What Gathers

“It is for this reason that disorientation can move around; it involves not only bodies becoming objects but also the disorientation in how objects are gathered to create a ground, or to clear a space on the ground (the field).”Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 160. Sara Ahmed – Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others

“What gathers?” We ask, reflecting on a scene described by Sara Ahmed in the concluding section of her book Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. We are placed within the scene Ahmed describes. We are reading, or in this case writing about reading, words on a page. We read the words,

What is before you becomes the world. The edges of that world disappear as you zoom in. The object–say the paper, and the thoughts that gather around the paper by gathering as lines on the paper–becomes what is given by losing its contours. The paper becomes worldly…Ahmed, 157.

We realize that we are seeing the lines rather than reading them as words. Suddenly their identity shifts, accompanying a drift in meaning. The gathering thoughts are coincident with the gathering lines, yet they are different. One could say of lines encountered in this way, that they are lines that resemble words.

This text asks “what gathers” to produce a ground. A few artifacts are placed adjacent to one another to engage the question of how a ground, or grounds, might be instantiated through words and images. The definition of the word artifact in the Oxford English Dictionary includes the following entries: 1. a. An object made or modified by human workmanship, as opposed to one formed by natural processes. 2. Science. A spurious result, effect, or finding in a scientific experiment or investigation, esp. one created by the experimental technique or procedure itself. Also as a mass noun: such effects collectively. These entries bring to light two important points that a further consideration of the term artifact might allow us to ‘make uncertain.’ First, we could think about artifacts that do not adhere to the dichotomy between human workmanship and natural processes that is presented in the dictionary entry. We could also destabilize the second dictionary entry by embracing the idea that the procedure used to establish facts or document things in a precise manner will produces effects that challenge their own legitimacy.

The artifacts gathered here include a work by Vija Celmins titled Desert (1975). This work aligns with the shift in seeing and attending to that Ahmed described above as pertaining to the act of reading. This set of lines eschews the kind of legibility that would enable us to name what we are looking at as a set of identifiable objects in favor of an act of resolving things to understand them in other ways. In Desert the lithographic rendition of a pencil drawing replicates a ground–a rocky substrate–as photographed in the Mojave desert. Graphite is used to render shadows as dense clusters of lines. These lines, taken collectively, produce the overall effect of a shallow three-dimensionality. They construct the semblance of a desert seen from above, the ground is literally drawn into existence. This documentation resonates with Bruno Latour’s contention that drawing is a necessary facet in the production of facts and realities.Bruno Latour, “Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together,” in Knowledge and Society Studies in the Sociology of Culture Past and Present 6 (1986): 1-40 Like Ahmed’s “paper becom[ing] worldly,” the world we encounter here flows off the edges of the paper, subsuming the paper and suggesting an infinite expanse.

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Desert, 1975, Vija Celmins, ©Vija Celmins, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery. Digital photograph: Photo © Tate

This artifact also unsettles the distinction between human workmanship and natural processes. The ‘workmanship,’ in this case the act of drawing a shard of graphite across a piece of paper, results in something that appears to be the result of a ‘natural process’ akin to erosion. These two processes, drawing and erosion, are situated differently in respect to the image under consideration. The act of drawing is the background (temporally, taking into account Ahmed’s discussion of backgrounds) for the production of Desert.Ahmed, 31. The image is prefaced by an action, drawing, that we no longer have access to; we only see the result–that which has been drawn. Conversely, the act of erosion is suggested as a fictive background for what we see. What constitutes this ground, Desert? Are we looking at the semblance of a natural process or the semblance of human workmanship?

How might we make our way through such a ground? Edges of worlds and the ways in which our instruments for navigating worlds shape them in turn, are the focus of Jennifer Gabrys’ text, “Ocean Sensing and Navigating the End of this World.” Gabrys characterizes worlds as “environments of distributed computation.”Jennifer Gabrys, “Ocean Sensing and Navigating the End of this World,” E-Flux 101 (June 2019). https://www.e-flux.com/journal/101/272633/ocean-sensing-and-navigating-the-end-of-this-world/ We can reflect on the extent to which computation constructs environments by looking closely at a computationally produced image of a ‘natural’ environment. A series of artifacts present in the computational ground (a digital image replicating a ground) differentiates it from Celmins’ drawn world/ground. Contrary to the suggestion, supplied by the definition of the word artifact, that certain effects produced by the process of documentation might be spurious or inauthentic, it is precisely these artifacts that are relevant in this act of constructing a ground. These artifacts create allusions to multiple forms of nature and disorient the reference to ‘natural processes’ in the definition of artifact provided above.

The images that follow, additional artifacts in the ground we’re gathering, are the byproducts of a photogrammetric documentation of a landscape. Photogrammetry is a process whereby data, with which measurements can be established, is extracted from images. In this case the imaging data is used to generate point clouds and meshes that are essentially recomposed artifacts bearing a formal resemblance to that which was documented in the landscape. Texture maps replete with color, light and shadow are generated to accompany the three-dimensional data. These ‘maps’ facilitate the recomposition of digital objects that bear a more seamless resemblance to the objects that were initially photographed.


Texture map for Tableau estuary produced as an artifact of the photogrammetry process. Image courtesy of servo los angeles.

The texture map yields a splintered ground that resembles an archipelago. This ground is to some degree digital flotsam (not a ground into which we might sink, rather a ground that itself might sink).Considering the connection between a ground and entities that might assemble on that ground, Sara Ahmed reflects, “Disorientation occurs when we fail to sink into the ground, which means that the ‘ground’ itself is disturbed, which also disturbs what gathers ‘on’ the ground.” Ahmed, 160. Each tableau is comprised of a planar texture map (delimited as a square field) and the photogrammetric portion of the landscape to which that map corresponds, a geomorphic fragment. Contours within the texture map are artifacts reflecting the computational logic for applying texture to the 3D mesh. These regions of the map resemble pieces of earth floating in an aqueous medium. These aqueous regions (the computational background for producing the digital semblance of the original object) are foregrounded in the texture map. In the context of the machinic process used to construct three-dimensional objects from images, these maps have a computational logic. Regarded from a machinic perspective they make sense, whereas they resist legibility from a human perspective. As with Desert, a process of resolving things may enable us to understand them in other ways, producing identities that challenge the definition of the natural and make our way through this unstable ground.


Tableau estuary. Image courtesy of servo los angeles.


Tableau archipelago. Image courtesy of servo los angeles.


Tableau fen. Image courtesy of servo los angeles.


Tableau copse. Image courtesy of servo los angeles.


Tableau thicket. Image courtesy of servo los angeles.