Conversation with Miklós Peternák

On the margins of a lecture series


József Mélyi: Does the pictorial turn exist?

Miklós Peternák: Without question, the various types of pictures – first and foremost, technical – have greatly proliferated since previous eras. Earlier, the average man could not meet with such a quantity of pictures over the course of his entire life. The history of the image, or art history, concerns just this: that is, how the appearance of images became necessary within various societies, and how they became an indispensable tool for recognition. Of course, this immediately raised another question: namely, what in fact do we refer to as an image? In the course of our collaboration with vision researchers for a year and a half now, it has become obvious that they presumably understand something different by the notion of image than do artists, art historians or theoreticians. For them, the image is complete illusion – how the brain constructs what is seen. In other words, they in fact do not make a distinction between the sight (what is seen) and the picture, while those who deal with art clearly separate them from each other. For me, the (visual) image is that which we select, separate, delimit from the world of direct vision, a sort of border-concept, construction. Thus, we attribute some kind of meaning to it simply by the fact that a distinction arises between the direct sight-experience and that which we name picture.

J.M.: For you, then, the pictorial turn refers first to the change in quantity, or rather its manageability. Might one say that the turn proceeds from the correlation between the increase in image- consumption and the decrease in image-reflection?

M.P.: I think it is a bit more complicated than that. The decisive novelty appears with the technical image, primarily with photography. It is unequivocal that in the case of the photo, pictures were produced that did not exist earlier, as Fox Talbot said, nature draws itself – to the extent that we create the appropriate physical and chemical conditions. If we successfully execute the scientific experiment, we will certainly obtain the result. Thus, in this case, the creative eye, brain, hand have no direct impact on the making of the image, as was previously the case. It becomes comprehensible, suddenly graspable and simple that the image is a kind of draft, a thing of a conceptual nature. All the additional types of technical images from after the first third of the 19th century were born from this model.

J.M.: Do you consider the history of technical images continuous up to the present?

M.P.: In the case of the computer image, there is a split. Here, we are very close to that which in the case of earlier image types was unattainable: that we can describe an image exactly. By description, here I mean that the precise 0-1 sequence can be given, on the basis of which exactly the same image can be displayed, printed, etc. On the monitor, certain cases of visual potentialities appear; this is an interface that is visually organised. It aids us in getting an insight into a mass of data that is otherwise inaccessible through direct experience.

J.M.: Let us return to the question of what the turn is composed of.

M.P.: Perhaps I can put it more simply if I employ the aid of an analogy. We can imagine a prehistoric condition in which human consciousness began to perceive and process individual groups of sounds as separated from the homogeneously sounding world. Thus, speech was established as the endpoint of a long process deriving from this. There is also a visual field – light – that we sense. We are aware, at least since Newton, that "pure" white light can truly be reduced to its components; this wave domain that is perceptible as vision divides into different colours according to what each material absorbs and reflects. The processing of this visual field – vision – directly relates to imagery. The phase of today”s image production is, as it were, "pre-speech", but on the scale of the above example, a condition of post- differentiation of easily identifiable sound groups. When we meet day in day out with images on billboards, on television, in films, on the computer, on the Internet, that is already a quasi speech-like application of the images, while the artistic expression refers rather to musical representation. If we survey the history of the image, the phases of increasing consciousness are clearly discernible. Since the discovery of perspective, we produce pictures differently, we view pictures differently, and this extends so far that we see the external world differently too. The phenomenon of the camera obscura, for instance, was known for a long time before anyone spoke about the image in connection with the sight revealed through the apparatus. When the presumed illusion of the sight and of the image began to slide into one another through the perspectival image, it became something of interest for a century, and it began to been regarded as something potentially related to the image. We know, as a part of our consciousness, that images can also come into being in a natural way. There are three fundamental forms of image-like phenomena: the projected silhouette, the print and the mirror. Such phenomena as the camera obscura or the mirage join these. These could have generated the direct experience of vision, the comprehension of the environment.

J.M.: This is an archaeological viewpoint. How does this connect to the pictorial turn?

M.P.: The roots of the technical image are found here. An examination of these roots is thus necessary so that we can become acquainted with the images through them – and through the images the world – that of why the images have proliferated, why we employ them and for what we can use them. Photography is likewise print-like, arising through an application in conjunction with the laws of nature. It has much more in common with the silhouette, the print or the mirror than, for instance, painting or sculpture. Those who have seen such images for the first time have immediately recognised this. The history of the image thus takes as its starting point the natural phenomena of these three basic types; therefore, it appears that the image is not exclusively a construction brought into being by man. We must recognise this so that we are better able to deal with the new technical image types and their propagation. The other proceeds of this truly archaeological thinking is that it can assist in revealing just how vision and human thinking could have evolved.

J.M.: What is the relationship between the history of the image and art history?

M.P.: Strangely enough, art history is an earlier discourse, while the history of the image is a more recent proposal. In any case, occupation with images belonged almost exclusively to the jurisdiction of artists for quite some time. Prior to the appearance of technical images, images originating from an artistic context were in the overwhelming majority, and those that were not were incidental. Now this has reversed. The first decisive turn here was also the appearance of perspective; from this point on, the image becomes increasingly interesting for science as well, and for the first time a precise method arises for photography to be employed within this sphere. By today, the situation that has developed is such that science is compelled to manifest itself practically exclusively with images. In parallel, it has proved, however, that there is not yet the required experience and knowledge of the employment of the image, and thus this must be obtained from various sources, and recourse must be taken from the experiences of the most accessible artistic discourse.

J.M.: Nevertheless, it is as if the gesture of the realisation of the image were increasingly disappearing from the public sphere. If you watch on TV, let”s say the anti-globalisation demonstrations, you can barely find a visual composition – it seems to be only textual signs that crop up. Earlier, even just 100 years ago, even in the first half of the 20th century, there surely would have been in such a movement a visual element that summarised the thinking of the demonstrators, since there were so many artists who would even have taken the risk of punishment for producing images against the state, the church, against power, authority. Today there is no more real example of this.

M.P.: The visual milieu that surrounds us is so very powerful and overgrown that you cannot drown it out. That is to say, you can only withdraw further: hand-drawn, textual, a bit out of proportion, in a minimized direction. This is then entirely different from what they are fighting.

J.M.: At the same time, September 11th concerned exactly the power of the image…

M.P.: This is an incredible phenomenon that demands prolonged analysis, that characterises the relation between reality and the image. Béla Hamvas spoke about the revealing and recurring hierarchy, symptomatic of the man-image relation. There is a sentence in the book he wrote together with Katalin Kemény, entitled The Revolution in Art, that says: Until now, the image has stood before man, and now man stands before the image. Thus, the hierarchy has turned; the image takes on a higher level of power. It quasi determines the world and reality better than does man. This is in parallel with Orwell”s Big Brother. It is a fact that this reversed nature has been discerned in the widest variety of ways according to the various branches of science. From the end of the forties until the seventies-eighties, there were countless such refined observations. The investigations of sociologist Katalin S. Nagy, according to which the TV is placed in the sacred corner, are also among these types of observations; they merely entered the discourse in a different way and from another viewpoint. The image quasi oppresses and dramatizes reality; it inverts and transforms life. It foists a choreography onto it which could not necessarily be called healthy. It slipped out of our hands – becoming a greater power. At the conclusion of his lecture in Budapest in 1990 on the Romanian Revolution, Vilém Flusser stated a very important sentence: that we are still not in possession of the philosophy of the image in power. Therefore, we are not able to handle this situation, though it is clear that we must somehow find the way. The eleven or so years that have passed since then, and especially September 11th, demonstrate clearly just how much of a burning question this is. We must handle that mass of images that permeates the empty time of our lives, that type of image-dependency by which it is not the world that we observe, but our lives inhaled through our window opening onto the world, the television. This is an extremely important subset of exactly the same topic. Sitting in front of the TV, a permanent present-tense is generated, in which we have no history, and we do not live our lives. We can make an estimate of how large a portion of our liveable lives is rendered the victim of this phenomenon. I have a favourite quotation from Dostoyevsky”s volume entitled White Nights, in which the protagonist strolls with a lady and asks her, How is it possible that you have no history? How have you lived until now, if there is no history? The possibility of individual destiny is lost. Of course, this is operated by a kind of social rationality because the potentialities of destiny must be fastened down, not to allow that such a mass of disturbing stories emerge that might so much as eliminate social security. So long as man sits before the TV, he will not make a revolution, he will not steal, he will not murder, he will not misbehave. From another point of view, however, one must recognise that there is a correlation between Orwell”s Big Brother, the transformation of the image-man relationship, the television set that is placed in the sacred corner, the Romanian televised revolution, the image in power, the experience of the big show of September 11th , and between the phenomena, so that a particular image-meditational condition is established. People have never watched such a quantity of images, and they have never understood so little. I have an assailable but popular example of a dear acquaintance of mine telling me: I saw you on TV. Well, and what did I do?, I ask. He doesn”t remember. The message does not get across. Not even when very close friends tune in and pay close attention. There is no message – just the constitution of that permanent present state, the meditation before the image, though the image has been completely evacuated and does not send any message at all.

J.M.: Thank you for the discussion.