On Graphic and Photographic Inscription

Epistemology and Aesthetics of Graphic and Photographic Inscription

Peter Geimer

Cooperation Partners: 

Hermann von Helmholtz-Zentrum für Kulturtechnik, Fakultät Medien/Bauhaus-Universität Weimar

This project dealt with the role of visual representations in the experimentalization of life. It focused on graphic and photographic recordings of the living, such as respiration, heartbeat, voluntary and involuntary movements of the human hand, or invisible emanations of life that were said to radiate from the human body. These recordings were treated as immediate inscriptions of the living, since they were produced in close relation to the physical presence of the phenomenon in question. On the one hand the traces were supposed to be automatic inscriptions of the phenomena in question; on the other, they had to be created by using technical devices that were liable to produce unintended side-effects and thereby influenced the iconographic output.

Geimer showed to what extent the graphic instruments that were supposed to work as experimental mediators thus became objects of experimental research and testing themselves. In the case of photography it often became doubtful what exactly had inscribed itself on the photographic plate: external referents (invisible rays and "effluves" of life) or chemical and optical effects of the photographic process itself. Moreover, the inscription of these phenomena could optically resemble those conspicious blurs, spots, veils, and dots that were normally treated as photographic waste, accident, and failure. These demons of photography have been at work since the early days of the medium and every new photographic procedure has produced its own specific accidents. In this scenario, separating facts from artifacts became utterly problematic. The project investigated this specific balance between fact and artifact, between inscriptions of the living and their dependence on artificial mediators.

A second focus examined the status of the graphical method as a universal "world language," as one physiologist addressed it. The graphic devices seemed to translate any given phenomena into a specific pattern of lines and curves (a human voice, the efficency of a worker, the structure of poems or symphonies). In experiments on the physiology and pathology of handwriting the human hand and the pencil it hold were considered as inscription tools. Ordinary handwriting became a pattern of lines and curves, a fixed inscription of specific body movements. Thus, the project could show to what extent the concept of self-inscription thus was not restricted to the domain of physiological graphics but covered also cultural techniques and raised new perspectives in the debates around "manual" versus "mechanical" production of visual representations.

  • "Telepathie" in: Thomas Macho and Annette Wunschel, eds., Gedankenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag), 2004, p. 287–309
  • "Was ist kein Bild? Zur 'Störung der Verweisung' in: Peter Geimer, ed, Ordnungen der Sichtbarkeit. Fotografie in Wissenschaft, Technologie und Kunst (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp) 2002, p. 313–341
  • "Searching for Something", in: Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, eds. Iconoclash. Beyond the Image Wars (Cambridge/Mass.: MIT Press) 2002
  • "Noise or Nature? Photography of the Invisible", in: Helga Nowotny/Martina Weiss, Shifting Boundaries of the Real. Making the Invisible Visible ( Zürich: VDU) 2002

Funding Institutions

Volkswagen-Stiftung Hannover