239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

As a curious teenager I read about Thought photography for the first time, in the popular science magazine KIJK. It centred on a ‘paranormally gifted’ American by the name of Ted Serious who was allegedly capable of fixing his mental images on light sensitive film. The article was illustrated with pictures of buildings and street scenes, blurry, hazy and tilted, exactly like one would picture a ‘thought photograph’. There was also a picture attached of the thought photographer in action: a contorted face, head aimed at the camera. Exactly like one would expect a thought photograph to come into being.

Ted Serious in action

I found it fascinating, and wholly convincing. These were, I have to add, the seventies, the times in which Uri Geller had a TV public of millions believe that he could bend teaspoons with his willpower, the times in which parapsychology could be taken seriously as a professional discipline, as far as within scientific circles. The New Age had started, with its unbridled embrace of mystique, astrology, crystals, flying saucers and whatever else is unverifiable. Previously ‘occult’ matters such as spiritism, auras, telepathy, and telekinesis seemed to have become phenomena that could be seriously studied and would even soon be explained and proved.

Big Bang thoughtograph

Telekinesis – the ability to move objects using sheer mental force, without touching. If one could assume that this phenomenon really existed, the conferral of a mental image onto light sensitive material should be one of its most easily realised forms. The defiance of gravity would not even enter into it; a subtle molecular change of some tiny sensitive layer would suffice. If the influence of even the smallest amount of light would be able to effectuate this change in the emulsion of photographic film, a concentrated thought, given extra focus by sheer power of will, then, should certainly be able to do the same.

Alas, paranormal abilities such as telekinesis and thought transfer remain unproven, and Ted Serios was exposed as a fraud even before Uri Geller (although some, of course, still challenge this). Although the New Age has really not quite ended, the idea of telekinesis seems to have almost disappeared from collective memory. As for thought photography, one doesn’t even come across the idea of it at all anymore.


That might be quite a shame, since the ability to photograph one’s thoughts is extraordinarily appealing to the artist. To take a picture not of the outside world, but of one’s inner world. Not of what something looks like, but how one experiences it. In fact, it is precisely what artists have always been looking for in photography (and all other disciplines).

For what makes photography such a difficult medium for an artist? What is the cause of the debate that is held ever since its invention, namely whether photography can be classified under the arts?


The fundamental problem, I believe, is that a photograph depicts the visible world by means of a lens and light sensitive material, enabling it to present an astonishingly accurate image of what something looks like- but not much more than that. For a real estate agent who wants to sell a house, that’s perfect, but an artist searches for something else. He does not want to register the outer manifestation, but the inner experience. An artist tries to express the invisible by means of the visible.

Thoughtograph- Ted Serious

One could say: what the artist really and truly wants is to photograph his thoughts.

In my time in art academy, during my first skirmishes with photography, I renewed my interest in thought photography for this very reason. I did not regard it as a real phenomenon, but like a symbol, a symbol for the artist’s quest for the impossible. The ability to photograph one’s thoughts – it seemed to me a kind of Holy Grail, comparable to the secret procedure for transforming lead into gold, the potion that keeps the drinker young forever and ‘the book that renders all other books redundant.’

mental photography

Thus understood, only a metaphor remains of Ted Serios’ ‘thoughtography’ – albeit a beautiful one. A metaphor of the hardly realisable desire of the artist to capture the invisible in an image.

The idea has stayed with me ever since, and I think in a certain way all my work can be regarded as attempts to break through the impossibility of ‘thought photography’.

I believe that I can even say I was successful at some moments. But that’s another story.

Paul Bogaers

Sound Pattern 03

Sound and harmony made visible. Lissajous patterns made with 2 audio oscillators, a loud amplifier, plastic wrap, a bowl, and a laser pointer.

Easily mistaken for the infinity sign, a circle or any number of more complex pretzels and knots, the Lissajous Figure is a picture of compound harmonic motion named for French physicist and mathematician Jules Antoine Lissajous (1822-1880). The shape is drawn by plotting a two-variable parametric equation as it iterates itself over time – the resulting figure is the picture of two systems falling into and out of phase.

In 1855 Lissajous constructed his "beautiful machine," devised to draw a picture of two systems superimposed and constructed in his Paris workshop of a pair of tuning forks placed facing at right angles, each with a mirror attached. The light source is focused through a lens, bouncing off the first onto the second and projecting to a large screen a few feet away. As the tuning forks are struck and tones are produced, simple vibrations begin to move the mirrors in a regular oscillating pattern. The projected image begins to form the strange and beautiful curves of a Lissajous Figure.

For his machine Lissajous was awarded the Lacaze Prize in 1873 and was exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition in1867. He did not otherwise distinguish himself as a scientist or mathematician. In fact, almost fifty years earlier American Nathaniel Bowditch had already produced similar figures with his harmonograph.

The simple harmonic motion which Lissajous was measuring is easily described by the motion of a clock's swinging pendulum. As the pendulum swings its speed isn't constant, but rather it accelerates and decelerates following a precisely predictable curve. If plotted over time, as the clock ticks the motion of its pendulum draws a sine wave – the so-called "pure wave" or zero-picture of a simple moving system. Ocean waves, sound waves, light waves, even average daily temperatures all produce this same oscillating sine wave pattern.

Compound harmonic motion, then, is simply the superimposition of two sine waves as they register, interfere and produce a series of overlapping waves. When juxtaposed at right angles, two sine waves recording simple harmonic motion produce the surprisingly complex figures that Lissajous identified.

Sound Pattern 03

Sound and harmony made visible. Lissajous patterns made with 2 audio oscillators, a loud amplifier, plastic wrap, a bowl, and a laser pointer.

Lissajous Figures can be easily found today in computer graphics, in science museums, in laser light shows and, perhaps most precisely, burned into the green phosphor screen of a cathode-ray oscilloscope. A standard piece of electronic test equipment, the oscilloscope allows signal voltages to be viewed as a two-dimensional graph of potential differences, plotted as a function of time. When testing an electronic system, the phase differences between two signals form opposing sine waves on the screen of the oscilloscope connected together, constantly drawing and redrawing themselves in a precise and regular pattern.

These two varying signals produce a perpetual infinity (figuratively and literally as it will actually construct itself in the shape of the infinity sign given the right initial values). The Lissajous Figure becomes a picture of timing and sequence, registration and resonance, sound and music.

Specific shapes are produced corresponding to the resonating harmonic intervals familiar from western music (major fifth, minor third, major sixth, etc.) Any figure may be transformed into any figure and an infinite number of in-betweens as the oscillating sine waves pass in and out of harmonic resonance.

Jules Antoine Lissajous created a way to see sound (using mirrors, light and vibrating tuning forks.) But the most radical possibility of his mathematics might be in the commitment it asks of its audience. The image that Lissajous produces forms slowly right in front of your eyes — imperceptibly changing, forming, adjusting and re-aligning over time.

Barnet Newman, Cathedra, 1951
Barnet Newman, Cathedra, 1951

‘There was nothing, nothing at all to see.’ This line, which would become famous, was spoken by a visitor to a Barnett Newman exhibit on January 1950 in New York. Newman presented the monumental monochrome paintings, cut through by a vertical line, for which he would be well renowned later. Paintings without a title, without a motif. In a certain sense, Newman did not want to ‘show’, at least not to show any subject, no image referring to the history of fine art. That was the discovery he had made shortly before: he no longer needed a subject. He advised the viewer to look at his paintings from up close, and not from afar, which one tends to do because of their large sizes. ‘Paintings need to be felt, not to be read,’ was his adagio.

Titian, St Margaret and the Drago


Four centuries before, around 1550, a similar discussion took place. The incentive was the paintings of Titian. At an older age, the master from Venice started to paint ‘invisible’ scenes. No longer did he bind colour to matter and shape, his palette had the figures dissolve in a kind of fog or haze. He built his composition with broad, bold brushstrokes and colour fields. Moreover, he left parts of the canvas unpainted, so that, as his contemporary Vasari put it, ‘one does not see much from up close, whereas from afar the paintings appear to be perfect.’ With ‘perfect’, Vasari meant that Titian’s paintings gave the impression of being alive.

The revolution that is born with Titian and comes to an end with Newman, is that of a category of painting that thrives on invisibility and shapelessness. It is an art of painting that shows the process of the métier, the dynamics of the brush, the use of colour, the texture. But most of all, it is a way of painting that involves the viewer in the work. For it is his position, his place, close to the painting’s skin or from a distance, that determines what can be seen. This form of painting creates the illusion of the viewer as a (co-)creator, an artist, who has to finish the work.
Ironically, this suggestion is raised most strongly by remaining at a distance from Newman’s work, yet by almost pressing one’s nose against the canvas in the case of Titian.

Detail, Titian, St Margaret and the Dragon, c.1559


Giotto’s painting is praised for many different reasons. For its simplicity and realism, its clear narratives and compositions, its imaginative landscapes and architectures, its drama and use of colour. One of the Giotto’s most interesting innovations was his use of the isocephaly, or “levelled heads”: grouping figures on a horizontal plane, on level ground.

Giotto makes ingenious use of the isocephaly in his masterpiece, the murals at the Arena chapel of Padua.

In his monumental rendition of the Last Judgement, Giotto expands dimensions both horizontally and vertically. It’s plausible since the scene doesn’t take place on earth but in the kingdom of heaven. Moreover, he needed to find a solution for arranging the halos around the choirs of saints and angels.

The Assumption of Mary in Berlin shows an interesting take on the isocephaly. The play between head and halo of partial overlap and complete visibility are taken to extremes.

Once fascinated by Giotto’s isocephaly, more and more details will start standing out. Like how within a large group, the exception sets the rule, by the individual figure looking backwards at someone standing behind him. Or the variation in how the crowns of heads arise above the halos in front of them. Or how subtle variations break the monotony of the group.

Giotto’s isocephaly is addictive. Gitto or Cimabue, painting or photography, football team or choir, you can’t stop looking. Once you’ve acquired an eye for it, the arrangement of the figures goes from being secondary to the most important aspect of his work.

Giotto, The Last Judgment, Arena Kapel, Padua
Giotto, The passing away of Maria, Berlin

The movement of Vehicles 2a and 2b in relation to a stimulus.

Vehicles 2 and 3

Tissue Type B-01 print, 2002

MicroImage A-05 print, 2005

The movement of Vehicles 2a and 2b in relation to a stimulus.

The neuroanatomist Valentino Braitenberg published Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology (MIT Press) in 1984.In this short, delightful book he presents conceptual schematics for fourteen unique synthetic creatures he called Vehicles. I became obsessed with these diagrams in 2000 while taking an artificial intelligence class at MIT. My Tissue and MicroImage projects were created entirely from software interpretations of Braitenberg's Vehicles 2 and 3.

The movement of Vehicles 2a and 2b in relation to a stimulus.

Vehicle 2 has two sensors, each connected to a motors. They are connected so that a strong stimulus will make the motors turn quickly and a weak stimulus will make the motors turn slowly. (If a sensor has no stimulus, the motor doesn't turn.) In Vehicle 2a, the left sensor is connected to the left motors and Vehicle 2b has crossed connections. If the sensor is attracted to light, for example, and there is a light in the room, Vehicle 2a will turn away from the light and Vehicle 2b will approach the light. Braitenberg characterizes these machines as correspondingly cowardly and aggressive to feature the anthropomorphic qualities we assign to moving objects.

Vehicle 3a and 3b are identical to Vehicle 2a and 2b, but the correlation between the sensor and the motor is reversed – a weak sensor stimulus will cause the motor to turn quickly and a strong sensor stimulus causes the motors to stop. Vehicle 3a moves toward the light and stops when it gets too close, and 3b approaches the light but turns and leaves when it gets too close.

If more than one stimulus is placed in the environment, these simple configurations can yield intricate paths of movement as they negotiate their attention between the competing stimuli. The Tissue images were created with three stimuli and the MicroImage images used five.