The Indexicality of the Technologic Aura

Pointing at new media artworks:
The Cellular Aura (Valerie van Zuijlen, 2017/18)
and The Green Ray (Tacita Dean, 2001).

Valerie van Zuijlen
Interactive Cinema and New Media
Fall 2019
Oct 15th, 2019
Blog Post
Wordcount: 1496

Within this blog post I attempt to create a more analytical framework for an interactive mixed-media installation and performance I created myself back in 2016 entitled Aura Cellular. Originally it was an outcome of a summer research program in Mexico and was installed in La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote Museum in Mexico-City, as part of the group exhibition “Future Archeology”. 1,5 years later, Aura Cellular was turned into a version 2.0 and got reloaded under the given title of The Cellular Aura, during the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, as part of a group exhibition called “Materializing the Internet”. A different context, as for geography, location, and setting, but most importantly a different culture in terms of audience and their participation through cognitive response.

To give a brief background and description of Aura Cellular. As it was created based on the Sonora “Witch” Market (Mercado de Sonora) located in Mexico-City. A sprawling bazaar, located in the historic center of Mexico City, dedicated to witchcraft, sex, potions, and rituals. While strolling around the market during the summer, my attention got caught by a vending stand of women who advertised their spiritual ability to do personal aura readings and healing cleanses. During that time I was highly intrigued by the subject of artificial intelligence, mainly the idea of technology having a consciousness of its own. And for that matter, the probability of researching technology in terms of the spiritual caught my interest evermore. I decided to ask the so-called “witches” to perform not just a personal reading of my aura, but if it was possible to do a reading of “me” by scrolling through my phone. As so they did, resulting in an outcome of life lessons which until today I am not sure yet how to define in claims of truth. Never the less it did became grounds for my final project Aura Cellular. To skip a bit ahead in the process of coming to the final form. Aura Cellular is an installation and performance, whereby the audience becomes a participator in terms of a personal aura reading of their cellular device. As the installation was performed live, in which in this case, I became the witch, but more the less a facilitator, who positioned their phone in a holder with their selfie camera turned on. The camera-“eye” of the phone was positioned in front of the camera-“eye” of a computer webcam. Both camera-“eyes” turned on, resulting in a feedback loop of a variety of colors. Each phone I positioned in front of the computer had a unique set of colors resulting on the monitor of the computer screen, which I captured in the film through a screen capture technique. The participant would be able to view a short segment of their cellular aura as shown in film on a side stand screen.

The technique within both installations and performances Cellular Aura and The Aura Cellular remained the same, however, the audience responses differed. In Mexico-City, for example, one participant’s aura was so colorful, as he mentioned his profession being an impressionist painter. Another participant’s aura turned black, he noted his family originated from the ancient Mayan whose relation with technology has been capricious in general. In Eindhoven, the audience was all up for criticism in terms of asking for the technical component behind it’s functioning, mainly that of the apparatus specificity.

To me, the entire project was not profoundly to create a presumptuous illusion claiming the apparatus to have supernatural powers. As the technological mechanism can simply be explained as for “camera feedback”; the process that starts and continues when a video camera is pointed at its own playback video monitor. That every telephone camera has its own footprint is merely a suspicion that can also be explained through different angles of holding it in front of the computer camera. But again, the purpose was not showing this mechanism, it was about the audience questioning themselves in terms of arguing their relationship between them and their technological devices.

While reading the article of Erika Balsom on the convergence of cinema into the exhibition space, she points out the example of The Green Ray (Tacita Dean, 2001), a 3 minute 16mm analog film. The film shows the meeting of the sun and the sea and the phenomenon called the “green ray”, a brief flare of green light that shoots up as the last bit of sun dips below the horizon. But within the short film, before one knows it, the sun is gone and the film has ended, as the viewer remains questioned if they glimpsed the green flare at all. On the other hand, the filmmaker Tacita Dean herself remains questioned by the phenomenon, noted within the article of Balsom, as the film has been shown and installed at different locations in different ways. As it transitioned from analog to a digital projection, sometimes the green flare was visible, sometimes it remained to be allegedly unseen. To argue if the green flare might not even be a phenomenon created by the landscape but an effect determined through the apparatus itself. Or perhaps even the way the film is being watched, in terms of using different projectors ever as the availability to watch the short video online through different browsers, whereas different shades of green flares occur, or again not even a flare at all. The medium specificity that The Green Ray implies, is similar to The Aura Cellular which varies in the use of different phones, creating different color fields of flares of colors. In both cases indicating the flare or aura being specific to the apparatus. This notion of the medium specificity invokes the concept of indexicality, in terms of the indexicality of pointing out, or  “indexing”, the green flare as seen within either the indexicality of the landscape or that of the apparatus. In this case, the concept of indexicality refers to the existential bond between copy and reality. It has been defined in terms of the camera producing a “footprint” of the filmic captured event. Which draws the reality or situation happening in front of the camera or also what can be seen in front of the camera. Especially the position and angle of the camera determines the perspective/point of view of the audience. To me, this notion of indexicality draws a fascinating parallel between The Green Ray and The Cellular Aura, as in both cases, the indexicality, either of the green flare or the colorful flares of the aura, can be questioned if it belongs to the landscape itself; as for the physics of the sun or the psychology behind showcasing the chakra’s of the aura, or simply in terms of technology; the medium specificity of the used apparatus, the celluloid or the lens of the phone camera. Perhaps the indexicality does not belong to either of them but to the perspective given by the audience and their cognitive participation, in terms of both works taken as their subject the possibility of “faith and belief in what you see” (Dean).

Ever as both works attempt to capture a rare optical phenomenon, the act of capturing in itself, as Balsom argues, can be defined as an allegory of film; “that medium with a privileged access to the archivization of chance occurrence, the ephemeral.” I think Balsom’s quote is very important when questioning if it is even possible to index the ephemeral in terms of being able to capture it through film. As the ephemeral of the green flash draws on the ability to index a form of “aura”, in terms of belief in what you see, as noted within the concept of The Cellular Aura. Just to be clear as it might be confusing in the case of the difference between a so-called spiritual aura and in terms of Walter Benjamin’s aura. Benjamin focuses on the point of losing the aura through mechanical reproduction, as the aura is unique to each work of art, as for aura being not only apparatus but also context-specific. Within these parameters, The Green Ray and The Cellular Aura create a parallel between both spiritual and Walter Benjamin’s technologic aura. As the aura belongs to the apparatus, which could even raise a more object-orientated philosophy, in which the apparatus itself has a specific personality, as suggested within the beginning research for The Cellular Aura

To conclude, for now, by concurring the so what question. In terms of indexicality and giving a framework to point out an optical phenomenon, either the aura or the ephemeral. I become aware that the role of the apparatus of film and that of the camera, is not only to enable the ability to index a certain happening of occurrence within a specific time, as through its specificity to capture, show and tell. But as seen within both works, the apparatus itself creates an index that can be indexical in terms of its ability to tell (create), capture and show.

*Within the upcoming weeks, I am very much interested in reading more about the relation between the role of the audience positioned in line with technology, foremost through an object-oriented philosophy.



Aura Cellular (Valerie van Zuijlen, 2016, performance/installation, part of “Future Archeology” Group exhibition at La Casa de El Hijo del Ahuizote in Mexico-City, Mexico)
The Cellular Aura (Valerie van Zuijlen, 2017, performance/installation, part of “Materializing the Internet” Group exhibition at MU Art Space in Eindhoven, the Netherlands during the Dutch Design week November 2017)
Exhibition prompt: “The internet is everywhere. Set free from the websites and the screens, it now penetrates our thoughts and our bodies and everything around us. Each day, the digital and physical become more integrated – but how does this effect our experience and how do we express the new, augmented reality? These are the questions addressed by Materializing the Internet, in MU from 6 October to 12 November. Over 20 international artists and designers turn the internet into something tangible. Transposing virtual relationships into real life or running away with the digital representation of the real world they demonstrate the incomprehensible fact that virtual and real are no longer two separate spheres.”

The Green Ray (Tacita Dean, 2001)

(W5) Balsom, Erika. “A cinema in the gallery, a cinema in ruins”. 2009.