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