Slides, Photographic Archives and Cybernetic Art ….

Colour OrganChronos[Extract from paper delivered at event “Photographic Archives, Technologies, and Methods of Recording”, 20 Feb 2013, The John Rylands Library, ]

As I’m writing this I’m sat in a basement of the Mansfield Cooper building, the home of Art History & Visual Studies; I’m surrounded by shelves, boxes, papers, equipment for measuring, equipment for viewing; and by cabinets – 55 of them, containing approximately 160, 000 35mm slides, collected over a 30 year period. For now this is the final resting place of a collection and archive which was destined to be chucked, dumped in a skip to make room for more tables and chairs.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself … Let me return to the very start of the boldly named ‘Archive Intervention’ project and to the start of the problem: a collection under threat of being broken up – so-called old and decrepit technology being replaced by shiny new twinkling apps and search engines.

Currently underused and (very nearly) obsolete, the department has been wrangling over what to do with the slide collection for some years – coming to a head over the past 6 months or so. Of course we are all lining ourselves up on one side or another of the debate. The AHVS & Archaeology library (the space where the slides were once kept) required urgent refurbishment – and the cabinets were in the way. In our former building the slide collection was housed in its own room, with its own slide librarian.

As the slides are, for the large part, no longer used within teaching perhaps it is time we dispose of such a large and cumbersome – and some would argue, unnecessary – object. After all, we have ‘Google’ and various online portals which offer digitised imagery. This is one side of the argument.

However, the opposing argument is one which applies to all gallery, museum, library, and university collections: the majority of the content contained within any collection generally lays unused until some form of intervention – an exhibition, an education project, a lone and wandering researcher, an artist or writer. 99% of the Manchester Museum’s collection remains in storage – this is the nature of the ‘collection’ and ‘archive’ beast. There is simply never enough space nor methods by which to exhibit all items and ephemera. There are various circling debates surrounding ‘access’ to such hidden materials.

To argue, then, that an archive is obsolete or unnecessary simply because it is not in permanent use seems rather short sighted. What, exactly, is a collection or archive for? How best can they be put to use? The AHVS slide collection has been built up over a 30 year period by existing and emeritus staff. Many of the slides archive objects, artworks, spaces, architecture and exhibitions which cannot be found through a general online ‘Google’ search, nor are they likely to be found in easy-to-hand publications. Granted, other slides are simply reproductions of images taken from books prior to the availability of digitised imagery.

To my mind the slide collection presents a new learning opportunity. Google and other such portals are only as helpful as the prior knowledge typed into the search engine box; an archive or collection offers new topics, themes, images which students and researchers may never have considered. Plus, the very nature of image capturing does have its own history – the slide collection is part of the history of AHVS methods and research, something which students may never be made aware of if we choose to substitute all ‘old’ technologies with ‘new’ technologies simply because it saves a few square foot of space.

So, I’ve thrown a spanner into the works –I argued I didn’t want to see the slide collection dismantled and thrown into the skip. (For the time being, I have won, as they have been relocated to this rather cold basement room.)

I wanted to undertake some form of ‘intervention’ (or interference, or disruption if you like) to the presumed narrative which would see the slide collection being destroyed. I thought (rather grandly) of those artists and projects I particularly admire: Mark Dion, Christian Boltanski, Susan Hiller, Sophie Calle, Tactia Dean, Derek Jarman – artists who break down categories of objects and archives, technologies of recording, technologies of performance; they dismantle the hierarchies imposed upon material and object culture. These artists disrupt the limits of the personal, and self-created ‘archive’, and that of the publicly owned and accessed archive. Definitions of memory, truth, and history are unpicked and scattered; identities become mere fragments to be pieced back together through written, oral and visual culture.

I wanted to start writing about the slides, these sometimes strange, often curious, always beautiful miniature works of art: paintings, sculptures, architecture, photography, prints, illustrations, decorative arts, the miscellaneous, all contained within these 55 cabinets. So I set up a blog, and took out my camera and note pad. I set myself the task of trawling through all 55, to locate the ‘valuable’ images, the gems within the collection which might justify the slides being kept together. There was talk of digitisation, but issues of copyright and the sheer size of the job rendered it an unlikely solution. No – if these slide were to remain, they had to be kept together, as physical objects.


Back to the basement once more. I’ve just finished reading Stephen Polikaoff’s ‘Shooting the Past’: a tale of a photographic collection under threat of being broken up and destroyed; its archivists dedicated to finding a new home for their precious images. Polikaoff is a film maker and writer; these two practices seamlessly fit with photography – all three are concerned with storytelling, with making connections between people and things. The writer weaves a tale, the photographer frames moments, and the film-maker animates the still life.

I take out another 2 slides at random from a sculpture cabinet – they are labelled ‘Schoffer Colour Organ 1960 (Light)’, and ‘Schoffer Chronos II 1960 (Light)’. I have no idea who this artist is, or anything about the image content of the slides: one is a beautiful hazy pink mass, not unlike an astronomical image of a galaxy or distant star, the other a black and white monochrome showing an older man playing what looks like a piano or keyboard in the foreground, with a hazy abstract image in the background.

These slides intrigue me; I turn to my computer, the digital rival to my slides, to offer enlightenment. I make a discovery: Nicolas Schöffer (Sept 6, 1912 — Jan 8, 1992) was a Hungarian-born French artist; he is considered the father of cybernetic art and sound sculptures. He collaborated with engineers from the Phillips company and musicians to transform structures through sound, light and colour. He opened up the three-dimensional to the fourth dimension of time and motion; art as a kinaesthetic, audio-visual sensory experience. His CYSP 1 (1956) spatiodynamic sculpture ‘is set on a base mounted on four rollers, which contains the mechanism and the electronic brain. The plates are operated by small motors located under their axis. Photo-electric cells and a microphone built into the sculpture catch all the variations in the fields of colour, light intensity and sound intensity. All these changes occasion reactions on the part of the sculpture.’ The purple pink hazy image, I decide, is a still from one of his sculptural colour performances, a captured projection of mystical luminescent light. Before emerging into the public sphere, CYSP 1. Claims a role in modern dance. Maurice Béjart and his ballet dancers, especially Claude Bessy, prima ballerina (Opéra de Paris) danced with CYSP 1. in Schöffer’s own studio.

This was fascinating enough …. But now I moved onto the colour organ slide:
“A colour organ is a device, usually controlled from a keyboard, with which music can be visualized or a pure display of colours presented as an autonomous art form. The inventors of such instruments often enthusiastically devoted large parts of their lives to their idea, constantly made technical improvements, expended large amounts of time and money, but in most cases invested their energy more in technical advancements than in aesthetic issues. Many of these inventors were convinced they were the first to have conceived and built such an instrument. They were often pianists, artists from other fields, but there were also chemists, physicists, mathematicians, and mystics. The first concept for a colour organ can be traced back to 1724. In the nineteenth century, the idea of pure colour-light art increasingly became the focus. With the advent of film, colour-light art in abstract film removed itself both from its realization by means of a piano keyboard as well as from its theoretically reinforced dependence on music. Thus autonomous light kinetics emerged as a combination of form, motion, and light.” [Colour Organs by Jörg Jewanski]

I find this unusual discovery incredibly exciting. Not only does Schoffer link to my other research interests in the audio-visual, sculpture, colour, sensory perception, but Schoffer’s artwork is one of of experimental technology, the likes of which some might discount today as being ‘old fashion’ and ‘obsolete’. Ironically, my so-called out-of-date slide collection (in terms of its technology) has lead me to discover Schoffer, an artist considered one of the founding-fathers of a technological art which transformed the expectations of art historical categorisations.

Whilst researching this new and exciting artist, I dipped into the archive of the Center for Visual Music based in Los Angeles, an archive devoted to Visual Music, experimental animation and abstract media, I also came across Oskar Fischinger, one of the masters of animated film and an influential pioneer of abstract cinema. Woking in Weimar Republic Germany during the early 1920s, he redefined abstraction through dazzling films that (and I quote) ‘explore the effects of sight, visual sound and motion as a spiritual pursuit’ (Tate).

And Shoffer’s work reminds us of the sensuous aspect of working with such technologies, with photography and film: the process of slicing and cutting off the film reel; the fizzing and sloshing of the negative being bathed in chemicals; the creaking and popping of the turning slide carousel; the humming and buzzing of a back-light; the body in movement and physical response to the tactility and the possible sensuality of technology. These two slides then – one a beautiful light performance still, and the other of a colour organ performance – has opened up a new strand of my research, my writing, my own possible future artworks and performances. The analogue meets the digital – the internet offering up wonderful online archives meaning I did not have to travel to LA or German to research Schoffer and colour organs, but without the analogue 35mm slide, I would not have thought to head there. My intervention then – like all artists – is one of curiosity. Curiosity leads us to the unexpected; it leads us to new knowledge.




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