Desert Cantos | Joanna Lowry
‘One (desert) is named Shemama, despair and destruction, and the other is Midbar, which is a desert not of dereliction, but instead a field of uncertainty and effort.’ - Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, trans. Philip Beitchman, 1991, quoted in Desert, ed. Jim Harold, John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton, 1996. In this passage Virilio is describing two different ways of understanding the desert in Judaic traditional culture.
Sometime in 2007, Matt White made a journey into the desert, carefully plotting a midpoint on the map between the two cities of Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. He found himself in a landscape of almost biblical emptiness – the kind of landscape that should only be occupied by prophets cast out into the wilderness. This is a desert of thorny scrubland stretching for miles towards the distant mountains, a place that is silent and still with geological time, occasionally disrupted by a circling bird of prey or perhaps a passing coyote. The slow video-takes of his subsequent desert sequence – static shots with only the occasional thorn bush trembling in the heat of the afternoon – are accompanied by a restless monologue that describes a gradual process of mental dissolution into a kind of paralysis of indeterminacy. These scenes have a slightly ominous quality to them: their stillness presses itself upon you, the silences between the words are long and in those silences you can feel the presence of the empty plains, the stony hills. This scene of desolate otherness also, though, takes on a mythic presence: we are reminded that the desert is a liminal place, halfway between two cities, one founded on principles of lust, greed and the satisfaction of earthly pleasures, and the other created as a template for a more orderly, puritanical, religious life. The desert may be empty but it is also a crossroads between two very different ways of life.
This crossroads has its literary antecedents. In the story originally told by Prodicus and preserved in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, the young Hercules, wandering alone in a wild place, came to a place where two paths crossed. Which one should he take? One led over flowery meadows into an Arcadian landscape and the other over stony rugged furrows up a mountain. As in a dream, two women came to him. One was stately, calm and modest; her name was Virtue. The other was bold and sensual; her name was Vice. Each in turn tried to persuade him to take her path – the one a path of earthly happiness and sensual pleasure through the flowery meadows, the other a hard, industrious and virtuous route up the rugged path of Labour. Hercules, of course, chose the latter course, and the story of his choice has provided a template for moral education through art and literature ever since.
Like Hercules, Matt White’s narrator also met two women on his journey, one in Las Vegas and one in Salt Lake City: the one a prostitute working in a city entirely devoted to earthly pleasures and to the lust for sex and money, and the other a Mormon girl, perhaps a single mother, living in a city founded for the pursuit of a puritanical religion, someone offering the pleasures of domesticity, family, and an upright and virtuous life. His fragmentary, meandering account of these encounters links them directly into a phenomenology of the cities themselves, each of them leading his narrator on a journey into a different heartland – the one leading him from a rooftop view of the temple to an island on a lake and then back to her home, the other from a small hotel room down into the bowels of a lap-dancing club where girls invite men to stuff their G-strings with dollar bills. City and woman become intertwined in these tales. The separate monologues drift back and forth, sometimes mirroring each other, sometimes repeating or intersecting, the texts eventually merging into identical reflections on the fragility of the foundations of the cities themselves.
White’s narrator is clearly a mythic one: he is a kind of ‘everyman’ who has choices to make, although, in the moral universe presented here, those choices are never entirely clear. Virtue and vice in the real world are more ambiguous, more intertwined, than they are in fables. As Goethe said in 1769 in a letter to his drawing teacher about the problem of truth in art:
‘…Light is Truth…Night is falsity. And what is beauty? It is neither day nor night. Twilight…something intermediate. In its realm lies a crossroads so ambiguous, so perplexing, that even a Hercules guided by perplexity could choose wrongly.’- Quoted in Ayers Bagley , Hercules and Moral Education in the Enlightenment, 1989 , University of Minnesota (http//iconics.cehd.umn.edu)
The representation of the cities also has a psychological dimension to it. The views that White presents us with are actually uncomfortably constrained and truncated. Each is taken from a multi-storey car-park, reinforcing the sense that these are scenes from a road movie, emphasising the transitoriness of the narrator’s own position and his role as traveller in the story as someone only ever passing through. We see these barely decodable slices of the urban complex through the narrow horizontal gap between the barrier wall and the ceiling: it is a strangely cinematic perspective produced by the structure of the architecture itself. The dark hollow of the car park feels as though it is inside our head. The poverty of the images allows space for the narratives to unfold and to fill out our sense of the space beyond the screen. But now and then the light changes, the camera shifts, and we become aware that it is the architectural fabric of the city itself that frames our subject.
One of the themes running through White’s previous work has been the nature of the frame, its provisionality and its artifice. In an earlier work, The Argument (2001), a dispute between a man and a woman in a street is filmed voyeuristically from a window. The man goes indoors and reappears at a window struggling with a curtain. The camera moves inside the room and we see that the scene itself is being constructed, that the man is an actor, and that there are studio assistants, props and lighting. The multiple shifts in this piece from documentary to fiction to studio are not presented as a process of revelation; we are not invited to move towards a deeper level of truth. It is more as though this piece represents an acceptance of the multiple modality implicit in the medium itself. The frame is always moving, always resituating itself; there is always another space behind the camera, and yet a further one just out of sight. Fact and fiction, it is suggested in this work, are both engaged in a process of recording that itself moves in and out of view.
This new work similarly allows him to play with the ontology of the frame, and it is his subtle manipulation of this device that makes his attempt to create a contemporary video-based version of an allegorical theme interesting. White offers us here frames within frames, and these are themselves framed by the space of the gallery within which the spectator is free to move around. He offers points of view that are subjected to slight shifts in movement or to the play of light, to serendipitous interruption and off-screen sound, thereby persistently reminding us of the real times and places that underpin the symbolic structure of the story. A tension emerges between the presence of ‘video-time’, a time that is always related to the index and to the moment of recording, and allegorical time, a fictional construct more usually associated with the narrative space and editing techniques of cinema.
Artists and art historians alike were compelled by the story of Hercules as a subject matter for painting because of the way in which this moral fable was embedded in a clear pictorial structure: the crossroads, the rocky path, the pleasant meadows, two women framing the scene – and ultimately the central figure of Hercules, placed at the very centre of the composition, a figure with whom the spectator would obviously identify. Traditionally, the elaborate pictorial coding of the scene presented the moment of choice as a struggle between values, making explicit the structural oppositions latent within culture itself. These pictures were always therefore concerned with culture rather than with individual psychology. Mythical subjects may make choices but their struggle is ultimately structural and moral rather than psychological. Modern subjects however cannot be represented so simplistically, and the way in which we identify with the subject on the screen has also developed its own psychological complexity. The subject of Matt White’s installation is a more elusive presence than that of the traditional Hercules, located somewhere in the space between the screens and the intermittent soundtracks – located in our imagination or perhaps in our bodies as we move between the different spaces. Perhaps this complicated combination of identification and projection as the story is played out owes something to the nature of video as a medium.
This problem of the way the relationship between the psychological subject and the mythical one is represented through the medium of video is also central to the final element in the exhibition, a work that sits to the side of the major installation whilst providing a kind of coda to it. In Weightless, White films himself under self-hypnosis. He has hypnotised himself into believing he is weightless. We watch him standing in the light of a window with his eyes closed, slowly experiencing the effects of becoming lighter, the cares of the world slipping from him and a kind of euphoria taking over. He laughs with a kind of hysterical joy. This ecstasy is followed by a gradual and literal ‘coming back to earth’ and a descent into desperate grief, melancholy and tears. We can imagine what he is feeling but we cannot see or believe in the causes of this emotional journey. ‘Weightlessness’ is presented here as an idealised state, a form of symbolic release from the cares of the world, but it is also presented as a state that is inaccessible, locked within the psychology of the individual. The inaccessibility of that state is made absolute by the material presence of the screen itself.
In this complex installation of video works, White constructs himself (or his narrator) as a twenty-first century allegorical figure. However, the choices that face the individual today cannot be laid out as clearly as they were for Hercules, nor can the nature of his responses to them. The distances between the real, the observed and the imagined have become fragmented by the media that we use to record the world. There is no clear crossroads here, but instead a more open desert: the desert of Midbar, a place of uncertainty, effort, and longing.
Joanna Lowry writes about contemporary photographic and video art and is Academic Programme Leader in Photography, Moving Image and Sound at the University of Brighton.
Hypnosis and Consciousness | Peter Naish
People find hypnosis intriguing, but perhaps in many cases for the wrong reason. They attribute all sorts of mysterious powers to the process: enhancing memory, getting the hypnotised person under the control of the hypnotist, taking them back to a previous life and so on. Stripped of such magical ideas, which are completely without scientific foundation, hypnosis begins to look almost mundane Intriguingly, however, in spite of its seemingly unexciting qualities, hypnosis serves as a fascinating window upon consciousness, which is probably the most intriguing experience of all.
What makes us conscious?
Relatives standing round the bed of a patient in a permanent vegetative state would be derisive of the question: Why do we need consciousness? Nevertheless, although on the one hand it seems very clear that we do, and we know when we have it and when we don’t, on the other hand there seem to be very successful systems that we assume are not conscious. For a start, we associate consciousness with the brain – it is injury here that renders people unconscious. The very simplest creatures, such as an amoeba, do not have a brain, in fact they don’t have even a single neuron – the building block of brains. Thus we cannot conceive of these animals as being conscious; they just drift through a watery environment, responding to simple stimuli and dividing to make more amoebae.
More complicated animals have more sophisticated sensory systems, so can distinguish between a range of different stimuli and produce an appropriate response from a battery of possibilities. For example, just a few of the things a honey bee can do are shape wax, collect water, feed the queen, cool the hive, and recognise and attack intruders. All that is orchestrated by a brain about one cubic millimetre in size, and with less than one million neurons. That may sound a lot, but they represent a mere fraction of the number of transistors in a modern computer (the Intel Dual-Core processor has around 1.7 billion). The transistors are roughly equivalent to the neurons of animals, and this number can produce a machine capable, among other things, of recognising speech, or guiding a cruise missile to its target over a far greater distance than a bee could track a nectar source. No one suggests that computers are conscious though. Nor can the bee be presumed so; its few neurons are kept very busy, distinguishing between the different stimuli received by its eyes and antennae, storing memories and driving its behaviour.
Surprisingly, humans are quite a lot like bees. For example, if the GP taps the tendon by your knee, your limb shoots out, a reflex in which the brain is not involved at all. This is the mechanism that helps save us from stumbling, so clearly we can do that without consciousness. We can flash a picture of a snake in front of a snake phobic’s eyes so briefly that they report having no idea what was there. Nevertheless, in spite of having no conscious awareness, their body prepares for escape, as can be detected by physiological measures. We can take our car down a familiar route then, at the end, have no idea whatsoever of all the complex actions that were required to achieve this. One begins to wonder whether such versatile creatures as ourselves actually gain anything by being conscious as well. Perhaps one of the advantages of consciousness is revealed in the observation that learner drivers are all too aware of the seemingly impossible number of actions that have to be integrated smoothly into a journey. Consciousness facilitates learning.
We have something like one hundred thousand billion neurons in our heads. This enormous number is surely far more than would be needed simply to monitor our modest senses and control our rather unimpressive bodies. Presumably, a good many are involved with giving us consciousness. There are growing numbers of ways of deducing what the brain does and, in recent years, a great deal has been learned from brain scanning techniques. Another approach makes deductions about brain mechanisms by examining the kinds of faults that can occur. For example, we know more about the way our brains process text, as a result of studying people with dyslexia. As will be explained, hypnosis is something like a fault in consciousness, so knowing more about hypnosis (and other systems that produce errors in consciousness) has the potential to explain something of the nature of consciousness.
The strange experiences of hypnosis
People vary in their ability to experience hypnotic effects, but a successful person can have some quite odd experiences. For example, on telling them that their arm is getting lighter and lighter, it may actually begin to rise from their lap. On questioning, they report that it did it by itself, yet clearly it had to be their own muscles that did the lifting. Somehow, they are no longer conscious of being the instigator of their own actions.
A typical test, used to assess how responsive a person is to hypnosis, involves telling them that when they open their eyes they will see two objects in front of them; in fact, the researcher is holding three. Those who are successful will report afterwards that they saw just two, and describe them. Obviously,
the image of the third item fell upon their retinas, so we have to ask why they were unconscious of it.
I was once helping someone with a phobia for moths get over her fears. In hypnosis, it was easy for her to have realistic experiences involving moths, just as if they were really there. In this way, she could practise gradually more challenging situations, until she was no longer frightened. At one stage, I decided that, although she was not yet ready to cope with a moth fluttering around her, it was time for her to make physical contact with one. I asked whether she would be prepared to encounter a dead moth on the windowsill, finding that her hand had brushed against it. She agreed to attempt this, and set about telling me what she was doing. What she was actually doing was sitting comfortably in a chair, with her eyes shut, but what she described was first gathering up the children’s toys, then dusting the piano. She then announced that she would go over to the window, to dust there. After a pause, she said, in a normal tone, “What’s this, a dead leaf?” Then there was a gasp of horror and she exclaimed, “Oh no, it’s a moth!” I had not suggested any of this elaborate scenario, only that she should encounter a moth. Clearly, the hypnotised woman had embellished the basic scene, but then it was as if she walked through it completely unaware of what was coming next. Naturally, researchers have asked what mechanisms could underpin people’s ability to cut themselves off from conscious awareness in the different kinds of ways I have described. However, it should be noted that all these things could be acted, from lifting one’s hand and claiming that it felt light, to stating we had seen a leaf-shaped moth. Until quite recently, the majority of researchers tended to assume that people were, in effect, acting; at best, some experts would allow that responsive people imagined vividly. However, no one has ever claimed that someone suffering from schizophrenia is just acting or imagining vividly.
The brain in schizophrenia and hypnosis
Just as with hypnosis, schizophrenic patients can feel that their actions are ‘not their own’. The classic symptom of schizophrenia is hearing voices. Taking a brain scan of a patient having one of these auditory hallucinations reveals that there is indeed activity in the speech-reception areas; the patient really does have the experience of hearing something. However, there is also activity in the speech production area: they are talking to themselves (not out loud). We all give ourselves a talking to from time to time, but we don’t end up believing that someone else is doing it. If a healthy person is scanned while speaking under their breath, there is naturally activity in the production areas, but little in the reception region of the brain.It’s almost as if their hearing is not as sharp as that of a schizophrenic. That, however, is not the explanation.
The far front part of our brain, the region which is newest in evolutionary terms, has extensive nerve fibre connections with other regions, both those that process incoming information, as well as those that produce behaviour. Information seems to be dealt with on a ‘need to know’ basis: when something is completely predictable there is no need to know about it. Thus, if you say words to yourself, there is no need to listen, because there are not going to be many surprises. To avoid hearing the speech, the frontal regions send inhibitory signals to the receiving region, so that it doesn’t become activated by the inner speech. It has recently been discovered that there is some impairment in the connections running backwards from the frontal regions of a schizophrenic’s brain; this would explain why they can’t ‘turn down the volume’ for things that should have been expected.
If hypnosis is in some ways analogous to schizophrenia, it should produce similar results. A recent scanning experiment provided them. Someone sat with their finger resting on a little sling; they could move the finger themselves, but the arrangement also enabled the experimenter to make the finger move. Scanning showed (unsurprisingly) that, when the experimenter lifted the finger, there was activity in the part of the person’s brain which registered finger movement. On the other hand, if the person moved their own finger there was no such activity; they knew they were going to do it, so activity was inhibited in the registering region. Then, in hypnosis, they were told that their finger was going to lift by itself. Of course, it would really be their own brain sending signals to make this happen, so we would again expect inhibition. In practice, strong activity was observed and, just like a schizophrenic patient, the hypnotised person’s conscious experience was of having played no part in making the finger move. Unlike a schizophrenic, they appreciated that there was a simple cause of this – hypnosis – so there was no need to assume that mysterious forces were controlling them (as patients sometimes conclude).
The picture that emerges is of the bulk of the brain having a great deal of autonomy – it doesn’t need consciousness. However, the full power of our mental machinery is unlocked in the interplay between these brain regions and the new frontal parts. That interaction of monitoring and controlling determines the nature of our consciousness. For most of us, for most of the time, our conscious experience gives us a good working representation of the world with which we interact. In some illnesses, the system breaks down, and the representation becomes inappropriate and alarming. Those people who are significantly hypnotisable seem to have especially versatile frontal regions to their brains; there is even evidence that they have more interconnecting nerve fibres than the rest of us. They are able to mimic such conditions as schizophrenia and give themselves subtly altered states of consciousness, states that do not quite map onto what others would call ‘the real world’.
Dr Peter Naish is a Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Psychology in the Open University’s Department of Life Sciences. His principal area of research is into the mechanisms of hypnosis, and he is frequently asked to give public lectures on the topic at the various Science Festivals. He also serves as an expert witness in court cases involving hypnosis, and he is the Chair of Council of the British Society of Clinical and Academic Hypnosis.
Peter Bobby, Mika Sellens and Matt White
Unit 2 Gallery
London Metropolitan University
59-63 Whitechapel High Street
London E1 7PF
Oct 7 - November 11 2005
LOCALE - tenses and tensions
The conundrum of the status of the image has engaged western thinkers from Plato and Pliny to Baudrillard and Blanchot. At the centre of this perennial debate lies the precarious condition of the relationship of the image to its object which, in effect, speaks both of its similarity and its difference. Moreover, this fissure, this gap, is exactly the space in which the image may separate itself from its object, to endure, to persist. With the invention of technologies to make recordings of experience - visual and sonic images - came the interruption of the inexorable flow of time as the present fell into the past, in effect proposing then as now. Famously, Roland Barthes, contemplating a photograph of his dead mother as a child, noted the baffling and spectral tense of such images: this will have been. The three artists in Locale, each with their own medium - the still photograph, the video, and recorded sound - offer us a rich investigation of what we might call 'the grammar of the image' at the heart of their practices.
Consider Peter Bobby's unpeopled photographs of those immaculately styled spaces in show homes contrived in their every aspect to seduce the viewer. Here we have the phenomenon of the doubled image, the image of an image, Bobby's preened photographic surfaces acting as both relays and amplifiers, transmitting these glossy confections with a transparent fixity. For these spaces and the objects which inhabit them are fixed images too, every flower a generic image of a flower, every abstract painting a generic exemplar in a perfect harmony with the untouched and untouchable soft furnishings, all contingencies erased in pursuit of ideal, aspirational spaces. Their glossy perfection is hard won and immaculate a word which, in its Latin origins, means 'without stain'. The price paid for this condition is the abolition of time itself, since that would render the spaces vulnerable to the contamination of contingency, the stain of change. No, these vases, we sense, cannot move or be moved, these chairs need their exacting symmetry, the concealed light sources must perpetually regulate and smooth out all possibilities of ebb and flow. In effect, these photographs offer us a tenseless present: this will have been, the future anterior, replaced by a glacial 'this is'. The stillness of these spaces and the objects within them is best conveyed by the term 'stock-stillness', a term that defies logic in its redundant doubling of the absolute term 'still' but satisfies experience. However, this alluring promise of stasis, this abolition of the future tense, is, in truth, curdled with contingency: for these are in fact photographs of temporary constructions, honed to a honeyed but fleeting perfection. Bobby's photographs would appear to conspire in the seduction as there can be no 'decisive moment' in his delivery of this mythic, perpetual present; he does not wait for the prefabricated unit to be removed from the site or the construction to be demolished or for the unit to be made over in order to sell the next phase of the development.
Yet, just as these photographs offer relish and delight in the perfections they portray, a closer look reveals some ripples disturbing their ostensibly imperturbable surfaces. For Bobby makes the most discreet and precisely gauged interventions: an elided space here, an unexpected reflection there, or a blank walled hiatus separating one zone from another, signalling exactly sufficient to detain and sustain our contemplation. He makes us think about these spaces which have been designed with the intention to undo thinking, to hide their ideology of aspirational consumerism under their artful transparency. Paradoxically, by arresting and stabilising these images, he returns time to them - time to think.
Matt White's video projection, The Argument (2001/02), begins by proffering the pleasures of voyeurism, furnishing the viewer with an opportunity to spy on a couple in the street locked into unexplained but entirely familiar tension. No sooner have we identified with this gaze and allowed ourselves a frisson of Schadenfreude
than our gaze is rerouted to a fresh locus: now we see the same man from across the street, in his home, engaged in fixing a net curtain in the window through which we watch him. He attempts to secure the pole in place; his efforts fail; the pole will not hold, he cannot restore equilibrium; he looks down onto the deserted night street, his gaze and our gaze triangulated on the absent third party of his partner. The futility of his attempts to secure a private and serene space becomes farcical: the screen, a net curtain, which he, is attempting to install, is transparent, no insulation against our privileged voyeur's gaze. But this privilege is abruptly challenged, the 'garrulous ribbon' of the narrative (in Barthes' memorable phrase) is cut, as White reveals the artifice of his story, going behind the screen and revealing the precise, scripted actions of a rehearsed experience. What we had thought to be the unfolding flow of the present tense (or that paradoxical version of the present tense that
surveillance video offers us) is revealed now as the past: this is a restaging of what has been.
As in Bobby's photographs, we now see that White is constructing an image of an image. The almost metronomic recitation of the directorial instructions, delivered as a voiceover, dedramatises this unfolding and unfolded narrative. The male character's inability to suspend the curtain pole mirrors our own inability to
suspend our disbelief. The screens separating time, space and event are all removed, leaving an uncomfortable transparency. If Bobby's photographs concern themselves with the ambivalent cumulative effects of the idealised superficies of mythic spaces, White's piece is unequivocal as it goes about its business of undoing each layer of its own construction to reveal the flimflam of theatricalised space. The artist himself is emphatic that the piece found its genesis in real, observed behaviour, the 'reality' taking place in his immediate locale which we see enacted at the outset of the video. Somewhat after the manner of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, we may deduce that there can be no innocent act of witness: our own viewing, it seems, is deeply embedded in the reflexivity of even the simplest narratives.
In foregrounding the syntax of his medium White requires of the viewer a series of renegotiations in the hierarchy of 'authentic' images, suggesting, perhaps that even 'first order' behaviour - the feuding couple in the street - represents a hyperbolic version of an anterior and no longer accessible reality. If we take this argument to its logical conclusion, we are required to see reality itself as a mise-en-scene, rather like the way in which Mark Boyle in an early and sometimes overlooked piece of 1964, Street, turned his front room into a viewing space. Pulling back the curtains, Boyle offered to his perplexed viewers whatever happened to be going on in the locale of the street as his subject: the real as image. Vihite's video also requires of the viewer a reframing of our expectations of 'reality' and its representation and the interstices of the two: this dialectic powerfully propels The Argument at every turn.
Mika Sellens' new sonic installation Circular Walk 1 (2005), is, like White's video, grounded in an actual experience in its genesis - specifically, a spontaneous and unplanned circular walk she undertook one evening from her studio which, by coincidence, included the locale of Unit 2. Just as White's video revisits and
reworks an actual observed experience, Sellens undertook once again that same journey, at the same time of day, following the same route, making the same stops. This time, however, she made a sound recording of the entire journey - the recording that in fact provided the raw material for this installation. But Sellens' piece is by no means to be understood as a simple linear sonic reconstruction. Walking, thinking, noticing, remembering, responding, reflecting: a walk, even through a familiar locality, is, after all, a complex activity. For the walk - especially the repeated walk - calls to mind stirring phrases: 'a sentimental journey', perhaps, or 'an act of pilgrimage'. Indeed cultural historians rarely allow the term 'a walk' the innocence it ostensibly offers and we might, at times, crave. From the elegant fldneurs on their peregrinations through the streets of European cities in the second half of the nineteenth century to the Surrealists' pursuit of erotic chance encounters in the labyrinth of the city in the 1930s, walking through a city must, it seems, be understood as a complex cultural activity. As we walk, we are wholly immersed in a rich palette of sounds and at first this might seem to be incidental, as though we were walking microphones, mere passive receivers. However, psychoacousties takes it as an axiom that the brain has the power to screen out a great deal of the sounds that the eardrum receives: our own subjectivity intercepts and regulates our perception. Famously, Rodchencko once said 'we do not see what we are looking at' and we might surmise, equally, that we do not listen to what we are hearing.
Sellens explores this discrepancy with sophistication in her repetition of her walk and uncovers the many differences that inevitably separate the second, repeated experience from the first. For we think of repetition as a familiar and powerful device to regulate and control our experiences (think of those dysfunctional repetitions that
sufferers of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder endure). Chance, the incidental, the coincidental, the unanticipated, flux: those aspects of the city walk the Surrealists and the Situationists so relished seem inimical to repetition: one cannot, after all, repeat a spontaneous act, such as Sellens' original walk. In Circular Walk 1, Sellens
attempts to explore such structures of subjectivity in their fragile and touching relationship to memory and event. What we hear on the loudspeakers and headphones installed in the gallery are different combinations of different sections made from her original sound recording and the sequence of the sections heard in the exhibition is in fact determined by the random function of the CD players used for playback. Sellens' process of editing is complex, based on selecting sounds as she progressed through the original recording from start to finish, her choices determined by, as she says, 'the events or experiences which I could remember most readily, thinking back on the walk. When 1 got to the end (of the recording) I returned to the beginning, and moved through again, selecting the sound relating to the next events Icould remember. Eventually the only audio left related to parts of the walk I couldn't remember'. Her piece thus derives its essential momentum from her quest to discover a fresh hierarchy graded upon what she terms the 'memorability' of different experiences, any one of which may be linked to a correlative sound acting as a Proustian trigger. That rhyming linearity of time and the linearity of the walk - 'the garrulous ribbon' - is thus cut and braided in fresh permutations in her quest to revisit the experiences of the retaken walk and in turn recollect the experiences of the original walk. The cumulative effect finally generates a fluid structure emphasising circularity over a linear trajectory. This Bergsonian flux of sound
in effect offers the past as the present and this, too, has a spectral quality.
In addition to the loudspeakers and headphones in the gallery, other speakers will 'return' sound into the space outside the gallery, back into the locale of their origins, and of that original walk which was the genesis of the entire piece. Moreover, as John Cage would have been quick to point out, Sellens' piece is further suffused with the present tense - with the actual, real-time, ambient noises of the gallery itself. Including, perhaps, the sound of your own walking through this gallery or the rustle of paper as you turn this guide in your hands…
Paul Kilsby 2005
Yael Bartana, Alex Frost, Laura Lancaster, Laurence Lane, Susan MacWilliam, Clara Ursitti, Matt White and Anthony Shapland.
Guildhall, Newcastle upon Tyne
Preview: Fri 6 Sep - Fri 27 Nov 2003
Chapter Arts, Cardiff, UK
Preview: Fri 10 Oct - Sun 16 Nov 2003
The artists in Afterlife share an interest in capturing particular or significant moments in time whether taken from their own lives, or appropriated from the lives of others, drawn from significant points in history, or reached via psychological processes of investigation. Moving between personal and collective experience, the real and the mythic, the commonplace and the unknown, there is an underlying sense of sadness, melancholy or menace evident in much of their work.
Yael Bartana’s Trembling Time was filmed in Tel-Aviv on Soldiers’ Memorial Day, a day of remembrance observed in Israel and heralded by sirens across the country. Filmed from a high vantage point, the scene is played out on a busy four-lane highway. The layers of moving images slowly reveal cars coming to a halt and the occupants opening their doors, standing by their stationary vehicles, pausing and slowly driving away. Today, in the perverse time we inhabit, the sight of stopped traffic suggests a grave situation looking at the film one wonders what catastrophe these drivers can see ahead of them, what has induced their paralysis. Is it fiction or reality, and, if fiction, how could a powerless artist arrest the flow of cars, goods and people'.
Alex Frost’s work for Afterlife represents a single theme played in two different "keys": drawing and sculpture. Part of a series on this theme, both pieces allude to a systematic process in their construction and appear to be in a state of stalemate. A knotted sculptural form could represent both conclusion and confusion. A meticulously drawn portrait of a figure is equally ambiguous in its representation.
Laura Lancaster’s small-scale paintings are based upon anonymous snapshots found in flea markets and junk shops. Rather than add to the world¹s ever increasing store of images she chooses to rescue these images and recycle them back into the world. She is fascinated by the fact that these once loved and precious objects have now been discarded. Her work focuses on manipulating the tension between the flat photographic image and the tangible painted surface.
Laurence Lane’s Untitled Walking Record is a 12", one-sided vinyl record consisting of recordings of the artist walking through ten cities in six countries and edited into a continuous one-hour long journey. Starting in Kassel station and finishing in Euston station this walk passes through the busy streets of Manchester, in earshot of church bells in Venice and construction sites in Porto, along the dangerous roads of Rio de Janeiro, across the Seine, into deepest Hull, past skaters on London¹s South Bank, via the warm rain of Newhaven and the red light district of Frankfurt. Pressed in an edition of sixteen, this soundtrack has been recorded to play at the pedestrian speed of 16rpm.
Susan MacWilliam¹s work examines photography and vision and explores ideas about illusion and the paranormal. Her video After Image delves into the bizarre and the extraordinary, exploring the late nineteenth and early twentieth century myth that the last image seen before death is retained on the retina of the eye. This image was called an optogram, and the art of photographing such an image, optography. The "belief" was validated by advancements in photography and scientific experiments carried out in Germany during the 1870s. After Image uses footage from Dario Argento’s obscure film Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Italy, 1971) and Gabriel Soria’ Los Muertos Hablan (Mexico, 1935) alongside footage shot by the artist. A stereoscope containing a stereoscopic image observed through special viewing glasses is also shown.
Anthony Shapland’s Spectate was shot in a cinema during a screening of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s film After Life (Japan, 1998). In the film, set in a form of limbo, each new arrival must choose one memory from their life, which in turn is recreated as a film to accompany them into eternity. Shapland focuses on the audience rather than the film; a rotating camera pans at 1rpm across the audience, then pans below the screen level. Silent and stripped of all narrative, Spectate reveals only the film audience’s reactions as they respond to the story unfolding on screen. The secondary (gallery) audience of Spectate is denied the narrative of the film After Life. They are therefore situated in a different limbo: a twilight area between information sent and information received. A second film, Rise, charts a streetlamp at dusk. The lamp warms up from an initial spark, moving through grey light into an orange glow, mimicking the light of a sunrise. Combined with a soundtrack of the dawn chorus, this juxtaposition holds the viewer in a position between the onset of night and the beginning of day.
Clara Ursitti’s practice prioritises the sense of smell. For Tail, she has spent the past year exploring one of the largest and most spectacular cemeteries in Britain: the Glasgow Necropolis. Frequented by dog walkers and tourists during the day, at night it provides shelter for the homeless. Located in the East End of the city centre and entirely encircled by buildings, no one knows how wild deer came to inhabit the cemetery or how many there are. Navigating the Necropolis at night, using an infra-red night vision camera, Ursitti literally shoots "blind". Unable to see what is in front of her, she uses the limited vision of the camera viewfinder, scent and sound clues to track the deer. Far from being a city of the dead, she reveals the Necropolis to be teeming with life. The final video is accompanied by the scent of deer musk.
Matt White’s manipulation of image and concept through video results in works that incorporate deceptively simple narrative structures. Both naturally occurring and more controlled "real life" situations are recorded and edited to raise questions as to their specific complexities, as well as the medium that encapsulates them. Past Lies consists of a chilling confession brought forward by past life regressive hypnosis. It exists as much as a contemporary piece of video evidence as it does a chilling tale of rape and murder.
Afterlife is a Vane, Newcastle upon Tyne and Chapter, Cardiff collaboration and was exhibited in Newcastle upon Tyne 6-27 September.
Yael Bartana, Trembling Time, courtesy: Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam. Yael Bartana text by Charles Esche, reproduced by permission.
With financial support from the Arts Council of Wales.
CIRCA Magazine issue 107, Spring 2004
Cardiff: Afterlife at Chapter
Afterlife deals with the liminal space between life and death and pinpoints a grey area, free from fear, that allows the viewer to examine life and its set of complex relations to the thereafter.
Untitled walking record by Lawrence Lane gives us a glimpse of this space. Walking across Europe Lane has 'captured' the sounds of the transient in the form of a weighty document (a limited edition record). The sounds, as audible spectre, are emphasised by the weight of the record as a nonnegotiable object. The contrast between the weight of the record as 'document' and the delicacy of these stolen sounds becomes metaphoric within the context of the show, somehow symbolic of the temporal, intangible nature of life beyond its physical constraints. In contrast to this, Past lies (Matt White) blurs the boundaries between life and death, past life and real-life confessional. Under regression White discovers that in a previous existence he was a rapist and murderer. Past lies becomes a screen onto which each viewer is invited to project their own belief system. What is discernible in both works is the notion that life, the intangible spark, is indefinable and just out of grasp but somehow ever-present.
Spectate, a film by Anthony Shapland, takes this idea and examines it through the unconscious moments of the living, the notion that we all experience death in the moments when we cease to be conscious. One such instance is through the process of looking when one is no longer conscious of one's corporeal state. The idea of the gaze as a form of projection is also suggested in Clara Ursitti's work Tail, where, in a small, cramped installation room stinking of deer musk, the viewer tracks urban deer. The relationship to the animal is unclear; is it hunted by the viewer or are we part of the herd? The visceral nature of the installation invites this speculation and takes us back to an animal time where life and death are an unconscious cycle.
After image (Susan MacWilliam) explores a more social relation to death through the Victorian idea that the retina acts as a camera and the last image seen is recorded as a photo on the eyeball. This approach to the body after death is a window into both socially constructed ideas of death and also how society views the corpse as a husk after life has passed by.
As with the film After life from which the exhibition takes its name, an abstract space is identified between the reality of the corpse and the speculation as to what happens next. In between these two areas is an idea, an unreal space, a concept - a place in which to think and respond to life in the abject. The selected works in the exhibition negotiate and question this space and, as a whole, the exhibition acts as body which cracks the equation of life then death and creates a window of opportunity to think outside the linear and beyond one's own belief system.
Jennie Savage is an artist and writer.
1999 Stanley Picker Fellows Show
Knights Park Gallery, Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey, Uk
October 7th - October 23rd 1999
What is the length of things? How long do things last, or even, what lengths do things go to? These are some of the questions posed by artists Matt White, james Peel, and Ania Grzesik. Of course, what the 'things' are and how length is interpreted varies from artist to artist, yet a curious fascination with longevity permeates the work of all three. That, coupled with a sense of misadventure, quite literally in the ship- wreck-inspired archives of james Peel, through the thwarted and unrequitedly amorous Villeneuve canvases by Ania Grzesik, to the more subtle technological misadventure of Matt White's ever slowing Pacemaker. It is as if these artists have read Dr. Frankenstein's manuals, but are left with an ambivalence to the wordly existence of their work. What seems most important is the journey by which the work is but a temporary stop on an expedition of uncertain length.
Matt White >This is a test to see if you are receiving, if you are, click on reply. >1 have no idea who you are. White's humourous and playfully ironic work concentrates upon the use of the human body, and its existence within the wide open term of 'space', it also makes sculptural use of technology, both on and off the surface of the screen. His projection work Pacemaker (1999) for example, toys with the absurd notion of length at its most fundamentally biological level, through slowly adjusting the speed at which the video playback of an open-heart operation is depicted. Many elements used here represent a familiar trait of White's work, with the constituent parts involved refer- ring inwards upon each other, as if mutually dependent. The viewer, (one of the integral parts) experiences a sense of detachment from the video, as if what is seen is but an amalgam of fleshy tissue, without realising that the ever slowing, pounding sound- track is in itself having an effect upon his or her own breathing. It is perhaps the notion of detachment which enables the viewer to avoid being completely encompassed by the work, to render what they are seeing as 'virtual', and pure simulation. The title works in a descriptive manner, referring to the speed at which the beats are controlled (right down to near-death). However, White also suggests that Pacemaker may have athletic implications - mirroring the artist as the person who attempts to control the pace of the event, yet who seems fated never to complete it: the video loop runs endlessly.
White's second work, Revolution (1999) depicts a human figure rotating within a darkened space. This work relates to White's fascination with the role of technology, particularly to longevity and the archiving of material. In an ironic gesture, White poses himself in a parody of an excavated prehistoric man, spinning artificially for the camera, as if to stun archaeologists from the future when they uncover a video of an archaic human: a challenge to the idea of the longevity of the work perhaps. Such an outcome is unlikely due to the fragility of videotape, and to examine longevity in an artistic context, seems futile but also deeply amusing. One only has to look at a Mondrian'in the paint' to realise that even the freshest of clinically executed works are often damaged within their own lifespans.
A proposed work exhibits White's fascination with the body still further, freeing the artist to use 'the body' without any discussion of gender, class, colour or sexuality, free from the visual restrictions imposed by these matters, yet fundamentally involved with their misuse.
White is currently working on a piece utilising internet sex chatrooms, which will consist initially of two touching monitors displaying closeups of fingers. Here, the artist is able to mutate, chameleon-like, into the person he wishes, testing the reactions of others. It's like being the invisible man for the price of a local phone call. White's work hides an ironic ambivalence towards the technology used to produce it, whilst retaining the fragility of the 'fleshiness' still so vital in sustaining it for the millennium to come.
1999 Stanley Picker Fellows Show
Knights Park Gallery, Kingston Upon Thames, Surrey, Uk
October 7th - October 23rd 1999
Matt White's Revolution. Central to White's work is the integrity of the body. It is more than subject matter, for his project focuses on our corporeality. He is fascinated with what it is to be alive and how we situate ourselves in the narrative of our humanity. Accomplished in the new technologies, using the body as the medium of communication, White creates original effects. What is compelling about White's work is that he integrates systems to suspend time, to reveal and to open up an environment for contemplation, that realm of the soma in which we are all firmly implicated. When we glance down to view Pacemaker and study the small horizontal display screen, we see a live human heart beating before us. It is difficult to walk by. White, as surgeon, has opened the body to us. He manipulates the beat, digitally controlling the projection so that the heart gradually slows, revealing the paradox of its vital energy and its inevitable temporality. The heartbeat becomes laboured, and the muffled, distorted, sound effects of its faltering simulate fading breath. Here, death, as with the pacemaker, is within technology's grasp. White has exposed our dependency and although the fiction is revealed in that moment of illusion, the impact of the references remain chilling - we have seen our lifeline in operation.
This fusion of illusion and reality is a fascinating aspect of White's work. The juxtaposition of the 'as if' and the 'actual' forges a moment of life that did not exist. Revolution (a work constructed from the projection of White's naked body) exemplifies this combination. On the wall his full form, ghostly, suspended, draws us into the spell of its mysterious rotation. We watch the pathos of his turning limbs, torso and head, slowly moving in tortured symmetry and wonder - how was it done? But do we need to know, since the piece is so complete and so resolved? This is not a riddle, there is no trickery: White has simply used the most inventive means by which to secure this subtle effect; an effect that is as much painterly illusion as projected image. The figure held in the shaded darkness of the space that surrounds it has been constructed both from actual movement and the digital tints and shadings that cause the body to lose its life. The effect is sombre, recalling the gravitas of that pallid torso which has preoccupied so much Renaissance devotional representation. But the inspiration of entombment in this case is not Christ, rather it is that of our preserved ancestors, the 'bog people', culled from the darkness of unfathomable years. White honours these forebears and by virtue of his contemporary craft has placed his body with theirs, neither lying, nor crucified, simply suspended-in~waifing. A metaphor of death's timeless significance.