Digital Lightwriting

I’ve followed lightwriting photography ever since discovering the art of Ken Wronkiewicz last fall. While the messages featured in most lightwriting photos are handwritten rather than computer generated, they are no less impressive for it - as in this series of photos by James McAuslan, including “Where am I anyway,” “Who am I anyway,” and “What am I anyway.”

Recently I’ve been thinking about the texture of digital text and what our perceptions of textual reality are for digital documents. What follows is a consideration of text in digital images (and digital text in images) in two contrasting pictures: McAuslan’s lightwriting photo “What am I anyway,” and in Lastexit’s typographic experiment “What I am.”

McAuslan’s image “What am I anyway” is a long exposure with rich colors - the sky is lit either by late sunset or else the city lights against a night fog. The glowing text is framed by an impossible swirl of steel that resembles a mathematically distorted image of a ladder or a set of children’s monkeybars. However, on closer inspection, it appears to be a sculpture in a park. Small clues reinforce the impression of veracity - the undistorted night sky, the rest of the sculpture dimly visible behind the letters, the way the rough light of the sparkler has accumulated in green and yellow pools on the grass and picked out bright lines of reflection off the inside of the curved steel.

what i am by Lastexit
what i am, uploaded by Lastexit

Unlike “What am I anyway,” Lastexit’s “What I am” is not a photograph at all - it is a direct transmission of a computer composition, born digital and living that way. The image consists of four text arrangements in four stark black-and-white panels. While some panels strongly resemble modernist experimental typography, others do not - in particular, the first panel uses lens and distortion effects on the text that appear to be Photoshop filters. With the strong divisions between frames, and each frame treated differently, the content of the first three panels at first seems to float apart, barely connected when read, until the piece is grounded into a kind of concrete prose poem by the strong connection between the third and fourth panel, “more / than.” The text of “What I am” reads:

furious so fervent
seconds : minutes days
be more do more
than what i am

Both pieces are phenomena of light. Both images transmit an impression of a record, the “that-has-been!” that Barthes describes in Camera Lucida. Yet here the that-has-been of the image is not some arrangement of ink / wood / stone / etc., but light itself. Light has been.

In “What am I anyway” the message was invisible to both the artist writing and to anyone occupying the position of the camera. The composition that we now see in the image was never discernible to human vision - the light now evident in the document only became co-present in space and time with the use of the long exposure. Only in the chemical film / digital document is the text of “What am I anyway” collected and co-located for the first time. The photographic memory becomes not just a record of external play, but a space within which one can play. That play is cybernetic - self-reacting, only exists after it is documented and self-registered, never first in-the-world. And yet, we believe in the message - it-has-been - and we believe in the sparkler that was burned and is gone, in a moment when a figure (now unseen) stood on the dim grass and danced through a strange semaphore.

What I am - detailHow close is this unseen dance to the digital editing of born-digital images? What are the mechanistic metaphors for the electronic capture and transmission of our messages and intentions? When we look at Lastexit’s creation, the image does not help aid us much in our attempt to imagining which mouse the creator touched, what image editing software was there. Yet this invisibility perhaps not too different from McAuslan’s invisible camera. Like so many artifacts, the digital document (whose light has-been since creation, and yet never-was) is real in proportion to our belief in some editorial scene, whether indicated by the seconds : minutes of a date stamp or some other metadata. When we imagine such a scene, “What I am” has been, and indeed becomes something more.

1 Response to “Digital Lightwriting”

  1. 1 Vanessa

    I appreciate you using my work in this article and enjoyed it very much. Thank you for sending me the link…sorry so late!

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