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High Voltage: How to Take Psychedelic Fractal Photos With Lightning

I caught up with glitch artist and musician Phillip Stearns, whose photos look like drugged-out Lichtenberg figures.

Images courtesy Phillip Stearn.

When I meet artist and musician Phillip Stearns at his Bushwick studio, he's at a desk working on a light display project running on an Arduino microconroller. In boxes leaning against walls, or stored high up on metal shelves, are a collection of neon tubes that he's using for his latest project. This is Stearns' domain, and while it's not exactly a mad professor's lab, it's definitely a nexus of creation. 

I'm here to discuss Stearns' High Voltage Image Making series, which he crowdfunded with a Kickstarter campaign, surpassing his goal five times over. With the project, Stearns is developing a body of work that explores the introduction of high voltage onto instant photography chemicals and technology. The resulting images manage to look simulatenously psychedelic, neural, biological, viral, painterly, and even three-dimensional. And, because of the branching electrical discharges, each photograph becomes a Lichtenburg figure—fernlike, self-similar tracks with fractal qualities.

"These treatments approach the film technology as a recording media, capable of creating images from physical, electrical, and chemical transformations," Stearns writes on his Kickstarter page. "The project takes its cues from artists such as Man Ray (photogram), Pierre Cordier (chemigram), Marco Breuer (scratched expose and developed c-prints), Chris McCaw (sunburned prints) and Hiroshi Sugimoto (static discharges on photopaper)."

In our chat, Stearns discussed how he originally began experimenting with high voltage and instant photography, and what he plans to do with the money raised on Kickstarter. He also talked about how his work is, like hacking, really about opening up systems beyond the narrow focus of their original design and manufacture. 

MOTHERBOARD: How exactly did you get started on this project?

Stearns: It was sort of a coincidence of materials and ideas. I happened across a collection of neon that was just sitting over at a public theater. A friend of mine named Brendan Burns, who is doing amazing things with self-made synthesizers and instruments, mentioned that they were going to get rid of this stash of neon. He thought we could do something cool with it. 

The tubes require high voltage transformers to power them up. I found that the ones I received were good at being switched, so I started using them in performances. At some point some photographer in my studio building was getting rid of a whole bunch of their equipment. There was a lot of photographic paper, instant color film, instant black and white film. I didn't have the cameras to shoot this 4x5 stock, but now I do with these Polaroid land cameras. Once you take a picture, you pull a tab, which pulls it through some rollers, and you wait a little bit and you have a picture.

I didn't have the camera or rollers at the time, I just had the film and the neon ballast stuff. So, I wanted to see what would happen when I blast the film with electricity. And that idea came from Hiroshi Sugimoto, a Japanese photographer and artist who did a series called Lightning Fields, where he took black and white photo paper and subjected it to static discharges. It was just one discharge. I thought, "Well, he's doing it with black and white, and I have this color film—what's going to happen?"

It's almost like innovation of an established technique in that way.

Yeah, a lot of what happens is that I hear that somebody's done something, and I'm just like, "Okay, cool... what's that like?" Then I just try it out. I'm not so worried about copying someone else's work per se; it's just copying a technique. 

Right. Your respective works look fundamentally different. 

Different ingredients are going into it, but we're still scrambling eggs. 

So, how do you run the electricity onto the photographic material?

I set up a transformer on a table, and at first I had a paperclip attached to one of the electrodes that I taped down to the table. I had the other electrode in my hand, and put the film on top and brought it close until it arced. The first couple of photos didn't do much, but I saw that there was promise, so I refined it. I thought that if I spread the electrodes underneath the film, the electricity is going to want to go across the surface of the film and then around the images. Now that I have this arcing, it produces these Lichtenberg figures. Then I added chemicals on top, and kept going until I ran out of film.

Lichtenberg figures are fascinating. Was that on your mind when you knew you'd be running electricity onto this film?

I had a sense that what I would be capturing would be something like that, but I didn't know until further research that the result would be Lichtenberg figures. I realize now that it helps dissolve scale in a certain sense, and I was getting at that by juxtaposing the scale of electrical activity as it occurs with our vision and scaling up to what we can leverage and amplify with our technology. I knew what I was going after, but wasn't quite sure what to expect. Every time I do it, it's going to be different. There is only a certain degree of control that I have over color cast and the arcing itself. 

What's amazing is this technique's three-dimensional quality, or a sense of depth and layers. 

The film that I'm using is Fujifilm, and it has pigment and silver halide layers. The three pigment layers are cyan, magenta, and yellow. When you develop it, any of the exposed silver halide is going to block the dye transport. In this case, you would expect that when you have a bright source of light from a electrical discharge, you'd have a white figure, but here you have the inverse. And I figured out that what's happening is that the silver halides are actually conducting the electricity and getting vaporized in the process, letting the dyes bleed through. 

The depth is half the temperature of the actual arcs and then half the residual electrical energy pushing the material out of the way, and leaving space for some of the dye to seep through. In terms of the color tints, I'm still trying to figure out the mechanics of how to manipulate what's actually happening. Greater control may not be the end goal after I figure out what's going on, because some of the earlier ones look fantastic. I'd never be able to do it again, especially if I know too much. It will be like, "What was I doing when I didn't know what I was doing." [laughs]

So, how do you want to display these photos?

There is all of this detail, so there are two ways I've been thinking of presenting them. The first is by taking a stereoscopic microscope and having the photos sandwiched between two glass plates so that people can look at them. Maybe having that juxtaposed with the hyper hi-resolution scans and enlargements would give more of the sense of scale and collapsing of scale.

I didn't know that this is what I was doing.The way I came to this was through digital photography, which is electrical, so it's not exactly parallel to how the eye works. But, the idea is the same: you have a sensitive surface that doesn't change. The light causes interaction that then sends a chain of electrical impulses or signals that gets captured and interpreted later on. With photochemical photography, it's just light. It's the primary actor in that process.

Here it's like taking from digital photography to sight, then trying to extract what is common between digital and analog, and take it back to photochemical processes, or so-called analog photography.

In that respect, it's also a bit like painting. 

Yeah, I was trying to figure out if I could use it as more of a painterly medium because the dyes are locked up inside the film, developing and moving, and they're all going to move at different rates. So, if I pull them apart at some point during development, I might be able to influence the color cast and textures. And some of the photographs turn out very biological, and some of the arc burns look like bugs. 

At what point do you add chemicals to the film?

Just before introducing the electricity. Most of the photos are blue or magenta, but the bleach really brings out the yellow and oranges. I think the blue is definitely coming from daylight or fluorescents. 

In addition to being a musician, you're a glitch artist. Would you describe this high voltage image making as a form or manifestation of glitch? And if it's not glitch, at least your common approach is to force technology to do things that it wasn't meant to do. In a way, it's hacking. 

Glitch is really a complex thing. There are all of these overlapping ideas and traditions. Some of them are coming from completely different places, but they all have a common thread. If you take Structuralist film and the kind of assault on the media as a material investigation, that sort of informs this dirty new media aesthetic, where you're injecting "noise" into the system.

When it comes to the digital artifacts that come out of the system, as Daniel Temkin pointed out in the interview you did with him, if the algorithm hiccuped or whatever, if there was stray cosmic radiation, then maybe something else was going on. But, for the most part these algorithms are just doing their job. They're doing that one thing they're meant to do. If it looks weird to us it's because we hadn't fully understood what we created. It's kind of like taking this understanding that things as they've been created, they have a purpose, but that purpose isn't all that it is possible. It's not the whole story. It's not that there is a hidden potential, it is that there are other things that can be done with these materials that leave us with, as Daniel says, a "wilderness in the machine."

These systems are incredibly complex. And even though we assembled them with a particular detail in mind, at a certain point that idea was pairing off these other possibilities to this one thing, but these possibilities are still latent in the system. It's the common thread that ties glitch to all of these other practices, where material investigations wind up sort of questioning the way a media or particular symbols operate within a culture or society. I think that's where it gets into the art realm. 

It's a good metaphor: you take a system and condense it down to one thing that is more easily understood, palatable, and marketable when it has all of these other potentialities. That's how the human mind functions in order to reduce the noise and focus on particular tasks. 

Right, these digital systems are taking that to its logical extreme. There is this whole group of artists who work predominantly with what today is being called technology, with code. There is this School for Poetic Computation founded by Zach Lieberman, Taeyoon Choi, Amit Pitaru, and Casey Golland, and they're all involved in questioning how we can make code more poetry and less programming. They also question where the more interesting cultural aspects are rooted in the tools people are using, and how they can be brought out with those tools to reveal this hidden poetics. 

What is the goal with the Kickstarter campaign?

Originally, it was just to raise money to do archival scans of the ones I already have, then make enlargements, print and then show them. I was recently talking to Kelani Nichole and Jereme Mongeon at Transfer Gallery, and they were really excited, and thought I was really on to something with these prints and enlarging them. We set up a date for the show, and it's going to be some time in 2015, probably April.

I was planning on raising enough money to produce those prints in edition. If I got extra money, then I would continue working in this way. Now I have five times more money than I even asked for, and I'm incredibly excited because I'm going to be able to do this and loads more prints. In fact, I have to in order to fulfill the Kickstarter rewards.