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Light Machines
Xavier Veilhan [see all titles]
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Elie During - Dream Material (p. 16-18)

The mechanism behind the Light Machines bears the simplicity of all beautiful inventions. A thousand electric light-bulbs arranged in a grid on a flat aluminum support (32 by 30, or exactly 1024), form the analog frame that produces a low-resolution video image. Each bulb responds to one pixel of the digital field by switching on, switching off, or by continually varying the intensity of the light emitted to conform to the coded movements of the “original” image. The translation is primarily an operation of simplification through recoding: the video signal is reduced to pure intensities of electric light gradually distributed and modulated across the whole surface of the “tableau”. This simplification is also a change of regime, since it ends up blurring the original form, as happens when one enlarges a photograph. The tableau requires the spectator to step back in order to restore the image’s overall appearance and signification. But at the same time, it irresistibly beckons. It forms a total sensorial experience, visual and corporeal at the same time: one must allow for the possibility of circulating in all directions throughout the exhibition space—interspersed with the variable presence of the panels standing tall like so many sculptures or steles—not to mention the intense heat produced by these walls of light-bulbs.
What is earned in this exchange, in the shift from the electronic image to the electric one? At first, something like a searing intensity, which explains the staggering effect produced in the spectator. The immediacy of the scenes engendered by the Light Machines has no equivalent in the cinematographic image, which is nonetheless reputed for being naturally mimetic. First of all, they lack narrative structure: Xavier Veilhan has chosen to loop short sequences, alternating tracking shots and stills. There isn’t any real montage to speak of; instead, a collage of animated images. It is possible to recognize generic forms, stripped of their details, reduced to intense relations of luminosity: a horse, the bust of a woman, a closeup of an eye, the dance of a formless character. These figures, and we see it well as we approach them, are reduced to abstract or material properties, which boils down to the same thing here: these are pannings, trackings, or still yet, thick moving masses carved out of the darkness.
The principle of the mechanism is transparent (and in this sense, much more immediate than that of the cinematograph); therefore its effects are all the more surprising. One has the impression of witnessing a new genesis of forms. The Light Machines are matrices. They transpose the very principle of the videographic field into a “low-tech” mode, with the crude “grain” of the tightly packed light-bulbs. But in using an analog medium in this way to replay digital images, they confer those images with an incomparable presence. “What really matters to me is the visual realm in its immediacy, that is, without mediation, in instantaneity,” explains Veilhan (interview, Libération, August 19, 2006). It is precisely this concern that aligns him with certain experimental film practices, even though his machines are incomparably more sparing: one recalls Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Licht-Raum-Modulator, a space-time modulator meant to endlessly create pure rhythms of electric light, veritable photo-cinematic ballets.

That sums up the mechanism. It doesn’t take much to see that the artist applies an ironic and apt formula there: “I make minimal Pop art motivated by a conceptual program.” The Pop reference is obvious: square formats, with their generic images, naturally bring to mind lighted signs and the animated graphics that brighten our urban decors. Minimalism refers to the process itself, the loss of detail and of anecdote that leads to the purification of images. Veilhan’s Light Machines are as Pop as his sculptures lacquered with industrial paint, as minimal as his studio covered with black plastic sheeting. As for the conceptual program, it is accomplished precisely in the gap or the intermediary space cleared away by the process of translation when the immaterial film of the digital imagery detaches and dissolves in the simultaneously hot and impersonal wall of light-bulbs. There is something analogous to the gesture of sandblasting aluminum panels through which the Paysages- Fantômes (Phantom-Landscapes) transform a digital photograph into a tableau-sculpture. Therefore, one should speak of phantom images: images without referent and even without screens, suspended, floating images, reduced to pure pulsations of light, fugitively incarnated in the blinking light-bulbs that enliven them, that cause them to vibrate for an instant, as if pervaded with luminous quivering, before they are plunged into darkness. And certainly, as Michel Gaultier has effectively shown, one of the conceptual stakes of the Light Machines is to drive home, thanks to this spectacle, the abolition of any antagonism between abstraction and figuration. The images, perceptible from a distance, plunge back into a pure play of light and abstract forms as soon as we reduce our distance from them: “there are only a few steps between abstraction and representation.” (“Xavier Veilhan, recto & verso”, artpress, September 2004). Abstraction, one could say, is a question of resolution, and so adifference of degrees, not of nature. This was already the lesson of La Plage, with its panoramic landscape in low-resolution, reduced to a simple field through pixellization.
It is possible to ask, however, if photographic practice had not already administered this lesson long ago, with its capacity to blow-up a print to the point of misrecognition. Anyone can verify this, quite simply, by putting their nose to a Rubens or a Delacroix so as to really appreciate the impasto (“paste”), such as connoisseurs do when they imagine they can capture a painter’s manner through a formless play of matter and color. But it is unlikely that this is where the essential lies. The floating and mute images the Light Machines produce have perhaps less to do with questions of abstraction (in its relationship to representation) or of the ideality of form (in its relationship to the materiality of the medium), than they do with the virtual, which is already the problem of the difference between digital images and photograph or cinematographic images. We could say that the Light Machines offer a rustic version of the virtual image, while accentuating their spectral character. For the phantom images materialized by the quivering light-bulbs are less the translation of an ordinary perception than the plastic equivalent of a kind of retinal persistence. The important thing is not that the images, translated into pure quanta of light and shadow, find themselves disfigured. Rather, what is important is that vision plunges back through there into a sort of materiality of the image that is not, in fact, other to representation, but something like its lining or its nocturnal side: rendered as a form of material reverie, the image is not abolished but attains its greatest state of slackening, its maximal point of dispersion. What is a phantom-image? Not an abstraction, nor even a mental image; it is what the inside of a closed eyelid, turned toward light, retains of the real image.

There is no verso to the image, no medium or opaque background opposed to the figure (this is where minimalism is still pious), but only a rustling or a lapping of luminous intensities, pure differential relations that will only become image through an act of perceptive synthesis, by finding themselves gradually (re) integrated into a whole form. Here is the virtual, which is the lining, or rather the fringe of every image. Envisaged from this angle, the Light Machines evoke a kind of phantasmagoria whose stakes Bergson revealed in a short text that sketches out a materialist (that is, non-hermeneutic) theory of the dream. The dream is commonly associated with simulacra, illusion, fantasy, in order to better oppose it to the tangible reality of the perceived. It is this received notion that must first be corrected:
“First, however, let us ask,—Is there nothing at all ? Is there not some actual material offered to the organs of sight, touch, hearing, etc., during sleep as well as when we are awake ?
Let us close our eyes and see what is going on. Most people would say there is nothing going on. That is because they are not carefully attending. First, there is a black background. Then appear colour blotches, sometimes dull, sometimes of singular brilliancy. These spots spread and shrink, changing form and tone, constantly shifting. The change may be slow and gradual, or it may be extremely rapid. Whence comes this phantasmagoria ? Pysiologists and psychologists have described it as “light-dust,” “ocular spectra,” “phospenes.” They attribute the appearances to the slight modifications which are ceaselessly taking place in the circulation of blood in the retina, or to the pressure which the closed lid exerts upon the eyeball, causing a mechanical excitation of the otic nerve. But the explanation of the phenomena and the name we give them matter little. The appearances are common experience and they are no doubt “such stuff as dreams are made of.” (“Dreams” in Mind-Energy)
These are spots of color, of light, or shadow which, when they consolidate at the moment we doze off, draw the contours of objects that will make up the dream. These are the ones we will find again if, for a few moments upon awakening, we make the effort to retain the dream images that are about to dissipate:
“At that moment we may see the objects of the dream dissolve into phosphenes, become melted into the coloured spots which the eye really perceived when the lids were closed. We are reading, let us say, a newspaper ; that is the dream. We wake up, and of the newspaper with its printed lines there is now a white spot with vague black rays ; that is the reality. Or the dream is carrying us through the open sea—all around us the ocean spreads its grey waves crowned with white foam. We awake, and all is lost in a blotch of pale grey, sown with brilliant points.”
Such stuff as dreams are made of is this “visual dust”. The Light Machines produce a kind of diurnal equivalent to it. They also suggest, in their own way, that our vision of the real world (mediatized or not through video recording machines) is elaborated in just about the same way as our dreams. This is also the point toward which Bergson’s reflections converge: perception is a kind of continuous hallucination through which our memories, “invisible phantoms” hidden in the obscurity of our memories, project themselves onto the luminous and quivering surface on which forms take shape. The slightest solicitation (a streak in the darkness, a whirlwind of dust in the blinding whiteness of the real) makes them rush outside to insert themselves in the perceptive frame and to make us recognize figures, objects. Therefore, the state of being awake does not differ in its nature from the dream in which we believe we are erring: it is a question of degrees, or of regimes of activity. From this intuition, Xavier Veilhan’s phantom images give a more immediate, and often more elegant, transposition than virtual imagery’s profusion of artifices.