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Cybernetic photography on exhibit at the Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto, July 6 to August 16, 2000

Wearable computing was originally invented for Mediated Reality, and evolved into a wearable photographic system for the production of visual art with a complete wearable photographic and television production studio. By building more than one such unit, the wearer can become part of a community of "photoborgs" to interact in the new genre of visual art called "dusting". A central theme of the early days of wearable computing was lighting, illumination, and, in particular, electronic flash (e.g. "painting with lightvectors" and the use of electronic flash as a poetic expressive medium for cybernetic photography).

Thus it is most appropriate, and in many ways self referrential, that the wearable cybernetic photography system was used in the production of a series of pictures in the lab in which electronic flash was invented.

The narrative of time

The exhibit, entitled "To be Continued..." opened at the Olga Korper Gallery, 17 Morrow Avenue, Toronto, Canada (M6R 2H9, 416.538-8220).

I made the lightvector paintings in Dr. Harold Edgerton's lab, exactly the way he had left it approximately 3 years after his death, as well as the way it appeared at various stages of the renovations. Edgerton was the inventor of the electronic flash, and a key figure in the area of high speed photography, who published the famous book entitled "stopping time" (a book of pictures of events that were otherwise too fast for the naked eye to see). As I was asked to assist in renovation of the lab, and to recommend a pathway to the future (I assisted in securing donations to the lab, talking to Leaf, etc.), I wanted to document the way it was prior to the transition to "digital".

There was something I found very enchanting about the old flashtubes - devices that were made to freeze time - being covered in dust of years gone by. I would often watch the sun setting as the light would swing across the bench, and fall upon the faded yellowing (once black) writing on the yellowing boxes of years gone by - boxes labelled "microflash parts new", "microflash parts old", etc..

What fascinated me was the passage of time in a place where time once stood still. The artifacts of time stoppage, ranging from scattered halves of playing cards that were shot in half, dusty old bullets scattered about the lab, to the glass tubes and high voltage capacitors, were visible through an almost poetic dusty veil of time, with narrow slits of sunlight streaming in through cracks in the decaying roof.

From the old Kodatron systems of the 1930s, to the aerial photography apparatus of the 1940s, to the flashtubes used by Mili to take pictures for the cover of Life magazine, there is something very beautiful about a dusty old FT-24, or an FT17-30, especially when supplied with 4000 volts across its main terminals, and hit with a 30,000 volt trigger, all very carefully so as not to disturb any of the dust settled upon it over its 50 year or so life.

By using the wearable lighting studio (including the wearable high voltage supplies of my early rigs), I was able to bring a sense of life into the old tubes, to make them glow for possibly one last time.

The age of Electricity

Electricity is timeless. It is both modern, and at the same time nostalgic. We think of electricity as something that is modern, in relation to all of time, and yet Edgerton's lab was a place so full of electricity's nostalgia, from the old "condensors" we now call capacitors, to the rows and rows of dusty old vacuum tubes on shelves.

It is this same kind of narrative - the narrative of yesterday's tomorrows or tomorrow's yesterdays - that one often finds in wearable computing. Pictures of my old rigs from the 1970s and early 1980s turn up on the covers of various magazines depicting the future of computing. CEOs and presidents of companies often use pictures of these ancient rigs together with talk about what the future of computing will bring. In the month or two following another of my recent exhibitions depicting the past 20 years of wearable computing (opening October 1997 at MIT's List Visual Arts Center) there seemed to be a great surge of outlandish looking cyberfashions: models with strange things sticking out of their heads, as if to suggest that this is the future. The rhetoric was something like "The year is 2030..." and a brief description of what we will be wearing in the future. Evidently they didn't bother reading the captions (afterall this was the past). This confused sense of time runs throughout.

When I think of wearable computing, I get the same warm fuzzy nostalgic feeling I feel when I think of a 5U4 rectifier tube, or a pair of dusty old 6L6s glowing beautfully in a darkened room.

Somehow electronic flash, wearable computing, and electricity itself, are all elements of my own childhood as a hobbyist tinkerer. The golden age of electronic flash is over, for the most part, with the death of Edgerton, and the more recent death of Wyckoff, Edgerton's long time assistant, who invented extended response ("XR") film. And perhaps the golden age of film itself is over, as we drift toward more modern image capture media. Soon the beautiful "soft ceiling" compressive response of film may be forgotten along with the beautiful soft compressive sound of a pair of 6L6s. But the golden age of wearable computing is still upon us. Like the golden age of wireless (what we would probably now call telegraphy or radio) in the 1920s, wearable computing is still young enough for the hobbyist to put together a system that's better than what you can buy off the shelf.

Gone are the days of the cathode ray tubes and my 6000 volt eyeglasses, with the beautiful soft compressive ceiling. It was this soft dreamy world I chose to live in more than 20 years ago. But this same effect can be rendered computationally, with the Laser EyeTap technology, giving rise to a filmic look, so that I can still live in a world that looks as if it were shot on XR film.

Part of the art of seeing, is becoming one with the machine. Seeing Edgerton's lab through the glow of my own eyeglasses, whether seeing in total darkness, or in the lighting I wore on my body, was an experience to remember.

It was my hope that some day I could share these memories, and the emotional impact they had one me, with others.

Some lightvector paintings from the Microseconds and Years collection

display case (hallway of strobe alley) with flashtubes
4000 volt supply
FT623 off
FT623 on
NO POWER (topview)
Clean Sweep off
Clean Sweep on
camera frontview (no power)
4000 volt cables far
4000 volt cables closeup
alligator clips hanging in front of Edgerton's workbench
clutter with high voltage breadboard in foreground
vacuum tube shelves

self portrait with FT17-30 (normal daylight picture, not a lightvector painting)