In a vitrine on the second floor of the Astronomisch-Physikalisches Kabinett in Kassel, a reasonably sized town, centrally situated in Germany, I came across a remarkable blob of colours.
According to the museum, what I will call The Blob, is one of the earliest known registrations of light on paper. It is exhibited alongside wooden cameras, daguerreotypes and pinhole cameras, as part of a celebratory showcase of instruments that have been created to extend and expand our limited sensory abilities and physical power, and maybe more precisely, the sense that we do not see enough, not clearly enough, not exactly enough – just as a tennis racket may enhance the strength of an arm, or a knife gives an edge to our hunger, and guns and rockets give a shape to our fear and rage.
*The Power of Enhancing II, Maria Barnas, 2013. Source: stormthecastle.com; All rights reserved
I came across a bunch of pedestals, presented on a website for pedestals, which are used as a means of enhancing whatever you place onto them. It is not the artwork, the porcelain dog or the golden cup you can imagine on top of them, but the power of enhancing that is the focus here.
*Edge Objects I, Maria Barnas, 2013. Source: thebaseshop.com; All rights reserved
They are much like a set of vases I saw in an eighteenth-century engraving.
During this period, botanists started keeping individual herbarium sheets, which made systematic ordering and rearrangement of plant species possible. The same owner could use different variations of ornamentation to make his sheets personal and recognisable. This new method for organisation was a ‘revamp’ of the more traditional system, which is of Dutch origin and dates back to around 1710. At the end of the eighteenth century, ornamentations were no longer used – they had gone out of fashion.
*Edge Objects II, Maria Barnas, 2013 Designer: Hieronymus van de My (1687-1761), engraver, Johannes van der Speyk (1696-1763). Source: george-clifford.nl; All rights reserved
It is strange to think that European explorers of the world, or their world, had great adventures and took all kinds of risks to find rare plants and specimens, only to have them finally end up, unbeknownst to their colleagues, in a baroque pre-printed vessel.
It is this pre-printed vase, waiting to be used, that I want to concentrate on.
It seems to reflect the history of a Europe that could still maintain the belief that it rules the world; indeed it seems to contain the absence of a wider knowledge and multiple perspectives.
(Only recently has the International Association for Plant Taxonomy changed its rules, so that you can also add a plant in English, if your knowledge of Latin is a bit shaky. The fact that you cannot add a plant in any other language, is off course still a remnant of the Euro-centric world view.)
Being pre-printed, the vases represent a system. Unused, and grouped together on a sheet, these baroque vases are forever buoyantly expectant. And in this eternal expectancy, they have an appealing, tragic quality.
These objects, or the enhancement and possibilities they suggest, give space to my thoughts. I do not have to consider these objects as objects, or even art works though I might present them as such.
*Edge Objects III, Maria Barnas, 2013. Source: pacificpedestals.com; All rights reserved
The representation of these objects, even with added shapes on top of them, with this specific perspective and this specific light, seems to lift its subject out of wanting or needing to mean anything. They are not showcased as objects but rather as a means.
They free something in my thoughts and answer to a search and interest in finding objects that are not intended to mean anything. Objects free from description.
Because my thoughts need language to make any sense, I cannot think of an object without language. But that doesn’t mean I do not want to.
Even when I’m not looking for them, objects that I will call ‘edge-objects’ for the moment, will present themselves to me.
Like The Blob. I found myself in front of it and it was telling me something.
The woman next to me (to whom in an off moment I had asked how the pendulum dangling on the first floor could possibly describe the Earth’s revolving movement (as it is allegedly doing), and who I subsequently could not shake off) was telling me about her husband, a short-sighted physics professor, about her grandchildren reading too little and all her worries – soon all this lost its sharp edges, and even the guards who told me to put my camera back in my pocket faded to the corner of my eye and I was alone in the world and The Blob. I became The Blob as I lost myself in its colorful wading into the edges of the world and its many appearances.
*Maria Barnas. The Blob, 2013. Technical Museum, Kassel. Courtesy: Maria Barnas
I regained my thoughts, my sense of self, when I read that The Blob belonged to one of the first registrations of light on paper. I think it could be argued that blobs like these are the first ever photographs. Surely, just because we do not recognise anything familiar doesn’t mean it is not a photograph. But my interest in this case is not in its exact description, or how it is placed in history, but in its undefined, blurred edges and representational qualities.
To this end, I would like to consider The Blob within its frame. On closer inspection, the blob is framed by a passe-partout within a passe-partout within a generous frame within a vitrine. It appears to have been reframed by different curators under various different circumstances. It does not describe history, but circumscribes it and maybe that is what I should call the objects of my interest: circumscriptions. If you measure the surface of the collected frames around The Blob, it would be more or less equal to the image it surrounds.
The frame is as important as the image it keeps.
And why not?
Like the pedestals, and like the vases, it suggests meaning outside itself – as someone insisting you take a look at a view. “Look there!” the woman says. “Over there!” Whatever she is gazing at would be undoubtedly engaging, but nothing could be as stunning as her conviction that she can offer you a vision.
When I stepped outside of the museum in Kassel, on the sun-heated tarmac, I became aware of the image I created.
As I walked, I felt deliriously elongated in the street. It did not matter that I had no immediate destination. When I looked straight ahead, and swung my arms, it was as if I lost touch with the ground beneath my feet. A dog barked, high and moaning. The barking bounced back from the high walls and echoed through the streets.
What would people call someone who has no idea where he is heading?
It gave me a tenuous kind of peace that passers-by had no idea who I was.
I was not only forming the image of a random woman in the street; the contours of my body were casting a shadow on the street’s surface. As the sun blazed I was creating a photographic image on the black stretch of tarmac under my feet.
An accelerating car disrupted the picture. The frantic traffic light and shadow thrown onto the asphalt caused an image of seething, stretching and reaching.
*Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, View from the Window at Le Gras (1826)
The first picture ever made was on a plate covered with a photosensitive type of asphalt. The creator, Nicéphore Niepce, exposed the plate to eight hours of bright sunlight. He made the photographs of his roof through the skylight and because of the long exposure of the sun, the shadow appeared on two sides. The bitumen-images, which in addition to black and white could also show grey-scale, could be fixated and turned into positive images.
I read about how the supposedly first-ever photographic image was established. When I am halfway through reading the technical background I get the sense of understanding something important. But just as the full image is surfacing, a door swings open into the darkroom of my mind. The harsh light dissolves the looming image.
Because I am certain I almost reached an understanding – short by only a fraction –of the nature of image creation, and I cannot resist reading the technical background again. And again.
Is compulsive reading an aberration? Does it have a name? Why would I rely on a description or a classification of my behaviour – which I should be able to recognise as a presence – for it to be real? Can Niépce be called a photographer when he was creating something that had never been done before and was as yet unnamed? Is he increasingly a photographer as the photosensitive plate reveals its impressions?
The first picture portrays a courtyard. A glance out the window, solidified in space and time. I like to think that it is not a random place – but that it had to be exactly a courtyard. As if the world, which could never regain its peace now that everything stood a chance of being reproduced, held its breath on the secluded spot –before all the places in the world were forever to be exposed and alert to reproduction, repetition, and the leaving of traces, images, descriptions and circumscriptions.
How can you tell if something is merely an interest, or something you cannot live without? I look at the text fragment in my hands and try and force myself to crumple it. And because of the long exposure of the sun, the shadow appeared on two sides.
Go on then, destroy the words if you think you can do without them.
I love these words, I say to myself, as I smooth out the crumpled fragment on the table top. They cause images in my head. It is a form of love. How could there be anything wrong in that?
I do not want to think of love.
Let me have just one more glance.
This text was commissioned as part of Between Seeing and Believing, a symposium, which took place at Witte de With on March 30, 2013. Eschewing the idea that a single image holds a single narrative, three literary writers – Maria Barnas, Angie Keefer, and Quinn Latimer – were tasked with composing replies to a shared source image independently. The image in question: the first permanent photograph from nature, View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826 by Nicéphore Niépce.