Project Arts Center, 2015. Installation view: Ros Kavanagh

The Time-matter and Its Perceptual Paradoxes in the Work of David Claerbout

Philippe Dubois

'David Claerbout', MART Museuo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto/Electa Publishers, 2012 (

To say that time is at the heart of David Claerbout’s work is an obvious truism. Showing that in his works time, and more exactly the time of the image and not time in the image, is presented, literally, as a material of perception, and one that creates multiple paradoxes for the viewer, is already more specific. And the idea that this embodies a historic and aesthetic change in visual thinking, by means of a surmounting of the old categories of the last century (a surmounting that I would describe here as “post-photographic” and “post-cinematic”) is what this short essay sets out to demonstrate.

Let us look to start with at an old piece, which for me has always been one of Claerbout’s key works (it was through it that I began to discover his work, and so it has taken on an emblematic value for me): Untitled (Single-Channel View) (1998-2000). In this video installation, with a single image projected onto a large screen, entirely silent, in black and white and lasting for ten minutes (in a loop), the viewer finds himself, at first sight, in front of the enlargement of an old picture (a stock photograph, of the kind he often uses), showing a very ordinary classroom at a boys’ school. The angle of view is oblique (the classroom is seen diagonally). All the children are sitting quietly in their places at their desks. They are looking (all of them, except one who seems to be staring at the camera instead) towards a big window on the right that opens onto the outside. This window forms a large overexposed rectangle (there is bright sunshine outside), which takes up a good quarter of the image and “projects” onto the blank wall at the back of the class, behind the children, the magnificent shadows of two large trees which are invisible through the window. 
The world outside, which has caught the attention of the children-viewers, is a great void, a luminous gap of a dazzling white that a vertical bar (an upright of the window) divides into a virtual diptych. There is nothing to see in this external emptiness, a figure of absence, a virtual “événementialité”, but it is the projected shadow of the trees that makes a sign, and that literally “makes an image” (and an event), behind the children, framed on the wall-screen of the classroom. A true viewing device, with light, projection, sign, spectacle. The atmosphere is serene, everything has an air of calm, is silent and motionless. It is, for the hurried viewer (the kind who will never “get” Claerbout’s pieces), simply a photograph (an archive picture, of childhood, like those class photos with which we are all familiar, the sort we find in family albums). The immobility of the children is total, clearly visible as motionlessness, as in a “petrified” snapshot that makes time-matter of the photograph (gestures, poses, expressions, gazes, hands, everything is sharply fixed). For how long does one look at such an “ordinary” photograph?
But that’s just it: to anyone who takes a little time to (really) look at this image, something “appears”, gently, slowly, but surely, with the force of a certainty: “the leaves are moving!” (which is just what the first cinema- goers exclaimed on seeing the views of the Lumière brothers). They move slightly. They tremble (we can see with our own eyes that it is not a shaking of the enlarged video projection). No, they are “really” stirring. As if in slow motion. That’s the event. A pure event of image (and not an event in the image). An event of time. Made visible (the Appearance) by contrast, or rather by incompatibility in principle with the supposed immobility of the photograph. The shadows of the trees’ leaves projected onto the back wall are really and truly animated with micro-movements, varied undulations that seem to be produced by the wind that may be blowing outside. This figure of the barely perceptible trembling of a tree’s foliage is one of which the artist is fond. He had made use of it in other, older pieces like Boom (1996), where it is shown frontally (it is the only subject of the piece) and especially in Ruurlo, Bocurloscheweg, 1910 (1997), where there is also an imperceptible combination of movement and stillness, as what one sees, at first sight, is the black-and-white blow-up of a 1910 postcard showing a Dutch landscape with a windmill, a village, two peasants and a gigantic tree that occupies the whole of the picture. Examining the image more attentively, we realise that the leaves of that immense tree are stirring very gently in the wind. The movement is barely visible. In Untitled it is perhaps a little more perceptible. In any case, this “animation” of the rear wall, which contrasts sharply with the frozen immobility of the children in the photograph, and is only directed at the viewer (none of the children are looking at the moving shadows), this discreet, gentle, light mobility, at the limit of (in)attentive perception, does not cease to trouble us, to question our perception and our relationship with images: is there really movement?  What is moving? What is frozen? How can movement be introduced into a fixed image? The movie into the photograph? Is it really photo? Could it be a film? Is it a combination of the two? How was it made? By montage, double exposure, embedding, pixilation? How is the se m between the two “mixed” images masked (for the eye), while allowing us to make out (in visual thought) that there are two different rates of time operating in this “seamless garment” of the image? In short: what is it that we are looking at? Where are we? What (kind of) image are we dealing with?
This is the paradox, the little perceptual (and cognitive) gulf, at once simple and profound, that David Claerbout is proposing for our contemplation.

Let us broaden out a little the problem under examination here and view it from a historical perspective. We have often been in the habit, throughout the 20th century (and its supposed “modernity”), of contrasting in a very Manichean fashion the world (and therefore the time) of the fixed image with that of the moving image, as if this were an established and consolidated division, a time-honoured fact, a clearly settled matter: on one side the photo (“the heir of the 19th century”), with its cult of the “instant”, conquered by the machine, of the slice of time frozen in the posture of the snapshot and immortalised in its state of frozen time, the “photo-photo” therefore; on the other the cinema (“the art of the 20th century”), with its movement of the film, with its “extended” shots, its travelling shots, etc. Cinema as “true duration”, with its “real” time for the viewer, the cinema that passes, that runs, that leaks away, like life, the cinema that carries us along, that is a continual flow, that we have to follow like an unwinding thread. This strong and solid contrast effectively structured the way we thought about the relationship of the (technological) image with time throughout the last century. From Muybridge to Cartier Bresson, from chronophotography to the decisive moment, from Lartigue to photo reportage, from Walter Benjamin to Roland Barthes, the freeze frame was ontologically at the heart of photographic imagination; just as, from the Lumi re brothers to Epstein or from Bergson to Deleuze, movement has been the phenomenological crux of filmmaking. There was something obvious about this division, this split, that stood out since the origins (the end of the 19th century) and that, after a whole century of operation, and thus at the end of the 20th century, was brilliantly conceptualised by two major theorists who left their mark on the eighties: on the one hand, Roland Barthes, who in his last book, La Chambre claire (Camera Lucida, 1980), developed the concept of punctum by setting the photo against the cinema (with all the corollaries of pose/pause, dead time, the freeze frame, the deadening effect of the shot, etc.). And on the other, the Bergsonian-Deleuzian philosophy of cinema that introduced the concepts of “movement-image” (1983) and “time-image” (1985) to support the idea that the film is a perpetual scrolling of images reproducing apparent movement (with its own corollaries: flow, carrying along, flight, the impossibility of seizing images, etc. – and the difficulties which that can pose for the film analyst: how to stop the river, how to grasp the “pensiveness” – Barthes, Bellour – in what disappears as soon as it appears, etc.?). Until the eighties, therefore, the difference between “photo” and “cinema” still seemed very clear. The line of demarcation was (more or less) sharply defined, as if the two sides, the mobile and the immobile, the moving and the fixed, the instant and the lasting, could only exist in a relationship of mutual exclusion. All you had to do was choose (your field). This was well known, and the foundation of modernity.
It is what happened afterwards that becomes interesting. In the years from 1990 to 2000, and it is only today (in the “post-” age) that we can grasp the theoretical dimension of this change fully, it is clear that, under the influence first of the video and then of the digital in particular, the image’s rates of flow of time have grown considerably more elastic, rendering the old “modernist” divisions more and more obsolete or indistinguishable. The sharp contrast (between stillness and movement) has become a modulation. Undoubtedly one of the main characteristics of the contemporary modes of the image is that of constantly changing speed, of passing from one rate of flow of time to another, and with great flexibility, by continual variation, without any break or change in nature. Today, movement is no longer radically opposed to keeping still, as if they were two contradictory worlds. The instant is no longer the opposite of duration, and movement is not a negation of immobility. We are no longer playing the game of “the photo vs. the cinema”. We have gone beyond that. Though we are still in the interplay between the two. In forms of images (what else to call them?) that have surpassed this now archaic division. We have entered the age of permanent change of speed of the image, whatever its ‘nature’. From radical opposition (reciprocal negation), we have passed to mutual inclusion. (Apparent) immobility is conceived as a form of movement. The instant as a form of duration. And in this way the play with temporal paradoxes in contemporary images has been opened up for perception. We find, for example, the mobile immobile (which is exactly the case of Claerbout’s Untitled described above), or the immobile mobile (the long pose in a photograph, the freeze frame in a movie, the panoramic view in the fixed image, etc.) or systematic slow motionacceleration (we can no longer even tell the difference since there is no longer a temporal frame of reference, as in morphing, which creates its own temporality and its own speed of image). Of course, these are not “new” forms. They were already very much present, for instance, in the avantgardes of the twenties. Only that today they are tending to become a norm (perhaps Marey is finally getting the upper hand of the Lumière brothers...). It suffices to talk to contemporary artists to realize that they no longer have the same perceptual or imaginative relationships, the same forms of analysis or the same ways of thinking as the old generation of the “photophoto” or the “cinema-cinema”. We have entered an era that is at once “post-photographic” and “post-cinematic”, in which time and movement have become forms of elasticity of the image, and no longer a given state of it (once and for all). Beyond “photography” and the “cinema”, the contemporary image manufactures its own time, as if working a material, and it is this time-matter of the image that is presented directly to the viewer. This is the basic change that I find most interesting and the one of which the work of David Claerbout as a whole seems to me the perfect, as well as one of the most dazzling and remarkable examples.

Let us take a look at another piece, more recent than the first (it was created almost ten years later), and equally fascinating in its handling of time and its paradoxical perceptual effects: Long Goodbye (2007). This too is a silent installation with the video projection of a single image onto a large screen, but it is in colour and the video is much longer: it lasts for 45 minutes. This time we are no longer in a black-and-white photograph (even though animated with a discreet micro-movement). We are fully in a film (a video). Everywhere, there is “real” movement. That’s all there is. We can even say: there is a real “action”, which is not virtual, an action with narrative potential (still very simple, certainly): a woman, filmed from close-up at first, advances carrying a tray to serve coffee. In the beginning, she stands out against a black background. Then the camera moves back slowly and we see that she is coming out of a house through a door opening onto a terrace. The woman puts the tray down on a garden table and pours coffee into a cup. Then she pretends to become aware of the presence of the camera and starts to look (at us), fixedly. She smiles. All this is shown in slow motion. Then she starts to make a gesture with her hand. It is a goodbye, a wave of farewell that seems to be addressed to us. The camera, as if overcome with shyness, continues to back away. It is slow, it is long. It is going to last. Here is the “action”, the event. During all this drawn-out time (the sensation of slowness, of the leisurely passing of time, is very strong), the camera continues its backward tracking, which seems to go on forever, progressively revealing the fa ade of a magnificent house, with fine closed shutters, then the garden, or rather park, the immense trees that surround it. The further the camera withdraws, the more the magnificence of the place is revealed. The woman goes on waving her hand, she is further and further away. Until she vanishes into the darkness that, over time, has invaded the image. A long goodbye. Everything seems to take place in a single sequence shot lasting three quarters of an hour. 
For simultaneously with this “action” of the figure, of the sole character of the “story”, another event of time is produced, one that gives the viewer a certain sense of vertigo: the “time that passes”, in the sense now of “chronicle time”, not that of the woman’s body and gesture but that of the world, of nature, of life, of days and nights, is marked in the image in another way, by leaving traces in the scenery, on the backdrop. And this time creates exactly the opposite sensation to the first, which will carry everything away. Indeed, it seems that the scene has been filmed at the end of the day. The sunshine that bathes the house and the park lets itself be “seen” (presumed) through the shadows of the trees that dance across the front of the beautiful residence – in just the same way as the moving shadows of the trees in Untitled were projected onto the rear wall of the classroom by the light coming from outside. We have a dual phenomenon here: an event of light and an event of time. At first the light appears warm gilded by a sun that we imagine very low in the sky, setting; then it shifts towards darkness, the shadow gradually gaining more space, like a dusk leading to nightfall – at the end of the video, what springs to mind is René Magritte’s famous picture, Empire of Light, with its paradoxical combination of day and night, light and dark at one and the same time. But it is the event of time that accompanies this play of light that is the most surprising, and pivotal. The movement of the light towards darkness turns out to be astonishingly rapid in the spectacle offered by the casting of the shadows of trees on the façade of the house. The shadows of the immense trees in the park literally traverse the image in fast motion. As if the sun, placed on a dolly (!), were travelling sideways at high speed. The feeling is that of an acceleration of the sunset, of a remarkable speeding up of the light by a speeding up of the image and the editing. This is standard practice for David Claerbout. He has made it a figure of his speech. In The Stack (2002), for example, he uses the turning (and speeded up) movement of the sun, playing hide-and-seek with the camera as it passes behind the columns of an American motorway interchange (a forest of pillars that alternately uncover and mask the light as the sun follows its trajectory), to “emphasize” (by illuminating it for a brief instant) the figure of a tramp sitting in the foreground. Or again in Bordeaux Piece (2004), the “marathon” repetition of the same scene (played out 70 times in a row), with the same dialogue, the same actors, the same movements through the same architectural space (the complete film lasts for 14 hours, with only 10 minutes pause between each shot), is punctuated all the way through by a scrupulous following of the progress of the sun and the play of light that ensues – which is what makes Claerbout say that it is above all an “impressionist work” centred “on the study of light within the narration”. 
But what is peculiar to the use of this figure of the sun’s movement and chronicle time in Long Goodbye is the “mutually exclusive” blend of the speeded-up montage of solar time (which can be seen on the backdrop of the image: the façade of the house with its accelerated movement of shadows) and the work on the slowing down of the image (which affects the body and the gestures of the female figure advancing with her tray and waving us goodbye). Although the procedure is that of the montage of two successive shots (the first with the woman, the second with the play of projected shadows), the join is invisible, the two shots are “glued together” as Claerbout puts it, and the overall impression (the “sequence shot” effect) is that of a slowing down that is also a speeding up. This is the perceptual paradox of the time-matter worked by Long Goodbye: how, in a slowmotion image, can time seem to be speeded up? How is it possible to have two contrasting rates of time, two different types of speed of the image, in a single visual ensemble, in what seems to be the same shot? A body that moves in slow motion, that advances and waves at us in the time of its own image, and at the same time a space in the background where time passes in fast motion, in an image time that is also its own, but that seems to be the opposite of the first: the slowing down of the figure and the speeding up of the background, together. It is the interlinking of these two contrasting timescales (neither is “normal”, realistic, mimetic – it is in this sense that they are times of the image) that produces in viewers a (disquieting?) feeling of strangeness in front of the visual object proposed for their contemplation. The idea that the time-matter of the image is henceforth a direct matter of perception (which is exactly what makes it a “material”), that it is a variable, autonomous, independent, plastic datum that can be modulated in itself, that it is no longer either homogeneous or unique (as in the cinema “shot”) but heterogeneous and multiple (“composite”), that it is no longer “referential” but purely perceptual, that it is no longer governed by the Manichean logic inherited from the classical ways of thinking about time and images (photo vs. cinema): all this is what is revealed by the paradoxical device of temporal elasticity used in David Claerbout’s pieces, and what makes him an artist/thinker of the contemporary time of technical images. 

Let us go on. We have already seen two figures of paradoxical time. (Discreet) movement in a fixed image (Untitled). Different speeds of time in a single (apparent) movement of image (Long Goodbye). David Claerbout has played yet other “paradoxical” games with the time -matter of the image. Some of them are more or less extensions of what I have already described. Others propose or try out new figures, integrating more and more effects of montage or effects linked to the dimension of sound. 
For example The American Room (2009-2010) extends the temporal paradoxes of movement in the motionless by literally exploring the space of a small concert hall in an embassy, with a very strong impression of continuity generated by slow camera movements (fluidity of incessant tracking shots). In this semi-private, semi-public space, everything is absolutely frozen (all the participants, the singer, the pianist, the public, are immobilised in photographic poses, like waxworks). It is exactly as if we were moving (slipping between the figures, turning around them) in a “3D photograph”. Thus each person in the audience of this concert is examined, observed and scrutinized, just as the others are seen from the viewpoint of each of them. Everybody looks and is looked at. The montage of the points of view, the paths taken by the camera, and the sound that varies with each point of view and thereby sculpts the space, everything here “is acting”. While everything is fixed and motionless. The time of the cinema has slipped in singular fashion into the (virtual) “thickness” of a photograph. The American Room or how to make a film that is a “digital photo-sculpture”. 
In Riverside (2009), another unusual set-up, playing this time with two juxtaposed video screens, Claerbout works on the paradoxical time of parallelism. Set side by side, the two screens show two “stories” (without an end, suspended, somewhat enigmatic), each with just one character, here a man, there a woman, who seem to be making a journey (for reasons that are unknown but specific to each) through a wild and remote landscape. The man and woman, each on his or her own screen, never meet, but make their long journey following the course of a river that appears to be the same. It is only gradually (the video lasts 25 minutes), that the viewer realizes, through the simultaneous vision of both screens and the numerous parallels that appear between the two images, that the two people walking along the river are indeed in the same place but not at the same time, and that they are following the same river, but each on a different bank, one heading downriver, the other up. Apart from the sound (the noise of running water), which seems to work for both images (but with curious moments of rupture and discrepancy), there is one real point of junction between the two parallel stories/characters/ journeys: a dead tree trunk that spans the river and on which both characters end up. It is here that it becomes clear to viewers that the man and woman are indeed in the same valley, in the same place, but at different moments in time. And it is also at this point that they realize that the lateralisation of the sound of the two screens has crossed over in relation to the images. 

Still more paradoxical games played with the time-matter make a regular appearance in Claerbout’s work. I would like to focus, lastly, on one of them, a new figure based on the “narrative” montage of points of view in the instantaneous uniqueness of a “suspended” action. Sections of a Happy Moment (2007), Arena (2007) and The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment (2008) are remarkable illustrations of this. What he does in these three pieces is show, in the duration of a film (video), through the montage of a large number of “photographic” shots taken from a multiplicity of viewpoints, a single instant of an action, sharply fixed in its seizing of the moment. This multiplied instant (“the photographic instant turned into film”) is similar to an “effect” that has become very well-known in cinema since its popularisation by the Wachowskis in the film Matrix (1999): the bullet time effect, which had first been used, in 1995, by the French artist Emmanuel Carlier in a work called Temps mort.
The basic principle is well-known: a moment of time (t0) – often chosen for the spectacular nature of its movement: a falling body, an object thrown into the air, a bird in flight, a jet of water breaking up, something exploding, etc. – is captured photographically by a multitude of shots that therefore provide a “sharply fixed” representation of it (snapshots, usually all synchronised at t0), but from many different points of view distributed in space (frequently – but not always – arranged in a circle around the central event). Then all that has to be done is to “mount” this succession of snapshots in a slideshow in order to produce a “cinematic” series of fixed images showing the frozen instant spread out in the time of the montage by its points of view exploded in space. In a way it is a snapshot that unfolds into the duration of a film. Or a piece “of cinema” that unwinds within a “photographic” instant. A piece of cinema, but one that does not advance (it unwinds, but does so “on the spot”), or a snapshot “that passes” (that is set in the duration of a film). The effect is always gripping. Which is what has made it a success. 
In the two Sections of a Happy Moment, the instant t0 chosen is literally a suspended moment: a ball thrown into the air by a child and “immobilised” by the photographic instant, or a flock of seagull, above a terrace in the Casbah of Algiers, “frozen” in flight by the shot (there are many other suspended moments in Claerbout’s pieces, for example the ball thrown by a player and halted on its way towards the basket in Arena, or the mid-flight explosion of a twin-engine plane in Vietnam, 1967. Near Duc Pho. Reconstruction after Hiromichi Mine - 2001). Here the “happy moment”, which has the air of having been “sampled” from the world (this is the ideology of the snapshot) is in fact a moment that has been taken apart in an extraordinary way and then (re)constructed. 
First of all the break-up of the instant of time. In the first Sections of a Happy Moment, a 26-minute-long video made up solely of a montage of fixed images (with a piece of music played on the piano as a soundtrack), the core of the action is the gesture of a little Chinese girl throwing her ball into the air at the centre of a sunlit square. Everyone is looking at the “suspended” ball, first the Chinese family, who surround it, their friends, their neighbours, then the residents of the housing development and the passers-by, who also form a sort of circle, all in the architectural, human and social setting of government housing, cold, nondescript and impersonal, which contrasts with the human warmth of the small group (the family, the community). Claerbout has literally exploded the gesture of the little girl with her ball frozen in mid-air that focuses everyone’s gaze, breaking it up into a multitude of photographic shots, as if hundreds of cameras had been scattered around the space, close-by or faraway, at eye level or a high angle, all the way round the little girl, in the square, close to her relatives, in the streets of the city, but also in the innumerable windows of the surrounding buildings, or on their roofs, sometimes a long way away, sometimes very high up, etc. A crossfire of an incredible number of axes and points of view. Dual impression, that of an intimate moment of life on the one hand, and of a cold vision of panoptical surveillance on the other, both centred on the “event” of the ball in the air. This visual “decomposition” of the instant, which lasts the entire length of the film (26 minutes), has sometimes been compared with Marey’s chronophotography, which broke up movement, but here it is used in a quite distinctive (and in a certain way almost opposite) fashion: all the moments of the decomposition are simultaneous, closely synchronised. There is no decomposition of movement (there is none, no progression, everything remains at t0). There is a decomposition of time, more precisely a decomposition of the instant by the space, a deconstruction of a single and unique moment of time (embodied by the instant of the freeze frame) into a pure organisation of points of view in the space represented (embodied by the device of the montage of images, without chronology – synchronous or achronic montage). 
For the other essential aspect of the Happy Moment videos is connected with montage, with the construction of visual ensembles that look like they are unitary (the space represented seems to form a homogeneous whole) while they are multiple (made of an assembly whose “seams” are invisible). Or that have the air of being unique (as fake sequence shots) while they are in fact composites (as we have seen, this was already the case with Long Goodbye, which looks like a single shot, made up of an interminable tracking out, when it is actually composed of an invisible joining up of two heterogeneous shots – and two rates of time: slow motion/fast motion). Claerbout has said that for a long time, in his early works, it was the “passage of time” that interested him, and that at the time he was “against montage”. Should it be said against the emphasis placed on the visual by montage (a practice of which he makes intense use in any case)? This is the new paradox that I would like to point out to end with. And the Happy Moment videos make it particularly clear, and show us that one (the passage of time) can hide the other (the in/visible montage). 
In the “Algerian” Sections of a Happy Moment, this work of (re)composition of “the lasting instant” is exemplary, and wonderful in its beauty. It calls to mind the “play of images” (by means of transparency) which Hitchcock used in The Birds (as well as the “photographic” shots of Chris Marker’s La jetée (The Pier), with its high-angle images of stuffed birds, their wings spread, in the Natural History Museum). 
Thus the work presents another “happy moment”: on the tiered roofs of houses in the Casbah of Algiers (white walls, alleys, terraces, wire netting, sun, sky and sea in the background), a little football pitch has been laid out and men (young and old) have gathered there, some to play, others to watch. At the moment of the photo, the match has been interrupted and everyone is looking at one of the men who is lifting his hand to feed the flying gulls, which “swoop” down on him. Here too the “ecstatic” instant of the birds’ “suspended” flight, when everybody is looking up, is the subject of a multiplied photographic capture, with shots taken from more or less all over the place, close-up and from a distance, at high and low angles, at head height or from a bird’s-eye view, from other terraces, from the surrounding neighbourhood, etc. It is the same principle as in the previous Happy Moment, more lyrical or poetic (but no less social or political – the setting is the Casbah): that of a single instant broken downspatially into a series of closely synchronised (simultaneous) fixed images. A total of 50,000 photos were taken of the “scene”, 600 of which were kept and arranged in a particular order in the final montage of the film, which lasts about 37 minutes. Thus the construction is first of all, obviously, a temporal montage of the captured instant (there is the obviousness of ordinary perception, and then, through the slideshow presented of a single instant, it progressively produces a sensation of continuity, of the passing of time). The “tradition” of films made up of still photos (such as La jetée) makes widespread use of this mechanism of cinematic fluidization by means of montage. 
But it needs to be stressed that the effect of construction is not only temporal. It is also spatial and specifically visual, although much more invisible. This is where the new paradox lies, and it is more complex to grasp. It refers to the principle of the hybrid (or composite) image. As in many of Claerbout’s digital works, what we think to be “a single image/ scene” (however multiplied), what we believe to be a single, consistent space, like a “shot” of photographic cinema, is in fact a pure (re)construction, the mechanical invention of a fictional space, fabricated in its entirety by a carefully disguised assembly of different visual materials. In fact the “scene” of the Casbah and the seagulls never “really” existed. It is an image “recomposed” in the studio, created digitally by the assembly of fragments of very different origins: the gulls were photographed in Ostend, and embedded in the digital composition (like Hitchcock’s transparencies in the “layered” space of the cinematic image); the actors (who really are Moroccan) were filmed in the studio; and the images of the setting (“Algiers”) are multiple stock photos, stitched together digitally by Claerbout to fabricate his scene, in the same way as a work of fiction is fabricated. So everything in Happy Moment is a construction, a composite image. It is not just the decomposed instant that is “assembled”: the whole space of the image is (re)constructed. To put it simply this construction, that of the entire image, creates an illusion, as in the cinema. The joins have to be invisible. The “scene” should be presented as “the seamless garment of reality”, to use André Bazin’s famous expression.

From a broader perspective, this helps us to understand that almost all of Claerbout’s other works are also, above and beyond their explicit temporal figures and paradoxes (movement in the still, slow motion in the speeded-up, etc.), “seamless” assemblies of fictional images. We saw this with Long Goodbye. It is the same with The American Room, where the frozen figures of the concert have been embedded one by one (using the blue-ground technique) in a virtual space, apparently continuous but in fact entirely composite, thereby allowing the camera to glide between them, around them, etc. (creating an impression of 3D where the camera moves in the thickness of a photo). And it is the same again with Shadow Piece, of which the “upper part” (the space outside, beyond the large panes of glass that divide the space in two, in which come and go all the people who approach the lobby to try to enter it while their enlarged shadows move around “inside”) is a true “digital composition” made up of figures of very different origin, assembled to meet the needs of the final image fabricated by Claerbout. And so on. 

So this, for me, is the strange puzzle of David Claerbout’s work. On the one hand, an initial, explicit and declared fascination with paradoxical figures of the time-matter, introducing the mobile into the immobile, duration into the instant, fast motion into slow motion, etc., and at the same time an effort to “demolish” the old modernist distinctions (photo vs. cinema) in favour of a post-modernity where the digital, its flexibility and its hybridizations reign supreme over a visual world that has been made elastic and composite. On the other hand, all this playing around with time, however complex, subtle and refined it may be, should not make us forget that there is also a consideration of the “material space” of the image in Claerbout’s work, and that this is based on an apparent logic of continuity and wholeness (the “seamless garment” of the visual world conceived as fictional image). Thus the whole question is whether this logic of a “seamless” material space, at work behind the games with the elasticity of time, is (still) cinematic, whether it is a nostalgia for the “shot” or an (unconscious?) fantasy of cinema, or is itself a “mask”. And then of what? Perhaps it is not so easy to get away from the cinema (and photography) as the expression “post-” would have us believe.

David Claerbout ©2024