Pepper’s Ghost/Holograms

…following up on our discussion of Elcott, Pepper’s Ghost, and the manipulation of dead celebrities, here’s the article I wrote about holograms for the Atlantic (n.b.: I did not come up with that title for the piece!):

See also the more recent work by Rashad Timmons at on the reanimation of black bodies as spectacle.


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”.