IN MEMORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY: Nicolas Baier’s Astérismes

 Nathan Brown

The mode of presentation of a limit in general cannot be the image properly speaking. The image properly speaking presupposes the limit which presents it or within which it presents itself.

But the singular mode of the presentation of a limit is that this limit must be reached, must come to be touched.

Jean-Luc Nancy


Among the more demonstratively impressive works at Nicolas Baier’s recent exhibition, Astérismes, one might almost overlook a relatively modest sculptural piece, located in the corner of a smaller hallway off the main corridor running through the show (fig. 1). Titled 7D Mark 02(2016), the piece appears to be a 3D printed rendering of a Canon DSLR atop a tripod. In fact, it is cast in bronze and powder coated with a rough black resin. One would never imagine the sculpture possessed of such interior obduracy, fragile as it looks on the tenuous support of its three apparently disintegrating legs (fig. 2). The body of the camera itself is a remnant of its operative form, riddled with negation, as if so worn from use that the hands have eroded their prosthesis, the camera held to the eye so often that the act of capturing images has whittled down the apparatus of its execution to a frangible remainder. What had been the condition of possibility for the production of the photograph becomes its sculptural residue — not a monument but a delicate memorial suggestive both of obsolescence and affection, if not quite nostalgia. But if the apparent production of the object by 3D printing suggests the displacement and reproduction (the sublation) of digital photography by more recent technology, its actual casting in bronze qualifies this impression by inscribing the work in a longer history of materials and situating the piece in a more venerable tradition of sculptural forms. As in so much of Baier’s work, from his reproductions of meteorites to his images of stone surfaces beside prehistoric cave paintings, the ancient and the contemporary intersect — and the crux of their intersection is digital photography.

Yet the terrain of this intersection has changed. If 7D Mark 02 is a tenderly elegiac work, that is because it is surrounded by indices of the artist’s attention to new methods of image-making. Like a jilted and decaying droid, 7D Mark 02faces dead-ahead toward an alluring object it is no longer invited to photograph, while inkjet prints on both adjacent walls delimit the purview of its erstwhile capacities (fig. 3). Again, the appearance of these two images, Réminiscence 5 (2016) and Réminiscence 6 (2016), belies the method of their production. Though they look like photographs of clouds taken through an airplane window, these two prints (and others in their series, initiated in 2012) are in fact the result of a cosmological research and computational production process in which atmospheric conditions during the formation of the Earth are speculatively constructed as a digital 3D model on the basis of climatological data, then captured as an image. As a mimeticeffort the series must be, as Baier acknowledges, a failure. But as an evocation of that which is chronologically imperceptible yielding an ongoing process of research and collaboration, these pieces succeed in formalizing elements of Baier’s conceptual and methodological concerns with real precision. While visually similar results might be achieved by a frequent flyer and avid photographer with access to processing software and professional printing facilities, the force of the images lies not in the sensible presentation of their visible surface but in the recessed process of their production, the techneembedded in that which is not manifest in the image, yet which the image is, or through which it has come to be. Knowledge, here, is inseparable from making, and understanding the method of making is inseparable from an adequate appreciation of the work. Thus it is techne(knowledge, skill) that mediates both the process and reception of poiesis(making) and that displaces the apparent centrality of mimesis to the import of the image. And yet…without the desire for mimesis, for some adequate visual representation of the Earth’s atmosphere during its formation — without an elaborate effort to produce the prospect of what would have been seen— there would be no such work at all. It is the desire for mimesisthat produces the pathosof the relation between techne and poiesisthat is inscribed in such images. And this pathos, I will suggest, is the real medium of Baier’s art.

Techne, poiesis, mimesis, pathos: if I invoke classical categories, it is because I view the theoretical and artistic problems at issue here as fundamental to the history of Western aesthetics. Indeed, it may be that the twenty-first century production of images and objects through such techniques as 3D printing and computational modeling involves as significant a transformation of the image and the artwork as the development of the photograph, of modernist abstraction, and of the readymade in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is not merely the “indexical” status of the image that is altered by the development of post-photographic digital production techniques. Beyond the epistemological problem of the status of the index (already lodged at the heart of traditional photography), what these new techniques bring to bear upon the making of the image and the object is an imposing leap in the level of complexity with which it is possible to engage and make manifest, through material production, the abstractions of mathematical space. If the mathematization of nature by modern science has made possible increasingly complex models of physical processes and relationships, the renderingof mathematical models as material forms has required technologies and techniques adequate to the retention of mathematical complexity through the process of artistic production.

Consider the relationship between two inkjet prints displayed on adjacent walls at Astérismes: Remix_Greenscreen (2016, fig. 4) and Remix_Bluescreen(2016, fig. 5). The first returns to a photograph from an earlier period of Baier’s career, titled Noir (Chemin) (2007-2008-2009). Whereas Noir had subjected a colour photograph to a process of chromatic subtraction, resulting in a sombre black and grey image of shadowy light receding down a wooded dirt road toward a vanishing point, Remix_Greenscreen renders the same image in fluorescent green, endowing it with an artificiality that nevertheless draws conceptual attention to its “natural” (green) subject matter. Remix_Bluescreen, on the other hand, presents a fragmentary concatenation of semi-transparent geometrical planes floating and colliding in a space that, while also organized by one-point perspective, is irresolvable into anything like an image of the natural world available to the senses. Yet the piece is, in its way, an image of “nature.” Citing the claim of prominent French cosmologist Jean-Pierre Luminet that the universe may be structured in the finite shape of a dodecahedron, Baier has generated a virtual model of that geometrical figure with mirrored interior sides, then placed a virtual light source within it and captured an image of resulting reflective planes. Here the image “refers” to a mathematical model of imperceptible cosmological space speculatively extrapolated from observations of periodicity in the cosmic microwave background. In the case of Remix_Bluescreen we are not only at a distance from the mimetic vocation of photography but also from the capacity of human perception to constitute the spatial field of what is captured as an image. It is not really the case that the technical apparatus functions here as an “extension” of human perception, in the mode of the microscope, telescope, or camera. Rather, the technological production and apprehension of the image seems more fundamentally at odds with the very orientation of human vision, excluding the latter from the field of the image’s internal complexity and thus rendering it a kind of belated afterthought. The apprehension of such an image is not so much a matter of visual beholding but rather of conceptual reconstruction; i.e. it is the insufficiency of human perception that is made manifest by the image, and this insufficiency betokens an invitation to take up a mode of cognitive attunement to spatiality that displaces the primacy of visual sensation. This happens throughthe production and reception of an image, but the image itself is not the content of what is apprehended through the insufficient mediation of the gaze.

The cognitive priority of computational technein this work is suggested more directly by another wall piece, titled Forêt (2016, fig. 6). This is not an inkjet print, but a slab of high density foam cut into relief with a CNC router. At one level, Computer Numerical Control displaces the hand of the artist, automating the manual labour of the manufacturing process. At another level, the guidance by the artist over the process of production returns in the Computer Aided Design of the model followed by the CNC, the digital draughtsmanship of the relief to be cut in the material substrate – or at least the direction of this design work carried out by a team of assistants.The image produced suggests the corridors of a vast server farm, receding once again toward a vanishing point at the top of the frame but also extending beyond it horizontally so as to suggest an infinite grid. The sublimity of the image resides not only in this suggestion of extensive infinity, pushing reason to supplement the limits of the imagination, but also in the oddly defamiliarizing effect of the relief’s multitudinous details. These manifest the unsettling capacity of computational instructions and automated fabrication to render finite, repetitive elements of design in real space with inhuman precision…or at least with a form of precision suggestive of a curiously inhuman “touch.”

Alongside the server grid of Forêtwe might consider the forest depicted in a piece titled Data(2016, fig. 7). The relation of the titles suggests a chiasmatic intertwining of computational and natural environments, and indeed the image of a forest we see in Data has not been captured by the photographic recording of illuminated space but rather generated by the CGI production (computer-generated imagery) of a virtual world. Perhaps we should reflect upon the relative ease with which we accept that, despite appearances, what we are looking at here is an image of data, whereas we may be less inclined to take up the suggestion of Forêt that what the piece displays is a sylvan scene. Why is it that we cope more easily with, or are more intuitively receptive to, the virtual production of natural worlds than with the implication that artificial worlds are in fact natural? Perhaps it is because, in this case, we see more easily in the relief space of Forêt that what we are looking at is material. What we see are servers, but we see them, as it were, through the lens of their digital production, situating us again within the world of computation and automation, within the world of the made, rather than within the landscape of the given. In the case of Data, on the other hand, we are already attuned to the photographic production, the photographic making, of images of nature. Thus we apprehend the computational displacement of that process as a displacement of photography, rather than of unmediated nature. The difficulty of seeing the “forest” in Forêt, contrasted with the ease of seeing Data in the forest, bespeaks our reflexive attunement to the fact of mediation. What is given is our media-cultural awareness of the technical production of what appears to be natural, such that the images we perceive are neither natural nor artificial, but images ofthe intersection, displacement, or amplification of different media forms in the constitution of what is perceived. At the centre of the chiasmatic relation of Baier’s titles is an unnamed focus upon material processes of making that are always-already post-photographic.

In his earlier work with compound photography, Baier had already complicated the unity of the photographic image, dividing his compositions into rectilinear components of a grid space while also assembling them into a visually unified image, readily apprehended as both constructively complex and mimetically referential. In a work like Vanité (bureau astro) (2016, fig. 8), however, this dialectic of decomposition and reassembly is pushed beyond the boundaries of the grid, as a form of spatial organization, and to the limits of our capacity to synthesize unitary objects of perception. In this piece, the office of an astronomer is fragmented into tetrahedral shards supported in their dispersion by aluminum rods. Yet, from a particular vantage point, the synthetic image of desk, bookshelf, and bulletin board snaps into perspective, the planes of the tetrahedral fragments locking into cohesion. Baier’s deployment of anamorphosis, along with the title of the work, Vanité, recalls the memento mori of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. But here the fragmentary organization of a potentially synthetic image is far more geometrically complex, the prospect of visual recognition more tenuous, and the object of the viewer’s recognition is not the existentially resonant image of a skull but rather a relatively banal scene of intellectual labour.

In this respect, the piece allegorizes the distributed process of planning, fundraising, drafting, fabricating, refining, and assembling that constitutes the peculiar kind of poiesisin which Baier is engaged — and not only Baier, but also a network of collaborators, technicians, workshops, machinists, tools, and assistants. Digitally drawn and decomposed into sectional pieces, fabricated with steel, covered in meteor dust, sanded by hand, meticulously assembled in a dauntingly precise relational configuration, the bureau astro mimics in its construction the mathematically and physically complex content of the work carried out by its absent subject. And the absence of that subject, the astronomer, mimics in turn the distribution of intellectual labour that goes into the making of such an artwork, the absent center of its production. That absent centre is the place occupied by Baier, whose role is essentially directorial rather than “artisinal.” Yet the occupation of this absent place requires a form of artistic sprezzaturaat once traditional and contemporary: traditional insofar as the artist’s workshop has always, or often, been a place of collaborative process and distributed labour; contemporary insofar as the techne required to choreograph fabrication across the discrepant conceptual, computational, automated, and manual practices of the workshop has changed. If 7D Mark 02is an elegy for Baier’s photographic practice, we might reflect upon how solitary the practice of photography is. The eye guides the framing of the composition; one works in the dark room or sits at the computer in search of what can be made of what has been seen. The manual caress of the Canon DSLR so lovingly evoked by the corroded surfaces of the sculptural memorial drives home the deeply personal engagement with the technical and material interface that characterizes photographic practice and, perhaps, photographic subjectivity. When I first met Baier in 2011, he was already beginning to collaborate with fabrication facilities in the production of art objects, but the primary context of his life as an artist was a desk in his loft, similar to the relatively modest space so meticulously rendered by Vanité (bureau astro). Now, a large, collaborative studio expands into adjoining rooms occupied by 3D printers and ancillary fabrication spaces, and the network of workshops involved in the practice exceeds the local capacities even of a major urban centre.

This expansion of the place and complexity of his practice is also what Baier captures so poignantly in the apparent sculptural simplicity of 7D Mark 02: what is recalled and recorded, recollected, is the communion of the artist with the camera that is displaced by the dispersion of a practice of artistic production that now exceeds on all sides an affective attachment to a single device or method of making. One returns, then, to the pathosgrounding the relation of techne, poiesis, and mimesis in this new work. What the dispersion of the process of production displaces is the locus of pathositself in the production of the work—yet the paradox of this displacement is that it foregrounds all the more the emotional resonance of the work’s reception. One feels the surrender of affective immediacy in the making of the object, and this feeling redoubles and recovers the very affective immediacy that has been surrendered. This redoubling seems to open, as if in the space among the fragmentary synthesis of Vanité, a space for the circulation of feeling through the world of the work, among its many makers, and in the midst of its reception.

Perhaps this feeling of curiously distributed and yet synthetic affect is what we experience in beholding what 7D Mark 02 no longer captures through an optical apparatus: the beautiful amber, rose, and crimson glow of the illusionistic dodecahedron toward which its lens extends (fig. 9). Titled Spectre(2016), the work is a piece of painted steel, a recessed decagon that only appears to project outward in space. We apprehend it at a distance as a dodecahedral three-dimensional figure but it recedes, as we approach it, into a system of two dimensional planes whose lines are merely painted on a concave bowl. Because the sculptural camera cannot see what we see, we thereby realize that it never could, yet we realize also that it was the condition of our seeing, even as it is now, through the photographic presentation of an exhibition that has been cleared out of its space, its pieces distributed to collectors, galleries, or museums, pictured now in photographs or glimpsed in other contexts. The technical proficiency of Baier’s practice, melded with the endearingly naïve wonder of his sensibility, draws us into the conceptual glow of relations among works that are already complex, occluded traces of their production; and these traces vanish back into the dispersion of reception, as the afterglow of apprehension. Nowhere is the pathosof this process captured more precisely than by the speculative, spectral form of the cosmos apprehended in the warmth of chromatic projection by a viewer standing in the sightline of a camera that no longer looks upon its light.