PRAISE SONG FOR WHAT’S MISSING
William S. Burroughs once defined reality as “a more or less constant scanning pattern.” To him, his notebooks that combined his snapshots and poems were a disruptive, essential means of altering—and essentially interrupting—the hardwired adult pathways of seeing.
Televisions are hardwired into a standard scanning pattern. Through this method, two sets of lines are created, with the first set laid down to leave empty space between the lines. The second set is laid down precisely in those empty spaces. In this way, every image is just a fragment—it’s the viewer’s eye that does the heavy lifting of combining those fields to complete a calculatedly invoked image.
In the absence of a television, a peeping tom gazing through venetian blinds would call upon fantasy to generate what’s missing. In this evocative brainspace lies the joy of creation.
My last piece WE COME TO CA I ORNIA began to open this back door of text and image—the jouissance in what’s missing. The absences, omissions, and empty spaces.
Text-and-image artist Glenn Ligon calls this presence of an absence phenomenon occultation—like an eclipse, an object in the foreground covers up objects in the background.
Much of what we know about how the human eye processes image comes from scientific experiments conducted on babies. Burroughs would surely celebrate the invention of what are called “commercial infant eye trackers”—tiny electrode-laden, wirelessly transmitting video cameras mounted on the immobilized skulls of seven week old infants whose field of view is restricted. The scanning patterns are transmitted to distant laboratories and projected onto 42-inch plasma display screens where scientists analyze off-line video coding of fixations from the raw camera images.
Recently, scientists have agitated for accommodating the “baby’s eye view”—forcing the experimenters to relinquish control of the baby’s head and allowing it a more open field of engagement. Two researchers, Yoshida and Smith, write that, “infants can direct their gaze anywhere within +/- 30 deg of where their head is pointed, and so the more subtle details of where gaze is directed are lost from these head-camera videos.
As artists, we are called upon to use any means necessary—drugs, head-mounted infant cameras, temporal lobe epilepsy, grief, jouissance, shamanic trances, sheer stubbornness—interrupt the control of the established scanning pattern.
Much of text-based visual artist Glenn Ligon’s work incorporates fragments by Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Genet, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. Because he selects texts with first-person point of view, many viewers become confused about how to scan the “I”—they want to know who is speaking. Is it Glenn Ligon? Is it Zora Neale Hurston?
At Ligon’s exhibits, viewers often complain about their confusion in navigating his identity. This is what I call the confusion of occlusion. As though a 20th century black woman and a 21st century black man and a white French man overwhelms the eye. These two line scan patterns SCANNING GLENN LIGON and SCANNING ZORA NEALE HURSTON are separated by gender and time, by medium and perhaps by message.
Asked to turn our heads +/- 30 degrees, the spine protests.
Through the Burroughsian brain-scrambling drug of text and image collusion, the scanner is interrupted: the viewer expects to passively receive a predictable image, but instead is interrupted. Something else dwells in the interwoven space between the lines. Something new is invoked and evoked.
In an interview with David Drogin in Museo Magazine, Ligon writes:
There’s a sort of pessimism in my work, a pessimism about making things explicit or understanding things and transmitting that understanding. One of the things that is interesting about a writer like [James] Baldwin is that he’s trying to take very difficult subject matter—race relations, colonialism, etc.—and through his essays, make sense of them. In Baldwin’s essays, I became interested in the gaps, the things that cannot be expressed and can’t be explained as well as the difficulty of the subject matter he’s trying to tackle. The paintings that I made using Baldwin’s essays stage the complexity of his ideas for the viewer through the act of presenting a text that is very difficult to read, that goes in and out of focus, that is alluring because it’s paint and coal dust on canvas, but also frustrates communication.
In his 1996 lithograph “We’re Black and We’re Strong,” Ligon selected an image of marchers carrying a banner at Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March and created his work in response to the March’s “Day of Absence,” in which women (who were not invited to the march) were supposed to show solidarity.
I started with the idea that I would look at images of the march and think about absences that mirrored the literal absence of women on the Mall. So, one of the images I took was a banner that was unfurled on the Mall during the rally that said, “We’re black and strong.” I had a tiny image of it from a magazine and started blowing it up on a Xerox machine, and I realized that when you blow something up, it sometimes gets lighter and lighter, and at a certain point, the text disappeared.
I thought, well, that’s kind of what I’m interested in—these images in which there’s something there, and it gets bigger and bigger, and then that something disappears. The piece started as a four-by-three-inch photo and became a ten-by-seven-foot silkscreen piece in which the text on the banner had disappeared but returned as the title of the piece. That painting is titled We’re Black and Strong, but the image that the viewer sees is a banner unfurled with nothing on it, a blank space.
In another experiment with infant head-mounted cameras, the camera angle allowed for a 90 degree field-of-view to capture the straight-ahead gaze position of a fifteen-month old infant as it played, fed, and sat in a car-seat or stroller or grocery cart through the supermarket.
The scientists then used Final Cut to create three minute video vignettes.
Which they showed to other infants.
Who they locked into place at 85 centimeters from the television screen and then strapped into an ASL model 504 automated corneal-reflection eye-tracking system.
Data results showed that the majority of these infants’ gazes were directed to hands and objects, and not faces.
I wonder—were these infants fascinated by their future means of survival and expression? Perhaps they had learned an early lesson that hands and objects would provide the means of disrupting the scanner.
Towards widening the field of view, towards freedom, and towards creation.
Sources include How Infants View Natural Scenes Gathered from a Head-Mounted Camera by Richard N. Aslin, PhD, What’s in view for toddlers? Using a head-camera to study
visual experience by Yoshida H, Smith LB, Rules that Babies Look By: The Organization of Newborn Visual Activity by Haith MM, Interview with Glenn Ligon by David Drogin, and television technology: interlaced scanning.
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