Topsy-Turvy: A Camera Obscura Installation on view in Madison Square Park March 1 - April 7, 2013
For their first public art commission, Brooklyn-based artists Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder conceived Topsy-Turvy, a cylindrical camera obscura in Madison Square Park that projects on its interior walls an upside-down image of the Flatiron district. Genevieve Yue spoke with the artists in Chicago, where they had just performed an untitled projection piece with sound artist and composer Olivia Block at the Chicago Underground Film Festival.
Genevieve Yue (Rail): Let’s start by talking about the image that appears on the inside of the camera obscura. Is there a lens installed to give it its warping effect?
Recoder: The unique thing about our intervention to the camera obscura, is the anamorphic image and the squeezed image, because there’s no lens with the camera obscura—it’s the lensless camera obscura. It’s just an aperture, a pinhole, a three-inch diameter hole. And the structure is circular, so it allows the image to stretch the parameter; it’s like a warped, wrapped image.
Gibson: It’s anamorphic, but it’s not 360. It’s also panoramic.
Recoder: Yeah, it’s a really wide-angle view of the city stretched. It’s a different intervention we were playing with: reimagining the process of warping the landscape, the cityscape.
Rail: In your work you’re often working with a strategy of de-familiarization, with the projection apparatus or the performance space. And here you’re doing that also, perhaps even more, with many different kinds of inversions of inside out, upside down, even the title of the work.
Gibson: Working with a public space here, people come to the space with pre-conceived ideas of the Flatiron: the public park, the tourists. The public forum that we’re working with now is beyond what we normally do with the cinema. So that kind of de-familiarization is happening on a larger scale because tourists come to look at the Flatiron and then they see this camera obscura going in—so it’s a broader scope, if that makes sense.
Recoder: And also the projection—because we’re projection artists—normally we project out into a screen, and in this case there’s a reversal of the light cone; it projects inwards. It’s kind of an introjection effect where the natural projection light is coming into the structure, so it’s a more internal projection. Topsy-Turvy for us is kind of a concept to reverse all sorts of perspectives, including the audience perspective. Because usually the audience is sitting opposite to the screen, and in this case, they’re actually coming inside, into the projector, into the screen. So all of these are truncated: the projection booth, the screen, the space of viewership. All of these things are topsy-turvy; it’s part of our open concept course, to work with and to explore our own history working with projection devices.
Gibson: “Natural projection” is the term we’re using, because it’s a soft-focused image. When people come in, it takes time for their eyes to adjust. They come in expecting this kind of Technicolor, HD image and then they’re challenged to figure out—wait, it’s upside down, it’s kind of soft and it’s dark and I have to remain in here to see something and have an experience.
Recoder: They have to work and kind of explore. It’s almost like giving them a found footage element to work with. Each individual has kind of a viewing apparatus and it adapts differently. It addresses this uniqueness of one’s own viewership. Has them edit the piece or experience the piece and remake the work to their own devices.
Rail: The way you’re describing the technological expectations makes me think of your work in the context of media history or media archaeology. There’s a cinematic logic throughout much of your work, even if it’s not properly cinema. In your projection performances, there’s a feeling of post-cinema, or the moment after cinema, its waste or detritus. And here, with the camera obscura, you’re moving into the deep prehistory of the medium but relocating that cinematic logic within that ancient technology.
Gibson: That’s the dichotomy, the contradictory thing happening, going between post- and pre-cinema. But that’s the natural thing happening now. Forward and backwards, merging the two together. Last night, we were talking about that after the performance of Untitled, with Olivia Block, at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, those two things coming together. Here we are, using 16mm projectors in a cinema that’s been modified for digital projection— —
Recoder: They got rid of the film projector, and they invited us to “reinstall” the projection system. That’s the way they phrased it. They wanted us to reinstall the “performative” aspect of the projection.
Another part of this is the way the camera obscura has been appropriated by other artists. It’s always been photographic— —
Gibson: Used in pinhole camera references— —
Recoder: Right, fixing the image. We were using the cinema or the cinematic to go to an earlier stage: to imagine what its like to go and sit and observe a moving image; an image that’s actually being formed right before you. So that’s our history, our interpretation. It’s informed by the cinematic, but that’s just because it’s already there and I think it’s just a matter of framing it and bringing something to it that’s prephotographic to kind of release it from the fixity of the photograph or just you know, remove from the process of photography.
Gibson: It’s not like looking at the camera obscura as a pinhole camera, but as a screen, as a projection screen and as a moving image in space. So it has its history as a pinhole. Everybody says, “Oh, a pinhole camera!” People wanted to bring sheets of paper in to expose—somebody was asking us, can we bring photographic paper in to do an exposure? So it has that natural history.
But the problem is the surveillance aspect and how you end up with pictures of surveillance and live, real time, “real time” images coming in. Which of course is real time, but we associate those things with television, closed circuit TV, which is not something that we’re necessarily interested in, but that’s the surveillance eye of the artist. Which is interesting, but that’s not the angle we’re looking for. Do you agree?
Recoder: Yeah, absolutely. Because also, the image is so abstract and you really have to work in order to see it as a realist image. I’m really trying to not just fix the image, but to make it articulate a clarity that brings you closer to the actual real world. There are these levels of frustration that we’re interested in. Also, we’re coming in as performance artists, always working with that level of pleasing and frustration and tension. So how do we bring that level of critical viewership. So it’s okay if people are not 100 percent happy with the work; that’s a part of it.
Gibson: The thing is, the phenomenon is so unexplainable in some ways, because that’s what it is. It’s a moment, it’s nothing really scientific. You can’t explain it but its something that just occurs naturally in the world, in your eyes everyday. People go in and they might be disappointed, but it’s also the magic of what’s happening. That is the beauty of it, the discovery: oh my gosh, this is upside down, how is this happening? It’s just a hole, in this kind of cylindrical structure. No high technology, nothing. That’s the wow factor of the low-tech thing that’s happening.
Recoder: There’s a level of enigma and mystery. It’s not purely revealing, it’s not pure exposure. It’s a level of darkness. Camera obscura; we have to obscure. It’s a spectacle but at the same time it’s a kind of hidden thing in that people have to discover.
Gibson: It’s important to emphasize, I think because the mystery is the art of the piece. I mean, you can’t invent a camera obscura per se.
Recoder: It’s a found object.
Rail: It was discovered, right? There are accounts of Aristotle noticing an image of the sun produced on the ground through the spaces between leaves.
Gibson: In that way, anybody can make a camera obscura. Anyone can experience one at any time.
Recoder: It’s a really primitive, simple technology. It’s available to everyone.
Gibson: The question is, is it art? I mean, this is art in the park and so we called it Topsy-Turvy: A Camera Obscura Installation. That it’s purposeful to call it that because we’re installing an artwork and calling this artwork a moving image screen, hoping that those are things people bring to it.
Rail: It makes me think of one of those early functions of the camera obscura used by astronomers to observe eclipses and things that really one could not see with the naked eye. This idea you mentioned early of the revelatory, the image that’s produced inside is one that you can’t access directly, even though it occurs in the natural world. It seems like there’s some element of transformation that might lend itself to that idea of what’s being created in terms of an artistic project, rather than just being like a lens you throw up somewhere.
Gibson: The challenging part of the project was not convincing the park, but trying to establish this as an art project, that this is something that people can go in and experience. This is the first time Madison Square Park had that kind of project in the park; usually the public art projects are sculpture and video screens. This is the first time they’ve had a line waiting for attendance. They had to do timed entrance. It’s a totally different experience.
Rail: It’s like going to the cinema, too.
Gibson: Exactly. It’s just like the cinema where you wait in line and anticipate something and have this experience inside. I don’t know, it’s fascinating, the suspense involved in that.
Rail: As you were working on this piece, your experience of it was very much a lived in one, because you initially created a camera obscura in your bedroom in your home and lived with the image for a while. Did that lived-in intimacy condition your thinking as you created the work?
Recoder: I think about defamiliarization and disorientation because you know, when we would wake up in the morning, we had to reorient ourselves to our surroundings. We had double labor to do, you know, waking up and seeing the world upside down.
Gibson: It personalizes it. It makes it obviously more intimate, in the bedroom. It’s also a great layer of the dream, the artistic dream: we’re sleeping in this room, the camera obscura. Camera means room, of course.
Recoder: So it’s like we’re literally embedding it back into the room, the living space, and living with it in order to kind of, study it, experiment as a laboratory and also catch ourselves constantly unawares. I think that’s the most important thing, that we’re doing this project but we’re also living this project. It differs from having a studio practice, where we go to our studio and go, ok, now we’re working on our projects. Here we’re actually in the camera obscura, so we’re constantly, like you said, dreaming endlessly, dreaming and living with it.
Rail: And the images that actually appear, do those happen by chance?
Gibson: Yeah. There are people who walk by it who could be in view. If somebody stands right in front, of course they’re blocking it. So, yeah, it’s interactive.
Recoder: If they’re looking through the hole, their face is huge on the inside.
Gibson: Of course, the contingencies of the weather and the light, the time of the day, we have no control over that, unlike in the cinema where we control everything around us. There are a lot of things that are going to change from one hour to the next. The park, with the view of the Flatiron district, is a tourist area, so people come to the work with these expectations of taking a clear image. So it’s going against everything you would expect.
GENEVIEVE YUE is a critic and scholar based in Los Angeles.