January 30, 2014
University of Toronto
From the colloquia series “Feminist & Queer Approaches to Technoscience”
Ashley Scarlett: Lisa Cartwright is an artist and a professor at UC San Diego, where she is appointed in the department of communication, science studies, critical gender studies and visual arts. Lisa works across film, media, and visual studies; gender and sexuality studies; science and technology; medicine studies; and disability studies. She is the author of Moral Spectatorship: Technologies of Voice and Affect in Postwar Representations of the Child, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture, and co-author of Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture—this being key to young art students currently in their academic careers. As you might imagine, Professor Cartwright’s work lends itself to numerous and different viewpoints, offering meaningful insight to academics operating in a variety of disciplines. Coming from the perspective of media art and photography studies, I encountered Professor Cartwright’s work for the first time at the “Feeling Photography” seminar that took place here in 2009, organized by Elspeth Brown. Although the affective apparatus of her kinds of work is familiar to me, I was fascinated by her focus on the material rule of medical imaging in broader visual cultural studies. Dr. Cartwright’s work transcends traditional distinctions between medicine and visual culture in an effort to trace the intersubjective and affective relationship that arises between bodies, largely medicalized bodies, and the bodies of imaging technologies. While there has been a recent and growing demand to return to materially tethered criticism in the humanities and social sciences, matter and materiality always lie at the heart of Dr. Cartwright’s work. Channeling at least some of the industrial baggage of technologies, Dr. Cartwright has repeatedly demonstrated to us that the seemingly representational, filmic, the textual, recently the animated, is always already materiality, always embodied articulation. Dr. Cartwright’s work is a pleasure to read. The subtle nuance and theoretical depth of her writing is brought to light in the precise accessibility of her language. It is precisely this tendency towards maintaining complexity while aspiring to clarity that I believe makes Practices of Looking such an impressive introductory text for theoretical and actual parameters for visual culture. That is my introduction, and I’m looking forward to the talk. Thank you so much.
Lisa Cartwright: I love coming to Toronto because it’s one of the places where you get the smartest introductions, and it just goes beyond “did this person find something nice to say” or some way to make you feel welcome or some way to generally encapsulate your work. It just seems like the intersections of disciplinarity at Toronto are fantastic. Not all cities, particularly cold ones, have people who travel. I lived in Rochester for twelve years. I enjoy having salt on my boots today, but not all cities. I spent a lot of time in LA and people don’t always travel to go to other universities and collaborate together, so I’ve been coming to Toronto since before I got my PhD and then it’s just a really exciting place for me to visit intellectually. So, thank you, Patrick, for bringing me into the information studies context, where I have spent a lot of time, for ten years, at UCSD, so I’m just delighted to be able to speak in that context. So, this talk, “My Hero: Media Archeology of Body-Mounted Camera Technologies of the Self” came out of fieldwork that I’ve been doing for three years in the state of Kansas on the transformation of the agricultural landscape and agricultural communities into the wind corridor and into wind industries, that sort of empty core of the US wind tunnel.
What happened is that we began using cameras and theorizing the use of cameras, and the project began in the year that the GoPro was released. And we have been trying to figure out how to use the GoPro in the project, which we haven’t begun to do yet. So this is a paper that moves backwards from the GoPro to think through the history of cameras and camera technologies. At this point, I think of film cameras as being continuous, from photography to motion-picture cameras. I don’t make a distinction anymore. Technoscience studies has a long history of sharing methods developed in adjacent approaches like distributed cognition, human technology or HCI (human–computer interaction), and STC more broadly. Information studies has been very much in dialogue with those fields. The question of how information travels has been posed on different scales, from very macroscopic studies to studies of the micro level of intersubjective activity. Yet at the same time, very little reflexive work has been done to theorize what technoscience studies gets from media theory and from feminist and critical visual theory with regard to the place of the visual in technoscientific, ethnographic research. The most general aim of my talk—if you feel like you’ve seen a lot of different things that don’t go together and you’re wondering where I was going—is to push forward reflexive questions about the camera as an apparatus of mediation and interaction. I won’t be focusing on photographs in themselves, although I will be showing you photographs as means through which to analyze the technology. I will be focusing specifically on the condition of the “take” in using cameras, and that brings me to the matter of the camera, the form of the camera, and that’s a matter both for technology studies and for media archeology. What concerns me is the camera’s relationship to embodied experience. That’s a matter for phenomenology: the phenomenology of everyday life with new media and film phenomenology. I work in a geographic network in southern California where I am very much in dialogue with the work of Vivian Sobchack in film phenomenology and the work of Erkki Huhtamo in media archeology. I am very much fellow travelers with Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska, whose Life after New Media is one of my new favorite books, as well as with Lisa Parks, whose work on infrastructures and global infrastructures is, I think, some of the most critically important feminist scientific work being done today.
My orientation to the camera is disciplinarily multifaceted and I will be posing questions about the relationship between the body of the camera and the body of the camera user as theorized across the domains of critical art practice, STS, the study of media and visual culture in everyday life. The use of the camera in the intersubjective and often empathetic activity of working in the social field, of cameras as tools of mediation, observation, and documentation—this is the center of my concerns. I have a really simple thesis that motivated stepping back from the ethnography about which I’ve spoken for a couple of years and have a couple of papers coming out as it’s evolving, so I’m stepping back to consider how we can have a fruitful dialogue, on the one hand, with researchers in technoscience studies who use video and photography to analyze and observe interaction, and, on the other hand, with video art and photography practitioners, historians who have engaged reflexively with the matter of how intersubjectivity is constituted through work with the camera, and artists who have emphasized this relationship as occurring not simply in the image or the imaging function of the camera, but through the activity of using cameras to interact and reflexively interrogate mediation. Images, I hope to suggest, can be used as routes through which to understand the kinds of interaction that happen at the photographic take, which is not a moment but a situated circumstance that unfolds in a particular configuration of space and time. The image can be a route through which to do an archeology of the camera.
What concerns me most is the relationship of the camera body to the researcher body, or the artist as researcher, so I will be looking at people like VALIE EXPORT, very briefly, Vito Acconci, in his early work, where he was looking at things like proxemics, to understand their interactions when he followed people around with cameras. Also I will be thinking through questions that are very central to feminist and queer technoscience studies—the question of subjectivity that has been so absent from work in science and technology studies and particularly in the history of science, which has really, really gone toward objectivity. When we study others to determine how information and feeling flow and art has changed, cameras are increasingly more than the locus of mediation. They are embedded in the places that most of us inhabit and in most of the devices that we handle every day. Put your hand in your pocket and you will probably find a camera. Through the camera is negotiated political subjectivity, political affect, and all of its resonant information, feeling, and empathy. We need to look more closely at that locus of mediation, the camera, which demands a media archeology, a kind of digging down into the techno-psychical components of the camera-body mechanisms, what apparatus theorists of the 1970s called the “machines of the visible.” But I’m moving the needle here from thinking about cameras as instruments of knowledge practices to thinking about being and feeling with cameras, from an epistemology of the image and economies of knowledge production and representation to the critical matter of subjectivity in embodied work with cameras, and this has been sorely neglected in technoscience studies in favor of projects about objectivity and scientific quests for knowledge, even in those studies that are focused on the micro level of interaction from a phenomenological perspective. An increasingly critical piece of missing data in the archaeology of the camera is its role in the constitution of empathy, which is, of course, always distributed among technologies in places as well as between bodies and things. Cameras have bodies; they contain feeling. How then do we move from a dissection of their parts to an account of the historical residue of, for example, reverence for life and fascination with death built into their design and, historically speaking, screwed in place tight with textual tools like the patent. The conquest of the apparatus of lifeworlds—so I should back up a second because I saw some looks. How do we move from a dissection of parts? The typical move in archeology is to say that we open up the black box. And I’m actually not going to open up the black box. I’m going to suggest that the black box is extensive and open already and that you follow those lines out, and that built into the camera through patents are not just design features, but reverence for life and fascination with death. The very idea of a black box is in itself a fascination with death that’s inbuilt to the psychosocial component of the patent as the thing that seals that box. It seals death into that box, or reverence for life. Something you can’t see, God in the box.
So the concept of the apparatus and lifeworld requires some consideration here because I’m referring to them, and you don’t want to put phenomenology out there and assume that everybody knows what phenomenology or what apparatus you mean. So, apparatus and lifeworld. When Giorgio Agamben in What is an Apparatus? asked, “what is an apparatus?,” he was responding to what he called a decisive technical term in the writings of Foucault on governmentality from the ’70s forward. In asking that question in 2009, he was telling us to look back to 1970s Foucault. He reminds us that Foucault’s apparatus is the network that can be established between—and then there’s a long list, do you know what it is?—scientific statements, institutions, philosophy, moral and philanthropic propositions. So the apparatus is a formation that has as its function a response to an urgent situation. In returning to the apparatus of the 1970s, I want to suggest that as media studies we don’t forget those other people who wrote on the apparatus in the 1970s, the writings of the Korean, French, Italian, and British film theorists and artists who also worked on the material conditions of the apparatus during that same decade. I’m referring here to the work of Korean-born artist and theorist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, the Italian film theorist Teresa de Lauretis, the French media theorist and artist Thierry Kuntzel, the list goes on and on. You know the names. These practitioners wrote and produced media in precise and detailed ways with respect to the matter of the apparatus and the materiality of the world. As Agamben asks his readers to do in 2009, they asked their readers to do in the ’70s, stressing the interactions among the technical and the coextensivity of the biological and the psychical, the bridging levels of skills from the micro level to the macro level. So, at the center of observation of most contemporary systems of power, we find the camera and also the projector, which I suggest is inside the camera in the form of the inbuilt viewfinder. And that viewfinder is missing, so that’s going to be where we move.
The viewfinder is disappearing from the camera. The camera component of cell phones, personal computers, and security cameras is an inbuilt instrumentation of embodiment and intersubjectivity that’s changing. For the apparatus theorists of the ’70s, to study the camera was to study the shared conditions of fantasy, intersubjective empathy, and the distribution of affect in a given lifeworld as encapsulated inside the box, whether that box be the room of the theater or the box of the camera. The lifeworld: a concept that was Husserl’s in 1936 is the pre-epistemological ground for the world that subjects may experience together, a kind of collective intersubjective realm of feeling and perceiving. “Obviously,” he wrote, “this is true not only for me, the individual ego; rather we, in living together, have the world pre-given in this word ‘together.’” This “we-subjectivity” is constantly functioning for Husserl in the Crisis of European Sciences, his text of 1936. Now, Edith Stein—who was Husserl’s first research assistant and author of a major work of phenomenology, a dissertation she defended in 1916 and published in 1917, in Germany, later under the English title On the Problem of Empathy—is credited by film theorist Adriano D’Aloia, as the first to enucleate the specificity of empathy, developing empathy’s distinction from judgment and other concepts. And I think he’s right. Adriano D’Aloia is an Italian film theorist who is working across cognitivism and phenomenology. A biographical aside about Edith Stein: she has long been the subject of bemusement and criticism and a recent re-interest for her turn amidst the Holocaust from Judaism to Catholicism, and her desertion of the academy and philosophy for the convent and its philosophy, a change that failed to spare her from death in the Nazi camps. Stein was canonized, her ordainment as a saint standing in stark contrast to the complete lack of credit she received for her work under her mentor, Husserl. An evidence-based hypothesis that has been proposed by some historians of philosophy was that Edith Stein was more than a medium and scribe, specifically for his work on time. She may, in fact, have contributed concretely to this volume on time to the extent that its status as a sole-authored volume possibly might be brought into question. I don’t know that that is accurate, but it certainly deserves consideration, considering the degree to which we have an absence of female philosophers in our citation lists. Stein felt that the mechanisms of empathy were central, unresolved problematics for philosophy, and based on her writings, Adriano D’Aloia considers empathy in regard to filmic representations of the body. In the discussion of cameras I will be turning to, I’m not going to consider representations except as routes through which to get back to the camera, bringing the camera as agent back into the picture.
This brings the phenomenology of technology into play, Don Ihde’s legacy, and the phenomenology of media, through the domain commanded by Vivian Sobchack, moving us off the topic of spectatorship and engagement with the image and onto the terrain of the apparatus and the technoscientific activity that takes place in its worlds. So if there is any doubt about bringing phenomenology, media archaeology, and the ontological matter of the camera into feminist science, technology, and information studies, consider this. Consider the place of the camera in these recent undergraduate program initiatives at Princeton this year. This is the program in robotics and intelligent systems at Princeton. They posted a list online, recommending projects for undergraduates to pursue. For students with a computer science focus, the invitation was extended to do a project around one of the following tasks: “detect all objects of some type (such as faces) in a visual scene”; “develop a system combining body-mounted cameras and/or Kinect with tactile or auditory feedback to help blind people avoid obstacles.” For electrical engineering students, the invitation in the same program was extended to engage in “detection and recognition of hand gestures from video.” The goal of this project is to develop algorithms, taking video from a camera, that you could use to analyze, to identify, well-defined patterns of hand activity. The proposed application is to analyze this data for product design—for example, to mine it for designing computer systems and games. Mechanical and aerospace engineering students are advised to participate in a project in which an uninhabited vehicle is designed, or to work on the design of a camera that flies and can be controlled remotely from the ground, an instrument that could measure data, and it’s proposed that such a camera could be marketable to archaeologists around the world. In each and every one of these proposed projects, camera technologies are sources of information and data.
Sources of observation, navigation of the world, and intersubjective engagement—in the second example, the body-mounted camera design is proposed to serve not as a technology for making photographs, but as a way-finding device. The imaging function of the camera would be inconsequential. The camera would serve instead in an interlocking set of technologies in which data acquired through the lens would be output in the form of voice, not image, to help users who are blind avoid obstacles and stay on track. In the electrical project, a camera is engaged to record hand gestures and that data about how hands tend to work would become generative of an algorithm for the design of the placement of buttons and levers on a game or an interface. I’m hoping that you are with me and understanding here that the specific case of body-oriented or body-mounted cameras that are a major hot item on the consumer market right now and their particular configurations of subjectivity is important not because it’s an important cultural item, but because it is present in every level in innovation, research, and development.
In 2009—my paper takes a shift and you see pictures—I began a longitudinal visual ethnography. I did my first IRB, focusing with photographer Steven Rubin of Penn State University’s art department on the rise of industrial wind-energy development and technological transformation in the American Midwest. Steven Rubin is a photographer who, at the height of his successful career as a photojournalist, working in the humanist tradition of North American social realism in a global context, especially in places of crisis, switched course and began to engage in critical art practice, and it was at that point that our paths crossed and we decided to collaborate. Our agreement when we entered the field in 2009 was to divide the job. He would take pictures; I would take notes. But two things happened. Through the photographs that he took, Steven began to inject our project with what I felt was a theory about subjectivity and the human body in the field, a theory expressed in photographs, that in fact ran counter to my own ideas about how I wanted to represent the cinematic technology of wind turbines—which, of course, I wanted to study because they were in and of themselves cinematic machines. I felt the need to use the camera reflexively to document the mechanism of the technological apparatus of the wind turbine field and the body–technology relationships in that field as they unfolded as wind turbines rolled across the state, imprinting themselves upon existing farms and ranches. I wanted to put the visuals above the words and the features of the human face; I wanted to push back the words and push back the faces. Steven, who holds degrees in critical visual studies and sociology, said very little about his theory, but kept putting forward the face. We clashed on this. Our project proceeded, and this was right at the beginning of the project. Steven was in Kansas and drove out to Wyoming to capture some activity around trucking where the roads hadn’t been adapted well enough to support the heavy load that was being carried—and I think we’ll need to have dark for this. This trucker had taken a wrong turn and a 40-ton nacelle he was carrying fell off the truck and embedded itself into the road like a meteorite, and Steven rushed out to document it. And he did this for me, because I was the one who said I wanted to document infrastructure, and I wanted to document how the roads did not, the rebuilding of the roads did not yet, support the demands of interstate trucking of heavy parts. And a major concern was, how do you document wind? An invisible substance. In Kansas, sky is everything.
We wanted, as well, to capture a new workforce of tech workers who were being trained for performing their jobs in what was being promoted as the new office in the sky. With the idea that tech workers would need to climb, too—the nacelle, that thing that fell into the ground, is the part that is at the very top of the turbine that holds the blades—and the new office in the sky is the computer apparatus that is up there in the nacelle. With mountain-climbing gear and computer-repair technology, workers have been trained both to be climbers and to be hi-tech computer-repair people. We wanted to look at wind but found that it was impossible not to look at the development of the electrical grid, both on the site of each wind facility and extending out into other communities that were not being slated for wind development, but through which the wires had to pass in order to transport the power. Steven always seemed to find evidence of the industry’s smallness, its engagement with technologies that are straightforward and its relationships to technologies that are basic and grounded. We have some images like this that show monumentality and the lofty experience of work in the sky, but we have mostly images like this, that show the groundedness of work around wind. You would think of wind as being an industry that is about doing something that is transcendent and in the sky, or in the wires, but most of the work takes place very much on, and in fact under, the ground. These are some guys training at Cloud County Community College in Kansas so that they can be the new hi-tech office workers in the sky who also need to know how to climb and they are being trained by mountain-climbing experts.
Simulation of working up by the blades, practicing down on the ground—this is a worker in wind, former wheat farmer and still a landowner who is now a real-estate developer for wind. That’s his strike. Steven was very good at always bringing things down to scale. We showed up for an appointment and we were too late and the staff was gone in this particular wind company, but the worker is cleaning, and you can see the scale model of the turbine in the corner. At night, as I entered my field notes on my computer, Steven downloaded raw files. Hundreds then thousands of files filled drive after drive on each research trip. After some time I became aware that his resistance to my requests to document more came from not only his respectful reticence to intervene in the activities of workers and the lives of people, which after all we had signed on our IRB that we would not disturb, but also his reluctance had to do with not wanting to generate unmanageable quantities of very large raw data files.
The power dynamics of divvying up image production and writing was brought home to me one day during a cattle roundup in Beaumont, Texas, the central Texas tall-grass prairie ranch. I’m going to spend some time talking about not a camera so much as a camera in the context of cattle roundup. Rancher Pete Ferrell owns a considerable parcel of land in the temperate Kansas prairie, land that is leased out as a summer feeding ground for cattle owned and raised by ranchers whose land lies in drier territories. Pete also leases out his land to wind developers. So his ranch doubles as a site of the Elk River Wind Farm. Cattle shipped to Pete’s fertile grassland to fatten up amidst wind turbines, which crop up randomly like silver branches on the otherwise treeless plain, pass through the state. They are temporary workers there. This is Pete and the owner of the cattle that we rounded up on that day while they are waiting for the cattle to be loaded on the trucks, and Pete is the rancher on your right and the man on the left is the Texas rancher who owns the cattle. Roundup involved an assemblage of ranch hands on horseback—I have my slides a little out of order here—suited up in chaps to jockey the cattle spread out over many acres into narrow pens, from which they would be funneled into cattle trucks and shipped back to Texas. But it also entailed the use of the truck in place of the iconic horse to get the cattle into line. Rancher Pete invited me to ride along with him in the cab of his pickup truck so that I could conduct an interview while he drove because he was a busy guy. As I hopped into the cab, iPad in hand to take my notes, Steven, laden with camera gear, climbed onto the open flatbed of the truck to document the automotive-generated stampede to the pens that we were about to spur. Two things became clear. The horseback activity was partly a show for the purpose of visiting ethnographers, a performance in which signifiers of Old Western horsemanship were played up for our benefit. The truck would be doing most of the heavy lifting. The intention was not to fool us but to provide a display of classical ranch technique of which the group of ranch hands assembled was rightfully proud. Second, this relationship was implementing an intersubjective logic of the gaze that would result in a particular sort of power relationship between Steven’s camera and my writing iPad.
Steven, weighted down in the flatbed with multiple lenses and heavy equipment, had no choice but to sit facing the rear, his back pressed against the cab of the pickup in order to keep himself from being thrown. I, with my lightweight iPad, was facing forward at the helm with Rancher Pete as he drove the herd to its point of entrapment. It soon became clear that Pete would be driving the truck not on the dirt road, but in a circuitous path to round up the cattle, through the undulating terrain of high grass, weaving around the turbines in the field. As the truck circled in a repetitive series of nauseating loops, Pete honked his horn wildly to get the cattle’s attention and excite them, opening up the floodgates of story at the same time, launching into his account of his decisions to lease his land to wind developers, despite intense community pressure to keep the tall-grass prairie clear of the industrial blight of the turbine. I put my head down and wrote, avoiding the cinematic riot of cattle faces, panicky cow eyes coursing by my window frame like bodies swept up on the curl of a wave. To be clear, I have no image of this and you will understand in a minute why. My eyes were cast down by necessity, that’s how I write, but because it made me ill to look up at the shaky tracking show that was being so artfully produced not by Steven, but by Pete, who drove the scene with one hand on the steering wheel, the other up in the air, inflecting his story, which was driving my account, with passionate feeling about why wind development should occur on the tall-grass prairie. Spinning turbines out the window, a spiraling truck containing me and my subject in one configuration, and there was my partner in ethnography in another. The camera on which we relied for controlled documentation was now shooting backward, its lens pointed away from the action of the cattle; we pushed forward like specks of dust before a broom. The camera and its take were not so much out of Steven’s control as they were driven by the turbine action of the truck, driven by Pete who was calling the shots, his truck a virtual dolly gone awry. Now, a lot of field notes got recorded in that riotous hour. Steven, however, struggled wildly to hang on to the camera and to get in a look through the viewfinder before he took shots. The images he did take documented more than anything the disadvantage to which his expert gaze had been put by Pete’s driving of the truck as dolly. The shots failed to catch the looks of the bodies in the herd, failed to catch the momentum of their panicked forward rush that was so apparent to me any moment I ventured a peek through the window. Hundreds of images, all rich with raw data, none of them showing anything of value except, indirectly, the disorientation of the gaze of the camera operator on the occasion of being randomly being taken for a ride on the cinema apparatus of the roundup. I’ve been giving talks for two years now based on the progression of fieldwork from this project, and each time I struggle with this particular condition of the control of the camera. As compelling as the turbines are, with their cinematic gyrations and their transformative appropriations of the historic grain belt, now rebranded the wind belt, I found myself returning to a mental diagram, a conceptual map of our very different optical experiences—mine in the cab of the truck, and Steven’s with the camera looking backward—in the moment of the roundup. If analysis of the photographic apparatus must include the conditions of its operation in its specific social context, what apparatus theorist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Stephen Heath identify as the space of the theater, then this was also a photographic space and a cinematically mobilized space of photography. The turbine was in itself an optical instrument, a camera and a projector rolled into one, but the entire scene had been rendered cinematic.
This is Pete sitting in a shelter waiting for the cattle to be loaded, and our ranch hands herding, and then here we have the interior of some of those turbines. The turbine as an optical instrument, a camera and projector rolled into one, with its internal classical materials of the black box, open for view here. But at the same time, the opening of the black box doesn’t tell us the dynamic of this particular social scene, which is the larger field in which the turbines perform their turbulent transformations, the scenes of the everyday. And so part of what we are documenting is the impact of the turbines cinematically—the flicker, the sound, the impact on communities. And we’re asking the question: where is the operator of this instrument of audiovisual perception? I’ve suggested already that Steven was not the operator of our camera that day, but that Pete was, and it was not that Pete was intentionally or willingly the operator, but that operation is a distributed activity.
To return to the idea of the camera operator, Steven in the back of the pickup had been operating without the benefit of access to his viewfinder, and the remainder of my talk is going to focus on weaving in and out of the viewfinder—not just the camera, but the part within the camera that is a viewfinder, the part that not all cameras have. His images were chaotic in their angles and framing, and they were an artifact of the mobile technology of the pickup. So, as Steven and I moved forward in our research, we began to consider two aspects of the apparatus more closely: the viewfinder and its relationship to intentionality. Intentionality is a key point of focus for the phenomenological theory of Edith Stein. And the second point is that Steven began to try to capture mobility and avisuality in the field of the image. So we began to think more about how we could utilize what had happened on the back of the truck by aiming to control the camera to capture these instances of the cinematic that could be caught in the still photograph. This is some men who are working on a wind site, running for cover as the weather changes. A lot of times we would show up to an installation and it would be too windy or it would rain and so we would really witness the failure of the project to proceed on that day. Or, getting the camera down at the level of the ground, getting perspectives on the turbines that would not ordinarily be seen. For Steven this involved moving the camera in different ways, keeping the camera in a different comportment in relationship to his body. So I began to look back at the way that people hold cameras, and of course it was hard not to look at the use of the brownie and this image—it is an Edwardian woman in 1900 with a brownie box camera, and this image was scanned from a 4 x 5 glass negative, and it has been reproduced in a number of articles this year in the popular press. I reproduced it from Alyson Shontell, who wrote an article with the headline “This Photo from 1900 Might Be the Oldest Selfie Ever Taken,” that’s from Business Insider. What interests me here is not just that it is being identified as the oldest selfie—and of course we know that there is an older selfie, and I will talk about that later—but the fact that concerns me is that it is at her hips, that the camera is at down at the level of her hips. She is looking not into the camera and into the box, but into the mirror that is in the space of the field of her gaze, which is the field of the room. And so if we begin to think about the distribution of the gaze and the fragmentation of subjectivity through which contemporary viewfinderless cameras put us, I think it’s important to look back to notice that this is not something that is being instituted in a kind of digital era, but that there are many, many instances that are pre-video and in fact also pre-photographic. This one is hilarious—possibly the first selfie taken by a teenager and sent to friends, in 1914. The earliest selfie is identified as having been taken in 1839 by a Philadelphian chemist named Robert Cornelius, but this particular one is being used in the press this year to suggest this might be the earliest teen selfie, to kind of give a historical arc to this genre, but those articles are missing some other selfies. This is the portrait Young Woman Drawing, Marie Denise-Villers, 1774 to 1821 is her life span, and it was painted in 1801. For some time it was attributed to Jacques-Louis David, and it hangs in the Met. It’s understood to be a self-portrait. I love this one: Artemisia Gentileschi, 1638–1639, oil on canvas. It’s a self-portrait, and I want you to imprint in your memory the foreshortening of her body because it’s really reminiscent of, it prefigures, the foreshortening that we find in the GoPro, which I will be talking about in five minutes.
The brownie was introduced in 1900, and most brownies had viewfinders with a reflex-mirror assembly inside. Simply put, the camera had a window in front, a window at the top, and an angled mirror inside that connected the two windows. In order to compose the picture, you had to hold the camera down at about waist level and look down into the finder. Once the subject was composed in the approximate center of the viewfinder, the shutter lever could then be depressed, and there were no framing marks in the viewfinder. It was introduced with a slogan, “operated by any school girl or boy.” The term “snapshot,” which Matt Brower gives some attention to in his work on hunting and animals and cameras, has to do with shooting from the hip without aim, which was used in photography in the 1860s, but which really became a reality with the brownie, which was this kind of amateur camera without a viewfinder that could be utilized at the level of the head. OK, a dollar. A dollar, and I love this little collapsible brownie, and I have no reason to show it other than that it’s amazing, 1907. I love the red accordion. So the single-lens reflex camera, which has been around for more than a century, has a mirror inside that flips up when you take the picture and goes black at the very instant at which the image is recorded. Single-lens reflex cameras are the most popular—or have been, there are some changes afoot—but what I want to emphasize here is the temporality of the single-lens reflex camera. When you look into the viewfinder, you have the experience of seeing the shot that you will take; the mirror must move so that the shot can happen, and so there is a displacement of the temporality of the shot and the temporality of the look.
This is a rangefinder camera from 1947. The ’50s were kind of the decade of the rangefinder. This particular one allowed the photographer to measure the subject distance, and because there is no mirror inside that flips, as there is in the SLR, the lenses can be designed without having to keep the back of the lens far enough away from the image plane to avoid getting hit by the mirror. These were the most popular cameras in the 1950s, and I want to ask why—was this the quantitative era in which computational logic dominated or came forward in the culture? That’s just speculation. This is just an aside on amateur cameras and a preface to introducing the concern in the consumer world right now, in which people are asking things like, where is the viewfinder on this camera? And is there such a thing or word as “viewfinderlessness”? In the media, for every mirrorless camera, “lack of viewfinder” gets put under the “cons” column, and yet we continually get these viewfinderless cameras. So I’m considering here, as a preface to the viewfinderless GoPro, the condition of viewfinderlessness as a historic one and as a very significant one, which is not about preventing a particular way of looking, but is about constituting an intersubjective way of looking that distributes the gaze not just into the body of the camera but into an intersubjective space that distributes power, in the way that we saw it distributed in the circuitous ride driven unintentionally by the camera operator Pete, the truck driver.
Knowing how to parse the difference between what you see by eye and what you get through the lens is a key mark of professionalism. There is a story online about a man who shows up at a place where photography is restricted only to professionals, and he shows up with a viewfinderless camera, and he’s told, go away, you’re not a professional. If you had a viewfinder, you would be a professional. It is only amateurs who use viewfinderless cameras. Steven’s photographs, apart from the roundup, work with my written account because they are intentional, and they help me to tell a particular sort of story about intersubjectivity and empathy with technology once staged through the intentionality that is inherent in the framing of the shot. And intentionality has been a nasty word in film and media studies for a long time, but it is a very important one to phenomenological discussions of empathy. A couple of years ago, we began to contemplate the idea of strapping the new viewfinderless cameras that became available in the mid-2000s to the bodies of our research subject. We thought that this would allow us to see the interstices of human interaction with technology. Viewfinderless cameras, or the mirrorless camera introduced in 2012, and a mirrorless camera that was built as a replica of 1973–1979 model of the Olympus. So there is this harking back to an era of viewfinderlessness that is occurring in this move forward to the lightweight portable viewfinderless camera that is strapped not to our eyes but to our hands or feet.
When Rosalind Krauss wrote “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” she criticized video as having narcissism as its central motivating component. Narcissism was an aesthetic, a structural characteristic of the medium. What would it mean to say, she asked, that the meaning of video itself is narcissism. I want to suggest that a kind of mirroring that she saw in video in this article is in fact a central component of pre-video film cameras through the viewfinder phenomenon, and that mirroring has never been direct, immediate, and narcissistic, but has always been a function of displacement, fragmentation, extensiveness and intersubjectivity, making the camera an unstable site of identity. This was in fact important to video. I think in some ways her critique may have been backward. So the GoPro camera,HERO3, though not the first of the viewfinderless cameras invented for body mounting, is perhaps the most ubiquitously successful one on the consumer market. It’s the brownie of the contemporary action-camera scene. It was developed by Nick Woodman, a 37-year-old Californian surfer and a graduate of UCSD’s art department who entered the school as a computer-science major. His success came in 2012, when the GoPro company sold 2.3 million cameras in the Hero line. Foxconn then purchased 8.8 percent of the company for US$200 million at the end of that year, nailing down the success for the company and bringing its market value to US$2.25 billion, securing the means for rapid innovation and market-share growth. Nick Woodman is a very, very wealthy man! The seeing hand. To understand the GoPro’s apparatus, we have to look at Woodman’s hand, to dig up his hand as a design artifact of its technology. Legend has it that the GoPro is a product of DIY culture. Woodman raised money to develop it with his girlfriend, making necklaces by hand and selling them out of his VW van on California byways frequented by surfers. A surfer himself, he embarked on a tour of beaches in Indonesia and Australia after a failed business venture, and in one of those remote locations, he strapped a 35mm camera to his hand while surfing, in a waterproof encasement, and attempted to take action photos from inside the curl of the wave. An artifactual but nonetheless momentous shift occurred with this experiment. The lens of the camera was displaced from the position of the photographer’s eye—where it would, according to convention, be held by the hand of the photographer—down to the level of not the waist, as with the brownie, but the hand, to which the camera was literally bound. Tasked with the work of balance and staying aloft on the surfboard, the hand and with it the camera followed a dramatic, circuitous path. The movement suggested in each shot or in the continuous video would have been rendered as an artifact of the movement of the surfer as he used his appendages to keep himself upright and balanced—and not as result of his measured and calculated framing activity, what he would have seen with his eye. That was not happening. So the viewfinder, which he would later remove from the camera, was useless. His camera had a viewfinder, but it was useless. And much like a pencil or a brush, the camera became by default an instrument for rendering a scene by hand, and for rendering that scene quite literally in strokes: the stroke of swimming, the stroke of making a brush mark, the action of making the mark and the mark that’s left behind. Whereas viewfinder cameras exercise the eye, Woodman’s eye exercises the hand as the driver of the composition. The camera traced a pattern not quite arbitrary but fully unmotivated by seeing or even by representation of the look. What is documented instead are the phenomenological conditions of immersion—immersion into the world, in this case, water and the space of the wave.
This is a GoPro camera fixed to the head of a runner, a GoPro fixed to the body of an airplane, bolted in. A camera bolted to the head of Wafaa Bilal, a performance artist. A self-documenting camera, affixed to a performer who was directed by Xavier Cha. Vito Acconci, using a camera for his Blink project: “holding a camera, aimed away from me and ready to shoot, while walking a continuous line down a city street. Try not to blink. Each time I blink: snap a photo.” For Acconci, art is a place of meeting. You know these pieces were really about a life together. This is not about narcissism. And here he is following someone here with a camera. VALIE EXPORT, Adjunct Dislocations, camera front, camera back, to document what comes before her and what comes behind. Notice the straps—these are the marketing extras that you can buy with the GoPro, a multitude of straps, for the chest, the strap for your head, straps for your hand. And then belatedly, in 2012, three years after the introduction of the camera, an app that is a viewfinder app. However, critically, the app is a writing pad: the app is your phone; the app is your iPod, your iPad, your screen. The app is not attached to the camera, so the viewfinder has been separated, as a separate instrument from the camera. Then some GoPro surfing footage from those who use Nick Woodman’s camera, to give you a sense of the emphasis on immersion and how this camera is really designed to document immersion. This is by a surfer whose name is Dre and she keeps a blog of her photographs—and sneaking in Catherine Opie’s photographs of surfers, sorry, just a second there. I’ll put it up a little longer. Catherine Opie’s surfer photos, pre-GoPro. Dre: how does she get documented? The camera is on the tip of her surfboard. What are the bubbles in front of her face? The water that splashes on the lens of the camera. These are self-documentations that are random. Camera on the surfboard. Camera on the surfboard. And then the random take of the hand that gives you a sense of the foreshortening that the GoPro performs and that I’m interested in—images like this and the Gentileschi painting that I showed you earlier.
We have Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s work with 35 small cameras to shoot Leviathan, his work with Véréna Paravel in 2012—I’m sorry, a dozen cameras, 35mm in DCP. Reviews say things like “tossed and tethered, passed from fisherman to filmmaker, it’s a cosmic portrait of one of mankind’s oldest endeavors,” describing their work in Leviathan, which tracks the work of the camera not only above the water but below the water on a fishing trawler. This is another piece made from the footage; it’s titled He Maketh a Path to Shine After Him: One Would Think the Deep to be Hoary. This used multiple cameras and was an installation at the Berlin Film Festival. This is a shot from the Berlin Film Festival last year, where there was a gallery-like scenario for showing this immersive work with instrument-held and handheld cameras—so, attaching the cameras to things like oars, for example. Writing in the New York Times on Leviathan, A.O. Scott says it “offers not information but immersion.” So it’s this quality of viewfinderlesness and immersion that I’m trying to struggle through and address, and it brings me back to some of the earliest work that I’ve done on ultrasound and scanners.
This is a water-bath scanner made out of a B-29 gun turret, and here is a researcher inside his apparatus. What do we find when we open the black box? The black box of ultrasound, when we open it, we find researchers themselves situated inside that box, and surprise, what’s inside the mirror, the reflective mirrors of the viewfinder camera? The image next to it is one of the images that was produced in this early 1957 scanner. He’s got a lead weight on his lap to keep him fully immersed while the instrumentation follows the edge of the gun turret. They used horse troughs; they used gun turrets. And then a handheld articulated arm scanner introduced in ’61, that was a ’68 version. So it’s the mechanical hand.
I’m going to leave off there. I was going to show Christina Lammer’s work Hand Movie and Theresa Cha’s work in Mouth to Mouth, but I think we are over time here. So I’ll end here with the point of viewfinderlessness, which is a term used by consumers to describe and decry the trend toward cameras marked explicitly for use with the activity of finding the object of one’s shot with one’s own eyes prior to the take. Viewfinderlessness has a long history, not only in technologies, but in media produced by artists engaging intersubjectivity, as one could show through a more extended discussion through Lammer’s work, VALIE EXPORT’s work, and Vito Acconci’s work. The figure of the hero, with which the GoPro branding plays in its product-line name, is tacitly understood as “myself.” By using my GoPro, I can go pro as a surfer. I can create footage of myself that will render my performance visible—but as in the case of Steven in Pete’s truck, the camera field has expanded. One would have thought that an archaeology of technology would have taken me inside the GoPro, inside the interior mechanisms, but instead those mechanisms have become extensive and exist coextensively in the world. The viewfinderless body-mounted camera is an apparatus that asks us to un-man it, even as it holds out the offer to be a hero. The offer to be a hero is, of course, the offer to be a camera, through a fragmented, coextensive relationship of immersion in its lifeworld. I’ll end there.