Rebecca Coleman and Liz Oakley-Brown on Special Section ‘Visualizing Surfaces, Surfacing Vision’

Visualizing Surfaces, Surfacing Vision‘, a TCS Special Section edited by Rebecca Coleman and Liz Oakley-Brown

The title of our special section ‘Visualizing Surfaces, Surfacing Vision’ has a twofold meaning. It refers both to how surfaces become a means by which particular ideas, relations, aspirations may be visualized and materialized, and to how surfaces may themselves visualize, that is be a spatiotemporal site through which relations and materialities become visible, or not. One of these processes may be apparent in any example or case, or they may both be evident.

Surfacing vision refers to how vision becomes located within or on a particular kind of surface – that is, how vision is relocated from the view from above to a plane, or surface. Such a focus requires an examination of, as well as a questioning of, a straightforward hierarchical binary opposition between surface and vision. To what extent is a surface mapped, engaged, interacted with, made visible? Does a surface ‘belong’ to any particular entities, human or non-human? How is vision (part of or constitutive of) an assembled surface? We approach these questions through academic papers and art works, seeing language alone as incapable of articulating their complexity and drawing attention to the multiple practices through which they are being addressed.

Reading the articles alongside these three artworks makes connections between seemingly exceptional and quotidian encounters. Yet there are similar questions at stake: for instance, how does vision work to materialize or obscure particular material entities, and what kinds of sensory, embodied and political experiences are created through encounters with the surface? In sum, we suggest that vision is productive of and produced via surfaces. Vision is located ‘on’ or ‘in’ surfaces. ‘The surface’ is thus potentially manifold and politically contingent.

Sarah Casey’s work interrogates the representation of ontological limits and the thresholds between what is perceptible and imperceptible through exploring how drawing works on and with particular surfaces.  Arguably an anthropographical exercise, that is a ‘correspond[ence] with the world through drawing’ (Ingold, 2013: 129), Casey’s art simultaneously recalls ‘Irigaray’s analysis of the erasure of sexual difference as the founding gesture of metaphysics in an undoing of photology that can be described as an engagement in the texture of light rather than in relation to light’s value as either an ideal physical medium originating metaphorically or naturally from the sun (Vasseleu, 1998: 11). Indeed, Casey’s creative exploration of ‘invisible dark matter’ exploits photologic epistemologies alongside superficial effects: ‘light itself appears layered, coated, and textured’ (Bruno, 2014: 74).

Karen Shepherdson’s practice-based research is underpinned by a concern for visioning surfaces ‘created by our perceptual apparatus’. Shepherdson’s artwork Band Apart is a multimedia installation comprising two pieces – the three-dimensional ‘Landscape with Unified Forms’ and the two-dimensional ‘Landscape with Fragmented Forms’. As she walked around her local landscape of the Isle of Thanet, Kent, Shepherdson used mobile phone technology to photograph in situ one thousand rubber bands discarded by postal workers during their rounds. Each photograph fashioned ‘its own space around each band, framed by different surfaces, textures and juxtaposed objects’. These images were then ‘randomly located by a computer program, to a contained space within a 3810mm by 1120mm frame’. In so doing, Shepherdson explored how this arbitrary ‘reappropriation’ altered the prosaic and mundane nature of the materials and how ‘surface, form and colour coalesce as viewing distance from the work increases’ (Shepherdson, 2013). As Shepherdson explains, these ‘two interconnected works…[open] up new research, making explicit connections between photographic images, surface, texture and three-dimensional installations’. Invested in capturing the simultaneous forming/performance of surface, Shepherdson’s Band Apart presses Hookway’s (2014: 14) view that ‘a surface presents form, while an interface performs a shaping.’

Jen Southern’s artistic contribution also shows how movement and lines move across diferent planes/surfaces, for example, from walking on the earth to stiches on different fabrics. Combining bodies, movement and technology, she primarily ‘works with hybrid places as lived environments’ (Southern, nd) Like Shepherdson, Southern is interested in the forming and reforming of surfaces. But whereas Band Apart uses mobile phone technology to isolate and immobilize materials and surfaces, Southern’s technique of ‘live mapping’ offers ‘participants…a shared experience of ‘comobility’, of being mobile with others at a distance. As smart phones allow GPS to be a networked technology this form of mobile communication becomes possible, and…participants reflect on what it means to them to be connected at a distance through their movements, location, speed, trajectory and mode of travel’ (Southern, 2013). In Unruly Pitch (a collaborative piece by Anais Moisy, Chris Speed, Chris Barker and Jen Southern) GPS tracks of the collective movements of players in a mass football game, usually seen as individual trajectories on a static map, are traced onto a white screen, revealing footage of the mass of male bodies in a scrum. The mapping of GPS co-ordinates onto the flat screen shows the temporal and visceral intensities and actions of the game. At the same time, the video holds a tension between the surface of the screen and a line that seems to wipe away this surface, revealing the movement ‘below’.

Note

Sarah Casey’s work forms part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project Dark Matters: Interrogating thresholds of (im)perceptibility through theoretical cosmology, fine art & anthropology of science (2014-15) which included a 16-minute film (Morrell and Potts, 2015) short-listed for the AHRC Research in Film Awards 2017)

 

References

Bruno G (2014) Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Hookway B (2014) Interface. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ingold T (2013) Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. New York: Routledge.

Morrell D and Potts R (2015) Dark Matters. Orus. Available at: https://vimeo.com/223987276 [accessed 2 October 2016].

Shepherdson K (2013) Description of art work provided by the artist, Surfaces in the Making exhibition, Lancaster, 23 May–1 June 2013.

Southern J (nd) Jen Southern. Available at: http://www.theportable.tv/index. html (accessed 6 April 2017).

Vasseleu C (1998) Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty. London: Routledge.