In the margin of error

In 1882, physician, inventor and photography enthusiast Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) built a device that he named Fusil Photographique. That device was part of a long series of objects that since the invention of photography in the mid-nineteenth century had been built with the aim of expanding the possibilities of the photographic principle. For Marey, however, the fusil was also the result of a convergence of his multiple scientific interests. In 1869 he had built an artificial insect to understand the mechanics of its flight, later becoming interested in the flight of birds and the movement of other animals (he published “Le machine animal” in 1873). For the time, his latest invention was a very sophisticated object. Able to produce 12 frames per second and to fix them in a single image, this strange photographic rifle was a powerful aid to his studies of animal anatomy and motricity, as well as being an important contribution to the knowledge of movement in the image, as indeed the recognized another pioneer in this field, the British Eadweard Muybridge. It is not difficult to understand the fascination that a figure like Marey and his invention can exert on a contemporary artist like Valter Ventura, in whose work interests in photography, in a certain archeology of knowledge and technique, tend to converge.

Marey is a historical figure of particular wealth and importance, but in the eyes of the 21st century his chronophotographic object conveys something bizarre, as if it came out of a book by Jules Verne. With its appearance of a firearm that instead of firing bullets captures images, the rifle brings together two apparently distant activities: photography and shooting. As we get closer to the subject, the initial strangeness in relation to this meeting is, however, being replaced by the suspicion that we might be too hasty. The first clue is in the language. In different languages, hunting and photography often share the vocabulary: capture, snapshot, framing, shooting, aiming, target are concepts that adhere to both activities. This common semantic field is not just a fluke and, as always happens with etymological familiarity, it enunciates other symbolic intercepts that Valter Ventura has been exploring and of which this “Observatory of Tangents” is a provisional point of arrival.

In fact, recovering an object from the past that is itself a cultural crossroads, Ventura proposes to look at the “photographic” in the superposition of its multiple circumstances (technological, philosophical, aesthetic and communicational) unraveling the origin of photography and its various devices the hidden genesis of the identity crisis that photography lives in contemporaneity. In fact, it is not a question of assessing the importance or validity of photography within contemporary art or of Marey's deferred contribution to it, which is real and immediately assumed, for example, by Marcel Duchamp who recognized the importance of Marey's studies and Muybridge for his “Nu descendant un escalier” but, on the contrary, to understand how this relationship is just one of the strands of the tangled skein that converges the complex and fluid notion of photography.

At a time when the nature of the photographic and its permanence as a conceptually circumscribed visual system are shaken by the technological evolution of the image and its displacements in the contemporary communicational system, Valter Ventura proceeds, rather, to an archeology of photography in which Marey occupies a place (tangential?) of irradiation of multiple issues that go beyond it and address the core of contemporary concerns around the image. The summoning of the figure of Marey leads us, therefore, not only to the attempts to culturally configure photographic and filmic practices at the time of its pioneering manifestations, but also to the intersections between scientific fields, technologies, practices and mythologies associated with it in dawns of the epistemological organization of modern science. More than images, objects or actions, what Valter Ventura approaches in this presentation, it is the relationships, nexuses and intersections, the "tangents" (a term so within the vocabulary of shooting and hunting) semantics and signs that these produce among themselves.

Here it all starts with a camera. The camera is a seeing machine, but it is a machine first. With its technical solutions and its resonant design. Well, there is no randomness in design. The shape of the objects corresponds either to their functional needs, or to the aesthetic conditions of the time in which they emerge, or to the mental place in which we collectively place them.
When a technological artifact is established within a society, it does not offer only a usefulness, nor does it embrace only a vocation.
If it is an object or technological apparatus that profoundly creates or alters one of the systems of this society, it always ends up generating its own mythology that, if not defined, provides part of its framework and cultural value at the same time that it is contaminated for aspects apparently strange to its functionality. This is perhaps what Jean Baudrillard is talking about when he refers to a technique and a subconscious system, saying that “From a certain seuil d'evolution technique, et dans la mesure où les besoins primaires son satisfaits, nous avons peut-être autant, sinon davantage besoin de cette comestibilité phantasmatique, allégorique, subconscious de l'object que de sa veritable fonctionnalité.” Baudrillard, p. 181

It is easy to understand this preposition if we look at, for example, one of the most revolutionary objects of the 20th century: the automobile.
When we see a vehicle of the Swedish brand Volvo, we immediately realize that that machine is only intended to be a means of transport aimed at transporting the family. But when faced with an American automobile from the 1950s or a GDR Trabant manufactured in the following decade, we find that there are two completely different ideological prepositions invested in them: one mirroring the self-confidence and libidinal condition of a much more exuberant object that demands its function. ; and the other, on the contrary, contracting into the proudly Spartan condition of car of the people and for the people.
The formulation of a photographic camera as a rifle must therefore be seen as an embodiment of its image as an instrument of capture. This implication was, in fact, always inferred in its use, either in the idea of the photographic image as a time capsule or, for example, in the moments of contact between photography and cultures foreign to its technology that saw in it a threat of usurpation of the subject's soul . At the same time, the abundant use that social sciences, such as anthropology or ethnography made of photography in contact with so-called “primitive” peoples (at the same historical moment when Marey used his fusil to understand the flight of birds) it links to a process of appropriation, agency and classification of the other. Finally, the idea that a photograph proves the occurrence of an event is related to the concrete power of a capture so widely assumed in the journalistic or judicial field.

The relationships between hunting and the photographic act, between shooting and capture, are suggested in several of the pieces presented here. In the set “snapshot” – a common word in photography originating from the vocabulary of shooting that means “quick shot” – we see shot plates of various colors and shapes fragmented by the collision of a projectile. What the images show is employed by two combined actions, the effect of a shot on the matter it hits and the result of the photographic shot that captures the impact of the shot, which suggests a shot reversal movement.
If “snapshot” makes an inventory of irregularities and deviations from the consecutive act of shooting, that is, it surprises the result of an initial projection, “Eye and line – small deviations archive” starts from the opposite premise. Ventura fired on 500 cardboard targets and joined them with a metal rod from the hole produced by the impact, displaying the resulting off-centres and emphasizing the absence of a clear and ideal shot that only exists in the shooter's yearnings.
If these works create among themselves a set of transits between objects, images and actions that leave latent the tension between expulsion and capture that makes tangent to the enunciated activities, “A measurement of the look” brings to the collation another kind of interceptions. On top of a common table V.V. brought together objects, mechanisms, packaging and technical catalogs about shooting and cameras in an inseparable way. The intention is certainly not to confuse the visitor, but to make him find relationships beyond a taxonomic ordering with previously offered functional, cultural or aesthetic parameters. In other words, placing the observer before the object at a time prior to the awareness of its function.

Finally, after the machine-image and the machine-image, we glimpse a last layer in this network: that of the photographic as action. This becomes particularly noticeable in the most evidently performative moment of the exhibition, the video “Fade to Black”. In it, we find a screen split in the center. On the left side, we can see the artist throwing, consecutively, small projectiles. On the right side is a lamp that is the target of the throw; and in the middle the split, the emptiness that distinguishes them but brings them together. The two planes only become a totality when the projectile unites with the light causing it to explode, to paradoxically immerse the entire image in darkness: At that moment, with this moving photograph that is “Fade to black” we can see with John Berger that: “The true content of a photograph is invisible for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time.” (Berger:293)

What the photographs of plates share, the literal sights reached, the artist's own moving gesture that leads to the shattering of the lamp is neither a condition (technological, aesthetic, ontological) of the image, fixed or in motion, nor that of a thing achieved, but the phantasmatic status of an action in time, based on the calculation that configures it. In a book only apparently eccentric to this discussion entitled “The Gentleman's Art of the Zen Archer”, Eugel Herrigen narrates his Japanese experience of learning the spiritual art of shooting, starting by noting how that practice has become obsolete from a point of view. war because of the technological advances of modern War had revealed all its spiritual dimension and an ethics, a possible way of being in the world. With his Zen master, Herrigen understood that “Archery, in the traditional sense, that is, respected as an art and honored as a precious cultural heritage, is not considered by the Japanese as a simple sport that is perfected with progressive training, but as a spiritual power arising from exercises in which the spiritual is harmonized with the target.” (p.16) Because, by being the subject of a certain tension, strength or breathing, “In the end, the shooter aims at himself and perhaps at himself even get it right." (p.16)

What does this have to do with photography? Apparently nothing and, in fact, everything. Valter Ventura's “Observatory of Tangents” is a territory of captures that turn into dispossessions, but it is above all a place to ponder the relationships established around photography, aware that we are, for any of us, and, above all, for an artist, it is all the more valuable as this liquid entity in search of itself is.

Celso Martins (art critic)
for the exhibition/catalogue "Observatory of Tangents"
National Museum of Contemporary Art
Lisbon, 2017