August excerpt: Artificial Darkness

August 17, 2016


“Artificial Darkness Was Not a Medium”*

Artificial Darkness does not advance the medium of darkness in place of the medium of painting or the medium of film. The histories of art and film presented here demonstrate not only that artificial darkness could operate between media but, more so, that it could only operate between media. Implicit in these histories, therefore, is a more radical proposition—asserted expansively by media theorists like Eva Horn—that there are no media. That is, there are no media “in a substantial and historically stable sense.” Joseph Vogl elaborates:

“Media are not reducible to representations such as theater or film or to techniques such as printing or telegraphy. Nor are they reducible to symbols such as letters or numbers. Nevertheless, media are present in all of these things. They cannot be comprehended simply as a method for the processing, storing, or transmission of data. One can, however, reach their historical mode of existence through a special form of questioning: by asking how media determine the conditions they themselves created for what they store, process, and transmit.”

Artificial darkness was not a medium. Instead, it was a “thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions—in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus [dispositif]. The dispositif itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.” Michel Foucault’s conceptualization of the dispositif—the French, as addressed below, is decisively more accurate than “apparatus” or “mechanism”—encapsulates the workings of artificial darkness in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But in order to transpose Foucault’s verbal genealogy to our visual one, his definition must be extended from the said and the unsaid to the seen and the unseen. For artificial darkness was, above all, a technology of visibility and invisibility. At Bayreuth and in the spaceless darkness of the cinema, spectators “disappeared from the auditorium.” Black-clad subjects similarly vanished before Marey’s black screen. Pepper, Méliès, Schlemmer, Man Ray, and countless others mobilized artificial darkness to render bodies invisible, in whole or in parts. The invisibility engendered by artificial darkness required specific architectures, insensitivities to specific light spectra, specific physiological thresholds, or the reflectivity of specific paints. But it was not medium specific. A matter of ontics rather than ontology, invisibility was among several qualities and subject effects endemic to artificial darkness that were not only the product of any one medium but rather the product of heterogeneous elements assembled in a certain order—in short, the product of a dispositif.

The term dispositif can be traced back millennia. I will limit this inquiry to two centuries. In its modern technological usage, a dispositif is an arrangement of devices or apparatuses (appareil). In nineteenth-century manuals of photography, science, or magic, for example, a camera might be called an appareil, whereas a black screen, photographic darkroom, or theatrical attraction was more likely to be described as a disposition or dispositif. Controlled darkness was almost always an arrangement, a dispositif, rather than a self-contained device. At its most modest, a dispositif is neither more nor less than a proper arrangement. The term’s two other modern meanings, however, point toward the broader network of relations central to this study. In military use, the dispositif is the proper arrangement of equipment and troops. In a juridical context, it is the legal decision, independent of the opinion. At its most forceful, a dispositif disciplines bodies and shapes discourses.But just as there are no media  in a substantial and historically stable sense, a dispositif is always provisional, strategic, and historically specific.There was no dispositif of artificial darkness independent of the architectural and artistic forms, regulatory and administrative decisions, scientific and philosophical statements, discourses, institutions, and subjects that produced it and that were produced by it. The recursion inherent in this definition serves as a firewall against axiomatic first causes,such as the autonomy, specificity, and ontology tirelessly—and tiresomely—claimed for modernist arts. Artificial darkness was exploited by modern artists and filmmakers but it was not a modernist medium. In other words, this study of artificial darkness is anchored not in the false bedrock of ontology but in an ocean of discourse and praxis, tethered to a historically contingent dispositif.


Throughout Artificial Darkness we will encounter individuals, techniques, and sites that advanced the positive value of modern darkness. At this introductory stage, however, artificial darkness may be most legible as a negative image of its ancient counterpart. These negations are nuanced throughout the book but warrant brief and schematic summary here. Not total darkness. Not night. Not shadows. Not black. Not race. Not artificial light.

Not total darkness. As a technology of controlled darkness, artificial darkness was incompatible with total darkness. When black screen techniques were exploited for magic performances, for instance, the stage was ringed with dazzlers—gas or electric lights with reflectors directed at the audience—to intensify the contrast and enhance the illusion. Audiences recalled bright lights rather than darkness.

Not night. Artificial darkness was divorced from its natural counterpart, night, and representations thereof in nocturnes or nightscapes—subjects with extensive historiographies of their own. Early seminal manifestations of artificial darkness—such as the Diorama or Marey’s black screen—functioned exclusively by daylight. Others, like cinemas,were essentially blind to nocturnal and diurnal cycles.

Not shadows. Artificial darkness demanded the concentrated presence and strict separation of light and darkness and so suffered few shadows—a penumbral phenomenon with a massive historiography that rarely overlaps with the phenomena in question here.

Not black. Artificial darkness was distinct from the color black and its abundant symbolism. Black monochromes were irreverent jokes or aesthetic provocations that marked the limits of established art, but they rarely channeled the operations of artificial darkness. What is more, the products of artificial darkness were often iridescent. Méliès regularly shot trick films before the black screen only to have them hand colored for distribution. And while most of Schlemmer’s costumes were sewn from light-absorbent black fabrics, they invariably included glistening blue-green-silver overlay, cardinal red tucking, or dazzling yellow spheres. Techniques of artificial darkness often produced variegated, even gaudy color images.

Not race. The history of artificial darkness unfolded by and large independently from discourses on race. Nevertheless, a promising avenue for further critical scholarship is the uncomfortable union of artificial darkness and race instantiated only sporadically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but explored potently by a number of contemporary artists. Darby English establishes the terms through which any such discussion would have to unfold in his analysis of David Hammons’s Concerto in Black and Blue (2002): “How to see a work of art in total darkness? One cannot, of course, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, such as when darkness itself forms the condition of the work’s visibility.”

Not artificial light.In name and in practice, artificial darkness was much more proximate to artificial light than to other forms of darkness. Substantial scholarship has chronicled the industrialization of light in the nineteenth century and the use of artificial lighting in art, architecture, and theater. But these histories, too, must be disentangled from that of artificial darkness. At a technical level, artificial darkness could and did function independently of artificial light; as already mentioned, sunlight powered many of the early dispositifs of artificial darkness, not least Marey’s Physiological Station. More interestingly, photographic and cinematic studios erected in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were consistent in their deployment of artificial darkness, even as they amalgamated or alternated between natural and artificial light. The histories of artificial light and artificial darkness overlap at important junctures; but ultimately they are distinct.

Nevertheless, the history of artificial darkness cannot be hermetically sealed off from total darkness, night, shadows, black, race, or artificial light. Commonalities could certainly be found in baroque tenebrism; Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Temple of Death; the Claude glass or “black mirror”; the mutual imbrication of gothic tropes and modern media; James Whistler’s nocturnes and “black portraits”; blue tinting or day-f0r-night shooting (nuit américaine); and hosts of recent projects in and around the ascendent black box gallery. (This book’s coda makes a few preliminary gestures in this direction.) Artificial Darkness focuses on the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century rise and consolidation of artificial darkness around a specific circuit—black screens and dark theaters—and certain of the art, media, and subjects formed therein. Artificial Darkness does not endeavor, however, to be the last word on artificial darkness.

*This excerpt was adapted (without endnotes) from Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media by Noam M. Elcott (2016).


To read more about Artificial Darkness, click here.

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