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DOI: 10.1177/1470412909105694
2009 8: 243 Journal of Visual Culture
Matilde Nardelli
Moving Pictures: Cinema and Its Obsolescence in Contemporary Art
 
 
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Vol 8(3): 243–264 DOI 10.1177/1470412909105694
Abstract
Increasingly, whirring film projectors, diaphanous filmstrips and cinema’s
apparently obsolete materials more generally have become prominent
features of contemporary art. This article explores the widespread pursuit
of cinematic obsolescence in contemporary gallery installations, and
considers its relation to our current phase of media and technological
change. Seen in the context of the much-vaunted transition to the digital
age, this artistic phenomenon of engagement with cinema’s materiality
and historicity may seem an act of nostalgia, or even of mourning, for
cinema itself. Even as nostalgic gestures, however, the most sophisticated
of these cinematic installations, such as those by Rodney Graham and
Atom Egoyan analysed at length here, are a way of thinking cinema, of (re)
interrogating its very idea and the possibility of its future. Furthermore,
and somewhat paradoxically, for all their courting of obsolescence – in
fact, by very virtue of this process – these artistic practices configure not
the death of cinema but its continuation.
Keywords
Cinema • Art Installations • Obsolescence • Old and New Media •
Analogue/Digital • Atom Egoyan • Rodney Graham • Samuel Beckett •
Movement
Moving Pictures: Cinema and Its Obsolescence
in Contemporary Art
Matilde Nardelli
In Transmitting Culture (1997), Régis Debray outlines his conception of the
difference between art and technology; or, more specifically, between the afterlife
of the artwork and the machine once these objects enter their respective museums:
244 journal of visual culture 8(3)
[P]aradoxically, the [art]work removed from its context continues to function,
whereas the desituated machine is kaput. An art museum can be a school for
apprentices, while a technology museum remains a storehouse of interesting
dead curiosities. A museum of modern art in the hands of the active artist
functions like a laboratory. A museum of industrial arts and sciences, as
far as the active engineer is concerned, connotes only melancholy…. In a
confrontation with the works that preceded it, the art object transmits futurity.
The once-revolutionary industrial object, however, once it is withdrawn from
circulation, transmits only pastness (Debray, 2000: 54).
The dichotomy could not be clearer: whereas the art object lives on in the
museum, and can even function as an agent of futurity, the industrial one turned
into object of display is not only itself lifeless, but of little use to ‘life’, a ‘dead
curiosit[y]’ functioning as a marker of pastness and nothing more. The showcase
of obsolete technology thus emerges as a form of what, in later pages, Debray
describes as ‘revivals’, that is, sterile re-enactments, in contrast to ‘survivals’ which,
in his view, are the genuine ciphers of endurance and continuation (ibid., 71,
my emphasis). Even a cursory look at contemporary art, however, reveals a
permutation not considered by Debray. Obsolete technology has entered the
art museum or the gallery, and is there shown as part and parcel of an artwork,
if not, indeed, as the artwork itself. The very years in which Debray drew the
contrast above saw the emergence of what is now an inescapably increasing
trend in contemporary art: the pursuit of outmoded technologies. Since the
early 1990s, slide projectors
1
, turntables, magnetic tape recorders
2
and, above
all, the machines and materials of (filmic) cinema have become prominent
features of artistic practice. Installations by the likes of Rodney Graham, Atom
Egoyan, Steve McQueen, Matthew Buckingham, Rosalind Nashashibi, Tacita
Dean, T. J. Wilcox, Daria Martin and Marcel Dzama stand out for their engagement
with the materiality and historicity of technology in general and cinema in
particular; works such as these endeavour not only to display, but also to use
cinema’s ‘original’ materials, down to the inclusion of actual film projectors,
and celluloid strips whirring away within them, as integral parts of the pieces.
It is this pursuit of obsolescence in contemporary art, and its relation to our
current phase of media and technological change – our much-vaunted transition
to a regime of digitality – that this article explores. For, indeed, cinema’s
incipient obsolescence seems to have brought different scope and nuance to the
by-now widespread phenomenon of ‘cinematization’ of the gallery. Certainly,
the historical antecedent to the current trend of cinema in the gallery and,
even more specifically, to this trend’s interest in cinema’s actual materials, lies
in the installations of the late 1960s and early 1970s by the likes of Anthony
McCall, Paul Sharits, Malcolm LeGrice, William Raban, Annabel Nicolson and so
on (see e.g. Iles, 2001 and Phillpot, 2000). Then, more or less overtly, the aim
was often germane to what was beginning to be articulated in critical discourse
as ‘apparatus theory’: a reclamation and exhibition of cinema’s material base
which would critique the institution of cinema and reveal how even the physical
apparatus could be ideologically co-opted (see e.g. De Lauretis and Heath, 1980;
Moving Pictures Matilde Nardelli 245
Rosen, 1986). Now, however, instances of cinema in the gallery seem to display
a fascination with the apparatus and the spectacle it is able to produce. So, if
artists in the 1960s and 1970s intended to alert the public to the ideological
workings of cinematic spectacle via a show of its material objects and dynamics,
contemporary artists, it seems, want to lure us with – and are possibly equally
lured by – the very spectacle of cinematic materiality, its machines and mechanics.
Is this tendency a melancholic product of our phase of media change, a kind
of ‘reflection’ of the digital age in the mirror of nostalgia? In this respect,
D. N. Rodowick and Peter Geimer, for example, have recently noted that such
emphatic recourse to outmoded gear, in a curious reversal, makes ‘auratic’
some of the machines of ‘mechanical reproduction’ whose very advent, as
Walter Benjamin famously claimed, initiated a process of de-auratization of the
art object itself (Rodowick, 2007: 157–58; Geimer, 2007: 9). No doubt, as their
use leaves the everyday, photography and film, and their machines, are taking
on a certain aura. But as acute as this assessment is, it does not take us very
far beyond a mere symptomatology of the phenomenon under consideration.
Also because of its contemporariness, this artistic trend is indeed more often
described than analysed, and its significance is yet to be fully engaged and
unpacked. Its richest and most sophisticated examples, however, such as the
recent work of Canadian artist Rodney Graham and the installation Steenbeckett
(2002) by fellow Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, deserve and warrant deeper
critical attention. For they constitute, I believe, not so much a reflection of
our current mediological concerns, as – however nostalgic – a reflection upon
them. As Svetlana Boym suggested, nostalgia need not be obtuse and regressive,
a moment akin to Debray’s revivals: nostalgia can be ‘reflective’ in the sense of
thinking, rather than mirroring (Boym, 2001: xvi). In such sense, these works’
focus on the concrete and material – I shall argue – is a way of thinking cinema,
of (re)interrogating its very idea and the possibility of its future in the wake of
digitality. To the extent that they do so, these artistic practices work alongside
and supplement contemporary scholarship, where, from Bolter and Grusin
(1999) and Manovich (2001) to Rosen (2001), Cherchi Usai (2001) and Mulvey
(2006), the very advent of ‘new’ media has rekindled interest in the ‘old’, and in
the history and historicity of cinema especially. But if in these studies cinema’s
oldness is an object of inquiry, whether in itself or as a source for the new, in
the art installations under consideration below cinema’s obsolescence is a kind
of actor. More than just a quality to contemplate or scrutinize, obsolescence
is here made performative – or indeed, made to perform. Moreover, what
obsolescence ultimately enacts here is not the fossilization of cinema but its
plasticity; not its death but its continuation. For this is an artistic phenomenon
aware of its own historicity and transience – aware, in short, of its own location
in time. As its very emphasis on obsolescence answers the question ‘what
is cinema?’ with a ‘not quite this anymore’, cinema itself is highlighted as a
movement, a moment always already passing, rather than a thing. Paradoxically,
then, it is precisely through such literal display and use of cinema’s machinery
that what is essentially cinematic and yet transcends incarnation in a specific
technological apparatus is also distilled.
246 journal of visual culture 8(3)
Still Moving, and Arresting: The Spectacle of Cinema
If there is an aesthetics of cinema. . . .It can be summarised in one
word: ‘movement’ (René Clair, 1951: 96 [my translation]).
Rodney Graham’s engagement with things cinematic, though dating back to the
late 1970s, has become increasingly sustained in the last decade. Furthermore,
while Graham’s earlier work was primarily intent, as Alexander Alberro suggested,
on the demystification of ‘the entire cinema-machine’, more recent pieces seem
to work towards a re-mystification of that apparatus (Alberro, 1999: 75; Krajewski,
2004). For, if these pieces provide a dissection of cinema, then they also entice us
with their recreation of cinematic spectacle. To be more precise, the ‘spectacle’
we are offered is not only that of the ‘movies’ but also that of their material
workings and physical apparatus. A delicate balance is trodden between giving
us ‘cinema’ and disassembling it into its constitutive components and principles,
and this operation is infused with a sense of fascination (love, even) with the
machine it anatomizes. It is this delicate balance that differentiates Graham’s
current practice, and the trend of which it is here exemplary, from both the
‘spectacle of cinema’ to be experienced at a local multiplex and the critiques of
such spectacle at the heart of the material displays of cinema of 1960s and 1970s’
installations which, aesthetically at least, constitute the closest antecedent to the
current trend.
Take, for example, Torqued Chandelier Release (2005; fig. 1). This consists of a
five-minute silent film – a single take from a stationary camera – whose subject
matter is effectively described in its title, as the work ‘documents’ the release of
a crystal chandelier suspended from the ceiling from a cable previously twisted
a hundred times or so. The film, then, shows us the chandelier spinning back
and forth and eventually coming to a rest, as its cable completely unwinds. It
is through the cinema that the potential of both this action and its object as
spectacle are realized. For a start, the action is lavishly shot on 35 mm colour film.
Set against a dark background, the lit, rotating chandelier is as if suspended in a
void, almost like a spaceship hovering in outer space. The vertical orientation of
the frame (a deviation from the customary horizontal format, obtained by flipping
camera and projector on their side) follows and enhances the chandelier’s
shape. Image clarity and detail are further increased by the unusually high
speed – both of filming and of screening – of 48 frames per second, which
eliminates the strobe-effect such subject matter would generate at the standard
speed of 24 frames per second. The overall effect is mesmerising. The larger-than-
life, crisp clear play of light on the swirling crystals embodies and enacts the
‘magic’ of cinema: repetitious and keleidoscopic at the same time, this is, indeed,
arresting movement – movement that, quite literally, arrests us as, mobile gallery
viewers, we stop in contemplation.
Beautiful and alluring to look at, Torqued Chandelier is also a reflexive
deconstruction of the very spectacle of cinema it sets up, an anatomy of the basic
elements that constitute and enable such spectacle. Incontrovertibly, this is a film
‘about’ light and movement – the first principles of cinema. And as the chandelier
Moving Pictures Matilde Nardelli 247
eventually comes to a stop, the stillness that, at the level of the individual frames, is
inherent to cinema, is evoked as well. In fact, this juxtaposition of motion and rest
could also be seen to recapitulate the dynamics of cinematic spectacle as such:
the activation and de-activation of inert images as cinema in the looping journey
of any film between two still points, its beginning and its end.
3
However, in this
precise case, the stilling of the chandelier is not met by a stilling of the film: for, on
a loop, the film seamlessly starts again and again. Thus, Torqued Chandelier also
draws attention to that other crucial aspect of cinematic spectacle: the possibility
of its repetition. In addition to being physically embodied in the continuity of
Figure 1 Rodney Graham, Torqued Chandelier Release (2005), silent film
projection, 35 mm film, purpose built projector and looper; detail. Courtesy
Lisson Gallery, London
248 journal of visual culture 8(3)
filmic motion, this is also figuratively echoed in the circularity of the chandelier’s
rotation. Moreover – and crucially – the film is only one half of the story, because
the large machine from which the film is played is an intrinsic part of Graham’s
piece (fig. 2). Placed proudly in the middle of the room, it is impossible to avoid, as
its stertorous whirring makes it heard even before it is seen. Thus, the reflection
on cinema observable in the subject matter of the film is here reinforced and
completed by the visibility of projector and filmstrip. The dynamics of light,
stillness and movement, and circular repetition that the film represents are also
made materially present in the room: on show is the spectacle, and the materials
and mechanics which produce it.
Like many of his contemporaries, Graham has chosen to go ‘literal’, as it were,
by showcasing cinema in its celluloid incarnation. Indeed, the decision to shun
newer digital alternatives for the ‘cinematization’ of the gallery is precisely what
is at issue here. For the imposing presence of cranky projector and filmstrip
chugging along within it point to another crucial aspect of Graham’s redoing
and undoing of cinema in the gallery: the emphasis on obsolescence. Graham’s
anatomy of cinema plays with the historicity of the medium; indeed, it plays it
out. It is not only cinematic spectacle per se which is enacted but also its oldness,
the historical status of the apparatus and its machinery of movement.
Figure 2 Rodney Graham, Torqued Chandelier Release (2005), silent film
projection, 35 mm film, purpose built projector and looper; installation view.
Courtesy Lisson Gallery, London
Moving Pictures Matilde Nardelli 249
This foregrounding of the historicity of cinema is most apparent in another of
Graham’s recent works, Rheinmetall/Victoria 8 (2003; fig. 3). The projector –
an enormous 1950s Italian model, a Cinemeccanica Victoria 8 – is even more
conspicuous and stertorous than in Torqued Chandelier. Furthermore, the status
of the obsolete machine as one half of the whole piece is pointed out in the
work’s very title. The other half is constituted by another now outmoded object:
a typewriter – the titular Rheinmetall, a 1930s German model here represented
by a pristine, shiny specimen – in the role of sole protagonist of a ten-minute,
looped, film. Though the invention of the typewriter predates the cinema by a
couple of decades, its mass diffusion coincides with it. Indeed, in many ways,
these technologies are deeply intertwined, not only with respect to their by now
well-rehearsed significance in/as ‘modernity’ (cf. Kittler, 1999 and Brooks, 2004),
but also to the heyday of cinema itself, as the typing machine became both
a functional administrative tool and, with the boom of screenwriting brought
on by the ‘talkies’, an iconic one too, one of the signifiers of this burgeoning
industry. Thus, two machines that, save for exceptions such as movies about
‘the movies’, have historically and customarily been involved in the creation of
cinematic spectacle from a position of invisibility are in this piece propped into
view and themselves made spectacle. While in the world at large these machines
are being ‘put away’ and replaced by digital alternatives, Graham’s film starts
with the typewriter being taken out of its box. A silent sequence of prolonged
fixed-camera shots shows the old and yet also, in this specific instance, shinier-
Figure 3 Rodney Graham, Rheinmetall/Victoria 8 (2003), silent film projection,
35 mm film, projector and looper, 10:50 minutes, continuous loop. Edition of
five and one Artist’s proof; installation view. Courtesy Donald Young Gallery,
Chicago
250 journal of visual culture 8(3)
than-new object in all its glory. Spectacularizing the typewriter and its parts, this
series of extreme close-ups performs a ‘reinstatement’, however temporary, of
the boxed-up machine. But as, at a point, a fine white powder starts descending
on it, gradually covering its keys and filling its crevices, by the end of the film the
typewriter is as hidden away as it was in its original box. And if this snowy substance
under whose thick layer the machine gets trapped (or frozen?) allegorizes the
typewriter’s obsolescence, its very fall is the element that underlines cinema’s
own oldness. Before this snowfall, there is no motion within the images: the
slow-paced alternation of static shots is so inert as to recall a slide show (and
thus also a visual realm that, as with magic lantern shows, predates the cinema
itself [Musser, 1990: 15–54 and Crompton, Franklin, Herbert, 1997]). It is this fine
snow that, introducing visible movement in the film, assures us that what we
are watching is a ‘movie’. This unexpected, and certainly eccentric, event recalls
what Tom Gunning, in his ground-breaking revisions of early cinema history, has
termed the ‘moment of movement’ (Gunning, 1989: 34). For indeed, as its evident
artificiality also suggests, this snowy white powder functions as Graham’s ‘trick’
for revealing the moving image, and thus re-conjures early routines designed
to flaunt the cinematograph’s novelty by placing emphasis on the moment of
transition from stillness to movement, such as, for instance, the practice of starting
projection with a frozen image which would then be cranked into motion. And
indeed, in its actual display of the machine – and what a machine! – making
movement reproducible and repeatable, Rheinmetall/Victoria 8 gestures more
widely to the moment of cinema’s emergence, when, to refer to an even more
well-known analysis of Gunning’s, its contraptions and their functioning were
themselves the ‘attraction’, the spectacle (Gunning, 1986). Yet – and this is the
key difference – it is not novelty Graham’s work relies on. On the contrary, it is
precisely the ‘oldness’ of cinematic spectacle that is evoked: the obsolescence
of its machinery, the historicity of its mechanics, the archaic in its attraction.
4
Though Graham’s recent practice is possibly unrivalled in its enquiry of cinema,
the concerns it displays are cognate with those of a number of contemporary
artists who similarly engage with cinema and – in both senses of the word – its
age. The historicity of cinema’s moving spectacle, for example, is at the core of
Matthew Buckingham’s False Future (2007), which, in an almost documentary
fashion, recounts and re-enacts the moving image experiments of cinema
pioneer Louis Le Prince (1842–1890?; cf. Gunning, 2007b). T. J. Wilcox’s A Fair
Tale (2006), shows cinema’s obsolescence in a more recent past, as a narrative
of movement (a fairground ride, a car journey, a parachute fall) is composed via
a montage of clips of 1970s home movies and 1950s feature films. The faded
colours of the former and the almost luridly saturated ones of the latter emerge
as two correlated, if contrasting, faces of cinema’s oldness. (As Technicolor
teaches us, something does not need to be ruined or faded to look old.) In
contrast with Graham’s work, this oldness, in both cases, is further evoked
by the artists’ adoption of a makeshift, ‘artisanal’ aesthetics, as well as more
modest 16 mm gear. In False Future, for instance, in a recreation of Le Prince’s
pioneering experiments, the image is projected on a white sheet strung across
the room (fig. 4).
Moving Pictures Matilde Nardelli 251
In their use and display of the materials of cinema, all of the above pieces
thematize and dissect the ‘aesthetics of cinema’ invoked by René Clair in my
epigraph at the beginning of this section – aesthetics which, he suggests, the
word ‘movement’ strikes at its core. As these pieces do so, however, they also offer
a sense of the oldness of cinema’s moving spectacle presumably quite absent
from Clair’s enthusiasm (he made this statement in 1924) for the then young
medium. But, in this evocation of oldness, is it not in fact cinema’s pastness
that is actually at stake? After all, to invoke one reviewer’s comment on
Graham’s Rheinmetall: the snow falling makes one think of ‘time falling’
(Searle, 2005: 15). Certainly, as – settling softly and without melting – the
floury dust eventually all but buries the outmoded typewriter, it is a sombre
image we face (fig. 5). In our present of ‘new’ media, the backward gaze of
artists such as Graham, their engagement with the dust encrusted, may seem a
form of mourning for cinema, and the era cinema itself at once represents and
embodies. To explore this question, let us turn to an ostensibly more dramatic
elegy to cinema, Egoyan’s Steenbeckett, and to its association of the medium’s
obsolescent materials with the twilight of the analogue, and the emergence
of the digital.
A Matter of Life and Death
A large-scale installation, Steenbeckett stretched over several rooms of the
London building that, host to the ethnographic collection of the British Museum,
was known as the Museum of Mankind until the late 1990s. Though the site is
Figure 4 Matthew Buckingham, False Future (2007), continuous colour
16 mm film projection with sound, canvas, steel cable; installation view.
Courtesy Murray Guy, New York
252 journal of visual culture 8(3)
now part of the Royal Academy, at the time of Egoyan’s project, in 2002, it lay
dormant and between these two identities, having already been under wraps
for a few years. Cinema was doubly at Steenbeckett’s core. Firstly, the project
was based on a film, Egoyan’s own adaptation (2000, UK; starring John Hurt) of
Samuel Beckett’s monologue Krapp’s Last Tape (1959), extracts of which played
in the exhibition. Secondly, the physical apparatus of cinema was both used and
displayed: materials such as celluloid, film canisters and, indeed, the Steenbeck
editing table punned in the title were here exhibited as part of the work, as well
as used to make the work. In fact, if Graham’s large projectors lay emphasis on
the ‘hardware’ of cinema, Egoyan’s focus in this installation was rather with what
we may call its ‘software’. The centrepiece of the installation was a complex
structure made out of a 2,000-foot reel of 35 mm film, strung between floor and
ceiling via an elaborate system of hinges (figs. 6–7). Creating an intricate moving
web of celluloid, this long filmstrip wound its way across the room and through
a Steenbeck editing machine in a corner, on whose small monitor images of
Egoyan’s film became visible (cf. Evans, 2002 and Kent, 2002). But the ‘matter’
of cinema was present throughout. For example, what was ostensibly the
content of an old ethnographic film archive (possibly one that had belonged
to the Museum itself – after all, the setting begged the question) crowded the
narrow passageways leading to the major structure, with film reels and unspooled
lengths of celluloid heaped up in corners and on shelves (fig. 8).
Figure 5 Rodney Graham, Rheinmetall/Victoria 8 (2003), silent film projection,
35 mm film, projector and looper, 10:50 minutes, continuous loop. Edition of
five and one Artist’s proof; installation view. installation view. Courtesy Donald
Young Gallery, Chicago
Moving Pictures Matilde Nardelli 253
Figure 6 -7 Atom Egoyan, Steenbeckett (2002), detail. Courtesy Artangel
Figure 8 Atom Egoyan, Steenbeckett (2002), detail. Courtesy Artangel
254 journal of visual culture 8(3)
In a press release, Artangel, the UK arts charity that commissioned the project,
described the installation as a ‘monument to analogue’ (Artangel, 2002). Indeed,
Steenbeckett’s flaunting of (filmstrip-based) cinema needs to be seen in the wider
context of the diffusion of the digital, whether as a technological alternative to
extant analogue media (e.g. photography, radio, sound recording), or as the basis
of ‘new’ media (as may be, for instance, the Internet).
5
As all information can now
be converted into a binary code transmissible to a variety of media platforms,
what above all fades away in the digital era is, arguably, a sense of the physical
consistency of recorded information – if not, even, of the materiality of media as
such.
6
The ‘cultural dream of the digital’, as Mary Ann Doane has recently pointed
out, ‘is a dream of immateriality’, in which ‘information or representation appears
to exist nowhere’ and media are ‘virtual’ (Doane, 2007: 143). In this respect,
Egoyan’s insistence on the filmstrip – or on what I have called the software of
cinema – is particularly interesting. For, though it is true that the all-too-necessary
materiality of the hardware of the digital is often remarkably disregarded, the
corporeality of the software does really seem to ‘disappear’ in the digital age; or
to disappear, at least, from the purview of human perception. With this, what also
retreats from view is precisely what, in different ways, both Egoyan and Graham
insist on in their installations: the possibility of materially witnessing how the
hardware itself becomes operative – not just the machine, but its workings, its
internal ‘movement’.
The use of Krapp’s Last Tape did much to crystallize the installation’s global
homage to a fading – and more self-evidently tied to matter – technological era.
For, also shown as a large-scale projection in yet another room of the museum,
the film made cinema, as well as a representative, also a representation – a sort of
display cabinet – of that other important, now obsolescent, analogue technology:
magnetic tape.
7
This, as is well known, is at the centre of Beckett’s play, in which
Krapp, who has kept an audio-diary for over forty years, listens to recordings from
his past as, now an old solitary man, he sets out to make what he has decided
will be his last tape. In 1958, when the play was first performed, magnetic tape
was a new technology, and indeed, so as to make good the claim that Krapp has
been using it for several decades, the play is set ‘in the future’ (Beckett 1959:
9). The contrast between this newness and Krapp’s oldness, together with the
tension between the fact that Krapp’s has aged but his recordings – and recorded
voice – haven’t, certainly contributed to the poignancy of the play’s meditation
on approaching death. But in 2002, from the contemporary viewpoint of the
digital era, Egoyan’s staging of Beckett’s play also brought to the fore the oldness
of the technology itself. While audio-tapes might have been charged with the
task of preserving Krapp’s time, by the time of the exhibition, time’s passing had
spared neither Krapp nor them. Such emphatic representation of technology’s
materiality within the film element of Egoyan’s installation of course resonated
with the scenario outside it: the sheer quantity of cinema’s materials in the space
of the installation at large. The figure of Krapp, which Egoyan’s choice of close-up
shots brought into relief as not simply old but also physically aged, added further
resonance to this. The displayed corporeality of Krapp’s ageing flesh, his wrinkled
face and hands, conjured a parallel with cognate processes of material decay
Moving Pictures Matilde Nardelli 255
affecting cinema – processes that the installation at once represented and itself
produced.
Unlike in Graham’s work, where obsolescence shines and sparkles, in
Steenbeckett, the matter of cinema was presented in correlation with physical
ruination and decline. The corrosive effects of time were dramatically manifest
in the scattered materials of the film archive, which, as if to comment at once on
the pastness of cinema and the failure of its archival function, looked not merely
superseded but actually beyond use, because of damage or decay. Film canisters
were rusty or dust-encrusted, filmstrips often unfurled and battered, index
cards badly yellowed, camera lenses smashed, sound apparatuses broken. (And
again, the mothballed venue added further resonance in this respect – its very
status of disuse a testimony of the superseded, and contested, rationale for its
ethnographic display [Coombes, 2003]). But in addition to being thus displayed,
the decay of cinematic matter was performed in the installation’s centrepiece,
that intricately moving celluloid structure that one reviewer, effectively evoking
its precarious and delicate consistency, described as ‘a quivering spider’s web’
(Lockhart, 2002). Literally in transit across space, here the matter of cinema –
and more specifically, as we have seen, its visibly material ‘software’ – was also
presented as something temporally transient. With each passing day, as Egoyan
keenly stressed in interviews, the effects of wear and tear on the celluloid strip
would become more noticeable, eroding the quality of sound and image relayed
through the Steenbeck machine (Kent, 2002: 49 and Egoyan, 2002: 12). The
work’s timed existence also added to the sense of impermanence. Installed (and,
indeed, conceived to exist) for only 31 days, Egoyan’s installation was an intentionally
temporary affair. However grand and complex, Egoyan’s ‘monument to analogue’
was, unlike most monuments, emphatically not made to last.
8
Though in contemporary art the markedly temporary is often a correlative of the
markedly site-specific (and it certainly is a trademark of Artangel’s commissions),
here the features of provisionality, ‘self-erosion’ and planned extinction had
particular resonance. At some level, the installation acted out, or rehearsed,
the end of the technological realm and related representational regime it
purportedly commemorated. Furthermore, the emphasis on the material base
of such technology, and on the corruptibility inherent to such material base and
the information therein stored, was certainly meant to evoke a contrast with
the vaunted matterlessness of the digital. In the ‘dream’ of digital immateriality,
as seen above, freedom from the decay inescapably affecting matter is a
crucial attribute (Doane, 2007: 143). As no more than intangible numbers
infinitely convertible and transmissible across different platforms, the digital is
theoretically unsusceptible to degradation or loss, free from the shackles of a
frangible contingent support. This contrast between celluloid and the digital
was directly presented in the installation itself by also including a sample of
the latter technology: for the large-scale projection, in fact, Egoyan’s film had
been transferred onto DVD. But just as this partly practical, partly demonstrative
choice should make us wary of considering Steenbeckett simply a regressive elegy
of the analogue, so it should not appear as an implicit comment on, or indeed
256 journal of visual culture 8(3)
fetishization of, a digital realm predicated on stability, endurance and enduring
pristinity. If anything, Egoyan seems to lean toward the idea that digitality begets
more impermanence and fragility, not less. For, as data transmission becomes
ever swifter and effortless – Egoyan underlined in an article on Steenbeckett – so
does erasure: ‘a few strokes of the keyboard’ will do (Egoyan, 2002: 12).
Transience… and Continuation
Movement is not just about motion…. Movement can also
be about transience. (Marcel Dzama)
What interests me more in Steenbeckett, however, is the way in which the
installation reflected upon not just any analogue media, but cinema in particular.
Premised on the irrevocability of entropic decay over repetition and reversibility,
and ephemerality rather than durability, Steenbeckett disclosed another aspect
of the movement fundamental to cinema. Graham’s work, as we have seen,
recreates and dissects the spectacle of cinematic motion, in all its obsolete
and archaic glory. Through just a slightly different focus, Egoyan points to the
instabilities that unmake cinema even as it is being made: the structural and
dynamic impermanence that ‘dissolve’ cinema in the very process of constituting
it. Or, to put it another way: if, as Clair suggested, ‘movement’ is the word able to
encapsulate the ‘aesthetics of cinema’, then Egoyan highlighted how ‘movement
can also be about transience’, as the emerging artist Marcel Dzama succinctly put
it apropos his own obsolescence-pursuing cinematic work (Bismuth, 2007: 13).
Egoyan, that is, pointed to the evanescence which defines movement as such.
In its emphasis on the ephemerality of both cinematic movement and cinema’s
moving matter, Steenbeckett prized open this sense of movement as transience.
Cinema moves, but it also passes. In fact, everything about the installation –
theme, structure, venue, duration – was designed to enforce a sense that rather
than merely passing, cinema was actually passing away.
At the time Steenbeckett was shown, such sentiment found echo in (still
contemporary today) debates around the fate of cinema, which a series of factors
had contributed to bring to a critical mass. On the one hand, the occasion of
cinema’s 100
th
birthday in 1995 promoted concerted attention on the medium.
Yet, on the other, these commemorations all but coincided with the diffusion
of digital production and viewing technologies and the cultural milestone of
the ‘two-in-one’ ending of century and millennium (e.g. Belton, 2002). Adding
to this sense of epochal ending, ‘the death of the last great Hollywood stars’
(Katherine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, and so on), as Laura Mulvey has recently
argued in Death 24X A Second, contributed to turn centenary celebrations into
a sort of elegy (Mulvey, 2006: 17). As its stars were dying so, many felt, was
cinema. In this respect, Mulvey’s own book stands as a product of the very
concerns it reviews, not unlike Paolo Cherchi Usai’s slightly earlier, and even
more plainly titled, The Death of Cinema (2001).
Moving Pictures Matilde Nardelli 257
It is easy to see how Steenbeckett speaks of, and to, all of the these
preoccupations. Indeed, Egoyan’s scenario, down to the detail of Krapp and
his celebration of a birthday similarly pregnant with foreboding, could almost
be taken as an allegory of the death invoked by Usai. As it turns out, the
affinity between the two runs even a bit deeper than the superficial sharing
of a generic Zeitgeist. For what Steenbeckett intricately unfolds is germane
to what Usai explores. And this is not so much the question of a historical,
recent or imminent, death of filmic cinema as, more fundamentally, of a ‘death’
constitutive of the very category ‘cinema’. ‘Cinema’ which, Usai writes, ‘is
the art of destroying moving images’ (Usai, 2001: 7). The ‘death’ of cinema
he conjures is not, so to speak, a killing at the hand of the digital. Rather, as
in Egoyan’s installation, it is something – a death process or a ‘death drive’
more than a punctual event – intrinsic to cinema itself. The very creation of
moving images that defines cinema is inextricable from their destruction. Their
generation and projection is also already their degradation and corruption,
making of every viewer a ‘witness to [their] extinction’ or even, quite literally,
their ‘consumer’ (ibid., 17, 66-7). From this perspective, then, not only
Steenbeckett but also Graham’s work and, more widely, the artistic trend of
which both are here exponents emerges as, at best, a wishful prolepsis, an
impossible revival of a cinema which cannot, however, be preserved, for the
attacks from within itself are even greater than any threat from without. Yet,
I believe, these works admit and even suggest a less sombre interpretation.
Despite their emphasis on oldness or decay – or, in fact, by very virtue of this
process – these re-enactments ultimately ‘transmit’, to use Debray’s expression,
not only a less negative picture of cinema’s fate, but a less negative picture of
the idea of cinema as such: one in which, paradoxically, cinema’s continuation
and future are articulated precisely through obsolescence and transience.
This paradox is most cogently manifest in another work by Graham, The
Phonokinetoscope (2001), which I shall consider as a final example. The
Phonokinetoscope comprises a silent, 16mm colour film showing Graham
himself taking a bicycle ride in Berlin’s Tiergarten while on LSD, accompanied by
a separate piece of music, also composed by Graham. Like the works discussed
so far, this piece hinges on the simultaneous use and display of cinema’s
machinery. In fact, here, in order to watch the film, viewers are required to
activate the projector themselves. And they do so not directly, but by engaging
the needle into a 12-inch vinyl record on a turntable connected to the projector
by a mechanism that, setting both in motion, results in the screening of a
‘soundtracked’ film (fig. 9).
Graham’s device echoes Thomas Alva Edison’s early attempts at producing an
integrated sound and moving-image apparatus, the kinetophonograph – which
in fact, unlike the kinetoscope, based on peep-hole viewing, would allow for
projection.
9
But, as Graham stresses, his own mechanism is slightly more rudimentary than
Edison’s (Kushner, 2001: 117). Where the ultimate goal of the kinetophonograph,
as Edison’s assistant and biographer William Dickson recounts, was synchronicity
258 journal of visual culture 8(3)
of sound and image, the faithful matching of what the ear hears to what the eye
sees (Dickson, 1894: 303), in his own Phonokinetoscope Graham renounces
any attempt at synchronicity from the start. Opting for musical accompaniment
instead of location sounds is already a way of obviating the problem. But even
though the soundtrack, as Graham tells it, was initially composed following the
narrative of the images, this sequencing cannot be preserved when the film is
being projected (Kushner, 2001: 117). Since activation of the piece depends on
where in the record the needle is lowered, and because the film is shorter than
the music (5 and 15 minutes respectively), different combinations of sound
and image necessarily emerge. For Graham, as he puts it with his customary
aplomb, this asynchronicity makes his Phonokinetoscope a machine able to
generate ‘myriad music videos’ (ibid.). ‘Myriad music videos’: this expression’s
flamboyance (these are, after all, relatively minor variations, different points of
intersection and juxtaposition of two ‘tracks’ – image and sound – that do not
themselves change) and the apparently cavalier stance toward the history and
the specificity of media which underlies it, are the crux of the matter.
Its relation to the questions raised by this article can be fully appreciated by
unpacking another layer of Graham’s palimpsest – the one, indeed, represented
by the music. This is mainly inspired by Pink Floyd psychedelic rock, and in
particular by the soundtrack they composed for the final scene of Michelangelo
Figure 9 Rodney Graham, Phonokinetoscope (2001), 16mm film and vinyl
record, 5 minute loop; installation view, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2002. Courtesy
Whitechapel Gallery and Archives.
Moving Pictures Matilde Nardelli 259
Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (USA, 1970). In this famous sequence, the explosion
of a house in Death Valley is shown repeatedly, in slow motion, and is then
followed by rather surreal images of debris and the house contents (television sets,
roast chickens and other ‘signifiers’ of American consumerism) hurtling against
gravity in a clear-blue sky. The undisturbed screen time – about six minutes or
so – granted to Pink Floyd’s piece, to which, in a way, it is the imagery that
becomes the accompaniment, makes of this sequence, as Graham notes, ‘the
purest instance of the music video avant la lettre’ (Kushner, 2001: 117).
10
Such
an interpretation resonates with Antonioni’s own enthusiasm for the specific
form and for magnetic video technology as such. His desire to experiment
eventually found concrete manifestation in the feature-length The Mystery of
Oberwarld (Italy/West Germany, 1981), and in the pop video (one of the first in
Italy) for Gianna Nannini’s song Fotoromanza (1984). But Antonioni had been
vocal in his support for the technological innovation since video’s emergence
in the 1970s, saying that he hoped that it could become ‘the cinema of the
future’(Ongaro, 1996: 350) and ‘the future of cinema’ (Tassone, 1996 [1995]: 241;
Mori, 1996). Certainly, such an excited investment in the new makes it rather
tempting to see Zabriskie Point’s apocalyptic yet exhilarating finale as a wishful
allegory of the end of one media technology and the simultaneous beginning
of another.
But I do not want to argue that this contention – ‘video’ as the future of cinema –
is what Graham’s The Phonokinetoscope is really about. It is neither a teleology
nor a chronology that is quite at stake here; yet, cinema stretches backwards and
forwards in The Phonokinetoscope. For, on one side, the work points both to a
beginning and, even, a ‘before’ of cinema, as the photographic loops of Edison’s
early devices in turn conjure their genealogy in the drawn loops of nineteenth-
century kinetic toys such as the phenakistoscope, zoetrope, and praxinoscope.
And, on the other side, via its evocation of a generation of video that, prior to
the digital, was similarly charged with cinema’s demise, The Phonokinetoscope
points to an ‘after’ – indeed, an ‘after’ which is also a ‘during’ or, rather, the long,
long beginning of cinema’s end. However, these different moments of cinema’s
history are in Graham’s piece not sequential but coexistent, superimposed onto
one another. Significantly, this configuration of past and future, pre- and post-
cinematic as interpenetrating and simultaneous is played out on the very terrain
of cinema: it is its historical machinery that, as in Graham’s other works, is the
setting and, even more strongly, the operator, of such incorporation. Cinema here
expands in divergent directions and different forms, it is divergent directions and
different forms.
As the apparatus of cinema simultaneously articulates an antelife and an afterlife of
itself, something in excess of the technology – yet dependent on it in fundamental
ways – also emerges. That is, it is precisely via the use and display of cinema’s
machinery that the ‘cinematic’ is dislodged from the cinema as such, and presented
as a quality that transcends incarnation in a specific technological apparatus
which, nevertheless, helped to define it and materialize it. Paradoxically, it is
through this insistence on what became cinema’s ‘canonical’ apparatus that a non-
coincidence between cinema’s technological and cultural life is brought into relief.
260 journal of visual culture 8(3)
Where works such as Torqued Chandelier and Rheinmetall draw attention to
the movement that cinema has, The Phonokinetoscope’s multiple incorporations,
and the minimal variations of its image/sound juxtapositions, bring into relief
the movement that cinema is. What is distilled is something like the essence of
cinema itself: the fact that cinema is always in motion, always changing – even if
this change may sometimes be no more than the ‘small’ difference that makes of
every unfolding spectacle a unique event in time. Just as it ‘dissolves’ objects into
evanescent images, so cinema ‘dissolves’ itself as it plays out.
Through its referential palimpsest and rudimentary splitting of sound and image
gear, The Phonokinetoscope further manifests how, as Gunning puts it, ‘cinema
has never been one thing’ but, rather, ‘a point of intersection’ (Gunning, 2007c:
36). For cinema has never been one, self-same and homogeneous. On the
contrary, the cinema presents us with a medium whose very specificity lies in
the paradox of self-difference. Its condition, as Rosalind Krauss has also argued,
is ‘aggregative, a matter of interlocking supports and layered conventions’
(Krauss, 1999: 44) and hybrid – dependent on, and borrowing from, other media
(photography, sound recording, and so on). And cinema has never stabilized
into a thing, the very fleetingness of its spectacle and, indeed, the slippage
between the materiality of the machinery and the immateriality of its images
functioning as manifestations of cinema’s constitutive processuality. Considered
in this light, even transience, the very transience that Steenbeckett dramatically
brings to the fore as what ‘dissolves’ the cinema, may also begin to appear as
a force of transformation; and, therefore, as what enables cinema’s endurance
after all. The very movement that constitutes and destroys the cinema is also, in
a further turn of the screw, that which keeps it moving on.
New Lives
Surprisingly, perhaps, in Death 24x A Second, even as she explores cinema’s relation
to death, Mulvey addresses the question of cinema’s survival. More surprisingly
still, it is the digital that emerges as the main agent of such survival as, ‘rather than
killing the cinema’, Mulvey argues, digital technology ‘brings it new life’ (Mulvey,
2006: 26). For Mulvey, this ‘new life’ is largely a matter of the visibility of the old
which the new digital media have spawned. One important aspect of this visibility
is the unprecedented access to the archives of cinema (obscure and better known
alike) that digitisation and formats such as the DVD and Internet streaming
make possible. Another, related, aspect concerns the modalities of viewing that
such media technologies facilitate or engender. Mulvey highlights in particular
features of image-flow control that, now available in even the most basic playback
software, enable what she calls an ‘aesthetic of delay’ (ibid., 22). What is crucial in
such aesthetics, according to Mulvey, is a ‘dialectic between old and new’ where
‘new dimensions’ of the cinema, and ‘innovative ways’ of thinking about it, can be
produced (ibid., 26). In this sense, then, rather than simply granting visibility to
the old – making it available to sight via re-siting it in the digital – the new indeed
renews the old and thus enables cinema’s survival.
Moving Pictures Matilde Nardelli 261
A re-framing of this argument allows us to see how the artistic pursuit
of cinematic obsolescence at the core of this article is another facet of the
prominence of the old effected by the digital and, even, another incarnation
of the ‘dialectic between old and new’ Mulvey invokes. Yet, here, new and old
– the former, on the surface of it, conspicuously absent, the latter, excessively
present – mark these works in different ways. It is not a matter of renewing the
old via the new as, more or less explicitly, of providing ways for the new to be
thought through the old. In so doing, further senses of cinema’s ongoingness
are suggested. On the one hand, these works’ insistence on obsolescence, their
dissection of cinema’s historical status, has the effect of rubbing some ‘newness’
off the new, charting cinema’s persistence by highlighting the continuities
bridging the gap between old and new, celluloid and the digital. Paradoxically,
chief among these continuities is ‘movement’. And here movement is not only
‘mechanics’ any more, but the very form of change constitutive of cinema as
such which Egoyan’s Steenbeckett and Graham’s Phonokinetoscope, in different
ways, so cogently bring into relief. On the other hand, the continuation of cinema
refers precisely to the persistence, or return, of its obsolescent forms in various
manifestations of thought (personal and collective memory, and contemporary
scholarship such as, indeed, Usai’s and Mulvey’s) and practice (the works
discussed here but also, still, various stages of commercial production). In fact,
there is even a newness to the old itself here, as cranky projectors and early
cinema, finding a new life in the gallery, become markers of contemporary
art – not dissimilarly from how the pursuit of the bygone or the retro, largely
fostered by the newness of the Internet, might signify being ‘modern’ and up to
date. Debray’s rather crude dichotomy, then, is both confirmed and undermined
by this current artistic trend: the art object does transmit ongoingness, if not
even futurity, but it does so through the very objects that, in Debray’s view, can
communicate only pastness.
Notes
1. The research for this article is part of a wider project funded by the British
Academy, to whom I am grateful for their Postdoctoral Fellowship Award. In
addition to the anonymous reviewers of the manuscript, I would like to thank
Robert Lumley, J D Rhodes, Steven Gartside and Sam Halliday for their advice,
suggestions and encouragement with earlier versions of the manuscript. I am very
grateful to Artangel, Donald Young Gallery, Lisson Gallery, Murray Guy Gallery and
Whitechapel for kindly providing the images.
Possibly the most sustained use and display of slide projectors in contemporary
art is to be found in James Coleman’s practice. For an insightful discussion of
Coleman’s use of this technology see Krauss (1997).
2. Among others, turntables and vinyl records have recently been used by Elizabeth
McAlpine (see http://www. laurabatlettgallery.com, consulted 1 February 2009),
while Atom Egoyan has used magnetic tape recorders in Out of Use (2003; see
Grande [2003]).
3. The consideration of the intrinsic stillness of the film frame, ‘repressed’ in cinematic
spectacle, is at the core of Baudry (1986), one of the classic texts of 1970s
‘apparatus theories’. These, contemporaneous with Graham’s artistic training, and
262 journal of visual culture 8(3)
as Alberro (1999) implicitly suggests, find some resonance in Graham’s earlier
dissections of cinema especially. More recently, stillness in the cinema has been the
focus of much critical discourse, see e.g. Mulvey (2006), Green and Lowry (2006),
Stewart (1999) and Bellour (1990).
4. For a discussion of the archaic root of our fascination with cinema because of its
ability to (re)animate things, see Gunning (2007a), while, for an expansive
pre-history of cinema and related media see Zielinski (2006).
5. Definitions of the ‘analogue’, the ‘digital’, and their difference, are often ambiguous
and slippery. The chief distinction between the two is seen to reside in encoding.
Whereas analogue encoding is continuous, though variable in intensity, and requires
material contact between different substances, the digital is discontinuous and
dependent on an abstract code of 0s and 1s – see, among others, Mitchell (1992).
However, as Rosen (2001: 302) has pointed out, even the allegedly purely ‘technical’
definitions are already inscribed with – or, indeed, constructed by – socio-cultural
ideas of what these technologies and their ‘difference’ should be or perform.
This consideration also illuminates the way in which the digital is described as
immaterial, virtual, or abstract, while the ‘analogue’ is by contrast often equated to
the indexical, where the index is understood as a material trace of the real.
6. Possibly one of the most committed proponents of such ideas is Binkley (1990,
1997). Yet for contrary views see: Hayles (1993) and, more recently, Evens (2003)
and Sterne (2007).
7. For a discussion of the representation of a medium within another medium, see the
recent re-elaboration of McLuhan’s famous concepts by Bolter and Grusin (1999).
8. But for interesting explorations of ephemeral monumentality see e.g.: Young (2000)
and Forty and Küchler (1999).
9. Just like the kinetograph and kinetoscope to which it effectively ‘added’ sound,
the kinetophonograph consisted of two machines: one for recording and one for
playback, the phono-kinetoscope paid homage to by Graham (see Dickson, 1894).
10. See Hayward (1990) for an analysis of the music video, and its affinities with early
cinema.
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Matilde Nardelli is currently a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at
University College London, researching the nexus between cinema, sculpture
and monumentality. She is interested in the relationships between cinema, art
and other media, and in the dialogues between ‘commercial’ and ‘experimental’
cinema. Her publications include: “Between Stillness and Movement: Boredom,
Photography and Time in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse,” in Object [2004–05])
and “The Cut: Interruptions of Consciousness in Zorns Lemma and Red Desert,”
Crash Cinema, ed. by Jill Good, Mark Goodall and Will Godfrey (Cambridge
Scholars Press, 2007).
Address: Centre for Intercultural Studies, c/o Department of Italian, University
College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, Email: m.nardelli@ucl.ac.uk