DARK TRACES OF
ANA TERESA VICENTE
Faculdade de Belas Artes da Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal
Julia Varela is a Spanish/Argentinian artist based in Barcelona. Varela’s work problematizes the uses of digital media, such as its transitory traces, and how images “being” relate relate to their carrier mediums. Having the physical and material conditions of the image as a starting point, she navigates these topics without losing sight of the trajectories that may emerge from the research itself, through a process that makes use of the physical contact with people and contexts that are not readily visible, exposed, or mediatic.
3’31 (2021) is a continuation of the artist’s research on the impossibility of thinking about the image without incorporating its medium into the debate. Specifically produced for the internet, the work is deeply ingrained within the online sphere. It is its starting point and is, accordingly, the medium of the work itself. What we are given to see is the product of reading the surface of a photograph by a photo-optic algorithm, turning it into sound waves. Varela applied this photo-optical synthesizer to decode the image through a synth model created by the Soviet engineer Yevgeny Murzin in 1938.
Julia Varela, 3’31’’ Digital composition. Short Cut online exhibitions, Fundació Suñol Barcelona 2020 – 21.
Image courtesy of the artist.
Previous works, such as Mehr Fantasy (2017-2018) or the Series of Folded Tv Plasma Screens (2020), place the complex material condition of media on a larger spatial and temporal perspective. Flat screens function as a recurring element in Varela’s work, both as a medium and a device of technological corporeality; they are bent, probed, and crushed, bringing to light the infrastructure of the technological overproduction that is utterly affecting the earth. The Mehr Fantasy film installation, in particular, is “geologically loaded aesthetics'' (Parikka, p. 69); composed of pulverised plasma screens, turned into dust by the fragmentation of matter.
(left) Julia Varela, MEHR FANTASIE, film installation. Super HD 00:20:04. Stereo 15'' 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.
(right) Julia Varela, MEHR FANTASIE pulverize plasma TV screens, size varies, sample detail 26 kilos. Exhibition view, lítost gallery, Prague, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist.
Folded plasma screens, serie III folded plasma screens, 2017 - 18 View of the exhibition, ARS 17 Exhibitions KIASMA Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki. Finland. Photos / Kansallisgalleria | Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen.
The image we are given to look at in the 3’31 digital composition is “scanned” from left to right and then back again. A luminous, radiant light runs across the image and we can hear the soundwaves, generated as an output of different tones. The electronic signal is read and transformed into a different output. Such is the nature of electronic systems - as Bill Viola states: “the same electronic signal can be an image if fed into a video monitor, an energy diagram if fed into an oscilloscope, and a sequence of sounds if fed into an audio system” (Viola, 2003 , p. 463).
Bill Viola’s Reflecting Pool (1977-1979), a series of five videos that are arguably one of Viola’s most important works from the late seventies, presents the apparition and disapparition of a body’s reflected image on the water. The body/man that walks in our field of vision on the top part of the video suddenly comes to a halt, as the reflection on the water keeps moving, mirroring the surrounding nature while ripples are formed, they spread on the water’s surface, and disappear. There is a narrative divorce that restructures and juxtaposes space and time.
Images function as surfaces that mediate the transformation of the visual into something material, being then "a place of active exchange between subject and object" (Bruno, 2014, p.8), and with a means of inscription that can be temporally located, that may defy the defined trajectories that emerge from the research. Artistic work does not always proceed along a linear path. Sometimes, a single image comes along that changes the entire course of action we had so carefully planned. There is no way of knowing when or where the blow will hit. For Varela too, there was a halting effect caused by the image chosen for the artwork. In her case, the human presence in the photograph was the trigger: “I had several conversations with different suppliers from different multinationals dedicated to the sale of LED technology for audiovisual devices. Sunny Zhu was one of the workers with whom I established the most fruitful conversation and where the greatest compatibility was generated. Sunny is represented on the Alibaba.com website by a manga image (drawing of a girl, big eyes, long braided hair). After a period of exchanges, Sunny sent me several images among which is the one that became the trigger and epicentre of 3’31’’ (Varela, 2021).
The image itself shows a large screen lying flat at the centre. The windowless and darkened space is packed with semi-open cardboard boxes. To the left, we can see a woman looking straight ahead at us, with one hand softly resting on the surface of the glowing, rectangular display. The still frame of the artwork shown here presents us with this enigmatic figure partially obscured by the bright light. In the same way, a single, flat image may be insufficient to uncover all the hidden layers it leaves out; or, it may as well be the starting point, a trigger or a portal for the desire to connect and expose the intricate post-global conditions of the networked structures underlying technology and, more specifically, the production, use, and dissemination of technological devices.
There’s an interval that arises when the establishment of contact is not possible. In the book Take a Closer Look (2013), Daniel Arrase retraces the connection between desire, touch, and gaze, established through the connections embedded on Titian's Venus of Urbino: those who see are not able to touch, those who touch do not see, and the central character looks at us but touches herself.
In 3’31’’, Varela formulates a series of relationships of touch, here as a one-way structure of communication, non-human, and through the flat surface of the screen. We can also place within this territory the human connection established with the woman in the photographs. Unlike gaze, touch does not exist as a one-way condition, it allows an affective return: when we touch something or someone we’re also touched back, we cannot escape contact – there is immersion and reciprocity (Bruno, 2014, p. 19). Tactility presupposes physical and intimate contact with objects, surfaces, or bodies. The etymological root of the word ‘haptic’ suggests precisely this possibility of contact with the world and is limited not only by our skin but incorporates the whole body and covers the eye itself (Bruno, 2002, p. 254).
Bruno’s preference for talking about surfaces rather than images places our experience in the way the visual manifests itself on this outer coating; there is a “surface tension” that affects the "skin" of the image and its circulation space (Bruno, 2014, p. 3). The book’s introduction begins precisely with a quote from the Roman philosopher Lucrecio, where the image is conceived as a thing, comparable to a cloth, something that “could be virtually peeled off, like a layer of substance, forming a “bark,” or leaving a sediment, a veneer, a “film.”” (Idem, p. 2). Merlau-Ponty’s idea of “flesh" could also be a helpful way to envision this sort of liminal space. It allows for the emergence of a relationship that is “co-constituted, individualized but related", as Barker suggests: as embodied entities “the material contact between viewer and viewed is less a hard edge or a solid barrier placed between us” (Barker, p. 12).
3’31’’ thus acts as a means to establish a connection with the image, a way to reflect upon possible forms of communication. It reflects on the encounter with the digital medium and the intrinsic nature of latency that is contained within the digital image beyond the code: the intricacies of electronic latency are also characterized by reversibility, that is, by the ability to return the image to its atemporal phase. As Fontcuberta points out in Pandora’s Camera, a photograph in its printed form is considered consumable, but if shown on a screen it tends to be seen as temporary (Fontcuberta, 2012, p. 41). Photographs surface for a moment on our light-emitting screens, then revert back to their code condition, vanishing from view, just like a mirage.
The artist’s practice is centrally located on how care “becomes a particularly poignant question in times when other than humans seem to be utterly appropriated in the networks of (some) Anthropos” (Bellacasa, p.122). The connection with artists and communities involve a process that is already present in previous artworks, such as Mehr Fantasie or the folded plasma screens, whose process connected the artist with “a community, mostly from Lebanon, that as a way of survival had built a particular underworld of very interesting electronic waste e-commerce - the departure of the project was linked to these scenarios: they are consequential to the research and end up shaping it." (Varela, 2021).
The thumbnail image was emailed to Varela while she researched LED guide panels. This material, composed of a plastic sheet that has a grid engraved on its surface and is an important element of any LED screen, is mostly sold online, Alibaba being the main distribution platform for this kind of technology. Sent by an e-commerce company based in Shanghai, the image serves as a vehicle to tap into the realm of affect, of “matters of care”, related to connecting human and non-human, establishing physical contact with people and contexts.
The circuit-bending movement, for example, already used the short-circuiting of devices as a way to undermine the original intent of a given technological artefact “primarily with the purpose of generating novel sound or visual output” (Parikka, p. 144). Here too, the nature of the material allows for diverse associations and relations to be forged. The relationship between the grid as a constituent of digital images, its substance and material, entangles the micro and macro scales, the physical and the ephemeral, and can push photography into different mediums.
A photograph is also its own surface, a point of contact. As such, in 3’31’’, the light-emitting screen is now a light-emitting image, read by a humming, buzzing, luminescent and syncopated bar. This bar runs across the grid-like structure of the image as if it were a light beam travelling through a LED panel. Even if in a different way, it is light that allows us to visualise images, to bring past onto the present, to the here and now. With digital images that is true — at least for a moment, until they revert back onto their latent condition of binary code, indecipherable to our soft, human eyes.