FÉLIX DE AZÚA
Félix de Azúa, is Professor of Aesthetics at the School of Architecture at the Universitat Politecnica de Barcelona, and is the author of more than twenty-five books covering philosophy, poetry, and literature. Some of his best-known works include Autobiografia de Papel (2013), Autobiografia sin Vida (2010), and Diccionario de las Artes (2011).
Is it possible to see the soul of a dead machine? I believe so; or at least I hold that we can try to get a glimpse at what in principle is invisible. In the end that and only that is the reason this thing called art exists, a mysterious way to place before our eyes what cannot be seen. The reasons making this rare operation of looking at the dead souls of machines conceivable are historical, and I feel obliged to address them before giving way to Max de Esteban’s photographs.
One of the first surprises of the process meant to technify our lives in an absolute way was the discovery that the mechanical eye could see more and better than the natural eye. It is true, for example, that a mill can make flour out of a much greater quantity of wheat than a human working a pestle, though this is something different: that an artificial eye can see things that are not visible to a natural eye does seem unsettling. Yet this is precisely the case.
Here’s a good example. Étienne-Jules Marey had invented a mechanical eye that decomposed movement into a chain of snapshots. Thanks to the photographic sequence of a galloping horse, it was discovered that while running the animal placed its forelegs in a way that had never been imagined before. Until that moment, sometime in the late nineteenth century, we had thought that horses galloped by moving all their legs together, which is why horse-lovers everywhere were taken aback to find out that in these analytical photographs, horses actually ran by alternating their front and back legs, one set after another.
Until that time the very speed of the galloping animal had made it difficult to perceive such an oddity by means of natural vision: the horse did not jump like a kangaroo, but rather walked like those long-tailed birds known as white wagtails (Motacilla Alba), so frequently found in rivers and wetlands. The galloping horse as represented in painting and drawing until then was simply erroneous. Poor Jean-Louis Meissonier, who had amassed a fortune painting beautiful galloping horses for the upper class, had to go house to collector’s house, correcting the position of the horses’ legs. Even today certain painters, unconcerned about making this right, paint dreamlike, almost surrealistic impressions, like what we see with Théodore Géricault’s racing horses.
That the artificial eye could see more than the natural eye was something that turned out to be irritating, like what would happen if an iron tree were to produce tastier apples than a real apple tree. Minds, wherever they could be found, were upset, and one of the most immediate effects was the newfound conviction that there were many more things in the world that were invisible to human beings. Or, more dramatically, that humans could only see a small part of visible reality. Or even more strikingly: that the invisible had suddenly become as real as the visible.
We were no longer speaking of normally invisible higher beings, of microbes or stars, visually accessible only by means of the mechanical eyes of telescopes or microscopes. These were normal things we see day after day, though seen badly, incompletely, or erroneously, things as familiar as a galloping horse or a cat falling from a window: whatever might happen to be in front of our eyes.
Should we be surprised by the fact that during those same years there was a burst of ideas like theosophy, spiritism, anthroposophy, and other delirious beliefs promising to make the invisible visible? If our eyes can only see a part of what is evident, we will have to resort to mediums to help us widen our vision. Certain artists we tend to view as rational, geometric, abstract, and scientific, like Mondrian, Kandinsky, or Malevich, were admiring disciples of Madame Blavatsky, practicing spiritists and fanatic followers of mediums and of esoteric thinkers like Rudolf Steiner, respectful witnesses to a variety of ectoplasms, conversationalists with the dead. A little later on, the Surrealists used the technical language of Freud to justify their representation of a super-reality, or that of the unconsciousness, here similar to what was found with the spiritualists.
How in turn might we hold out against the temptation to give souls to these machines, able as they are to see, hear, and smell everything that is concealed to us? Wherever the world might be able to infiltrate the body (through an eye, an ear, or a nostril) so a world on the other side, within, might organize its sentimental nest, like a parasite in a foreign body. Thanks to their sensitive traits, machines have the soul of their senses.
This animation of the machine is now widely popular. A few days ago I saw the poster of a movie for children where a race for airplanes with souls and eyes is watched by a stadium full of cars with souls and eyes. Machines watching the show put on by other machines in competition. The greatest problem for the illustrators was not the eyes, but the hands of these machines. They see and hear without difficulty, and are even able to smell, but they have no sense of touch, which is a rather common defect of ghosts.
Thus Max de Esteban chose to photograph the souls of dead machines, that is, to reproduce their ectoplasms, carrying the process of visibility to its ultimate consequences. In closing the circle of the seer (which is not the circle of evidence), photography is returned to its origins, which in unusually paradoxical fashion are also its future. Here we have seventeen dead machines (remembering that only what was once alive can die) whose feelings, more powerful than those of human beings, were at some moment our seers, soothsayers, or scryers, and what we dreamt of the inaccessible with. Machines we have been representing the invisible with for years, and which now are distinguished cadavers.
Dead for years, now other machines manipulated by Max de Esteban call up the ancient ectoplasm before us. The ghostly presence of obsolete machines floats into the light of the world, thanks to the mystical priestly initiator, who calls them up by means of new machines. Within a few years, other now unimaginable machines will show us the dead souls of those who now strut about upon our stage of living machines. And perhaps, somewhere, some new Malevich, Kandinsky, and or Mondrian will invoke the soul of Max de Esteban, calling on him to speak to them of beautiful machines that will by then be extinct.