This series of passages explores how transparency, reflectivity and opacity can adhere to, encroach on and confuse ideas about colour. It imagines a spectrum not just of light but of the mediation of light by these surface properties, which transmit, reflect and absorb light in time and space in ways both distinct from and connected to colour. Using the models of windows, mirrors and holes, and the examples of the barreleye fish, sunglasses and Swiss cheese, among others, this piece asks what we see when we look at, through, and into surfaces.
The Macropinna microstoma, or barreleye, or spookfish, is a small, deep-sea fish with tubular eyes that rotate within its transparent head. Its optic structure contains both a mirror and a lens, making its eyes highly receptive to light. It can look upward through the surface of itself to see potential predators silhouetted in the darkness. It can also look forward to see the bioluminescent clearness of its food, the jellyfish. The barreleye sees by seeing itself clearly — seeing through its clear self. But what does the barreleye know of clarity? Can it contemplate the transparency of its own head without contemplating the transparency or opacity of the heads of others?
Like color, transparency is constituted by light: as a material property of surfaces, transparency describes the transmission of light; as a visual quality, it describes the reception of light. But transparency is difficult to see without seeing through. In Remarks on Color, Wittgenstein argues that the transparent green of green glass is different to the opaque green of a sheet of green paper.[i] Although he can describe the way green glass modifies the appearance of an object behind it, he cannot say how transparency modifies the color except to say that it makes it transparent and not opaque. Citing Runge, who famously wrote that “white water which is pure is as inconceivable as clear milk,” Wittgenstein observes: “That means we cannot describe (e.g. paint), how something white and clear would look, and that means: we don’t know what description, portrayal, these words demand of us.”
On what side of glass does transparency begin? In his Notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci asked where interstice meets substance: “What is it…that divides the atmosphere from the water? It is necessary that there should be a common boundary which is neither air nor water but is without substance, because a body interposed between two bodies prevents their contact, and this does not happen in water with air.”[ii] In Holes and Other Superficialities. Roberto Casati and Achille C. Varzi carry da Vinci’s question into the fourth dimension by asking: “How many surfaces does a fish break when it jumps out of the ocean?”[iii]
In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott trades the 23rd century formula for transparent aluminum for 1980s plexiglass needed by the crew to build a tank for two humpback whales. In 2009, a team of scientists at Oxford University blasted aluminium with soft X-ray laser, removing one electron from each atom while leaving their crystalline structure unaltered, turning the metal transparent. The effect lasted for forty femtoseconds. This suggests a third iteration of transparency, other than a property of material or a visual quality, is as a state.
Perhaps transparency belongs on an alternative spectrum for ontologically challenging surfaces, with a mirror at one end and a hole at the other. This spectrum is arranged according to the way surfaces mediate light, and therefore accounts for a temporal dimension: transparency is not just clear, it transmits light; a mirror is not just shiny, it reflects light; and a hole is not just dark, it absorbs light. Like light, surface is always in action.
In The Shape of Things, Vilém Flusser writes: “[A wall] is made up of two walls… The outside is political, the inside wall secretive… Anyone who can’t stand secretness should go ahead and knock walls down. But even secret-mongers and patriots have to knock holes in walls. Windows and doors. So as to be able to look outside and go out.”[iv] While Flusser doubts the perspicacity of the view from the window—he compares it to the Greek theoria, “perception without danger and without experiencing anything”— he is even more suspicious of the door: “One goes out to experience the world, and there one loses oneself, and one returns home to find oneself again, and in so doing one loses the world that one set out to conquer.” Flusser’s solution to this flawed construction is not to seal it up or knock it down (at least, not entirely) but to break it open. Since cables already perforate the house like “Swiss cheese,” with a television replacing the window and a garage replacing the door, the new house must achieve an even more radical permeability. In order to facilitate exchange in all directions, the structure must consist entirely of reversible windows and doors. With the opaque wall removed, the dark potentiality of the door electrifies the illuminating transparency of the window, generating a kind of conductivity across the structure’s surface. Interpersonal relationships are carried as information across a network of these houses, such that the houses themselves become beacons; “projectors of alternative worlds accessible to all human beings.” “Such a method of building houses,” Flusser writes, “would be a dangerous adventure.”
In a dystopic present, radical permeability looks something like Paul Virilio’s smart home, where, bathed in the artificial glow of real time via the screen, “it is less light than speed which helps us to see.”[v] The screen’s “spatio-temporal transparency,” which collapses distance into simultaneity, subsumes all velocity and proximity such that we are no longer required to move. The control room becomes the most important room in the house; we can trigger and “interact” without leaving the captain’s seat—or, as Virilio insists, the couch. Besides physical paralysis, Virilio argues that in this place of perpetual light, we are also blind. Although, perhaps what befalls us is not sightlessness but something else: as the only part of the house not emitting or transmitting light, we become darkness; a hole into which the light of the screen pours, no longer furnishing or inhabiting our environment, but “inhabited or engulfed by the domestic organs that populate it.”
In A Landscape of Events, Virilio describes the artificial nighttime evinced by sleep aids and sunglasses, “those optical instruments designed for you not to see the light of the sun and to provide the sensation of going unnoticed in broad daylight”.[vi] For Virilio, the falseness of this false dark is both a material property of the tinted lenses and a function of their being seen by a second, external set of eyes—of their exposure in the clear light of day. Virilio notes that the technology was adopted early on by “movie stars and torturers”—those who wish not just to avoid seeing, but to avoid seeing themselves as they are seen. Unlike the barreleye’s self-reflective optics, which allow her to see both herself and those who see her, Virilio’s transparent mirrors display only the inward image of the wearer, who, in order to render the world dark, must believe him- or herself to be the sun.
The barreleye was first seen in 1939, but was not seen through until 2004. All previous attempts to retrieve a specimen from the depths had destroyed the delicate tissue of the barreleye’s head, so the discovery of its transparency—recorded by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium via remotely operated vehicles equipped with video cameras—was a surprise. This suggests that transparency is a question not only of whether someone (or something) is looking, but who.
To ask “who is looking?” is also to implicitly ask, “who is allowed to look?” What is transparency augmented to mediate certain gazes and counter-gazes? On the enigmatic NSA building in Fort Meade, Maryland, Jack Self writes: “when the NSA closes a door, it stays closed. Conversely, when we close our own front doors, the NSA floats right through, as invisible as ghosts. The headquarters is hiding in plain sight, perfectly detectable but completely inscrutable.”[vii] If the NSA dreams, perhaps it sees a future in which its power is not limited to opacity or invisibility, but encompasses the deflective transparency of its headquarters’ gleaming blue-black glass—in other words, when its exposure in the public sphere creates a more total blindness or complacency toward its operations than secrecy ever could. The filmmaker Constanze Ruhm recently recalled[viii] an observation made by Harun Farocki during his research into factories, the previous century’s paradigm of surveillance and control, for his film Deep Play (2007): “the real problem was that these organizations had nothing to hide anymore: the thing that had to be hidden was that there was nothing to hide. The lack of secrets was the secret.”
In their work on ‘Black Transparency’, Metahaven describe an “indispensable, hydra-headed, chaos-mongering powerhouse,”[ix] not a unified entity but an architecture of counter-surveillance and subversion built in part by WikiLeaks, Anonymous and others, whose activities are characterized by the redirection, hoarding and re-circulating of previously privileged information—what Metahaven call “a public redistribution of goods of the state.” Unlike the NSA, which plugs holes as it mines them, leaving only smooth, shiny surface, the amorphous Black Transparency takes up temporary residence in gaps, blind spots and “legal and political loopholes of the states whose legitimacy it opposes,” exploiting darkness to evade detection as it works to bring the hidden to light.
Or: not to bring “to light”—which can blind, sterilize, white out—but to transparency. To make clear: to make not just visible, but legible.
In The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch argued that a successful city is a legible one, comprised of recognizable symbols that can be easily grasped. “It must be granted that there is some value in mystification, labyrinth, or surprise in the environment,” he writes. “[But] there must be no danger of losing basic form or orientation, of never coming out…”[x] Lynch’s emphasis on the readily apparent and the illuminated as the basis for autonomous movement and discovery discounts a certain potentiality that is only present in disorientation, indeterminacy and darkness. A city can’t be just a tunnel, but it can’t be just a bridge, either. Underground space, hidden space, empty space, dark space, holey space[xi] has existed historically as much as a threat to order and safety as a space of resistance and protection. Douglas Coupland recently wrote: “the fear of a glossy sheen is actually the fear that the surface is the content.”[xii] A hole is potent because it offers no clues as to its content, if it has any, at surface level. Anything could be down there, and everything probably is.
Two rooms for the holes where no light goes: the kitchen and the bathroom, where we connect our holes to the holes of humanity’s most essential shared infrastructure, plumbing. Except, in these rooms, our process is paradoxically reflected back at us in the gleam of porcelain, metal and glass, a tenuously closed loop of domestic “privacy,” denying the dark, hidden, communal space of our refuse. If a bathroom dreams, perhaps it sees itself rendered at last in the negative image of what its shininess works to deny. In an unpublished text titled ‘Notebook from the Apocalypse’, Tom Melick describes such a state: “A sublime mess in the bathroom. Oddly, plastic bath animals with oversized eyes—a fish, a frog, a hippopotamus, a crocodile and so on— are delicately placed amongst the most cosmic dispersal of shit imaginable… The substance has otherworldly dimensions and does not submit to any known laws. No drain will swallow it. It overwhelms every sponge, wet-wipe, mop and squeegee…The fish, frog, hippopotamus, crocodile and so on keep grinning from atop the muck, saying nothing. Do they know the secret of living, happy and loftless, in base materialism shit?”[xiii]
We are repeatedly reassured that the NSA has more shit on its hands than it knows what to do with. When Wittgenstein describes a black mirror, he observes that its darkness is at once reflective, transparent and opaque; that that which is seen in it “does not appear ‘dirty’ but ‘deep’.”[xiv] The formlessness of big data, the hole, is also a barrier of indeterminate density, like the surface of a black mirror, perhaps the last thing deflecting our complete exposure.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s footage of the barreleye shows it floating motionless at 600 to 800 meters below sea level, where all light from the surface fades to black. At such depths, the dark contains everything, even clarity.
[i] Wittgenstein, L. 1978. Remarks on Colour. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[ii] Cited in Casati, R., Varzi, A.C. 1994. Holes and Other Superficialities. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
[iv] Flusser, V. 1999. ‘With As Many Hole As a Swiss Cheese’. The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design. London: Reaktion Books.
[v] Virilio,P. 1999. Polar Inertia. London: SAGE Publications.
[vi] Virilio, P. 2000. A Landscape of Events. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
[vii] Self, J. 2015. ‘Opinion:”The authorised information available on this building could be published in a single tweet”’. Dezeen. [Online]. [Accessed 1 June 2015]. Available from: <http://www.dezeen.com/2015/03/26/nsa-headquarters-fort-meade-maryland-privacy-home-jack-self-opinion/>
[viii] Ruhm, C. 2015. ‘Attachment:’. e-flux. [Online]. [Accessed 29 June 2015]. Available from: <http://www.e-flux.com/journal/attachment/>.
[ix] Metahaven. 2012. ‘Transparency II’. Frieze (DE). [Online]. [Accessed 3 June 2015]. Available from: < http://frieze-magazin.de/archiv/kolumnen/transparenz-ii/?lang=en>
[x] Lynch, K. 1960. The Image of the City. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
[xi] Deleuze, G., 1980. ‘Treatise on Nomadology—The War Marchine’. Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
[xii] Coupland, D., 2015. ‘Shiny’. Supercommunity: e-flux journal 56th Venice Biennale. [Online]. [Accessed 23 May 2015]. Available from: <http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/authors/douglas-coupland/>
[xiii] Melick, T. 2015. Notebook from the Apocalypse. Unpublished.
[xiv] Wittgenstein, L. 1978.