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From Issue #54 October 23, 2014

A Record of an Apparition

A Los Angeles-based artist experiments with optics.

By Colleen Hubbard Twitter icon

In a former herbalist’s shop in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles, the image of an angel flickers above a spinning record. The album is Jack White’s 2014 release Lazaretto, which set a new record for vinyl album sales, and the angel hologram that appears on every copy of the “Ultra LP” version is the work of Tristan Duke, a 33-year-old Los Angeles-based artist. Through Infinity Light Science, his research laboratory exploring optics for visual art, Duke advances the study of optics and holography aimed at making art. He creates hand-drawn holograms, a technique first explored in depth by a research engineer in the 1990s; Duke fashioned new tools and conducted further explorations to use scratch holography for art.

True holograms, persnickety enthusiasts may argue, are three-dimensional images that result from a wave interference pattern produced by a laser. No lasers or interference patterns are used to create scratch holography, which came into focus after a series of experiments conducted by William Beaty, an engineer and devoted science hobbyist whose projects, featured on his YouTube channel, include “Unwise Microwave Experiment” and “Poor Man’s ‘Liquid Nitrogen.’” Beaty was able to produce holograph-like polyhedrons after noticing that certain scratches on a car hood in his office parking lot appeared to float. Upon investigation, he determined that a gritty mitt had caused scratches to be buffed into the surface of the hood during an enthusiastic if haphazard cleaning, and light hitting the scratch pattern produced a holographic effect.

Beaty’s paper on the phenomenon inspired science hobbyists to replicate the holographic effect. He described a technique for producing these images — which he called “scratchograms” — by using a compass to mark a hard surface, such as a plastic CD jewel case, with circles or arcs. With the advent of scratch holography, most users focused on determining how a computer-driven robot could be programmed to replicate the abrasions needed to produce an image.

For Duke, his interest in the hand-drawn aspect was not a result of a sentimental attachment to the analog; his next experiments won’t require an antique knitting needle marking a jam lid. Rather, he sees this technique as a way for artists to come to an intuitive understanding of holography.

“I saw the potential for human technique,” Duke says. “I wanted to know what it felt like to see images from a holographic perspective. In a nutshell, this has been my work — to create a system that is human.”

Duke refined his skill by first scratching the Platonic Solids — a series of polyhedrons — and a series of Escher-like shapes. Over breakfast one morning in his trailer in the Eagle Rock district of Los Angeles, he realized that the grooves required for a hologram are not unlike the grooves stamped into a record. Not long after, he met the owner of Revenant Records at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where Duke is a fellow. The idea to build a hologram into a record fit nicely with a planned vinyl edition of Jack White’s album, and so Duke set to work determining the groove pattern necessary to produce a holographic effect when the needle struck the innermost ring of the record.

Scratch holograms aren’t the limit of Duke’s interest in experimental image-making: as a founding member of Metabolic Studio’s Optics Division, he photographs with a “liminal camera,” a mobile pinhole camera made from a shipping container set on a flatbed truck, and also with a camera obscura built into a silo near the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

One project, investigated with Lauren Bon and Metabolic Studio, considers the relationship of Los Angeles with the Owens Valley, a lakebed desiccated by rerouting the region’s water to Los Angeles (these “water wars” were depicted in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown) and mining silver used in the film industry. In the Owens Valley, the Metabolic team photographs the landscape with the liminal camera and silo camera and then develops images using soda ash and sulfur from the lakebed, effectively producing an image of the landscape from the landscape itself.

This year, Duke spoke about scratch holography at Fest i Nova in Georgia, and as part of the Metabolic Studio team he will demonstrate the liminal camera at the Chicago Humanities Festival in November. As for the Lazaretto angel, while it’s the first commercial application of scratch holography, it will not be the last. Duke’s next record project, for Revenant, produces scratch holograms for volume two of a set of LPs cataloging the work of Paramount Records, the seminal early recording company.

Photo courtesy of Tristan Duke.

Colleen Hubbard lives in England, where she writes fiction and nonfiction.

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