Posts Tagged ‘indexicality’
shots from a playtest of my installation, Almost Everything Can And Shall Be Cut – a next iteration will involve layering the plastic sheeting to produce stereoscopic effects when the second channel video is projected. For the first video displayed on the monitor, I’m thinking of setting up the plastic tent in a stairwell.
Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat
Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice
“I spent much of my childhood trying to distinguish identification from desire…” Koestenbaum confesses, speaking of his adoration for opera divas. Woven in with this reference to his budding consciousness of queerness is a realization of the affect particular to the (singing, musical) voice. Following Barthes, we can consider the affect of the musical body as a potency latent in music in general, so far as it is born from a composer’s/performer’s body and enters the body of another in the act of listening. Music is then, in a concrete sense, voice – the whisper of one subjectivity into the ear of another, but also subjectivity detached from the body of a subject, sent out into the world as a thing to be handed over, contemplated, enjoyed. The voice is also object of desire. This dual proximity and distance of the voice is the measure of its power (an affection rather than an expression), its presence a troubling one because it signifies an otherness that invites itself into my body, passing through a hole in this skin that is supposed to separate myself from what I am not, in the process of my listening, in my act of attention, becoming me. And the idea of queerness Koestenbaum extends to us is by no means simply tangential to this affectionate haunting, the desire for a self / oneself that is not me but could be me, that maybe is me. Identifying myself with another and as another: a space within myself carved out by longing, by a dream of proximity. The queerness of the voice goes deep.
Koestenbaum’s wonderful book brought to mind my own relationships with my diva(s) and their voices. If diva is an attitude more than an attribute, a mask of fearlessness always trying to become a truth, a fierce truth, then the gender of the diva matters little. I remember discovering Iggy Pop as an exemplar of this type of stridently embodied, inimitable subjectivity. My means of contact with the diva were purely digital: first clips of performances, songs and interviews on Youtube and then his albums, illegally BitTorrented, only later purchased as CDs. To this day I have not seen him perform. My fanhood is also, like Koestenbaum’s, nostalgia for an era I never knew: the heyday of the Stooges in the early 70s. Raking the Internet for remains of Iggy, most often period broadcasts or amateur film poorly transcribed into digital form, the resolution atrocious, colors washed out or too contrasted.
Flickering in and out of this (visual) noise is Iggy’s body and Iggy’s voice, his small, electric shape in contortions at the sound of himself, gesticulating towards some impossible gesture. The footage suddenly cuts, I have been deprived of the finish of his movement, an end, that, I am sure – had I actually seen it – would have revealed the totality of his meaning, the “Iggyness” (as if he could be re-produced for me, as me) that squares a square, closing a circle. And his body existing through his voice: a nasty crooning that leaps into a screech, an exuberance that distorts syllables and seesaws the idea of pitch. A voice whose music always threatens to fall apart into noise, an exploration of enunciation whose achievement is the release of that mystery of affect that lies beyond language (the body?).
The queerness of Iggy Pop. 1977 – after the disbanding of the Stooges, Iggy is living with David Bowie in Berlin, who is producing his first solo album. Promoting his album in France, Iggy appears on a French talk show in a dandified outfit: leather pants molding skeletal legs, a tucked-in blue button-down dress shirt, fake large black glasses framing round blue eyes, black hair plastered on his head like a mime, lips painted to grotesque, decadent proportion. I watch Iggy chat vivaciously in German, French and English with the talk show host, who tries to negotiate his non-sequiturs and appear to be “in the know”. And then: the diva moment, the flashing of Iggyness. The talk show host inquires as to why Iggy always performs with his shirt off. Iggy: “May I show you?”. And then he starts to unbutton his shirt cuffs, worldlessly handing over his wrist to the host for his assistance. The host, flustered, begins unbuttoning:“it’s important to be naked?”. Iggy, peeling off his shirt: “Here, I’ll show you what’s important”. Finally shirtless, he stretches out both arms to the audience, asking “C’est joli, non?” (It’s pretty, isn’t?”). I was seized over not so much by the spectacle of a body, but by that mad leap into nakedness, the disrobing of his soul that he masked with a nonchalant invitation of the audience’s judgment – an act that, in the end, seemed to clothe him in something invincible.
Texts: Theodor Adorno, On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening
“Vulgarization and enchantment, hostile sisters, dwell together in the arrangements which have colonized large areas of music”.
Adorno deftly analyses Marx to argue that our contemporary experience of music is irrevocably degraded by the fact that we consume music as a thing whose “exchange value” – the market hype that brands something as desirable or not – becomes fetishized to the point of obscuring its “use value”. And here Adorno’s dialectic use of “use-value” as the value that something possesses before comodification, as the thing’s intrinsic social good, becomes problematic. “Exchange value” constitutes a paradoxical kind of worth because it has no substance (built upon an entrenched system of cultural hearsay / advertisement that consumers buy into in order to be “in the loop”), but we are left with the question of what kind of “substantial” worth can be attributed to the pre-comodified social good.
In the case of music, Adorno claims that its mass production has destroyed the “promise of happiness” it once held, the possibility of true enjoyment that can only happen when the experience is unique / individualized (“The liquidation of the individual is the real signature of the new musical situation”).The shallow immediacy of the consumer’s enjoyment of his fetishized object (his record, a song on the radio, the idea of “classical music”) cannot compare to this lost form of deep joy experienced by the 19th century music-listener during a one-time concert by Schubert or Beethoven. And although there is little doubt that the fetishization of cultural goods is a kind of behavior only properly defined by industrialized capitalist society, Attali’s argument in Noise justly points out that music (like any other cultural product) has always been inextricably indexed to and defined by the hierarchies and ideologies that reinforce and articulate a society’s economic organization at any given time – the type of “higher” enjoyment that Adorno speaks of is the product of specifically bourgeois and Enlightenment modes of experiencing art, a distinct behavior already being hyped up (if not yet properly “branded”) as the apogee of all aspirations towards gentrification and refinement ( i.e. social ascension).
Adorno’s distinction between past and present cultural attitudes towards music, if not a completely successful denunciation of consumption in its totality, does, however, usefully put the notion of enjoyment as the forefront of our investigation of sound. Enjoyment is a kind of behavior/experience that is both culturally conditioned and highly individual, generating meaning that is both unique to the enjoyer and communicable and understandable by her peers. To inquire into different modalities of enjoyment is simultaneously to carry on a critique of the material conditions of social life (means of production, distribution networks, technological contexts) and to map out a phenomenology of sound.
How can we elaborate on Adorno’s dissection of musical consumption as fetishization of a musical object? How have we diverted ourselves from that moment and what new species of enjoyment are being invented/discovered today?
immigration, race, gender, the phonograph, the telephone, Tin Pan Alley, factory of dreams, jazz and Halloween: is catchy a crime? it all comes to the fore in this famous Fleischer cartoon for Cab Calloway’s ear-popping “Minnie the Moocher”.
Jan Karski suddenly gets out of his chair and leaves the frame, crying. Abraham Bomba purses his mouth and compulsively licks his lips, breathes heavily as he cuts a customer’s hair (he is a barber). Before these incidents, before they break down, they tell us in great detail (prodded by Lanzmann) what they saw, what happened to them. Bomba gives us a dry, precise descripting of his “job” as a barber in the gas chamber in a loud, mechanical, declamatory style. This “job” of accounting to the filmmaker is a shield he holds up against the possibility of remembering. Karski’s voice rolling, regular diction, interrupted by nervous deglutitions, has hooked itself in our ear and we wait for him to come back, a feeling of expectancy – he must go to the end of his witnessing, he must, 30 years after and too late to prevent the disaster, complete his mission to testify about the truth of the Warsaw ghetto – weighted with anxiety, almost panic.
To listen to Karski’s accounting of his meeting with the resistance leaders and his excursions into the ghetto is not only to feel in oneself the imprint of terrible things, it is to know the inexorable quality of the past, to experience a sensation of nausea as the evidence is processed: this cannot be erased, this cannot be undone. The camera fixes and inscribes a second time that which is already, permanently indelible. Because of or in spite of the subjects’ inability to express the unameable, to only give us ellipses, fragments of a total, undescribable event – “there was no humanity” – their voice and their face seem to provide us with the most concrete of indexical relationships to the chronology (chrono- logos:etymologically, the speaking/wording of time) their testimony unwinds. Lanzmann is aware of this and insists that his subjects tell us a linear story, almost as if their words, as spectral camera, were meant to travel back in time to record a present anterior, the present that-lies-in-the past. The percussive quality, the aliveness, the presence of their speech makes it seem possible: “he tried to spend a few more seconds with them” – this minimal statement, made of lacunae, a veil for a reality he is not telling us, cannot tell us is also a screen, a window that points to a real all the more present (to us) for being indescribable. In this sense, this documentary more than others accomplishes the duty of proof, summons the audience’s belief.
We are faced with ineluctable presence, but it is of necessity the presence of a void. Void not only in the sense that the witnesses can, in the end, bring nothing back from the past – of the dead, only their shades can be evoked – but that this totality of events, the shoah, is the temporal place where reality, the world of sense we build around us, breaks down. To go back, to allow the witnesses to bring us back, is to become implicated, to share in the negation, the absence left by 6 million. What Shoah demonstrates is that this burden is much more than a duty to take on (one choses to accomplish one’s duty) but the burden of our past, which by definition is already with us, part of ourselves.
Grey Gardens is being made into a fiction film. But to what extent are the two Edie Beals of the documentary irreducible to “characters”? Although the Maysles have abandoned the most purist codes of Direct Cinema – the pretense that the filmmakers are not also participants in the action unfolding in front of the camera – they still present the spectator with a pure form of actuality; nothing is proposed that is not the imprint of actions co-present with the intrusion of the camera. The Maysles refuse the facility of a diegetic space (although the drama certainly has an arc). These women’s past is puzzled out from tidbits that fall from their conversation: Little Edie’s failure to get married to a young émigré aristocrat, Big Edie’s relationship with the late Mr.Beale, both women’s ambiguous relationship to different men who come to live in the house (as companions, lovers, handimen or uninvited guests?), and, the only visual clue in the film, the women displaying photographs of their young selves for the filmmakers.
These photographs provide their own indexical link to another (private and yet spectacularly exteriorized) temporal frame that is independent of the primary temporal frame of the filmmakers. This ghostly temporality opens a door into the interiority of the Beale women – we understand that what the Edies say, what they act out for an audience is the labyrinthine trace of a past that remains very much alive in the women’s everyday enactment of subjectivity. Tantalizingly, this other time is something we are given only obliquely, allowed only partial access too.
And there lies the distinction that makes the Beale women into infinitely more than “characters” : their selves extend beyond the surface recorded by the camera into an imagined and imaginary but nevertheless indexically grounded depth (we are witnessing the trace of a true if obfuscated past). Their is no boundary to their mystery – what the film records and shows us seems to be just the tip of the iceberg of a mostly submerged subject. Which is also why, in spite of the exuberant exhibitionism of both women, they remain a secret: what is most important about them, about their lives, who they were, stays hidden from the spectator.
You Tube hommage to the Beale women...they have become figures of literary imagination
Poetic and scientific aims mix uneasily and to striking effect in Jean Painlevé’s documentary about seahorses. A shot of a live seahorse giving birth (after we have been presented, via voice-over, with a sympathetic view of its predicament) is followed by a shot of the vivisection of a pregnant seahorse, the seahorse embryos prodded and scattered by a scalpel. Both shots have certain aesthetic qualities, and even in the second shot one can’t help admiring the effect of white gelatinous particles buoyantly detaching themselves from one another, even though part of us feels we have been treated in rather bad taste to the mutilation of an acquaintance (whose life and ways Painlevé has genially been introducing us to). The shock effect might be largely due to contemporary conventions of nature documentaries, in which we are commonly showed a behaviorist portrait of the animal in its natural habitat rather than a whimsical evocation within the space of controlled laboratory/filming conditions (including an aquarium and a seemingly submerged dissecting table).
L’Hippocampe offers us a clear analogy between the practice of scientific study and experiment and the art of documentary filmmaking: in both cases the filmmaker/scientist is compelled to intervene, even radically (as in the destruction of the seahorse) and alter existing conditions in order to represent, “discover” the truth. A truth that ends up being the product of the filmmaker’s/scientist’s idiosyncratic theoretical construct/story. That metaphor unwinds, however, in the final shot, when Painlevé projects footage of racehorses behind the seahorses’ tank. Here filmmaking overcomes the procedural logic of scientific practice and moves into the realm of semiotic associations, both manufacturing a similitude and setting up a very visual contrast between two forms of locomotion – between the propelled waywardness of the seahorse and the arrow-like gallop of the land horse, using the visceral effect of the representation of motion to edify and educate our sensibility as to the (scientifically explainable) difference between the two…
Rosenblatt’s Human Remains situates itself outside the concept of chronology, resurrecting archival material not so much to connect us with our past as to put our historical perspective into play. The chronologically impossible first person voice-over subverts the indexical link between the footage and its source without completely destroying it. As a result, the iconic dictators’ presence, detached from any contextual indices by poetic montage, survives in a kind of spectral temporality that is neither the imaginary time of fiction nor the consensual time of history. The documentary’s time is dislocated, strewn over the many origins of its elements: the anonymous footage, sound effects spliced from their visual cause and tacked on the dictators’ steps, voices translating a script into another language and then other voices translating back, as if to trick us into believing these men are speaking in their native language beyond the grave (and to whom?). The implausibility of the film’s epistemological claims is what brings us to the realization that the film is making no such claims – and yet remains a documentary, a work that references the real in order to tell us something about it. Perhaps it is useful to retain the idea of this documentary as a scrapbook or collage, each element referring us to an unverifiable source, the point of a scrapbook being to create a new totality from the juxtaposition of heterogeneous material. In this sense, Human Remains constitutes itself as a meta-archive, applying an associative method to the “exiled” remains of these figures i.e. to their historical representations (from film or critical literature).
This manner of documenting differs substantially from the type of truth-seeking mode of argumentation Nichols refers to or the rhetorically creative presentation of evidence adopted by Grierson. Human Remains’ relationship to the notion of evidence is obscure – Rosenblatt showers us with well-researched anecdotal “evidence” (recycled in the voice-over), but evidence of what? The revelation that these dictators were self-contradictory, peevish, plagued by physical troubles, possessed of bizarre habits, seems secondary. Perhaps more than anything, what emerges from this litany is the mundane, fleshy presence of these men, which, coupled with the ghostly reflections of their faces (Rosenblatt cuts out close-ups from the archival material) manufactures a powerful kind of cognitive dissonance that speaks to the subconscious fear any audience member would be likely to harbor about these figures: that they could come back from the dead.
In this sense, the film provides a form of psychological evidence or testimony by showing us the ways in which the dictators still haunt us: haunt our records, our semiotic matrices, our collective memory. The image of Mao bathing in the Yangtze, the dark blur of his head emerging from the glistening yellowish tint of the archival river is particularly indicative of the film’s project: even when the limitations of the medium keep him at a distance, making him literally unrecognizable, he still produces an absolute effect – an outline, a threat shadowing us.
Rouch’s and Morin’s Chronicles of a Summer seems to propose two very different epistemological directions for the documentary:
* the film as a a project of visual ethnography. The camera is used as a collector of information, basically as a superior technique for rendering the world (as opposed to note-taking): an instrument of inscription used on a collective “other” (ethno – graphy). However, Rouch and Morin, rather than inscribing phenomena, chose to “write down” words. The real does not unfold before a spectator; here the main vehicle of signification is speech, conversation, argument and, thanks to the apparatus, its faithfully captured tonalities: doubt, sincerity, irony, despair, confusion, joviality…The information we get is what “they” chose to tell us, “they” for once referring not to the filmmakers but to the subjects. At this point the ethno-graphic mission
* a therapeutic or cathartic project; the camera becomes “a psychoanalytic stimulant” for its subjects. The filmmaker’s goal is not so much to represent the real (the point where epistemology usually flounders) as to precipitate its transformation by communicating a layer of subterrannean subjective truth that is typically hidden from the public. . Marylou and Marceline no longer just “are”, a surface imprinted on a surface (film) , they “act” or take action – they “act the truer part of themselves”, they bring out their invisible depths to be understood, analytically and emotionally processed, as well as gazed at. They confide in the filmmaker / in an apparatus because they need a witness to their “truer selves”, selves that, kept below, exist only for the subject; the camera draws them out of solipsism and anchors them in the real, in a public consensus of reality that perdures, in a process of passing into the historical record. Here, in their home society, Rouch and Morin perform a therapy session that can, perhaps, by proxy, by a movement of identification with the subjects, begin to work its alchemy collectively, on the French audience at large. “I hoped that they would like the people I liked” _ the project appears to fail at this crucial point; the subjects remain trapped in their interiority, their voices are witnesses only to themselves, not to another.
What is, then, the vérité that cinéma-vérité is interested in? Vertov offered the idea that film could parse out a “higher truth” from the fragments of the visible world. Rouch and Morin seem to believe that, via the inscription device that is the camera, an obfuscated truth, the truth of subjectivity (and by extension intersubjectivity, human relations) can be brought to light – and never more so than when this “truth” is reflexive, bounced off the film’s subjects for further elucidation, verification, which Rouch and Morin conduct in the final “accounting” (compte rendu) session at the end of the film. In both cases, the validity of the ideal that film, as indexically grounded in “truth”, is a medium suited to the epistemological project is assumed. The line simply starts to blur between truth and performance (performance becomes a form of truth), between truth and poetic vision (in Vertov’s case). What kind of epistemology are we still talking about?
Rouch on his investment in the camera as epistemological apparatus:
Bunuel, in his autobiography, writes that he finds the thought of destroying a museum more appealing than the idea of building a cultural center. The exercise of building entails casting things in stone all over again, issuing precepts, binding cultural forms according to a discipline of structural soundness and reliability. A cultural center is a didactic institution – it hands down knowledge, it propagates and reproduces. By extension, an exercise in destruction (in the form of an exuberant attempt, a gesture ) feels like a motion of freedom – from various architectures of thought, from institutionally invested representations. The ideology of cultural destruction is the hope of the decimation of ideological frameworks.
Land Without Bread‘s ambiguously sarcastic voice-over upends not only the idea of the possibility of sober and objective representation (in the tradition of Rosen’s historical Chronicler and the modernist project for a scientific treatment of actuality) but destabilizes, decades before the practice of digital manipulation, the photograph’s indexical relationship to the real. In las Hurdes what we see is not what we see: a donkey falling to its death from a cliff (as we are told) is a setup _ the “real” meaning of the image (what actually happened) is completely obscured, irrelevant. In effect the idea of “real” meaning, of a grounded indexical relationship between the image and the way we read it is dismantled. This methodical decimation of sense is pursued in the sequencing of “events” that we are told occur before the camera: a child is “sick”, a shivering man is “sick”, a child lies down, “dies”.
And yet the intellectual suspicion of the image that the snarky narrator communicates is not enough snuff our quasi automatic emotional allegiance to the image. We are hammered with tales of woe and poverty while village scenes unfold and in spite of rational uncertainty we are already half-way towards believing the story: we have to rein in or check spontaneous movements of shock, sympathy, horror within us. We remove our faith from the idea of the interpretational authority of the filmmaker only to assume a form of authority from ourselves: the power to be critical but also, in the end, to feel affect, to feel involved. The metaphor that unfolds in the final moments of the film, when the scene of a poor family lying down to sleep is repeatedly cut with the image of an old woman crying out the announcement of a death through the streets of the village delivers a punch that no longer owes anything to the indexical relationship between the image and actuality. The specter of death that weighs over the inhabitants is a concretely felt reality or hypereality that emerges from the visual text. Have we then left the realm of documentary to enter a fiction? I am reminded of Rosen’s reiteration of Baudrillard’s claim the cinematic can not (or can no longer) reproduce reality, it can only produce more / other reality. And yet, seeing Las Hurdes or any documentary representation that rings a bell of recognition, of understanding (one dare not say truth) I retain the suspicion that metaphor, if not indexicality can still constitute grounds for a certain form of worldly evidence…
Who is “Housing Problems”(Arthur Elton, Edgar Anstey, John Taylor, 1934) addressed to? From the point of view of the film’s sponsor (the British gas industry), the film allows it to claim a certain politically progressive cachet, an aura of compassionate responsibility. From the point of view of the filmmakers’, this same middle-class audience targeted by the gas industry is being exposed to a previously obfuscated aspect of British society, the lives of the working underclass. Does the film serve these subjects in any way or are the subjects mostly used to serve the ideological framework and intent of the filmmakers’ _ namely, an educated, middle-class idea of reform sold to the educated middle-class?
The virtues of “Housing Problems” are perhaps more in what it initiates than it what achieves: the beginning of the voice of the documentary subject, here included alongside the authoritative voice of the filmmakers (and the city planning projects of the gas industry). The workers’ voices are confined – confined to the rehearsal of a narrative whereby their problems are magically solved by an outside agency endowed with the resources of knowledge and power the workers are denied, reduced to speaking in favor of their own surveillance and containment (watchmen appointed from the tenants patrol the new projects to discourage disorder, the question of the possible role of the working class in bringing attention to the slums is not raised).
The personal anecdotes provoke our sympathy, conjure a window into the lives of the workers. The lack of an argument or an analysis limits our ability to respond to the filmic text in the politically mobilized way which would prove most useful to its subjects. From a cynical perspective, the voices of “Housing Problems” are appropriated voices, put on display like the faces of the speakers in a travelogue tradition traceable to the sensationalist photographic “slum tours” of the 19th century (Tom Gunning, Visible Evidence). The workers “incriminate” themselves, shocking our sensibility with visions of vermin and squalor – our nebulous sympathy arises from a simple, visceral identification with the suffering subjects. No reflection on the historical causes or power structure surrounding the problem hold in check other subterranean, less benign feelings the representation might concomittantly arouse: pity, contempt, perhaps disgust, complacency. When the film is over the viewer has no rationale but the sentimental to support a platform for action: like the subject, he or she is also turned into a passive recipient.
The question of the subject’s collaboration with the filmmakers and the ethics of representation belong to a later historical period. “Housing Problems” opens up a previously unaddressed or unproblematized field of issues surrounding documentary practice.
I find it useful to compare “Housing Problems” with “Darwin’s Nightmare” (Hubert Sauper, 2004) , a documentary that skillfully unravels the mesh of local problems surrounding the global trade of the Nile perch from Lake Victoria. “Darwin’s Nightmare” does not escape the victimization of its subjects, whose plight is framed as the result of the ubiquitous and invisible forces of a global market. However, humanized in flashes of meaningful activity, they still possess a sort of sandbox agency_or at least they project the promise of agency. The film seems to argue that, as a result, only the record of their voices (sometimes a direct look at the camera or a deliberate gesture suffice) subsist as evidence of a will to freedom and empowerment. The expressive qualities emergent in the cinematography and especially the editing choices are such that the image appears to break its ontological attachment to surface truth in order to present analytical evidence.
I find Renov’s list of the four tendencies of documentary (Theorizing Documentary, 1993) to be a useful starting point for examining Watt and Wright’s 1936 documentary “Night Mail”. At first glance, “Night Mail” appears to be an elegiac drama about the success of the British postal service and the teamwork spirit of post office employees. Through lyrical imagery of the trains carrying the mail overnight and their dawn arrival in different Scottish cities as well as suspensful reconstruction of the workers doing their utmost to process the mail on schedule, it offers us a rewarding vision of the British nation. It is difficult not to feel a tug at the heart-strings when confronted with the skilled and jocular labor force, united in a common goal to maintain meaningful connections between British citizens, an impressive, state-of-the art railroad network, the flow of goods regulated and organized to the best standards of modernist efficiency, the homely beauty of the Scottish landscapes and the comforting twinkle of lights as the mail train passes through the night, confident in the value and usefulness of its mission.
Of Renov’s four aspects of documentary, “Night Mail” seems more interested in persuading and promoting an idea of the government – via the case study of the Post Office – as reliable (it can deliver mail on time), powerful (it can deliver mail anywhere), and benevolent (mail is a benign and useful service). The expressive qualities of the documentary, particularly the sense of familiarity and warmth the subjects and cinematography convey are instrumental to this promotional purpose. Although one could accept “Night Mail” as an example of a documentary whose didactic, inspirational, even propagandistic mission eclipses other documentary values such as the desire to reveal, to inform, or to abet analysis and leave it at that, I find the tension between the film’s pretensions to show us “actuality” and its promotional purpose problematic.
According to Nichols in Introduction to Documentary, “documentary re-presents the historical world by making an indexical record of it; it represents the historical world by shaping this record from a distinct perspective or point of view. The evidence of the re-presentation supports the argument or perspective of the representation“. In “Night Mail”, I find that the re-presentation of actuality does not serve the function of evidence for the representation offered us. Actuality is utilized in order to constitute a story, rather than a story constituted in order to represent actuality.
On a final, whimsical note – “Night Mail” metonymic representation of society as a valiant machine (or at least as an efficient, happy system) brought to mind worker bees and hives. This excerpt from the children’s show Sesame street about bee-keeping treats (reconstructed) actuality for didactic purposes, using creative expression to do so. Is “Night Mail” cut from the same cloth?
Playing with the idea of a haunted portrait _ the ghost appears like the absconded presence of the camera, staring out from the double mirror of the photograph. The idea of the dead coyly sitting in on the poised, posed family pictures of the living – unheimlich at it’s most potent, what is buried won’t stay buried but leaves secondary evidence, leaves tangible traces of doubt.
The inappropriate sneaks up behind your back, the camera becomes the eye in the back of your head: new weapon against the uncanny or projector of hidden horrors?
The fake spirits accusing the photographer of fraud – first betrayal of the photographed image’s promise to reproduce reality. William Mumler in the 1860s already destroying the metaphysically automatic/newly automated line between reality and metaphor, conjecture, phantasie. The sought for and unwelcome guests usher these bourgeois families into modernity.
Don’t these apparitions look TRAPPED? Their imprint gelled, their first effort at substantiation caught in the middle. Nothing left to do but appear, put on an appearance without the evidential accoutrement of an indexical relationship…ontologically exiled, phenomenologically virulent. First clue that the photographic apparatus is a creative as well as a reproductive machine: “documentary is the creative treatment of actuality”, according to Grierson and these spirits are products of an indexicality machine, they document the ghostliness of the apparatus, they rise out of the machine, immanent smoke that manufactures a referant for the new photographic sign…