Chameleon Eyes

Eyes of the Chameleon

Fabienne Liptay, 2020

“To search for human visual realities, man must, as in all other homo motivation, transcend the original physical restrictions and inherit worlds of eyes. The very narrow contemporary moving visual reality is exhausted.”

Stan Brakhage, Metaphors of Vision (1963)

Humans must inherit worlds of eyes, writes Stan Brakhage, in order to learn to see anew. They must speculate about the vision of insects, such as that of bees, perceiving the ultraviolet spectrum of light; or about the tapetum of cats’ eyes, the mirroring layer of tissue behind the retina, which reflects each spark of light in the dark and illuminates it in intensified manner.[1] A film manifesto of the avant-garde, Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision (1963) is an ode to a way of seeing which disregards knowledge about the laws of perspective and the rules of pictorial composition and which is unbiased by world views that only exist by virtue of being able to be seen. It is an ode to a visionary way of seeing that is open to the adventures of perception, to the sheer endless multiplicity of colour gradations, and that might even be receptive to the spectrum of thermal waves, if only it were to forget and discard ideology, aesthetics and technology. It was the aspiration of the artistic avant-garde to renew vision and expand the boundaries of visual perception. According to Brakhage, film was yet to be discovered as an instrument of this artistic vision beyond camera optics (re-)producing an image of the world within the frame of standardised stipulations of a visual realism that is based on a Western historiography and its colonisation of perception. Though Brakhage does not mention them specifically, the eyes of the chameleon belong to the metaphors of the expanded way of seeing envisioned by the avant-garde. Chameleon eyes can not only change colour in order to communicate with fellow species, they can also move independently from one another, producing a broad field of vision. In contrast to other vertebrates, chameleons have lenses with negative refractive power, which refract and disperse light, rather than collimating it, making its retinal image unusually large while allowing for precise focussing. When a chameleon sets sight on its prey, the animal’s eyes adapt in a way that enables them to precisely measure the distance with unusually high speed and precision.

What do we see through the ‘eyes of the chameleon’ – through the two robotic cameras on the rooftops of the new co-op buildings in the Letzigraben that can move independently from one another and whose images are broadcast live on the double-sided LED display in the park below? Their gaze is directed upward, towards birds in flight, which they do not capture photographically but thermographically, that is by way of the heat emanating from bodies within the infrared spectrum. Once the cameras capture such thermal radiation, they latch on to and follow the movement of flying birds, translating their body temperature into a play of colours on screen. But other celestial bodies and creatures in flight also stray into the camera-eyes’ field of vision – especially clouds, passing in a seemingly endlessly suggestive stream of images like thoughts or dreams. On a colourfully rendered firmament, the birds in Chameleon Eyes appear as bright spots made to shine. This film is to last ten years, a short lifetime. The LED screen, on which it plays in real-time, is situated in the Heiligfeld Park, in the midst of a ‘green’; that is, as far as the human eye processing electromagnetic radiation perceives nature as green, while the thermal imaging cameras on the LED screen display an ‘image of nature’ in which such radiation is made perceptible in a light spectrum beyond the habitually visible for us. It is almost as if nature is painting an image of itself in front of our eyes using the sensitive medium of thermography, as if the ‘pencil of nature’, of which William Henry Fox Talbot spoke in light of the invention of photography,[3] were now liberated to draw, too, what is usually beyond the the visible for us, in order for us to speculate what the world might look like through the ‘eyes of the chameleon’. Painterly effects are achieved on the digital screen, the coarse grid of which faintly echoes gestures of autonomy in modern painting. The latter, as Rosalind Krauss observed, had erected a ‘grid’ structure in order to shield itself against any external influences, such as the “scream of birds across open skies” that threatened to disrupt the silence of art and thwart the promise of its freedom and purity.[4]

“Comme un caméléon l’esprit humain se camoufle en camouflant l’univers.”

Blaise Cendrars, L’ABC du cinéma (1926)

Among the reasons for the delay of the Kunst-und-Bau project amidst the Covid pandemic is the fact that the contractor delivering the necessary technology got sidelined by an order to equip large businesses with thermal imaging cameras designed to detect fever symptoms in their workforce. However, the thermal imaging cameras do not make an infection with the virus visible, nor do they measure fever in the diagnostic sense. What they bring to light in the thermal image are body temperatures measured on the surface, through thermographic procedures visualising infrared radiation in different intensities. As a detection procedure, thermography is no less biometric than a passport photo or a portrait read through algorithmic facial recognition;[5] it does not register specific personal traits but a general corporeality. All bodies, animate as well inanimate, with a temperature above the absolute zero degree send out heat radiation in different wavelengths. The biologically relevant temperatures correspond to wavelengths in an atmospheric window of approximately eight to fourteen microns within the long-wavelength infrared spectrum (approx. -20 to 120°C).[6] The thermal imaging cameras convert this infrared radiation, which typically remains invisible to the human eye, into electrical signals to produce an image that translates the different wavelengths beyond the light spectrum into a colour coded representation. As these colours do not comply with the natural perception of humans they are called ‘false’ or ‘pseudocolours’, which allow us to see what is not visible to our eyes. The thermal imaging camera, in other words, is colour-blind; it captures inhabitants of this Earth not according to the colour of their skin, eyes, hair, their fur or feathers, but on the basis of the surface temperature of their bodies. Modelled on the thermographic image are not least the many cartograms visualising the global spread of the Coronavirus through coloured marking of the density of infections, thus transforming the world into a ‘heat map’ with visible sources of fire.[7]

In contrast to other measuring procedures, thermography distinguishes itself by being non-invasive and contactless. It makes bodies visible even over large distances and registers their heat radiation in darkness as well as under bad conditions of vision, in fog, smoke or snow. Thermography’s applications span the fields of surveillance, investigation, diagnostics, damage detection, quality management, maintenance, inspection and process optimisation. It is used by the military, border control and customs, by police and fire brigades as well as in veterinary and human medicine, climate research, geology, the construction and automobile industries, aviation and space travel as well as the industrial probing of workpieces. Thermal imaging cameras can reveal faults in buildings, leakages, material defects, fire sources, sports injuries and infections, trace buried, missed or fugitive persons, survey borders, perform military operations and curb pandemics.[8] In ornithology, too, thermography is used to monitor the thermoregulation, energy expenditure, behaviour, health and population of animals; since recently, it has also been used to observe the predominantly nocturnal migration of birds at great height. In contrast to the method of moon observation with a telescope, through which the passing birds become visible and thus countable as silhouettes in front of the moon’s beaming disc, thermography is not dependent on cloudless full moon nights to allow for the scale of migration to be measured.[9]

“That’s important from the point of view of people, but let’s talk about it as being important from the point of view of birds.”

Margaret Atwood in an interview with the New York Times (2019)

In the thermographic image, we recognise what connects us humans with animals, namely the heat of bodies as shared vitality. These bodies are vulnerable; they can be protected as well as endangered, rescued as well as killed. According to the ancient Greek distinction between zoḗ and bios, as referred to by Giorgio Agamben,[10] thermography measures life as it is common to all creatures (zoḗ), as opposed to life as it is proper to specific beings (bios) and qualifies them as members of the political community. At the root of this argument is the implicit distinction between human and animal, through which life in the political community is only distinguished from the creaturely life shared by all beings. According to Agamben, the achievement of modern politics lies in the suspension of this distinction precisely in governing biological life by way of excluding the latter from the political order; by way of installing a permanent state of exception in which “bare life” is stripped from protection by the law and its rights altogether.[11] In political philosophy the question about life without—or deprived of—rights has been posed, too, from the perspective of animals. Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka, for example, have expressed the need for a political theory of animal rights, which grants animals their place in the political order along with sovereignty and self-determination rights with regard to the territories they inhabit.[12] This would entail habitat rights for wild animals, which would protect their environment from human intervention and destruction, as well as an equal say for domesticated animals, acknowledging them as members of the community.

The image space outlined by the two thermographic cameras in Chameleon Eyes is at once a zone in which these debates are raised and played out against one another. Is all life therein reduced to a purely bodily, biological one, furthermore subjected to the eye of statistical control and surveillance? Are animals given their own place therein, a place in which they should also be granted rights within state law, not least the right to data protection? Or does the artwork open our perspective to lines of flight pointing beyond these optical systems and into the spheres of speculation about that which lies beyond the reach of our trained senses?

Already in earlier works—in Hunter in the Void (2016) at the Kunsthaus Glarus or Nocturnal Appearance of Various Species of Furry Animals from the Neighborhood (2016) at the gallery RaebervonStenglin—Thomas Julier engaged with the urban ecosystems and habitats of animals and transmitted their predominantly nocturnal activity by way of food baits and infrared-cameras into the exhibition space. The experimental assembly in each case is site-specifically embedded within a scenography out of which different ideas and perhaps even narratives may develop about how humans and animals encounter each other in their shared habitats. The exhibition display figures as an intelligent distributed sensorium that probes the given habitat beyond the limits of what is visually evident, pushing into the dimensions of its virtuality and potentiality. In this sense, what Julier constructs is not so much an instrumental assembly designed for artistic, scientific or other forms of digital animal-monitoring, but rather a stage or scene of factually impossible views; a ‘world of eyes’, in which the unseen may unfold. The work meanwhile refuses to redeem the vision of the avant-garde to liberate seeing from the ideological and technical conditions of visibility, as it inevitably references the powers governing the image space.[13]

Situated in the midst of the public Heiligfeld Park of the Letzigraben estate, which was erected in the 1950s and has now gained three replacement buildings commissioned by the Siedlungsgenossenschaft Eigengrund and the Stiftung Gemeinnütziger Wohnungsbau Letzigraben, the artwork directly connects to the social outlook that is at the root of the ensemble. Integrating distinct housing types, the latter has striven to meet a variety of human needs and life designs and to thus partake in ideas of a pluralist and solidary society in post-war modernity.[14] The artwork extends this living space in as much as it is dedicated not exclusively to human but also incorporates non-human, including ‘artificial’ life, in its design of a shared habitat. Meanwhile, it casts its eyes beyond the interplay of housing and landscape architecture, onto a community of life of interspecies and intersectional relations and dependencies. In the thermal images we can consequently perceive the shared vitality of bodies as much as we can become acutely aware of the socioecological conditions which render these bodies vulnerable to environmental influences.[15]

Last but not least, this habitat is also a data space which extends the built and designed environment by the virtual sphere. In conquering this world-wide web, ornithology proves to be an avant-garde; particularly if we consider the project Icarus (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) that the Max-Planck-Institute is involved in. In this project, birds and other small flying animals such as bats and insects are equipped with mini-transmitters in order to follow the animals on their migratory routes and to measure their patterns of movement telemetrically, through an antenna specifically placed for their investigation at the International Space Station (ISS) in outer space.[16] Besides information regarding location, the transmitters also register physiological data such as body temperature, heart rate or oxygen levels, through which assertions about the animals’ behaviours and stress levels can be made. The data gathered in this way serves the animals’ welfare, the protection of species as well as the development of ecological approaches; as much as it allows for insights into the spread of aviary influenza and other virus infections, for early warnings about natural disasters such earth- and seaquakes, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes, or simply for forecasting the weather. In light of such an “internet of animals” Alexander Pschera speaks of an invention of nature borrowed from the spirit of digital technology, of a new “dialogue between human and animal” even, in which both are now twittering.[17] An exchange of perspectives is able to occur, in which humans take on the viewpoint of animals in looking at the environment and explore the aviary flu, for example, from the observatory of birds.[18] Simulations of possible crises or catastrophic scenarios in which animals play a role expand habitual forms of observing nature by integrating the perception of animals or that which humans imagine this to be.

“As spies, racers, messengers, urban neighbors, iridescent sexual exhibitionists, avian parents, gender assistants for people, scientific subjects and objects, art-engineering environmental reporters, search-and-rescue workers at sea, imperialist invaders, discriminators of painting styles, native species, pets, and more, around the earth pigeons and their partners of many kinds, including people, make history. (…) We all are responsible to and for shaping conditions for multispecies flourishing in the face of terrible histories, and sometimes joyful histories too, but we are not all response-able in the same ways. The differences matter – in ecologies, economies, species, lives.”

Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (2016)

Thomas Julier’s Kunst-und-Bau project does not simply represent a scientific interest in the live measurement of bird flight, for one, as the data generated and saved by the work fails to provide any information on distances or heights, which would be required for ornithological studies. Besides, the latencies, that is the temporal lags between the controlling pulse and the movement of the cameras, is such that the prediction of the flight tracks of birds is only possible under specific conditions. Thus, the robotic cameras will frequently lose sight of the birds, which give the impulse for the cameras’ pan & tilt in the first place. The birds thus elude continuous tracking, but as impulse-givers they set in motion a rhythmic play with the possibilities and limits of predictability, between fixating and fleeting glances. And, time and again, clouds are passing as amorphous colourful constructs. Gaston Bachelard called clouds the imaginative material for those people too lazy to create their own.[19] In the clouds, they may catch sight of forms taking shape while continuously refusing to be captured, that escape the work of the nubigenous imaginary. For the US-American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, clouds represented a possibility to liberate the photographic eye from seeing forms altogether. From 1922 and over the course of a decade, Stieglitz shot clouds time and again, in photographic studies which aimed, among other things, to undermine the construction of the optical apparatus according to a central perspective. These studies have consequently been lauded as early examples of abstract photography. They bring another viewpoint into the picture; a point without other reference points that would allow to optically measure proportions in size or distances; a point that is seemingly bottomless, tumbling—be it upward or downward—into the sky. Stieglitz called this series encompassing approximately 220 photographs Equivalents; images that resemble photographs yet aspire to be much more of a musical sequence, “songs of the sky“.[20] Inasmuch as the sky in the photographs of Stieglitz, returning to Rosalind Krauss’s observations, is “essentially not composed”[21], these photographs undermine the categories of a vision grounded in the perspectival construction and control of the image. They point to other potentials of photography; among them the unrealised possibilities in the history of European art which, departing from the visual theory of the Arabic optician Alhazen, invented the central perspective, while the Islamic art generated its geometric abstractions from it—abstractions that do not comply with any perception of the world which takes the human eye as its centre point.[22]Dario Gamboni considered the cloud photographs by Stieglitz—as well as other cloud images of modern art, such as Charles Giron’s The Clouds (1901), Lyonel Feininger’s Bird Cloud (1926) or Vik Muniz’s The Snail (1993)—as “potential images”; images which rebut claims of authority and power over the depicted, over its perception and effects, and return it into a space of the potential, of the undefined and uncertain.[23] At the point at which they pursue the democratic demand to make the viewer an equal participant in the construction of the image, they are not free from the ambivalences and contradictions that accompany our gaze into the sky. The uncertainty proper to them is not least an effect of the incapacity to separate the spheres of the aesthetic and the political, to keep the fine arts out of the military-industrial complex, with which they share their imaging technologies. Gazing into the sky is an occupation of fantasisers and dreamers, mystics and poets, artists and visionaries. But it is, too, the occupation of the meteorologists and ornithologists, collecting data from the atmosphere and the avifauna, or of the civil and military surveillance of aerospace, using these meteorological and ornithological data for other purposes than such as the stately security policy.[24]Where the scenario of human and non-human species cohabiting eludes both the visual documentation of reality as well as reliable forecasts, where it escapes prognosis and prediction, at least it remains possible. In view of this scenario we can neither venerate the liberation of art to non-optical vision nor its surrender to the regime of technologically upgraded surveillance. Instead, following Donna Haraway’s suggestion in her critique of the Anthropocene,[25] all we can do is ‘stay with the trouble’ in view of what we see through the ‘eyes of the chameleon’. 

[1] Stan Brakhage, “Metaphors on Vision”, in: Metaphors on Vision (1963), ed. P. Adams Sitney, New York: Anthology Film Archives and Light Industry, 2017, n.p. [2] Ibid. [3] William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846), Munich: Hirmer, 2011. [4] Rosalind E. Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde” (1981), in: The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass., London: The MIT Press, 1985, p. 151–170, here p. 158. [5] See Roland Meyer, Operative Porträts. Eine Bildgeschichte der Identifizierbarkeit von Lavater bis Facebook, Göttingen: Konstanz University Press, 2019. [6] This corresponds with the spectrum of wavelengths captured by the two cameras. See also Dominic J. McCafferty, “Applications of Thermal Imaging in Avian Science”, in: IBIS. The International Journal of Avian Science 155 (2013), p. 4–15, here p. 5. [7] For example, the dashboard of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, [8] Thermography may thus be counted among one of the technologies of “statist visuality”, as described by Joseph Pugliese with view to the biopolitical governing of illegal migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Joseph Pugliese, “Technologies of Extraterritorialisation, Statist Visuality and Irregular Migrants and Refugees”, in: Griffith Law Review 22/3 (2013), p. 571–597. [9] See George H. Lowery, Jr., “A Quantitative Study of the Nocturnal Migration of Birds”, in: University of Kansas Publications, Museum of Natural History 3/2 (1951), p. 361–472; as well as Felix Liechti, Bruno Bruderer, Heidi Paproth, “Quantification of Noctural Bird Migration by Moonwatching. Comparison with Radar and Infrared Observations”, in: Journal of Field Ornithology 66/4 (Autumn 1995), p. 457–468. [10] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998, p. 9. [11] Ibid., p. 12 f. [12] Sue Donaldson, Will Kymlicka, Zoopolis. A Political Theory of Animal Rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. See also Robert Garner, A Theory of Justice for Animals. Animal Rights in a Nonideal World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; Eva Meijer, When Animals Speak. Toward an Interspecies Democracy, New York: NYU Press, 2019; Bernd Ladwig, Politische Philosophie der Tierrechte, Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2020. [13] Following Tom Holert’s formula of the “governing of image space” in his eponymous collection of essays: Regieren im Bildraum, Berlin: b_books, 2008. [14] See Ruedi Weidmann, “Handlungsspielräume bei der Realisierung einer neuen Bauform. Die Letzigraben-Hochhäuser von A. H. Steiner 1950-1952”, in: Albert Heinrich Steiner. Architekt – Städtebauer – Lehrer, ed. Werner Oechslin, Zurich: gta, 2001, p. 72-107. [15] J. T. Demos, “Ecology-as-Intrasectionality”, in: Panorama. Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 5/1 (Spring 2019), [16] Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, Icarus. Global Monitoring with Animals, 2020, [17] Alexander Pschera, Das Internet der Tiere. Der neue Dialog zwischen Mensch und Natur, Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2014. [18] Frédéric Keck speaks of such an exchange of perspectives in relation to the SARS-pandemic, when researchers prepared for a possible outbreak of the aviary flu by identifying with the perspective of birds in simulating crisis scenarios. Frédéric Keck, Avian Reservoirs. Virus Hunters & Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020, p. 109: “(…) humans exchange their perspectives with animals in an imagined future where their relations are reversed.” [19] Gaston Bachelard, L’air et les songes. Essai sur l’imagination du mouvement, Paris: Librairie José Corti, 1943, p. 239 f. See also Rainer Guldin, Die Sprache des Himmels. Eine Geschichte der Wolken, Berlin: Kadmos, 2006; Johannes Stückelberger, Wolkenbilder. Deutungen des Himmels in der Moderne, Munich: Fink, 2010; Tobias Natter, Franz Smola (Hg.), Wolken. Welt des Flüchtigen, exhib. cat. Leopold Museum Vienna, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2013. [20] Alfred Stieglitz, “Wie ich dazu kam, Wolken zu fotografieren” (1923), in: Wolkenbilder. Die Erfindung des Himmels, ed. Stephan Kunz, Johannes Stückelberger and Beat Wismer, exhib. cat. Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, Munich: Hirmer, 2005, p. 85-89. [21] Rosalind Krauss, “Stieglitz/Equivalents”, in: October 11 (Winter 1979), p. 129-140, here p. 134. [22] See Hans Belting, Florenz und Bagdad. Eine westöstliche Geschichte des Blicks, Munich: C. H. Beck, 2008, p. 12. For a discussion of thermography in the context of the history of perspective, see Ulrich Meurer, “Invading/Inviting. From Surveillance to Byzantium”, in: ZKM. Zeitschrift für Medien- und Kulturforschung 11/1 (2020), p. 157-173. [23] Dario Gamboni, Potential Images. Ambiguity and Indeterminacy in Modern Art, London: Reaktion Books, 2002, p. 157, 215, 240, 241 ff. [24] See Lars Willumeit, “Seeing the State vs. Seeing Like a State. How to Secure a Country as an Anti-Instructional Visual Research Project”, in: Salvatore Vitale. How to Secure a Country – From Border Policing via Weather Forecast to Social Engineering. A Visual Study of 21st-Century Statehood, ed. Salvatore Vitale and Lars Willumeit, Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2019, p. 7-22. [25] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.