See Something Say Something

Kari Rittenbach

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When I received the above “message,” embedded on its own in an e-mail, it appeared suddenly and ambiguously, disrupting the otherwise tedious flow to my inbox. (Let’s say I was fond of its sender.) But the sequential rendering function of the GIF attachment wasn’t activated by my e-mail client, so the animated frame paused exactly as it appears above; only imagine my two additional (brown) eyes, wide, captivated in the soft screen glow gently illuminating the digital image (hour: probably evening), until eventually breaking my gaze to blink in mild astonishment. Which is to say, I properly received the image, it was communicated directly to the back of my retinas, without any textual preface or subject line.

To be sure, many 21st-century transmissions occur in this fashion. If letter-writing achieved its height in 19th-century bourgeois society, then the gratuitous image-to-image exchange of online culture – encouraging us to re-blog, re-tweet and otherwise re-produce mostly generic content – essentially reduces those verbose sentiments in time, space, and affect. This purportedly flattens our experience of the normative social relationships that constitute human reality. When channeled through the ether, neatly compressed into bitmap images, these PNG and other MIME attachments (masquerading as meaningful sentiment) become infinitely, even recklessly, distributable.

Nothing much rewards our enthusiasm for looking online, in a banal visual landscape of blood, gore, tits and other Photoshopped or natural disasters. So little shocks, or demands to be looked at with much rigor. In certain forums, of course, the grotesque maintains a particular visceral currency which further complicates the power relations between viewer and viewed, in an extremely indulgent scopophilia: without irony or art-historical foresight, these really NSFW message boards seem poised to literalize Bataille (See The Story of the Eye, 1928: “You could smack her face with your cum… till it sizzles.”) In contrast, a friend’s démodé painting practice remains more mysterious for the fact that only she has entered the studio during the past five years, her work ostensibly happening but unseen, perhaps out of extreme timidity but nevertheless, you soon realize, re-awakening a sense of Eros with regard to sight. This impulse isn’t really a craving for aura or authenticity, as it was in the modern era, but rather the desire for an exclusivity of exposure; for something that is, for various reasons, for your eyes only.

Which brings me back to the above image, in which the two asymptotically nestled corneas are always almost touching, protected from each other only by a fine rim of delicately curling lashes: an impossibly proximal situation of brow to brow, nose to cheek. The picture suggests a direct desire to dissolve freely into the vision of the other, in a fantastical destruction of the subject-object dichotomies so anxiously described by Lacan in his concept of the gaze. Such an intimate encounter might even bring a sense of relief to the psychoanalyst – “I see only from one point, but in my existence, I am looked at from all sides,” (The Seminar, Book VI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis) – by grounding vision within a hermetic system of mutual objectification, beyond which there is no outside. And there is hardly any space to breathe here: totally lacking perspective, the grayish sliver of sky only emphasizes the nearness of those flat, abstracted faces, pressed so unashamedly near and pictured a nanosecond just before the black-orbed pupils fully align.

Imagine bridging the axis of the self through a transparent eyeball! Or is reaching this position even feasible for a pair of non-contortionists constrained by the mechanics of three-dimensional reality (not to mention conflicting schedules, geographical dislocation, asymmetrical desire)? And what happens, optically, when “the lack” at the center of the gaze is filled with a full-bodied subject – does it produce a mirror of the self (Narcissus) or rather a sort of blindness beyond vision (Tiresias)?

My thoughts and my uneasy eye find no surface on which to rest – unlike the eyes seen here, whose perfect double penetration sparks a ludicrous envy. But the most riveting thing is that it’s entirely made-up; an expression from the mind of its CalArts-trained author, Peter Chung. Maybe that’s what makes drawing far more radical than other forms of (digitally) manipulated imagery; it never pretends objectivity even when grasping at realism. It is always naïve, faulty, improvised. Just as Schopenhauer defied Kant to argue that the human body is the active producer of optical experience, the viewer must choose to enter the world of a drawing that might have little logical correspondence to physical reality. If the frame up above were to expand, for example, where would the second eye of each figure be positioned, from a physiological point of view? It’s a rhetorical question because the answer doesn’t matter.

When the animation in the GIF is supported, the image displays Aeon Flux’s lashes stroking – over and over – the surface of Trevor Goodchild’s clear blue cornea. (The speed of this curious gesture changes depending on the frame rate of your browser; and if the subject does in fact produce her own field of vision, then her particular suite of devices—Samsung Galaxy, Macbook, and so on—must be implicated in the process, too, as optical prostheses). The implied affair between this pair of adversaries was short-lived, as was Chung’s with MTV, where the animated series Æon Flux aired on Liquid Television from 1991 to 1995. As I discovered, the sequence above is excerpted from the second episode, “Gravity,” in which the dark-haired and (hardly) leatherclad vixen-assassin receives a message from the quasi-Aryan authoritarian leader in transit. Protruding from a bullet train hurtling along a high-altitude railway bridge, Goodchild languorously smooches Aeon as she leans from a jet flying a dangerous parallel to the tracks. He deposits a rolled-up scroll of classified information into a capsule in her hollowed-out tooth, tongues salaciously twisting. The deeply felt gaze above thus contains more than an emotional exchange; as in most science fiction, the future of society, a humanist ethics, and the world at large may also be at stake.

In the context of this fraught tale, the image burned into my mind’s eye represents a miniscule moment. After the swift caress, Aeon spies something suspicious outside the animation frame, her attention never drowned in the other’s gaze as I’d imagined it would be. Still, I recognized a kindred voyeuristic autonomy in her character; we all get distracted sometimes.

All the same, the afterlife of the image ignores contingent narrative details. The technology for creating animated GIFs was developed contemporaneously with the series; so the recent suspension of this particular stroke of affection into endlessly looping infinite time represents an irresistible exercise of repetition-compulsion – reminding the no-longer-teenaged observer again and again of his exclusion from the reciprocal gaze.

In the same decade this image was produced, Jonathan Crary wrote in response to the Visual Culture Questionnaire published in October (77):

“If there has been a recent emergence of visual studies, it is, in part, because of the collapse of certain enduring assumptions about the status of a spectator. Like so many subareas of the human sciences, a discipline built around the idea of the gaze takes on a practical existence at the moment of the disintegration and dispersal of its purported object.”

While the journal’s editors might have been seeking to affirm the supremacy of art history in interpreting the visual realm, Crary couldn’t help but acknowledge the schizophrenic encroachment of imagery into everyday life. Formal and material matters succumb to the ultimate question: What are we looking at now, and why?

When I downloaded the image file I noted its tumblr designation. I worried about its promiscuous origins and the dispersion of its affect. I’d been the only recipient of the cryptic GIF, and I took it after the manner of the French: something tape-à-l’oeil that hit me “straight in the eye.” (In other words, as kitsch.) Rapt at first, soon I realized that the fantasy of a completely mutual vision is fleeting and more likely mis-perceived; yet always dependent on time and space impossibly converging in seeming defiance of gravity. Flirtation produces a limited and not particularly sustainable energy. I was tired and finally, tired of looking. I closed the clamshell of my laptop tightly: an eyelid shutting out the night.

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Kari Rittenbach lives in New York City.

In this ongoing series, writers choose and describe a single image.