The image in all its states
On the work of Juliana Borinski
for Timelab, 2011
(lees verder in het Nederlands)
Juliana Borinski has a thing about images. That’s what she’s trained for. She has a thing about movement. That’s what her images aim to show. She has a thing about media. That’s what images and movement are made with. She uses media not – as is most often the case – to capture images, but – she is after all an artist – to set them free. She is interested in the way media move; the way they try to escape the label that attaches to them.
In ‘LCD’ she places liquid crystals, like those in our television screens, on a slide. She projects them until they crystallize – which is what they did for the first silver nitrate photographs at the beginning of the nineteenth century. She prints them on copper plates – which is what they did for the first photogravures in the second half of that century. She prints them on paper – just as the first printed illustrations were made.
It was her unorthodox work with liquid crystals that led her to the ‘Institut de chimie des surfaces et interfaces’ in Mulhouse, where she found and made images of surfaces which played a role in her subsequent work. In ‘Surfaces of Plateau (1,001 pictures)’, for example. Her research into the Belgian scientist Joseph Plateau (1801-1883), who as well as doing pioneering work in the optical sciences also carried out important research into surface tension, brought her to Ghent.
It seems to be an inevitable whim of fate for this media artist and researcher (or perhaps ‘media archaeologist’ is a better word). Plateau was one of the originators of the physical principles that led to the creation of cinema at the end of the nineteenth century. His statue stood at the entrance to the Film Museum in Brussels for many years and the major Belgian film prizes were named after him. In his archive, which is preserved at the University of Ghent, Juliana Borinski found drawings and formulae for instruments and solutions. She is reconstructing them during her residency at Timelab.
Her recent research in Mulhouse and Ghent raises a number of questions about the image. These questions are as unexpected as they are fundamental.
First question: “What is an image?” It is a deceptively simple question. The answer isn’t. There are probably as many answers as there are observers. In the case of Juliana Borinski the first answer seems to be: “not something that is fixed”. The image moves. It is free and you have to capture it to see it. The image is wild and Juliana Borinski is a hunter.
It helps if there is wild streak in the hunter too. A good hunter is not afraid of straying off the beaten track. That is how you learn the tricks of the trade. Juliana Borinski is a poacher. She looks for the terrain’s back roads, for the profession’s shortcuts. She doesn’t shy away from turning the projection round and (in ‘LCD’) producing a negative of an image that doesn’t have a negative. She freed up a digital tape (in ‘Sine – digital/analog converter’, her collaboration with Pierre-Laurent Cassière) to capture it again as a film that is no longer a film; a kinetic sculpture. She made living lenses from liquid soap (in ‘Surfaces of Plateau’). Like a hunter who puts out game for shooting, she liberates images so as to be better able to entrap them afterwards. In her case, the cycle of putting out-hunting-trophy becomes experimenting-understanding-presenting.
The negative, the tape, the lens,… these are her images. Like a good hunter/poacher, Juliana Borinski takes a healthy interest in the mechanism of the image. She mixes digital and analogue techniques. She uses media from the pre- and post-cinema. She applies them to printing techniques that have their origins in the art of drawing and painting: engraving, etching and silk-screen printing. She changes the framework of images, techniques and media. She takes them out of their frame and places them in a new one – from a television screen to a slide mount; from a slide projector to a copper plate. She gives two-dimensional images a third dimension, which turns them into sculptures: 24 frames from a worn 35-mm copy of ‘The Dark Mirror’ pressed together give depth to the image; time (one second) becomes space (the depth of the layers of film). She sets her images free before capturing them again (and then freeing them once more).
This mixing of techniques, images and traditions is embodied in ‘Surfaces of Plateau (1,001 pictures)’. Borinski shares Plateau’s archaeological interest in the science of the image. In his case, too, old and new media were intertwined. He made lenses of soap, just as Galileo Galilei had done a few centuries earlier. His moving images resemble those of Duchamp (or, more recently, Bram Vreven’s), a good century later. The inspiration for the one serves as inspiration for the others.
“An image is what we see”. Perhaps that’s a good answer to the first question.
“The image is what we see”? Still there are many things that are visible, which are seen, and yet we don’t call them an image. Therefore, the answer to the first question is linked to the second: “What do we expect of an image?”
We expect the image to tell us something. We want the image to interest us. We want a place in the image. And yet we scarcely look beyond the surface. That is what ‘Surfaces of Plateau’ is about: the surface, what is visible and what Juliana Borinski wants to look through. That was her main reason for going to Mulhouse: to study the surface and what is in it. She made ‘In the Soul of Film’ there. In that series of twelve photographs a nano-microscope zooms in on a thin layer of gold on a piece of film. A whole world becomes visible in the depth of the surface – two dimensions (think of the 24 frames of ‘The Dark Mirror’) become three.
Each image passes over the surface. From the lens which registers it and the lens which projects it, over the face (surface) and the medium (interface) to the lens which captures it (the eye). It was his research into surfaces that Plateau eventually applied to his research into the optical lens. So as to be able to calculate the surface tension – with which Plateau laid the foundations for something now applied on a daily basis in architecture – he constructed strange objects with diverse forms. Soap provided the surface between the ribs of the sculptures – it provided the tension, the meaning. That is how Plateau laid the foundations for film. The first lens is a film: a gossamer-thin layer of soapsud.
During her residency in Ghent, Juliana Borinski reconstructs those objects as sculptures. They tell us something about Plateau. She tests the perfect formula for a lens of soap on those sculptures. That tells us something about science. She makes images of the objects – ‘Rayograms’ – by placing them on photographic paper and exposing them to light, as Man Ray did in the 1930s. Stereo-images in Plateau’s archive inspired her to make images with a digital scanner. It shows the depth of the surface – the sculpture’s third dimension.
The image is more than what we see. It is what we project, by looking. A look is never neutral. We only see what we want to see. We only look for what we want to find. The image is more than its surface, its face, its appearance. Every surface has a depth which shows more than there is to see. This becomes clear in the ‘LCD’ prints. Images of the slide with the liquid crystals, which is where it all started, were projected onto a copper plate. Printing such a plate is only possible because the image disappears and appears in the depth of the surface.
Look at the prints of the copper plates on paper. There are twelve of them in total (that figure refers to the original radix, but also to the minimum number of images for the illusion of movement). They provide a picture of a projection. Or look at the colours of the soap bubbles on the scanner: red, yellow and blue. What we see is what we project: the colours of the scanner. Is that a good answer to the second question? “We expect of the image what we ourselves project onto it.”?
There is also a third question. This one may be even tougher than the first two: “What does the image expect?”
As we have already said, the image is a surface. It is an emergence. It is a face. The head, that still belongs to the body. The face, however, the surface, belongs to the realm of the image. It looks at us. It expects us to look back. To react. To act. To imagine.
We can see a lot in an image of Juliana Borinski. Take another look at the twelve prints on paper of ‘LCD’. I can see a face (LCD II), a landscape (LCD IV), a universe (LCD XII or VII). They are surfaces that come to life. It’s in the depth of the print. It’s in the process; from the projection to the copper plate. It’s in the context, the artist, her references. It’s in the title, the way we talk about it.
The title of her latest project – ‘Surfaces of Plateau (1,001 pictures)’ – is a wonderful image, full of depth and expectation. It embodies a whole world. It begins, I repeat, with the surface. It is the surface that took her to the ‘Institut de chimie des surfaces et interfaces’ in Mulhouse. But of course it also has to do with Plateau’s surface, with the Ghent scientist’s experiments into the (surface)tension of liquid soap. It can also be read as the surface of the plateau; it gives this image the promise of geographic depth.
The ‘1001’ in the subtitle leads to a parallel world. It could suggest a reversal and extension of Deleuze and Guattari’s book ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ in which those geographic depths under the surface play a major role (and in which Deleuze and Guattari wrote several wonderful pages about the face, the ‘faciality’, of the image). It is a reference to the binary code: the 0 and the 1. But it also reminds us of the infinite, the unbridled imagination of the stories of the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. It leads us to the Arabs who were so important to the historical development of optical science which – lest we forget – this project is about.
And then of course there is also that one word, the ‘rest’, what remains: the image, the images, the pictures. That brings us back to the surface. The first word, the beginning of looking, of sense, of meaning.
What does the image expect? A reaction. (Plateau lost his sight as the result of a misjudged reaction to the image). It expects us to look at what is visible. To reflect on it. To do something with it. To constantly look for answers to the first question: “What is an image?” Realize that an image is always more than its surface. That a reality lies in, under and behind the surface of the emergence. And that that reality only becomes visible if we expect something of the image. That expectation has a name: imagination. And that imagination is what Juliana Borinski’s work is all about.