Issue #22, 2005

0:34 sec.
Lívia Páldi in Conversation with Szabolcs KissPál

Dear Szabolcs

Unfortunately long pauses seem to be impossible to deal with right now. I smuggle things which otherwise require much more time and thought into these gaps. Is it really so? Perhaps one should simply get accustomed to the plain fact that time available for doing certain things is always limited. Often too short. Then let us not squander it by further meditation on the topic. I greatly enjoyed the Plateau biography. I have translated a few fragments found on the Internet.1 I have had a look over those images and have played with all movable elements.

Best, Lívia



Time is a very important concept here: the series of images is built upon the per­sist­ence of an image, through which the time of viewing and the time of sight are separated, as the latter occurs after the time of the image. Georg Winter talked in an interview about the motion picture being a psy­cho­physical construct, which devel­ops in the psyche instead of the physical, optical image, while its time of existence resides not in the image content but in the pauses fragmented by these images – in which sensations appear. The endeavor to understand the nature of images along this tradition questions as a matter of fact the ontological character of these images, and treats them not as facts, but as phenomena modeled by sensations.

Best, Szabolcs


To have a look over those images and play with all movable elements.

JosephAntoine Ferdinand Plateau is born in Brussels on the 14th of October 1801. Joseph loses his parents quite soon and is ill quite often, thus he spends a lot of time in the countryside, where he enjoys drawing and collecting butterflies. He also engages in “physique amusante” or recreational physics. He builds demonstration apparatus, organizes séances and astonishes his audience with the originality of his experiments. prepares and presents the first demonstration experiments to various scientific societies – becoming himself an excellent observer in hydrostatics.

Plateau passed away on the 15th of September 1883 and was buried in Mariakerke near Ghent. The grave has disappeared by now.

On 18 June 1815, the day of the battle, Joseph is in a small village near Waterloo: the cannon of the battlefield can be heard. Everyone flees to the forest of Soignies. All this does not seem to make a big impression on the boy. He continues to catch butterflies, visits the battlefield the next day and paints a watercolor there.

Plateau is often called a “martyr of science”. The approach is understandable if one considers his death but it still is an exaggerated imaginative play.

Most of the (popular) publications trace back Plauteau’s blindness to a 1829 experiment, when he has looked into the sun for 25 seconds, uninterrupted. Recent research rejects this. According to the new stance, Plateau had gone blind between 1843 and 44, in a continuous process. In two of his writings Plateau analyses this painful process from a scientific viewpoint. Even forty years after the loss of his eyesight he has still got visual experiences. His colleagues (Duprez, Lamarle, Manderlier, Donny, and Quetelet of course) and his family – especially his wife, Fanny Clavareau, who reads out scientific articles and studies to him on a daily basis and practically act as his secretary – help him in his experiments and their administration. His sister, the artist Josephine probably helps him with his drawings. His son-in-law, Gustave Van der Mensbrugghe (1835–1911)


Dear Szabolcs

Here is another fragment from the heap of observations and collections:

“Karl Popper (1972) has got a famous article entitled ’Of Clocks and Clouds’. Popper says we have basically got two views on the modeling of nature. One is that of the clockmaker, a 17th – 18th century view of mechanics, which considers nature to be a clockwork created by an omniscient clockmaker, within which relations are of a deterministic nature. What does the term deterministic convey? If a cog-wheel fits properly into another, than its movement will expressly determine the movement of the other. Those who understand or see through the design of the construction will certainly understand the whole. We need to open the clock and understand the way its cog-wheels fit into each-other, to the spring on one side and to the clock hand on the other, and we know how the structure works. Nevertheless there is another way to approach nature – a way to which Popper attaches the metaphor of the clouds. What is a cloud like? If we travel on a hot-air balloon or in an airplane, and enter a cloud, the first odd thing to discover is that the thing we see has no sharp boundaries. It is not like diving into water, where we either are on land or in water. The limits of a cloud are obscure. The cloud as a whole is maintained in fact by the continuous, dynamic interaction of water molecules. To under­stand the movement and disappearance of a cloud, or the origin of rain, requires quite a different way of thinking than the understanding of the interrelated movement of cogwheels. Considering nature, says Popper, we need to admit that we are usually inclined to interpret everything as an analogy of clockworks. Nevertheless the circumstances of reality resemble much more some sort of a cloud.”2

Best, Lívia



Those 17th and 18th century scientists who dealt with the analysis of the persistence of images had indeed set out from a deterministic conviction (the defin­ing late 18th century work is Laplace’s book, Mécanique céleste), and by rendering the processes of sight measurable, they tried to establish a quantifiable relation between the imagistic part and the part of sight created by the subject. All the while, historically, their work lead to a contrary effect as well, as the image of the world mapped and understood through sight became possible to utter through the processes which occurred inside the observing subject. I’d say they have bridged the gap between the clockwork and the cloud model with the epistemological significance of the physiological processes which take place inside the observing subject. Nevertheless they determined this subject not within a social, but within a physiological context, while according to one version of the history of eyesight this led to the invention of technical media and the motion picture.

The history of visuality has two parallel versions based on the models of the theatre and the wax-works, a dichotomy which had a defining effect upon the art concept of the present as well. The former (a society of spectacle) is a deterministic view relying on the afore-mentioned traditions, the latter treats the subject not so much as a physiological but as a social entity (the society of power), according to which, with the words of Deleuze: “... tools only exist in relation to the intertwining which they render possible and which, at their turn, render them possible.”3

These two are quite rarely discussed simultaneously, yet a few videos by Harun Farocki (e.g. Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges) could be ranked in this category, at least to the extent they present the history of sight as a process equally determined by technical tools and structures of power and ideology. My aim, the simultaneous presentation of the physiological-perceptual and political-power-related interpretations of sight, is similar, only that I have chosen the “space” of the persistence of the image as a scenery for my attempt. In my approach, this space is not merely of a physiological, but also of a historical-sociological character, as far as the meaning of the images we consume resides not only in their iconic con­tent, but in the effect of various power-discourses upon us as well. To put it straight, the meaning of these images resides not (only) in the media, but also in our own thought.

Best, Szabolcs


Dear Szabolcs

Returning to the Plateau story/legend, I have come across an interview.4 András Fáber did some time ago with the German experimental film-maker Werner Nekes. You mentioned you were dealing with him and his collection in your courses, if I am not mistak­en. He dedicated one of his films on the phenomenon of photophthalmia to the memory of Plateau.5

“While researching the physiology of sight, more precisely the persistence, the ’idle­ness’ of the eye, a century ago, the French Joseph Plateau had looked for such a long time into the sun, that finally he went blind. I deal with this very process, photo­phthalmia, in one of my experimental films, which I dedicated to the memory and spirit of Joseph Plateau. This feature of our eyes allows us to see separate images as one – a process which leads to the illusion of the motion picture on the screen and which also helps create my light-metaphors. The fact that Plateau was the first man in Europe (already blind) to teach the theory of film is yet another intriguing matter – a blind person trying to teach others how to see. Plateau lost his sight because he tried to see and experience things which are hidden to the everyday person. Even if they do not endanger their bodily integrity, those who engage in experiments assume a certain risk – this is only natural.“6

I suppose the legend inspired you in the creation of your video, The Garden of the Blind. Yet your work is not a mere documentary of an experiment but a sketch outlined for the purposes of a planned installation/work. How do the story, the legend and the scientific heritage connect in your view?

I have got another question. While reading one of your older catalogues (the Silicon-waltz-evening) the following sentence caught my eye: “This is a mechanical, manly world, it is exact, calculated and objective, with a disciplined reductionism which leaves room neither for feelings, nor for subjective fascination.“7 Cool erudition versus all-engulf­­ing obsession (and fascination)?

What do you think about all these now (especially with reference to Plateau)?

Best, Lívia



Although the historic authenticity of the legend of going blind is notoriously problematic, the main element of The Garden of the Blind video is the repla­ce­ment of the eye by the camera, a gesture which bears upon historical references (e.g. Vertov). The interpretation of the legend which holds that the methodical and quantitative research of sight liquidates eyesight itself is undeniably attractive, while the event of liquidation can be simultaneously inter­preted as a danger of radical scientific method and as an eternal problem of modern imagery, along which self-referentiality leads to the disappearance of the image.

In the quote, the term “objective, calculated“ becomes the opposite pair of “feelings and subjective fascination” through the classical interpretation of Romanticism, and I believe it is important to mention the alternatives of the art-historical interpretation of Romanticism. Romanticism brought along the idealization of the self, the expression of the new relationship between tra­dition and the subject, but it has also been the momentum of the creation of “the human mind as an inner space, ... where bodily and perceptual sensa­tions became the objects of quasi-observation“.8 In other words it contributed to the creation of a self-reflexive world-view very different from the deterministic one, and this is why Foucault is in a position to say that the attention given to subjective observation (Goethe’s work, for instance) was the threshold of our modernity. He writes: “human knowledge has got a typical character, which defines its forms and which can, in the same time, appear as evident in its empirical content.”9

The philosophical dimensions of the discourse on objectivity, subjectivity, obser­vation and cognizability reach very far, to the complex dilemmas of body and mind, which have a highly effective solution given by Spinoza and quoted by Popper, namely that mind is to regard reality from the inside while matter is to do the same from the outside. I think the simultaneous modeling of this double sight is essentially important in modern art, especially in what pertains to the use of technical media.

Best, Szabolcs


Dear Szabolcs

This might only act as a postscript, still, I would like to hear your opinion of what Nekes emphasizes in the interview quoted above: “The experimenting person takes risks.“ Could we talk about risks with reference to the contemporary art context, and if yes, what kind of risks are those?

Best, Lívia



Plateau’s myth of blindness underlines the risky character of experimentation, because he was researching a field the phenomena of which unfolded within the limits of his own physical integrity, this is why he had to look into the sun with his own eyes, as he needed to see the prevailing image himself... (By the way, he was not alone with this kind of experiment, Brewster, Fechner and probably many others had also experimented with looking into the sun.)

If we understand experimentation to be a search for innovations in various forms of expression (a view which Nekes himself emphasizes when it comes to his works), than I neither consider myself an experimental artist, nor think that the artist should continuously be concerned with his own language structure. Yet I believe that for the sake of clarifying its own possible functions, it is very important for contemporary art to attempt a revision of its traditions. The risk resides in the discovery or loss of this function.

Contrary to the situation of the so-called experimental art of the sixties, the most important issue of the present revolves not around the language but around the function of art.

The search for connections between the historical elements of the research of sight and the present role of images is of utter importance because the way to an understanding of the present social function of art most certainly leads through the concept of the modern subject, the historical essence of which is hardly possible to grasp without the teaching of the 19th century psycho-physiological researches and without a sound knowledge of their influence upon various techniques of representation. As Jonathan Crary writes: “Nevertheless two intertwined roads opened after they had shifted eyesight into the subjectivity of the observer. One of the two led to the multiple strengthening of the newly empowered bodily sovereignty and independence of eyesight both in modernism and elsewhere. The other path brought along the increasing standardization and regulation of the observer, starting from an imagined body and evolving towards various forms of power based on the abstraction and formalization of eyesight.“10 The Evening News (director’s version) is actually situated at the concurrence of these two directions.

Best, Szabolcs

Translated by Noémi László






  3. Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, Minneapolis, 1987, p. 90.

  4. Fáber András, “Fekete és fehér mágia. Beszélgetés Werner Nekes-szel“ [Black and White Magic. Dialogue with Werner Nekes], frame.php?cikk_id=5310

  5. Photophthalmia, 1975 (28’,16 mm, color).

  6. Ibid.

  7. Tatai Zsóka, “Rever”, in KissPál Szabolcs munkák>works> 2000–2001, Budapest, 2002, p. 27.

  8. R. Rorty quoted by Jonathan Crary, A megfigyelô módszerei, Látás és modernitás a 19. században [Observer’s Methods: Gaze and Modernity in 19th century], Budapest, Osiris, 1999, p. 59.

  9. Foucault quoted by Jonathan Crary, ibid., p. 88.

10. Jonathan Crary, Ibid., p. 165.