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Why Making Meaning

Since I couldn’t attend our session last week I thought it’d be a good idea to upload a brief entry about how ‘Making Meaning’ intersects with my research interests, how the activities and readings we have done have helped me so far and about possible (and very tentative) ideas for a final project.

My interest in early modern ideas about the relationship between matter and manual labor arises in part from my interest in Madrid’s material culture during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in relation to the construction and development of the city. Since Philip II of Spain moved the court to Madrid in 1561, all sorts of artistic productions were commissioned to promote a monumental, orderly and symbolic image of the new capital, but I am more interested in the frenzied process of construction that was behind that image.

The establishment of the court attracted a wave of architects, plotters, quarry workers, joiners, bricklayers, sculptors and many other laborers involved in a process of accumulation, demolition and assemblage. I’m generally interested in looking at how this reality of the city as a sort of construction site where matter was continually being manually manipulated was experienced and re-imagined by its inhabitants.

Precisely during the reign of Philip II there began the process of canonization for San Isidro Labrador (Isidore the Laborer). A farmer and miraculous water diviner from the XI century, Isidro had been for centuries the object of a small popular cult in Madrid, but it was during the establishment of the court capital that his figure was transformed into a city emblem, and into a patron for its peasants and artisans (an interesting fact about Madrid’s manual laborers, I think, is that most of them worked both in the fields as farmers and in the city as craftsmen, depending on the season).

 

I’m also intrigued by how the iconography of San Isidro during this time always tries to mark a distinction between two kinds of labor. On the one hand there’s the technical expertise, the correct handling of instruments and the natural knowledge that supposedly allowed the Saint to find water in the dry surroundings of Madrid. On the other hand, always in the background or in a secondary image, there is also the allusion to some sort of miraculous, contemplative labor: San Isidro’s pious reflection on labor allowed for the angels to come and perform the actual ploughing while he prayed.

 

 

 

 

What I’m trying to research (generally, for my Hispanic Studies major paper) is the different ways in which literary writers of the period took their fascination with the manual labor they saw being performed around them into their texts, often wrestling to incorporate into language precisely that “embodied knowledge” to which Pamela H. Smith and Thijs Hagendijk refer to. When this sense of embodied expertise and “manual choreography” is brought into texts that, unlike manuals or recipe books, are not necessarily trying to help in producing a final and successful result, there arises an emphasis on process that could maybe deviate in other directions.

Even technical manuals sometimes seem to depart from an instrumental aim, forgetting for a while about results and fixating on the act of manipulation itself. I have come across writings by three artisans who worked closely with Philip II’s architects: Juan de Arphe y Villafañe’s writings about sculpture and silversmithing include a chapter on anatomy in which the only parts of the body showcased are those involved in the “manual choreography” of the craft; Juan de Herrera’s writings on architecture seem to connect sculpting with magical ritual, and the writings about the functioning of the instruments created by Jacopo da Trezzo to cut marble and other materials in all sorts of concave, convex and spherical shapes seem to talk more about the delights of the act of molding than about the possible application of the technology. Thinking of a final project for this class, I think I would probably like to work with some of these texts, in comparison to the objects produced by their authors, to think about what the experience of manual labor could entail beyond the struggle for results.

Perception and Seeing

I.
Something I like to think about on my own time is the relationship to seeing as a human with eyes, and seeing as a photographer through a lens onto either physical film, or a digital reconstruction of light particles that hit a sensor (working, technically, much like light-sensitive film).  Especially when I was younger and did photography less for fun and more as an exercise because I saw others doing it, I was mad when what I saw through my own eyes was not very well represented by my 1st generation Kodak Easyshare (though my much more modern and expensive camera has generally the same problems).  I later saw this as an opportunity for cool things, but I found myself with the same gut reaction when I was looking through the microscope camera as compared to what I had just seen under the microscope “with my own eyes” (though, obviously, my eyes were aided as they always are, with powerful corrective lenses…oh yeah, and a microscope).  I had not thought that particular annoyance in a while and was interested in why it had happened.

Figure 1: Lichen on redwood that looked much more interesting, in my opinion, through the microscope with the eye than this photographic representation

II.
I play around a lot with focus in my free time as an amature photographer (see figures 2-5 below) to force myself and those viewing my photos to perceive something different (or at least a different way of perceiving the same thing).  The close distances that we were working on with the microscopes was a completely different story, however.  The depth of field was in the millimeters, which made the photographer in me really reevaluate the way that I perceived the object, as well as how I wanted to present the objects in a photograph.

Figures 2-5: The Acropolis, Athens from the Agora with several different depths of field (November 2013)

This abstraction of clarity in the image does not so much distort the the image in my view.  Yes, some things are not as clear in the image, but that lack of clarity either illuminates them to the attention of the viewer or causes the viewer to give them a second look that would not otherwise have been taken.  Alternatively, the objects in focus are that much more brilliant in comparison to what is out of focus and that makes them more interesting as well.  I feel similarly about these objects that are in the nature lab, even if they are brought into a different context.  Yes, they are missing their natural context, but I would argue that when we view living things, we often think about them without their greater context.  If I picture an animal, say a deer, in my head, I might have a vague picture of a forest in the background, but I’ve actually probably seen more deer on the side of the road than I have in forests. The context isn’t unimportant, but focusing in on the animal itself has its own utility as well (and as another example, I’ve seen many amethysts, but I have no idea what their original context is).  Yes, our objects may be so zoomed-in that their whole form is obscured.  But, like the forced focus of the above pictures, this allows us to view the objects in a different way, to mentally focus in on an aspect that would have been overlooked or missed entirely (more likely the latter given my eyesight) while viewing something as a whole.  In other words, something may be lost, but something else is gained as well.

III.
My partner is a Ph.D student at the University of California Berkeley in Molecular Biology (and apparently will feature significantly in these blog posts), and part of her job is removing the brain from a mouse that she is studying and slicing it into extraordinarily small slices (she said, about the thickness of the skin of a grape).  From there, she can see, under a microscope, the ways her treatments or the disease she is studying affects the brain of this mouse. It occurred to me that at such a close distance as we were looking at the various objects in the microscope last week, everything that we perceived resembled these tiny slices of clear reality.  Each photo represented a tiny fraction of clarity and a large degree of distortion because of the alien nature of the microscopic world (i.e. in the above pictures, a flower is easily perceivable as a flower even when thoroughly out of focus; a grasshopper eye is more foreign, and the area around the eye even harder to perceive because of the drying and the materials that lay on the grasshopper when it was trapped).

Figures 6-9: Grasshopper Eye at four different focal points

I was initially very excited at looking at the grasshopper eye using the fancy camera on a track that compiled the photographs using multiple focal lengths and compiling them into a single, in-focus frame, but I was struck at the photos that I did take and how they represented this brain-slice sized frame of perception, and I decided that I liked these more.

IV.
I also found that my perception of objects changed drastically between levels of magnification.  At different scales, the objects were more interesting to look at.  The seedpods I looked at (see figures 10-11 below) were hard to see in their out-of-origional-context location in the box where they were stored.  Presumably, if they had been in nature, they would have been even more difficult to find, given that they are less than a centimeter in length.  When looked at with some magnification, they had an entirely different appearance (Figure 10), looking almost insect-like.  When the magnification increased, they changed appearance again (Figure 11), and presumably, at Scanning Electron Microscope levels, they would look completely different to a much greater degree given that their visual structure would be completely changed.

Figure 10: Seedpod

Figure 11: Seedopod

This rather simplistic conclusion led me to think of the context of the objects in different ways.  What if the objects had not been removed from their natural contexts.  The changes of scale could also reflect a greater context.  Or what if the samples had not been dried out?  In particular, a seaweed sample that revealed an interesting straw-like character (Figure 12) might have an entirely separate structure if still filled with the water it grew and lived in.

Figure 12: Seaweed

Our visual perception of objects revolves around so many different contexts that I had not thought about before.  Perhaps something is lost in the removal from one context to the next, but something may also be gained.  The reason RISD has such a collection of objects  and a nature lab is, at least in part, to study and to create art out of the objects in whatever context the artist wants to use the object.  We can bring in live plant samples, liquids, sand, etc. look at them in a different way, and then use that different perspective to create a piece of art in an entirely new context.  To a historian at least, that is part of the artistic process.

V.
My pictures of amethysts up close, just because I think they look like galaxies/nebulas

 

Figures 13-21. Amethysts

 

Looking and moving

I decided to put under the microscope a mixed set of objects, some of them as unrelated as I could imagine, some natural and some manufactured: a one-dollar bill (painted with blue ink), one quarter, a red flower recently picked from its plant, a lock of my own hair (not cut – I just contorted my head somehow), and a leaf from an unknown tree from Westminster Street.

The first thing that I noticed was how unsettling the experience could be in terms of trying to grasp the “real” image. On the one hand I saw with my eyes the one-dollar bill, exposed under the microscope; on the other I saw its augmented image through the instrument; but there was also the image seen through the computer screen, which was always somehow different. I tried capturing with my phone camera what my eyes could “really” see through the microscope (but mostly failed).

I also noticed how what was artificial could look natural under the microscope, while natural objects gained some sort of artificial quality once they were augmented to the point of total decontextualization. At maximum close-up, the red flower looked kind of glassy to me, or almost like a sequin textile.

My lock of hair looked like wires, or dark spaghetti.

Comparing my experience of observing through the microscope both the dollar bill and the leaf, I realize how putting these two objects out of context in such a way and magnifying their smallest detail have such a similar effect on me as an observer. While obviously they are very different objects, they both present some sort of geography, as if I was staring at two tortuous (natural and artificial) landscapes from above. While staring statically as these objects, I experience a sense of movement as I adjust each object to discover new landscapes and pathways. The act of observing these magnified miniatures seems to have a performative effect, like a thrust felt on the body, even when it never actually moves out of its stool at the Nature Lab.

 

From Spacecraft to Microscope

“A recurrent scene in sci-fi movies shows the earth withdrawing from the spacecraft until it becomes a horizon, a beachball, a grapefruit, a golf ball, a star. From a certain height, people are generally good. Vertical distance encourages this generosity. Horizontality doesn’t seem to have the same moral virtue. Faraway figures may be approaching and we anticipate the insecurities of encounter. Life is horizontal, just one thing after another, a conveyer belt shuffling us toward the horizon. But history, the view from the departing spacecraft, is different. As the scale changes, layers of time are superimposed and through them we project perspectives with which to recover and correct the past.”

Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space.

The idea of the shift in scales of seeing affecting our perception of what we see is multi-disciplinary one. O’Doherty here talks about a distinction between vertical shifts of scale and horizontal ones. He doesn’t argue for or against truth (or a truth.) His departing spacecraft of History places time, when dealt with at a macro scale, as a vertical axis.

Last week’s class in NatureLab shifted the scale on the same axis, but in the opposite dimension. If we take O’Doherty’s thoughts to heart, would this mean that looking through a microscope is looking at the future? Are future layers of time superimposed, and can we project through them perspectives with which to recover and correct the future?

I suspect O’Doherty’s time on axis Y might not stand a thorough testing, but it is an interesting concept to think about, looking back to our class last week.


the futurians getting oriented to use the tools of the field.

Up close with candy coated death sticks…

Scales of seeing was an exercise in blurring borders between familiar and unfamiliar, and in doing so expanding my understanding of myself and my materials. My identity as a student and my knowledge of the material (cigarettes) were pushed into alien territory through encounters with the microscopes. I am more than a Public Humanities student restricted to the landscapes of my department, I have the ability to work with equipment considered “outside” my field. The box of cigarettes is more than a commercial object and becomes an art object, a scientific specimen, and an agricultural product.

I choose the box of cigarettes because I was intrigued by the multiple textures and curious about the shifting cultural significance of tobacco through time. My explorations with the microscope taught me a lot about texture, and I became engrossed with the various types of print on the package and the way the textures were transformed by deconstructing the object. However, I struggled with the superficiality of my investigation. I was very aware of the lack of research questions to guide my way and my lack of clear goal except “explore.” Although I understood more about the box of cigarettes construction and materials, this did not give any deeper insight into what the object means for its makers or users.

I was surprised by how beautiful the tobacco was under the microscope. The strands look like crepe paper streamers and are coated in a crystalline material that gives the appearance of being “sugar-coated.” This subverted my expectations that something so detrimental to your health would give an obvious “dangerous” appearance. Reflecting on the view of tobacco also made its botanical nature more tangible. While buying or using cigarettes, I usually never associate them with plants or the geographies of their material origin.

The various types of print on the package were fascinating under the microscope. The naked eye differentiates color, shape, and sparkle. On closer investigation I was drawn to the texture and imperfections as a symptom of mass production. The prints made me think about the box of cigarettes as an art object, carefully designed and fabricated.

Deconstructing was another key part of my investigation. The filter was my favorite part to deconstruct, because I found the most surprises here. Upon close inspection, I found a row of tiny perforated holes in the paper. I expected the end to be smooth with lots of tiny holes, but it looked like a cotton textile. When I broke the filter open the fine white strands of material became even more clear.

Entering the Nature Lab was similar to entering a parallel universe. It felt like a most peculiar vacation sitting in front of a microscope for the first time in ten years. It was a day of abstraction and understanding. Because the box of cigarettes is not a specimen that operates in “nature” like a beetle or a flower, I don’t think any understanding was lost by taking it to the lab. The meaning of the box of cigarettes is in its social use. Although I was in a new space looking at an everyday object out of context, I believe that rather than “losing” something the experience transformed my knowledge of myself and my materials.

The Battle between Nature and Artifice

When last week, I was reading Hooke’s Micrographia it immediately made me think of a Spanish book written just a decade before Hooke composed the chronicle of his microscope observations: the renowned masterpiece by Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián, El criticón [The critic] (1651-1657). Among the pages of this allegorical novel,  Gracián defended relentlessly artifice and its supremacy over nature:

Art is nature’s complement and another second self. It holds itself in high regard for having added another artificial world to the first; it habitually disguises the oversights of nature, perfecting it in everything: as without this help from artifice, it [nature] would remain unrefined and coarse. (the translation is taken from in Bradly J. Nelson, The Persistence of Presence. Emblem and Ritual in Baroque Spain, University of Toronto Press, 2010).

Gracián came to my mind in particular when I was reading Hooke’s Observation V, “Of watered silks and stuffs”:

There are but few Artificial things that are worth observing with a Microscope; and therefore I shall speak but briefly concerning them. For the productions of art are such rude misshapen things, that when viewed with a Microscope, there is little else observable, but their deformity… So that my first reason why I shall add but a few observations of them, is, their misshapen form; and the next, is their uselessness. For why should we trouble ourselves in the examination of that form or shape (which is all we are able to reach with a Microscope) which we know was designed for no higher a use, than what we were able to view with our naked eye?

But what I had perceived at first as a radical opposition between these two seventeenth-century approaches to the duality nature-artifice was rather the consequence of a huge distance between different scales of seeing: the naked eye vs. the microscope.

When I arrived at the NatureLab a week ago all these ideas of nature-artifice-perfection that I had also explored when dealing with Fuchs’ De historia stirpium were very much in my mind: how does our sensorium work when, as Hooke put it in his preface, we are given the chance to supply the infirmities of our senses with mechanical instruments? Would Gracián’s opinion have changed if he could have observed nature under a microscope? How did my twenty-first-century eyes fit in this controversy? Struggling with my clumsiness and my lack of expertise handling mechanical devices of any kind, the first thing that amazed me was how unnatural and aseptic perception became when you look at things under the lens of a microscope: it was like I was deprived of all my senses except for sight, or rather as if the harmonic relationship between taste, smell, sound, sight and touch that we tend to experience when we experience nature and urban spaces in a kinetic way was totally disrupted in the NatureLab. My body was rigid and all my energies were devoted to adjusting my eyes to the uncomfortable artifact.

I realized that my mind couldn’t help but work in an analogical manner –very much like Baroque authors– trying to build bridges between nature and artifice: seaweed looked like glitter, a wisdom tooth looked like nacre, aloe vera’s flesh looked like the melting glass we saw in the Hot Shop, bugs looked like polished sculptures, gold leaves looked, first, like the inside of a kaleidoscope and when I finally adjusted the microscope they were like shiny sequins, flower petals looked like velvet, and I discovered something like tiny pearls on the leaves of rosemary.

In the end, I don’t know if I am on Hooke or Gracián’s side, but what I found out in the NatureLab is that the limits between nature and artifact become totally blurred when removed from their original context. And, above all, I discovered that my system of perception seems to be always invaded by human intervention: when I left the NatureLab, I had the weird feeling that I could only understand that uncanny side of nature I had seen through the magnifying lenses if I resorted to the comfortable and familiar world of nature turned into artifact.

People and Products are Point Art

At the nature lab, I found myself most interested in putting under the microscope items characterized by human involvement, be they synthetics, treated natural products, or the human body itself.  I found it really interesting to, as much as I could, obscure the nature of this human involvement by deconstructing it into its smallest component parts.

I found most fascinating the pieces of tea from a bag of herbal tea I obtained from one of my roommates.  To the naked eye, the individual leaves are so small that they seem insignificant; they are part of the broader whole of the bag, but unimportant on their own.  What else could they be but leaves? Under the microscope, though, I saw what should have been obvious, at least from the smell of sugary-spice that dominates any space the tea enters.  I saw little grains of sugar, cinnamon, and other spices, caught in the most minute crevices in the tea leaves.  I saw the burn marks from the human treatment of the leaves.  What seemed to be to be a very simple, brand-name, store bought commodity, suddenly became a complex amalgamation of products from a myriad of different sources–the process of the tea’s creation was laid bare by the prying eyes of the microscope.  Really, there was an almost insect-like quality to the images of the tea under the microscope–it almost looked like some kind of beehive or nest on a tree in a dark forest.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Similarly, when I looked at grains of finely-ground barley flour under the microscope, they looked a whole lot like sugar.  My knowledge of chemistry isn’t sophisticated enough to actually back this up, but it seemed like barley’s carbohydrates and sugars, as a grain, really showed through in the photographs.  Without context, I wouldn’t even know it to be a grain.

Inspired by Mays’ photos of her passport, I then decided to see what some of my own forms of modern, synthetic personal ID looked like when broken down under the microscope.  I started with my driver’s license.  I was most interested in the little negative image in the lower right corner of my license, which is some sort of reproduction of the photograph on my license.  As I zoomed further and further in, the photo negative dissolved into a series of individual black, white, and grey dots.  The nature of this printing was made clear, but the portrait nature of the image was completely obscured.  There’s certainly a point to be made here about reproductions of our identities by the state being synthetic, but that might be a bit too poetic for the day after Yom Kippur.  Here, I’ve included a series of images, as I zoom progressively further in.  A face becomes point art becomes points.

Moving onto the idea of geography and space, I then put my SmarTrip Card (from the Washington, DC metro, on which I essentially grew up) under the microscope.  The card is full of little visual identifiers of the DC area–the Capitol, the Washington Monument, a DC metro car,etc.  The Washington Monument became, like my own face, point art; it looked almost like a design on a napkin or something like that.  When I zoomed in on a green area of the card, the result almost looked like grass, like turf, like something natural.  

[WARNING: the last images are a bit more graphic].  For my final, somewhat more graphic experiment, I wanted to see what a scab on my finger looked like under the microscope.  I didn’t end up getting any fantastic photographs–it never escaped it’s fingery-ness.  But, I did find that the scab started to look like the eye of Sauron, which at the very least is kind of cool.  In one image, it started to look more like a knot on a tree as well, but I think still looks pretty clearly like a finger.

 

 

Scales of Seeing

I did not expect to see a dream-like quality to my recipe. The images seen under the microscope were moody, dreamy and have a very different feel to the sample.The sample looked medical. Like a swab was taken to be tested for something. The microscope definitely changed that.  Especially with the black background and dark blue hues that came out.
It was interserting to transform some of the qualities and play around with scale. Deception of an image almost. How big/ small is my material?
Same images but when flipped around look like clouds in the sky. They really give a sense of a vast space and continuation. Even with a simple play on literal scale. From medium to large.
I always knew that our bodies are miraculous but also limited. Going Mirco definitely allowed my material to show its depth and detail. It still looked fleshy and shiny which is great that some of these elements were still there.
It also made me think about what other tools can i use to manipulate a small sample size? How much inward can i go with my work? is DNA and stem cells next? What else can i micro my body?
Lighting as well was an unexpected element that really manipulated the image. This i tried with the sleeping pills. Same image, different lighting.

Under microscope I saw the crystals of my sweat

I think the process of looking under microscope is the process of de-familiarization—even when nowadays we are more familiar with the function of microscope. It magnifies the material without changing the physical form of the material. At the same time it ‘minimizes’ the viewer’s body without changing the scale of the physical body. It seems like an abstraction of the subjective mind. When the material is under microscope, it is out of context—placement and scale. It is therefore de-familiarized by us. However, everytime I put something under microscope I am very much aware what kind of material I am handling, therefore being able to see a totally different image then our regular understanding of the same material is very spectacle. Just like when I put my own sweat under the microscope, I was not expecting myself to be able to see the formation of salt crystals in my sweat. I think that moment of realization was very exciting and powerful. It is the unexpected

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Human eyes have its limitation on the scale of seeing. I admit context is important. Understand the natural environment of the material is the knowledge essential for studying the specific material under microscope. However I also believe studying the physical form of an object under microscope is more leaning towards content than context. If one merely looks at structures of the material under microscope, one might not be studying an active behavior of a live being. The study of the physicality of the material informs a better understanding on the behavior of the material in its natural environment. I think looking at different scale and looking in natural context should have a close communication with each other instead of having content and context confront each other.