A physicalist approach to images:

Alexandre Estrela’s Journey to the Center

Pamela Castello Branco

I believe in the World as in a daisy

Because I see it. But I don’t think about it

Because thinking is not understanding…

The World was not made for us to think about

(To think is to be eye-sick)

But for us to look at and be in tune with…

- Fernando Pessoa [Alberto Caeiro], “My glance is clear like a sunflower”

What are the physical properties of film and video images? What is the effect when these images represent nothing to the viewer – other than their physical coming-into-presence? And what happens when our body of flesh and blood, neurons and nervous associations, receives the physical impact of non-referential, technological images? These are the kinds of questions that assaulted me as I experienced Alexandre Estrela’s most recent experimental media piece, Journey to the Center (‘Viagem ao meio’, 2010) at Galeria Zé dos Bois, Lisbon.

Born in 1971, Estrela is currently living and working in Portugal and is part of a younger generation of southwestern European artists. In his work, Estrela explores images and perception as physical events, striving for a physicalist aesthetics. His work merges both concerns with images’ physical proprieties and our bodily relationship to them. It is a physicalist approach to images.

Journey to the Center is a 2-hour overlay of film and video images and sound, projected onto the wall of a long, dark, tunnel-like room. The film is camera-less: the image projected is the result of the exposure of pure celluloid to light, during the unfolding of a 16-mm film reel, as Estrela walked through the interior of a 1,200-m long drainage tunnel drilled inside the Sete Cidades volcanic crater in the Azores archipelago.

All that is perceptible in the film’s projected image is a slight change in color, moving slowly from white, through various tones of yellow, and then back to white again, along with several scratches that resulted from the filmstrip being physically dragged across the floor of the tunnel. This very same journey towards the center of the volcano was recorded with a video camera, following the trail of the film. The video images show a single small sphere of white light that overlays the switching-color, scratched image of film during the whole presentation. This white dot, like a ping-pong ball, performs slight changes in its position in the center of the screen. We must assume that this white dot is the point from which daylight is seen at the tunnel exit, which is apparently the only thing being registered by the video camera. Throughout the entire projection, these over-projected images are accompanied by a strident metallic sound and the distorted echo of distant voices whose sound waves propagate through the long hole and collide with the metallic element of the long drain pipes.

Journey to the Center could be a radically materialist piece, exploring the intricate exquisiteness of 16mm film and video images, but it would be utterly lacking in originality. Estrela’s work actually goes far beyond the tenants of materialism. In truth, he is not focusing on the materiality of the medium, but on our material – actual physical – encounter with the images.

After being left for over two long hours in a long dark tunnel, surrounded by an environment of almost total absence of spatial coordinates with only a single point of light, I was forced to resort to my senses of the material and tactile, visual and audible, in order to make sense of the only two presences in the room: my physical presence, as a sensitive and perceptive body, and the material presence of the projected images and projection devices. For 2 hours, I lived immersed in the images’ physical coming-into-presence, space, time, etc, and this experience impressed upon me an awareness of my physical relationship to them.

I believe that Estrela’s physicalist approach presents an alternative to a purely phenomenological account of spectatorship and the recent cognitive film theories that address film’s experience from a disembodied point of view - focusing in the mental conscious processes at play in the film’s spectators and how these can provoke emotional responses. Moreover, it denies the post-modern idea that images can exist without physical power, as Baudrillard, Virilio and others claimed. In fact, Estrela offers a purely physicalist view, both of image’s coming-into-presence and of image reception. Through immersing the spectator in the physicality of the image, Journey to the Center undeniably acknowledges and affirms the importance of the spectator’s body­ and strives to explore the physiological relationship we have with images.

And how does Estrela incorporate the physiological into his radical experimental work? He does not follow the spectacular use of optical or montage effects as a means to bodily or perceptually address the viewer (as, for example, in Duchamp or in Picabia’s emphasis on the physical disruptions provoked by cinema: “Cinema should offer us a vertigo; it should be a kind of artificial paradise, a promoter of intense sensations, surpassing the ‘looping’ of the airplane and the pleasure of opium”),Evidently, Estrela’s aim is not to provoke hallucinatory effects, or physically shocking ones; rather, he aims to explore the physicality of the image and make us aware of our bodily relationship to it. Making use of montage or special editing techniques would camouflage what he considers to be the inviolable physical coming-into-presence of the image. The images in Journey to the Center are not instrumentalized in order to achieve an aim by the artist. On the contrary, they come-to-presence as the result of the minimum of intentionality or subjectivity. This piece directly explores the awareness of the physiological relationship to images by taking them as simple inviolable physical coming-into-presences.

Estrela achieves this aim by constructing what I consider to be a radically haptic experimental work. By making this claim, I am drawing directly on Alois Riegl, who conceived haptic images as manifestations of a purely materialistic/physicalist perception of the world. In Riegl’s haptic images, objects are taken as clear and self-meaningful material entities, with which the viewer establishes a direct relationship in a very close and tactile way, which excludes any subjective dimensions. Still, Riegl maintains, haptic images differ from optical ones, where the latter function under the illusion of depth in an abstract and geometrically three-dimensional space.

As said above, Journey to the Center presents two overlapping images: 1) a pure light image, given by the camera-less film projection; and 2) a video image. The former allows the viewer to experience a space without depth; it invites the viewer to undergo a haptic journey, to encounter the film’s physicality without the use of optical camera devices. In the latter, however the use of a camera evokes a minimal experience of a three-dimensional optical construction. This evokes a journey towards the vanishing point of image. The vanishing point works here as a means of merging the optic and the haptic. In gazing at the white sphere in the projection, one slowly starts to feel a rhythm; one clearly senses the movement inside the image, perhaps the rhythm of very slow steps. Truly, the journey registered by the video camera is the actual physical journey that was performed both by the light and the filmmaker’s body. A journey that is now felt by the viewer. Both the filmmaker and the viewer are haptically placed inside the video device: their journey corresponds to the physical journey of light in photographic camera processes and the volcano tunnel works as the dark chamber.

Moreover, within this dark chamber, both the viewer and the filmmaker are allowed to experience the inviolable physicality of that technological image: they encounter the material walls through which the light is channeled; they experience the impact of the sound waves inside the tunnel, and physically acknowledge the violence exerted on light by the camera obscura’s process of light framing.

By overlapping these two images, Journey to the Center, brings about an experience in which the very contradictions that stem from our relationship to technological images are brought together in a growing vortex, and are then gathered into dialectical relationships that assume various forms: material versus immaterial, physical versus metaphysical, inhabiting versus gazing; proximity versus distance, haptic versus optic; presence versus absence, physiological versus mental. The awareness of these oppositions will allow techno-logy to become a techno-physis. Accordingly, this work stands as a manifesto for the non-reduction of technological images to expressive or subjective, disembodied and immaterial accounts. And it does so by revealing what has been neglected in images, independently of the medium used: their coming-into-presence as a physical objects and our physiological relationship with them.

And so, we may ask when leaving the dark chamber: Journey to the Center of what? Of a volcano, i.e, of the brutal forces of the natural world? ‘To the Center’ of synesthetic perception where the haptic and the optic merge? To the core of images and technology as physical presences? ‘To the Center’ of our physiological relationship to their material substances?

Probably all of these.