Thursday, February 13, 1997

Talking Pictures

Twenty-five frames a second. The Lumiere Brothers, who decided to lop a device that worked at a meagre 16 frames a second, were bad enough. But when publicly projected movies started to move as neurotically fast as 24 fps, the whirr of the projector should have sounded like time ripping, leaving a cleft through which the poisonous future could come leaking. The audience should have run screaming from the picture palace. That speed, the simple statement of the numbers at its heart, the gluttony it inspired and uncovered that had to mean the world was about to gyre out of its orbit, and fall into the vacuum of space.

Every second brings a greedy superfluity of images, more than our eye is quite able to consume. So the vision persists, and we get an indigestion of the eye, a belch of the retina. We don't have time to see the regular beat, of thick black lines, the darkness lurking between frames. We're too busy watching the last photograph to notice, at first, that there is a new one in its place so, sitting in that dark room, we fall out of sync with the world. Time breaks away from us, leaves us a step behind, abandoned in a blur of blacks and whites, reds, yellows and blues, a chase of cars and faces.

It all works of course, but as it happens, 24 frames was a fairly arbitrary number. A mere 15 frames a second would sustain the perceptual illusion of continuous presence of a motionless image, but this was later speeded up to 24 to offer better fidelity from an optical soundtrack. But somehow or other, this strange, compromised vision of the world, with all its distortions and the syntax it tyrannically imposed, became the dominant way of seeing in the 20th century.

Cinema, so carefully designed to work with the human body, so viciously parasitic that it depends on a quirky sensory malfunction for nourishment, became everything to us. A religion, a coherent system of myths for urban living, a pleasure, a distraction, in entertainment, the repository of our memories, and the site of their creation.

Is it any surprise then that in recent years visual artists seem to have experienced an urgent need to get to grips with cinema?

A growing number of artists working within fine art have begun to investigate cinema as the substratum, the inspiration and even the content of their work. Scream And Scream Again, an exhibition of artists working with cinema, which opens at IMMA and the Douglas Hyde Gallery tomorrow, was first seen in Britain last year. IMMA's recent, large, two part show, The Event Horizon, took its title from the writings and ideas of Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni.

Last year's Sydney Biennial also dedicated a large portion of its space to artists, such as Yasuma Morimura, Stan Douglas, Claud Closky, Ruben Ortiz Torres, working in the shadow of cinema. The Irish representative at that show, Willie Dohert, marked 1996 by publishing an illustrated film script.

Perhaps the mother of all such exhibitions, Hall Of Mirrors Art And Film Since 1945, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1995, winds it's way into Rome this summer, and finish at the Art Institute in Chicago at the beginning of 1998. Hall of Mirrors, and indeed to some extent Scream And Scream Again, began as elaborate celebrations of the centenary of America's most beloved industry. That it seemed like a good idea for an art museum to embark on a show about cinema, however, was related to currents in the wider world of contemporary art.

There are many reasons why artists, and arguably more importantly, curators, might set to get involved with film. And the modernist cliche that photographs removed the burden of representation from painting becomes increasingly redundant, the world we know becomes a world that becomes "real" only when "translated" into moving pictures. Put simply, as photographic images constitute a larger and larger part of experience, art finds itself talking about photography, particularly moving pictures, in order to talk about us, to talk about anything. Or as Kerry Brougher writing in the publication accompanying Hall Of Mirrors, has it: "To deconstruct cinema is to investigate a culture defined to a large, extent by cinematic experience.

Certainly "pure" film makers such as Len Lye, The Whitney Brothers or Stan Brakhage made trailblazing attempts to synthesise art and cinema, painting directly on filmstock, working with primitive computers or performing microscopic collages. Such pioneers often used film, however, as another medium, not quantitatively different from say, a paint and canvas. It simply had expressive capabilities which artists might usefully enlist in their project.

That experimental image making, however, seems far from that of the artists featured in Scream And Scream Again. It seems like only half the picture, like one frame in two of the movie. Zoom in a bit on the question and something else seems to happen. Close up, the mechanics of film, the perceptual tricks it relies on, always suggest it might offer a wider metaphor for being in the world. As film critic Anne Friedberg noticed, theories about spectatorship in cinema "easily slide into debates on the metaphysics of presence".

When Douglas Gordon messes with the holy number 24, slowing things down so that a feature film spreads itself out over an entire anxious day, or Peter Greenaway contracts the putrefaction of a mouse in to a matter of seconds, or Bruce Naumen speeds up his camera so that thousands of frames of film are exposed every second, the technological conjuring trick of cinema becomes a tool of intellectual speculation about perception and time, about subjectivity itself.

But current investigation of cinema are, of course, dense and multi layered. Wound up in discussions of "the metaphysics of presence" are many subsidiary issues, of race, gender or social position in which the medium seems implicated. So then, if an artist like Cindy Sherman, for example, wants to talk about the way the identity of women is constituted, more likely than not she will turn to film - and to film strained through Laura Mulvey's omnipresent 1970s essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema - rather than to anything that used to be called "life".

In more recent years, approaches such as Mulvey's Lacanian (and so, Freudian) analyses of film language have come under attack from more disruptive views represented in, Scream And Scream Again the work of Queer artists Sadie Benning and Isaac Julien. That is, however, the least of the problems encountered by contemporary film theorists.

As Jonthan Crary, with a barely concealed apocalyptic note, put it, recently "emergent technologies of image reproduction are becoming the dominant models of perception ... And of course they are intertwined with the needs of global information and entertainment industries, and with the expanding requirement of medical, military and security systems. Most of the historically important functions of the human eye are being supplanted by practices and techniques in which visual images no longer have any reference to the position of an observer in a real optically perceived world."

Which is to say that pretty soon we not going to know where we are.

WE may have spent the latter half of the 20th century working out at the Lumieres and others have given us - what film does, and how it does it - but our shadows are managing to move a step ahead of us.