Monday, November 7, 2011

Three Impossible Images

Marianne Moore, A Jellyfish (1959)

Of course this first one isn’t even an image, but a poem—a lyric. In this digital audio file at the SFMA Poetry Center you can hear Marianne Moore reading it. Listening to this clip is lovely, because it gives you a sense of the witty, self-depreciating charm of the personality behind the language.

If this poem is an ‘image,’ it is a drama of the almost-visible, starring a jellyfish. Quite a specific, individual jellyfish, swimming around as they do, and momentarily caught in a small poetic narrative. It is the jellyfish that is both visible and invisible: fluctuating, transparent, ethereal, sometimes translucent and sometimes highly colored, jewel-toned, gem-like, strangely compelling, very beautiful, intensely desirable, and alive.

The first lines of the poem contain so much all-over movement that you sense the liquidity before articulating it. Yet when the “arm/ approaches” everything changes. Suddenly it hits you that there’s no glass barrier, an aquarium or a zoo, to separate the person from the jellyfish, so that that this might actually be an eco-drama: a story of ecological ethics in which the arm is in the ocean with the jellyfish.

And this realization introduces two important other movements. When the arm drops back it registers fear, but also something else. “Abandon[ing] your intent” isn't exactly giving up. There’s a hint of purposeful letting go: a deliberate act of relinquishment, or an instinctive reaction to the liveness of the jellyfish’s quiver.

This poem is a kind of motionless animation. It is a drama in which what is not visible becomes more practically significant than we can see, so that a very attractive ‘thing’ is not removed from its environment.

Mark Bradford, Strawberry (2002)

This painting by Mark Bradford is one of the most beautiful images I’ve seen in a while. It is an abstraction—a visual lyric, if you like—a big, high, haptic canvas whose charisma fills the room.

It is made largely with collage and covered with stuff: mostly layers of a hair-dressing tool called ‘permanent-wave end papers’ pasted all over the canvas in small squares. This is a pretty nitty-gritty technique for building up an abstraction, and the point is to make a strangely spatial plane that lets the background color onto the surface only in glimpses.

All this makes for an oddly demanding viewing experience. The painting puts you through your paces, making you stand back at various distances and then draw up close to scrutinize its surface, holding your attention in a way that feels almost depleting by the end. Like the poem, its visual language operates in an abstract space somewhere between the visible and the invisible.

A high school art teacher named Jack Watson describes the experience on the Art 21 blog:
I saw Mark Bradford’s solo show at the Wexner Art Center last summer and was inspired by the way he reclaimed the castaway detritus of his neighborhood—old signs and posters, record covers, permanent-wave end papers, etc.—and the way he layers them in dense and complex abstract compositions. The surface beauty of his work seduced me, but when I watched his Art21 segment, I became interested in the idea of palimpsest and trace memory and how layered images can create a juxtaposition of ideas.

Lumière Brothers, Demolition of a Wall (1896)

This third image is part of the catalog of the very first movies ever made. The Lumière cinema is a collection of 50-second ‘actualities’ that show you more or less exactly what their titles describe—in this case, the Demolition of a Wall. We see Auguste Lumière directing pick-axe wielding workers in the attack on a small-ish wall, which almost immediately collapses into a big cloud of dust. The whole thing is clearly rigged. Then the film is played backwards, and we see everything in reverse: the dust sucking itself back into the wall, people walking backwards in an awkward, slapstick way. 

A number of things are delightful about this film. The title is comical because it practically turns the wall into a character. And it is amusing to consider that knocking down a wall—and a small one at that—might be the subject of a movie. Yet, there is something magical about watching the cloud of dust rise up and then reverse itself, and this reversal trick is the aspect that makes this film an important example of how early cinema played around with visual perception.

Time and space were starting to feel plastic in the early twentieth-century, and physics—particularly the very idea of relativity, in a general, non-specialist sense—would come to enter the popular imagination as a kind of intoxication. In fact, what reminded me of this film was Shaun’s description of the Big Bang with this phrase: “But what happens if we run the clock backwards?” For a film critic or an art historian this kind of question does not make a lot of sense because, as we’ve just seen, everything is different when you run time backwards. In fact a philosopher of time, Henri Bergson, actually did ask this question in the early twentieth-century and seemed to make no sense:
….the film could be run off ten, a hundred, even a thousand times faster without the slightest modification in what was being shown; if its speed were increased to infinity, if the unrolling (this time, away from the apparatus) became instantaneous, the pictures would still be the same.
Reading Shaun’s rhetorical question made me realize something: that in this moment Bergson is thinking like a physicist. The picture is obviously not the same when you run it backwards, but in this instance that is not the point—he is thinking time in a more malleable way.
To switch into a fourth gear and summarize, I might say that all these objects are encompassed by the phrase ‘the arts.’

On the one hand there is a tribe of makers who produce literature, painting, film; and on the other a tribe of readers who act as critical advocates and antagonists. One can say in a generalized way that ‘the arts’ value newness and are curious about the inexplicable. For example, a tribute to an extremely well known critic begins with this sentence: “We thought we knew everything about Roland Barthes—the way he managed to glide effortlessly across the entire French intellectual landscape, in turn embracing semiotics and dismissing it, dissolving the author in the text and then bringing out the secret of its pleasure, all the while keeping his distance and the singularity of his style.” Art and the humanities value the challenge of these Barthesian qualities—distances, smooth movements, contradictions, paradoxes, the impossible—and their ability to surprise.

If all the images I’ve just described are in some sense impossible, I still have explanatory paradigms for them: rich, complex, fascinating frameworks of interpretation. Their impossibility is what keeps me in this game. For the next three images, however, I have far fewer points of entry:

RCW 86, remains of the oldest documented exploding star. NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

What is the right vocabulary for time on this scale, which is vastly beyond human?


What are you actually seeing when you’re watching a live cell move around?

Inorganic chemical cell created from two salts

What is this thing—living or inert? Is it an object for life science or natural science?


It should be obvious that part of what’s at stake in about thinking art and science together are fundamentally different modes of interpretation. There is a scientific method, and there are humanistic methods. What counts as evidence is different in each situation, and people using those methods go about making arguments and building cases in vastly different ways.

But at the same time, and this is amazing, there are some common grounds. In the comments to a previous post Shaun mentions the usefulness of 'intuition' for a theoretical scientific imagination, and elsewhere describes light rather poetically. Here James invokes the mystery of biology, the paradox of being not being dead, and the strangeness of a metal ‘cell.’ In all these descriptions, it seems to me that there is also an aspect of impossibility at work in science. And this might mean that the bare existence of impossible images like pictures of cells and clusters could map out the ground for a shared space between what are otherwise very different ways of looking at the same world.


  1. The idea of the 'impossible image' is one that fascinates me. So much of science is dedicated to seeing the invisible, whether it be minutely small or unfathomably vast, or literally invisible to the human eye. The video of the Drosophila cells undergoing mitosis is actually a false image of the invisible, since the red actin filaments and green DNA are only visible because they have been fluorescently tagged - so it's not actually them you're seeing.

    I love how this is such a universal theme in all academic pursuits, since art is often trying to visualise and express the intangible; history is trying to make the past understandable; philosophy illuminates areas of thought and existence that are not otherwise perceivable; and most other areas of knowledge have similar examples.

  2. I'm perplexed and fascinated by the question of what you are seeing in the mitosis video.

    On the one hand, it seems like the film really is a camera turned onto something real. It isn't a 3D visualization or an architectural fly-through, but rather a set of photographs made by imaging something that is physically real, even if incomprehensibly minute.

    But on the other hand, as you say, "the video of the Drosophila cells undergoing mitosis is actually a false image of the invisible."

    From what I can understand the red actin filaments aren't actually red in 'real life', and so also for the 'green' DNA - they are only red and green because they have been given those colors with a fluorescent dye.

    But surely if the color was truly external to the cell, or even slightly toxic to it, the whole point of live cell imaging would be lost? Because in that case the color would interfere with the cell and its business, as opposed to acting as a passive agent doing nothing more than making them visible..

    I guess the question is: if a method of tagging is so subtle that it becomes part of the thing being tagged ---- what's the nature of the 'visualization'/ the nature of the resulting image?

  3. So what you're actually seeing in the Drosophila is a DNA dye called DAPI that binds to A/T rich regions but doesn't interfere with DNA function. The red actin is probably labelled with an anti-actin antibody conjugated to a red fluorophore. The technique is called immunofluorescence and it's always difficult to ensure that what you're using to stain the cell doesn't interfere with function. Generally, it's accepted that if the cell behaviour is the same in the presence and absence of the label then it's probably ok (usually...).

    At this bulk level of fluorescence microscopy it is reasonable to assume that what you see is an accurate representation of what you're labelling, but when you start getting down to much smaller levels it becomes very difficult. I do a lot of single-molecule TIRF microscopy (TIRF=total internal reflection fluorescence), which is capable of tracking individual proteins at the surface of living cells. The resulting image is essential lots of individual points moving around the cells, but it is important to remember that the points are diffraction-limited and so are about 20x bigger than the actual receptor your labelling. There is currently a hugely productive field that has been born out of physics and biochemistry collaborations and is focussing on achieving finer and finer resolution in these fluorescence experiments. There's quite an interesting article here:, which explains some of the newer techniques, such as PALM and STED, and also has some impressive examples of the kind of images you can get.

    It is though, as you say, important to bear in mind that the image you get is not actually the thing you are investigating and so the nature of the image and how it fits into a physiological context has to be taken into account.

  4. This question of fine-grained image resolution is interesting from the perspective of, well, aesthetics. As is your explanation of fluorescence microscopy. But to hit a pause button for a moment and go back to a previous comment: that so much of science is devoted to seeing the invisible.

    This point about circling the ineffabile is lush because seeing is always-already a physiological thing, a situated phenomenology of reception, whether you are looking at a cell or a painting.

    I was trying to suggest that art is useful in a very concrete, practical way, for understanding what happens when you 'see' the invisible. With the jellyfish poem, for instance, you're dealing with something analogous to a cell (and it's interesting how much science relies on analogy). But the whole situation is plotted in out in the real world -- taken out of the domain of a laboratory and dropped into a space of lived experience. And in as much as my perplexity before the image of a live cell is a real reaction of wonder, the poem helps me begin to start to understand it.

  5. This may be a bit silly, but since we are after all writing in the blog genre... Here's a link to The Kant Song --

    It does a pretty good job of laying out some version of this problem in a musical number that gets rather slow and sad at this part:

    But a problem here arises with respect to natural science:
    while empirical in method, on pure thought it lays reliance.
    Although for Newton’s findings we to Newton give the glory
    Newton never could have found them if they weren’t known a priori.

    We know that nature governed is by principles immutable
    but how we come to know this is inherently inscrutable;
    that thought requires logic is a standpoint unassailable
    but for objects of our senses explanations aren’t available.

  6. I am wondering whether I am experiencing, from the other direction, the divide in disciplines that Michelle discovered here.

    You both talk about "impossible images" and yet of the six impossible images, five of them... are images. The sixth is a description of something that seems far from impossible to image.

    I think I can understand the argument being presented as to how a photograph of a building and an image of a supernova are somehow definably different and that the supernova is "more impossible". However, I can't see this difference emotively at all. They're both just existing images of something with real properties. Even when you have to do creative things to make the image I don't see it as any more impossible than an "ordinary" image. Is a photograph itself not something that required a creative human construction to make the image (i.e. the camera)?

    OK, maybe I am being extremely dense here, but by "impossible image" do you mean something that was previously impossible to see, but has somehow now been made visible? Because surely, describing an image that someone has successfully made, and you are looking at, as impossible, doesn't make much sense. Otherwise almost all images would be impossible. I mean I even need to turn a light switch on, or wait for daylight to see any image at all (except naturally fluorescent objects, I suppose). How is this different to having to build an X-ray telescope to see a supernova? After all, it's all just electromagnetic radiation being recorded by a measuring device.

    I feel like I'm being absurdly pedantic here, but only because I'm kind of confused.

  7. I'm going to attempt a longer and a shorter reply to your question. It may be that the longer version should just be a future post. This concept-cluster is an open research question for me right now, and my thoughts about it are sometimes exploratory. In any case, it fascinates me that we all have slightly-differently variant reactions to this idea of impossible images.

    So, for a shorter answer I'd say that by 'impossible image' I mean to describe a quality of the incommensurable. That is, to gesture at an aspect of power in the image (in a broad sense of 'image', covering textual, pictorial, visual, informational, filmic, conceptual, digital images -- an imagistic sphere) that arises from its "real properties," but that is not reducible to those real properties, not contained by the plain fact of those real properties. These are images that contain a high component of imagination: they invoke the imagination of a viewer, and are partly constituted by the imaginative work triggered by their reception by a viewer. So the phenomenal dimension of an impossible image has a quite paradoxical quality: the phenomenal materiality matters immensely, because it is these real properties that trigger the imaginative process; yet the sum total of the imaginative work unleashed by its reception covers emotional, affective, aesthetic, perhaps ethical and political dimensions that are not commensurate with the real properties that produced them.

    Perhaps James means something a little different by the impossible image - perhaps something to do with the gap between visualization and the visible.

  8. I recently ran into this OpEd piece on the idea of the impossible in art.

    Art as the politics of the impossible, by Hamid Dabashi:


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