Expanding on my editorial devoted to a photogram of The Sea Horse (1934) by Jean Painlevé, a scientist close to the Surrealists, I have invited two artist-researchers, Jeremie Brugidou and Lia Giraud, whose works create unprecedented images with submarine organisms, to explore new visions of the living world. In an art/science dialectic, both have been given a carte blanche combining theory and practice, which will culminate in the joint making of a prospective film for PALM.
Since the early 2010s, Lia Giraud has been developing the algaegraphic process, using light-sensitive microalgae, which allows her to produce living images and question the notion of “milieu”. Regularly exhibited at venues such as the Centre Pompidou, her work is on view until November 27, 2022 in the Biotopia exhibition at Le Pavillon in Namur. These creations have been accompanied by her dissertation, completed in 2017, titled L’Œuvre-processus. Pratiques dialogiques entre biologique et technique, vers une écologie de l’œuvre (Process-work: Dialogical thinking between biology and technology. Towards an ecology of the oeuvre). For PALM, Giraud has developed her reflection on images through a series of “re-examinations” opening up new perspectives. Images are successively considered from the biological, technological and ecological angles, corresponding to the three parts of this publication.
The living image: Re-examining photography, its fixity and its permanence
Many historical thinkers in the field of photography have solely fixated on the imprint of reality, the memory trace that it leaves, its indicial nature and its role as a witness. All photography seems to be contained within a sacrosanct fixity which has led us to forget the Becquerel process. The ontology of the photographic image appears to be sealed inside a “mummified” vision, something which didn’t escape André Bazin’s attention1. The first process of Nicéphore Nièpce using bitumen of Judea2 furthermore confirms its connection to embalming, considered as the “fundamental factor in the creation of the arts”.. Could it be that our technical thinking inexorably “submits to the ontological predominance of death” as asserted by Hans Jonas? Does photography only exist to “disturb life” or to “introduce the perspective of death into life”3 ?
Photography, however, would be incapable of suspending us outside of the living world for very long, because both are by their very essence, “solarian”. When he describes the living world as “a few crumbs of solar existence, which after being soaked in brine, stewed in chemicals, jolted with electrical charges, came to life”4, Edgar Morin could be referring to a photographic printing method. The lexical field of photography is indeed similar in many respects to that of life processes. “Development”, “reproduction”, “exposure” (bring to light) ,”image” (imago), all evoke a birth, an “iconogenesis” . “Grain” (seed), “pellicle” (skin), “film” (membrane), “gelatine“(collagen) as well as the “cell” or the “sensor” borrow evocative terms from the natural sciences that go beyond simple optical or chemical metaphors to evoke notions of organic materials and behaviours. Even the term “fixation” (in the sense of fixing or driving something into the ground) is unable to suspend us unequivocally in a state of immobility, if we consider that the image is put into the ground, not to rest, but to grow there!
Does the photographic “hiatus” that has pitched analogue film against digital since the 1990s signal the end of this mortuary tradition? How can one speak of recycling and the viral phenomena of images by only having recourse to fixity, print and permanence? How can one achieve the co-existence of the printed image and the flux-image without the metastable and evolutionary approach of the mechanisms of life?
The “living images” (algaegraphs) project, which debuted in 2010 with the project Cultures, returns to the origins of the photographic process to consider this technique and the history of its invention from the point of view of life. It consists in abandoning the conceptual layers which have gradually fossilised image, to return it to its original luminous and organic essence. Silver halide grains and photosites must find a biological equivalent in the form of a structural unit that is capable of reacting to light but that also behaves in an autonomous manner: the entirety of Life must be preserved, contrary to the current techniques of bio-photography5.It is among unicellular living beings, more precisely, photosynthetic and moving microalgae, that the living image will thus find its picture element.
In the world of living images, there is no more “perverse confusion” between the Real and the Live, no more “denying alibi of the distractedly alive”6: Barthesian photography considered as a living organism, effectively undertakes to be born, develop, blossom for a while, and then grow old.
Giving life to an image also means modifying its purpose. When impermanence reigns, only multiplication emerges as an efficient strategy to escape oblivion (Cultures #2). One must therefore perceive image in an “aesthetics of flow”7, in a present that is perpetually renewed and in which image continually creates its own evolution.
Note n°1 – Cultures, 2011
The Cultures installation is presented as an experimental workshop or laboratory, consisting of a collection of apparatus and illuminated tables that enable the different phases of the algaegraphic process to be followed. At the bottom of the black boxes, images come to life in a unique culture milieu composed of photosensitive microalgæ.
The image-process: re-examining the metaphors in favour of a real agency of image
The notion of “the living image” appears to have always had a presence in literature, from the stories about Prometheus to various references by Plato or Aristotle. “Photographic agencies”, however, hold a very unique place for those thinkers of the ontology of this medium, in particular with the digital boom of the 1980’s.
Henri Van Lier writes of photoshoots that, “these repetitive triggers and bifurcations, these entanglements and disentanglements, as well as the reciprocal implications of reproduction and the transmutability resemble the fundamental workings of Life. There as well, whether through the recombination of DNA or cerebral memories, processes are repeated billions of times, and are simultaneously and continuously transmuted”8. For Van Lier, the compulsive production of photographic images is therefore akin to a biological functioning, comparable to the cellular multiplication process. As for W.J.T Mitchell, as early as 2006 he alluded to an intentionality of images9: our behaviour towards them is as if “they possessed the power to act, to have feelings, drives, awareness and desires of their own”. According to Mitchell, an “iconology” needs to be established, in the same manner that biology studies why species come into the world, what purpose they accomplish and serve. Consequently, images and their values should be considered as products of a (co-)evolution, “as entities that are quasi-life forms, that, just like viruses, depend on a host organism (ourselves), and cannot reproduce themselves without human participation”. Our relationship to images thus takes the form here of a symbiosis, or more precisely of a parasitism, enabling a cross-over study of iconological and anthropological behaviours. Michelle Debat, for her part, studies “how images act” through photography’s materiality and the physiology of vision. She considers that the material executes a setting into motion; it reveals a process through the action of looking at it, which gives the image “its potential of life”. Even in a fixed state, image would therefore be brought to life by the physiological and emotional life of the person who looks at it because the materiality of the image activates this “biological budding”10. Before her, Pascal Quignard, had already highlighted the incomplete nature of image (“missing images”) as a catalyst of these potential states. Images belong to the biological world of living beings because “they live before the end”; they are indicial; they exist in the pre-motoric power of the action”11. A fundamental incompleteness that can be found as the driving force of phylogenesis and ontogenesis: through their fundamental incompletion, living beings, just like images, would be subject to the desires of a Deleuzian becoming.
Despite their powerful insight, none of these authors could bring themselves to move beyond the metaphor: images are like living beings but remain despite this, inanimate objects, which only come to life in our minds. Between 2012 and 2017, my thesis work therefore focused on the dynamics of image and the real application of its specific “agencies”12. By favouring an artistic approach to the process, the experience of image shifts towards that of its creation. This new attentional space allows for the exploration of how the materiality and the specifically organic behaviour of the algaegraphs, interact with the actions and technical apparatus that produce the images. It will thus be a question of determining whether the images-process, which act within the artistic apparatus, can enable us to experience physiologically and sensorially, certain phenomena linked to the methods of producing, receiving and diffusing the current images. The processual and eco-systemic approach of bio-technical images finally opens up a potential space to reinvent the forms of image, but also enables us to rethink our human position within the framework of this production economy.
Iconogenesis and the psychology of perception: re-examining the result in favour of the “becoming-image”
Since 2013, I have been exploring the physiological and psychological mechanisms of vision while also seeking to observe the iconogenesis of the algaegraphic image. The project Immersion (2014) was the first to unite these two aspects. Here, the microalgae were placed in a liquid milieu which allowed them to continuously react to the luminous environment of the negative, to set into motion the multiple stages of the materialisation of images.
Note n°2 – Immersion, 2014, in collaboration with Alexis de Raphélis and Benoît Verjat
The visitor enters a dark room and sees a projection screen. The film traces the existence of a man who wishes to swap lives to escape the insignificance of his daily life. This metaphoric transfiguration is ritualised by the scaling of a volcano, at the top of which his “algae-becoming” will be revealed to him.
“During the (trans)formation of this organic image, the narration unfolds, making Immersion an exploration of the precarious nature of life and of that which is visible; an exploration in which metaphors and metamorphoses are at work, both in substance and in form.” Jean-Luc Soret – Catalogue du Prix Cube 2014
In the 1960’s, Gilbert Simondon became interested in microalgae as the base elements for a study of perception, stating that, “one may conjecture that these elementary types of reactions can be found in the more complex modes of perceptual reactions”13. He thus moved beyond the metaphor of the living image by uniting the physical and the psychological experience of vision, from the biological behaviour of these photosensitive cells. As part of his study on the “cycle of mental images”14, the philosopher established a direct equivalency between techniques of vision and biological processes, stating that the images that take shape in our minds undergo transformations that are akin to those of species and individuals. Iconogenesis is a direct extension of our organic activities, whether physiological and/or psychological. The philosopher deciphers different phases in the development of our mental images by referring to the behaviours of living beings. The first phase is “a bundle of motoric tendencies, or the long-term anticipation of the experience of the object” which he compares to the Brownian motion carried out by the lower organisms, life forms used in the algaegraphs15. Microalgae naturally carry out an exploratory movement of their milieu, a type of “scan” of their surroundings materialised by abstract volutes, that Simondon considers as the “the biological basis of the imaginary that precedes the experience of the object”16. After several minutes, the image that gradually appears in the aquarium of Immersion enters into a second phase of interaction between the organism and its milieu, enabling the “motoric-perception activity to occur in a gradual manner”. In reaction to the light of the negative, the microalgae organise themselves, effecting a gradual intensification of the luminous form, which little by little reveals the identifiable object17. As the image becomes clearer and intensifies, the affective-emotive activity of the observer takes over to link the appearance of the object to a memorial content, which will be completed by the formation of a “symbol-image” that has materialised on the surface of the aquarium18.
In the context of my research on the image-process, this object that is “stabilised” in the mind of the observer is of little interest. The “result”, which for Simondon opens up a 4th phase of invention, will thus not be further explored in Immersion. Inside the installation, the completion of the symbol-image is broken when it reaches the final image of the film produced by Alexis de Raphélis, identical to the image which has slowly materialised in the aquarium. The fully formed algaegraphic image has just realised the psychological project which gives life to the protagonist of the film (his algae-becoming) and activates the erasure of the image by triggering a new visual cycle. In the experience of the iconogen, only the continual back and forth of the perceptual experience matters, which bounces between the algal matrix and the retina of the observer, to move (set in motion) the mind. During the algaegraph image-becoming, the human image-becoming is activated. The process of iconogenesis presents itself as correlating with the psychological processes that activate us, in the imagination of a project as much as in the perceptual experience of the vision.
To be continued
Translated from French by Jacqui Chappell
1 André Bazin, (The Ontology of the Photographic Image), Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? (What is cinema?), Éditions du cerf, Paris, 1985.
2 Before its protective usage as a varnish in painting, bitumen of Judea was used in Egypt for embalming bodies.
3 Hans Jonas, Le phénomène de la vie. Vers une biologie philosophique (The phenomenon of life: toward a philosophical biology), De Boeck, Louvain-la-Neuve, 2000
4 Edgar Morin, “l’humain dans le monde” (The human being in the world), la complexité Humaine (Human complexity), Flammarion, Paris, 1994.
5 The majority of botanical “bio-photography” processes, such as anthotype, are ultimately mortiferous because they use crushed plants to extract the photosensitive chlorophyllic pigments. The contact or projection methods (on leaves or on grass) imply the death of the hidden or unexposed areas, easily identifiable by the yellowing of certain areas. With algaegraphs, the movement of the microalgae enables them to escape the areas that are unexposed or harmful to their development: only the areas that are habitable for living organisms are occupied, in contrast to the areas devoid of life.
6 Roland Barthes, La chambre claire, (Camera Lucida) Gallimard, Paris, 1980
7 Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Esthétique de l’éphémère (Aesthetics of the Ephemeral), Galilée, Paris, 2003
8 Henri Van Lier, Philosophie de la photographie (Philosophy of photography), Les cahiers de la photographie magazine (Special Edition)/ACCP, Laplume, 1983
9 W.J.T. Mitchel, What do Pictures Want?, Les presses du réel, Dijon, 2014
10 Michelle Debat, “La photographie comme ‘image vivante’ ou les ‘agirs’ de quelques matérialités photographiques” (“Photography as a “living image” or the ‘acts’ of some photographic materialities”), Quand l’image agit (When image acts), Filigranes, Paris, 2017.
11 Pascal Quignard, L’image qui manque à nos jours (The missing image in our world), Arléa, Paris, 2014
12 Lia Giraud, Process-work. Dialogical thinking between biology and technology. Towards an ecology of the œuvre, PhD Thesis Science, Arts, Creation, Research, Paris Sciences et Lettres, Paris, 2017.
13 Gilbert Simondon, Cours sur la perception (Lessons on perception), 1964-1965, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2006.
14 Gilbert Simondon, Imagination et invention (Imagination and invention) 1965-1966, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 2014
15 “The activity that manifests in the Brownian movements of lower life forms, or in the behaviours of trial and error, would provide the most primitive aspects of what will become the genesis of anticipatory images in organisms that possess a highly centralised and strongly telencephalonical nervous system” Ibid. p.30
16 During this first phase, Simondon alludes to “a pure and spontaneous growth, which precedes the object to which the functional activity is preparing for; images themselves contain the embryonic stages of organic growth; every image, being an embryo of motoric and perceptive activity, develops within itself, and for itself, as an uncontrollable anticipation of the external references according to the experiences of milieus and their free states, in other words, without any close correlation to other substrates of psychic organisation.” Ibid. p.19
17 During this second phase “Image becomes a mode of reception of information coming from the milieu and a source of schematic responses to these stimulations. In the perception-motoric experience, they become effectively and directly functional; they organise and stabilise themselves in internal groupings correlated with the dimensions of the relationship between the organism and the milieu” Ibid. p.19
18 During this third phase: “Following this phase of interaction with the milieu which corresponds to a learning stage, the affective-emotional involvement completes the organisation of the images according to a systematic process of connections, evocations and communications; A bona fide mental world is created which contains, regions, realms, key qualitative elements via which the subject comes to possess an analogue version of the exterior world which also has its own constraints, its typology and complex means of access”Ibid. p.19