Photography's

Technofiction

Screenshot of Maxime Guyon's Technological Exaptation, 2016

The picturing of machines has a rich history. The emergence of technical drawing, much later to be supplemented by digital photogrammetry, has its roots in the architectural plans drawn to articulate the design of Gothic cathedrals during the 13th century. This type of technical drawing is distinct from its predecessor exempla – meaning both a model of behaviour in the sense of the word – and in the sense of an image a type of drawing within the decorative arts that depicts the arrangement of ornamental patterns on paper. Technical drawings, coupled with the freedom of expression afforded by many other types of more creative illustration such as exempla, formed the basis for the appreciation and influence of High Renaissance machine drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, which detailed the complex workings of new and seemingly miraculous forms of machinery.

Later, as Wolfgang Lefèvre discusses in his 2004 book Picturing Machines, came the machines of agriculture, the machines of the industrial revolution, the machines of war and the machines of information and mass communication. All of this mechanical phenomena have been pictured in the form of two- and then three-dimensional drawings using pencil, ink and eventually computer-aided design and computer-generated imagery (CGI). The entirety of human experience – from technological success to industrial failure – can be visualised using ‘machine images’.

Part technical exercise and part art form, the picturing of machines at once reflects physical reality and its limitations with respect to force and movement, while simultaneously offering up a fictional image of the future where the invention of new machines is only bound by the limits of human imagination. The machine image might be seen as the point where reality and its representation ends, and science-fiction – or better, to borrow a phrase well-explored in a 2007 essay by Douglas Graf – ‘technofiction’ prevails. Like the machine drawing, the analogue machine photograph is bound to the workings of representation. Photographic representation breaks down when, as Martin Lister writes: “any causal, empirical or secure relationship between the image and the world becomes unknowable.” Unlike the machine photograph, the digital machine image – which accompanies the advent of photography as algorithm, code and software – rejects representation and instead breaks away from the worldly trace of the analogue photograph.

Where the photographic image previously served to transform reality into representation, it has now been co-opted – or to use Maxime Guyon’s term 'exapted' – into the context of pre-written algorithms or yet-to-be-written non-representational fictions. The exapted image is photography’s new exempla, its behaviour based upon the patterns of 1s and 0s that make up the digital copy and paste of network culture. As Martin Lister continues, “Invisible simulation machines (the work of computer software and the agency of algorithms) produce what we take as photography.” The machine image is photography as a kind of fiction written by machines: as Paul Virilio writes in The Vision Machine (1994), a vision in which machines “analyse the ambient environment and automatically interpret the meaning of events.”

The machine itself has many identities and can be thought of varyingly as a simple pulley system, the wheel and axle, or a neuroprosthetic limb that combines digital software with bioprinted living tissue and feeds it directly into the central nervous system to be human-controlled. Maxime Guyon’s machine images both depict the moulded gloss of the contemporary machine – limbs, lasers, pistons – and the potential for the digital image to, like the exempla of the past, instead ornamentalise the future.

Guyon’s machine images are ornaments concerned with a certain “technical evolving”, as the artist states in a recent interview. This evolving is one where the identity of the machine image vacillates between form and function – aesthetic independence and utilitarian capability. Can we imagine them doing anything for us, these machines, in service to humanity? Perhaps, contrary to the technical drawing or the representational machine photograph, these images serve an entirely different purpose: to explore and exact the aesthetic qualities of exempla forms – technofictional ornaments for a future in which a utopia of technical images will, as Vilem Flusser writes, “no longer be found in any place or time but in imagined surfaces… this dreaming state of mind as it has begun to crystallize around technical images: the consciousness of a pure information society.”

Central to Guyon’s work is the simple question: what does technology look like nowadays? His response to this question is a complex visual one, which sees the artist imagine the future of technology through the repurposing of the machine image. In layers, close crops and the repetition of mechanical shapes and forms, Guyon displaces the photographic image from its bind to indexicality and functionality, and instead locates it in the fictional space of the exapted digital image.

 

This essay was published by Foam magazine, Amsterdam, in September 2016 and was written to accompany Maxime Guyon's project Technological Exaptation, a browser based work which can be viewed here.