Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Raymond Red's Camera Obscura

Just saw Raymond Red's installation Camera Obscura at the NCCA gallery. It's up till the end of the month, which means about a week from the day of this posting. In theory, it is not a conceptual coup: it's essentially a room-sized pinhole camera, something that used to be set up regularly in the 19th century. It's said that one Ibn-al-Haitham built one as early as the 10th century. That Leonardo Da Vinci described one in the Codex Atlanticus is a matter of public record, and so on. Still, everything is obvious once it's been done, and the fact remains that no one living in the current art/filmmaking/photography scene remembers of one ever having been set up. Second, several artists and filmmakers who saw the work remained under the impression that the image was being created with a video projector until suitably enlightened, in spite of the hole being clearly visible, and the hypothetical projector being clearly INvisible. Third, it's a whole different thing to experience the damn thing.

Who knew that a pinhole camera would produce a black-and-white image? Some time ago an unconventional photography teacher had the idea of getting his students to make pinhole cameras out of Nido cans, and stick photo paper in the things. I think Jerry Tan or Roberto Chabet had the bright idea of displaying the prints in Megamall. Of course, it is chemistry lab hell to hand print color prints, temperatures have to be maintained, it involves at least thrice as many chemicals as black-and-white printing, etc etc etc. In short, that the prints were in black and white was no indication that the the live image produced by a pinhole camera would actually look black and white to the human eye.

Of course, the light on the wall contains all the colors of the rainbow. The reason that the image is in black-and-white is that we have 2 kinds of cells in the eye: cone cells and rod cells. The cone cells can process color information, and require relatively large amounts of light to do so. The rod cells can only process brightness, work at low levels of light. In fact the photoreactive pigment used by the rod cells -rhodopsin- breaks down under high light levels. It takes time to re-form. The amount of time it takes for rhodopsin to stabilize is the amount of time it takes for our eyes to become adjusted to dark environments. Now, the light levels in Red's camera obscura (Latin for "dark room") is so low that only the rod cells can work. This is why we cannot perceive color in the image it produces. This also means that it is highly likely that you will not be able to see anything at all upon stepping into the room. Be patient. Enter, close the curtain and wait.

It is a calming, meditative space. The image of the street outside is (aside from being black-and-white) upside-down, and spread out not only upon the wall opposite the hole, but upon one the wall on the left as well. Cars speed up when they cross the adjacent wall, an effect of the keystoning/foreshortening produced by the tilted projection surface. Street sounds are muffled. This inaudibility, coupled with the black-and-white aspect, can give the impression of looking into some fragment of the 19th century, an impression which the passing cars do not dispel, and which the odd calesa* (remember we're in Intramuros, the old walled city. ) heightens. I wouldn't mind having a room in a house dedicated to such a view. Maybe a motel ought to set up a bank of camerae obscura, for lovers of a melancholy bent.


* Horse-drawn carriage

PS Although "obscura" means "dark" in Latin, "obscure" of course means "hidden from view" in English, an etymological detail that seems to resonate with the fact that this installation is located in the NCCA. For those of you in topographical darkness, the NCCA gallery is the lobby of the NCCA building, and the NCCA building is in Intramuros, on General Luna Street (the street on the right side of Manila Cathedral) between Sta Potenciana and Victoria. Camera Obscura is inside the glass-partitioned space to the left of the Main entrance. There are ancient cameras on display inside said glass-walled space and a looping display of Raymond's contribution to the full-length digital omnibus film Imahe Nasyon (see next post). Unfortunately, the NCCA is only open during office hours on weekdays. Cheers!

PPS Raymond says that if you see it at the brightest time of the day, ie late morning till late noon, enough light enters the room for the eye to make out colors: the blue of the sky, greens, (trees?) and bright reds.

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