Negative Space in the diagrammatic imaginary of science and art. By David Burrows, Slade School of Fine Art
By Lucy M J Calder, on 12 April 2014
Download the audio file HERE.
My presentation addresses objects or events known as black holes. Here, at the outset of this talk, I must stress that my understanding of black holes is gleaned from lectures and books produced to popularize science and astrophysics, and that my knowledge of science and mathematics is limited to say the least. Rather than attempt to enter into scientific discourse, I will approach black holes from the perspective of art and its related discourses, and concern myself with the representation and presentation of black holes: images and figures that, I suggest, mark out a diagrammatic imaginary, at least in the attempts of scientists to present or translate data for non-specialists but also for each other. By this, I do not mean that a black hole is a work of fiction, I believe they are real enough; rather, black holes are events that force thought into producing a diagrammatic imaginary.
In this, I follow Michelle Le Doueff’s ideas explored in her book The Philosophical Imaginary. Le Doueff argues that even the most abstract systems of thought can produce an imaginary, her example is Kant’s warning to other philosophers about the dangers of illusion – of venturing beyond the horizon of what is known. Kant issues this warning through the metaphor or allegory of an island surrounded by an ocean. He calls this island, described as having firm ground and unalterable limits, the ‘Land of Truth’; a territory surrounded by a stormy ocean traversed by fog banks and icebergs, the ocean being the natural home of illusion. Importantly, even Kant admits the ‘Land of Truth’ is an enchanting name, a declaration that, as Le Doueff points out, announces seduction to denounce it, while nether-the-less letting the seductive image of the ‘Island of Truth’ continue its enchanting work, as a territory for Kant’s critique of metaphysics and support for his argument for science and philosophy to dwell in the ‘land of understanding rather than wandering of elsewhere’.
It could be debated whether images are necessary for the popularization of ideas and should be paid little attention, as Kant argues; or whether, as Le Doueff suggests, an interest and use of images coupled with a denial of their importance is a negation of the role of an imaginary in critical or scientific thought. But it could also be that certain problems require or solicit images or a diagrammatic imaginary. It could be that islands and oceans, invisible objects or zones with event horizons, spinning accretion discs and astronauts turning into spaghetti are productive images for human thought, that help tie a Real to abstract data or a formal or symbolic language.
It could be asked here, why black holes rather than other objects are relevant to a discussion of a diagrammatic imaginary? My answer would be that black holes are only perceived and present to us through a diagrammatic imaginary. Firstly, humans encounter black holes in the mind rather than space (through thought experiments). It is generally accepted that the first recorded appearance of a black hole is in a letter written by John Michell in the 18th century. Michell, after studying the work of Newton, speculated on the existence of a heavenly body, so dense, that not even light could escape its influence, a proposal made a couple of centuries before the instruments to detect the effects of black holes were developed; secondly, singularities such as black holes are not visible to the eye or other optical instruments, or indeed any instrument – they are invisible save for their effects on surrounding matter and space-time; lastly, black holes as singularities, are points where mathematics and physics falter and time-space collapses; and the presentation or representation of such a point, in time and space (on a screen or page of a book), forces a diagrammatic image on the mind I think, if not impossible figures. Western art, a practice I would define as being concerned with the presentation of presentation (that’s my definition of art), may have something to contribute to this discussion but artists may also be confronted and challenged by the speculations of astrophysicists concerning space-time too. In this a tension can be explored between mathemes (lessons in structure or relations, that which can be taught) and pathemes (the affects of structures and relations). This is a tension relating to the different orientations of science and art. But before addressing black holes directly, and by way of expanding on the matheme-patheme relation, I will give a brief introduction to my interest in the wonderments of the cosmos.
Wonderments of the cosmos: A negative view
From the outside, astrophysics seems to be equally a speculative and positivistic sphere of Enlightenment Accelerationism (both in terms of its logical positivism – reality is verified data – and in terms of the thought experiments forced on astrophysicists through contradictions, gaps in knowledge and singularities). More recently though, a number of artists and philosophers have valued science for different reasons; in what has been termed the speculative turn in philosophy and art, or identified as a new materialism or object-orientated-ontology, some have valued science for what they perceive to be its negative or humiliating affects for existing Western values, beliefs and aesthetics. It is the work of Copernicus – his thesis that the Sun does not orbit the Earth, displacing humans from the centre of the universe – that speculative realists draw attention to, as an event that first punctures Western traditions that place humans at the centre of all things. What is of interest here is that science is thought of as a means of thinking an ‘outside’ to human knowledge and experience, a sphere where the finite human encounters an ‘outside’. This is not a Romantic train of thought, at least it is a philosophy declared as realist with designs to collapse or warp subject-object hierarchies or human values and beliefs, or as Reza Negarestani suggests – a philosophy which advocates making oneself a good meal for the universe.
In the past, space travel produced new ‘off-planet’ perspectives or horizons. Today, I think the problems of astrophysics rather than space travel pose the greatest challenge to human intuitions and habits of thought, not least because astrophysicists continue to popularize the not yet reconciled theories of general relativity and quantum physics, producing strange and counter-intuitive worlds. This is especially true of the realm astrophysicist Kip Thorne calls the warped side of the universe – objects such as black holes that are not exactly matter but singularities consisting of warped and compressed space-time. The questions I have, concern whether a knowledge of the warped side of the universe, like the spectacle of an ‘off-planet’ perspective forty five years ago, engenders 1. new forms of presentation, and 2. new (non)-human orientations.
Beyond the horizon, the diagrammatic imaginary of black hole theory
Black holes are important for contributing to an understanding of the formation our universe and for having the potential to reveal the secrets of matter, space and time. My interest in black holes as already stated is somewhat different, in that black holes register negatively for humans, as limit points, as an outside, as absolute collapse. And I have been interested in what astrophysicists think about the presentation of collapse. Some have a lot to say about this matter.
Most accounts of black holes in popular science explanations give similar histories for the development of black hole theory, and similar descriptions of singularities. These narratives often offer accounts of orbiting rocket ships observing the fates of astronauts, TVs, kitchens and light-bulbs being swallowed by black holes. Phenomenological and optical affects often being prominent in these accounts.
Many will know that a rotating black hole is thought to be circled by an accretion disc – matter positioned far enough from the collapsed star to escape being dragged to its centre but not far enough away to escape its influence. To any observer outside the black hole, anything falling into the singularity appears to become frozen (in time) and then disappear from the view, the unlucky object or person will have crossed the event horizon of the singularity, beyond which light cannot escape the pull of the collapsed star’s gravity. The astronaut, TV or light-bulb fades to red through the effects of redshift, caused by the object falling towards a star collapsing to near infinite density, a space-time so compressed that the known laws of physics are replaced by quantum gravity laws; laws that are, as the experts say, not understood (yet?).
John Wheeler, who is often credited with coining the term ‘black hole’ asserted that any matter, any information crossing the event horizon of a black hole is lost forever. He famously stated that black holes do not have hair; that is, the only details retained by a black hole about the morsels that cross their event horizons are the mass, charge and angle of the object’s rotation. Not only this, black holes were thought to never decrease in size (Hawking’s law of area increase). I must admit that the idea of a silent, cold monster that receives information without any feedback is a compelling image. However, since the 70s, astrophysicists have accepted that black holes may be white hot, leak radiation and can eventually evaporate, returning information to the universe. Black holes are not so black then. More recently, Stephen Hawking has suggested that there are no event horizons, only apparent horizons, and therefore no black holes (as they were previously understood). Hawking suggests that singularities and their horizons ebb and flow, and change like the weather. Even so, the diagrams of black holes produced by astrophysicists continue to present singular, if ever changing diagrammatic imaginary forms. To be enveloped by the influence of a singularity is to be embraced by a point where space-time does not exist, where a distance from the singularity is impossible, your fate is to be pulverized and possibly returned to the universe in pieces, to become the material for clouds of gas or new bodies.
Astrophysics, and its popular literature produce vivid images. Very few accounts address the problems of registering invisible events though. The best example I have come across is John Wheeler’s essay Beyond the Black Hole (1978). (I may be ignorant of a great many popular texts, or more up-to-date texts that non-specialists can engage with and that also address this problem, but Wheeler’s text serves to make clear some of the important challenges of registering black holes and quantum events.) Wheeler begins his short essay by drawing an analogy between Einstein and the Duke of Wellington; the latter could guess well enough what the lay of the land was beyond a hill or horizon by observing the surrounding landscape. For Wellington, like Einstein, the increasing strangeness of a landscape indicated that a new terrain lay beyond.
Wheeler follows this discussion of fathoming horizons with two paradoxes (or horizons) for physics: 1. black holes, in being the most accessible example of the bounds (or limits) of time, is where physics (the eternal laws of matter, space and time) stops, but where physics continues too. 2. In every elementary quantum process the act of observation or registration – the act of observer-participancy – plays an essential part in giving “tangible reality” to that which we say is happening. ‘Paradox number two is this. The universe exists “out there” independent of acts of registration, but the universe does not exist out there independent of acts of registration’.
These paradoxes provoke many questions, not least: what is reality? John Wheeler’s answer is a diagram depicting the letter R, Wheeler explains this diagram through the following statement ‘What we call “reality,” is symbolized by the letter R in the diagram, which consists of an elaborate papier-mache construction of imagination and theory filled in between a few iron posts of observation.’ Wheeler presents a second diagram that compounds this problem. He presents the letter U with an eye perched on one its arms observing the other arm, of which Wheeler writes: The universe viewed as a self-excited circuit – starting small (thin U at upper right), it grows (loop of U) and in time gives rise (upper left) to observer-participancy — which in turn imparts “tangible reality to even the earliest days of the universe.’
Are we left here with a problem of (tangible) reality for humans being nothing but productions and constructions, or the realization that it is not possible to pass beyond certain horizons, beyond the black hole. Wheeler suggests that there is no prediction that lends itself to a more critical test than that every law of physics, pushed to the extreme, will be found to be statistical and approximate, not mathematically perfect and precise. This principle of uncertainty that is quantum physics gift, leads Wheeler to ask how to proceed with a law without law. A preposterous position, he says, until we remember Einstein becoming a photon, and his thought experiment concerning a man jumping from a building with two cannon balls, all in free-fall. It seems that for Wheeler, the answer to the problem of a law without law – and to the problem of understanding the singularity at the heart of black holes – is not more finely tuned observation but a diagrammatic imaginary. While I have little to offer concerning the theory of quantum physics and general relativity, I have some observations about what I have been calling a diagrammatic imaginary, and diagrams in general.
Towards a negative diagrammatic imaginary
I suggested earlier that Western art can be defined as a practice concerned with the presentation of presentation, and I would add this is one definition of diagrammatic practices too. Furthermore, I suggest that diagrams are common throughout all university disciplines: diagramming is a trans-disciplinary practice.
My understanding of diagrammatology is developed in part from reading Francois Chatelet’s book Figuring Space: Philosophy, Mathematics and Physics (1993, 2000) in which Chatelet defines diagrams as gestures that invite further gestures. In such gestures, Chatelet finds violence; he argues that all diagrams involve a cutting of some kind. Diagrams are the productions of cut-outs, markings or the drawing of zones placed in relation to each other. Chatelet asks, is it possible to strip things of their mobility, to cut them out, circle them, isolate and name them, without leaving a scar? (An observation could be made here that the singularity of a black hole is precisely a mass stripped of mobility – time and space – a point that very much punctures understanding.) And then, Chatelet asks, after producing cut-outs, can we just add determinations to these figures? Can we add fixed purposes or meanings and functions to abstract figures, (through a second violent gesture) so as to force figures to register with the world of mobile things or rather, our ideas about the world and existence? (A second observation could be made here that black holes resist the attachment of fixed purposes and functions, in that they are governed by a law without law). And Chatelet has a problem with those who would elide or who have contempt for the violence and art of these gestures. (His main target here is set theory.)
Importantly, for Chatelet, diagrams are platforms for thought experiments in which the gestures of diagramming are free of the limitations of the physical world, free to explore what might exist, as a potential or virtual reality. (Here we could think of Hawking, unable to write or draw, producing impossible, multi-dimensional objects in his head.) A diagrammatic gesture produces motion that not only evades the deadness of abstraction and limitations of extension, but is inexhaustible. He suggests that diagrams are like metaphors but that unlike metaphors, diagrams do not wear out. Chatelet presents four-dimensional diagrams as devices that allow for ambiguity, motion, change; in this, Chatelet’s diagrams are allusive devices, staging spatial negativity.
Spatial negativity is a positional term that attacks extension or actual space; spatial negativity is born by allusive devices described by Chatelet as dialectical balances that become unstable through carrying, in thought, more than ample space. These destabilizing devices produce multiplicity. For dialectical balances do not produce a synthesis of two or more points or dimensions, there is a dialectical immanence rather than synthesis that Chatelet describes as a discovery of an articulation of points, which opens out to (new) dimensions, to which points surge ‘like taking sides’.
Lastly, before moving on from Chatelet’s discussion of diagrams, I would mention that he has a lot to say about horizons and vanishing points, diagrammatic gestures that allow for an articulation or presentation of objects in space. For Chatelet, horizons are not boundary markers or dotted lines. Once decided upon, they carry everything- they decide everything. Although diagrams with horizons and vanishing points are limited by spatial clichés (to draw a horizon is to master space), Chatelet points out that a metric count of elements deprived of a horizon or vanishing point is trivial (once more, the target is set theory/topology) – without a horizon, a poor diagram might be produced as a series of units not in space or time – a difference without real difference he writes. Again, when discussing vanishing or horizon points, Chatelet finds violence in these gestures: the problem is that the horizon or vanishing point can never be the point of looking or a viewpoint (it is a blind-spot). It is an inaccessible, densely compressed point, line or surface; a point that is necessary for things to be presented in time and space but a point that remains outside this presentation. Chatelet suggests that a horizon point is a delicately balanced device, one that creates a pact between 1. an image and its limitations and 2. the forces that can explode the image into multiple dimensions and perspectives. Chatelet then suggests something seemingly impossible, he suggest we place ourselves, not in time and space but in the blind-spot, the horizon point, and explore all possible perspectives. For Chatelet, it was Einstein, among others, who confronted this problem by perching himself on a photon at the horizon of velocity, to accelerate his mind to infinite velocity and therefore understand photons (though he was, Chatelet suggests, still captured by the clichés of mechanics).
Here, in Chatelet’s call too occupy a vanishing point, we might find a basis for the non-human orientations I introduced earlier, orientations demanded by the warped and condensed side of the universe; that is, viewpoints not outside any event, as a master viewpoint, but at the vanishing point within the event. Chatelet’s challenge demands new art-science assemblages.
Object-orientated-ontology or recent speculative thought and art have similarly sought to occupy this blind spot, this vanishing point. Rather than contemplate that the Real escapes presentation, or that all humans can mark is that which is real for us – a position often called correalationist – they have echoed the sentiments of Wheeler, and attempted to go beyond the black hole, beyond the horizon of human sense and limitations, in a number of ways. But in this, unlike Chatelet, they are not so concerned by the art of the diagrammatic imaginary.
This seems strange in that an important influence, at least on a number of the protagonists of speculative thought, is Bruno Latour, advocate of actor network theory and critic of modern or enlightenment traditions. Latour’s approach to the subject-object relation (and the social production –natural object relation) is helpful for any discussion of diagrammatic thought. In We have never been modern, Latour argues that the separation of the study of the non-human and the human (a separation of the sciences studying natural object from disciplines concerned with society and its political and cultural representations) produces a ‘modern constitution’ (founded on the purification of objects of study); but that a blind spot is produced too. For in between the two poles of natural objects and societies and subjects, a number of quasi-objects and quasi-subjects are produced: hybrids! Latour gives many examples – including the measurements of Antarctic ice and the ozone layer that mix chemical reactions with political reactions, and cyborgs (noting a debt to Donna Haraway) that might be the quintessential human/non-human – object/subjects. One could add to this list, radiation and gravity waves from the early formation of our universe that have the potential to stir atheist and religious feeling. More than this, Latour writes of hybrids that have influence – Latour’s famous concept of actor network theory is that objects are actors too. Latour writes that objects that transport information from object to subject sometimes do more than this; they may translate or mediate between object and subject. Latour calls these subject/object hybrids mediators. This does not mean the mediations are false, just that they point to and translate things rather than capture or deliver an event or information.
Is it possible then, to see optical telescopes, radio dishes and Laser Interferometer Gravity Wave Observatories (LIGOs) as mediators rather than intermediators (Latour’s term for mere vehicles for information)? In relation to the diagrams of black holes, I am wondering too whether diagrams transport or translate data, carrying or mediating information between object and subject, and subject and subject.
This question becomes even more pertinent with the recent use of computer simulations by astrophysicists. Kip Thorne has suggested that numerical simulations, computer programmes running simulations, count as one of the most important recent developments for astrophysics, resulting in diagrammatic digital animations and figures. (An example is the diagrammatic animation of the event of two black holes.)
It seems to me, that in this, black holes are given a positive and optical presence (for obvious reasons, to engender ‘lessons’ on time and space). But, even if, as Thorne suggests, the viewpoint for these figures is from a higher bulk brane dimension – the hyper space that our finite universe without beginning and end might be moving through, a whole new territory opened up by the diagrammatic imaginary of astrophysics – the negative charge of a black hole as a blind-spot (or the art of the mediation of the black hole event) is elided.
In an essay titled How to be Iconphilic in Art, Science and Religion, Latour offers a provocative, if somewhat unfair comparison to explore this problem. He writes of a group of soil scientists huddled around a map of the Amazon Rain Forest, one points to the centre and says – there it is. Latour compares this photograph with a painting by Fra Angelico (1440). In the painting an angel speaks to the followers of Christ looking into the empty void of Christ’s tomb and says, ‘do not look for the living amongst the dead.‘ Latour is not interested in deconstruction here, among other things he is advocating that images should be understood as pointing to, rather than capturing or representing something. We could ask here, does Latour want us to look at mediators (the map or diagram) as a negative or indexical mark of something, like the space in the empty tomb, the place of the dead? But we could also ask whether he wants mediators to become flesh, to un-pause the image, to press play. To explore this, instead of looking at religious painting we need to look to modern and contemporary art.
Negative Space: diagrams become flesh!
At the beginning of this talk, I raised the question of whether art had anything to contribute to the problems of presenting black holes or the absolute collapse of the firm ground of the Island of Truth. In conclusion, I will attempt to answer this question – and whether art can contribute to a diagrammatic imaginary and matheme-patheme diagrams for the warped side of the universe. In introducing the pathemic, or indeed visual art that is often made in relation to human senses and concerns, into a discussion about singularites there is a danger that the non-human perspectives of science will be diluted. So this is not a confident move on my part. My gamble is that in modern and recent Western visual art, there is a concern for anti-vision (or at least a negative spatial dialectics that Chatelet calls for): such art attempts to occupy horizon points. Indeed, what draws me to black holes, and to Chatelet’s thought, is that they are concerned with Negative Space in some way – a concept introduced to me in my first week at art school.
Negative space is a term used in art relating to the abstract or negative shapes made when drawing figures or positive shapes in a composition. Negative shapes exist in between the positive shapes. In that figurative compositions can be abstracted, negative and positive shapes can change place very quickly. In the first decade of the 20th Century, Cubists demolished Renaissance or master-point perspective (the window on the world perspective) and used their knowledge of negative space to present what they claimed to be four-dimensional images. There is no evidence that the Cubists knew anything about Einstein’s theory of relativity. What is known is that the Cubist discussed the mathematical works of Henri Poincare (important for developing theories of relativity and topology). Poincare was one influence among many for the Cubists who were discussed as producing a new four-dimensional way of seeing. As art historian TJ Clarke points out, the cubists did nothing of the sort but that matters little. The idea of four-dimensional presentations transformed Western art and a formalist approach developed out of the experiments of Cubism that produced figures similar to the allusive devices that Chatelet describes in scientific diagrams. Perhaps the best example is the architectonic works of Luibov Popova.
Her abstract paintings present shapes that appear solid and void and that like particles in quantum superposition theory are fixed only at the point of registration. A decision is called for by such compositions, as the various elements open out to different dimensions and states, to which minds surge, as Chatelet suggests, as if taking sides.
In the 60s and 70s, contemporary to the work of Wheeler, Hawking and Penrose, artists continued to play with the collapsing of figure and ground. In the 60s, Yoyoi Kusama developed her cosmic dot paintings into installations and performances.
All her dots, she suggests, are like Suns and Moons, creating a movement and denying the possibility of choosing a horizon point or attaining distance from her work. Her idea is simple, if everything is covered with dots – you, me, others, animals, furniture, buildings and environments – it becomes possible to lose sense of where everything starts or ends in the resulting collapse of figure and ground gestalt. Kusama produces something haptic (a zone where the eye feels rather than sees), akin perhaps to quantum foam. Quantum foam is an invention of John Wheeler to explain the fabric of the universe and the affects of turbulence in particles at the level of sub-atomic time and space. At this incredibly small scale where the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg is thought to rule, energy decays and becomes particles and antiparticles, which cancel each other out. Kusama, as self-proclaimed Priestess of the Church of Obliteration aims to turn us all into quantum foam.
Contemporary to Kusama, Robert Smithson too staged scenes and performances that play with figure and ground. In Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan (1969) he describes driving through America and never reaching a horizon line – the point where the sky and Earth meet – and then he describes the unusual procedure of cantilevering 12 mirrors in the ground, an act that manifests the sky side by side with the earth (the horizon) at his feet. This mirror displacement was performed many times and the resulting mirror images are described as both timeless and instantaneous. Smithson writes of mirror travel as a collapse of vision and conceives of an anti-vision that registers unconsolidated views that surround a work. Tellingly, Smithson writes that his art practice is a de-creation that could be understood as a presentation of collapse.
Of his most famous work, Spiral Jetty, (1970) constructed in a Great Salt Lake in Utah, Smithson wrote, ‘To be in the scale of the Spiral Jetty is to be out of it.’ The spiral echoes not just the irregular horizon and landscape but the individual salt crystals that advance along the Spiral Jetty ‘in the manner of a screw.’ In such a way, Smithson contends, the spiral reverberates through space. There is a film that records Smithson running to the centre of the spiral, a performance of which he writes, ‘following the spiral steps we return to our origins, back to some pulpy protoplasm, a floating eye adrift in an antediluvian ocean.’ He describes the red algae, which saturates the Great Lake, as bleeding streaks that merge with the crimson of the Sun burning through his closed eyelids. His eyes became ‘combustion chambers’. He declares that he was on a fault-line that groaned within him. In the film Spiral Jetty Smithson advances towards a vanishing point, before being pulverized and then slowly retracing his path back along the spiral to return to the universe.
(Clip 30 seconds) More recently, Haroon Mizra produced The National Apavilion of Then and Now for the Venice Biennale in 2011. Mirza places the viewer in an echo free chamber with a circle of light that grows brighter as a drone gets louder, only to then plunge the viewer into complete silent and darkness, placing the viewer literally in a vanishing point that ebbs and flows, like an apparent horizon.
(Clip 59 seconds) Lastly, I would like to finish with some thoughts about the diagrammatic imaginary in the digital age. Two former Slade and UCL Graduates, Ed Atkins and Patrick Ward, who are interested in digital imagery, made a film titled Defining Holes and issued something that could be taken as warning for all those hoping to use digital simulations to present singular events and objects, (In this warning there is an echo of both Kant’s and Le Doeuff’s concerns for images). In a statement about the project they wrote:
‘A hole is a parasite from the void… (holes are) negatively charged paradoxes whose nominal existence disguises an essential un-being… Within the (analogue) moving image, holes define the presence of the medium. Those dividing lines that lie between every discrete frame… (are) traversed via an illusionary bridge: the persistence of vision. This impression of movement is an analgesic of ideological potential… Digital video is something else. The appearance of movement is no longer predicated on the recurrence of absence (digital video is not indexical) …there is no movement because there is no matter. The digital is entirely hole, (H-O-L-E) bordered and defined by its own dreamed-of, vacated representations.’
To Atkins and Ward perhaps, Kip Thorne’s digital presentations of singularities are themselves holes (presentations absent of any material or indexical trace) circled by a digital diagrammatic imaginary and mediated by software.
To conclude, Chatelet, quoting Schelling, argues that thought is not in the brain or in scientific figures or words but in the morning dew. Just as likely, thought is in the black holes and singularities that force a diagrammatic imaginary, that sends minds racing to an outside beyond visible and human horizons. In this the diagrammatic imaginary and non-human orientations of science might be placed in productive relation with the art that seeks new forms of presentations through a concern for the artifice of mediations, and a feel for negative space.