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New Lamps For Old

F. David Peat

A text only version of this essay is available to download.

Todd Watts invites us to enter into a visual enquiry that is sensual, seductive, tactile and, at times, disturbing, disorienting and provocative. His deeply engaging images evoke the sorts of questions that are always associated with the best of the arts and, as such, can be interpreted in many different ways. The images suggest that we should consider them the results of investigations working towards the creation of subtle and complex visual codes through sustained artistic and scientific enquiry.

Watts poses explicit questions about our biological and perceptual relationship to the environment and our bodies; about what it means to leave the surface of the planet and what is implied by altering our human physicality; about our relationship to the earth and how we come to decode and encode experiences remote from anything we have experienced in our evolutionary past.

These ethical and moral questions about our future are as much the responsibility of the artist as of the scientist, philosopher or sociologist. Indeed, they are the contemporary instances of a line of enquiry that stretches back through the history of art to the first cave paintings. These pictures deal with those eternal questions of the nature of human consciousness, its ability to interpret and transform the world, and of our existential position within the universe. While Todd Watts may address such contemporary issues as genetic engineering, space travel and planetary reconstruction, in a deeper sense, he is visually rephrasing questions that have been posed since the dawn of human history.

Using, for example, the medium of verbal metaphor, Emily Bronte explored the influence of a bleak Pennine environment upon the human spirit. But the winds that wuthered across her dark northern moors did so precisely because, thousands of years earlier, richly forested tracts of land had been denuded and eroded by generations of Neolithic farmers. Human consciousness transformed the landscape and, in turn, consciousness responded, accommodated, internalized and symbolized that change. Painters of the quattrocento depicted landscape in terms of gently terraced Italian hillsides, the results of hundreds of years of human occupation; they were also drawn to develop the visual code of perspective in order to explore the richness of space within their urban environments. Caravaggio explored the spatial possibilities inherent in the way directed light reveals the dimensionality of grouped human figures, thereby allowing a transgression of the picture plane. In the north, artists became concerned with the way light enters domestic interiors through doors and windows and falls upon the rich new materials that were being imported from all over the known world. These paintings are optical experiments concerned with the reflection of light, the transformation of shapes by convex and concave surfaces, the nature of color as light passes through transparent objects and the ways in which the eye responds to differing levels of illumination. Again and again, art plays a role in exploring and encoding the way consciousness responds to a changing environment.

It is perhaps no coincidence that, decades later, research should be undertaken about the nature of light, color and optical phenomena by scientists like Newton and Huygens. Again, towards the end of the nineteenth century, painters directed their investigations into the relationship between light and material form, researches that were to be paralleled in the scientific field by Planck, Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg.

Photography was introduced in the nineteenth century as a new instrument of enquiry, one that is common to both science and art. Much of the data that reaches us in astronomy and elementary particle physics, does so in the form of photographic images. Similarly, the photographic process has become an active tool of research for the artist. Todd Watts' work falls firmly in the tradition of this enquiry, a lineage that includes such figures as Velazquez, Caravaggio and Delacroix, Newton, Einstein and Bohr, who, in their various ways, research and encode the meanings of our human existence, the nature of consciousness and our relationship with the universe. Indeed, one senses in Watts' work, a responsibility to continue this dialogue, particularly in light of the rapid transformations that now face us.

Our species evolved within a narrow range of biological constraints and our visual apparatus is the result of a long evolutionary history. Our eyes, for example, respond to a narrow range of electromagnetic frequencies appropriate to life on Earth; we learned to walk upright and are constantly aware of the clues of horizon and gravity; we detect edges, boundaries, fields of texture and movements; we understand the complex codes of information inherent in reflected light and shadow that come from natural sources, and, more recently, we learned to relate to new textures and materials, artificial light sources, and the regular geometrical shapes of buildings, furniture and roads. In turn, systems of encoding this information, developed by generations of artists, help us to understand the nature of our shared reality.

Today, as we begin to leave the surface of the planet, we ask ourselves what it means to live in a habitat devoid of familiar visual clues and methods of orientation. Much of this information comes in the form of photographs and video images, data transformed and compressed through the photographic process, yet often presented in a raw and undigested form. If we are to understand the implications of this new world, we should begin by asking a maker of images, someone who uses the technology of photography as a tool of artistic research. Visual artists have always been concerned not only with ways of seeing and depicting, but with the complex processes that take place when one confronts an image, processes that involve intellect, emotion and memory, as well as vision.

Artworks are vehicles of data compression, arenas in which vast of amounts of information can be encoded and, subsequently, unpacked by the viewer. In this sense, the strategies of compute vision and artificial intelligence appear superficial when placed beside the researches of the greatest artists. Todd Watts' work can be placed within this tradition of enquiry. Just as within advanced communications technology, computer programs are provided to "unpack" compressed data, so too, Watts provides visual clues that direct us towards strategies whereby we can read his images. In the series, "Gas Giant", we are suspended in space against a backdrop of stars. An archaeologist's measuring rod floats before us and its shadow falls across what? A rock a few feet away from us, or an asteroid tens or hundreds of miles in size? The longer we look, the more we attempt to interpret, and the more questions are forced on us to answer. The images are, after all, no more than a pattern of tones on a flat surface. Why then, does the sky appear so distant? Are those grids marks located on the surface of the image, or do they float in space? Is this a real rock, or something constructed out of varying intensities of light? And what do these questions tell us about our way of seeing, about the tactile, prehensile nature of our eyes, that they should wish to reach out and caress the world?

Much of the information we gain about the universe is presented in terms of electromagnetic waves that enter the eye or camera lens. If humans are to live in space, or on the planets, for any extended period, we must develop new ways to decode this rich source of data. Maybe traditional ways of seeing will begin to change. After all, the human form is not adapted for the environment of space, and this, for Todd Watts, opens up another vista - that of the modification of the human form.

What is a human being when its physical form changes? How are we to make decisions about genetic engineering when not only are we unable to visualize such a future but when our present society still has problems with current human diversity? "Are We Not Men, Study for a Frieze, Particles", presents recombined regions of the human body within a precisely crafted context that is rich in visual information. As the eye moves across the image, from flesh to star field, from image to frame, it is confronted with paradoxes and ambiguities of distance and dimension, form and texture. We are drawn into relationship with the sensuousness of human flesh yet, at the same time, disturbed by the unusual nature of its form, and by the texture and color with which it is associated - elements of visual data that immediately relate the image to the tactile quality of the picture frame itself. As the eye explores dimensions of form, void and star field, it also scans across a series of marks. In some of the images, the marks evoke grids found in NASA photographs of planetary surfaces. In others, they are a disturbingly non-periodic arrangement of dots. These marks, moreover, by refusing to attach themselves onto the flesh beneath, thereby force it to occupy a middle distance and, in consequence, expand the scale of the human form beyond recognizable limits.

"Methane Breather" and "Radio Rain" also deal with elements of the human body. These images suggest that, just as the human body, which is the expression of an underlying genetic code, is now becoming plastic; so too, the way we read these images responds to new systems of visual coding. Each image represents Watts' mastery of the photographic process and is the result of careful visual research, research within a wider context of the history of art. Yet, paradoxically, by dealing with a projected future, Watts is also reminding us that when we look at a photograph, we are responding to the past in a rich multiplicity of ways. In a traditional photograph, time is present as shutter speed and the interval between perception and registration. Scientific photography is concerned with the limits of time intervals, the time taken by light from the most distant parts of the universe to reach the film surface, and with the speed of quantum events. In Einstein's relativity, however, time and space become unified and light is the medium of their connection.

Todd Watts is fully aware of this and, through working with the medium of light, he is constantly discoursing with the complementarity of space and time. Within his work, space is manifest as form, surface, texture and dimensionality and time is present through the transformation of human consciousness. More specifically, time exists in the intentionality of the viewer, who, drawing upon visual codes created by a legacy of artists, thereby, by the very act of examining, actively creates a continuum of change. Within Todd Watts' work, therefore, past and future, time and space, become encoded onto the flat space of a photographic image set within a frame and we, the viewers, are invited to animate its complex dynamics through our acts of seeing.

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