Marvelling at Endochronic Technologies

“The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented,” wrote Dennis Gàbor in 1963. At that time, he had long since invented the future and it was in the process of becoming reality. Gàbor had described holography in theory in 1947, but without having been able to put it into practice satisfactorily. It was only in about 1960, with the development of the laser, a coherent focused light source with a fixed wavelength, that a convincing production of holograms became possible. Gàbor was surprised when he learnt that three-dimensional photographs had been created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the basis of the calculations he had once made. Gàbor himself had been aiming to improve microscopy. However, over the course of the decades holography came to be used in the most diverse fields, including measurement technology, optical components, data storage, certificates of authenticity, medical technology and art. Gàbor had not actually foreseen the future, yet his invention brought forth a variety of futures.

A hologram – we are speaking here mainly about holography as visual technology – functions on the basis of interferences. When light encounters an object, it is reflected and scattered by it. This creates the object beam, which makes the object visible to the eye. Holography does not record this beam directly but its interference with a non-scat- tered reference beam. In practice, the laser is split so that one beam will be reflected by the object, while the other encounters the object beam without being reflected, so that a photographic recording can be made of the interference pattern which is created when they meet. In order to view the hologram this reference beam is required (the same light as used at the time of the recording). This creates the object beam when deflected by the recorded interference pattern. The hologram becomes visible and seems to be floating behind the film.

In the same year that Gàbor wrote down the theoretical foundations for holography, a young scientist called Isaac Asimov was bored with working on his dissertation. Another way of inventing the future was more in his line. The 27-year-old was already a successful science-fiction writer, but his literary skills seemed to him to be an obstacle when formulating his dissertation, for his final examination in biochemistry required a quite different, dry style of writing.
In order to practice this kind of prose, Asimov wrote a spoof in the form of a scientific paper entitled “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline”, complete with invented diagrams and references, which was printed in a journal that published both science fiction and scientific articles. This led to some confusion. Asimov described a fictitious chemical compound, thiotimoline. Its most important property is “endochronicity”. It starts dissolving just before making contact with water. While most of the molecule remains in normal space and time, one chemical bond projects into the past and another into the future.

65 years later Alan Bogana created a hologram of a molecular model of thiotimoline for the exhibition “The Hypothetical Cabinet of Phlogistronics”, in which holography plays a pivotal role. The holograph, a bit like thiotimoline, points simultaneously to the past, present and future. Holoraphy has always been a technology of the future, reminiscent of science fiction – also because it has never found wide application in visual technology but instead remained an unfulfilled promise. Today it is being replaced by digital, screen-based 3D technologies. The general public are aware of it mainly in the form of security technology, e. g. on credit cards. And the term hologram is still used to refer to the next big 3D-technology awaiting an imminent breakthrough, such as projections of people on a stage – these having nothing to do with the technology of holography and everything to do with science fiction. And finally, holograms make clear that photography is a frozen moment, for one can virtually look around a space standing still: frozen past in an obsolete medium of the future. Bogana’s use of this dated technology entails a dual conjugation of media and scientific interest, and of the prospective, that which is orientated towards the future (or present and past futures). Bogana does not belong to the inner circle of hologram artists. For that he is not sufficiently fixated in the end product. His practice is concerned much more with the laboratory situation, with revealing the reference points of science and media history and examining the properties of holography. Bogana goes through various holographic techniques, from analogue holograms produced with a laser in his own studio to industrial ones created using digital 3D data. One property which particularly fascinates him is divisibility. If a hologram is split or broken, each piece still carries the whole picture within it.
Bogana speaks of the fascination with holography as a paradoxical technology whereby three-dimensional space appears in a two-dimensional carrier. This leads us to the question of how an exhibition such as this one can be documented in book form. The work’s three-dimensionality cannot be reproduced. Yet here it is a matter of ephemeral sculptures made of light, and the alternation between showing and hiding. The holograms in the exhibition are lit by the moving laser only temporarily, in order to accentuate the fact that a hologram only becomes visible in referential light.

It is fitting that, apart from holograms, the dominant element in this exhibition is the laser, in accord with the temporality outlined above. Both technologies carry within them traces of past futures (real and fictitious) and speculations about futures to come. Like holographic worlds, laser guns are also standards in science fiction. At the same time, the technologies are used at banal moments in everyday life.

In the case of moving lasers, we think for example of disco effects and laser pointers. Together, laser and hologram technologies are also part of barcode reading devices at cash desks and laser scanners for creating three-dimensional digital images.

While preparing the exhibition Alan Bogana used such a laser scanner to scan minerals from the collection of the Musée de Minéralogie MINES ParisTech. Mineralogy is a further, major component of the exhibition “The Hypothetical Cabinet of Phlogistronics”. Using mineralogy it is possible to discuss questions about basic scientific research, the history of science and taxonomy, and the intersection zones between amateurs and scientists. In this book Bogana addresses these issues in his conversation with Didier Nectoux, mineralogist and conservator at the Musée de Minéralogie MINES ParisTech. Fascination for shapes and the question of scale are also at issue in this discussion. Bogana plays with the possibility of morphing and re-forming digitalized minerals. These changing, meandering, amorphous shapes reappear constantly in Bogana’s work. They also come to life in the text by the artist Marta Riniker-Radich, who approaches Bogana’s work by way of a short story. As a further dialogue partner for this publication, Alan Bogana invited artist and Professor Jill Scott. She has been working for decades at the interface between art and science. The discussion therefore revolves around the question of how scientific findings can be employed from an artistic perspective. Asimov, as a scientist working with literary means, showed one possible way with his classic science fiction and the scientific spoof of the thiotimoline text. Alan Bogana’s approach is more ambiguous and open, and yet always redolent of fascination, of astonishment in the face of knowledge and the world. It is no accident that he refers in his title to the curiosity cabinet, the main focus of which was astonishment at the universe as represented by all kinds of objects. In the second part of the exhibition title Bogana comes close to Asimov. “Phlogistronic” is a word invented by the artist. Before the discovery of oxygen chemists used to attribute the process of combustion to the hypothetical substance “phlogiston”. In Bogana’s game of make-believe, this 18th century theory was not refuted but led to new technologies, the field of phlogistronics. The term does not, however, refer to a precise definition. It is far more a matter of productive misunderstanding and recollecting the extent to which knowledge is fragmentary, relative and contextually bound.

Raffael Dörig, « Marvelling at Endochronic Technologies », in The Hypothetical Cabinet of Phlogistronics, cat. exp., Kunsthaus Langenthal, 2015, introduction, pp. 15-17.