communication. Gabriele Leidloff’s installations, built with most recent apparatus of medical technology, are a unique attempt to integrate scientific experiments and artistic ways of image construction. The project develops means for transforming a medical condition in aesthetic experiments which will be shown in a series of installations later in New York.

 



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