Op-Film: Excavating the Dark History of Light at Gasworks

Is there a violence inherent to our love affair with illumination, a hidden power we exert over the objects that technology makes visible to our gaze? What about the Western-wash of its roots; the intersecting forces of military and industry, capitalism, and surveillance culture that guide it into the present? And when optics fail us–from plane crashes to glitched renders–what is the political potential of their undoing? Film artists Filipa César and Louis Henderson trace the trajectory of optical technology throughout history and pick apart the politics and poetics of relation that guides Op-film: an archaeology of optics, a collaborative exhibition presented by Gasworks in London.

Darkness is perhaps an unexpected setting for an exhibition that concerns itself with the politics and power of light. Allow your eyes to adjust and three incandescent vitrines full of meticulously organized objects, texts, and imagery slowly come into view. César and Henderson begin with total transparency: Refracted Spaces (2017) is the sculptural manifestation of the research documents at the crux of their visual practice.

The assemblage offers a precious potpourri of data: lighthouse blueprints brush up against sociological studies; pieces of Frensel lenses–the centrifugal subject of their collaborative research project–overlay charts of the light spectrum they absorb and refract in moving around the room. The assorted objects vibrate with a kind of collective energy that feels sacred, but the lack of enclosure encourages the curious hand to dissect what’s on display, and fingerprints suspended across the lenses confess to prior investigation.

Picking up the curved block of glass, I am surprised by its relative density. How a transparent and elegant tool exerts such a clunky presence when handled as an object really carries home it’s functional capital: as the bridge between the human eye and an enhanced reality. When a tool is drained of its use value, says Heidegger, it becomes a nuisance. But if the lens is liberated from the burden of helping us envision more to lay claim to, then what can it become? Escaping teleology; what is it free to do instead?

Suspended in this thought, my attention drifts to the book neighboring the ambient group of lenses (arranged in an expanding sequence, their likeness to the wifi signal beam is uncanny)–Edouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation. I flip it over and am confronted with a call to arms that begins to answer this latter question. In one graceful move, the late poet-philosopher expunges the “non-history” of his French-Caribbean heritage as blotted out by European quills and summons in an alternative rendering one that is autonomous, aesthetic and political–with a self-defined past and future. Glissant’s vision is not simply a recasting of his own cultural heritage but a larger appeal for a paradigmatic shift in our way of seeing, imaging, and imagining. I do another lap around the vitrines and realize just in time for the film that César and Henderson are not so much interested in assembling an exhaustive history of optics as they are, perhaps like Glissant, in conjuring an affective space where the alternative narratives produced within optics’ twisting, turning, accelerating lineage can absorb, reflect, and refract each other, just like light.

Entering into the next room, I’m confronted with Sunstone (2017), the duo’s collaborative film commission inspired by the work of the late German filmmaker and cultural critic Harun Farocki. Stretching to just over a half-hour, it wastes no time: the intensity of their research unfolds across a speckled history of optics, the scale of which is constantly oscillating from the general to the personal, the political to the emotional.

Blinking into the refracted beams of light spun off by a twinkling Fresnel lens captured on richly textured 16mm film, we meet the young keeper of the Cabo de Roca Lighthouse (c. 1772) on the coast of Portugal–the westernmost point of Europe. He unpicks the near-mythological history of lighthouses, beginning with the Lighthouse of Alexandria, built in Egypt some 300 years before Christ. Despite their romantic connotation, lighthouses were first used by pirates and corsairs to lure weary sailors to their doom, running their ships aground so as to steal their treasures. Then, he suggests, priests took over the lighthouses to do just the opposite.

The colonial violence, imperialism, and violent gaze of new world-making as enabled first by the lighthouse followed by cable and telegraph technologies does not go down smoothly as historical fun-facts. The keeper peels back this troubled history, at times conflating it with the internal war experienced by his father––a man born into Portuguese Revolution, without a cultural history to fall back on.

The film plunges into to this rupture. As the ocean floor splits open to make space for the modern world’s fiberoptic networks–stitches of cabling that stapled together old and new territory–the screen splinters into overlays of digital desktop imagery and 3D CGI; first-person POVs of tracking technologies spurned on by the military’s aggressive pursuit of ever more sophisticated optical technologies. These advances always seem to occur without public involvement or awareness; consumers are left with the personal telegrams, the smartphones and the SFX Hollywood indulgences as sedative byproducts of this violence, the narrator coyly suggests. “The whole world was in the dark, except for the military,” he muses to backdrop footage of planes colliding with the World Trade Center, quickly eclipsed by an audience bursting into applause at the end of a speech given by Che Guevara.

Like Farocki’s work, it gets silly at junctures, too. A badly photoshopped squid floats amid a cosmic nebula towards an uncertain future. In a brilliantly implosive moment not unlike Farocki’s Parallel (2012-14), the camera barges behind a rendered coast of Portugal, which collapses like a sheet of cardboard. Falling out of the map and into deep space, the glitch reveals the true fragility of what looks like a hard border.

When we pull back the boundaries of the digital, where can we fall? Can we ever get out of the space of control? Can the realm of technological failure operate as a type of third space, a space of unlearning, where we can fulfill Glissant’s call to rethink and rewrite history?

The screen goes dark. I turn around and am confronted by another humming crop of lenses. The exposure of backlighting reveals a winding text carved into their inner crevices––a quote from Glissant’s Poetics. “Transparency no longer seems like the bottom of the mirror in which Western humanity reflected the world in its own image… There is opacity now at the bottom of the mirror, a whole alluvium deposited by populations… with an insistent presence that we are incapable of not experiencing.”

The double-negative twists my mind then lets it go and I enter into a sort of epistemological free-fall. Emerging into the light I’m suddenly, almost offensively made aware of the single-channel vision that is our reality and find myself immediately wanting back in to César’s and Henderson’s multiple vision; where past and future play out across a single surface; where broken space is not just exposed but reified as a site of political potential.




Op-Film: Excavating the Dark History of Light at Gasworks is on view at Gasworks in London until June 25, 2017.
Images courtesy of Gasworks.

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