‘Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. […] today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map.’
– Jean Baudrillard on On Exactitude in Science by Jorge Luis Borges, Simulacra and Simulations, published by the University of Michgan Press, 1994.
The one-paragraph short story On Exactitude in Science (also known as On Rigor in Science), written by Jorge Luis Borges in 1946, narrates the tale of an empire so obsessed with the scientific precision of maps that their cartographers end up producing a map the size of the entire empire: a map which is perfectly accurate yet perfectly useless. The tale ends with a powerful image of the map left in tatters, broken into small pieces and scattered in the desert; the cartographers’ blind faith in scientific methods eventually engendering the ruin of scientific thought itself as a reliable system of belief.
Here, Borges offers a discussion around simulated versions of reality – in this case through ‘extreme mapmaking’ – that is prescient of how human interactions with reality and hyper-reality have evolved in the digital age. This small text brilliantly conveys the fundamental division between reality and the systems of representation devised by humankind to apprehend the world, and encapsulates the essence of Troika’s practice. Underpinning the group’s conceptual framework is the idea that in an age of technological reproducibility, when experience is shaped by virtual worlds, simulation and the human experience of the realms of the material and the immaterial become increasingly interchangeable and compressed into one plane. As such, many of their works take specific representation systems as a starting point, often involving the application of scientific methods and digital technology that are at odds with subjective experience. In this process, the seemingly unquestionable veracity of representation systems that underpin Western epistemology are put in check in works that reveal the gaps between represented and lived experience.
Titled Borrowed Light, Troika’s latest project is a 24-meter-long strip of photographic film that displays a gradient of colours inspired by the range of hues visible during sunrise and sunset. Conceived as a site-specific project for the Barbican Lightwell, the work is installed on a suspended mechanised structure around which the film scroll revolves in a continuous loop. Two slowly moving layers of transparent film overlap to create a composite colour that emerges from the gradually changing combination of the colour gradients. The mechanism moves deliberately slowly, with each revolution taking place over the course of an hour and therefore almost imperceptible to the human eye. What hints to the existence of movement in the piece is the subtle change in the film’s surface, which may only be noticed upon coming across the work a second time after an interval. Partly determined by the architectural features of the building – the work traverses the entire height of the space, from the lower ground floor, cutting through the lightwell and reaching up to the skylight – Borrowed Light’s prominent verticality offers a different perspective on our experience of sunrise and sunset along a horizontal line, presenting instead a sliced up version of a panoramic view.
In this artificial version of a natural phenomenon dawnand dusk are linked together, uninterrupted by the extended periods of day and night. An important conceptual reference underlying the work are the moving panoramas of the 19th century, which are both a technological development of the earlier genre of panoramic painting and a platform that preceded early cinema by creating an illusion of movement. These moving panoramas often presented grand natural scenes, depicting their change in time and seasons by artificially altering and editing the duration of these events.
In this context, the materiality of the film scroll becomes a significant element that brings a cinematic quality to the work, which is nevertheless conveyed not by the traditional method of illusionistic juxtaposition of projected frames but by the very physical way in which light exposure affects the surface of the moving strip. Rather than spatialising the filmstrip into separate frames, the entire extension of the material has been exposed to create one continuous image. As such, what is animated here instead is the ‘true’ physical quality of the material, in a gesture that, on the one hand, aims at reproducing the natural movement of shifting lighting conditions and, on the other, reveals the artificiality of the mechanism that creates this very ‘illusion’.
In Borrowed Light, ideas pertaining to the domains of reality, photography, film, virtual and augmented reality are conflated in a large-scale installation. As in previous projects, the viewer’s phenomenological experience of the work is emphasised through the use of different strategies that demand a state of ‘active perception’ in which bodies are confronted with carefully manipulated spatial, temporal or other environmental conditions.
A similar operation can be found in the site-specific installation Limits of a Known Territory, curated by Claudia Segura, which was first presented at NC-arte in Bogotá in 2015 andconsisted of a flooded 200-square-meter gallery with scatteredsteeping stones that created circulation pathways. In the darkened, seemingly derelict room, all visitors could hear were the sounds of dripping water. At different points in space, several streams of water flowed from the ceiling, behaving in quite unexpected ways: some appeared frozen in time, others ran in a slower or faster pace than in the normal gravitational pull, and some even ran in reverse. This illusionistic effect was achieved through the use of specific lighting that flickers at a speed unnoticed by the human eye, tricking our senses to make us experience a glitch in our known environment.
In this work, the very notion of time, illustrated by the ordinary event of a drop of water travelling in space, is put into question: while logical thought and empirical knowledge tell us that time cannot be stopped or reversed, ‘reality’ as apprehended by our own perception is presented otherwise.
Albeit employing very distinct formal solutions, both Limits of a Known Territory and Borrowed Light point to a non-traditional conception of time that is very similar to the Bergsonian idea of ‘duration’. According to the philosopher, the natural inclination of human intellect is to act upon matter. However, in order to do so, our perception must operate by performing cuts into it or, in other words, it must apprehend objects in space individually. Therefore, by outlining artificial units within the indivisible continuity of nature we end up by spatialising matter. It is precisely this analytical method that we apply when approaching real time. Our intellect proceeds by taking snapshots of reality, then reconstitutes the very movement of succession of qualitative changes that characterises this time (becoming) through a kind of animation of the original movement that has been divided into immobilized states. This is the ‘illusion’ to which Bergson refers when he speaks of a ‘cinematographic mechanism of thought’1 : the a priori acceptance of the ‘absurdity that movement coincides with immobility’. The arbitrary re-composition of movement by means of lying alongside nothing but fictitious stops produces a conceptualisation of time as a measurable, foreseeable magnitude. Bergson thus argues that experience viewed as a succession of separate states is no less an abstraction than time as measured by the hands of a clock. As an alternative to this mathematical formulation of time, Bergson proposes the concept of ‘duration’ and ‘pure’ time that cannot be expressed mathematically. Understood as indivisible and continuous, durational time presupposes the preservation or prolongation of the past in the ‘now’, entailing a co-existence of past and present. Therefore, while time cannot be measured, it can be experienced as extended or sped up affected as it is by the past: one can think, for example, of a child’s perception of time as compared to an adult’s.
In Limits of a Known Territory the fragmentary and non-linear nature of durational time can be clearly experienced as we witness time as frozen, slowed down or accelerated in the absurd movement of the water drops in space. It is precisely in their defiance of our logical understanding of time as a measurable, linear, magnitude that the unconventional behaviour of these water streams seem to reconnect us to our empirical awareness of how time is actually experienced. Borrowed Light, on the other hand, focuses on the nature of the moving image, its technological advances, its relationship to the traditional conception of time and how it has been used to simulate nature. The choice of using old-fashioned analogue film betrays an interest in the historical evolution of image-making techniques and is indicative of a desire to work with the uncertainty and unpredictability of a medium that has a physical bearing in the real world.
Within this context, Troika are interested in the purpose and value of technological utopianism in times when an increasingly technologically mediated reality means that artificiality and disembodiment become the accepted norm. In creating deliberately disorienting or altered worlds and situations, both Limits of a Known Territory and Borrowed Light push the idea that the world we call real is just an illusion.
Kiki Mazzucchelli, ‘Borrowed Light’, artist book, publ. 2018
‘Borrowed Light’, Barbican, London, 5 June 2018 – 30 May 2019
1 Such is the contrivance of the cinematograph. And such is also that of our knowledge. Instead of attaching ourselves to the inner becoming of things, we place ourselves outside them in order to recompose their becoming artificially. We take snapshots, as it were, of the passing reality (…). We may therefore sum up (…) that the mechanism of our ordinary knowledge is of a cinematographical kind (Creative Evolution, 332).