PROTOCINEMATIC PRODUCTION DIARIES
"The end is the beginning
and yet you go on".
Time has always been one of the elements that intrigue me the most about life. To reflect on its passing can make me feel either excitement or deep melancholia, as it is, ultimately, a concept that holds everything that we can perceive and approach as humans. Recently, I noted that it is also a notion that, consciously or not, I've revisited consistently in my work. So, how can we use the time as a device to interpret reality? If, as Andréi Tarkovski believed, film consists mainly in sculpting the time, what can cinema's earliest means of production reveal of contemporary societies?
To address these questions, I decided to enroll in a Protocinematic Production class during the Spring Semester of 2019, as part of the second year of the MFA in Interdisciplinary Media Arts at SIU Carbondale. The class is thought by Dr. Michele Leigh (you can find her website here). There will be weekly updates on the progress, resolutions, regrets, and lessons of this exciting exploration process.
Image of a tree obtained with a homemade camera obscura.
CAVE PAINTING EXERCISE
January 28, 2019
The first assignment for the class was to create a piece having in mind the concept of a cave painting and its features as a moment of history that has been universally considered one of the earliest traces of art.
As we discussed in class, the notions of collectivity and community were key elements in the development of many of the early cave paintings, such as La cueva de las manos, in Santa Cruz, Argentina. For the assignment, I wanted to pursue the presentation of a collective ritual or community sensibility depicted on a recent event. I picked the disinterested collaboration of citizens and neighbors on the rescue of people trapped under the remains of collapsed buildings after the earthquake of September 19th, 2017, in Puebla, Mexico City and surrounding areas. The volunteers organized to form long lines of people to pass rocks and debris from one person to the other in order to move them as fast as possible without using heaving machinery.
I decided to explore the concept by using digital draw to produce still images among with gray scale textures, which I later assembled together to create an animated sequence. I added actual sound footage from the rescuing labors to the still images. The final project can be seen on the following video:
February 4th, 2019
The second prompt was to explore the notion of visual communication through one of its earlier uses, to express the spoken word. The assignment this time was to create a functional alphabet, which
I felt moved to create a Latin alphabet design based on textures, trying to avoid focusing on figures as much as possible. I was intrigued by exploring how can we print and preserve the traces of nature and everyday objects, as if places and things wanted to communicate with us, using their own bodies and forms to express graphs with "meaning". I poured black ink directly to the objects, eliminated the glut and stamped them on white paper. I used leaves, coins, ornaments, and seeds, among others, to have as many options as possible. Later, I scanned the paper and vectorized it to preserve the printed texture only.
The process of developing the alphabet, among with the finished messages made me reflect on how language is a concept that has shaped humanity from its earlier stages and until today. The final messages invited me to think on the nature of meaning, its boundaries, and its symbolic power.
The letters of the English alphabet attached to each icon look like this:
The first message I produced using the alphabet was the opening line of the novel "The unnamable", by Samuel Beckett.
Second message: The opening line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Cien años de soledad (100 years of solitude)
A CABINET OF CURIOSITIES IN THE MAKING
February 11th, 2019
Cabinets of curiosities, also known as Cabinets of wonder, have historically served as an attractive and involving form of artistic expression. Though they can be found in many different shapes and contents, the concept is overall the same: a particular place (most commonly a room) that keeps a collection of multiple objects, which are not only located and somehow preserved inside the cabinet (I certainly prefer to use preserve, although world history would most likely require me to use the word treasure). The concept has evolved from its commercial, religious or entertainment background towards more abstract approaches, which turn them into a very intriguing and productive concept to work with until today (I need to say in my case it preserved also a lot of the fun part).
For this particular assignment, I decided to use an actual room rather than creating a structure that could hold many pieces together. I was very lucky to be able to use a real cabinet to which I project animated images that I produced using the ancient technique of rotoscoping.
I do not believe it is finished now. I consider the project is still on development, as I believe it can continue to grow thanks to the every week assignments, which can contribute significantly to keep on adding pieces and elements to it.
February 18th, 2019
One of the first photograph attempts using a homemade camera obscura as a filter.
The camera obscura has been a very intriguing exercise, mostly because although is not a great discovery for almost anybody at this moment of history, it was certainly new for me. I was familiarized with the concept already but had never deepen into its creative potential, to the point of trying to turn it into a camera filter. Its simplicity allows the camera obscura to be a very intuitive tool to explore the nature of movement, image and their relationship with how we perceive and approach the world. It can serve as a question to the standardized regimes of seeing ("what is this?" we can think, theoretically but also literally). It can also be an exploration of the connections between physics, space and humanity (the human input of this phenomenon, in my opinion, comes with the choices made when designing of the pinhole).
My first goal for the assignment was to use an actual room, which I couldn't accomplish given to technical issues (I really couldn't find a wall in which I could make a hole without making an irreversible modification or damage to it). Then, I decided to make a wooden box that could be suited in to camera lenses, with adjustable focus distances. This would enable to take the most out of the camera obscura's potential. Finally, I painted it black and used a piece of tracing paper as a screen. The resulting images are never completely clear, on focus, and exposed, plus the fact that they are naturally inverted. Still, I felt very surprised and intrigued by them. Seeing the world inverted through the camera obscura was a fun and involving endeavor and the texture of the tracing paper in contrast with the projection gave a very unique feel to the images produced.
Overall, although the process was not as predictable as I originally thought it would be (it took me more than three construction attempts to get a more or less clear image), I enjoyed the process and I have been using the it occasionally during my spare time, or before taking photos with the digital camera, just to see how the same spot of interested can be seen on a completely different way when inverted and filtered through the camera obscura. Here are some images that I took with my digital camera using the camera obscura filter attached to the lens:
Sunset at Southern Illinois University campus, on January 28th, 2019.
Same point of interest, but with the sun on a lower point - right before disappearing from the skyline. January 28th, 2019.
February 25th, 2019
Cyanotype sample pieces using 6, 7, 8, 10, and 12 minutes of exposure.
The cyanotype has been my favorite exercise so far. Not only because of their relatively low cost but also given their unique potential for reinterpreting objects of everyday life (or at least that can somehow fit in a piece of paper or cloth. Cyanotypes are primitive photographs that use ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide to produce blue prints on a sensitive media after exposure to sunlight. Once exposed, the print obtains a distinctive color blue that contrasts with the clear shape of the unexposed areas. The resulting images can be either eye-catching and fun but also intriguing and surrealistic. The blue, so unlikely to find on nature, contributes to the exceptional composition of cyanotype prints.
The process involves the selection of the material that will be printed on and the figure that will be exposed to the sunlight. These two primary elements can dialogue with each other in many different ways. During this exercise I tried using different materials, such as leaves, broken branches, grass, plant roots, stones, shadows of trees and water drops on a glass screen. All of them required a different approach to the matter, considering composition, exposure time and intention. The results could either depict realistic (I would prefer "literal") impressions of the objects, or well lean towards more abstract attempts, using the objects as means to communicate and dialogue with cyanotype as an expressive form of photographic communication.
In the end, I obtained seven blue prints on white paper, one of which is shown in this post. I selected this print in particular because although the exposed object (a broken branch from a tree) could be rapidly assimilated as a conventional "print" of an object, its shape and the way in which it is placed on the paper can invite to more than one reading, one of which resembles me of a thunder appearing on a dark landscape. To me, it was very productive to realize that even when they may look similar, both reading examples can only be obtained through very different (almost opposite, I would say) processes. While the actual thunder needs less than a hundred of a second to be captured, the branch required at least five minutes. To acknowledge between the time of exposure and the similarity on the results was such a very revealing fact for me to explore the nature and worth of time and time measuring in contemporary societies. All these elements made me ask to myself: What can cyanotypes comment on the world we live in today and how can they do it? What is the contribution of cyanotype blueprints to the comprehension and exploration of reality in a contemporary context?
Cyanotype of a plant foot, obtained through an eight minutes exposure.
March 18th, 2019
Pinhole cameras are always in an immersive activity that unavoidably produce an introspection on the photographic process, involving elements such as its history, evolution and nature. Here, I want to begin by throwing out a question: Until today, what are the elements that make a photograph a photograph, regardless of the technical processes that go through in order to produce it?
Given the necessary revision that this exercise provides of the photographic subject (both as a product and as a process), the concept of photograph surpasses the technologies involved in its production or manufacture: in every case it will always be a sensitive and expressive mean for human communication, regardless of its consumption and production. Still, technology matters, and it matters a lot more than we usually think (or at least way more than I did). The interpretation of reality provided by any photograph is undeniably attached to the medium used to produce it. This means that a photograph of the same object, taken by the same person, on the same day and under the same light conditions can be significantly different. Still, this difference is not entirely determined by the instrument - it also involves the way in which the human interacts with each technology, and thus it has an effect on the sense production content, what the photographic language communicates. In other words, pinhole cameras in 2019 can say something different than any cellphone or digital camera do. This exploration will not lead us to consider which one is better or worse: it is actually more concerned in acknowledging the differences between one and another rather than pondering them. Both can be either thoughtful or shallow.
In my case, after three attempts with one sheet of photographic positive paper, I obtained two visible images (visible in different grades, I would say) using my pinhole camera, which I built from a cardboard box that I painted black and then decorated with white marker. I appreciate the way in which both images communicate with each other, as obtaining two "identical" takes of a single frame using a homemade pinhole camera such as mine can be extremely difficult, if not impossible. In contrast with digital photography, the amount of exposure required to produce an image through the pinhole camera makes the photographs made with it to be way more dependent on the affectations of the environment, which in my opinion gives an effect of uniqueness and uncertainty. Nonetheless, the appreciation of time and space on both images (the one produced with a digital camera and the one made with the pinhole) can be significantly different, to begin with, it is different on a literal way: in one you are actually watching an approximate of 1/125 seconds of the life of a tree. In the images shown below, you are watching the result of 4 and 2.5 minutes of the life of a tree. Once again: technology never defines photography, film, or any other human endeavor to communicate something. Still, it matters, and it matters a lot.
Black and white prints obtained by exposing positive photographic paper directly to sunlight through a pinhole camera.
Abstract 360º panorama made from a piece of dark tracing paper pinned against a source of light.
March 25th, 2019
The panorama is a wide depiction of a given area that could either express it on a literal or a metaphorical way. Panoramas have been historically produced as art pieces through varied forms of media, such as painting, photography, film, and even involving multidisciplinary techniques. Although panoramas were initially conceived as realistic depictions of places, the subject has been explored through an enormous variety of disciplines, even considering abstract perspectives. Nevertheless, panoramic digital photography is by far the most recognized and practiced form of panorama nowadays.
The objective of this assignment was to present a brand new proposal of a panorama, taking advantage of the creative potential provided by some of its distinctive features, which undeniably produce wide, detailed, and thus complex images that demand a closer look from the audience given its monumentality and interest in space as as an expansion of the human eye. Following up these guidelines, I began to work with light and paper. I moved towards investigating how a Panorama could depict humanity as a cycle, using the wideness and thus circular, or at least semicircular form of the panorama to depict humanity throughout its historical transformations, from the evolution of Homo sapiens until contemporaneity.
After a couple of different approaches and revisiting critically my own conscious need of thinking humanity as a whole, I decided to follow a more abstract direction rather than representational, which could potentially restrict the process on an arbitrary generalization of events, concepts and elements, many of which would not necessarily represent the majority of people. To me, the irregular shapes formed from pinning tracing paper against a source of light represent a sense of flow, movement, collectivity and spirituality. In that sense, I feel that this exercise was successful in its intentions to create a reflexion on the relationship between protocinematic production and the concept of humanity as a whole.
Here are two more images of the results:
To me, the irregular shapes formed from pinning tracing paper against a source of light represent a sense of flow, movement, collectivity and spirituality.
THE MAGIC LANTERN PERFORMANCE
April 1st, 2019
Among all the different projects we have undertaken for this class so far, the magic lantern performance might be the one the more theatrical one, as it depends of live performance almost entirely to maintain itself. Although options for imagining magic lanterns as proto-cinematic pieces are infinite, as they have historically involved a huge variety of uses (mostly pedagogical).
Bringing back these historical roots of using magic lanterns as visual information to complement an oral explanation of a scientific topic, I developed a series of slides that explained the origin and evolution of the concept of love. I used the physical structure of the camera obscura I had built already for the exercise in week 4, and added a small support for the acetate slides that were going to be projected.
For the content of the performance, I figured out that a comedy tone (almost sarcastic at moments) would work throughout the entire show, which started by explaining one of the first approaches to the subject in the western world: the concept of platonic love. Then we moved forward to other interpretations from literature, politics and even psychoanalysis and contemporary pop culture.
Although it wasn't recorded at the moment, the magic lantern show draws attention from the other assignments I have been working on for this class by the fact that it was entirely different, visually but also on its narrative form and its intention as an art piece. For this particular project I did not pursue to depict any specific idea that had to be connected to the previous classwork. I enjoyed doing so and it felt like a big breath of air before continuing with the investigations from the overall goals I intend to complete for this class.
THAUMATROPE & FLIPBOOK
April 8th, 2019
The thaumatrope and flipbook exercise represents the first moment in class exercises so far in which I am involving the production of moving image on a literal way rather than metaphorical. Thaumatropes were optical toys specially popular in the nineteenth century that consisted in a disc with one image printed on each side that produced an illusion of movement by flipping them, most of the times using two pieces of string attached to each one of the sides.
On the other hand, flipbooks might be perceived on the first place as simpler (both mechanically and conceptually) than some of their contemporary counterparts in pre-cinematic history, nevertheless it was actually surprising to realize that the earliest evidence of a book created to be flipped instead of read is registered as late as the XIX century, even when the technology to make it was developed many centuries earlier.
For the flipbook exercise, I began by drawing a circle, and then developed figures using it as a point of departure. I tried to be as intuitive as possible, attempting not to attach a pre-conceived meaning to the images before actually drawing them. I ended with imagery that firmly echoes my previous work in rotoscoping, based mostly in very rough and simple strokes and icons that resemble important concepts for me, such as time, evolution and nature. The resulting animation is displayed above.
In the case of the thaumatrope, I was astonished by the fact that it might have been the first record in human history of retinal persistence, the ocular effect that enables humans to perceive an illusion of movement from a series of still images. That is why I went for a more personal approach, and decided to use a photograph of a sailboat I took around six years ago in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The image is meaningful to me because it represents one of the first moments in which I felt a stronger connection with photography and visual narrative as a form of communication. Overall, this exercise in particular was very enjoyable and I experienced it differently that the previous ones, as it required a more handicraft approach rather than chemical. Here are some highlights of the process and the resulting thaumatrope:
Some examples of the drawings in flipbook cards that led to the animation loop displayed above.
BUILDING A STEREOSCOPIC VISOR
April 15th, 2019
The stereoscopic slides visor has been one of the most intriguing exercises so far. The very simple (but at the same time biologically complex) process that eyes go through in order to observe two slides of 2D images with a sense of depth that provides the illusion of a single three-dimensional slide is, at the same time physically challenging but also invites to think about on a metaphorical way.
As I felt that entering to the visor was somehow a very rudimentary entrance to a "new dimension", (a common feeling that in my opinion has surrounded pretty much the entire history of 3D image as an spectacle) I decided to develop the project of building a visor of stereoscopic slides by creating it almost as if it was a character, as if the person who holds it would be also put on a masquerade, entering into the eyes of another entity.
I worked with tree branches and balsa wood to create the frame and added two ornaments made from branches at the top, that would either resemble either horns or ears for the character. I designed to use the slide between the eyes (a necessary separation in order to support the eyes to achieve the 3D viewing) as a nose for the masquerade.
Finally, the slides were photographs taken from different angles. I had to troubleshoot from them as they needed to be taken from a certain angle that I did not achieve the first time I attempted to meet the 3D effect, as I used the same image twice (it somehow created a 3D relevance to the overall frame but not a 3D experience on every element of the images).
Image of the finished stereoscopic slides visor.
Although this was for sure one of the most challenging (if not the most technically difficult) exercise we have pursued for the class so far, it was also one of the most rewarding, as after trubleshooting over it twice, having a functional stereoscopic visor as the final result was a positive incentive to keep on exploring the wonder of 3D imagery in my future work. This assignment in particular made me reflect a lot on the nature of image not as a representation of reality, but as the production of a language that reinterprets reality in very unique and powerful ways. Here are two images of the finished visor of stereoscopic slides:
I adapted the slide between the eyes, (a necessary separation that guides the eyes to achieve the 3D viewing) as a nose for the masquerade.
EXPERIMENTATION WITH CHRONOPHOTOGRAPHY
April 22nd, 2019
Chronophotography has been one of the most exciting and thrilling techniques I have had the opportunity to explore not only during this class but also through the entire MFA program. I had already experimented a little with rotoscoping on a previous project I worked in back in 2016, nevertheless during the previous months I have had the chance to reflect on it and to involve it on a deeper level on my work. Last semester I developed a series of rotoscoping animation that I titled A rotoscoped series of animal locomotion, which was based on digital videos I took previously with a conventional camera.
For this assignment, I decided to use still image instead of video. I thought that by doing this, the chronophotography exercise for the proto-cinematic production class would differenciate from my previous explorations of chronophotography. As self-portrait is a category of photography that I have barely tried before (it involves a unique proximity from the camera to my own self, which demands a special commitment that, I recognize, it has never been easy for me). I took 16 still images of my eyes blinking. The first two takes did not work well, as my blink was irregular and I moved my head accidentally (when trying to capture a subtle movement such as the blink of an eye, a few centimeters or even millimeters can mean a lot). The image above is the third take of my eyes after being rotoscoped one by one. The irregular lines of the images produces a sense of raughness that in my opinion accentuates the uniqueness of every frame, one of the elements that make chronophotography so intriguing for me.
DEVELOPING A PHENAKISTISCOPE
April 29th, 2019
The phenakistiscope is the last individual assignment that I develop for this class before the final project. Until now, I had explored almost every topic I am interested in my work on each project, nevertheless, I still considered that a very important concept for me that I had not addressed consciously for this class was freedom. I firmly believe that the discussion of freedom as an idea, as a precept and as a concept in permanent evolution and reinvention can become one of the most relevant questions that I would like my art work to deepen in.
The phenakistiscope represents a unique opportunity to show a short piece of movement, so it requires its message to be clear and concise. I picked an old photo from the clouds and drew ten frames of the movement of a bird flying, an image that has been historically related to the concept of freedom. In that sense, I feel that the bird flying against the open clouds facilitates a positive impression to the user of the phenakistiscope. I feel that this image has an overall sense of positivity and faith, two dimensions that I do not think about to in my work very often. At the left, you will find the phenakistiscope disc I later printed to use it on the instrument I made in order to achieve the animation.
I feel that this image has an overall sense of positivity and faith, two dimensions that I do not think about to very often in my work.