Modernity’s Dark Primitive Secrets

Elcott’s argues that the darkness present in 18th, 19th and early 20th-century “work” spaces, theaters, and studios are a mediated apparatus independent of the new emerging technologies of spectacle. His modern media archaeology is based on the margins, demanding we enter the dark where this history happened and the techniques to create the diapositif. The pitch-dark spaces, velvet curtains, and bodysuits are especially evocative to the construction of otherness during this period. The book is very well researched and crammed with a strength of pragmatic illustrative examples. Yet, I felt very uneasy about how he pushes aside the cultural role darkness played in creating contested sites of distance and otherness between participants and actors that are not related to gender. This is a history in the shadows that ignores the racialized enablers and subjects present in darkness. The story of modernism is very white. This might have been an opportunity to explore primitivism as it relates to darkness His Schlemmer examples are constructive, and he does mention a problematic use of theatrical blackface that ended up as parody. I know his topic is darkness, but I find it very problematic not spending more than a gloss on blackness. It’s more than a symbolic metaphor and is just as problematic as his analysis on the contested site of female bodies, especially at the beginning of motion pictures and influenced by theatrical vaudeville. He does I agree resurface these issues when alluding to more contemporary artists using darkness, but I still think it’s important enough to explore how darkness affected blackness and alterity in his earlier modernist critique. I’m not asking for an extra chapter, by the way. I’ll be bringing two books to share that might promote discussion in this vein tomorrow. And all of you that are interested in these issues should watch the Spike Lee film Bamboozled, if not at least the ending montage.

Artificial Darkness: Dark stockings to depth buffers.

In Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media, Noam Elcott manages to describe the evolution of darkness as a fundamental technology for the evolution of modern art and media. He does so by describing the historical evolutions and schisms which occurred between concepts of black as a color and blackness or darkness as a space or void. Elcot covers a broad array of technologies and techniques ranging from Marey’s chronophotography, Wagner’s darkened theater with its invisible orchestra and mystical void, glass houses, darkrooms, black art techniques and trick photography all of which combine in his dispositif of artificial darkness as a system which recalibrated the relationship between viewer and image.

I found myself particularly intrigued and convinced with the evolution of spatial darkness versus material darkness as a technique which changed the way we construct the relationship of image and audience. Elcott deftly covers the developmental leaps of Marey’s technology as it was used to capture the structure of the human form and motion. The dispositif of darkened spaces evolved to darkened clothing used to obscure elements of the body which would overlap in motion and obfuscate the movement of each limb independent of the other. Wagner uses artificial darkness to modernize the theater and removes the orchestra as a barrier between the viewer and the stage, creating the mystical void which somehow brings viewer and image closer. This in turn contributes, albeit remotely through the dispositif of artificial darkness, to Oskar Schlemmer’s spaceless ballets as the human form disappears and all that is left is abstract form and motion.

Coming from a background in special effects and magic I was aware of many of Elcott’s listed elements in the dispositif of artificial darkness, but oddly I had not connected them in the ways he has. For me the notion of dodging and burning a positive print in a dark room and their connection to iconography for similar functions in Adobe Photoshop was something I would share as a factoid with my students while trying to explain the process to them. I had not considered the connections this technique has to the concept of space and darkness. It made me search through my repertoire of CGI tricks to find similar artifacts left over from the darkness dispositif.  Elcott considers the connection blue and green screen technology as an evolution of Marey and Méliès work but he does leaves out the connection to other elements of artificial darkness which are seeing a comeback thanks to digital media like wearable light strips, motion capture technology and cg layering techniques in compositing programs. One obvious direct connection to Marey and Méliès is the ever present “alpha channel” and “z buffer” both are a very literal representation of artificial darkness and space in a 2d digital representation which to the best of my knowledge are only loosely connected to Méliès but have just as much connection to Marey and Schlemmer. It would be interesting to consider the implications and missed opportunities of these disconnects in light of the way Elcott succeeds in connecting the the dispotif of artificial darkness in its formative years. I believe it is more alive now than it was then, but like then it lives in obscure, secretive technique and only represented by the “shadow” of its output which is the lit image. Elcott does well in representing the history of the technology, but misses the mark in considering it technology which has past.

I’d like to discuss what others think about the “deadness” or not of this technology. Not just as it pertains to film but theater and photography as well. Is there some connection to other mediums like print or sound?

Dark Matters – Simone Browne

Simone Browne is Associate Professor s at the University of Texas at Austin. Her first book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. The book focuses on how surveillance is practiced, narrated, and resisted among Blacks/African Americans.

More information on the book can be found here.

Artificial Darkness and Space

Artificial Darkness by Noam Elcott presents a different structure of digital analysis compared to Gitleman and Hu. Elcott not only elaborates on the use of black or darkness in the cinema but is meticulous on the technology and aesthetic strategy. In contrast to other texts read so far Elcott connects most of this creation of darkness in cinema to theoretical texts like Barthes and other scholars in thinking about the affordances offered from the darkness. Elcott uses the introduction to begin thinking about the cultural impact that darkness had in creating various filming techniques and even set production. Elcott states, “These sites for the production and reception of images formed circuits of darkness that helped shape modern art, modern media, and their subjects” (5). This statement shows the influence that this form of technology had on the production of the filming industry. Elcott then uses this foundation of explaining how this technique impacted to cinema through various ways from individuals observing films, the space of the theater, and even the black screens. Each of these multiple components adds to this larger digital historical story in considering how this one feature had such a broad impact across various lines and segments.

The section titled Dark Theaters is one that I found quite interesting and insightful. Elcott begins by presenting the history and structure of early theaters. In the examples presented it shows this clear class structure from where individuals could be seated in these theaters, but more importantly, this is where Elcott starts the discussion on space theater. My understanding of the text is that to Elcott it is more about considering how the audience interacts in that space and setting. He states, “The suspension of bodies in a null space was a production of artificial cinematic darkness” (47). Demonstrating that spectators add to the overall consciousness and story presented. For me, this was interesting to see how much old European culture influenced how theater is currently observed. Overall, Elcott shows that just one small feature or effect played a tremendous impact on what current cinema has become. The following questions are of interest to me:

1) In contemporary theater, culture is the use of darkness still effective or does it continue to add the extra dimension and space?

Darkness but not Empty

Elcott presents a “genealogy of cinema in terms of artificial darkness, one in which film, light, projected moving images, editing, and even cameras play ancillary roles.” (10) He defines artificial darkness as “controlled darkness,” but it is not a singular medium. Instead it is a system of relations between a “heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions” (11) – the dispositif that Foucault conceptualizes. This system could then be exploited by modern artists and filmmakers despite not being a modernist medium. Elcott describes four important reversals within the history of artificial darkness: light to darkness, image to site, visibility to invisibility, and space to spacelessness. Through the shifts from the “ancient darkness” that was understood as a negation or absence, to Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro, a “spatial darkness,” to the “Wagnerian darkness” of Richard Wagner’s dark theaters, to the “spaceless darkness” that Rudolf Harms describes in cinema interiors, to Etienne-Jules Marey’s “black screen,” to the Black Art of Georges Melies, or to the avant-garde Space-Stage of Oskar Schlemmer and The Triadic Ballet — all of which are distinct from “absolute darkness,” in which there is nothing – Elcott describes a different kind of history of cinema. The control of darkness, as Elcott describes, shaped the development of modern art and modern media. There are three sites of particular influence: the dark theater, the black screen, and the photographic and cinematic studios that mediate them, particularly darkrooms. As creatives experimented with controlling darkness, they also explored its relationship to viewer response, creating a spacelessness that allowed them to be pulled further into the film, and experiments of optical spectacle. The control of the contents of the darkness – what is in the darkness? what is not? – supported experiments of illusion, reconceptualizations of approaches to the body, and a questioning of the sites of “presentation”. This artificial darkness is not empty. Like Marey’s black screen it is “a fully formed void, a darkness that was something”.

Thinking about the continuation of this history of artificial darkness with contemporary media and practices of viewing film and performance, several questions arise. How does the “black box” act as an artificial darkness that guides user behavior and experience? Is the dark theater and the black screen still relevant outside of the “theater” setting? Is there a place for artificial darkness in the context of mobile viewing, or non-theater viewing?

Artificial Darkness

Trying to resist the enlightenment impulse, Noam Elcott elaborated the importance of the darkness in cinematic art where light and retina were worshiped before the introduction of the lightlessness. Unlike everyone else, Elcott praised the darkness like a night chaser. Well early in the introduction, he established that dark, despite its rich historical reference, evolved from the past and enjoyed a current form. Since the Aristotle time, the darkness was put equally as the absolution negation of everything, but Elcott declared that it was the “modern mobilized artificial light” that “conquered the dark, disenchant the night, and create new media forms” (2016, p 4). In this way, he established a new perspective on how the audience should view the darkness.

Whereas he quoted Marey frequently in the first chapter to set up the timeless, he gradually expanded his arguments by introducing Wagner in line to carefully examine the history of cinematic darkness. I really enjoyed this methodology where case studies were linked a towering person for each chapter at a certain pace. I was wondering if darkness can be artificial, can light also be unnatural? Moreover, if darkness and light can both be humanmade, where should we find the nature? I was most impressed his comparison and contrast of the cinema and the dark screens inspired by Marey where he put: “ Whereas the cinema was a luminous rectangle in an artificial darkness space, the black screen was a perfectly dark rectangle in a now naturally luminous environment. Whereas the cinema screen produced the illusion of 3D space on a 2D surface, the black screen created a 2D surface from an impenetrable deep 3D space. Finally, whereas the cinematic spectator was extinguished so that the luminous image could reign, the object of “cinematic analysis” vanished before the black screen only to reemerge as a graphic image.” (2017, Elcott)

Darkness, unlike its companions such as shadow or brightness, is viewed mostly as a color as opposed to a condition. However, many people have historically viewed darkness as a condition. Tagore has also written in his Stray Birds that “I feel thy beauty, night, like that of the loved woman when she has put out the lamp.” More profoundly, Elcott rose the nature of darkness throughout the book where he referenced Marey to call the question of timeless, and he examined the movement of Enlightenment to examine space-stage. I think Elcott must be a profound lover of the human being because space and time are the two central questions to all of us. In the end, darkness is not something our species desired. Bring light to the darkness.

A Genealogy of Artificial Darkness as Technique & Technology

Elcott begins with a discussion about absolute darkness in art, about how artists had determined that total darkness was a limit that art shouldn’t pass, a joke. His framing of absolute darkness as a joke was used to account instances where others had retold the joke (such as the film that depicts an artist showing monochromes, one that is totally black and represents “ Negroes making shoe polish in a tunnel at night”). These examples frame his move to work through the trajectory of strategically using absolute darkness in art and media over time, where he focuses on how darkness evolved from notions of chaos and absence to modern, controlled “artificial darkness”. Elcottt contrasts those “absurdist” works that used darkness as racist art joke with the works of  Marey and Wagner, who both produced revolutionary dark sites.

As an introduction to the beginnings of artificial darkness, Elcott talks about how the concept thrived in physiology and media technology, how it flourished when people in those areas saw darkness as an opportunity (as did Marey in the invention of the black screen). He delves into Mareys work, emphasizing that in this work, artificial darkness came into focus alongside 19th century “physiology and it’s claims on human vision”. He mentions the work of Chevreul, Méliès, Herschel and other photographers and their contributions to absolute darkness as well. Elcott then moves to dark theaters as spaces where darkness was prioritized over light, inverted from the normal ways in which theater was viewed—Richard Wagner’s radical Bayreuth theater was the pioneer for this. Around Wagner’s work, he weaves in the histories of other artifacts (i.e. dark auditoriums) that played a role in the evolving trajectories of darkness in theater, and to highlight shifts in the differences between black screens and cinema. Overall, he credits Wagner for setting the “technical and discursive parameters for artificial darkness in theatrical settings”.

Elcott shifts to focusing on artificial darkness as an invisible attraction in his discussion on the genealogy of black screens and technologies that predate them (giving much attention to the phantasmagoric slide as the premier ancestor of the black screen, not to be mistaken with the traditional Magic Lantern). He describes black screens as both a technology and technique that fused bodies with images and media through various qualities of darkness. Elcott talks about trick photography and some of the work of magicians that related to Black Art, a form that rose from the use of darkness in art, and that was perfected by Méliès. In the end, this practice that began as a technique for making bodies disappear into images had become a costume concealed by Hollywood technology and other things.

He ends with noting that although the forms of artificial darkness outlined are now historical, they have not gone instinct in the minds of those who, for example, miss the technique of using dark rooms in photography, and that these older techniques are still intact underneath the more modern usages of artificial darkness. Some artists are reviving older techniques (such as black screens) within modern contexts, while other  scientists are reinventing those techniques altogether. His mentioning of Aneta Grzeszykowska’s 2007 work with black screens to “undo its enduring gender politics” reminds  me of our previous class discussions surrounding prototyping the past, specifically Sayer’s quote: “by re-contextualizing historical technologies in the present, prototyping also accentuates differences across time, including discrepancies between materials, modes of production, conditions of use, and habits of perception”.


Hu through Hugo

At one point during his discussion of a “melancholic” (108) desire for the immortal preservation of digital media Tung-Hui Hu cites Paul Duguid’s quotation of the archdeacon Claude Frollo, a character in Victor Hugo’s 1831 Notre-Dame de Paris (107). The dialogue, as rendered on page 107 in Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud is as follows: “‘This will kill that. The book will kill the building… The press will kill the church… printing will kill architecture.’”

Hu’s selection of this literary reference is informative of the lineage of his own preoccupations. Hugo’s novel is quite famously as narrative as it is disquisitive. Entire chapters of the book regard with as much reverie and impart upon with as much pathos the architecture of medieval Paris as any of the tribulations of Quasimodo and Esmeralda. As is evident from Hu’s citation, Hugo’s central assertion is one of media obsolescence. Whereas physical buildings once rendered the zeitgeists of societies across the world into form and structure—legible with a crane of the neck or an echo of the voice—media of mechanical reproduction would hold the power to end, to kill (in Hu’s mortal terms), those older ideological stoneworks which were built principally to withstand the forces of nature and war. For Hugo (or at least his novel’s narrator), the heights of western society’s productive capabilities were the towering spires of Gothic architecture.

The engineering, and more importantly, the handiwork through which Hugo’s edifices were constructed was often anonymous and deadly. That is, we often have little record of bricklayers, in spite of the skill their surviving works make evident. To return to the work in question, it would seem to me that such a relationship between laborer and construct is exactly the opposite of that which Hu describes in his book. Take Hu’s example of the Bangladeshi CAPTCHA solvers. The “slow violence of the information economy” (146), enacted upon human beings, appears, in spite of its shared semblance of anonymity, diametrically opposed to something like the threatened violence of the hopeless and rapid descent to the ground implicit in the labor of medieval stoneworker.

Indeed, as Hu writes, in many respects the very act of labor, not just its laborers, becomes anonymized into invisibility. The invention of the digital “user” reflects the mediation between corporate clouds and individual personages—economic transactions and personal privileges—of a mandate “to continually act” through use itself (50). To be sure, the labor which built the cathedral was done in the service of larger economic and political causes, but also in the service of the eventual worshipper. In the age of networks, Hu implies, this collective distinction evaporates into an individual “paranoia” (11, 147). “Because creating the system of connections is synonymous with exposing or unraveling the system, creating the system is synonymous with the act of pulling it apart” (19).

Where Hu seems to diverge from Hugo’s somewhat Darwinistic approach to media succession, however, is found in Hu’s notion of the the cloud itself. Hu defines “sovereignty of data” as the unique process by which “the cloud grafts control onto an older structure of sovereign power; much as fiber-optic networks are layered or grafted onto older networks” (XVI). Operating as a cloud, Hugo’s print may have, instead of killing it outright, adapted the form of the cathedral to its own use. Yet, inasmuch as the 19th century preservation of medieval Paris is concerned, could such a sovereignty be read as the ironic heart of Hugo’s novel?

The Cloud: Infrastructure and Power

Tung Hui-Hu speaks of the cloud across “two interrelated stories” in A Prehistory of the Cloud. The first tells the story of the cloud as infrastructure, growing out of older networks such as railroad tracks, sewer lines, and television circuits. The second story is one about the politics of digital culture.  These two stories are situated within other important claims that Hui-Hu makes: “the cloud is both an idea and a physical and material object,” the cloud is inherently political, and the cloud is a cultural phenomenon. He also notes that the cloud, as an idea, “has exceeded its technological platform and become a potent metaphor for the way contemporary society organizes and understands itself.” These relationships between the physical and the digital, the technological and the political, the social and the cultural, and the real and the virtual all contribute to the development of the cloud and how it operates with its users and society. The notions of space and power become particularly critical to Hui-Hu’s telling of the history of the cloud. Like other forms of infrastructure, physical space is being configured and reconfigured. This reconfiguration also affects the organization of contemporary power. (4)  This also informs how we understand the ways in which the cloud engages larger structures of power: sovereign societies, (Foucault’s) disciplinary societies, and (Deleuze’s) control societies. The deployment and development of the cloud both allows for the continued reinforcement of power and also resistance to it. Here I would like to discuss Hui-Hu’s discussion of targeted marketing and its relationship to military targeting, “…the same algorithms that make the cloud usable are the ones that define a “user” as that ever-growing stream of data to be analyzed and targeted.” (111) Through this example we see the opportunities for targeting and the “slow violence” that the cloud itself enacts.
There are connections here to Gitelman’s call for a more social and cultural understanding of the history of media. Both also speak to the influence of materiality. There are also connections to Raymond Williams discussions of society and technology. Since we at talking about the relationships between technology and society and power, I ask: If power structures drive the growth and development of the cloud and the Internet, how can the user interrupt this system when their agency is limited and their existence is being “targeted”?