On Trembling Membranes and Inevitable Light-traps

On Trembling Membranes and Inevitable Light-traps
catalogue text by Franziska Kunze 2015

Bending, folding, and distorting are not commonly used terms in describing the handling of the sensitive photographic material. However, we are afar from the usual when we look at the photographs of Dorota Walentynowicz. The artist discovers new possibilities with and in her photography; for instance she programmatically avoids digital picture languages and the computerized manipulations they offer. Instead, she goes back to the very beginning of photographic picture generation – the camera obscura. Much like the early explorers of photography Walentynowicz makes her own ones. While the first models stick to the ordinary construction of such pinhole cameras – formed like a cube with a tiny hole – the later models are quite more elaborated in their appearance: Those multidimensional boxes take varying shapes, their forms and dimensions differ with each new work. Partially they are mounted on tripods or other geometric elevations and, thereby, looking almost alive although damned to immobility. In several cases the cameras are complemented by mirrors reflecting the light coming from different directions, lead it into the pinhole and thus, inside the box with the negative material waiting for exposure. Sometimes Walentynowicz exaggerates the effect those mirrors cause. For instance, she integrates a pentaprism into such a pinhole camera to survey the orders of this originally rudimental camera and the advanced reflex camera. The images this hybrid apparatus produces resemble the so-called Vortographs – non-figurative, abstract photographs made by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882–1966) in 1917. Coburn took this name from the British modernist movement Vorticism. This did not happen by chance. The images of the world photographed through an arrangement of several mirrors appear confounded like in a huge vortex. Crystalline structures – clustered or dispersed – battle for attention. But Walentynowicz draws it even further. In her works titled Prisms she not only presents the abstract forms which occur on the final print but is also in favour of the deepest black around it that was not touched by light and seems to frame the image like a passé-partout, but indeed still is part of the picture itself. In refusing to cut the uneven edges of the negative and instead printing them the artist presents the flickering borderline between both the negative as a two-dimensional image and the negative as a three-dimensional object.

Moreover, she understands the photographic negative itself as a material that actually can be formed. If the self-made camera is too small, she even cuts, bends and folds the film until it finally fits into the corpus. Thus, these works impressively demonstrate the apparently impossible possibility of destruction and creation completing each other. It is an essential part of her experimental set-up that the final images after loading, exposing, and development break with our visual habits. The photographs from the series Untitled Film Sets were made in military surroundings which served as the setting for an experimental film project Walentynowicz documented in her very own way. Whilst the preparation and performance took place, she positioned her camera and exposed the squeezed-in negative; sometimes for several hours. Finally, the whole lasting action was captured in one single negative. It holds everything but shows nearly nothing. It can hardly be read. Just a few straight light-lines may be decoded. Reminding of Étienne-Jules Mareys’ (1830–1904) early attempts of chronophotography they abstract from the real, with light and, of course, time as their main criteria. Whereas some photographs may depict a particular scenario or spatial depth, others conceal their relation to reality entirely. Here the outside world is embedded deeply into the silver gelatine layer.

The cameras – pieces of art themselves – are often part of the installation in her exhibitions and refer to the photographs hanging on the walls. The visitor walking across the room seems to complement the whole scenery. He focuses his attention on the cameras as they focus him. The visitor is observer and the object of observation at once. As the long-exposure denies clear representations the vague image of the wandering observer could already be captured on the surface of the negatives – mediated by light, blurred by movement, trapped in the silver gelatine – witnessed by the photographs surrounding them. The artist plays with us.

The space-filling third dimension is an aspect that can hardly be denied in one of Walentynowicz’ latest works. In Trembling it catches our attention not only in a visual way but also in a more emotional sense. An outside-in turned loudspeaker serves as a camera, again operating according to the pinhole principle. But this time the artist did not work with a black and white negative, which is bent inside of the corpus, but carefully positioned completely intact colour material. In his text Und der Sinus wird weiterschwingen Friedrich Kittler (1943–2011) reflects on Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz‘ (1646–1716) understanding of the human mind. Leibniz compared perception to a camera obscura with a vibrating membrane attached to the back wall. Here the past always resonates. Referring to this Kittler explains: “The past of the mind is always contemporaneous to the mind.” – A more beautiful description of the photographic long-exposure cannot be imagined. Walentynowicz understands the material as such a membrane. During exposure low frequency sound waves are fed into the speaker and put the film slightly into motion. All current impressions – visual and also acoustic ones – impact on the photographic emulsion for a few moments, minutes or hours. Future turns into present, trembles, present turns into past, trembles, turns into past, trembles, turns into past… Not only has the genesis of her work occurred in this very rhythm but also its presentation. The artist creates a special sound atmosphere consisting of different frequencies simultaneously played. Furthermore, the images are projected in a steady rhythm slide by slide onto a wall. Here they linger for a certain time, just to slide ahead to the next one. Sometimes another projection produced by a mirror meets a different wall. The specialty of this arrangement is the fact that the mirror likewise is connected to sound waves, which make the mirror “dance”. Consequently, this projected image appears restless, unsteady, and erratic. And although the frequency never changes, the movements always do. “It’s like it had its own momentum that takes it where it wants” Walentynowicz remarks. This seems like a reminiscence of the periodic vibrations that influenced the body of the slide during exposure and, now, are denoted by the staggered light-lines on the final image. Above all the literally spotlighted slide in the projector occurs as the physical medium it actually is. It appears more like an object than a flat picture. In using chromatic material the artist does not only present the wide and colourful spectrum of shades. Moreover, this lightness emphasizes the fragility of the thin and transparent materiality of the film which almost seems ephemeral while trembling. This fugitiveness contrasts the stable and steady image of the same slide but on the other wall extremely. Whereas the balanced image invites to contemplation, the unbalanced one evokes a feeling of unease. The rhythm of projecting determines the rhythm of perception, with each “click” of the changing slides as its meter. And what if this “click” fails to appear, extending the change for an incalculable amount of time? Here the viewer has to wait and can experience what it means to simply wait. This is exactly the situation that substantially determines the artists’ practical work with the long-exposure; persistently waiting. In this sense, the third dimension is augmented by a fourth one: Time. And whereas this factor already plays an important role in her black-and-white photography Trembling creates an additional space where sound cannot only be heard or felt but also visually observed. The artist establishes a scenery of the senses that finally culminates in a single image which is able to transport the whole context freely.

Walentynowicz’ way of working with the photographic material reflects her way of thinking about photography in general. She interprets the photograph not only as an objectifying medium of presentation. Different patterns overlap each other all too often: the will to fix a picture of the world – movement, shapes, and light – and thereby willingly risking to reveal the photographic conditions – in-motion unsharpness, abstraction, and halo effects. Furthermore, the artist challenges the technical advantages of the medium. She builds her own cameras that do not work fully automatically and not even mechanically. They only follow the rules of optics and chemistry. This is a conceptual strategy that does not lack a certain emotional input. That can be observed in her seemingly aggressive way of handling the negatives. The usually untouched witness and receiver of light rays becomes an agitator on its own. Suborned by the artist, who formed it, the material sometimes refers to itself and gives hints on its own materiality. In bending, folding, and distorting the sensitive negative the artist does not only proof the delicate limits of the image but also the origin of imaging.