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