CONCEPTUAL EXPLORATIONS » Seeing » Perception » Space, Place, and the Simultaneous Existence of Both » Being Here » Pyschogeography » Disorientation » ProprioceptionRAMBLING WITH A CAMERA:
SPATIAL EXPLORATIONS » MidNights » That Which Is Remaining (In This Moment) » A Building in Which... » dilatedA CAPITAL CITYTEN MILES SQUAREONWARDSNotesReferences
Since the camera and the lens has long functioned as a third – or an additional – “eye,” it makes sense to begin by exploring notions of sight and vision. In its most powerful form, photography has the unique ability to capture and show us that which the human eye is “normally” incapable of visually comprehending. Walter Benjamin describes this phenomenon as the ability to “reveal the secret” and illustrates this through the example of walking. While we are aware of what it means to walk, we really do not know what occurs in every microsecond of the act of walking. Yet (as Eadweard Muybridge and others showed us), with the right combination of equipment and techniques, photography affords us the technical ability to capture, review, and comprehend each microsecond.
Similarly, long-exposure photography is one of the more popular techniques used to create images that we cannot perceive with our own vision. Extended exposures allow the film (or sensors in the case of digital photography) to collect light over a lengthy period of time as opposed to a single microsecond. Known for his long-exposure photographs of movie theaters, contemporary Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto wondered what would materialize on film if he kept the shutter open for the length of the movie.
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’
However, what Sugimoto did not take into account in this internal exchange is what might happen beyond the screen. In the Theater series photographs, the long-exposure allows the light projected onto the screen to travel throughout the room and to collect amongst various architectural features of the theater itself. Thus the technique provides a completely unique, and unexpected, view of interior architectures of the theater.
At the same time, we ought not be so quick to dismiss the value of what the human eye is actually capable of seeing. “The organization of human space is uniquely dependent on sight,” writes cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, and while “other senses expand and enrich visual space,” it is the sense of sight that allows us to construct an initial cognitive blueprint of our surroundings. The ability to “see,” however, extends beyond mere visuality. While visuality refers directly to the physical sense of sight, and the eyes’ ability to take in information, “seeing” encompasses a wide range of sensory methods that enable our bodies to perceive that which surrounds us. Tuan recalls the story of a blind man telling 19th century philosopher William James “that few seeing people could enjoy the view from the a mountain top more than he.” Thus, the question becomes how do we, as spatial participants, “see” space? And how might I, as a photographer, use my “sight,” in conjunction with photography, to explore, exhibit, and produce spaces?
A Building In Which…
Seeking to explore notions of space – as opposed to place – further, I turned to the role of perception in understanding a space. Inspired by Roni Horn’s desire to “make being here enough” and challenged by Merleau-Ponty’s observations on the role of bodily movement in physical space, I was particularly interested in the ways in which perception serves as a synthesis of presence and context. With this in mind, I created a system for experiencing and capturing domestic spaces.
The resulting project, A Building In Which…, is a collection of black and white inkjet prints, each a digital composite of ten photographs of a room in a house. During house visits, I spent a set amount of time in each room. The majority of which was spent merely being present in the room: sitting, looking, perceiving, responding, and reacting. The final minute in the room is spent photographing the first ten objects, angles, textures, etc. that demanded my attention. Due to the short period of time reserved for photographing, the project relies on notions of automatism and instinct to capture the room. As a result, the ten photographs are dependent upon that singular experience, as a re-visit to the same room at another time would most likely produce ten different images.
While photographic team Aneta Grzeszykowska and Jan Smaga had previously created a series of works depicting domestic spaces via the bird’s eye view, their photographic blueprints fail to offer the viewer the opportunity to experience the space through movement and perception. As a result, their project becomes more of an examination of domestic space and meanings of dwelling. In contrast to Grzeszykowska and Smaga’s photographs, the photographs from A Building In Which… create a visual manifestation of my own time spent in the room. Simultaneously, combining my “bodily experience” with the narrative of the house as well as the narrative of its residents, the images produce a unique, intertwined history.
My own desire to be present in each room emerged from a written excerpt by Roni Horn on her trips to Iceland. Horn writes:
I don’t want to read. I don’t want to write. I don’t want to do anything but be here. Doing something will take me away from being here. I want to make being here enough.
She goes on to describe the “El Greco landscape,” and concludes with “But El Greco changes here, he makes being here not enough.” Through this realization, Horn rearticulates the need for the artist to engage with and react to an environment. As a result, the final minute I spend in each room becomes the most crucial minute, as it is during this time that I become the artist by not being satisfied by just “being here.” Despite the absence of bodily/spatial engagement in Grzeszykowska and Smaga’s work, the role of presence is still evident. In an essay titled Interiors at Risk: Precarious Spaces in Contemporary Art, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth connects their photographs to Heidegger’s question: “What is it to dwell?”
If for Heidegger the notion of dwelling was inseparable from his rather general idea of “being-in-the-world,” Grzeszykowska and Smaga’s work investigates a far more limited and contingent realm of living and being in Warsaw in our times. We are shown how different people – men and women, young and old, ordinary bourgeois and bohemians, including the artists themselves – inhabit their interiors, how they use and interpret their space, and thus construct its meaning as their own.
Thus, if place is space activated (as the Situationists believed), then we could also argue that perception is presence activated. As Lajer-Burcharth notes, Grzeszykowska and Smaga are not reacting to a space, but rather, they document the manner in which “different people” inhabit and perceive their own spaces. In contrast, Horn addresses her – and my – need to interact with an environment through our practice.
A Capital City
In 1790, George Washington was tasked with selecting the initial one hundred square miles that would serve as the capital for the United States of America. The following year, surveyor Andrew Ellicott, along with his team, which included Benjamin Banneker, began placing forty boundary stones, each a mile apart, to mark the borders of President Washington’s capital city. Today, the whereabouts of thirty-nine of Ellicott’s stones are known and thirty-eight of these stones reside within a few feet of – if not in – their original locations.
However, in the two hundred and twenty years since Ellicott’s initial boundary-setting exercise, Washington DC has undergone immense changes in both its physical layout as well as the intended uses of the city. The physical space of DC has been altered from the original one hundred square miles to sixty-eight square miles, with the land to the south of the Potomac River now belonging to Virginia. Additionally, the city that was once intended to be non-residential is now home to over half million people. The governing structure of the city, however, has undergone few adjustments since President Washington’s administration as the United States Congress still controls the city as dictated in Article One of the United States Constitution.
With these changes, one could argue that the once-conceived and the now-lived spaces of Washington, DC are in fact two very different spaces. We could even extend the argument further to reconsider what Henri Lefebvre would call the distinction between the “lived space” and the “perceived space” of Washington DC. That is to say that the manner in which space is realized and how the space is understood has become disconnected.
Despite these spatial disconnects, the boundary stones do continue to act as a container for the conceived, the perceived, and the lived spaces of the city. And thus, it is with this in mind that I began with the stones as my navigational stars for a new project. As a native Washingtonian, I was curious as to what new ways I might “know” the city through these stone-seeking journeys.
I am, of course, not the first person to re-visit these boundary stones. The first known record is that of Marcus Baker, who set out in 1894 to locate the stones. Three years later, as a result of his expeditions, he published a brief history of and guide to, the boundary stones. In 1907, Washingtonian Fred E. Woodward followed up with his own history and description of the stones in “A Ramble Along the Boundary Stones of the District of Columbia With a Camera.” As suggested by the title, Woodward included then-contemporary photographs of all forty stones. From Baker to present-day, there are dozens of published reports describing the boundary stones and the adventures of locating them. As noted in a 2003 report in regards to boundary stone Northwest No. 7: “Little did Frank Ruddy know when he bought the house at 5600 Western Avenue in Chevy Chase that he would find ‘strangers in his yard hovering over it, snapping pictures.’”
While local historians claim that the boundary makers are the country’s oldest federal monuments, the stones, standing less than three feet today, are far from monumental. A 2007 DCist blog post elaborates on their seemingly insignificant quality by writing:
Some sit in no trespassing zones, some serve as target practice, and others have been decapitated by farm plows or bulldozers. Most, though, rest in front yards, woods, intersections, or parking lots, unnoticed and under appreciated.
Although protective iron bars surround the majority of the stones, they still remain quite open to natural elements, and vulnerable to the potential for destruction. Since the protective cages are seldom accompanied by informational signage, and the original engraved text is wearing away, the significance of the stones is becoming lost. Thus, they easily fade into the background of everyday urban life.