Black Mirror: Anna Riley and Justin Ginsberg Collaborate on a Unique Journey into the Past

No, this isn’t an episode of the dystopian British TV show Black Mirror, although an investigation into the original 17th-century method for taking a selfie certainly sounds surreal enough. Rather, this is glass innovation at it’s best, something Corning is renowned for.

This past fall, glassblowers Anna Riley and Justin Ginsberg descended on Corning for a unique collaborative residency to research the Claude mirror—a dark, pocket-sized, reflective object used by artists more than 400 years ago. The Studio‘s Instructor Collaborative Residency is an invitational opportunity for artists who have taught an intensive course in Corning in the past five years to develop new work together. Working from the belief that attention is a creative medium, Riley and Ginsberg used their two week residency to create a series of handmade glass devices inspired by the Claude mirror. The devices are inherently beautiful objects, but also serve as modes for focusing attention for viewing and interpreting the world around us.

Following the completion of their work, Riley and Ginsberg gave us the lowdown on everything they learned after looking into the mirror.

Briefly, what can you tell us about Claude mirrors – the history and use of, and relevance today?

“These devices were attributed to Claude Lorrain—a French painter in the 17th century. It is a handheld, portable device made from dark glass. Some are circular, others rectangular. Many of them were fitted into leather cases with a plush cloth lining to prevent scratches from marring their convex surfaces. The quality of the surface, of course, is key. An artist or traveler would carry this portable device to a notable vista, turn their back on the landscape, and hold the mirror up to see it in reflection. It is this peculiar choreography that interests us: turning your back on something in order to attend to it. We are reminded of the pervasive act of taking a selfie, say, in front of the Eiffel Tower or Vincent van Gogh’s A Starry Night. But we don’t use these examples in a pejorative way. We don’t see this action as wholly negative or needing to be rectified. Instead, we are curious: what is afforded by attending to something through this filter? And what is lost? 

“The black mirror as a symbol is clearly present today through popular media like the TV show. The black mirror feels analogous to the black box, a metaphor for the unknown inner workings of things, especially science and technology. Extant Claude mirrors in museum collections are often exhibited alongside other technologies, presented as items somewhere between artistic utensils and scientific instruments. 

Polished Obsidian Slab, 62.7.2A

“Some of the earliest mirrors were dark—made of polished metal or obsidian, rather than clear glass backed with silver. This is why we were interested in CMoG’s obsidian mirrors, too, and we compared the surface quality of other mirrors to that of the Claude mirrors in Corning’s collection. The goal, of course, is not to compare one mirror surface as superior to another, but instead to observe the qualities of their reflections with curiosity. Sometimes an imperfect reflection can be more interesting and fruitful for creative work. In some of the objects you can feel a struggle between attending to the surface reflection and attending to the materiality of the thing itself. It’s hard not to be taken with the shimmering qualities of rainbow obsidian, as can be seen in this polished obsidian slab (left) from Oregon.

“We were aware, coming into the residency, of a very well known black mirror in the Museum’s collection. Fred Wilson’s I Saw Othello’s Visage In His Mind (2013) draws attention to race, not just through Desdemona’s line, but also through the black glass itself as a material gesturing to the history of unrecognized black labor in the glass industry in Venice

Fred Wilson’s I Saw Othello’s Visage In His Mind, 2016.3.6, is on display in the Contemporary Art + Design Galleries.

“Our friend and colleague, Leonard Nalencz, joined us at the Museum to use these black mirrors (the ones we made) for sustained observation of another artwork by Wilson. Nalencz runs a non-profit called Project 404 that seeks to reclaim digital technologies as tools for harnessing our attention, rather than being ‘lulled into passivity,’ as he writes.”

What did you hope to learn from Claude mirrors in the Museum’s collection?

“There are only a few in-depth written accounts of the Claude mirror. While we had an idea of how they might work, neither of us had ever seen one in person. It was important for us to get a sense of their reflective qualities. We were interested in the curve of the face, the depth of the black glass, as well as other details that may not have been mentioned within the historical records.”

Justin and Anna worked with the Museum’s Associate Conservator Astrid van Giffen to look at different types of black mirrors in the Museum collection.

What interests you in working with the other?

“We met in 2015 at Wheaton Arts and connected through our overlapping interests in science, art, attention, and community. Our collaborations have grown more and more through that foundation. We co-presented at the Urban Glass Symposium in 2019, and last year, collaborated on making an optical attention device for the Frye Museum in Seattle as part of an exhibition by the research collective ESTAR(SER) curated by Joanna Fiduccia and Graham Burnett.”

How did the residency allow you to collaborate?

“We have been fortunate to collaborate through a number of projects. This was another wonderful opportunity to design a project that combines our interests in history, optics, attention, and communal practice. Both of us have a long-standing relationship with Corning through teaching, taking classes, TA-ing classes, and through residencies. In 2015, Justin conducted a residency researching stress and bifringence in glass—exploring how to potentially use it as a visual language using polarized lenses. In 2017 and 2018, Anna researched glass chemistry, and the process of decolorizing glass. 

“We both have a deep interest in material sciences, but other collaborative projects have also focused on practices of sustained attention towards artworks. This is through protocols, communal gathering, and sharing. So this project to conduct research on Claude mirrors and explore reflective black surfaces, as a way to communally attend to our surroundings is really a special moment emphasizing the cohesion and culmination of our individual and collaborative interests.”

What was the purpose of recreating Claude mirrors at The Studio?

“We did not intend to replicate them, but rather explore and understand the qualities of different reflective concave and convex black surfaces. We made new, experimental versions to be used for our own purposes.”

Images of Anna Riley and Justin Ginsberg at The Studio making their own Claude mirrors.

What did you take away from using your own Claude mirrors to view landscapes and objects at the Museum?

“We used the black mirrors we made in The Studio to attend to artworks in the Museum in small groups. Each participant had a different mirror—some glass, some obsidian. They ranged in size and shape, and all produced very different types of reflections. Our colleague Leonard wrote a lovely prompt for the practice: ‘What are you seeing: the object you are holding? The object you are beholding?’ It prompted our attention to flicker between the artwork we’d gathered around and the black mirror in our hands. And between the two—collected on the mirror’s surface—was the artwork’s reflection. We can’t speak to each person’s individual experience, but we both felt struck by the liveliness that the black mirror brought to the whole exercise. We are grateful to all the folks at Corning who came to join us on this little experiment!”

What opportunities will this residency create for your research once your time here is complete?

“We are both excited about where this work will go. The time spent together at Corning was fruitful—it gave us a moment to develop and share the experience with one another and the community here. We are confident it will open up new paths.”

Corning’s Little Joe Tower reflected in a black mirror made by Anna Riley and Justin Ginsberg.

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