Inspired by Luke Watson’s work, I suggested to my youngest child – a strapping 17-year-old – that he put his smartphone inside his partially-opened Easter egg, with its camera set to take a shot after a few seconds. This seemed to me a way of answering the vexed question of which has precedence: the vessel – or that which it can be said to contain.
The photograph my son’s smartphone took is recognisably of this world – a realm defined by its peripheries, shadows and fluctuating horizons, as much by determinate objects. Merleau-Ponty makes this point about close-up photographs: they eschew knowing objects in favour of merely identifying them – since they have no horizons; whereas to know an object in the world, is to have at least a grasp on its history and mode of standing-into-being.
It’s this, surely, that Watson’s photographic exercises are intended to illustrate: the perceptual praxis bound up in every act of seeing, as much as being seen. (I shan’t demean them with the name ‘photographs’: since 2015, when it was adjudged that Humanity had achieved ‘peak photo’, having taken more photographs in the preceding twelve months than had been captured since the era of Daguerre, the notion of a photograph – as a rendition of an exterior world assumed to have representational qualities – has become wholly otiose.)
By turning these various vessels into pinhole cameras, Watson draws our attention both to the way objects can be said to perceive one another; and to the way we’d be advised to downgrade our own consciousness to the level of camera – and not a fancy digital one, merely an instrument that records the presence or absence of light, and so enables us to orient ourselves, as lichen does to sunlight.
The intentionality of being-in-the-world takes on the form of the projected beam that fingers through the hole in the helmet and scrambles the brain with imagery. We think here of old conceptions of vision itself: as extramission: Empedocles’ seeing in the human eye a sensible beam, projected out to probe and palp the world into being. Watson resurrects the camera in the age of its own technological supersession as a site of creative consciousness, rather than a mere aesthetical mill, grinding imagery into its component parts.
We think of extramission – and we think also, of Edelman’s neuro-scientific theory that consciousness itself is merely the field within which competing propositions about reality are offered up by swarming – and highly ephemeral – coalitions of neurones. Consciousness thus conceived is the objective correlate of the super-comparator that extrapolates from the between 20 and a 1,000 frames which we perceive every second. A super-comparator that’s got way above its pay-grade in my humble opinion, and instead of confining itself to enabling us to catch balls, or avoid bullets, has embarked on a bizarre world-building exercise; one which has led – with sickening inevitability – to this: Luke Watson’s influence, and that craven waste of pixels, ones, noughts and photons.
Will Self, London, April 2019