Completed in 1954, the BC Hydro’s Dal Grauer Substation was designed by the young architect Ned Pratt and artist B. C. Binning. The building was commissioned by the B.C. Electric Company under the helm of the then president, Edward Albert “Dal” Grauer, to bridge functional design with public art. The substation would go on to serve as a three-dimensional “canvas” that was said to resemble a Piet Mondrian or De Stijl painting. Unfortunately, in 1977 the substation suffered several explosions that shattered the glass exterior walls; these were later replaced with plexiglass, which, over time, clouded and obscured the vibrant colours of the interior.
The modernist philosophy with which the building was designed emphasizes the link between art, architecture, and everyday life. With this in mind, the Burrard Arts Foundation and Capture Photography Festival has commissioned Canadian photographer Jessica Eaton to create a new site-specific work to be adhered to the Substation’s facade. Eaton’s practice examines the inner workings of analogue cameras’ production of images. While the effects she achieves at first seem the product of Photoshop, her vibrant photographs are the result of several basic manipulations of the photographic process, such as multiple exposures and the use of lens filters. In its conversation with seminal modernist colour theory works, Eaton’s photograph points to the history of the Substation and to Vancouver’s unique role in West Coast modern design.
On the Photographic Work of Jessica Eaton
I recall Jessica Eaton as a student at Emily Carr University in 2006 when she was producing a work in the studio that entailed her unleashing some five hundred ping-pong balls from a net twenty feet up in the air. With the ping-pong balls bouncing riotously across the concrete floor, Eaton managed four film exposures in that instant. The resulting work, Quantum Pong, shows a snowstorm of balls levitating in mid-air, made semi-transparent when seen one against the other, the different layers of time gradually becoming apparent. I think that something of the spirit of that afternoon session continues to inform Eaton’s practice to this day.
Since photography’s inception, photographers have been experimenting and exploring the medium’s potential in terms of its technology and materiality, from William Henry Fox Talbot to László Moholy-Nagy, right up to the present day. Indeed, recently there has been much activity centered on the most basic and elemental properties of the medium. Whether or not this is a response to the imminent obsolescence of analog photography or a return to origins, a sort of degree-zero moment, especially in light of the dominance of digital technologies, remains to be seen.
The question as to what defines a photograph is being posed anew and with some vigour. Once common exposure times, usually consisting of a fraction of a second as typical of the snapshot, have been radically expanded to the point where one photographer (Michael Wesely) has made photographs from film negatives that he exposed for up to three years inside his camera. Another (Idris Khan), instead of making single-exposure images, has produced single images made up of multiple exposures (scans) layered atop one another, often numbering in the hundreds. Recently, too, photographs have been printed, almost “conjured up,” using outdated photographic paper from the nineteenth century (Alison Rossiter), and which therefore span a time frame of over a hundred years.
This often complex dialogue concerning what Samuel Beckett describes as “that double-headed monster of damnation and salvation—Time” is expanded upon by Eaton through her exploration into the agency of light and colour in the formation of the photographic image. What perhaps most interests Eaton is how the camera sees. In particular, how the primary colours of light, when blended using colour separation filters (the tripartite additive colour process), appear vibrant, even hyper, making her photographed objects seem as though illuminated from within.
Eaton’s signature motif of the geometric cube that she constructs to be photographed is in essence a miniature, grey monochrome. The layers of highly saturated colours that we see, however, exist only inside the camera as recorded onto a sheet of film. Consequently, the making and building up of each photograph is a labour-invested, happenstance operation. One consolation is that when the procedure fails, it can also often succeed: potential clues are revealed, alluding to another way of seeing, another way of thinking. As such, Eaton’s photographs may well reveal just how limited our ability to perceive the world still is.
Text by Arni Haraldsson