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Devices of Wonder

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Barbara Maria Stafford and Frances TerpakEdit

Barbara Maria Stafford is William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. While her research has explored spatiality and opticality from the early modern to the contemporary period ("working at the intersection of the imaging arts, the visualizing sciences, and performance technologies" as her UoC website notes) she has turned toward a focus on embodiment and brain brain sciences (evident in the frequent offhand references she makes to neurophysiology and other allied sciences). She is interested in an intersection of phenomenology and brain science, as explored in her 2007 work Echo Objects.

Frances Terpak is curator of photographs at the Getty Research Institute, where she has also built the optical devices collection.

Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a ScreenEdit

Devices of Wonder was the catalog text for an exhibition of optical and perceptual devices at the Getty(largely early modern to late industrial revolution). The authors employ the mediating concept of the cabinet of curiosities to organize their work--they bring together an array of objects, non-hierarchally, and see what observations and discoveries can be made by putting them side by side: "Not unlike peering at a specimen through a microscope or a star through a telescope, glimpsing a baffling item lying inside a drawer both clarifies it and unites it to a larger prospect" (3). The book, then, operates as a device of perception, elongating, refracting, reflecting and animating our view of these devices. While not a testified influence, this organization reminds one of Foucault's ruminations on Borges in The Order of Things.

Stafford's writing is intended as a narrative that merges all the objects into a flowing context. Terpak, rather, employs small vignette-style essays on thematically grouped artifacts, producing brief and exciting close reads. The book is capped with a list of all the objects in the Getty. Its method attempts to work around the way such artifacts are primarily seen (as devices and toys which enact visual control over a powerless observor, or a precinematic narrative about animation of imagry). Rather, the "exhibition attempts something else: to deal with them phenomenologically and symbolically as part of a braod spectrum of artful 'eye machines,' old and new" (3). Working here is a big picture of the "cosmos in a box" which Stafford uses to link "recent arcane speculations about particles and membranes vibrating in a megaverse to the volatile filigree of dark and luminous substances to which early modern polymaths such as Giordano Bruno, Giambattista della Porta, and Anthanasius Kircher bore witness" (3).

Here, they tred on historical ground well-tred by Crary and Zeilinski. Their approach, however, endeavors more toward Zielinski than Crary; they seek the new in the old, and are mainly interested (because the style of the book can afford them to do so, no doubt) in exploring the creative juxtapositions of playfully "thinking with things."

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