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Metabolism/Ecology/Moving Image

Lecture presented at

Kunstfort Vijfhuizen, Amsterdam, May 2018


Very Project Space, Berlin, October 2018

I’m going to talk about a couple strands of my research from the last year or so in relation to recent work I’ve made and in this way try to sketch an outline to my general and evolving approach to working with moving image. I’ll start by showing two pieces of media that are separated by space and time. In many ways these two pieces of media couldn’t be more different from each other in content, style, and meaning. But I’m going to try to build up a framework for their possible relationship and in this way they show where they overlap, become entangled, and then inevitably become dispersed and separate in the end.

‘The Big Swallow’ from 1901, is, according to some film historians, one of the first films that explicitly exploited the space between the eye of the camera and the eye of the spectator. In playing with this liminal threshold, whether consciously or not, the filmmaker James Williamson, inhabited the reality of moving image as a set of decentralized relations that occupy an unstable position between material and metaphor. The evolution of these relations are what I will call ecological and metabolic, two terms that also oscillate between material and metaphorical descriptions. Moving image, from its beginnings to its contemporary state, offers us, among many things, the opportunity to trace cultural, scientific, philosophical and political shifts. In this lecture, I’m specifically interested in the shift from the measuring of objects as distinct entities with theoretically defined boundaries to the measuring of the space, time and movement between objects.


The fact that this film occupies various thresholds (between centuries, between media, between models of labor, between sight and digestion, between representation and illusion, etc.) makes it particularly interesting to me. Early cinema was of course obsessed with tricks and optical illusions and this film fits well in the ‘trick-film’ genre of the time. But at the same time, this simple trick opens a whole range of ways to think about the relations between sight and the body, material and metaphor, perception and metabolism.


The second piece of media is a viral video posted on Youtube in 2015.

It’s a locust invasion and appears to have been shot on an HD smartphone camera. The reason this piece of footage was so interesting to me, aside from the biblical apocalyptic vibe, is that it opens up ways to think about moving image as an ecological process. What do I mean by that? You see this moving pixelation that keeps shifting through the image. At some moments we see a perfectly clear HD image meaning that the pixelation isn’t a product of the camera quality but of a clash between the frame rate that the camera is filming in and the specific speed and density of the locust’s movements. I’ve watched several other videos of locust invasions and this happens in all of them.


The video sheds light on a specific configuration of reality: the world isn’t just neutrally there to be observed by the camera: it is an active, constantly moving ecology of material relations. There are no intrinsic divisions between a subject and object - rather the tools or technologies of observation, matter, and movement are in constant collaboration. In this video we get a moment of rupture, where we see the world that’s being observed actively altering the material of the digital image.


In ‘The Big Swallow’ we see a metaphorical gesture that plays with the gap between the material and virtual worlds. In the locust video we see something like the inverse. The materiality of speed creates a rupture in the the illusion of objectivity that the digital camera is understood to promise. The rupture that is created in this particular video, is, I would argue, true of all media, although usually that rupture is successfully obscured.


The reason that the rupture is apparent here and usually not in other media is because of the specific relations shown here: somehow the camera’s frame rate and the locust’s movement are incompatible with the smoothness of the illusion of objectivity that other relations allow. It shows that that smoothness is never neutral, but the result of laborious ongoing developments over long periods of time that were part of a coevolutionary process between technological advances, the standardizing of human perception, and the transformation of environments to correspond with those shifts.


To give some historical and theoretical background to the way these two pieces media might be in dialog with each other, I want to outline a book by Jonathan Crary, called ‘Suspensions of Perception’. In this book, Crary describes a transformation in the understanding of perception that happened over the 19th century. The first half of the 19th century saw the sudden emergence of models of subjective vision in philosophy as well as in the emerging practices of psychology and physiology. These models broke with a classical regime of visuality which understood vision to have some claim on objectivity and certainty. Suddenly vision became grounded in the density and shifting materiality of the body and in this context vision gradually became understood to be faulty, unreliable, and sometimes even arbitrary.


I hadn’t read this book or done further research at the time I made my film ‘Eye Farm’ in early 2016, which is one of the two films that’s currently on view here at the Kunstfort, but interestingly, the research that led to that film is closely related to what I’m discussing here and I’ll just outline this briefly. The film is based on a text by a friend of mine, the artist and writer Wietske Maas, which was really evocative to me. In the text she writes about how our eyes are reliant on pigments called lutein and zeaxanthin which protect the retina from being overexposed. These pigments are a dark yellow and you’ve all experienced them before. When you look at a light source and then close your eyes, this yellow blob appears in your visual field. This isn’t the after effect of light, it’s solid pigment, there to protect your eyes. And this pigment is derived from plant matter that’s activated in the process of digestion.


This was a fascinating way for me to think of the many ways in which our perception is deeply entangled in the materiality of the world around us. I did some more research and found that this yellow pigment is the same pigment that gives wheat its yellow color. Based on this premise the film asks various questions on the relationship between human perception, agriculture, the organic and the technological.


The reason this is linked to the transformations in perception of the 19th century is that the part of the eye that absorbs these pigments, the macula lutea, was only discovered in this period in the early 19th century. This discovery would have been one of many particulars that together destabilized the understanding of vision as objective. These pigments, essential for the functioning of the eye, are suddenly understood to be connected to our intestines and our intestines are of course connected to the materials we digest. Rather than floating in some objective neutrality, detached from the body, our vision might be affected by indigestion or constipation, or at least these are the types of connections we can start imagining and playing with.


I’ll get back to metabolic perception in a moment, but first I’ll go back to the rupture in the understanding visual perception and the 19th century transition that Crary describes. This shift, from understanding vision as an objective measure of external stimulus to being deeply enmeshed in the composition and functioning of our fragile bodies created one of the conditions for the historical emergence of autonomous vision, meaning the severing of perceptual experience from the exterior world. Perception moves from being an immaterial phenomena, to being materially embodied. This shift allows perception be calculated, quantified, normalized, and disciplined, becoming a material that can exist independent of individual bodies, selves, etc. The relocation of perception from the brain to the thickness of the body was a precondition for the incorporation of human vision into machinic arrangements that would happen in the second half of the 19th century and then of course very rapidly throughout the next century.


Crary shows how this transformation in the understanding of perception coevolves with the new conditions of industrial labor and a new overload of visual stimuli in urban spaces. In this context, attention becomes a fundamental issue - either the attention necessary to operate machines repetitively or the attention necessary to capture in the form of commodities. But the problem of attention splits in two contradictory ways: while new environments destabilized attention and produced inattention, the signs of lack of attention starts being treated as a danger and a serious problem.


As a range of scientific and pseudoscientific instruments are gradually developed to measure perception, such as the tachistoscope, a machine that would flash images at different speeds in order to determine speed thresholds of human recognition, new standards for perception are constructed as the distinctions between the internal self and the external world disintegrate and technical standards take over the threshold between inside and outside.


(I think there’s a point to make here, that this has always been the case - that all human technologies, from their most primitive beginnings, have always blurred and regulated the threshold of interior and exterior - but that’s a longer question. What does change in the period I’m talking about - the late 19th century - is the precision with which this process of standardization can be measured - and this has significant consequences.)


These new standards of perception would of course not be possible without defining what they were not. What emerges simultaneously with the processes of measurement and discipline I’ve been describing, is the pathologizing of all forms of perception that fail to meet the new standards. The failure of a subject to synthesize information or the inability to be attentive to rapid and often overwhelming stimuli, began, in the late 19th century, to be described as dissociation and became linked with psychosis and other mental pathologies. In other words, those subjects who could not make themselves compatible with the newly fractured world of stimuli, or industrial labor, or competition in the commodity of attention, were labeled as suffering from regressive or pathological disintegration.


Reality was now gauged through the standardization of a collective perceptual consciousness, in an attempt to overcome the faulty human intermediary, whose volatile body distorted the perception of reality. This historical transition, is of course, closely linked to the emergence of the new medium of film at the end of the 19th century. Moving image, in both the most beautiful and imaginative ways, as well as the most terrifying and treacherous ways, occupies the ever-evolving threshold of perception as a space of delusions, ruptures, abstractions, and control, discipline, and standardization.


One of the things I find really important about Crary’s perspective on these historical developments is that he shows how technological and scientific developments evolve in ways that are full of seemingly incompatible contradictions. While certain processes, like the ones I described, were creating conformity and enforcing disciplinary power, others processes, such as artististic experimentation were applying the same developments to explore uncharted spaces of ambiguity and abstraction. I think every historical process and technological advance occupies this same double edged contradiction: liberation from previous confinements and new forms of control go hand in hand.


I’m going to shift gears now, from the measurement and quantification of perception as we understand it and talk about my research on metabolism and ultimately show how these are connected.


Metabolism is in many ways difficult to define precisely. Karl Marx famously used the German word Stoffwechsel which means metabolism, but also translates literally as material exchange. This is a very useful way for me to think of metabolism: as the exchange of material, a process of conversion and transformation. This material exchange is also at play in the ecology of moving image. Moving image is the conversion of energy into matter and conversely, matter into energy.


Metabolism occupies a curious threshold between the description of material processes and a metaphor for a wide range of other processes. It was first applied to the physiology of animals in the late 18th century. It was picked up in the mid 19th century by the German biologist Justus von Liebig to describe the chemical exchange between plants and soil in what became biochemistry. Ernst Haeckel, often described as the father of modern ecology, used metabolism to describe the relations between actors that form a greater ecological system. Metabolism has been applied to the study of economics, sociology, systems theory, and other disciplines.


In many ways, metabolism seems to describe processes that are either too small or too big for us, as humans with a very limited scope of perception, to be able to perceive. On the macro scale we can, for example, understand to an extent the complex relations form an ecosystem. On the micro scale, we can, to an extent understand the complex relations between bacteria. But we can only know and understand these processes through complex forms of mediation and to a large extent they remain theoretical. And this also applies to complex and far reaching systems such as economics or social science as well.


When I started my research into metabolism I thought I had a pretty straightforward idea of what it referred to. The more I research and the more I find out about the application of metabolism to various processes, the less clear I am about how metabolism might actually be defined and this is part of what makes it compelling to me as a material to work through artistically and theoretically.


At first glance it seems pretty straightforward if we focus on the human body and the digestive apparatus. The precondition for all the other aspects of our lives is that things go in to our body, are processed, and released in a new form. But defining where metabolism begins and ends or trying to define the boundary that separates human metabolism from the metabolism of other organisms or eco-systems is essentially impossible once you start observing closely and on different scales. In this sense the human digestive tract and its complex functions offer a really interesting way to theorize the interelations between human, organic, and technological processes.


The human digestive system is, after the cardiovascular system and the central nervous system, the first part of the body that forms in the womb. So before any other parts of our bodies are formed, any surfaces our boundaries, the passage is formed through which the outside world moves through our bodies. For the first few weeks of an infant’s life, before it can really sense or respond to external stimuli, it is essentially little more than a digesting organism: a passage.


The human digestive tract – which we know measures somewhere between 250-400m2 - is the largest interface between the human body and the environment. It is about one hundred times greater than the surface of our skin. The 5 senses that have been ascribed to the human body - sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste – are interfaces through which the external world is experienced, absorbed and processed by the human being. In this sense the digestive tract and its profound role in absorbing external stimuli seems strangely overlooked as the body’s sixth sense.


This among many other classically defined boundaries and categories is being radically reassessed in the field of microbiology and biochemistry, particularly in research surrounding the human microbiome. Some of this is quite popularized but for those who don’t know I’ll just run through a few interesting findings in this rapidly expanding field of science.


The microbiome or gut microbiota refers to the collection of bacteria, archaea and eukarya colonising the digestive tract. It can weigh up to 2 kilos and contains about 100 trillion bacteria, and has co-evolved with the human body over thousands of years to form an intricate and mutually beneficial relationship. There is plenty of dispute among researchers but it has been estimated that the microbiome contains 10 times more bacteria than human cells and 100 times the amount of genomic content than the human genome.


This among other factors is leading to quite radical reconfigurations, not only of the functions of the human body but of what it means to be human given that the human body is composed largely of matter understood as nonhuman. Further, the high density of neurons found in the digestive apparatus has led researchers to decentralize previous understandings of human intelligence, thereby opening the possibilities to decentralizing our understanding of human intelligence outside the human body and language and other quintessentially human modes of communication and consciousness formation. 


In short, all of this, of course summarized way too briefly, leads me to a very convincing argument for why human metabolism should be considered among the other 5 human senses. And as an artist and filmmaker, whose interest is in blurring the seeming stable distinctions between sight and the other senses, between human and nonhuman, between interior and exterior experience, has led me to think about what a media technology designed specifically for this metabolic sense might look like.


My preliminary answer to this question is not some new and previously unimagined futuristic technology for the gut, but is rather fairly unspectacular. This metabolic media technology is essentially agriculture. Agriculture has, throughout the history of human development, been the vocabulary, syntax, formal representation, etc. of the human gut. It has defined and regulated the parameters of perceptual experience throughout the processes by which humans have coevolved with environments. Like every other media technology, from the invention of written text, to the printing press, to photography, it has occupied a complicated and contradictory threshold: on the one hand it expanded the possibilities of perception, experience, and communication. On the other hand, it has determined, regulated, and confined experience to particular standards and forms of classification. The terms of human metabolism – meaning the production, management and distribution of food – have been the foundation for every power structure, religion, and ideology throughout history.


Any piece of food we’ve ever eaten is the result of almost incomprehensible volume of entanglements between legal code, engineering, energy processes, logistics and visual representation. From the science of seeds, fertilizer, environmental design, to the labor, packaging, transport, storage, and sales -  by the time you have passed an apple through the scanner at the supermarket, essentially every media technology known to humans has been involved in this apple. Every drop of water, every movement of virtually every grain, vegetable or piece of meat has been accounted for in literally infinite volumes of legal code defining every step of production. Our intestines not only absorb matter, but they absorb the end products of these mediated processes. Our bodies and our behavioral frameworks are composed and in some sense predetermined by these complex amalgamations.


Our metabolism is coevolved with this ingrained technicity. Much like our eyes have evolved to quickly understand complex collages of signs through our coevolution with media technologies such as writing, film or digital media, our guts have evolved to understand and process the complexity of stimuli it absorbs in its coevolution with agricultural processes.


This is where I’d like to return both to my outline of Jonathan Crary’s book, and to the two pieces of media I started with. Jonathan Crary is writing about a historical moment in which visual perception was being transformed through measurement and quantification to become a material in its own right. As I learn more and more about current research into the human microbiome and the quite radical ways in which it is reconfiguring our previously stable understandings of the human body, intelligence, perception etc. I find many of these processes remarkably similar to the processes that formed human perception in the late 19th century.


As I mentioned earlier, the 19th century developments in physiology and psychology shifted from the study of autonomous objects, to the study of the relations between them. This is true of microbiology as well. While early microbiology in the 1960s and 70s attempted to create classificatory systems for individual bacteria, they soon realized this was impossible, and that the only way to understand the functions of bacteria was to study their relations. This is how metagenomics came to be, a process that sequences large groups of bacteria, not as individual units, but as ecological organisms.


Scientific progress is of course never independent of other social, economic and political processes and in both the case of current research into the microbiome and the historical processes of the quantification of visual perception I described through Crary’s book, both of these processes are driven by systems of economic expansion as well as the dual evolution and control of the human body through the senses. While these processes have in many ways been operating throughout recorded history, today’s advances in microbiology offer unprecendented and extremely precision driven forms of manipulation of the humans senses. Similarly, while visual representation has always been an important component of ideologies, it wasn’t until the inventions of the 19th century that they could be quantified and manipulated to such a degree of precision. The important question is how these advances are developed and to what ends?


Will these new and fascinating discoveries that dissolve the theoretical boundaries between humans and the environment lead to a more holistic relationship to the natural world at this time of ecological crises? Or will it instead offer new frontiers for resource extraction for the seemingly infinite expansion of capitalist production? Several projects that have applied innovative research into the microbiome point to the likelihood that the latter will be true, meaning that rather than being used to reconfigure the relationship between human and environment, these advances will be used for commercial and infrastructural projects that reinforce those boundaries for the sake of profit, increased control of populations, and an increased manipulation of the human senses and thereby the parameters of human perception.


I think I’m out of time but maybe if you have questions, I can elaborate on some of these specific projects in detail.


I’ll just finish by saying that I think these evolutions show how crucial it is that science be in conversation with artistic practice and theory. As artists we are able to tap into these insights and develop modes of mediation that work with experience and abstraction in ways that are free to reconfigure perceptual experience.  


This is part of my approach to working with moving image as an affective, experiential material that blurs the boundaries between difference senses. This is what I tried to do in the film Outside which is also on view here. The film travels through the human digestive tract and then through waste management facilities as two reciprocal forms of metabolism. The path through the human digestive tract is filled with sensations that don’t seem to belong there, emotive and sometimes prelinguistic sounds echo through this sensual space giving new parameters to the range of perceptive experiences possible there.


Moving image comes together at the intersection of different processes, between material and metaphor, between our individual and idiosyncratic modes of perceiving, and the standardized norms of perception that govern the parameters of representation. Moving image can shift between the micro and the macro, allowing us to perceive the complexity of the scale of metabolic processes on a physical, preconscious and affective level. This is the type of moving image I am interested in and will continue making.


The way we name and therefore approach things has enormous consequences for how we approach the world. The conception of moving image as ecological and metabolic is first of all descriptive but it is meant as a push toward a future engagement with perception and mediation as something that is deeply enmeshed in our environments. The ecological and therefore social, political, and economic crises currently threatening the possibility of future life are material, but our relationship to material is always an issue of perceptual frameworks. We need both more and less than material solutions – we need perceptual reconfigurations.

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