Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Improbability Calculator

I thought I might share some thoughts on an artwork from the archives namely the Improbability Calculator dating from 1993. The piece was made one or two years after I stopped making single screen work and was the beginning of a search for an expanded cinema, an expanded cinema that does away with the more traditional lens based apparatus of camera, projector and so on.

The piece was inspired by a cycle ride home. Coming down the hill from Forest Hill towards Catford there is a sharp bend in the road just by the Quaker Meeting House, rounding the corner one night I saw some road works just ahead. The hole in the road was surrounded by an assortment of red and white barriers and flashing amber lamps. The lamps were dotted about haphazardly, some had fallen over and were lying on the ground, a few were broken. As the lamps flashed on and off, an illusion was temporarily created that the light was moving from one lamp to another. The direction of movement was not uniform, but rather random and yet still purposeful. Stopping to pick up one of the broken lamps I mused that this was the complicit illusion I had been looking for. In other words one could simultaneously see and, see through the illusion.

The circuit driving the flashing lamp turned out to be nothing more than a couple of transistors and a resistor and capacitor. As there was a Maplin store just yards from the road works getting some similar components and building a number of replica circuits proved to be quite easy. For a while I considered an alternative possibility of simply buying a job lot of the same type of lamps and simply recreating the street scene. Sculpturally there was (and still is) something quite appealing about this (readymade) option but the fake literalism seems inherently problematic (see yesterday¹s blog on the remade readymade).

Around this time I met with a number of artists each week in a café at Loughborough Junction, this was a good old greasy spoon last decorated in the early 1960's. On the counter were always two rows of upturned white cups. Cups would be taken off for the serving of regulation strong tea, but then replaced with clean ones so that the rows never seemed to really increase or decrease. The idea came to collide the "everyday" minimalist arrangement of the cups with the lights.

Procuring some white opaque glass cups I laid them out in two rows and placed the bulbs underneath. As the cups were much closer together than the original road lamps the illusion of movement was stronger but still see though. There was also a pleasing tension between the simple formality of the arrangement and the unpredictable movement of the light from cup to cup. The complexity of the patterns reminded one somewhat of a computer performing some endless calculation. It also tied in nicely with those back street tricks one sees all over Europe (except for some reason in the UK) where a ball is moved quickly between three upturned cups with hapless punters betting on its likely final location.

The piece was shown originally in the Vestry with the cups laid out on a trolley. The work had a second outing as part of a light based show in Nottingham with the cups arranged on a table. The illustration here is an animated GIF with a small number of frames so unlike the piece itself the pattern repeats quite quickly but it is an illustration

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Remade Readymade

All of Duchamp's original readymades were lost during his travels from France to America and back. For the Galleria Schwarz exhibition in1964 they were re-created in limited editions using the photographs that existed of them as guides. These then are the urinals, bicycle wheels and coal shovels one sees in museum collections around the world, not ready-mades, but remade readymades. But what are the issues surrounding this recreation, can indeed the readymade be re-made and still survive?

Duchamp often denied that his readymades had any intrinsic aesthetic qualities. " A point which I very much want to establish is that the choice of these readymades was never dictated by aesthetic delectation. The choice was based on a reaction of visual indifference with at the same time a total absence of good or bad taste, in fact a complete anaesthesia." said Duchamp in 1961. Whilst Duchamp's desire to distance himself from the good taste of those connoisseurs of everyday utilitarian objects is understandable his denial of aesthetics was somewhat contradicted by his comments vis-a-vis the urinal that "the only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges". Similarly speaking of the bicycle wheel he describes its genesis thus" it just came about as a pleasure, something to have in my room, the way you have a fire, or pencil sharpener except there was no usefulness". Writing of R Mutt and his urinal, which was refused entry to the exhibition, "he took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view". This perhaps is the key to Duchamp's seemingly contradictory statements; an emphasis not so much on the object and its inherent aesthetic charms, or on the good taste of the artist in appreciating those qualities, but in a transformation of the object through the giving of " a new thought for the object".

The relationship between object, artist, thought and the ultimate reception of the readymade by the audience is a delicate one. In particular the object's original purpose may no longer be foregrounded but cannot truly be said to disappear rather it remains subdued in favour of the new thought. This allows any formal aspects or aesthetics of the object already present (and which may or may not have been intentional on the part of the maker) to be given new purpose and focus by the creation of " a new thought for the object". In the readymade thought and object are entwined and must remain inseparable for their mutual survival. The thought is supported by and feeds on the object, whilst the object needs the thought to protect it and avoid its return to its previous condition.

In the process of remaking the readymades as limited editions for the exhibition of 64 the marriage of thought and object was rent asunder. The 'easy" aesthetic of the original object bought, if not as indifferently as Duchamp would like us to believe, then certainly casually in a local shop becomes replaced by the weighted and purposeful making of the object. The object is now crafted for the sole purpose of art. What was previously readymade then becomes prepared and full of intention, in short made, and something of nonsense.

Duchamp was surely aware of this nonsense but the pragmatism of commerce may have swayed his better judgement. However this simple act of remaking, this small slippage, for which many museums are now grateful, created a stress fracture that runs through much contemporary art.

After Duchamp it almost became de riguer to remake the readymade. Oldenburg, Koons, Hirst, Landy, Emin, Hatoum, the list of readymade remakers is almost a who¹s who of contemporary art; practices all perching precariously on the fault-line of Duchamp¹s slippage. In the case of the YBA artists, Duchamp cannot be held solely responsible as confusingly the remade is often combined with a Beuysian investment in the object as momento mori or relic.

Unintentionally Duchamp began a process whereby artists would in seeking the sculpturally unweighted, fool themselves and the audience with careful manipulations that seek to recreate the "easy" aesthetic of the readymade. In reality what is produced is often highly sculpted but seeks to hide the individual making behind the pretence of mass production or industrial process.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Queen Bitch to Egg Head

Pre Youtube live footage of early Roxy Music was hard to come by. Early of course means the 72-73 heyday when ENO was still with Roxy. This is Roxy at their peak with a taught balance between Ferry's crooning and the bursts of free form sax by Andy Mackay, fluid guitar by Phil Manzaneara and of course electronics (VSC3) by ENO. Ferry is resplendent in white suit whilst the other members (with the exception of the drummer of course) have a range of Glam outfits. ENO's attire is by far the most outrageous and this is matched by a camp tranny demeanour, all pouting lipstick, raised eyebrows and suggestive wiggles. Within two years though ENO would have left Roxy and the feathers and make up would be gone.

ENO's visual and sartorial transition from queen bitch to egg head is one of the more interesting career changes as it was matched by a musical and aesthetic switch from the excessive to the minimal. ENO's contributions to Roxy echoed his appearance, with a barrage of electronic bleeps and filter swoops. His use of treatments to change and alter what the other band members were playing were like some gender bending surgery performed on the otherwise masculine solos. When ENO left or was forced out of the band his first LP Here Come the Warm Jets extended his Roxy repertoire but now the lyrics and vocals were by ENO rather than Ferry. Songs like Baby's on Fire, and the Paw Paw Negro BlowTorch were sung in a suitably mannered fashion and the lyrical content was full of camp observations. The Warm Jets cover shows ENO's overstuffed Victorian bedsit with the fireplace overflowing with bric a brac and general frippery.

Here Come the Warm Jets was followed by Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy which whist not quite as camp as the first LP was still a jagged unkempt beauty. In the lithographs on the sleeve ENO is shown still with eyeliner and long blond hair but with his hand placed strategically over his forehead

By the next LP - Another Green World the flowing locks and make up have gone and ENO is shown reading studiously against a neutral backdrop. The music on the LP has also changed; no longer jagged and unkempt, half the tracks are now sweet instrumentals and on the numbers on which there are vocals the voice is far less inflected

The transition started on Another Green World was to be completed on the follow up Before and After Science. Oo the cover is a cropped black and white image of ENO looking for all the world like the Russian constructivist El Lissitzky. The transition to intellectual Egg Head was complete. In place of the brash and excessive we now have the paired down and minimal, or at least pop minimal. From now on tracks would have quasi-poetic titles and gradually the vocals would all but disappear to be replaced by ambient tones.

Unlike Bowie who moved from the gay flirtations of Ziggy to a number of other guises ENO¹s transition was single and final. The shame is that in throwing out the eye liner something was musically lost as well and for all the commercial and financial successes of the production work with Bowie, Talking Heads and U2, ENO¹s most challenging and original work remains those first two LP¹s.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

More On Photography

If the meaning is all in the motion and the individual frame's significance is compromised without the frames that preceded or followed it then what of the whole practice of still photography?

As the film is stopped and the individual frame shown, so the meaning of movement is replaced by a density of detail. Where it not for the "revelation" of this normally non-visible detail (Muybridge's horse with its four hooves aloft) the evaporation of meaning would be apparent, but the detail helps to disguises the void. This disguise though is only fleeting and the expanding chasm of emptiness that is inherent in photography functions something like a black hole sucking implication and association towards it as a cover for its nakedness. This makes photography an ideal coat hanger for context.

One thinks of those Taschen books of iconic photographs of the 20th century all apparently pregnant with meaning but in reality merely supports or fronts for content. A content which in large part the viewer supplies. This is less about a reading of the image than a writing of it. Here there is some overlap with the Barthes view of the constructs (social and otherwise) around photography particularly in press photography. However Barthes's view of photography as a perfect analogon ("certainly the image is not reality but at least it is its perfect analogon" from the Photographic Message) fails to appreciate that the "qualities " of the photograph arise not from it being an analogon but the exact opposite, the antitheses of normal vision.

Friday, August 19, 2005

What is wrong with photography?

When in 97 I found myself at the helm of Camerawork there was a problem far more serious than the ailing finances and the decaying building, namely photography itself. Like everyone else I had for years popped into the Photographers Gallery when "Up West ". It seemed churlish not to do so as one was passing and the Café was cheap, but I had never really got on with the exhibits themselves, the photographs.

Photography is everywhere and yet always seems to promise far more than it delivers. Just prior to going to Camerawork I had tried in an Art Monthly review of an exhibition to write down just what was so unsettling about the photograph. " Photography is an illusive and elusive medium. Illusive in its seductive simulation of the visual world elusive in its transparency which makes it’s impossible ever to do more than look at a photograph. If you try to look into it, to get a grip on something more tangible, it eludes your grasp. Convinced that there must be something more we enlarge, or like Antonioni we Blow Up certain that somewhere in the detail a secret is concealed. The dull truth about photography however is that its is essentially empty, a sublime void, a clever combination of optics and light sensitive emulsion that allows us to a arrest a few million particles on their way to infinity".

The review then goes on for a thousand words or so on the exhibition but I recall that this opening paragraph took much more time to write and yet never seemed quite right and still doesn’t quite do it today. It never seemed to get at just what is wrong with photography.

Last week’s blog on illusion suggested a correlation between the illusion of picture motion both on screen and off. In other words the continuity of vision we experience in the “real world” is itself an illusion. In this context the elusive nature of still photography maybe has less to do with its illusory depictive qualities and is more related to the impromptu arrest taking place; an aspect heightened with fast film and shutter speeds.

One of revelations offered by photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge’s early work was an answer to the age-old question of whether a horse’s four hooves left the ground during a gallop. Muybridege developed a system using a series of cameras triggered by wires to show what previously no one had been able to see that indeed all four hooves where indeed airborne. Why could photography see what the eye could not?

Just as the “persistence of vision” is blamed on some defect in the retina so again the eye is seen as the source of the problem and phrases such as "too fast for the eye to see", have entered the popular consciousness suggesting the eye to be a sluggish instrument easily overtaken by speed and superseded by faster photo optic technology.

But the eye is just part of the visual perception process, a restless process designed not for the still but for the moving. In other words we are constantly creating an illusion of continuity. Even with a fixed stare studying a static scene our gaze is constantly shifting, remapping, looking for change.

This suggests that the natural condition of photography to be movement not statis. No wonder then that the single photogarph is so absurd, it captures that instantaneous something but in visual terms is meaningless without the other frames. So the emphasis is less on a film made up of individual frames, as frames that contribute to or are part of the continuity of film. In other words all photographs are nothing more than ”stills” from a film, which may or may not have been taken.

This does not detract from photography’s usefulness as a recording medium for technical purposes, but if the detail is all in the still, the meaning in the movement. The problem occurs when we start ascribing meaning to the still to the expression, gesture or whatever captured. Without the other (missing) frames we are looking at incomplete evidence. The photograph for all its declarations of ultimate revelation is ultimately impotent to tell us anything without the frames that came before and after


Thursday, August 18, 2005

Bosom Oak

The google translation service produced this nice cut up review of a Storm Bugs CD...
The band of the name which is called to that label the Storm Bugs existed, but, he and the like using the domestic electrification product, music had been produced. If it puts out noise with the radio, damages the record and uses in the percussion substituting, the tape loop, uses the analog synthesizer and the primitive cuts the rhythm and/or with thinks from now very much it is primitive sound, but, when now you hear, this oven it is it is audible in the feeling which the bosom oak く is good. " Being something which is close by, as for this work which produces music and " even the decisive board of Do it yourself sound can say, in us who are accustomed to the computer software, once more as for music you make that, with the originality device of that time becomes funny. Already, it probably is not possible to return here, but, forgetting, it isn't the sound which is not good? Limitation 300.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Short Changed

Having just got an email to say that Row Row is to be in Video Lisboa I thought it worth trying the British Council to see if they might help with the travel costs of getting there. I contacted the Film department and was emailed a list of festivals that the British Council support. These include Premiers Plans, European First Films Festival, Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and, more of the same. The point is these are all festivals aimed at the "short" narrative film with the odd animation thrown in for good measure. Nothing remotely "experimental" appears on the list. And if it is not on the list its no go apparently in terms of funding.

Mainstream narrative filmmakers in the UK are a tiresome bunch always whinging about lack of funding and opportunities. The truth however is that in recent years they have had money thrown at them by the Film Council. Millions have been spent on shorts and feature length nonsense that don¹t even make it to DVD. A cosy little state-funded industry has grown up of scriptwriters, developers and directors churning out unwatchable celluloid. Every few years there¹s a "Weddings" or a "Lock Stock" and the media buzzes with the expectation of a renaissance in British Cinema. But there is no British Film industry it died with the advent of the small screen.

Artist Film & Video in contrast gets almost nothing, in recent years what little funding there was has all but dried up. A sort of twisted logic says that "artists" can get by without support but that the graduates of the Film Schools need time and money developing scripts and then funding for a full crew with catering facilities and then of course a few 35mm prints for distribution and lastly the BC help out with the cost of getting to the festival. Of course all too often what happens is that the graduates of Borehamwood use their efforts as a show-reel to get work in advertising or television or a job on an American production ("we have the best techies in the world").

The Film Council could be closed down and the money used to support artists working in whatever media. If mainstream would-be moviemakers insist on making second rate narrative films then they are the one¹s who can get by with a handycam and iMovie.

Update 2012: Well the Film Council was closed down in 2010 partly in response to some of its more rampant excesses though that did not mean a surge of money for artist film & video, which in any event I would be probably unsuccessful in applying for anyway (HAH).  

Friday, August 12, 2005

What so?

SB writes…
Does it really matter whether it's the eye that is 'faulty' by not being sufficiently accurate to be able to distinguish individual fleeting images at 1/24th second and to register them instead as continuous movement, or whether it's the brain that is (consciously or not) more than happy to accept illusion? These are psycho-physiological technicalities, no?

Whether the illusion of picture motion happens in the eye (passively) or in the brain (actively) is more than a psycho-physiological technicality for it opens up the potential of an understanding of all vision as being inherently illusion based. Whether on or off screen it is all an active construction on the part of the viewer.

This potentially calls into question a number of issues around representation, as we are then dealing with the difference between a number of states of illusion rather than between an unmediated visual "reality" and a re-presented one. For example if all perception is illusory then terms such as non-representational take on a new meaning or non-meaning.

So far from being some scientific nicety, vision as illusion offers scope not only for an understanding of how cinema works but for a reinterpretation of it.

Thursday, August 11, 2005


In response to Picture Motion SB writes….
Interesting stuff.Is this 'complicity' something that is voluntary though? While it might be true that "... we the viewer are actively engaged in making the series of individual frames into a continuity of motion..." and "...we make the illusion happen" it doesn't necessarily follow that we do this 'willingly'. Perhaps we make make the illusion happen 'in spite of' ourselves - perhaps it is a response (other than a conditioned response)that is psychologically 'hard wired', acting independent of will. How much of this is unconscious or sublimated, and further what is the impact of the cultural context? Is this comething that the Andersons consider?

The degree of free will displayed in the process of seeing motion where there is none is clearly a key issue. The Andersons posit it thus "To reject the mechanism of persistence of vision is to reject the myth of persistence of vision and the passivity of the viewer it implies"

Complicity implies a level of active participation and in the sense that the viewer creates for himself or herself the picture motion (it is not on the screen) then they are actively engaging in the filmmaking process. But has the viewer the free will to stop seeing the illusion? As with magic tricks where one can train oneself to see the sleight of hand, the possibility that a viewer could learn to see the "reality" of the individual frames is tantalising though untested. Certainly though film can be said to be a 'trick' which we make happen.

The Anderson’s annoyance with the film community for continuing to advocate "the myth of the persistence of vision" rests less perhaps on complete free will than on a subtle shift of emphasis from the eye to the brain. "The concept of a passive viewer implied by the myth must be replaced by the viewer implied by an enlightened understanding of the illusion: a meaning-seeking creature who engages the film as actively as he engages the real world about him" …and with specific regard to certain strands of film theory "psychoanalytic-Marxist film scholars have retained the model implied by persistence of vision: theirs is a passive viewer, a spectator who is "positioned," unwittingly "sutured" into the text, and victimised by excess ideology" In effect the Anderson’s are empowering the viewer and making them far more active part of the process.

There may well be a number of implications here for a reconsideration of the practice/theory of strands of structural/experimental filmmaking. Paul Sharits and Peter Gidal not surprisingly springing to mind. The Andersons suggest that process of short-range apparent motion is identical to that in everyday ‘real life’ motion perception. The suggestion here is not that we see 25 frames per second but that vision is a highly active process in which we are constantly taking in new visual information out of which we construct an artificial continuity In other words the illusion of filmic continuity and motion is the illusion of vision itself.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Crops and Bobbers

In response to yesterday’s blog entry A Cut Above, received the following from fellow stormbug and study collection research fellow SB.

“Not wishing especially to feel obliged to leap to the defence of DC's curating but as a matter of fact Tacita Dean was represented in the 'Century' show as were other 'post-media' artists like Gillian Wearing, the Chapmans, Tracey Emin... While yr points are well made, I think we're also in danger of reaching a point where the Rosalind Krauss post-medium line has become just as much a prescriptive orthodoxy (after leaving behind Krauss's specificity, complexity and nuance) and any practice that is medium specific or formalist is discredited as outdated. Like a form of multiculturalism that says you can be any religion that you want as long as it's not Muslim.”

SB is of course right that there were some inclusions of work by contemporary artists such as Tacita Dean and the Chapmans in the ‘Century” show but anyone looking at the programme (still up on the Tate Britain website incidentally) will quickly surmise that these inclusions were few and far between. This however is not necessarily a call for more Emin or Wearing, (after all these artists are hardly underexposed) but, for a critical discourse that can encompass a maningfull debate on Gidal and Gordon. 

During part of the “Century” screenings for example there was a large video installation in an adjoining room in Tate Britain by Sam Taylor Wood. It was hard to miss as it occupied a space about four time that devoted to “Century” and during quieter moments in the “Century” programme the sound from the Wood could be heard through the wall. Here was an obvious opportunity for some critical dialogue and yet there was none.

Of course a post media specific discourse implies a critical dialogues should have been taking place with any and all artworks; with say the Tony Cragg piece in an adjoining room at Tate Britain just as much as with the Sam Taylor Wood, just because she was using video projection? Here its worth returning to SB’s comments in particular “I think we're also in danger of reaching a point where the Rosalind Krauss post-medium line has become just as much a prescriptive orthodoxy” (after leaving behind Krauss's specificity, complexity and nuance”) Presumably SB is referring at least in part to the ideas expressed in “A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition” Complexity and nuance are important and post media practice shouldn’t necessarily imply a laisser-faire free for all, lacking in any critical or historical perspective and willingly blind to precedent. To quote from yesterday’s blog A Cut Above… Many contemporary installation artist could learn a great deal from looking at the work of ‘experimental’ filmmakers and similarly those with the new media establishment need to rise to the challenge of seeing their work in a wider context. So yes a post media discourse would potentially include Cragg just as much as Wood but would also recognise shared concerns not of media but of conception. Again from a Cut Above…” There is an obvious continuity between say Malcolm LeGrice and Douglas Gordon so why pretend that they occupy separate histories?”

The number of commentators noting the lack of “serious” critical debate post YBA may well be reflecting the difficulty in establishing these shared conceptual concerns or indeed any parameters at all. Perhaps to suggest that the impetus for a new critical dialogue should come from shows such as “century” is asking too much, but somewhere between the cosy capitalism of gallery based installation artists and the state funded head in the sand of the new media establishment lie the seeds of a new discourse.

Crops & Bobbers salon is at 20 Carr La South Kirkby, WF9 3DB,
Bookings not always necessary but recommended phone 01977 640584.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A Cut Above

Rather like hair dressing salons who feel duty bound to in some way reflect the service they offer in their names (Barnet Fair, A Cut Above, Snips, The Scissor Factory etc) there has been a long standing tradition that organisations that exhibit, distribute or provide services for artist film, video or photography should incorporate a media reference in their names. So for example we have: Frameworks, Light Cone, Montage, Flicker, Hi-beam, The Lux, Cinenova, Rewind, Photofusion, Wide Angle, Focal Point, Camerawork, The Filmmakers CO-OP, Cinema of Women, London Video Arts, the Exploding Cinema, Lumen, Film & Video Umbrella and so on. Digital Arts organisations employ a similar technique though they tend to obscure the media reference in an acronym such as FACT (Foundation for Art & Creative Technology) or MITES (The Moving Image Touring and Exhibition Service) or DA2 (Digital Arts Development Agency).

This level of media specificity is somewhat curious when film, video and especially digital media have traditionally made claims to being either “new” or “cutting edge” and yet here they are effectively branding themselves in the same way as those old fuddy duddy printmakers and ceramicists. Nobody in their right mind would think of calling a contemporary art gallery Oil on Canvas, or the Easel, and when we see a name such as the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour we know to move on quickly and yet this is precisely what “new media” organisations have done and continue to do.

In the wider world things have changed. Many fine art courses have followed the Goldsmiths example and abandoned media specificity in their teaching. Gone are sculpture, drawing, painting and all the other headings, its all just art now, students use what they need when they need it. This seems far less restrictive, why shouldn’t one make a sound piece on Monday, a Super 8 film on Tuesday, a net work on Wednesday, a painting on Thursday and a performance on Friday? 

Many artists of course do just that and yet the “new media” establishment stick their heads in the sand and continue with a sort of media apartheid. This is a shame as a breaking down of these artificial barriers could only be beneficial. Many contemporary installation artists could learn a great deal from looking at the work of ‘experimental” filmmakers and similarly those with the new media establishment need to rise to the challenge of seeing their work in a wider context, 

There is an obvious continuity between say Malcolm LeGrice and Douglas Gordon so why pretend that they occupy separate histories? Recent screenings such as Shoot Shoot Shoot and a Century of Artist Film & Video at the Tate have done much to showcase work produced by British ”experimental” film and to a lesser extent video artists and yet didn't make the connection with contemporary UK artists working with film & video such as Tacita Dean, Douglas Gordon or Jane & Louise Wilson.

Perhaps the fear is that without the media in the name the new media establishment will loose their identities and also their hard won funding.