Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Kate Flint reviews Artificial Darkness

Noam M. ElcottArtificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2016.  292 pp.

Review by Kate Flint

            Darkness is not blackness.  If the two terms are often casually linked, Noam M. Elcott’s groundbreaking and revisionist study shows why it matters that—like late nineteenth-century thinkers—we break them apart.  Black is a physiological sensation, perceived by the eye.  Its ideological, symbolic, and technological resonances have been well served in recent years, by, say, Michel Pastoureau’s Black: The History of a Colour (2008), John Harvey’s The Story of Black (2013), and the recent Getty exhibition Noir: The Romance of Black in Nineteenth-Century French Drawings.  Diametrically opposed to white, black produces striking effects, whether in op art or zebras.  It is inescapably linked to the language and politics of race.

            But darkness?  Darkness, as Elcott shows, is a condition.  In a theater, in a cinema, we may find ourself in darkness, the better able to appreciate certain effects.  Artificial darkness, by the late nineteenth century, was controlled; it became a way of negating material spatial conditions, of understanding how bodies move, of tricking the eye.  “In order to interrogate artificial darkness,” Elcott explains, “we must not ask what it was but rather where” (p. 5).  He explores a number of “dark sites,” including the backgrounds to Étienne-Jules Marey’s photographs of bodies in motion; the “black-screen technologies”. He can’t always avoid that color descriptor—used by entertainers, magicians and tricksters throughout the nineteenth century; and the work of Georges Méliès—and he makes a very convincing case for artificial darkness as providing a link between theatrical and cinematic magic.  He concludes with a vivid exploration of Oskar Schlemmer’s bold choreographic experiments that blended theater and dance to show the human body in relation to abstract space.  Not total; not night; not shadows; not race; not black—Elcott repeatedly invokes Michel Foucault’s conceptualization of the dispositif to explain the heterogeneous ensemble of forms, discourses, institutions, and propositions that, ever-shifting, constitute and help explain the mutable conditions of “artificial darkness.”

           In the first instance, Artificial Darkness will be essential reading for those who work on the media history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, especially on the intersecting areas of popular entertainment, theatre spectacle, illusionistic display, and early film.  Artificial darkness, as Elcott compellingly explains, is indivisible from these means of provoking and confusing a spectator’s sense of appearance and reality.  He gives a wealth of detail about individual productions, carefully positioning each in relation to the precise conditions in which artificial darkness was being constructed and deployed. 

            Such mutable darkness is always going to function and be interpreted differently according to space and circumstance.  The uses and qualities of artificial darkness were, indeed, crucial to aesthetic experimentation and debate during the period Elcott discusses.  But it would be cause for regret if this work reached only specialists in modernist media.  Elcott’s study should speak to those who consider photography or film’s shadows and dark spaces in whatever period; to those who consider how bodies occupy, and are perceived to occupy, space; and indeed, to all scholars of the interplay between the visible and the invisible in visual culture.