Transformative Views: Lights, Camera and Transformation

Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave Art

Transformation and again transformation, the eternal entertainment

of the eternal spirit.

J. W. Goethe


Transformation is described by C.G. Jung as the “the basic instinct of civilization.” The desire to transform is embedded in our body and psyche. Transformation is an unstoppable impulse, and the aspiration to reveal the often invisible trends that drive it forward is as inescapable. We are destined to transform as creatures of nature and evolution. As transforming conscious beings, we express and explore our transformations not only in biological terms. Transformation happens through the unique products; technological and scientific inventions and metaphysical and conceptual revelations, of our culture. Transformation, as a deeply felt visceral and spiritual experience is an integral part of our interaction with pivotal works of art in any aesthetic medium. It is also the underlying function of religious and spiritual, myths, rites and practices throughout the ages.

This column is dedicated to transformation as a motif, archetype, and aesthetic, scientific and technological factor and method. It seeks to explore transformative imagery, text and performative actions as they transpire in 2D & 3D film/video, time-based art, and as part of online, interactive, virtual and immersive environments and technologies.

Here, we shall ask, can the moving image and time-based, interactive and immersive aesthetics reclaim and/or evolve art’s ritualistic, transformative and healing heritage and function, and how. In addition, what are the current transformative potentials of Artivism? This is a valid query as the strategies and aesthetics of art and activism are often expressed and operate differently.

Here we engage in the exploration of the needs for transformative content, and the innovative and aesthetic ways through which transformative elements are implemented in contemporary works and settings.

Moreover, this column celebrates transformation as a cyclic movement forward and as aesthetic and technological evolution which honors its terrestrial Gaian origins. Since the late 1960s, modern technology has brought the Earth and the Universe to people’s awareness through perpetual streams of striking images. Views of Earth from space and the sight of almost any geographical location in the world have become freely available. Likewise, the overall impact of human activity on the natural environment is visible to virtually everyone. It is clear that humanity has been transforming the natural environment for its own benefits, depleting natural resources and driving other life forms to a point of extinction. Utilizing the language of metaphors, the body of the Earth mirrors the human body as an integral organic part of it. Hence, the image of humanity destroying the natural world is also the image of human self-annihilation. There may be other glorious futures possible, life in other planets for the post-humans or trans-humans. But should we as creatures of this beautiful and diverse planet throw out the baby, i.e., our human heritage, with the bath water as we transform?

Where do we trace our humanity? Where do we find the origins of the Soul? I believe that we instantly recognize the ‘human touch’, its darkest despair and brightest greatness, the divine spark within, in works of art. We recognize and see the Soul reflected in the poetry of the muses as they dance throughout the creative evolution of the arts.

In Caves of Forgotten Dream (2010), Werner Herzog takes the film viewers down Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in southern France where, he suggests, the modern human soul was born. The film’s 3D aesthetics enhance the experience of the ancient paintings in the cave, making the cave and the paintings almost tangible. The experience fills most viewers with awe and a lingering sensation of a connection to human mystery. Despite the “abyss of time” that stretches between us and our Paleolithic ancestors who made those images, there is a sense of connection to our beginnings. At the same time, our future as a species becomes relevant again. Looking back, myriad of questions arise, such as: Who are we? What do we want to transform into? Who and what determines the direction and character of individual, local and global transformations? What is it that we see in those ancient cave paintings that takes our breath away?

If we would exist in a computer simulation where 2D painting is an extinct art form, we would not be able to appreciate the ancient cave art nor the film anymore. We would lose forever some intelligent and instinctual aspects which define and constitute our human nature. Herzog’s 3D film does not replace the aesthetic need and pleasure to be physically present around two dimensional works of art. However, it offers a new perspective of cave paintings and a different type of aesthetic experience which overall enlarges the scope of the appreciation of art. Likewise, it throws light on the central role of art and artists in the evolution of human life and consciousness.

New technologies are tools which can be utilized for the invention of new art forms. They have the potential to extend and transform our comprehension of ourselves and our interaction with one another and the world at large. Much of today’s technological innovations are the products of ancient dreams and visions. During the first part of the 20th century, photography and film technology were closely linked with magic and the uncanny. Nowadays, the moving image still retains ritualistic and mythic purposes and an enduring magical charm. However, it is possible to identify a new set of relationship and discourse developing between science, technology and the arts. It is coincided with a growing awareness that neither science and technology nor the arts alone can resolve the challenges that face today’s world. It appears that the present zeitgeist calls for a synthesis and collaboration between those different and often opposed faculties of human thought, creativity and productivity. In this column, we shall reflect on transformative works and connect with people through interviews and activities that address these issues.

Dr. Sarah Jane Pell’s presentation on TEDxISU, “Every Space Project Needs an Artist”, highlights the potential available in the collaboration of art, science and technology. Pell recommends the vital, though daring, interaction between the inner-space/poetic resources/tools of artists and the outer-space/factual resources/tools of scientists.

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”, wrote Issac Asimov. To this it is possible to reply that, the arts are the keepers of society’s wisdom. The arts retain, interpret, and evolve the wisdom of the ages. Society that prioritizes science and technology over the arts is likely to lose its wisdom.

The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station by the Lumière brothers enchants us now for reasons which are entirely different from those that impacted the viewers in its first screening on 28 December 1895 in Paris, France. The film was one of the first experiments which heralded the birth of contemporary cinema. It was undoubtedly a transformative moment in the history of art and technology, and it felt like magic to the audience who was amazed by the realistic illusions created by the moving pictures. At that time, the train seemed so real to the viewers that it appeared to be entering the room through the wall on which it was screened, causing them to panic.

The film still haunts viewers because it projects a transitory, flickering reflection of a world and people gone, transformed forever. Today, with the birth of new technologies, and the possibilities that lie in virtual reality and interactive communication across space-time, we, under a similar spell, are pulled by the allure of the new and the unknown. Looking backwards and forwards, the past, present and future pass by, and seem to exist all at once. The lights are on, cameras are everywhere, and the train of transformations continues on its journey. Lumière’s old film is much more than an old record. It has become a work of art and a ‘living’ history, thanks to the animating power, the miracle, of cinema. It gives the idea that the arts are the best historical records that we have as a civilization. Works of art are time-machines and mirrors of the human psyche; the fossils of our transformations.

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