Surface Tension

On the haptic dimension in the works of Matthew Weinstein
By Mark Gloede

The era of the post-photographic film has arrived, and while it is clear that for the animator, the computer is essentially 'another pencil', it is also clear that animation and its aesthetics will be affected by the production enhancements afforded by CGI.
-Paul Wells, Animation. Genre and Authorship 

Touch me. 
How can it be? 
Believe me.
The sun always shines on T.V.

It will always fall short if one tries to subsume the works of Matthew Weinstein under one theme. The use of very different forms alone - reaching from computer-generated animation, to painting, sculpture and installation - makes it hard to pin down the field of Weinstein's oeuvre without reducing it. Nevertheless it is remarkable to acknowledge while experiencing this heterogeneous field of works that there seems to be something one could call a hidden agenda of Matthew Weinstein, a ground tone or a resonating space which is a key element in all of his works. It is something that is related to the sleek surface of his digital film images, as well as to the glossy surfaces of his pig sculptures, or even can be found in the smooth color textures of his paintings on canvas. What is common in all of these works is something that can be called a profound haptical experience or with a term that Laura Marks has coined, a "Haptical Visuality". How is this sensual cross-over, this momentum of synaesthesia to be understood in relation to Weinstein's works?
Hapticallity is per definition a perceptual experience which results from the exploration of objects by touching them. Since most of Weinstein's works are not supposed to be touched and are mainly set in the terrain of the visual experience, it seems strange to shift towards the haptic sense to describe this profound momentum. But one needs to see that in recent art history as well as in media theory, "haptic is a term that has come to articulate the perception of touch through any experiential means. So one may have a haptic experience through vision, sound, taste etc., without any exclusive use of the touch sense itself. Haptic visuality (...) or viewing, detaches this sense of touch in order to focus exclusively on that which is experienced via vision. In other words one can experience the sensation of touch through vision alone. This application of the term has its basis in art history (Gandelman 1991, p.5) but has more recently also been adapted to apply to the moving image and cinema theory." 

It is specifically in the field of new aesthetics or in fields where our perceptive apparatus is struggling and insecure in its way of functioning that we can see this reactivation of a sensorium. It seems that the more we are losing in these works our everyday strategy to decode and optically see, the more we are reactivating other strategies to perceive. In doing so, we allow our bodies literally to come back to their senses. We begin to touch, smell and hear again with a new intensity. And by perceiving films, paintings or installations in this way, we have to realize the main agency for this process is our body or as Maurice Merleau-Ponty has put it: "My body is the field within which my perceptive powers are localized." In other words, experiencing the sleek surface in works by Matthew Weinstein often means failing in our known ways of approaching artworks, but on the other hand offers us the opportunity to get to know something about our own strategies of visual perception and our body in general. It is important to emphasize this complexity in the bodily dimension, since the almost pristine surfaces involve us differently. Walter Benjamin has noted this connection of the senses and pointed out how we intuitively use this potential, especially in moments of crisis, in his famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility". He writes: 

"For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning points of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone. They are mastered gradually by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation. Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise."

The task that Benjamin was referring to in the early 1930s is an increasingly growing number of intense moments (he uses the word shocks) that brings our sensorium to its limits. At this point our body often can't use visual strategies alone to deal with the momentum of a crisis. And it is, following Benjamin, often the haptic dimension that offers us ways through this difficulty. Here the visual is no longer the dominating sense and separated from the other senses. On the contrary, we (re-)discover a connectedness of our senses, and it becomes necessary to rethink our understanding of them. In a way the mode of thinking and experiencing the world through a divided sensorium shows its restrictions. Furthermore we have to understand how the senses interact. As we see: hapticallity is not only referring to the direct touch of our fingers – we have to acknowledge that our eyes are capable of touching as well. 

Eighty years after Benjamin's essay, Weinstein now seems to have a quite comparable focus, since we can experience this connectedness of the senses in his works. We understand that it is no longer the moving image in general that creates a momentum of shock. It is not even the unbelievable amount of images that we are digesting on an everyday basis: It has more to do with the categorically different quality of the images, that creates a moment of crisis and shock – the shock of our reappearing sensuality. The shock that our senses are fundamentally connected and that our perception is usually always a multi-modal process. It is, for example, that the surface of Weinstein's digital images works different on the sensual apparatus. With this in mind all of a sudden we can understand the title of his film 'Cruising' not only as the strolling around of our eyes in the space of the image, or a reference to gay/queer culture, but as a process of strolling around between the senses. In the framework of this idea it becomes evident that it is the relation between image and observer that needs to be readdressed. Jonathan Crary has precisely formulated this in his highly acclaimed book Techniques of the Observer: 

"The rapid development in little more than a decade of a vast array of computer- graphics techniques is part of a sweeping configuration of relations between an observing subject and modes of representation that effectively nullifies most of the culturally established meanings of the terms observer and representation. The formalization and diffusion of computer-generated imagery heralds a ubiquitous implantation of fabricated visual 'spaces' radically different from the mimetic capacities of film, photography, and television […] Computer-aided design, synthetic holography, flight simulators, computer animation, virtual environment helmets, are only a few of the techniques that are relocating vision to a plane severed from a human observer."

In the light of this we have to ask ourselves if a classical understanding of perception through segmented fields of isolated senses might be helpful to an understanding of Weinstein's works. If we have to admit that our visceral perception is more to be understood as multi-modal, triggering several senses at the same time, a distribution of the senses might be right for scientific analysis, but is problematic in terms of understanding a perception of artworks. Vivian Sobchack has pointed out that

"it becomes literally nonsensical to talk of the senses as if they were isolated from their entailment in an intentional structure or from each other, to speak of them as if they were discrete modes of access to the world rather than differentiated modalities of perceptual access to the world. The senses are different openings to the world that cooperate as a unified system of access. The lived-body does not have senses. It is, rather, sensible. It is, from the first, a perceptive body."

That this idea is also of high importance for the oeuvre of Weinstein becomes clearer the longer we stay in these sleek atmospheres of his works. In his animated worlds and his paintings it sometimes feels like going downhill skiing or being in a gigantic waterslide: the longer we stay in his fields of experience the more speed we gain and the more intense and complex experiences get for our whole perceptive apparatus. It is as if he aims to increase the intensity and power of these forms in such a way that we can become critically aware of them. And while these forms have existed for quite a while it seems that the full intensity and the full power of them in combination with a mode of reflection has rarely been unleashed. In so far the increasing amount of digital aesthetics can be seen as one of Weinstein's key triggers to reflect on these worlds. Furthermore his intense focus on the body and the senses may not be surprising, since the works are made in a period, "when theorists describe contemporary American culture as undergoing a simultaneous and related crisis of representation and crisis of the 'real'. Against the backdrop of an artistic search for challenging fields, these discourses of crisis seem to lead almost naturally to general questions of the body of perception and the perceived phenomena namely the artwork and its space. If the surfaces of the digital pixel work differently on our perceptive apparatus than the grain of the filmic image, we can no longer ignore the impact to our bodies. 

At this point we understand how crucial the discourse is that Weinstein develops with his works. We see a momentum that in a way can be paralleled to a situation of the late 1960s when specifically experimental filmmakers were refocusing the aesthetics of film, its machinery, the question of the involved body, and its relation to the arts as well. Artists like Michael Snow, Standish Lawder or Hollis Frampton were critically breaking down the elements of this complex machinery in order to understand the process of perception and, even more, to create a different filmic experience. Back then, Snow's "Wavelength" for example shows the impact of filters, sound and focus pulling to the image. The works of Hollis Frampton, who was coming from a photography background, specifically raised questions concerning how objects are perceived through the filmic image ("Lemon") or how the audio-visual impact combined with digital image modification is challenging us. Having in mind the question of haptic visuality it seems almost natural that the title of one of his films addressing these issues is "Surface Tension". And it is also not too surprising that one of his subsequent concerns immediately became the impact of the digital image. Frampton expanded from filmic worlds to the new medium of computer-generated images and digital aesthetics. 

Even if these early digital aesthetics and concerns are hardly comparable to the works of Matthew Weinstein we have to acknowledge the renewal of a critical discourse that can be found in his works. This intensification is even more important when we see an increasing criticism against digital aesthetics in general that finds its roots in the old Greenbergian distinction between kitsch and avant-garde. Instead of acknowledging the dynamics that Pop Art, postmodernism and camp developed by blurring this distinction it seems that specifically the field of digital aesthetics and animated worlds was a form to reinstall the separation between high and low art – in other words between good and bad. This not only means to fall back into the patterns of an old discussion, but it means as well, to ignore the amount of forms, reinstall a klischematic way of thinking and ignore existing forms and aesthetics of high impact to society. Instead with Weinstein's works we find ourselves thrown into a question that J.D. Jarvis subsumed in his essay "Toward a Digital Aesthetic" 

"What does digital art look like? Confounding this slippery topic is the chameleon-like ability of digital art to simulate to a very high degree the appearance of many traditional media and genre. In addition, certain commonly held beliefs, some of which are in direct opposition to one another, add to the camouflage, hiding from our awareness the actual scope of current digital art."#

Weinstein shows us that this question is not exclusively leading towards the field of the image, but in the same way to objects and spaces. The sleek digital worlds surround us more and more – which requests not a jump back to neo-conservative attitudes. On the contrary: it requests an open-mindedness or even better a joyful new sensuality towards the image-space and space in general. This new sensitivity disrupts a process that Deleuze and Guattari have called 'territorialisation' (a process of categorization, regulation, homogenization and control). Instead it leads to a kind of nomadism in space. "The nomadic subject open to unconventional spatial orientations can make new connections in keeping with the movement of life as it unfolds." 

Weinstein's works show us the continuous fragility of our spatial orientations, and instead of driving us back into systems of control they encourage us to walk trustingly into the great wide open.

Mark Gloede, March 2nd, 2011