I have already discussed two of Gormley's pieces that explicitly concern optic vision in general and the surveillant gaze in particular. Certainly, given my own research interests, this contributes to my favouring these specific works for review. But it is the next work I wish to examine that provided the eureka moment for me in terms of conceptualizing the idea of tactile burden, and it arises not due to the absence of vision, but rather light/vision amplified to such a point that it renders (nearly) sightless.
Consider two poles of blindness. One involves the absence of light and the consequent darkness that renders one incapable of seeing. The other involves the total intensification of light on the retinal receptors such that one is blinded by the sheer intensity of the light and has a visceral reaction, which forces closure of the eyes to get relief from the pain (as when looking at a sunny sky after being in a dark room). In Blind Light, Gormley finds a third way between these two poles of blindness by creating a pain-free immersive environment of lightness that becomes a de facto visible sightlessness.
Blind Light is essentially a glass box that has been filled with thick vapour and brightly lit with fluorescent light. The glass walls are reinforced so that atmospheric pressure can be increased to one and a half times normal levels. While this makes the air within slightly more thick and tangible, it avoids becoming excessively warm since heat is being wicked out by a venting system, leaving the environment within eerily cool. You are left to wander in the pitch white of the box.
As Gormley himself describes:
Architecture is supposed to be the location of security and certainty about where you are. It is supposed to protect you from the weather, from darkness, from uncertainty. Blind Light undermines all of that. You enter his interior space that is the equivalent of being on top of a mountain or at the bottom of the sea. It is very important for me that inside it you find the outside. Also you become the immersed figure in an endless ground, literally the subject of the work.
When I entered the space, the first thing I noticed is that it wasn't as "heavy" as I'd anticipated, but this was probably due to my preconceived understanding that the atmospheric pressure would be slightly higher than normal; in fact, the environment was slightly thicker. Though my eyes were fully open, the space in front of me was pitch white, so sound assumed new importance. I became attentive to the playful voices of others enjoying the space, which alerted me to their position long before my visual faculty could confirm. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of my time inside was the oily residue on my eyeballs I came to notice: was this a film from the thick vapour in the room or was it instead the normal atmospheric detritus of urban society, only now made apparent in the pitch whiteness of Blind Light? I do not know.
So why was I so excited when I saw this piece during Gormley's presentation at EGS? From his early lead bodycase works, through his Domain series, to his Feeling Material series, I witnessed what I perceived to be an increasing dematerialization of the body into the information and data networks that bind the multitude of human bodies together. I have discussed such a dematerialization or outering into the data networks for several years here at sportsBabel, a sample of which I include here:
- Hybrids, Mutants and Replicants
- Sport Amputees
- Polar Inertia
- Attempting to Extend Benjamin
- Body Treble
- Dematerialization and Disinformation
- The Art of Sport in the Age of Mediated Simulation
So, if artists are the antennae of society, detecting problems and shifts and articulating them through their work to the rest of us, then what was next, I wondered. Was there a potential way out, so to speak, for the dematerializing body?
During Gormley's presentation at EGS, Blind Light was the answer.
Theoretically, we might usefully contrast Blind Light with Virilio's concept of the "vision machine." While Virilio's vision machine is a networked collection of cameras, databases and tracking algorithms that is visually impotent in the classical sense, yet sees everything, Gormley's Blind Light constructs an environment in which eyes are wide open and everything is illuminated, yet one sees nothing. In both situations the notion of the tactile is key: the vision machine manipulates data and enables "sight" through the tactile, digital interplay between the senses: a haptic-made-optic.
With Blind Light, by contrast, we are at a point in which the body is completely dematerialized into or merged with its architectural container, the glass box, while bodies also interact within its space; we are at once corporeal and in the network. And for one to navigate the other vision becomes useless: we feel the heavy atmosphere on our skin and in our breathing, we listen for audio cues in the acoustic space, we tread gingerly with the soles of our feet and reach out tentatively with our fingertips. It is tactility, or the interplay between the senses, that allows us to survive the blinding light(ness) of the network.
Hence, tactile burden.