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Operational Images

BMBF Collaborative Research Project "Embodied Information"

FU Freie Universitaet Berlin (Institue of Philosophy) and KHM Academy of Media Arts Cologne (Media Science Department)

Operational Images - The transformation of image technologies

Nina Samuel, Institute of Philosophy, FU Berlin

Research Background

The background of this project are some fundamental results of the current Art History PhD project on images in complex dynamical systems. About thirty years before the proclamation of CT, mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot attempted to identify a „new class of natural objects“ which he described in his first book „Les Objets Fractals“ (Mandelbrot 1975). In this collection of diverse essays, he summed up his interdisciplinary studies and claimed them to be valid as an universal approach. Suggesting a mathematical unity of nature from a molecular level of Brownian motion up to the clustering of galaxies, he stated that his „Fractal Geometry“ would be able to connect „such differing and familiar elements as earth, heaven and sea“. He strengthened this aspect by creating formal pictorial resemblances between the micro- and the macroscopic level.

Similarly, the NBIC-convergence is accompanied by the basic assumption of a micro-macrocosmic analogy. In contrast to the imaginary pictorial worlds of chaos theory, the search for the „unity of nature“ appears now to be relocated inwards through a change of perspective. This is suggested in research reports aiming both to explore the living cell „from inside“ and to manipulate single molecules as objects (Rocco, Bainbridge 2002, 12).

To perform this material manipulation on the microlevel, pictures, so runs the hypothesis, have to act in two ways: First of all, they make something visible that otherwise would not be accessible to the human eye, and secondly, they have to operate as surfaces with embedded control elements. For this reason, operational images take up a double status as both objects of investigation and as tools. The project questions an assumed causal relation between a visual manipulation on the one hand and the structural deformation of the material on the other. In their capacity as tools, operational images allow scientists to act with and through the visual - which at the same time determines what kind of actions are even possible: The visible affects the material.

Project Goals

The project aims to find out if the so-called „Converging Technologies“ on their own constitute a new type of operational imagery. This type of operational imagery would have to produce a particular convergence that is claimed to take place on the material level. Furthermore, it would have to be distinguishable from other operational modes, e.g. the algorithmic one that can be found in „Real Time Data Visualizations“ of biophysical receptors. This mode makes it possible to manipulate molecular structures in real time and in 3-D interactively and to change their mathematical formula by manipulating the visual. In contrast to that, a first indication of the existence of another type of operational imagery is the usage of image technologies in DNA sequencing (Electrophoresis).

Given these considerations, the three following questions can be seen as starting points:

1. Which research practices do operational images enable?

The before mentioned causality, both on a visual and on a material level, extends the idea of interactive technologies („Human-Computer-Interaction“) towards a „Man-Machine-World-Interaction“. This means that interaction is increasingly shifted into the reality of every day space and the environment itself becomes more and more a visual interface for all kinds of operations and informational processes. This development corresponds to an image technology that is known as „Augmented Reality“ (Ma, Choi 2007). The project explores dynamical and interactive technologies from a pragmatic perspective that takes into account both a formal analysis and the context of production as well as their essential technological constitution (cf. Hennig 2008).

2. In which way do these operational images create convergence?

Disciplinary convergences are usually established with the help of „boundary objects“ that mediate between different fields of knowledge. This notion, developed by the sociologists Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer, addresses the problem of translation and migration of concepts and technologies between heterogeneous scientific worlds that can be solved or simplified through methods of standardization (Griesemer, Star 1989, 393). There are two key questions here: Do operational images meet the requirements of such „boundary objects“? If they do, how do they facilitate a heterogenous usage of information through heterogeneous groups of people.

3. In which image tradition can operational images be seen?

The visual artifacts and information processing devices the project focusses on are usually considered to be "non-art," despite the fact that they betray the constitutive and creative role of artistic techniques and technical media. Thus, in addition to an exploration of their function as tools, it is a fundamental task to explore the specificity of operational images „as images“, to reveal their process of construction and to expose their relation to historically known strategies of visualization and image traditions. The project approaches operational images with a seemingly traditional methodology (i.e. style analysis, iconology, and formal description), both in order to sharpen these methods and to define new and comparative criteria for describing this recent field of contemporary visuality (cf. Bredekamp, Dünkel, Schneider 2008).

Bibliography (Selection)

  • Bredekamp, Dünkel, Schneider 2008: Horst Bredekamp, Vera Dünkel, Brigit Schneider (Eds.): Das Technische Bild. Kompendium zu einer Stilgeschichte wissenschaftlicher Bilder, Berlin 2008.
  • Griesemer, Star 1989: Susan Leigh Star, James R. Griesemer: Institutional Ecology, 'Translations' and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39, in: Social Studies of Science, Vol. 19, 1989, p. 387-420.
  • Hennig 2008: Jochen Hennig: Bildtradition und Differenz. Visuelle Erkenntnisgewinnung in der Wissenschaft am Beispiel der Rastertunnelmikroskopie, in: Horst Bredekamp, Birgit Schneider, Vera Dünkel (Eds.): Das Technische Bild. Kompendium zu einer Stilgeschichte wissenschaftlicher Bilder, Berlin 2008, p. 86-95.
  • Hinterwaldner 2010: Inge Hinterwaldner: Das systemische Bild. Ikonizität im Rahmen computerbasierter Echtzeitsimulationen, München 2010 (in print).
  • Ma, Choi 2007: Jung Yeon Ma, Jong Soo Choi: The Virtuality and Reality of Augmented Reality, in: Journal of Multimedia, Vol. 2, No. 1, February 2007, p. 32-37.
  • Mandelbrot 1975: Benoît Mandelbrot: Les Objets Fractals. Forme, Chance, Dimension, Paris 1975.
  • Nake 2005: Frieder Nake: Das doppelte Bild, in: Digitale Form, Bildwelten des Wissens. Kunsthistorisches Jahrbuch für Bildkritik, Vol. 3, No. 3, Berlin 2005, p. 40-50.
  • Rocco, Bainbridge 2002: Converging Technologies For Improving Human Performance, Mihail C. Rocco, William Sims Bainbridge, NFS-Bericht 2002.


Nina Samuel                                                
Institute for Philosophy                           
Freie Universitaet Berlin                         
Habelschwerdter Allee 30                       
D-14195 Berlin                                             

Tel: ++49 (0)30 838 54509                     
Fax: ++49 (0)30 838 56430
Email: nina.samuel[at]fu-berlin.de

Silberlaube (Habelschwerdter Allee 45)
Room JK25/221C

Nina Samuel
Visiting Assistant Professor
The Bard Graduate Center
18 West 86th Street
 USA-New York, 10024