Algebra of Fiction
catalogue text by Karolina Majewska
for „Dorota Walentynowicz – Algebra of Fiction” 2013
According to Walter Benjamin – whose spirit will hover over this text, reincarnated in the quoted models of thinking – it is the work or/object that dictates the method of interpretation. Therefore, let us distinguish two levels of existence of Dorota Walentynowicz’s work: the conceptual and the effective. In her art, which could be in brief described as post-conceptual, the attentive recipient is able to trace back the thought process behind the objects and reconstruct its guiding framework. The artist does not take any hasty actions, does not make any random steps: she is investigative, focused and analytical in her proceedings. On the other hand, both in the final materialization of the concept, as well as in the space of confrontation proposed to the viewer, the artist introduces an element – or a number of elements – of the unknown. The individual projects are open to chance as well as open to the viewers, who are not determined by a static position towards the work – in both a physical and metaphorical sense.
The artist works in cycles, which can be understood as narrative, dynamic continuities – not entirely closed, open to linear growth, full of tension and unexpected twists. The series are connected by a causal logic which can be reconstructed through analysis, but whose trajectories are not evident until the end. This process is reminiscent of the scientific method, in which – after first posing the hypotheses – the researcher is ready to enter the sphere of experimentation. The methods of distribution and presentation of works – installations, exhibitions, publications – must be understood in terms akin to a narrative document of artistic facts. Their versatility; a single image taken out of context – same photograph in a gallery next to the camera that generated it – the same picture enlarged and framed, hanging on the wall in an apartment of an art collector, generate alternate meanings based on the medium of presentation. The banality of statement that the works of Walentynowicz are contextual can only be justified by the need to name the adequate methods of reading them, namely: it’s the framing (to call upon the Derridean parergon) that allows these works to reveal their significance as their latent potency.
In the „Algebra of Fiction” series, certain ideas about ontology and epistemology of photography, which appeared in the earlier works of the artist, are developed in the process of dialectical feedback between the theoretical and the practical. This research constructs the parameters of thinking about photography, therefore it is in a sense tautological: producing its own discourse. The formal solutions resulting from this process – both the photographs and the cameras that generate them, gradually acquiring more and more evoking objectivity – question the medium of photography in the context of the relationship between object and subject. Not necessarily the photography as such, but rather the conceptual photography; photography as art, in which an idea/ concept is more important than the final image. The significance of the work from „Algebra of Fiction” series should therefore be placed in a wider context, paired in its genealogy with a creative overworking of the tradition of structuralism; and in the frame of discourse on the medium of photography and its materiality.
Taking sociological analysis of various strategies of managing the camera as point of departure, Rafal Drozdowski and Marek Krajewski thus define the essence of the creative approach to the photographic device: (…) by far the least numerous group of users of cameras are those people who deliberately seek to break and to bypass the camera’s programs (in the meaning which Flusser gave to this expression). Here, too, the camera is perceived as a specific task (challenge). This time it is no longer, however, about subjecting the camera to a kind of investigation, in result of which these or other of its weaknesses will be exposed; it is about recognizing some of its hidden aesthetic or working assumptions and then not taking them into account and ignoring them – despite everything; or even better – acting against them in possibly most ingenious way. The authors refer to the tradition of neo-avant-garde actions of multimedia artists – on Polish ground best exemplified by the Film Form Workshop; to tautological works devoted to the analysis of the medium itself, and to the analysis of the relationship between the body and the machine, to which the work „Bio-mechanical Records” by Jozef Robakowski may be the most representative. In these works we witness first intuitions and attempts to reformulate the machine-to-person relationship: by striving for the internalization of logic in the machine or for its anthropomorphization. These structuralist experiments, which were focused on the analysis of medium, still assumed its model relationship with the world and revealed a phenomenological vector of interest with reality. Walentynowicz, however uses other principles when operating on the photographic medium, namely those resulting from a different understanding, not only of photography but the model of the relationship between photography and the world.
The source of the afore mentioned creative approach to the camera, understood as an action against the camera, is a concept introduced by Vilém Flusser, direct references to which can also be found in „Algebra of Fiction”. Using the concept of an apparatus grounded in the Marxist cultural theory, Flusser defined the photographic camera in a post-instrumental sense: as an object that is not a simple tool but rather a sphere or domain, which the user can only control through its exterior and is, at the same time, controlled by it through its impermeable interior. In other words: the machine dictates the program by which it is operated, and the user has to subject him/herself to its will.
Considered in the context of the modern model of science, Flusser’s thesis can be seen as aptly formulated intuition that fits well within the area of speculation in actor-network theory – the concept elaborated, among others, by Bruno Latour. It also brings to mind the anti-technological and somewhat deterministic concepts of Paul Virilio and Friedrich Kittler, who reduce the role of the human subject’s will in the development of technology and instead bring out a concept of the will of technology as a quasi-subject. This change of perspective (characteristic of post-humanism), based on the theory of visuality results in a question: what do the pictures want from us? On the basis of artistic practice, its manifestation and creative interpretation may lead to a reformulation of the relationship between the photographer (person) and the photographing (camera) – as proposed by Walentynowicz in „Algebra of Fiction”.
The author – by removing herself from the physical process of photographing – regains the control and recuperates the power over the camera: a machine that, according to Flusser’s thesis, enforces certain behaviors. Breaking the duality of camera’s interior and its exterior, the artist constructs machines that are the simplest materialization of the natural physical laws, which underpin the phenomenon of photography. The unknown is no longer the technologically complex interior of the camera, or the essence of medium recognized in tautological analysis – but the effect of working of the specifically transformed or distorted camera obscura, over which the artist does not have total control. The unknown is the effect of the destruction of certain physical forms that are considered ideal, classical or optimal for achieving a faithful representation of reality. Performing operations with many unknowns, Walentynowicz acts by trial-and-error: both towards the interior and the exterior of the camera; she is an experimenter, who transfers the viewer to new levels of visual consciousness. Benjamin – when writing about the optical unconscious – praises the invention of a photo camera as an objective tool of cognition and as an extension of the human body. The discussion about technology as an extension of the human senses in the context of photography refers to the concept of the camera as element of precision added to the human eye. The disruption of the camera’s handling – as proposed by Walentynowicz – consisting of a change in the machine-to-person relationship, deconstructs this narrative by defining photography as a representational-material hybrid. Pictures taken (or pictures that have taken place) in the mechanism’s interior, auto-present themselves as views of images’ construction.
Hans Belting, analyzing the concept of an image as a product of personal or collective symbolization, places the image as a cognitive phenomenon within the triad: body / image / media. In view of this model, pictures from the machines constructed by Walentynowicz become images only through a process of confrontation with the man – they become images only in the mind / body of the recipient. Belting points out that the ontology of the photographic image is based on the dialectics of presence and absence; the material presence of the image as medium is contrasted with the absence of that which is presented; in the photographs from „Algebra of Fiction” series this absence of the presented is two-fold: what is presented exists only as a product of the photographing and is therefore a fiction. The artist creates a kind of micro-culture or material micro-sphere as a context in which her photographs function, behind each print hides a complicated algorithm of relationships between the things that led to the materialization of the picture. Aware of this, the artist demonstrates both the machine and the effect of its working: through this equivalence, and even more – a gradual preference for the machine, she extracts the object aspect of photography.
While structuralists – preoccupied with the analysis of medium – have used art as a tool for researching technology, Walentynowicz returns to the analysis of the mechanism of image recording and moves the focal point of the discourse from ontology to epistemology of photography. In her works the objectification and visual anthropomorphization of the camera is a consequence of experimenting with the mechanics of photography. Her camerae obscurae standing on tripods are reminiscent of magical totems; scientific analysis is replaced by a narrative about the magic of photography that returns in a specific gesture of humanizing the machines. These works are therefore a mockery of the modernist practices in which artists sought an objective visual language that would refer to the laws of physics and mathematics – seeking in art the kind of practical knowledge whose mission was the salvation of the world. Works from the „Algebra of Fiction” series, though visually relating to constructivist photography, are in fact a parody of a utopian belief in the power of art. The artist humanizes her work literally, by antropomorphisizing the machine.
In the era of nano- and digital technology, Walentynowicz unearths a cultural relic, the camera obscura, and makes it all the more visible through its exaggerated sculptural, minimalist form. In the writing of the afore mentioned Paul Virilio, a thesis appears: that the modern development of science and technology obliterates the manner of the perception of reality by producing objects and spaces that can no longer be seen or perceived within the known categories of cognition. New technologies produce not only new ways of representation, but also new ways of seeing. Virilio writes about the industrialization and mechanization of perception, while introducing the concept of vision machines, which standardize the means of perception and, as a consequence, the means of understanding the world. In this context, the works of Walentynowicz can be seen as archaic prototypes of Virilio’s vision machines, providing a laboratory model of machine-to-man relationships in the visual universe of the present.
Finally, it is worth noting that the work of Dorota Walentynowicz can also be interpreted as a criticism or deconstruction of the violence inherent in the photographic camera: the power over the imaged object inherent in the process of photographing. When constructing her cubic camerae obscurae the artist deconstructs the power relations intrinsic in the action of photographing: she is doing so by depriving herself of the control (the knowledge) of the final results of the process. This connects her work with the feminist critique of videocentric culture and with criticism of photography at large, as a superficial manner of representation petrifying the status quo.