The New School Archives Digital Collections

Parsons School of Design MFA Photography program theses2017 (PC020403.13) ➔ On consciousness and unpredictable information


Related people/organizations

Arash Fewzee (photographer)
James Ramer (thesis advisor)
Parsons School of Design. Photography Department. (sponsoring body)


August 8 2017


Vilem Flusser in the last chapter of his influential book, Towards a Philosophy of Photography characterizes photographers as “people of the apparatus future” whom “their act are programmed by the camera” and finally asserts that “They create things without value. In spite of this they consider their activity to be anything but absurd and think they are acting freely.” The book only gets more interesting after this point. Two paragraphs later he adds a short paragraph of exclusion to his portrayal of photographers, that sits at the core of this paper, influenced the way I think about photography and has developed much of my work. “With one exception: so-called experimental photographers - those photographers in the sense of the word intended here. They are conscious that image, apparatus, program and information are the basic problems that they have to come to terms with. They are in fact consciously attempting to create unpredictable information, i.e. to release themselves from the camera, and to place within the image something that is not in its program. They know they are playing against the camera. Yet even they are not conscious of the consequence of their practice: They are not aware that they are attempting to address the question of freedom in the context of apparatus in general.“ 1 There are several ideas and threads of thinking in this condensed paragraph. However, to understand this description of experimental photographers, I think it is vital to investigate the two main ideas in the paragraph: consciousness and unpredictable information. His idea of experimental photographer, can only belongs to the discourse of art, due to its subversive nature, playing against the camera, and its direct relationship to social and public, addressing the question of freedom. Flusser assigns a form of consciousness to the experimental photographer who is aware of the many conditions and problems of photography. However, he ties this consciousness to properties of photography, image, apparatus, program and information. To understand the state of consciousness in the context of making images and objects, I decided to trace the existence of this systematic awareness that has been not only visible but also part of the formal structure of the final image, object, experience, situation and, space through the history of making. More precisely, I was drawn to two different forms or stages of consciousness. One in the studio that is directly derived from the materials, body activity of the artist and physicality of objects and activities, and hierarchy of production which I decided to call the state of in-studio-consciousness. And he other one that is related to the existence of objects outside the artist's studio and their movement in the world, and different conditions and situations they form in public places and art institutions, which I call state of post-studio-consciousness.The decision to make photograms in the very beginning was a strategy that was concerned with the post-studio fate of photographs that are capable of flying fast, and changing form, size, dimension, format, and content accordingly. Those that act as fillers of the walls, pages, blogs, campaigns, magazines, books, catalogues, vitrines, and spaces. They are purely functional in the task of persuasion, satisfaction, and distribution. They create a false sense of necessity, distorted imagination, and alternative realities. They actively take part in wealth distribution, pushing the curve of demand to the right, they decrease our expectations and increase the Gini index. They are fast and innumerable, and we are slow and individual. Making slow, physical and unreproducible photographs was a form of refusal. First as a passive refusal of an individual, to take part in this apparatus that absorbs everything, and then an active form of refusal in makings objects that ontologically limit the discourses in which they can exist. This refusal was devised through the elimination of the reproducible organs of the apparatus, or what is surprisingly known as the dry part of photography. 2 However, this elimination led to a complete transformation of my in-studio activity, materials, body behavior and eventually thinking process. As I learned about this new way of producing images/objects, I became more and more engaged with the in-studio-consciousness specific to this production. Robert Morris in Phenomenology of Making writes “The body’s activity as it engages in manipulating various materials according to different processes has open to it different possibilities for behavior… Such differences of engagement (and their extensions with technological means) amount to different forms of behavior. In this light the artificiality of media-based distinctions (painting, sculpture, dance,etc.) falls away. There are instead some activities that interact with surfaces, some with objects, some with objects and a temporal dimension, etc. To focus on the production end of art and to lift up the entire continuum of the process of making and find in it “forms” may result in anthropological designations rather than art categories.“ 3 What is photography then, if we study it through our body behavior? What does our body do when we are makings photographs? Photographing with a camera definitely engages different parts of our body, but I want to argue that we can study photography as an activity that is associated with our index fingers and our eyes more than any other parts of our body. From touching the notches on the sheet of film, to rewinding the film, focusing with the focus ring, or half-pushing the shutter button, and taking the picture, and most of the post-production process happens as a performance of our index fingers. As if cameras replaced the instrument of pointing out in our body, camera as an extension of our index finger. However, elimination of camera from making photographs completely changes these behaviors. Working in the color darkroom completely eliminates sight from the production, and almost entirely substitutes it with touch. Depending on the architecture of the darkroom, and size of the paper, and height of the enlarger, and the placement of the processor, these behaviors and their temporal elements can vary. However, commonly there is a lot of body movement in the darkroom: moving objects, and papers from a surface to another, touching and matching the placement of objects to the preexisting marks, cutting the paper, climbing up the ladder to change the dials on the enlarger that is placed 8 feet of the ground and, most significantly, pausing and moving very slowly in order to navigate our position in the dark. This process contains endless situations of loss of one’s position and knowledge, and this uncertainty and unpredictability of movement and position carries on to the outcome of the performance. “They are in fact consciously attempting to create unpredictable information.” I am troubled by the juxtaposition of these words, consciously, attempting, unpredictable, and information. This is the only time he uses the phrase “Unpredictable Information” in the entire book. However, he uses the word unpredictable two more times, few paragraphs before this passage he writes: “One can force the camera to create the unpredictable, the improbable, the informative.” 4 Now I am even more confused, the unpredictable, the informative! In critical literature of photography accident is the dominant word to theorize the quality of unpredictability that is specific to the medium. 4 years before the publication of Flusser’s book, Barthes wrote about accident and photography, while there are similarities between the Punctum and Unpredictable Information, Barthes accident only exist in the eyes of the beholder, the photographer has nothing to do with it, while Flusser assigns the attempt to create unpredictable information to the experimental photographers. Much like Barthes, Benjamin situates accident on the receiving part of the image, the viewer, and completely out of control of the photographer. 5 Sontag’s understanding of accident is associated to the production side of photography like Flusser's, when she writes: “But, despite their reluctance to say so, most photographers have always had — with good reason — an almost superstitious confidence in the lucky accident.” 6 I am not satisfied, superstitious confidence in the lucky accident and consciously attempting to create unpredictable information are not addressing the same activity. Photography literature can’t help me to understand the attempt to create unpredictable information. However I was able to find the closest phenomenon to the Unpredictable Information in the art discourse 7, what is known as chance method, or chance operation. From the beginning of the 20th century, artists have been attempting to create unpredictable information, through systematizing the arbitrary, constructing structures that allows the insertion of unpredictable, and improbable to the work. I believe Flusser is demanding the experimental photographers to be aware of the inherent systems of the medium, and work against them by constructing systems, that makes visible the invisible program of the apparatus and makes space for the hidden, the other, the silenced and, the marginalized. Let the unknown inside from the door gap, and it will burn away all the systems and arrangements with that strange maroon color.



Use Restrictions  

There’s more! What you see on this site is only what is viewable online. Please visit our website to find out more about what’s in the archives.