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The Child, the Ant, and the Magnifying Lens

I was talking with a friend about a month ago about my study abroad program in Amsterdam this summer. When they asked me if my class studied Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek and the microscope while we were there I was surprised because I had never heard of this history or person. I was also surprised that we hadn’t studied him because the title of our program included the phrase “Visualizing the Invisible,” which was the main theme of our summer studies. I’ve since learned that there is even a museum with quite a lot of material related to Van Leeuwenhoek, and yet none of the other 18 students on that trip with me knew about it. It sparked me to think about why we didn’t study the history of the microscope when a microscope does precisely this: it enables us to visualize the (otherwise) invisible.

Van Leeuwenhoek is known as the father of microbiology as he developed lenses that enabled him to see micro-organisms, a discovery which, at that time, was not well received, but which has shaped the world of microbiology and microscopes to come after. His lenses showed the world things that people had never seen before and didn’t even know existed. So why was there no mention of him in our summer studies? The easy answer is that we weren’t studying science, but rather design, creative culture and theory. More precisely, we were studying Dutch design and creative culture through various theoretical lenses. Van Leeuwenhoek’s lens wasn’t important to us because we had so many others to utilize, and to look through and with. When you’re looking through a microscope you focus on the tiniest details. That was the amazing thing about Van Leeuwenhoek’s lens: it allowed you to see what you could not with a naked eye. So too, did our theorist’s allow us to see elements of the world in Amsterdam that we wouldn’t have seen with our naked mind’s eye – that is, without a particular theoretical lens. But here’s the rub: when you’re looking at something so closely, as through a microscope’s lens or one specific theoretical register, you lose sight of things outside the scope of those lenses.

During our first day as a class in Amsterdam we walked through Oude Kerk, the city’s oldest building. The floor of that church (which is used mainly as an art gallery) is made of gravestones of people buried there. Most notably perhaps is Saskia van Uylenburgh, the wife of Rembrandt (at least, most notable to my classmates). I’ve since learned that Van Leeuwenhoek is also buried there, yet I had no idea until last week. There we were, walking over the graves of people who had changed the world and the way we look at it in unimaginable ways. What were we thinking about that day? What lens were we looking through and what details were we focused on that made us lose sight of things not seen through it? We focused on myriad theoretical lenses during our time in the Netherlands, and we put them on and took them off as suited a given circumstance or academic assignment.

That first week we focused on the French Situationists such as Guy Debord. We embarked on a group dérive, or “drift.” The concept of a dérive is to use places differently, to become more attuned to the psychogeography of a place and to make observations about the felt space that a geographical place has to offer. Affect is paramount as you move through a variety of locations rapidly, only stopping to take notice when you feel something about the physical place you are in (i.e. happiness, hairs on your arms standing on end, repulsion, offensive smell, pleasant or jarring sounds, etc.). You then take note of the affect you are experiencing. This is a particular type of theoretical lens which utilizes modes of sensory perception to conceptualize places in distinct ways. Situationism was our lens.

We embarked on individual dérives in order to take this lens further, or to narrow its scope, so to speak. But I struggled with how to view a city I had already been in for a month in a new light – as though I was a stranger. I developed a strategy using a Playmo doll, because I felt that my vision – both physical and mental – was already locked in certain ways and utilizing the character that this toy embodied gave me a new perspective. Hence Ketel was born (or rather, developed, because his personality certainly grew during our drift and beyond). My drift was done from the perspective of a two-inch character. The lens of the Situationists as mediated by Ketel gave me a new way of seeing the world I was in. Birds became friends, soccer cones because bull horns, plants became hammocks, and the most felt aspect is that the busy life of Amsterdam suddenly seemed very lonely and desolate. I later described this drift with Ketel to my son, who asked, “Does he whistle? That must be why you call him Ketel.” I then had the lens of a child mediating the lens of a Playmo character, acting out a Situationist dérive as dictated by me. How many lenses are here, and what do their narrow scopes magnify and exclude?

All 19 students chose a theoretical register (read: lens) for our final project. The assignment required us to analyze one aspect of design or creative culture through one theoretical article we had read during class. We presented our projects to the group and each time we saw how our fellow students had picked up a particular lens, and how we all used these lenses in different ways. One student talked about parks – one in particular – through the lens of Foucault’s heterotopias. That theoretical lens let her hone in on certain qualities of the park, but also – if only briefly – caused her to lose sight qualities of the park beyond that lens. The park then was a site rich for analytical thought, but it ceased to be simply a place to play. That’s okay though, because there are plenty more lenses. Another student spoke about networking of people and making friends using the lens of Bruno Latour’s essay “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of a Network Actor Theorist”. This lens enabled us all to see ourselves as being not outside of the Dutch art world, but rather as valuable pieces of the web-like network connecting us. These presentations allowed us a glimpse into a particular piece of the world as seen through a particular lens in a finite way. This was fantastic for the final project presentations and we all learned a lot from each other. However, I got burned out thinking about something from only one perspective, as I had to prepare for that assignment.

I often felt that way throughout the summer. I often felt that I was too constricted by particular theoretical registers to look at given events or pieces of art in a more rounded or holistic way. A narrow lens is fantastic for letting you see the details, but what about the larger picture? I don’t want to just see the cracks in the paint of Van Gogh’s self-portrait, I want to smell the flowers behind him. However, because we were so intentional in our use of theoretical lenses, we never lost sight of the fact that we were looking through lenses. Those lenses only briefly became invisible to us, for instance, during our presentations, or during dérives. We could always move on to a new lens when the current one wasn’t useful; we knowingly had many at our disposal. I look back and realize that on that first day at the Oude Kerk, I was employing lenses which limited my sight and I had no idea; I walked over gravestones of people who changed the course of history, I walked by an exhibit by an artist who would later become a dear friend. As the summer progressed, my awareness of those lenses grew, and I hope this continues to be the case.

When I started thinking about this essay and microscopes, two primary images came to mind. First, there was the stereotypical scientist in a lab, eyeball to microscope, oblivious to all but what they see illuminated there. The second image that came to mind is that of a child lying down in the grass on a bright, sunny day, magnifying glass in hand, gathering the sun’s rays to focus them on an ant to light it on fire. This is what I wonder: in so much looking for the details what larger concepts did we miss out on, and what concepts did we burn out and destroy like an ant on a summer lawn?

It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to have laser-beam intensity on a subject until we lose interest or the subject feels dead to us. We don’t have to be myopic in our studies. We learned to use these theoretical registers by taking them on and off like glasses. Give me bifocals, give me tri-focals — just don’t let me forget that I’m wearing them.

I look back at my summer in Amsterdam, and I still don’t know if I’m the child, the ant, or the magnifying lens.

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