Thursday, July 17, 2008

Photography and the Unconscious Panopticon: Part One

In Wim Wenders' beautiful, epic, 280 minute film Until the End of the World, Dr. Farber has made an electronic machine that can electronically project images directly into the brain, effectively restoring sight to his blind wife. She is able to see with a pair of electronic goggles wired to her head, viewing the video without optical vision. This is an incredible development for her and the characters spend much energy and time bringing video of their shared lives so that she can catch up on the visuals of what she has been missing.

They soon discover that the machine is also capable of the reverse process. Images can be recorded directly from the brain and played back on a screen for the viewer to watch in real time, making it possible to record one's dreams and then watch them back while awake. Soon, some of the characters find themselves completely addicted to looking at images from their own dreams, spending their days watching ghostly pictures on static filled computer screens, peering into real world depictions of their mysterious inner lives while the world outside increasingly threatens with isolation, mass destruction and environmental collapse.

Wenders' film was first released in 1991, before the widespread explosion of the internet, but the core critique of images and their addictive properties seems even more relevant today. If images can liberate us, they are just as capable of trapping us in unconscious processes and systems of rewards and penalties beyond our conscious awareness.

The popularity of photo sharing electronically across the media through vehicles such as Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and hundreds of other sites has made it possible for us to take the 'real' as it may be, and transform it into visual metaphors that can be transmitted out to an invisible public where the images perform in ways separate and independent from their origin and subject. A great head shot on MySpace can get more traffic than a bad one, regardless of the real appearance of the person depicted. We are rapidly becoming addicted to the transformational ease by which photographs can trade in identities and personae. It is possible through photography to see ourselves as we would like to be, as we fantasize ourselves to be, stripped away of the flaws, messiness and complexities that life in its totality entails. The word fantasy here is the key, for we are looking in these moments for images that reinforce the ego. They require little effort. Instead they clarify and perfect our fantasies rather than amplify our vision.

This is part one in a summer serial posting. Click here for part two.

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