Tricks of the Light: Essays on Art and Spectacle | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Tricks of the Light: Essays on Art and Spectacle

Tricks of the Light: Essays on Art and Spectacle
by Jonathan Crary

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2023
272 pp., illus. 92 b/w, 8 col. Hardcover, $32.00
ISBN: 9781942130857.

Reviewed by: 
Stephen Petersen
February 2024

The arresting cover design for this volume of twenty-five essays on art and visual culture features a work not actually discussed in the book itself: Media Burn (1975), the satirical performance by the San Francisco collective Ant Farm. The jacket photograph shows the climactic moment when the “Phantom Dream Car,” a 1959 Cadillac retrofitted to resemble a jet plane, crashes through a pyramidal wall of burning television sets. The image appears within the book as well, midway through the seminal 1984 essay, “Eclipse of the Spectacle.” Though not commented upon in the text, Media Burn is emblematic of many of the themes running through this rich collection, having to do with spectacle, mass media, and modern technology. Specifically, television and the automobile (and their intersection) feature frequently in these pages. Highlighting the motion blur of the speeding car, the photograph illustrates velocity even as the stack of televisions conveys a sense of technological obsolescence. Perhaps above all, the vision of shattering, literally and metaphorically, the façade of electronic screens reflects the overriding concern of these writings.

In the nearly four decades over which these essays appeared, Crary authored a series of influential books exploring the transformation of subjectivity within an increasingly mediated visual environment, starting with the early 19th century (Techniques of the Observer, 1990), through the turn of the 20th century (Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture, 2000), and leading to the 21st century (24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 2013). His broad subject is the way human perception is instrumentalized and commodified within the culture of modernity.

Against the backdrop of these larger studies and the worldview they establish, these more occasional articles, essays, and reviews examine a range of topics, responding to specific theorists, authors, artists, architects, and filmmakers. Sequenced in the order in which they were initially published, the writings each stand alone, but they also work together in interesting ways. Explains Crary in his introduction, “My title, Tricks of the Light, is at least partly a shorthand for all the ‘techniques of the observer’ that have tethered us to a reified world of increasingly dematerialized commodities. But it also stands for the visionary projects of artists that challenge or elude the many phantasmagoric spheres of engineered appearances” (p. 9). This dual reference, turning on the possibility of light as an agent of control on the one hand, and method of resistance on the other, animates the book. Against the dominating technologies of digital culture, Crary highlights “counterpractices of chromaticism, opticality and luminosity” (p. 10) that suggest ways to recover powers of perception and attention.

The first half-dozen pieces consist of Crary’s early art criticism, each analyzing select works by an individual artist. The opening essay, published in 1976, focuses on Allan Kaprow’s “Activities” – participatory performance pieces that take place outside of art institutions and are political not in their content, but in their formal structure, which defies typical patterns of consumption. Kaprow, writes Crary, “appears aware of the increasing technical capacities of commercial and financial institutions to dominate the material conditions of our lives so that existence becomes spectacular (in the sense of looking on or watching) and that life itself, let alone art, becomes a show to be contemplated passively” (p. 20). Crary here establishes a theme that he develops in what follows, namely the near-existential threat posed by ever more insidious forms of cultural domination, spectacle broadly conceived. Passivity of experience – contrasted with Kaprow’s “Activities” – is an evolving condition of modernity, spurred by a mix of technological innovations and rapacious capitalism.

These forces increasingly transfix the subject, as Crary makes explicit in the first of several essays to explore contemporary cinema. “Psychopathways: Horror Movies and the Technology of Everyday Life,” published in 1982, traces the evolution of filmic horror from the psychological distress of Alfred Hitchcock to something more like a screen-induced terror epitomized by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and by the films of David Cronenberg. In The Shining, he writes, alluding to a genre epitomized by the “Living Dead” films of George Romero, “A narcotic consumption of images and paralysis of desire perpetuates a death-in-life more unsettling, more threatening than the zombies or pod people of other horror movies” (p. 90). Crary sees contemporary horror “not in what is repressed but in the networks of images and institutions that function to ‘normalize’ individuals” within a “specific technological and social landscape” (p. 95).

The omnipresence and inescapability of luminous screens is the motif that runs through the rest of the book as an inescapable social reality, which artists work both within and against. In an essay on the video artist Gretchen Bender’s dizzying 1987 installation Total Recall (whose stack of television sets recalls the arrangement in Ant Farm’s Media Burn), Crary argues that the work reflects “a homogenous and ubiquitous media culture” even as it “deranges our customary habits of television viewing and explodes it into fragmented and multiplied configurations” (p. 123). For Crary, Bender’s multi-channel work confronts the dominance of the video screen in society and its effect upon the viewing subject. It evokes “the pathos and tragedy of … the imposition of an electronically induced hyperperception on human beings” and “makes us visually aware that the present is a historical moment, a time when technology is forcing wrenching changes in human perception from which there is no going back” (p. 126). Total Recall dramatizes the problem of technological overstimulation and its deleterious effects on everyday sensory experience.

Despite its decades-long dominance, television is ultimately for Crary a transitional medium, growing out of analog mechanical reproduction (specifically photography and film) and leading into the realm of digital data streaming. Several essay address what Crary terms “the problem of television and its metamorphosis,” starting with 1984’s “Eclipse of the Spectacle,” where he argues that “… television as a system which functioned from the 1950s into the 1970s is now disappearing and being reconstituted at the heart of another network in which what is at stake is no longer representation, but distribution and regulation” (p. 99). Symptomatic of this transformation is the collapse of previously discrete media, the “convergence of home computer, television, and telephone lines as the nexus of a new social machinery.” The spectacle, theorized by Guy Debord as the replacement of authentic relations by “images of possessible objects” in the form of mass-media representations, here gives way “to digitized flows of data, to the glow of the video display terminal and its lure of unbounded access” (p. 102). Now, “pure flux itself” is the commodity (p. 103).

This essay, written 40 years ago (in the first decade of the personal computer era), anticipates the conditions and challenges of our present day, when lighted screens dominate many aspects of life. Although he does not exactly predict the development of smartphone technology and the ensuing changes to patterns of consumption, Crary presciently points to the confluence of different kinds of data streams (visual, informational, financial) in a single digital display and the transformation and manipulation of the subject under the spell of having ever-more-rapid access to increasingly hyperreal experience – while being contained and isolated in an electronically mediated environment. “The disciplinary apparatus of digital culture,” he writes, “poses as a self-sufficient, self-enclosed structure without avenues of escape, with no outside,” concluding that its “myths of necessity, ubiquity, efficiency, of instantaneity require dismantling … in part, by evading the separation of cellularity, by refusing productivist imperatives, by inducing slow speeds and inhabiting silences” (p. 110).

Perception, in Crary’s view, is the nexus of social control within modernity. In a 1996 essay on Thomas Edison and Fritz Lang, he writes of the “constant remaking of the conditions of sensory experience” amid the ceaseless transformation of media. “What we familiarly refer to as film, photography, and television,” he argues, “are transient and malleable elements within an accelerating sequence of displacements, amalgamations, and obsolescences within the destabilizing processes of modernization” (p. 148). Attention and attentiveness are undermined and at the same time monetized, as the “changing configurations of capitalism push distraction to new limits and thresholds, with unending introduction of new organizations of sensory experience, new sources of stimulation and streams of information, and then respond with new methods of regulation but also productively harnessing perception” (p. 149). The requirement that perception be made productive is an inexorable and ultimately alienating aspect of modern capitalism for Crary.

Art offers the possibility of resisting such “productivist imperatives.” A 1999 lecture, “Robert Irwin and the Condition of Twilight,” focuses on a pair of entire-floor installations at Dia Center in New York where Irwin partitioned the open space with fine white scrims illuminated by a changing mix of natural daylight and colored fluorescent tubes. By all accounts the installations highlighted the perceptual experience of light and color in a way that could not be photographed or reproduced, and which engaged the viewer both visually and bodily as well as in relation to other bodies in space. Crary sees Irwin’s work “posing a set of counterpractices whose effects become evident only in relation to dominant ways in which perceptual experience is currently being refashioned and regulated.” Irwin’s experiential art specifically challenges “the overriding assumptions that productive time, social time, leisure time, essentially all waking time, can or should be usefully spent within the immobilizing interface of a human subject with a luminous screen and keyboard.” Irwin counters the resulting “atrophy and constriction of the range of possible perceptual and sensory experience” by creating “a milieu of singular nonrecordable phenomena for a mobile and spatialized observer” (pp. 177-178) – luminous screens of a different order altogether.

Irwin’s project, in Crary’s view, “is the provisional making of a clearing in which singular effects of relative slowness and silence are produced within a larger field of sensory dilation” (p. 178). The terms “slowness and silence” echo the close of “Eclipse of the Spectacle” written fifteen years previously where Crary called for “inducing slow speeds and inhabiting silences” as ways to evade the “social machinery” of digital culture. Specifically, Irwin’s work offers a “heightened optical experience” by creating “conditions of dimness and obscurity in which nothing machinic can match the discriminations of which the human eye is capable” (p. 186). Notably, it utilizes “scotopic vision,” primal low-light vision that, using only the rods of the retina, is basically below the threshold of electronic screen displays. By cultivating such vision, Irwin invites his viewers to look with a fuller and more nuanced range of perception than that afforded by typical designed visual experiences.

Writing about the painter Bridget Riley in 2008, Crary similarly extols the power of the “human sensorium,” pointing to Victorian critic John Ruskin’s understanding of vision as “always an open-ended process without a final goal or object,” possessing an “inexhaustible capacity for refining its own limits and sensitivities” when engaged in the endless perceptual experience afforded by nature or art (p. 221). Yet, in his 2009 introduction to Paul Virilio’s Aesthetics of Disappearance, Crary laments the “ongoing incapacitation and neutralization of vision”:

Over the last century vision has increasingly been denied any hierarchy of objects within which the important could be distinguished from the trivial, as figure might be isolated from ground. Without these distinctions vision becomes a derelict and uninflected mode of reception and inertia, incapable of seeing.” (p. 226)

Crary distinguishes between vision reduced to a technical function, characterized by passivity and as it were de-natured, and vision, capable of seeing, as a defining human activity and way of interacting with the world.

In the face of the “nonstop digital management of our now microprogrammed and placeless lives” (p. 227), Crary is circumspect about art’s power to transform the structure of society. Discussing the work of South African artist William Kentridge, he notes that among artists “…there is a shared recognition that art does not produce social change, nor can art directly agitate effectively on its behalf.” Instead, he suggests, “What it can do is to provide unfamiliar vantage points from which the apparent necessity of dominant perceptual and cognitive habits can be unsettled or dismantled” (p. 212). The optical metaphor of “unfamiliar vantage points” is perhaps less about seeing things from different aspects than about shifting the act of seeing itself, disrupting predictable patterns of vision. In a 2010 discussion of Los Angeles-based German photographer Uta Barth, Crary calls this, “wayward seeing” (p. 245).

Barth’s photographs of peripheral lighting effects, like Irwin’s installations (which not incidentally had a formative influence on her), explore the ineffable subtlety of human perception, what Crary terms “the often inexpressible texture of lived experience”; they establish a decentered way of seeing that “functions without seeking points of focus, climax, or attraction” (p. 245). And like Irwin’s work, Barth’s has special significance, for Crary, as an alternative to dominant modes of visuality in digital culture:

… in a present in which the impoverishment and routinization of human perception is only intensifying, the urgency and importance of Barth’s art is incontestable. … She solicits from the viewer a patience, a suspension of the pervasive habits and speeds of visual consumption.” (pp. 244-245)

For Crary much is ultimately at stake in the difference between vision reduced to visual consumption (passive, accelerated, constricted, habitual) and vision as seeing (active, slowed down, dilated, unpredictable). As he repeatedly suggests, it is critical to preserve a distinction between the two.