Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

Lavoiser discovered it, Joule and company improved on it and Einstein generalized it: in Nature, nothing is lost, nothing is created, and everything is transformed. This is known in modern times as recycling. The same thing happens in the arts. A work of art is never finished. At best, it is abandoned, to be resurrected years or centuries later; often it appears reincarnated in other art forms.
Jorge Calado, in Recycled Photographs


All families welcome a newborn child as if he was the reincarnation of Mozart. In the most banal of gestures, parents perceive a likelihood of genius. A scream that annoys everyone else in the room, is, for the progenitors, a glimpse of a future glory on stage as the Queen of the Night. That seems to be the natural order of things.

When I began to draw, at a tender age, I revealed some “talent” for reproducing whatever I saw, whether it was a photo or another drawing, as long as it stood still. I never had much (or any) ability to depict a living scene, as if the third dimension − suggested but absent from photos − was an unsurpassable obstacle for my limited skills; moreover, I never made any interesting drawings from my own imagination. All I was capable of was to “copy and paste”. But that was what really mattered for those who nurtured me, that I was able to replicate someone else’s drawing with a fair amount of accuracy, or turn a photograph into a realistic sketch. It was probably because of this faith in an (overrated) precocious talent that my grandfather kept for years a piece of paper in his wallet: an A4 blank sheet where I had drawn all the characters of the Tintin magazine, just like they appeared on the inside of the bottle caps of a Portuguese soft drink, in the late 1970s. I was not satisfied in just collecting those items; I also had to collect my own reproductions of the small drawings inside the caps. Then, my grandfather died, and I quickly acknowledged my inability to create something relevant with just a pencil or a brush. The sense of loss, showing its ugly face for the first time in life, is inescapable, and spreads out over our entire existence, taking our loved ones and our innocence. The illusion of immortality is the first victim of adulthood. Then, suddenly, our own portrait appears inside the closet. And we have to face it every day.

I have now lost track of that piece of paper, yellowed and slightly torn by being kept inside my grandfather’s wallet. But my urge to collect things didn’t vanish so easily. Maybe that was one of the main reasons I became interested in Photography in the first place: to collect images. And probability that is why I have always been fascinated by German Photography, by August Sander’s homogenic portraits of a heterogenic society, by Bernd and Hilda Becher’s photographs of ordinary architectural structures. Born of a catholic culture, I always lacked the necessary discipline to engage in such careful and somber representation of reality (so meticulous that it sometimes seems unreal). By studying the History of Photography, and by traveling through the vast internet world, I very soon came into the work of artists that have the discipline, but use it to record their intimacy: those who take one photo each day of their lives; those who take a portrait of their children on the same day, each year; those who carry out “infinite” sequences of the same landscape (or urbanscape). In Wayne Wang’s Smoke, Augie (the character played by Harvey Keitel) stands on the same street corner in Brooklyn, every day, and takes a photo. He has been doing that for several years and he has already collected an enormous amount of photos when he showed the resulting album to Paul (William Hurt). His friend suddenly freezes after turning a page. He recognizes his deceased wife in one of the photos. She is passing by, unaware of the camera. Among thousands of images, in a repeating scenario with anonymous men and women, Paul found his private punctum. It is as if Photography, even when reflecting the most impersonal or repeating procedure, cannot escape its funereal essence; it always disturbs us with its very own sense of time. (One of the contemporary trends in Photography is the denial of time and place. Well, time itself will judge if this particular approach will stand the test of…time.)

painel.jpg
Carlos M. Fernandes, Timor Mortis Conturbat Me, 2008

When a friend of a mine phoned me one Saturday morning, more than ten years ago, asking me if I wanted him to buy us a box of negatives that was on sale in a flea market (by that time we had the illusion we could create some work together, against the odds that tell us that collective creation is the exception, not a rule), most of them showing people in “ID photo” poses, I could not imagine that they would end up in a gallery wall transfigured by the action of artificial ants. Throughout the years, since we bought that huge box, I looked at those negatives many times. I classified them, separated men from women, and children from adults. (There was even enough material to gather military and police officers in a case of their own.) I was experiencing again the urge to collect. I imagined how they lived and how (or if) they had died. I had this unsettling notion that the older the person in the photo, the lesser the probability of them still being amongst the living. However, the negatives gradually fell into oblivion. They got older inside the improvised small boxes. (Like people, photographs age, and sometimes die.) The smell of fixer invaded the room whenever I opened them, as if it was the formaldehyde of dead photos. But I never gave up trying to resurrect those faces.

In the meantime, I discovered Swarm Intelligence and introduced it on my studies on bio-inspired computation. I came into this swarm model in 2004, an ant system that evolved on top of monochromatic images (references, here and here), building a pheromone map that identifies the edges of the image, with lines more or less intense depending on the contrast of the region. Although other edge detection methods also result in what we may call black-and-white sketches of the original image, this model intrigues and seduces us for his peculiar characteristics: we are watching what a group of unsophisticated entities, guided by a set of simple rules and without any global perception of the environment, is able to achieve. For some years, I worked on the subject, giving my humble contribution and improving the adaptability the model. One day I remembered the flea market negatives. Timor Mortis Conturbat Me − my adulthood piece of paper with drawings? −, is the result of getting together the artificial ant system and the anonymous men I kept inside little boxes. Pherographia is the name with which I baptized the concept: drawing with pheromone (the chemical substance that is simulated in the model and that generates the drawings used in Timor).

The images in this exhibition were obtained by evolving the swarm on some of the negatives. The ants can draw over any image, and it is possible to catch them with an artefact (camera), but in this way, old photographs are recycled, like a kind of ecology of the image. In addition, the stage is given to those anonymous people whose faces were maybe locked up in old albums. All photographs are memento mori, Susan Sontag wrote. By recovering and working on these images, I try to provide them with a last breath of life. I believe it’s possible; but sometimes I just feel like that child who loved to collect things and whose only mission in this world was to put a smile on his grandfather’s face.

(Soon, very soon, at P4Photography.)

Carlos Miguel Fernandes

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