In 1912 Marcel Duchamp attended Raymond Roussel's play Impressions d'Afrique in Paris. He described the spectacle and therefore Roussel as being responsible for his later work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even, having inspired him with contraptions and illusions. And Roussel was "mad about magic"*, describing in his fiction illusory devices and mechanisms. Furthermore, Simon During comments that "he (Roussel) generated his best texts using a secret set of homophonic procedures that arbitrarily determined which phrases could complete particular sections of prose"* and William Clark describes how "one of the most remarkable peculiarities of Locus Solus and Impressions d'Afrique is that nearly all the scenes are described twice. First, we witness them as if they were a ceremony or a theatrical event; and then they are explained to us, by their history being recounted. This is particularly the case in Impressions; the author went to the trouble, after publication, of inserting a slip of green paper on which he suggested that 'those readers not initiated in the art of Raymond Roussel are advised to begin this book at p. 212 and go on to p.455, and then turn back to p. 1 and read to p. 211'",** which is interesting in the light of my writing about Carousel Narratives in a previous post. During goes on to claim that art and magic must be considered as bound together, given that both result from "the same trick"*: that "the effect is consecrated as more than it is"*, and the same "deception of not revealing quite how the trick was pulled off"*, and the same "logic that enables something to be invented from nothing much"*.
The idea of magic is helpful when considering the presentation of the Ghost Box. As Marina Warner writes, "magic embeds desires in things. Once imbued with power, they acquire different names: relic, icon, talisman, amulet"***, and it seems reasonable to say that the (mostly) rather ordinary items inside the Box have taken on this quality of embedded desire, for me at least, as a result of the context in which I found them and the significance they seem to have when considered together.
Warner also references Derrida's meditations on writing, in which it is claimed that writing is a pharmakon, suggesting that writing is to be considered as detrimental to the potential to think in dialogue with others. It seems to me that a similar conclusion could be drawn about the Ghost Box's contents and their resistance to representation. Despite the vastness of its contents, the box seems to lose its magic when expanded, as if concealment and secrecy is the crux. Which, looking back on that sentence, describes magic pretty well too. The box seems to want an audience (feedback from various methods of presentation is often that people like to hear me tell the story of finding it and to experience the revealing of the contents), like magic does, an audience who are willing to be transported. "To be true conjuring, the scene must be there in the theatre of the cabaret or the room... The characters must, at least in some sense, include the magician, the audience, the stagehands, ideally the security guard. Here and now is all part of the grammar of this art form"****
With thanks to Chris Cook for sparking the idea
* - During, S., (2009). Magic Show. Hayward Touring, 29th November 2009 - 18th December 2010. [Exhibition Catalogue]. London: Hayward Publishing
** - http://www.variant.org.uk/15texts/Roussel.html
*** - Warner, M., (2009). Magic Show. Hayward Touring, 29th November 2009 - 18th December 2010. [Exhibition Catalogue]. London: Hayward Publishing
**** - Teller in Conversation. Quoted in Brown, D., (2003). Absolute Magic. USA: H&R Magic Books
Aberdeen by Rodney Graham (2000, above) is a slide show consisting of a series of photographs taken in the hometown of Kurt Cobain and accompanied by the artist's own soundtrack, which may allude to the influence that Cobain had on the artist's own music. The work has been said to emphasize Cobain's "aspirations toward both a figurative and literal "Nirvana" that would take him away from his despised hometown"*. The slide carousel seems to be used here in its capacity to create a rotation with no variation - 'same old, same old' - making Aberdeen inescapable, and consequently reminding us of Cobain's inability to escape himself, regardless of his geographical location or critical/financial success.
This work could be described as a carousel narrative, a term which I'm defining as similar to that of circular narrative, a literary form which is generally used either to make the reader feel like nothing has changed, or to give a sense of fulfilment or completion, but which seems to cover only a single, repeatable circuit. It is said that the tone of this kind of narrative is what influences whether the circularity has a positive, satisfying, tied-up effect, or a negative, unsatisfying, stuck-in-a-loop one, like Aberdeen does. Carousel narratives, on the other hand, would rotate in a similar way, but just like carousel horses move vertically as well as being part of a rotating whole, each element of the narrative shifts in its perspective to the others.
The carousel narrative is very skilfully employed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, writer of the theoretical work Pour un Nouveau Roman (1963) which concerns novel structure. Often using repetition and ambiguous timelines in his novels, as well as creating narrators who are biased and fallible, one of Robbe-Grillet's aims was to disrupt the reliance on literature's traditional omniscient narrator and chronological timeline to fill in the gaps between dialogue and plot events, and therefore to engage the reader actively as "an accomplice of the author rather than a spectator"**. His novels are also often chosiste, a phenomenological style (in the Heideggerian sense - rejecting the notion of the human being/subject as a spectator of objects, stating rather that both subject and object are inseparable), which uses lengthy descriptions of objects to highlight the interiority and psychology of a character, a construct that has also been described as psychoanalytical. In addition, the use of repetition in his characters' actions, thoughts, words, memories and dreams evokes a sense of Bergson's questions about memory - (is it something merely psychological, or is it possible to attribute an ontological status to it? Or, what is the reality of the past?).
In L'Année Dernière à Marienbad, the film Robbe-Grillet made with Alain Resnais in 1961 (below), these themes are explored visually as well as verbally. The characters' costumes change with the camera angle, suggesting that memory is being checked, re-worked, corrected. They repeat phrases, as does the narrator, who sometimes is and sometimes doesn't seem to be the male protagonist we see. Delphine Seyrig's (unnamed) character performs gestures and movements at the instruction of the narrator, repeats them in a series of recurring locations, wearing different clothes and surrounded by different or more or fewer other finely dressed mansion occupants. At one point she laughs, and her laugh is echoed by/repeated by/transferred into the mouth of another female, one of the human objects (I can't see these objects as people; they are props, furniture), which occurs at the same time that Seyrig's character is frightened by something we do not see and backs into this same woman, causing a glass to break. Seyrig's character's utterance is circular, coming out of her mouth and then into her ear via another person's mouth, ready to be laughed once more, in later scenes.
The repetitious, carousel nature of the physical movements of the three main characters in the space of the mansion appears to reference the experience of remembering. They move through the groups of human objects who stand in tableaux, giving the active figures a dominance which alludes to the detail that we might remember about a key person in a memory, as opposed to their surroundings which might be more sketchy, vaguer. There is a sense that these human objects are stuck in loops of time, destined to repeat their words and gestures forever, like ghosts, perhaps inflecting differently at times, perhaps not. This human furniture is poised, posed like automata - another topic that interested Robbe-Grillet, found as a motif in some of his writing, such as Le Mannequin (1954).
Indeed, even the mansion which provides the setting for the seemingly eternal house-party/limbo/afterlife that surrounds the main characters is a place of reflection and repetition - both in terms of memory and also more literally in its symmetricality, and in its mirrored surfaces in which simultaneous views are afforded, symmetry is created, and the scale of the building is exaggerated. There is a sense also that the structure of the mansion is not quite feasible, in a similar way that Rodney Ascher claims the hotel in The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) is physically impossible, in his film Room 237 (2012). It seems that in the Marienbad house, it is possible to leave a room, walk directly away from it along a corridor, then take a single turn and re-enter that same room, where the same woman will be standing - albeit in a different pose, or a different dress, at a different time.
As in Robbe-Grillet's novels, the reader/viewer is unable to locate the beginning of this narrative. The opening scene features narration which describes the mansion interior that we see, using phrases such as "once more I advance through these corridors", giving the impression that this is not the speaker's first time here, yet describing in great detail the architectural features and decor of the room as if on a first visit, or in an act of memorising, the type of memorising one might do in a place which cannot be returned to. This opening sequence is evocative of the 'memory-palace' or 'method of loci' technique of remembering, which might imply that the narrator is engaging with a self-constructed memory aid rather than materially inhabiting a place. Equally, given Giorgio Albertazzi's (also unnamed) character's repeated command to Seyrig's character - "remember" - we could also suppose that this describing of the surroundings is a series of orders: just as he tells her how to position herself, how close she should be to him, where she was last year, so he commands her to remember these rooms and halls, the stucco and the columns, the mirrors and the garden, perhaps as a trigger for the other things she is being directed to remember. It brings to mind a scene in the documentary The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012) in which Frederic Bourdin claims that his 'sister' was complicit in his imposture, because she taught him all the names of the family he was about to deceive, repeating the words "you remember" with each photograph she showed him. (Interestingly, Layton had the whole of this documentary shot in standard interview style - with the subjects looking off-frame at an unseen interviewer - except for the interviews with Bourdin in which he invariably looks straight into the camera, straight at us. Resnais and Robbe-Grillet have Albertazzi's character looking into the camera too, just a few times, at moments when it seems the viewer is required to take up his role as accomplice).
The movement of the camera through the rooms and corridors of the mansion in L'Année Dernière à Marienbad is somnambulist, gliding (ghosting?) and autoscopical in places. It is also redolent of big-bang/big-crunch theory - perhaps these actions are always going to be repeated, back and forth, not exactly the same each time maybe, but repeated nonetheless. The carousel glides round, the horses shift perspective. At other times the fixed camera position freezes moments, especially those which are doomed to repeat or which are used to generate the physicality of the mansion and its grounds, and these moments have a strong, Barthesian punctum in comparison to the gliding camera's easy slip-through-the-fingers/virtual tour way of seeing. The human objects sometimes glide also, but more often pose, sometimes observing as if consciously being audience to something. They are at times like figures drawn on an architect's sketch; providing 'human interest'. They are reminiscent also of the human objects I encounter in my Google Earth investigations, "frozen lumps of dead time",*** which speak to the uncanny as much as they do to human interaction with place.
*Into the Light (Andrea Carson on Rodney Graham)
**Robbe-Grillet: Les Gommes and Le Voyeur (B. G. Garnham, 1983)
***Living with Ghosts (Jan Verwoert, 2007)
Anthony Burgess on the novel
Bergson's Matter and Memory
Big Bang & Big Crunch
The Imposter (2012)
Room 237 (2012)
Above: film stills from L'Année Dernière à Marienbad
I am quiet
I know things
I show you which way to go
But I shuffle and you must shuffle me back
I lie in layers
Then I shuffle
You can spy through me
You can magnify, enlarge
And zoom and swoop over my lines
But then I'll close and you'll be lost
I'll close my secrets back into the darkness and tuck my lens away under the black
You'll have to prise me open if you want my help
But I'll have shuffled
Layers conceal most of what you're asking for
I'll illuminate a spot for you
Though maybe not the one you wanted
Probably not the one you wanted
Tilt me, that might help. Tile my layers.
Or close me again and I'll shuffle
We can just repeat this
How is it that a seemingly general acceptance that 'the camera never lies' has managed to survive, despite the reality that it is very difficult to think of any photographic image which does not contain a lie of some kind? It could be as overt as the decision of a photographer to exclude something which would cast the contents of the photograph into a different light; or post-production improvements, manipulations, enhancements and crops, which allow the creation of an image to which the camera can only contribute a part. Or it could simply be that by pointing the camera in one direction instead of another, it is never possible to see the whole 'truth' in a photographic image, but rather a single angle, a single moment, devoid of temporal context. "Photography evades us", as Barthes put it. Ernst Van Alphen describes how in an archive, the identity we presume we see in a particular photograph is not the result of the 'real' identity of whatever has been captured in the image, but of whatever system of classification has been imposed upon it. Mieke Bal, in a lecture on narrative, reiterated the ideas of Henri Bergson: "the co-existence of different moments or memories binds viewers to what they see, so there's not ever a single moment in the present. The story may be fictional, but the interaction with it is real".
It is interesting to think of these statements concerning 'truth' in imagery, and the way that previous experience and knowledge contributes to perception, in application to the recent outrage over the Plymouth University students in the image below. I saw this image first as a shared Facebook post, where it had already inspired hundreds of comments from two main viewpoints: one deploring the young people's "Nazi" behaviour, and the other arguing why that view was invalid, based on such reasoning as that the young man "making the White Power hand signal" had had his other hand cropped out of the image, but that if the uncropped version was consulted it would become clear that he was making the same gesture with the other hand, which then apparently doesn't signify far-right affiliation. For all I know, making the signal with both hands might make the effect even worse to those affected by its connotations, but in the context of my particular focus on the truth of images, it doesn't matter. What I looked for in the responses to this image, and what I didn't find, was anything which questioned whether the image itself could be trusted. I accept that the likelihood is that these young people really did write things on their own and/or each other's T-shirts. But the image itself is not proof of this. And how interesting that it should appear at a time when immigration, Brexit, nationalism, left v right, Corbin as antisemitist etc, are such critical topics. We can't know, just from this image, whether the scene we see is a record of one product of that climate, or manufactured to create a guaranteed polarising reaction in order to further a specific agenda. Is it effect or cause? The image itself has no way of telling us the answer, which is precisely why it must be questioned, and why photographic imagery is suitable for use as a tool of manipulation, and therefore why this image cannot be taken as truth, in and of itself. Particularly significant, from my point of view, was the instant belief in the truth of this image among educated, articulate, critically-minded friends and colleagues, many of whom work in visual and cultural fields. Why does the positioning of this image in a social media or news context make it more 'true' than the film/art/advertising/political/propagandic images they spend their working life decoding and even distrusting?
I recently heard Richard Broomhall speak at the premiere of his film Got You Mouse, a Peninsula Arts Film Commission, about an AI tool he had used to map the movements of soldiers in some of the archive footage, and which he claimed could then be used to replicate those movements. He used the case of this video (below) of Obama as an example.
We cannot trust images. We cannot assume that the context of a news website makes this rule inapplicable. We cannot continue reacting without thought to whichever images confirm our beliefs. Images are manipulation. Images are manipulated. The camera lies.
Russian troll confesses
Plymouth Conservative society suspended
Sand House Hotel - a chapter of Ghost Box.
Installed as part of Threshold with Jude Bryson-Meehan, at Plymouth Athenaeum 28-30 September 2018
I'm using Google Earth to take a look at the Ghost Box locations, observe their geographical relationships to each other and get a sense of the shape they create when considered together. After several weeks of looking at this data, zooming in on it, visiting and revisiting places I am starting to feel familiar with, I am beginning to experience reactions to the images that I did not expect.
I'm annoyed, for example, at the van parked outside a location which has consequently become one of the most intriguing to me - I can see the building from above, and for all of the zoom in; it is only when the street view kicks in that the building becomes obstructed. If I move along the street a little, I can look back at the building in all its oblique allure, asking me to step a little closer, free of its white van and beckoning me, as if telling me that by moving stealthily enough I can trick the vehicle into not being there. It never works.
I'm annoyed at the non-urban locations - as clear as the urban ones when seen from the height Google Earth chooses to stop at - but which flatten maddeningly beneath me as I descend, into their folded-flat foliage and cock-eyed constructions, making less and less sense the closer I get to them. There are far fewer incidental humans here. It's as if the population cannot exist here, outside the 3D cityscapes, here where the houses flop like a broken pop-up book, and disappear when you turn to face them. Which makes a kind of sense, I suppose.
But on the other hand, wonder is to be found in the glitches of transition. Buildings sink into roads, draped in a mesh which mimics their fascias. Buses are stuck in black, beneath which the matrix is exposed, holding the scene up out of the emptiness below. Houses unveil their skeletons, crawling up external walls and looming over outside spaces. Unwitting, unknowable humans are frozen, as if sketched onto an architect's plan. Images from above show streets loaded with tropical colours and soft, railway set bushes, drawing me down, down, closer, closer and then switching abruptly back into the invariable, hard, locked-door grey as I get close enough to really see. I am thirsty for those colours, but the oasis they promised was a mirage. It shimmered, and I fell for it. Again.
I can zoom back out though; catch the image at that moment when it is neither one thing nor the other, when the cold, photographic trees and fences are pulled from their reality and stretch, striping traces behind them before assuming their other, softer, more vibrant versions once more.
In a previous post in August I discussed the idea that the term life-story might now need to be replaced with life-archive, given the database-like records that now detail us. Here again, with Google Earth, this idea is suggested, as I can now see into the gardens I used to play in and even go right up to front doors for which I used to have a key (and in some cases still do - sshh). I wonder what Sophie Calle makes of all this. I realised recently that I am living at my 41st address, with two months to go until my 41st birthday, which has re-ignited an idea I had years ago to try to visit all my previous homes, in order. There's very little nostalgia for me in this revisiting, and in fact I'd be very anxious about going to some of the houses again. But I can start this exploration right here at my desk, thanks to Google Earth, vicariously re-experiencing my own life database-style.
Google street view and artists
Van Alphen claims in the introduction to his book Staging the Archive: Art and Photography in the Age of New Media (2014), that "the role of narrative is declining (whereas) the role of the archive... is increasing... (and) has become the dominant symbolic and cultural form". In the same year, talkdeath.com stated that "over 30 million virtual profiles have outlived their owners". The year before, what-if.xkcd.com had predicted that the time when the number of dead Facebook users outnumbered the living ones would be either in the 2060s (if the platform begins to lose popularity in the way that websites tend to do), or around 2130 (if it retains its current universality). Either way, at some point the facsimiles of lives in this digital graveyard stand to exceed the number of people physically living. And what will these online archives tell us about the people they represent, and about memory, remembrance and the idea of a life story?
If, as Lyotard (cited in Van Alphen) claims, postmodernism can be defined as "a radical incredulity" toward the religious, political, mythical and scientific meta-narratives which serve(d) to "legitimize the pursuit of knowledge", then these archives of personal material stored online may be good examples of postmodern narrative, in line with his idea that narrative has a "modest" place in contemporary culture, no longer being meta- but instead rhetorical, performative - which certainly could apply to these collections. Social media profiles have more in common with an archive or database than with the "cause-and-effect trajectory" that Manovich (cited in Van Alphen) believes narrative creates. And within this way of representing the story of our lives to the world, which he describes as reversing the traditional literary/cinematic narrative "relationship between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic", we find a new role for the 'reader' (viewer/user/stalker) - one in which numerous possible trajectories could be defined, based on his/her clicks, and not on a single path dictated by the teller of the story. Of course, each reader's journey through the information presented can be said to result in a linear narrative, but as Van Alphen says, "it is in the encompassing framework of archival organizations that... narratives are (now) embedded", which shifts the traditional writer/reader relationship from one of teller/tellee to something more like archivist/researcher.
But an archive, in a postmodern society, can not be viewed as a collection of things to be collected and guarded by a passive archivist. Each of us has a constantly updating and expanding archive of recorded presence - with our loyalty cards and social media accounts and qualifications and passports and online bank accounts and CCTV appearances - which forms an identity that will outlive our physical bodies. Our life stories, or perhaps we should start using the term 'life archives', may well be accessible for as long as the technology which supports the record of them exists.
In 2014, several websites including roadandtrack.com reported that a young man had encountered "the ghost of his parent" while playing an XBox game. The father had been dead since his son was six, after which time the young man left the console untouched for about a decade. But when he re-engaged with it, he found his father's record lap was still stored in the game, appearing as a ghost car that he was able to compete with. This spectre will last as long as nobody breaks the record - or until XBoxes no longer function - allowing the son to experience evidence of his father's actions on infinite repeat, unchanging and ultimately unsatisfying, I suspect, as memorials can be. But it seems like a decent analogy of the way we are beginning to encounter the deceased now - as ghosts, whose achievements and experiences will appear unexpectedly in the form of Facebook birthday notifications and new tags in photos, for example.
So will this make us remember the dead differently? As the photographs and letters that previous generations have as keepsakes are superseded by this online content, will the way we remember each other be richer, if it draws on so many more archived items than have ever been available before? Or perhaps it will actually remove some of the need for remembrance, if the deceased's online presence continues to interact with us beyond their bodily lifetime.
Van Alphen, E. (2014) Staging the Archive. London: Reaktion
Son finds his father's ghost waiting for him in vintage rally game
Facebook of the Dead
Facebook - The World's Largest Digital Graveyard
BEIGE 6B, £10.50
WHITE 6B, £5.95
A deposit of £15 was paid, on the 15th of May 1972.
The purchase (E/5365, with alterations) was priced at £25, leaving £10 to pay.
An arrangement was made to call on the 22nd of May.
The writer used blue ink.