Collection Lambert, 2022 © Philippe Daval
Slowing Down. Stillness, time and the digital image
Portfolio, Edinburgh, no. 37, June 2003, pp. 51-53, ill.
One of the unforeseen consequences of digital technology in recent years has been the way in which it has contributed to a convergence between the still and the moving image. The technology that we have at Our disposal - whether in the form of video technology that enables us to slow things down, freeze the image, and print it out instantly, or in the form of the digital camera which inevitably, these days, includes a video facility within it - provides a whole range of programmes that enable as to move fluidly between the still and the moving form. Even conventional optical lens-based cameras these days tend to have an LCD screen incorporated into them so that we can preview the photograph that we are about to take and select it from a digitally rendered moving image. The implications of this for the way in which we think about the photographic image and its relationship to time are profound: the photograph no longer seems to cut into the flow of time itself: instead it seems to present us with a moment selected from a temporality that has already been digitally encoded.
The relationship between the photographic image and time has been central to discussions within photographic theory over the last three decades during which period the impact of Barthes' Camera Lucida cannot be over-estimated. With its emphasis on the indexical value of the photograph as an uncontainable trace of the real, and on the perplexing temporal conundrum that the photograph confronts us with when we try to grasp the meaning of an image that literally stops time and then preserves it, Camera Lucida contributed to our sense that it was the very stillness of the photograph, in its brutal intervention into the phenomenological flow of time, that enabled us to catch a glimpse of the real. The real punctum of the photograph, Barthes argued, was Time itself.
What is striking in recent years has been the extent to which artists have attempted to use new technologies to extend the time of the still photography - whether doing it spatially through the use of the panoramic format that records the time of its own revolution, or temporally by extending the still portrait in time through the use of video. These experiments with the extension of the temporal frame that defines the photographic have been paralleled by work by video artists that seems to involve a preoccupation with stillness and inactivity.
The technologies of video had been incorporated into a very different set of debates around time. The adoption of video technology by artists in the 1970s were prompted by a fascination with the concept of duration and with the convergence between recorded and experienced time. Performance art played a central role in the development of video art: the real time unedited recording of mind-numbingly repetitive or extended actions seemed to provide a testing ground for the audience's experience of temporality itself. Video artists were also preoccupied with the notion of recording in real time. exploring strategies such as the use of CCTV cameras to record the presence of the spectator within the work itself. The video recording provided a simple but extraordinary way of stripping away the narrative and semiotic complexity of the world and revealing an underlying phenomenology of duration. If the trace of the real for the photographer was revealed by the stopping of time, for the video artist it was revealed in the slow unfolding and extension of it.
Both of these examples. of course, represent specific cultural discourses emerging out of our relationship to technologies. They provide an indication of the extent to which technology structures our being in the world, providing us not only with a metaphorical tool-kit for thinking about the world, but marking out the horizons within which we situate ourselves spatially and temporally as subjects. Derrida, in a celebrated analysis of technological metaphors in Freud's writing, proposed that the development of our understanding of the structure of the psyche was deeply entwined with concepts of the machinic, or of the apparatus.1 The engagement with meaning through which we become subjects is itself structured through technologies. The complex vocabulary of the photographic still, the freeze-frame, the flash-back. the re-play and the Fast-forward is therefore deeply embedded in our culture, providing a conceptual framework through which we can make sense of our relationship to the past, to the future, and to the operations of the psyche itself.
Much contemporary work with video and film involves a direct engagement with this vocabulary - drawing our attention away from the content of the recording and requiring us to pay attention to the mechanics of the recording practice itself - what is referred to by film analysts as 'trucage. Contemporary artists like Douglas Gordon, Gillian Wearing, Steve McQueen. Pierre Huyghe, Stan Douglas to name but a few, have all drawn our attention - through slowing down the footage, looping it, playing it backwards, redubbing it etc - to the tension between the processes of technological reproduction and our experience of temporality.
One of the interesting effects of this exploration of temporality as it is constructed within the technology is the way in which it exhibits a tendency towards a kind of slowing down and it is interesting to consider how this phenomenon relates to our understanding of photography. This work seems to imply that if we can use technology to inhibit the flow of time we might just, it seems, get closer to some kind of truth. 24 Hour Psycho by Douglas Gordon was perhaps the most celebrated example of this phenomenon in its re-presentation of the original Hitchcock film at a rate of three frames per second. The film that he presents to us is one that is haunting in its hesitancy, in its interruption of the flow of time: the almost imperceptible space that opens up between the frames is disturbingly open and ambiguous, a space in which the real (or one's engagement with it) is experienced as a threatening irruptive presence in the margins of the fragile cultural artefact that is the film. This opening up of a set of fissures in our experience of duration, of course, provides an interesting contrast with those strange and absolute absences that border the still photographic image. The photographic image, through its intervention into the flow of time, reduces the event to a form of absolute spatiality. The process of slowing clown film seems rather to stretch and extend our notion of the temporal. What lies beyond the Frame is an uncanny sense of endless duration.
A more current, but equally intriguing example of the impulse towards a kind of slowing down is found in the work of performance artist Gary Stevens. His latest work. Slow Life. consists of a series of five large video projections. Each of them takes as its subject a simple, almost Vermeer-like, domestic scene: a family at breakfast, a couple M a kitchen chopping vegetables and washing up, a man handing a letter to another on a staircase, someone putting on a coat and leaving a room, a couple sitting by a fire. The actors in these scenes though have been directed to enact these everyday events in slow, slow time. Moving almost imperceptibly they construct a theatre in which it takes forty minutes to chop a carrot and put down the knife on the table. The painfulness of these performances is both mesmerising and terrifying, thrown into sharp relief by the relentless continuity of the life of objects around them: the fire in the fire-place, the running tap, the sounds of traffic outside. What our attention is drawn to here is the fact that time is not uniform but differentiated: each of the actors is necessarily moving at a slightly different speed from the others, and the physical world is governed by different temporal laws again. Indeed it is the inescapable failure built into the project that is the most fascinating aspect of it for it is, of course, impossible to slow life down. It is as though the performers are willing themselves towards the spatialised stasis of the photograph while locked into the duration of the recording. Through pitting the performance of the actors against the speed of the recording a beguiling openness within time seems to open up. We see players here who are on the knife-edge of time, literally performing it into existence. The process of slowing down movement in this way reveals it to be inextricably linked to our sense of the temporal: it also, intriguingly, reveals a fundamental multiplic within time, each of the players within the scene operating as autonomous centres of agency. Time is being actively and independently produced by each of the different players within the scene.
This is an invocation of time that has parallels with the philosophy of time developed by the philosopher Henri Bergson. at the turn of the last century. For Bergson the experience of duration was inextricably linked to a kind of 'becoming', a process of internal differentiation through which the present could be distinguished from the past. Each substance or thing entails its own duration. As Deleuze puts it: 'My own duration. such as I live it in the impatience of waiting, for example, serves to reveal other durations that beat to other rhythms, that differ in kind from mine."2
Stevens' work is interesting because it brings the relationship between the still image. the video recording and the moment of performance into tension with each other. The footage is not in itself slowed down, indeed the players are actually struggling against the time of the recording itself. Nor is the image quite like a still photograph, although their performance is also struggling with precisely that subtle interface between stillness and the event. The stillness that these actors are willing themselves towards, however, is not the frozen stillness of the photograph, but the stillness of absolute duration.
It would be impossible to think about this work outside the relationships between the two technologies that underpin it, and the conflicting ways in which they are linked into the production of time as a form of cultural experience. Stevens uses the productivity of the actors' performances to open out the space between these technologies and make the interaction between them visible.
The Belgian artist David Claerbout has produced a number of works that explore the relationship between stillness and time. A recent installation, The Rocking Chair, involves a large projection screen in the centre of the gallery space. On the front of this screen we see a projected image of a woman sitting in an open doorway on a rocking chair on a veranda, sunlight and shadow falling across her body. Her face is hidden in the shadows. At first we imagine it is a still image and then we notice that she is rocking slowly back and forth, almost imperceptibly. The movement itself is so subtle and repetitive it is almost as though it marks the movement of time. As we move around towards the back of the image a sensor is triggered: the woman pauses, moves her head as if in response to the intrusion, and then resumes her rocking again. On the back of the screen we see her from behind, from inside a dark interior looking out over the sun-filled landscape.
In video works like this the still photograph is an undeniable presence: the work is in black-and-white, the aesthetic framing of the image is undeniably photographic, and on first encounter one is enchanted by the fact that it appears to be a still image that is moving. But in this installation our sense is not so much of the still photograph as the end of movement as the beginning - as an image to be extended into time. The subtle repetition of movement is held in place within the frame of the image. The still frame of the photograph provides us with the boundary of the event.
In an earlier work: Vietnam 1967, near Duc Pho, Claerbout takes as his starting point a photograph taken during the Vietnam war by Hirochimi Mine of an American fighter aircraft exploding in mid-air after having been caught in friendly fire. Thirty years later Claerbout returned to the place where the photograph was taken and filmed the landscape over a period of time, recording the play of light and shadow over the land. The original image of the aircraft exploding, like a traumatic unhealable wound, hangs in the sky above this pastoral landscape, the indexical moment of catastrophe digitally montaged into the video footage, poised in a moment of cathartic, endless duration.
Claerbout himself has described the complexity of the interrelationship between the moving and the still image in an electronic era. 'What becomes of the image as it is processed by one and the same electronic signal from its encoding to its output as a video or data-projection? As the flattening through digital media continues, the basic concepts of photography and film remain valid, In the flattened zone between them I try to do my work." 3
His work is always poised at the intersection between the still and the moving image, a place at which he describes time as potentially 'moving in both directions'. This is a space of technology that produces a relationship to temporality characterised by its multiplicity, by the enfolding of one experience of time within another, by the production of different viewpoints and moments of interactivity. Central to this work is the concept of the 'event' - whether it is as simple as a woman ceasing to rock in her chair as someone walks past, or as momentous as an aeroplane exploding in mid-air. It is. ultimately, the event that produces time in all its multiplicity and that pushes being into the world.
Gilles Deleuze, in his writings on cinema and technology, was himself influenced by the philosophy of Bergson. for Deleuze, time was a process of differential becoming, a production of events distributed across a multiplicity of sites and perceptions. Each event opened up a new set of possibilities of becoming. Cinema, he suggested, was a form of technology which offered a possibility of seeing time across this field of distribution, as a complex of durations the origin and meaning of which was not located in the subject but in the machine itself. The apparatus, in this sense, was not to be thought of as a means of producing representations of time, but as a machine through which time itself might be experienced in its moment of becoming.
Deleuze described the progression within the history of cinema from what he called the movement image to the time image. The cinema of the movement image enabled the representation of time through the recording of movement. The cinema of the time image that succeeded it was characterised by the way in which it constructed the flaw of time within itself, as a function of its own independent structure. Time was produced as a form of machinic vision dissociated from the experience of the individual subject. Something akin to this shift in perspective can be grasped if we consider the relationship between the 'movement image' produced in that most celebrated of all spatialisations of time, the sequence of stills produced by Muybridge at the end of the last century of The Human Body in Motion and the image of time produced in Douglas Gordon's 24 hour Psycho. In the Muybridge sequences the recording of each progressive action is literally triggered by the movement of the body itself, the gaps between each image as final and absolute and empty as could be. In Gorden's slowed down video it is an elastic, interactive, and ultimately temporal space that is opened up to our perception.
The complex intersections of still and moving images produced in works like the ones I have described here can be seen at face value as being simply a response to changing technologies. Yet there is a sense in which the very existence of that technology does have implications for the way in which we experience and conceive of time. The still photograph is now always already part of a larger and more complex technology of the visual. It is no longer absolutely fetishistically bounded by the click of the shutter and the edge of its frame, but always now potentially linked into the logic of duration through its extension into other forms of recorded temporality. For so long it has been inextricably bound into an ontology which was based on a concept of the trace of the real, seared into the index and cut into time. In the context of contemporary technology the photographic image can be seen as linked into an ontology of duration, stretching forward as well as backward, opening out onto those multiple points of intersection that constitute the event in the world,
1. Jacques Derrida, Freud and the Scene of Writing, Writing and Difference, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1981
2 GlIles Deleuze, Bergsonism, Zone Books, New York, 1991, p. 32
3. Lynn Cooke, Conversation with David Claerbout. A Prior, Brussels, 2012, p. 42
David Claerbout ©2023