WAVEFRONT Issue Summer 1985
Presentation to the First Canadian Holography Conference,
March 1985, Ottawa (Revised May 1985)
Holographic art is at best an ambiguous term, at times synonymous with 'display holography', or valorized as a truly unique and perhaps mystical practice or, conversely, subject to derision by orthodox visual arts critics. Upon the occasion of this and other conferences it is promoted as a 'given'- a given which merits at least some examination as to its meanings.
While I do not plan in this essay to define "holographic art", as term or practice, I will, however, offer some observations as to the more generalized problematic of "holographic art" - a problematic involving history, technology, science and culture. I intend to demonstrate the manner in which science has overdetermined (through insistence on technique) and stifled holographic art; similarly, I plan to critique several trends in holography and critical-art theory that perpetuate a kind of counterfeit and unconscious state of cultural production that allows for much of the key issues, artistic and theoretical-ideological, to remain unresolved.
The 'subjects of holography' vary with intent: the scientific, artistic, personal, critical, educational, historic, etc. Unique to this medium is its ability to articulate qualities of light and dimensionality - qualities which themselves also become subjects when provided with context and meaning. For "light" and "dimension" are hardly anything more than abstractions until they are given meaning through language, formulaic statement or aesthetic gesture and response. The focus of this essay will be two registers of holographic expression the empirical and aesthetic (as representing two interconnected yet distinct cultural forms). I hoped to present my arguments in a semiformal manner - a presentation that may infuriate the poetic impulses in the reader - but I think it necessary for us at one point or another (and let this be one) to engage discourse and criticism from a vantage point that is other than impulsive or careless statement.
To say that holography was not developed for the purpose of providing a medium for contemporary art may be to restate the obvious, but this concept requires some examination. We know that the development of optical holography in its first two decades (1947- 67) was directly linked to experimentation in applied optics. Papers were written, patents filed, techniques were improved and by the late sixties we had the CW laser and an assortment of off-axis reflection and transmission techniques, and the soon to be developed integrams and white-light transmissions. The focus of this research was what I will term the "empirical subject" - the subject of scientific knowledge - which was reflected in the various developments in geometric optics, isolation tables, laser hardware and recording and processing techniques. Missing from this early stage of development was any clear aesthetic of viewing or interpreting holography. There was much shop talk concerning the free wheeling 'marriage' of science and technology but much of this was rhetorical and revealed the inability of critics to articulate what could be termed an "aesthetic subject".
Early image making was obsessed by technique, that is, how to make the holographic image bigger, brighter and noise-free. The objects to be rendered were important only in terms of their empirical and generic qualities: size, stability, colour and brightness, etc. The aesthetics of 'subject matter', its design and interpretation was largely irrelevant to our early 'pioneers' whose visual vocabulary was dominated by small generic objects (chess pieces, toys, lenses, watches, figurines, etc.) of empirical and idiosyncratic proportions.
What was ordinary in terms of geometric optics (that is, virtual and pseudoscopic images) seemed to be 'paradoxical' for art holographers, and for reasons which will be explored later in this essay. These early paradoxes supported an early aesthetic. Artists in the 60's and early 70's were obsessed with showing off holography's unique place by constantly comparing it to photography - a comparison that always placed holography as the "'future medium" and trivialized the relationship between holography and photography by displaying holograms, framed and hung on a wall, as 'real thing' photographs. This of course was also the age of the 'imageplane' - almost every showing dominated by the redundancy of trivial images bisected by the plate. The circus side-show atmosphere of early shows was ample evidence of technological fetishism and idiosyncrasy substituting, as surrogate, for aesthetic debate. Many of the early holographers were instantly catapulted to "star status" on the basis of their abilities to crank out a few technically acceptable holograms and to exhibit them quickly and with great fanfare.
Those showing off the new image technology to naive audiences (analogous to natives of New Guinea being treated to their first Polaroid snap) were encouraged to make extravagant claims as to holograms being "bigger", "brighter", "motion - picture" (recall the hype surrounding Logan's Run and Superman?), and suited for "TV". For the premise, in holography, as in the jungle, was 'get in fast', capitalize on sensational tricks, and get out; and those who thought that this medium would revolutionize the culture were sadly disappointed.
This essay then, is dedicated to those who stuck it out, asked questions, and for the large part only became 'successful' when the circus left town.
Many will argue that mimeticism, the imitation of reality, is an aesthetic undertaking and that beauty (to use the cliche) is in the subjective "eye of the beholder". Every holographer, I suspect, is fascinated with the beauty of the mimetic- representational holographic image, and all of us - from a scientist in love with his/her turbine interferograms to an eccentric obsessed with "E.T." holograms to 'artists' struggling with 'aesthetics' have our suB.jectivities in terms of what is beautiful. But such questions of subjectivity are moot issues when one considers the larger context of 20th century which does not rely any longer on subjectivity to lead the way.
In 1979, in an essay entitled NOTES TOWARDS THE ART OF HOLOGRAPHY (Franklin Institute Press) I argued that mimetic holography merely restates what 20th century public already knows in terms of aesthetic-formal concerns: dimension, perspective, proportion, proximity, size and form and that exhibitions of mimetic works are usually received by the question "how was it done?". While this was not an outright condemnation of mimetic works, it was highly critical of those who could neither see beyond mimeticism nor appreciate its limited context within current art issues. A question such as "how was it done?" further reveals the limitations of mimetic holography, since this question is not directed at issues of meaning (what is it? what does it mean?) but rather towards childlike curiosity to possess the imaginary means of creation through some form of rudimentary understanding. The "it" in this case is the general, the generic, the nonspecific and without substance 'image' of empirical or technical holography.
But there is an inherent weakness in mimeticism: the inability to articulate an aesthetic subject and precisely at the level of holographic imagery. For we all know or suspect that holography is not defined by 3-D objects but "wavefronts"which can be generated by objects or non- objects. This weakness was most evident at the very beginning of the rise of public holographic art shows. In the early mid-70's, after an initial love affair with representational- subject holograms and a patient reading of the usual technical preamble that accompanied the exhibitions, the public remained intrigued only with novelty, and the critics, representing and responding to the deep divisions and many pluralities of post-modernist art were generally hostile. We might recall the comments of Hilton Kramer, art critic for the New York Times, who wrote in 1975 and on the occasion of the New York exhibition "Holography 75: The First Decade": "There is always something disconcerting in the spectacle of immensely sophisticated technology - which artists sometimes call "science" - serving as a vehicle for some perfectly trivial conception....The aesthetic naivete of this show must really be seen to be believed. No mere description could begin to do it justice. Images of a stupefying innocuousness, ranging from peepshow porn and low grade beer commercials to the even more ludicrous parodies of so-called "serious" art, are unrelieved by the slightest trace of esthetic intelligence."
And later in the article he concluded: "It will be said, of course, that holography is still, both technically and aesthetically, in its infancy - an argument that brooks no quarrel. But the place for such Infancy is the nursery, not a plac e of public exhibition..."
It is fair to say that Kramer was both unimpressed with the largely mimetic works and generally hostile to claims of importance and cultural accomplishment that circulated at that time. A girl blowing a kiss or winking her eye in a cylinder integral (courtesy Multiplex) just didn't 'cut it' on the international marketplace of art and neither did early experiments in transmission or reflection formats. For some of us in the "nursery", those who had not' jumped on the multiplex integral or other bandwagon for instant stardom in the 70's, Kramer's statements seemed to deliver 'poetic justice' to the New York based hype that preceded this and other shows. (But there was also S.F.. hype, LA. hype, etc. - I am not being regional).
This 'poetic justice' was also born of a terrible irony: how could one on the one hand, take pride in creating 3-D images, a 'unique' labour to say the least, and also account to critics who were unimpressed and ignorant of the processes? Similarly, how could one adequately deal with scientific-empirical demands for quality even while aesthet, s could be satisfied by the most technically imperfect hologram? The irony here was there was no real poetic justice possible in any sphere of holographic art or display holography in the 70's because holography remained inaccessible to most critics and viewers at the level of critical dialogue and aesthetic vocabulary.
By the mid-70's, works which challenged the relationship between holography and other medias (painting, photography, sculpture, installation and performance) became more prevalent. These works, discussed also in my '79 essay, I termed "hybrids" (sculptural or graphic). Basically, they integrated sculptural or graphic motifs (and aesthetics) with holographic concerns. The resulting holographic pieces articulated relationships between traditional art forms (cubism, constructivism, etc.) and the unique status of holography as a medium capable of synthesizing and expressing spatial forms through ! the exclusive use of light.
Ten years later in 1985 we may wonder why these hybrids, now a rather commonplace concern among art holographers, were of such importance then. The answer is contained in the twin origins of hybrids: a visual didacticism - one that educates the viewer as to the contexts of holography amongst the arts and within art history - as an impulse deprived from the earlier interests to 'convert' an audience to the importance of a new medium - and secondly, the poetic impulse (which hybrids generally exhibit) to 'transform' the relationship between holography and the other arts via visual metaphor and fusion of forms.
Along with hybrid forms came works which incorporated art, historical and political concerns, works which functioned as installation pieces, and presented experiments with presentation models. (I cannot list even a representative number of these works in this essay but will implicate them and :he artists in future essays). It was also in the late '70's that Images drawing on abstraction and wavefront properties of interference, 'light images', became more accepted. The 'vocabulary' and 'syntax' of the developing aesthetic was transformational and antithetical to grammatical rule around notions emanating from science. This 'second wave' of hybrid holographic activity, was supported by experimental curators such as Eve Ritscher (London, U.K.) who sought to develop a holographic art from the diversity, quality and a sense of future that they recognized in the medium. Indicative of Ritscher's optimism towards the future of holography is the following passage contained in a 1983 introduction to the "Light Dimensions" exhibition catalogue:
"The holography that is presented here at Light Dimensions is perhaps not that which will be remembered and known by our children. What we see in this show will change and mutate, as did photography before it. It has only come this far thanks to the courage, tenacity and sheer guts of its proponents, and, despite the very wide differences of approach, interests and ambitions within it, they share a common bond of vision."
If, as Ritscher proposed, we might applaud holographic art achievements as a contribution towards a future culture, we might equally ask questions directed towards the substance of this new, diverse and futuristic cultural form. We might ask questions which have posed from the very beginning and which still remain unanswered: what is the subject of holography, what is it about, and why is there so much talk of its 'form' rather than 'content'? For much of the pluralities and experimentations in the 70's seemed to reflect a near exclusive interest in formal developments, and while no one would propose that form and content be separated (or made exclusive of one another) there seems to be a great deal of ambiguity as to what the subjects of holography are and why they have remained subsidiary to formal interests in representation and composition.
This problem, the ambiguity of the aesthetic subject, seems also to continue in the current interest in computer generated holography. Caulfield, writing in the Winter '84 Holosphere contends that there is a special future for computer holography:
"Holography, originally conceived as a way of recording physical wavefronts without a lens, is now evolving to the point of recording nonphysical - if you will, imaginary - wavefronts."
His paper concerns itself with computer generated holograms, a process which will allow artists as well as scientists the option of creating images that have never, or could never, exist in "real" space - a kind of image synthesis that is independent of real objects and 'reality'. As exciting as this new field seems to be in terms of visual potential (paradoxical images, novel displays), there is still the problem concerning content that lingers: computer generated holograms of what?
We might reflect a moment on what has happened in computer graphics (on film or video) when faced with the same aesthetic task of revolutionizing art. In film video graphics-, the computer has become an accessory (a very sophisticated one) in the process of restating what a contemporary public already knows: geometric solids, dimensional and perspective mappings, landscapes, kinetics, and a visual vocabulary of icons that repeats experiments in modern art already hanging in galleries around the world. Is this the future for computer generated holograms? If it is, then we will shortly see in computational holography the same tendency towards empirical subjects, generic objects, and idiosyncratic value systems common to earlier optical holography. The result will tend also towards the generation of spectacular and mystifying aesthetic redundancies of a very short cultural life span.
Before I turn to issues more properly of a 'content' oriented nature, I wish to engage the 'beast' by the horns - the beast of aesthetic and formal cancel. predisposition to 'law and order' in holography. Several historical examples that deal with similar issues in other medias may be useful to reflect on.
The concept that art should develop in resistance to fixed laws of nature and logic, in resistance to cultural and social institutions of the past, was posed by the Soviet Futurists as early as 1910. In their declared ambitions to "shake loose the syntax" of written and visual forms, to incorporate the "cacophony of wars and revolution" and to reject all forms of "Ultimate Truth" and mystical "Logos" they proposed to destroy the notion that art requires ordered processes and logic to convey its meaning. "Art is not a copy of nature" they said, "but the determination to distort nature in accordance with its reflections in the individual consciousness." Thus, they would disfigure and make objects, images, words, and expression "strange", In so doing, the Futurists (and the Formalists that followed them) attempted to recreate a world of aesthetic and perceptual possibilities that directly challenged the viewer's notions or reality and nature. The Futurists were vigorously agitating against 'law and order', (aesthetic, cultural, and political), and they were dead set against complacency in producing or viewing art.
In our migration across years of holographic art development, a recurring problem surfaces amongst the many different issues: holography is afflicted by a predisposition to order, symmetry and to laws of 'nature' (hence 'reality'), an affliction that it may symptomatically cure through optical-illusion games or abstraction of representational qualities, but an affliction that remains nevertheless.
This brief historical overview is useful for our purposes when we consider that rejection of 'Ultimate Truth" and 'Logos' is analogous to rejection of 'scientific truth' and 'reason'. The Futurist motto of shaking 'loose the syntax' is also a logous to a potential call for holographers to free their work from the confines of both scientific precedent and technique and mimetic traditions of representation. Implicit in these stratagems is the notion of transformational properties/ processes as central to a work of art.
The problem for the holographic artist is at once obvious: how does he/she deal with a medium that is overdetermined by science and physical laws, whose history is largely a chronology of technical discoveries and whose critics are largely (currently) technicians? The traditional method would be to accommodate the 'rules of the medium', thereby making the technical 'display' hologram. The Futurist method would be to bend, break and disfigure conventions and rules, the habits of presenting and viewing holography, the very habits of being a "holographic artist" with a place in history to protect.
This last proposition may not guarantee mass markets, instant critical success or scientific laudits, but I believe it is of chief importance in the development of holographic art and its critical-aesthetic vocabulary. In fact, in the last few years, and especially at the level of formal development, all hell has broken loose in holography (and many of my criticisms may seem 'dated'). We have an abundance of strangeness and "shaking loose" of the syntax. We also have, which is more important, aesthetic streams in holography - holographic cubism, constructivism, expressionism, etc. that must be read as a departure from its painterly and modernist equivalents.
But do we have a critical vocabulary to deal with this current
work; do we understand this new "problematic? And what of politics and
--The essay will conclude in issue #2 of Wavefront with a discussion of the semiotics of holography, criticism and content in an age of crisis.
The reader is invited to comment and/or challenge issues raised
by the author.
-- Al Razutis, 1985
Art and Holography Part 2 by Al Razutis (continuing text)
An Avant-Garde for Holography by Al Razutis (further text)