The Mechanical Eye
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The Mechanical Eye

Week 4: Optical Reproduction and Embodiment

While reading Bishop’s “Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention”(1) I found myself conflicted. In the past, I have found myself a willing audience member of performance art, but have also internalized this spectating as disconnected from the intended purpose. My exposure to the practice and experience of art in a physical space (museums, galleries, art fairs) coincides with the rise of gray space, the intersection of the black box and the white cube. I supposed my preference in performance has always leaned towards the black box, or a space that provides a moment of disconnect that allows participants and curators to moderate/control visual and mental hyperactivity.

In this time of isolation, where I no longer frequent the venues that host performance art (MOMA, Pioneer Works, the Park Avenue Armory, etc.), I am finally able to disconnect from the fast-paced spectacle and turn-over of the contemporary art scene. It is a little like taking a media break or putting your phone in an unreachable location as not to distract yourself from a backed-up laundry list of to-dos. Perhaps unplugging from the white box in general allows for a moment of introspection, where a registration of past optical and bodily experiences can be reevaluated, reframed… or unframed. The white box — a physical digital space, an occupiable website, an evenly lit container that serves as a vessel for timed occupation, comparable to machines of which to play compact discs and DVDs, attracts an audience of digitally washed spectators. This is not to criticize the masses that flock to these venues for a social media picture, visitors are pawns under the influence of contemporary curation and digital media.

A take on opera glasses as the 19th-century iPhone (Bishop)

I doubt there will ever be a rebirth of a time prior to the rapid digital reproduction of live action events, a time that I perhaps do not understand all that well considering my exposure to the global art scene intersects with the rise of rapid image transfer. This would also require mass habitual shift and a rejection of consumerism. I admire artists like Vito Acconci and Tehching (Sam) Hsieh who used photographs, video, and image reproduction with a certain level of control. This control was possible, it seems, because of the reduced interference and reinterpretation of third parties. In a sense, I admire the curation of images by the artists whose bodies are on display. Perhaps that is what I believe is missing from the vessel of the white box and the activities that cultivate inside of it.

This brings me to my fascination with Rothman’s New Yorker piece “Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality?” (2) and its subconscious connection with Camera Lucida (3). Barthes notes, “…once I feel myself observed by the lend, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing,” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.” (pg. 10) In a nutshell, this is the introspection that I feel is missing from contemporary performance art documentation. Bishop echoes, “artists acknowledge that they now install exhibitions with the installation shot in mind. The ephemerality of the exhibition is now just a moment en-route to its afterlife — if not its real life — as an online JPEG.” (pg. 35) While we are capable of feeling an emotion through the creation and reproduction images, it is difficult at times to determine what it is about an image that produces a particular reaction. I believe it is though the embodiment of a scene, or the subjects represented, that genuine emotion can begin to grow. It’s easy to forget the mental disconnect of a performer to an art piece (as noted by Bishop in regards to performers that feel alienated from the environments they work in), but it is this disconnect that a plethora of new connections is made.

Rothman quotes Mavi Sanchez-Vives , “’We have the illusion that our body model is very stable, but that’s only because we’ve never encountered anything else.’” He continues, “People who are extremely aware of their bodies — dancers, athletes, yogis — can find the adoption of a virtual body difficult, because they have trouble ‘letting go.’ ‘But the more you do it the easier it becomes.’… Embodied virtual experience… can change us profoundly. It can affect us in ways we barely understand, redefining the very relationship we have to our own minds.” He recounts moments of discomfort, shock, and amazement through the experience of exiting his own body and occupying another; the feeling of escaping his reality by embodying another. This is where the power of optical/ image reproduction lies in the virtual world. A moment of physical and mental detachment from reality, cultivating a new connection with ourselves through re-perception; a new consciousness driven by the compositing of images to generate out-of-body experiences.

1. Claire Bishop. Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention. TDR: The Drama Review, vol. 62 no. 2, 2018, p. 22–42.

2. Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality?, Joshua Rothman

3. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

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Work and reflections from the ARCH 2222a Mechanical Eye students as they conduct a semester long investigation of a specific site through different lenses.

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Mari Kroin

Mari Kroin

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