The Mind’s Compound Eye

[This was originally posted on September 8, 2011, but had to be “reconstructed” following the crash of a MySQL server at my Web hosting service.]

About a decade ago, Canadian artist Angela Bulloch, now based in London and Berlin, created the “pixel box,” a 0.5-meter-on-a-side programmable light device capable of displaying any of the 16.7 million RGB colors. Aggregated in various two- and three-dimensional arrays, she used these not to show a tiny, highly-magnified portion of some photo or video; instead she repeatedly “averaged” adjacent areas (by rules that were not revealed) to create a small number of super-pixels. The end result was a “digital reduction” of the original work in which resolution was drastically decreased and information was discarded. This is best seen with an example, here from Parkett (print issue no. 66, pp. 20-21, 2002):

Angela Bulloch, photocollage for ‘Duo-Dromodar’ (2000).

Contrast the original with its digital reduction:

Angela Bulloch, ‘Duo-Dromodar’ (2000), wall painting, 50×50 cm pixels

Bulloch used this method to produce static works, such as the C-print ‘Horizontal Technicolour: Stills with Negative Space’ (2002), an end-to-end concatenation of four frames from a larger video work. In those larger, wall-filling installations each pixel box was programmed to follow the chromatic changes in the underlying, reduced video, even if the identity of the original was now totally lost. Here is one state of ‘Macro World: One Hour3 and Canned’ (2002) from the Kerstin Engholm Gallery in Vienna:

That pretty much is that, it would seem. You take some photos or videos, maybe a collage. Throw away most of the digital information therein, and you have a highly simplified, minimalist — arguably even Minimalist — work. There is much less to see than when you look at the original, though perhaps some of its grosser aspects could be highlighted with just the right reduction algorithm. But it’s not obvious that there is anything more that could be done. Or is there? What if you went back to the beginning, and instead of throwing away information, you added it? Instead of seeing less than in the original, what if you could see more?…

The September-October issue of Technology Review includes ‘The Mind’s Eye’, a review of some new photocollages by British artist David Hockney in which he has done precisely that — added information that allows seeing more than one might expect in a free-standing photo. For Hockney, this is part of a decades-long interest in photography, which is also discussed in the review. But it is now achieved with a 3×3 grid of nine Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR cameras attached to a moving car, 18 HD flat screens, seven MacBook Pros, and two technical assistants. Just like another day in the studio, yet completely different.

Here is a deceptively simple example of two arrays of stills, taken from the video that would be playing on all 18 screens. The 3×3 array on the right shows a slightly offset (and later) view than the one on the left, resulting from the car’s motion from left to right:

From ‘May 12th 2011 Rudston to Kilham Road 5 PM’. ©David Hockney

Lest you miss the point, each Canon 5D Mark II has a 21.1 megapixel sensor, which means that the array of nine is approaching 200 million pixels. If Angela Bulloch was following a reductive sensibility with her pixel box, then David Hockney is surely pursuing an expansive one. Literally throwing pixels at the problem of seeing more in the ordinary, which in this case (above) includes trees and fields and plants along the side of an English country road. Or, even more interestingly to me, repeating the drive and image captures on the same stretch of road at different times, and then displaying those longer-duration temporal differences in the two side-by-side arrays:

From ‘Woldgate 7 November 2010 11:30 AM’ (left) and ‘Woldgate 26 November 2010 11 AM’ (right). ©David Hockney

The “disconnects,” for example, offsets in tree trunks and missing limbs, are the result of differences in orientation of individual cameras in the array; or some real-time change made by David Hockney operating a control panel in the rear of the moving car; or minor time-shifting of panels within each 9×9 sub-grid during editing. This imprecision, whether intentional or opportunistic, is welcome in the creative process, and it is what distinguishes the outcome of this artistic effort from other ways of using a compound lens, whether the eye of an insect or the VLA radio telescope. As reviewer Martin Gayford says, these moving collages are “a sight that has never quite been seen before.”

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