But in physics, it’s dangerous to assume that things ‘exist’ in any conventional sense. Instead, the deeper question is: what sorts of processes give rise to the notion (or illusion) that something exists?
A Western school of thinking from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus to the English mathematician and philosopher Alfred N. Whitehead (1861-1947) has maintained the idea that reality is better viewed and understood in terms of processes than in terms of substance, objects and things. This school, loosely termed “process philosophy” has implications on visual art, so let’s have a look.
Have you ever asked yourself, where the atoms and molecules in your body came from? No? Well, take a second to think about it. An easy answer, of course is: from your food. But this answer opens the question where the atoms in your food came from. If you continue tracing, you actually describe a history of the atoms in your body. We don’t have to go all the way back to the Big Bang. Closer to home, so to speak, there is a set of atoms that most likely are part of that history. We call this set: Earth.
Now, while the number of atoms on Earth is huge, it is finite and has been fairly constant for the last 4.5 Billion years. (Ok, some cosmic bombardment through asteroid and meteoroid impacts might have added a couple of Zillion atoms, but that’s minor stuff.) What we therefore can say with certainty is that all the atoms in your (and my) body have previously been somewhere else on Earth. Wow, who would have thought that. These little buggers! They never told you. Makes a girl think, as Marilyn would say.
But where have they been? We can speculate that some have been in rocks, soil and plants (most certainly), some in dinosaurs (not so likely, too few of them were around) or in ancient bacteria (quite likely). As thus each of the atoms in our bodies has a distinct history one could say that we are built from a unique plenitude of (atomic) histories. We are made from stories. My body as the sum of these histories would in that case be very different from your body of histories. Whitehead therefore called things “events”. A point, where these histories cross. Isn’t that a fascinating thought? Maybe time to grab a cup of coffee to let that sink in for a moment.
Back with the coffee cup in your hand, I sense you have a question. “Wait”, you’ll say, “if we are events with different histories, how come that the outcomes are quite similar?” Right, we use the same kinds of cells and molecules, we look and function in similar ways and we all belong to the species Homo sapiens. Old Heraclitus had a solution to this puzzle. That means, if we interpret the old man correctly – he was writing in rather obscure sentences. Anyhow, the solution would be that similar form (or in fancy-speak “Gestalt”) is a result of similar process. We look similar, because our DNA was formed in a similar process and works in similar ways. As do all the processes in our body.
Now we get an idea, why this is called process philosophy: the interesting stuff, it says, is not the forms or things we see, but the underlying processes that gave rise to these forms and things. “Gestalt” would be a kind of shadow of these processes — and as photography in a way is capturing a shadow of the real things (on a flat plane) what I do out there in the landscape is producing shadows of shadows. Oops.
By now, you might need a second cup of coffee. No problem. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
You’re back? Feel refreshed? Good. Because now, I’ll make another jump. Photography, I said, is recording shadows of shadows. One could say, not enough information about the subject is recorded (too little of the processes). What can be done to enhance this? One method is to use time, like in time-lapse and video to record movement. I did this with the picture on the top of the post. It is a composite of about 100 photos from a plant bud moving in the wind. But while the result might be interesting, I somehow don’t like it. It seems to me a rather crude way to show a process. There must be other ways.
This is, actually, not a new problem in visual art. The ancient Greek sculptors tried to solve it; as did many classic Western and Asian painters. Then, the issue was called to express movement in stillness. These artists solved the problem by merely inducing the notion of movement in our mind. The sculptures and painted figures still didn’t move. This showed that certain pieces of information make our mind go on autopilot and fill in things that aren’t there (like movement). We could call these pieces of information “trigger information”. Symbolism is another example for such “trigger information”. Certain clues make the viewer fill in a much larger story. It works as long as we all know and understand the same story behind a symbol (like a cross). But it gets much harder, when we don’t have a common concept that can be triggered, like the notion that things are “events” and “processes”.
Still, if photography wants to be more than recording “shadows of shadows” its task would be to show, or rather induce, the processes, the “story” behind the things it records. Oh my, what a task. That’s pretty out there, isn’t it? Maybe I should myself get a cup of coffee now. See you next time.