Through Non-Human Eyes

November 2016

James Bridle is a British artist and writer based in Athens, Greece.

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Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s short film 'Hell Roaring Creek' (2010) is composed of a single, twenty-minute shot from a fixed position

An HD camera, mounted in the stream, records the passage of a herd of sheep as they ford a river at dawn. Over the course of the film – which starts in near-darkness – the day slowly brightens, the sheep low, their bells ring, the water rushes. Time passes in front of and around the camera without human intervention: a scene has been selected and it unfolds without direction. The steadiness and endurance of the camera’s gaze produces the strong sense that the camera is something other than an extension of the eye: it is a sensor, a monitor, a machine for being with and in the world.

This feeling is even stronger in 'Leviathan' (2012), Castaing-Taylor’s feature-length documentation of a fishing vessel in the North Atlantic

For most of the film, the camera perches in inhuman places, fixed high on the mast, dangling off the side of the ship, even pushing at boot-level through the blood and viscera which coats the deck. It has become detached from human perspective, it is on its own journey, and it inhabits different spaces and times.

This engagement with the non-human otherness of the machine, a pressing issue in a time of mass automation and deep machine learning, is often thought through engagement with animals – Castaing-Taylor’s sheep and fish, or more prosaic examples, like the CatCam and the GoPro Seagull. Jürgen Perthold, a German engineer living in the United States, attached a miniature video camera to the collar of his tomcat, Mr Lee, to produce a feline tour of his neighbourhood.

Mr Lee was an online sensation. In another film, viewed millions of times and promoted by GoPro itself, a Spanish seagull picks up a tourist’s video camera and takes it for a short, exhilarating flight above the cliffs.

In each of these examples, the animal becomes film-maker – but hardly director. It might be best described with the term Castaigne-Taylor prefers for himself: “recordist”. This is the camera again as a monitor or sensor – as perfectly embodied by Sheep View 360, an effort by the tourist board of the Faroe Islands. Allegedly frustrated by the failure of Google to come and map the island’s roads, Durita Dahl Andreassen placed a solar-powered camera on the back of a Faroese sheep, and sent it wandering across the hillsides.

Not satisfied with a landlocked view, the same trick was repeated with ShipView around the coastline neatly closing the loop with Leviathan, although with a slightly jauntier soundtrack.

Whereas in the first case the recordist of SheepView is the sheep, in the latter it is the wind and the waves that are at play, the motion of the ship which creates the movement of the camera – the only continuity between these non-human viewpoints is the camera itself. There is an added strangeness to these films too: recorded in 360˚, it’s possible in certain web browsers for the viewer to direct the framing of the shot, adding another layer of agency to the process. Without the correct plugin, the image is flattened out and distorted, emphasising once again its own difference from the binocular, unidirectional human perception. Another possible viewpoint or viewpoints seems to be in play, an umwelt which implies an agency: that of the camera itself.

Another view on the Faroe Islands is shown in Eva Koch’s installation Evergreen, an endlessly looping, panning drama in which the same small acts of violence – children throwing stones, a figure fleeing – are repeated over and over again against a backdrop of bright green mountains. Koch shows glimpses of, but does not fully narrate or explain, the acts which are unfolding: the emphasis is on their circularity and inevitability, their context within the system of the land and the system of human society. What is being pictured, as in Castaigne-Taylor’s sensory ethnography or the database of Google’s image archive, is the complete system which always escapes the individual eye.

It is that which cannot be photographed which seems the most urgent subject for this machinic vision: just as harnessing the camera to the animal allows us to see from angles unreachable by our current vision, so the freeing of the camera from human direction seems to offer the possibility of imaging something beyond our current understanding. This was the case put forward decades ago by Gene Youngblood in Expanded Cinema (1970): that computers were possible of becoming “aesthetic machines”, and cybernetic cinema “a consciousness-expanding experience”. Youngblood’s example for such an experience was a 3-D, computer-generated film by Michael Noll, an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, which depicts “the rotation, on four mutually perpendicular axes, of a four-dimensional hypercube projected onto dual two-dimensional picture planes in simulated three-dimensional space. The viewer wears special polarized glasses such as those common in 3-D movies of the early 1950's. It was an attempt to communicate an intuitive understanding of four-dimensional objects, which in physics are called “hyperobjects”. The film is available on YouTube today.

Hyperobjects is also the term used today by the philosopher Timothy Morton, in The Ecological Thought (2010), to describe those things which are so distributed in time and space that they are impossible to localise or visualise in their entirety, such as global warming. The final rotational, automated view here is presented by philosopher and film-maker Eric Cazdyn (who has collaborated with Morton) through his ongoing project, The Blindspot Variations.

Cazdyn uses a camera rig which at first glance seems akin to the Faroean 360, a quartet of cameras affixed to a rotating head, each pointed at 90˚ to the other. While it initially seems that the travelling frame captures each scene in its entirety, it is quickly apparent that the fields of view of each of the cameras do not stitch neatly together: gaps appear, and in them, out of frame, things still happen. The machine sees the world differently, but it does not see everything. As well as investigating what it might show us, we must learn to accommodate ourselves with that which is unphotographable too.

Appropriately, one of the Blindspot recordings takes place on Tashirojima, a Japanese island with an ageing, dwindling population of people, but a booming feline population, giving it its colloquial name, Cat Island.

This work is part of a series: Machine Vision