Artist: Daria Martin
Either with a sense of horror or joy a person discovers that he does not think in consciousness,
the midst of machines, through seeing machines and thinking machines.
A film is in the world. However, it does not represent the world but produces it.
The exhibition syntonization juxtaposes two films by Daria Martin, which reflect on the relationship between the image, the gaze, the object of observation, and the protagonist. The period of time between the production of Soft Materials (2004) and Sensorium Tests (2012) brackets the content of both works, which reflect the artist’s interest in the relationship between the human and the machine—or specifically the aesthetic impact of film, as a mechanically produced moving image, on the viewer. The film does not function as a replicative or depictive medium but instead as a matrix of mental or, more precisely, affective evocation. The human and the machine as well as mechanical and mental-cognitive systems are thus only seemingly posited in opposition to one another. Although the staging of Martin’s films may have an artificial quality—often containing formal references to modernism—her works do not aim to create a dichotomy or opposition between these fields. Instead the artist is more intently focused on the complexity of the relationship between the medial system and the perceiving subject, and she counters any potential sense of opposing dualities by emphasizing the reciprocity between the perceptive, medial, and mental image.
The filmic image is thus manifested as a field where sensory and semantic experience are concentrated: Perception and aesthetic response do not occur on a purely visual level but entail, on the one hand, a tactile-sensory, kinesthetic dimension. On the other, they are accompanied by an imaginative-projective potential, which takes effect in the form of mnemic and connotative lures within the filmic image. Martin thus investigates the operative and associative impact of the moving image in a phenomenological sense—as a full-body occurrence that is constituted in the viewer through the constellation formed by the image, the gaze, the diegesis, and the medium. By the same token, however, Martin’s concept of the image is anti-phenomenological, in that she does not found her hopes on the integral-sensory perceptions of a single subject (Tom Holert) but conceives perception as taking place in relation to a medial dispositive per se. The filmic gaze is examined because of its affective content: What are the origins of sensation, or even empathy on the part of the viewer? Is the evocative power of film simply—or at least superficially—a fleeting “external” event taking place “before” the eyes of the viewer?
The relationship and link between man and machine is the core theme of Soft Materials. Shot in the Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence at the University of Zurich, the film shows the performative encounter of a female and a male dancer with various self-learning robots. For example, in one shot the viewer observes a physical dialogue between a dancer and a servo-controlled robotic hand, watching as the dancer explores and gets to know his counterpart through touch, as he tactilely responds to its technoid movements with those of his own. In another scene the female dancer attempts to synchronize her movements with the up and down motions of an apparently improvised machine. The movements often seem a little uncertain and have a searching quality; neither determined nor programmed in advance, they occur in situ, within the performance-like setting and in resonance with the “perceptions” of the robots. In the “syntonization”(1) of movements familiar categories such as subject/object or inside/outside as well as material and object qualities, such as rigid/amorphous, become increasingly blurry and overlapping. Here man and machine do not form the cliché of an ontological opposition. Although Martin makes references to modernism (Schlemmer / Bauhaus) and the science fiction films of the 1960s and 1970s, she does not reiterate their optimistic stance toward the merging of the human and the machine or technology and society. Soft Materials is not concerned with a superficial mimesis of movement sequences but focuses on the aesthetic or, more precisely, the kinesthetic exploratory movement of perceptual behavior. The filmic performance functions as an aesthetic game, in which the boundaries between both apparatus and subject as well as the scientific gaze and aesthetics become momentarily porous, if not completely obsolete.
Whereas Soft Materials interrogates the link between the human and the machine in a largely narrative manner, in Sensorium Tests the focus shifts to the filmic dispositive itself. The mechanical eye (of the camera) and the medial apparatus (the film image / 16 mm image) become the core “subject of observation,” even if not visible. The scenario of the film is expanded to a further level of observation, making the narrative component more complex. Seeing and observation take place here intersubjectively in exchange between the protagonists, but also as a scenario of mental-medial transference within the filmic dispositive. In Sensorium Tests Martin achieves a scenario that is artificial but nevertheless seemingly documentary. A scientific team performs a “sensorium test” on a woman with mirror-touch synaesthesia in a hermetic observatory situation recalling a laboratory. The only recently discovered and still little studied “mirror-touch synaesthesia” describes a neurophysiologic phenomenon, in which a synaesthetic individual experiences a strong physical sensation through observation, for example observing someone touch an object or another person is explicitly experienced as a touch to a synaesthete’s own body.
In her film Martin refers to the first documented clinical experiment involving an individual with mirror-touch synaesthethia. She repeats the experimental set-up and procedure but modifies the observational dispositive by separating the room where the subject is being observed and the control room by a (one-way) mirror. Played by the Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca, the synaesthete is confronted with different objects over the course of the test—a loudspeaker, a fan, a standing lamp, and finally a person. Meanwhile, a person standing behind her touches her alternatively on the left and right cheek while the she watches another person touching objects in front of her. The subject of the experiment is asked to state which side of her face is being touched. Possible answers include “left,” “right,” and “both.” Initially the woman consistently identifies and communicates the touch to her own body. But when the objects that she is observing are replaced by a person, whom she also sees being touched, the woman then gives divergent responses. The results are the discrepancies or interferences between observational perception and self-perception. In these moments of dual sensation the synaesthete perceives both the touch stimulus on her own face as well as the assumed foreign stimulus in synaesthetic relationship to the other person.
In Sensorium Tests Martin works with targeted moments of confusion and symbolic coding: During the filmic observation of the “sensorium test” the camera occasionally turns away from this scene. One sees short takes of an icy landscape or an autumn woods depicted on photographic wallpaper. These clichéd landscapes represent everyday and “incidental” synaesthesias, as we know them—for example one generally correlates the sensation of cold with an image of an icy landscape. Martin posits the scenery as a socio-microcosm and confronts the viewer with a deliberately disorienting play of gazes, so that it becomes increasingly unclear who is the actual “subject” of observation. Thereby the objective, objectifying gaze from a safe distance, whether that of the observing scientist behind the glass or the viewer of the film, becomes legible as a constructed configuration of gazes, as a dispositive.
Martin presents a portrait of the gaze, the eye of the camera itself. According to this reading, the true object of investigation is neither the face of the actress nor the gazes of the observing scientists but the gaze of the viewer of the film within the cinematic dispositive. The film draws an analogy between the test situation and the filmic dispositive, so that viewers themselves become participants in Martin’s “sensorium test.” In the convergence of perceptual synaesthethia and the reception of the film “mirror-touch synaesthesia” functions as a prototypical transference scenario. Martin focuses our attention on the mechanisms of sensory stimulation, directing viewers’ gazes back onto themselves and confronting them with the question of their own affective capacity. What does it mean to be “touched” or affected by a film? How does this occur?
Ultimately, the way Sensorium Tests brings together a cognitive/mental system (synaesthesia) with a mechanical-medial system (filmic image) leads to an ambiguity—and thus also an essential similarity with Soft Materials—whereby the categories of subject and object as well as the fields of perception and imagination begin to lose their sharp contours. In Martin’s work the notion of inner vs. outer is neither completely broken down nor negated; instead the artist presents these apparent opposites as related and intertwined. In this sense, Sensorium Tests is neither fictional nor documentary, as the gaze is neither purely subjective nor completely medialized, but vacillates between observation, stimulation, and iconic plaisir.
Translation: Laura Schleussner
1) Syntonization somewhat more technically explicit than the word synchronization — means the calibration or tuning of the frequencies of two potentially oscillatory systems (oscillators).