Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 6, 2017
Noam M. Elcott Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 312 pp.; 145 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226328973)

To produce the photographs in his Theaters series (1975–2001), Hiroshi Sugimoto brought his still camera into darkened movie palaces and opened the shutter for the full duration of the feature. What appears in the image is something that was never quite there—a glowing rectangle of pure white light caused by the superimposition of every frame of the film during the hours-long exposure. The extended time of capture reveals something else, something that was always there but hidden or resolutely ignored during the screening: the theater itself and its impressive, opulent architecture (231). It was cloaked in an intentional and studied darkness made more obscure by the bright, flickering images on the screen. The two—the light and the dark—needed one another to come into being.

Noam M. Elcott’s rigorously researched new book, Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media, argues that the darkness manufactured in these movie theaters and analogous spectatorial spaces constitutes a technology in itself, one often overlooked in favor of the spectacles that it enables. Photography and film may be media of “writing with light,” but they depend, Elcott argues, on a Foucauldian dispositif of “controlled darkness.” Against a “fetishistic” history of film that focuses on the medium as well as the technologies and techniques (such as cameras, cinematography, and editing) that bring it to form as a finished product, either an art object or mass-cultural artifact, Elcott leads the reader to a series of disparate sites of production and reception connected by their reliance on absolute darkness. He asks not what cinema was but rather where it happened. Thus Elcott writes a genealogy of cinema in which “film, light, projected moving images, editing and even cameras play ancillary roles” (10). To bring this media archeology to vision, Elcott lures us into the dark.

He maps the dark sites of image-making and spectatorship in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries across five chapters, marking Étienne-Jules Marey’s Physiological Station, Richard Wagner’s Festival Theater at Beyreuth, Georges Méliès’s Montreuil Studio and Théâtre Robert-Houdin, and Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus theater as the primary locations of this counter-history. In the midst of these respectable and established elements in the various histories of photography, film, theater, and avant-garde dance lurks another set of attractions: the occult novelties of the black arts. Phantasmagoria, Pepper’s Ghost, séances, magic acts, sideshows, and spirit and trick photography all at times marshalled the power of darkness by using a “black screen” to alter the appearance and possibilities of lived reality. Used by Marey, Wagner, Méliès, Schlemmer, as well as fairground charlatans, this apparatus was a combination of pitch-dark caverns, velvet curtains, black props, and bodysuits, with contrasting bright white bits of costume and “dazzler lights.” It produced profound effects of dismemberment, disappearance, and apparent dematerialization. When one turns attention away from proper mediums and delineated art forms and instead focuses on the apparatus that produced artificial darkness in their backgrounds, these practices come together to trace an alternative, shadow history of modernism that disregards any division between the arts, essential properties of a given support, or distinctions between high and low culture. If narratives of modernism from Édouard Manet on, Elcott writes, are preoccupied with challenging the Renaissance illusions of three dimensions in two by affirming the materiality of paint on canvas, then the subjects of his book were turning “modernist flatness inside out” by creating apparently two-dimensional illusions out of deep and almost impossibly dark three-dimensional spaces (8). While some of the artists used photography and film, the phenomenal effects of artificial darkness were not dependent on the medium; in fact, Elcott argues, “the black screen required no medium” or that “the human sensorium was medium enough” (105).

Elcott examines the intricate details of the varied practices of artists and experimenters who used the black-screen apparatus to different ends. Marey’s studies of human and animal motion turned physical bodies into scientific notation and mobilized a “modernist politics where the state disciplined the bodies of its citizens to extract maximum productivity” (155). Wagner, on the other hand, immersed the spectator’s body in a carefully constructed darkness that separated her or his vision from her or his body in the service of seeing the image on stage and forgetting everything in between. Wagner made a theater that was a place to see but not be seen. Méliès married the illusionistic effects of the black screen in his magic theater to the time-altering properties of film in his studio. He could make bodies appear and disappear against the black backdrop, but he could also—through careful multiple exposures and invisible edits—multiply himself in whole or parts to create baffling and wondrous effects in space and time. But he could only do so by understanding cinema as a technology of darkness rather than of light. In Elcott’s final account, it is Schlemmer who actualizes the aesthetic potential of the black screen in his Triadic Ballet for the Bauhaus theater. Here bodies danced with (rather than simply in) darkness, coming in and out of materiality. He interpenetrated “reality with the apparatus” and imbricated the body in a seemingly flat “image-space” which “opened the field for non-destructive technological innervation” (217).

Schlemmer’s consummation of the artistic potential of artificial darkness is welcome, for, as Elcott explains, the black screen’s effects supported an unpleasant sexual politics. While the author resists the visual, metaphorical, symbolic, and cultural associations of darkness with “blackness”—that is of death, negation, and racial otherness—he is interested in teasing out a politics of gender relations, which, like the black screen itself, never fully resolves into view. He tracks the illusionistic violence to and disappearance of anonymous and interchangeable female assistants in magic shows and early cinema against the tendency for showmen, and particularly Méliès, to subject their own bodies to dismemberment and duplication. Unlike the invisible edits and quick cloakings that caused women to vanish from view, men were the subjects of complex physical tricks and multiple exposures that required exacting physical self-discipline. “Men sliced inert celluloid and passive women to demonstrate their mastery of montage,” but the artist or magician himself “attained divinity through his demonstrated integration in and submission to the dispositif of artificial darkness” (155). That is, until acts of “technomasculine” self-mastery became commonplace enough that the artists and showmen directed their attention back to women’s bodies as sites for violent fantasies and spectacular entertainments. The exception to this was Schlemmer’s black screen dance experiments, in which wonderfully novel and cumbersome costumes completely disguised gender and the physical limits of the human body in favor of an abstract flattening of lived space into a graphical image.

Elcott’s book is essential reading for scholars of film and modernism, particularly those tired of essentialist or medium-specific discourses. Its beautiful illustrations, so well suited to black-and-white reproduction, appear as revelations of a forgotten and seductive past. But the most profound implications are those that point to our dark future. In a coda, Elcott surveys more recent summonings of the black arts. Sugimoto’s photographs, James Turrell’s dematerialized light sculptures, Aneta Grzeszykowska’s erotic arabesques of bodies multiplied in video black, Peter Campus’s early green-screen hallucinations, and Anish Kapoor’s simultaneously totally flat and incomprehensibly deep sculptural black holes all make appearances in this quick survey of the legacies of the black screen in the post-photographic and post-cinematic age. It is clear, however, from Kapoor’s enthusiasm for the nanotechnology paint Vantablack that the black arts will return to the direction in which Marey pointed: toward the sciences and the disciplining control of bodies. Vantablack absorbs 99.965 percent of visible light into a microscopic forest of carbon nanotubes. Like the black screen as Schlemmer used it, it makes three dimensions appear as two by negating all visible light, and at the same time it makes a flat two-dimensional spot of paint appear like an infinitely deep black hole. Unlike the historical black screen, which was a physically located architectural apparatus, Vantablack can be applied to any surface to make it disappear, as if a tear has erupted in the fabric of space. It is easy to imagine the effectiveness of such a product in Kapoor’s sculptures, but its applications in new camera-based technologies of surveillance and control are more interesting and pressing. “It will improve the functioning of countless optical instruments, especially in outer space,” Elcott writes. “But its most audacious applications will surely come from its first customer: the defense sector. . . . With Vantablack, the military exploitation of artificial darkness will not be nostalgia for cinema or darkrooms but rather new forms of cosmic military imaging. Not timeless metaphors of death but its often invisible reality” (237). At the end of the photographic era, Artificial Darkness argues compellingly for a suppressed history of the importance of darkness in its earliest days and points to its covert presence in our future.

Kris Paulsen
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art, The Ohio State University