Eyeday: Brute Force

Felipe Meres

In recent years an increasing number of museums have turned to hyper-realistic imaging technologies to document artifacts in their collections. Cultural institutions with ethnographic collections, such as the Quai Branly, the Smithsonian, the Peabody and the British Museum are at the forefront of experimenting with technologies such as 3D, CT, and MRI scanning to produce digital reproductions of their artifacts. The predominant discourse sustaining such efforts focuses on the benefits that these high-resolution imaging technologies could bring to scientific research, significantly aiding the analysis and interpretation of the objects. By translating the artifacts into digital 3D models and publishing them online, museums believe they could also make their collections more accessible both to specialists and to the public at large.

Such scanning technologies provide researchers with representations of the objects that have a degree of fidelity that conventional photographic methods could never achieve. CT and MRI scanners can penetrate an object’s surface to probe its interior, and 3D scanners can reproduce its shapes and textures with an exceptionally high degree of accuracy. But while the museums and anthropologists involved in such efforts highlight the benefits that could come from such unprecedented level of access to the objects, the question of what it means to submit ethnographic and ritual objects to these secular technologies remains underexplored.

In my project, I intend to examine the underlying effects and meanings that the adoption of hyper-realistic imaging technologies to document and reproduce ethnographic collections bring about. Central to my approach is the hypothesis that this tendency represents the latest frontier of the persistent colonial desire to control those considered Others and to neutralize the threat of radical epistemological disruption they embody. Rooted in the project of Enlightenment, such desire has structured Anthropology as a discipline and has continuously operated to inscribe the unknown and render it visible. Imaging technologies have developed a pivotal role in Anthropology’s quest to map cultural difference, as the discipline consistently focused its efforts on producing persuasive and seemingly-objective images of the peoples and material culture it encountered.

Out of the human senses, sight has arguably been the privileged mean by which the discipline worked to apprehend and produce knowledge about cultural difference. Such sensorial hierarchy can still be identified in predominant museums with ethnographic collections, where the mode of engagement with the collections is strictly visual. The increasing adoption of hyper-realistic technologies to produce images of artifacts can be seen as an extension of the sensorial regime that Anthropology has established from its origins. It enforces the privileging of the eye as the organ for the apprehension of knowledge about the unknown and strips objects which were often made to be experienced through hearing, smell, touch and taste of their multisensory potentialities.

I intend to explore these issues in the form of a performative lecture that will examine the overarching material and social structures underpinning the projects of digital reproductions in ethnographic collections. Consisting of videos, image slides, and spoken- word, my presentation will attempt to highlight the entanglements that are produced when museums deploy hyper-realistic technologies to scan ethnographic objects. The ethnographic authority with which Anthropology speaks of its subjects will be intentionally disrupted in a presentation that will deploy aesthetic and literary devices to question the interests that are sustaining such efforts. What are the aesthetic conventions deployed to produce 3D scans, and what are the underlying assumptions about technological representations that guide these projects?

In my performative lecture, I will explore the materiality of hyper-realistic imaging technologies and the network of which they are part. The representation of artifacts in 3D relies on a set of algorithms, computer graphics software, graphics processing units, and image-capture technologies to produce hyper-realistic renderings. These technologies are primarily produced by the tech and entertainment industry to generate realistic images for blockbuster films and video games and are used to simulate a wide array of phenomena, from the facial expressions of video-game characters to the particles of smoke in an action film. The process of 3D scanning ethnographic artifacts inextricably ties the objects to a network that includes agents not often associated with museums, such as action games with intensive graphics renderings, blockbuster films with complex CGI effects as well as the tech companies that develop the graphics cards, 3D rendering software and image-capture technologies used in the process.

Brute Force is the name of the chief algorithm in 3D rendering technologies responsible for accurately representing the behavior of light, and therefore for producing images that appear as realistic representations to the human eye. Without employing Brute Force, the images of ethnographic artifacts would lose their persuasive power and would come across merely as digital constructions, carrying no more objective data or scientific validity than a hand drawing. What are the effects of forcefully subsuming ethnographic artifacts in such hyper-realistic network of CGI and in the larger project that aims to produce a level of photorealism never achieved before, effectively rendering the distinction between simulation and reality unattainable to the human eye?