Handmade slide from Meat (1999), courtesy of Luther Price

I recently discovered the work of Luther Price at the LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Images in London, where the curators of Light Industry, NY put on a programme of nine of Price's short films. These thoughts appeared as part of a report on the Biennial for The Quietus Film.  

Luther Price engages with the physicality of film, though not out of preciousness or nostalgia. Rather, Price has a sculptor's relationship with the medium – indeed, he previously trained in this craft. The curators of Light Industry in New York, Thomas Beard and Ed Halter, who also screened Price's work at the Whitney earlier this year, described his meticulous ways of reworking old film stock. Collecting and appropriating found footage, from ethnographic documentary to home video and porn, Price carves, cuts and overpaints film strips on a light box. While the work of Price's hand is at times intricate, at others it is crudely visceral, as much about effacing images as producing them.

The visual results of Price's techniques range from the kaleidoscopic, as with his Inkblot series (2007), which involved painting and scratching off layers of colour, to the formally filmic - for A Patch Of Green (2004/2005), he placed pieces of 8mm film within a 16mm leader, so that scenes appear naively within a negative border. For his After The Garden series (2007), Price buried films in his garden until they decomposed in the soil, willing the aesthetic effects of decay. Played back on the projector, his reels often leave behind shards of their disintegration.

For traditionalists, then, Price's executions represent filmic abuse – a sentiment that is carried through to the experience of the viewer, who is at turns sonically and visually bludgeoned by flashing abstraction and white noise. Price's films provide a physical exploration of form and matter, and how form might then fuse with feeling. Unlike the work of Stan Brakhage or the Structural-Materialists, there is an emotional import to the artist's work, as he pushes the viewer to feel, be this in positive or negative ways. Curators speak of an "ecstatic violence" in the work of Price; there is a kind of orgasmic throb to the images as they pulse in and out of focus, coupled with the staccato assault of exposed sprocket holes as the filmstrip passes through the projector.

Price is anti-preservation. He wants his films to play out until they play no more, and it is worth any opportunity to experience them before they fade. Ed Halter expresses the artist's ethos as such: "Film is only going to die once: we might as well enjoy it."

Hannah Gregory
 
 
Image: Concord Library collection.


I was lucky enough to attend a seminar series last month organized by the University of East Anglia’s American Studies department which was run by Fulbright Scholar Patrick Chura and based around his recent book, Thoreau the Land Surveyor.  Chura’s book argues for the reclamation of Thoreau the surveyor; despite the fact that surveying was his profession and provided most of his income, critics have tended to entirely neglect this side of his life.  Chura charges that we need to read Thoreau with and through his surveying.

One of the most interesting examples of this convergence of surveying and writing is found in Walden. Chura finds it likely that before he even began work on the text, Thoreau performed a painstaking survey of the pond (see illustration above).

Chura argues that: ‘Prompted by a desire to know and shape reality for visual rather than verbal representation, Thoreau began not with words of his own making but with symbols for which he was merely a conduit, not with the drafting of sentences but with the drafting of a landscape.’ (41) So if Thoreau’s writing of the pond began with this survey, then Walden the text is infused with surveying and mapping methodologically. This mapping methodology is clearly evident in chapter 16 of Walden, ‘The Pond in Winter,’ in which Thoreau describes how he measured the depth of the pond, and came to the surprising discovery that ‘the line of greatest length intersected the line of greatest breadth exactly at the point of greatest depth’.

This surveying observation is immediately and intimately linked with a literary and philosophical measurement, as Thoreau finds ‘[w]hat I have observed of the pond is no less true in ethics.’ (260) Applying his survey to the human spirit, he argues that ‘[p]erhaps we only need to know how his shores trend and his adjacent country or circumstances, to infer his depth and concealed bottom.’ (260) The process of surveying then becomes the method of his philosophical writing.

Significantly, the text of Walden includes a copy of Thoreau’s map of the pond, in many editions as the title page and preceding the text. Chura notes how unusually, Thoreau has given the map an upside-down orientation, leading the directional arrow of the compass to point directly at the reader. Is this a form of address, signaling to and singling-out the reader of the text? Does the arrow indicate that Walden will be turning the world upside down, and offering a new perspective? Chura argues that it acts a dramatic means of ‘redirecting the way we habitually read.’ (37) The arrow forms a truly fascinating and self-reflexive moment, and above all indicates that Thoreau’s writing is an integral part of his surveying; the two map across onto each other, making Walden methodologically intriguing as Thoreau surveys the world around him.

Stephanie Fuller



References:

Patrick Chura, Thoreau The Land Surveyor (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011)

Henry Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)
 
 
A recent trip to New York afforded me two avenues for exploring the ‘dead’ spaces of the city’s elevated railways. Built between 1829 and 1934, the elevated railways helped eliminate pedestrian deaths caused by freight trains running at street level. Passenger services ran between sky-high stations, while freight and mail were delivered to second-floor depots in factories.

The steady rise of road vehicles through the mid-twentieth century depleted ‘El’ services. The last passenger coaches ran on the Third Avenue El in 1973, while the final goods train departed on the High Line in 1980.

I explored the history of the elevated railways at both the New York Transit Museum Archives and the High Line Park. The NYTMA housed a wonderful collection of films made between 1930 and 1952. Literal tracking shots in the 1930's films took viewers on a fairground ride through the city. Winding precariously around curved sections of track, the camera offered glimpses of the skyscrapers above and the streets below.

A curiously cinematic perspective was also on offer at the High Line. The park was fully opened to the public in June 2011. The gardens recycle a space once preserved for freight trains; now, pedestrians, rather than passengers, traverse the structure. Much of the old track has been preserved and forms an integral part of the park’s design. The High Line even incorporates an ‘urban theatre’ at the corner of 10th Avenue and 17th Street. Visitors can sit and watch road traffic pass beneath them through screen-like glass panels.

Looking down on the passing vehicles, the elevated railway retains a grandeur that the car cannot emulate. 

Rebecca Harrison

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Interior of a 1920 passenger train on the NY elevated railway
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A section of recycled track on the High Line
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Visitors enjoy the view from the High Line's 'urban theatre'
 
 

On a recent trip to the Wellcome Collection I took the opportunity to visit the excellent permanent collections which comprise exhibitions and artwork themed around modern medicine, as well as the literal cabinet of curiosity that is Henry Wellcome’s personal collection of artefacts and medicinal aperatus.  

I was fascinated by an installation on the discovery of DNA, and particularly the way in which the genetic code was recorded, as the collection houses a paper copy of the complete DNA code for one person.  High shelves hold almost 100 large binders, each filled with double-sided paper, and every sheet is completely filled with the strings of letters that make up the genetic code.  This exhibit is called ‘Library of the Genome’ and contains 3 billion characters which would take around 56 years to recite aloud.  

I was struck by the complexity of the DNA code and was amazed that such a huge amount of it corresponded to just one person.  But the most interesting aspect of the exhibit for me was the possibility that a human being could be archived like any other artefact in the Wellcome Collection.  Can a person be recorded and stored through their genetic code?  There is certainly something evocative about seeing DNA written down on paper, and rather than being reductive, I found the exhibit profound and elegiac.


Stephanie Fuller
 
 
Last week film-maker Jenny Coan came to speak to the Autopsies Research Group about her work with film archives and found footage.

Her short films made for Bill Ryder-Jones and his recent album release party have taken on a life of their own and reached the attention of the New York Times.

Each film brings together footage from archival material to create an evocative interpretation of a song from the Ryder-Jones album 'If...', his soundtrack to the Italo Calvino novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.

Coan purposefully did not look to the novel for inspiration; rather, she took her cues from the sounds, rhythms, and tempos of each Ryder-Jones track and produced her own 'orchestral' arrangement of moving images.

But Coan's films are more than visual accompaniments to the musical material and move the viewer through a series of witty and wonderful storylines that collapse and come together with Coan's masterful direction. Take a look and have a listen here.

MCM
 
 
The Old Curiosity Shop, by Myles Birket Foster (1882)


To mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens (7 February 1812), events and exhibitions have been organised all around Britain and abroad.

As part of the celebration of Dickens and Dickensiana, the
Autopsies Research Group announces its investigation into The
Afterlife of Dickens Objects
. This project places the emphasis on the household items and everyday objects that appear in Dickens's texts and in curated exhibits of Dickens's life.


For a look at some of these objects visit these ongoing events:

The British Library

The Dickens Museum

The Museum of London

Dickens House Museum, Broadstairs

Victoria and Albert Museum

List of worldwide events



 
 
Guest blog by Edwina Attlee

In the 1980s there were over twelve thousand launderettes in the UK, today there are less than three thousand. As part of my research into homes away from home in the city I am looking at these seemingly obsolete spaces and asking questions about our experience of using them. In a world where the emptying out of our insides (on social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter) seems to be perfectly acceptable behaviour, it is worth looking at one of the first places in which we washed our dirty linen in public.

The launderette (and by extension, the spaces crossed by washing-lines) exemplify the mixing of private and public and inside with outside. When we make a trip to the launderette, we engage in a process of carrying-out, from the home to the public space, the most intimate and bodily items that city-dwellers own. These worn, dirty, and personal fabrics travel outside the house to be cleaned; they cross the boundary between privacy and exposure.

In spite of being a space of possible exposure, the experience of using a launderette is often pleasurable; it is a cosy-exposure. Launderettes are warm, soapy, humming spaces where you are often left alone for an hour or two with just the machines and the spinning clothes to keep you company. They are technical spaces, and spaces of necessity, but they also occupy a space like Pierre Mayol’s neighbourhood, a space that is neither entirely public nor completely domestic. The launderette is a space of waiting; of idling, daydreaming and thinking. It is a space of space. Mayol writes that the home and neighbourhood “are the only places where in different ways one can do what one wants.”

There are other spaces in the city which combine the functionality and irrationality of the home. The launderette is an irrational space because it elongates and subverts the space-time relationship normally at work in the city – this is the relationship characterised by the commute to work; the crossing of the farthest distance in the smallest amount of time. As such this home away from home may also function as a space of absence, a space for daydreaming. Michel de Certeau writes: “I read and I daydream, my reading is thus an impertinent absence.” In the everyday reading of the city the launderette allows for a kind of delinquency. 

Edwina Attlee


References

Pierre Mayol, ‘The Neighbourhood’, The Practice of Everyday Life, Vol.2. Living and Cooking (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), p.11.

Michel de Certeau, ‘Reading as Poaching’, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) p.173.



 
 
The Bridge Over the Moat, Anonymous, 1896, silver gelatin print with original graphite retouching


EXHIBITION REVIEW

Haunting the Chapel: Photography and Dissolution
Daniel Blau Gallery, London
1 September - 6 October 2011


At its invention, photography was considered otherworldly: the stuff of ghosts. The spirit photographs of the late nineteenth century exemplified this impression of the ethereal, as haunting figures were made to appear within portraits after the discovery in the 1860s of the effects of double exposure by William Mumler. ‘Haunting the Chapel: Photography and Dissolution’ exposes these spirits of photography through a cross-century selection of altered, or altering, images. Besides original examples of spirit photography - including one of Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote a pamphlet defending the veracity of the medium - the exhibition features x-ray images, photograms, silver prints and cyanotypes, documenting as much the dissolution involved in photography’s very processes as the disintegrating nature of its subjects. 

The skeleton of a building on the ‘Rue du Bac’ sits between decay and demolition. Nadar’s ‘Foyer of the Paris Opera after Burning in 1884’ is deserted and still; elsewhere an anonymous building is licked with flames. There are Gothic cathedral exteriors and ornate, but empty interiors. A dilapidated stairwell from 1870 disorients like Escher, with unperceivable depths. The intricacies of a ‘Mandalay Palace’ (c. 1890) are eaten away by black patterns. Ancient gardens tangled with plants and palms appear in the travel photography of Emile Gsell (1838 - 1879), the first to represent on film the temples of Vietnam and Cambodia. Architectural juxtaposition occurs between a silver print of New York’s 1920s skyline and black and white vernacular images of rural farms, or the bunker-like dwellings of volcanic ‘Stromboli’. U.S. Army aerial shots show the gridded city lights of 'Toyama, Honshu’, or the spiralling smoke of an Oil Refinery that has just exploded. These last images are haunting for their purpose in recording, their documentation of destruction, which appears, from a distance, abstracted. 

Such pieces of early photography sit alongside more recent works - a freckled portrait of Berenice Abbott by Walker Evans, or a Chris Marker still in which the side of a man’s face on roadside concrete is cut diagonally by a falling jet of water. But it is the early specimens, often anonymous, that are mysteriously compelling--discovered, you imagine, upon abandoned desks. The exhibition represents that which is about to be lost, or those who already have been, teetering on the point of disappearance, knocking at the door of the atrocious or the alienated, holding the hand of the fragile. The curators have chosen to frame the exhibition a quote from Borges's ‘The Immortal’: ‘They are moving because of their phantom condition; every act they execute may be their last; there is not a face that is not on the verge of dissolving like a face in a dream’. With the long exposure times of photography’s early technologies, bodies in Italian piazzas or French town squares have become almost-extinguished silhouettes. Kinetic blur jolts the just-frozen moment, and the fall of the shutter fails to quite capture the movement of figures in time.

Hannah Gregory

 
 
Guest blog by Dr David Barnard-Wills, Research Fellow in the Department of Informatics and Systems Engineering, Cranfield University.

In a moment of serendipity I find myself sitting down to write a report about a conference I recently attended at UCL, whilst also reading an editorial published yesterday, both of which address congruent topics - surveillance and culture.

The conference was the 'Cultures of Surveillance' hosted by the Autopsies Group at UCL. It ran from the evening of Thursday 29th September  through to the evening of Saturday 1st October. (website here). There were keynotes from Tom Gunning (which I sadly missed) and from Simon Cole. Cole engaged with the mythology of the 'CSI' effect, finding little actual evidence for the supposed threat to the US juridical system by the television viewing habits of its population, but rather a large institutional perception of a problem and a number of responses. What was fascinating was the way that the media appeared to be adopting the critical stance of public understanding of science scholars.

The conference was diverse, although with a leaning towards the humanities. You can see this diversity from the programme. There were presentations on photojournalism, visibility in court houses (both architecturally and increasingly through mobile phone cameras), the media presentation of judges, performance in espionage, surveillance and art, public images of Guantanamo Bay, the Ring of Steel in London, house numbering, German census boycotts, the sociological 'mass observation project' and several other topics. There was even a delivered-over-video presentation from David Lyon on 'surveillance cultures' (which you can see here). My own contribution was an attempt to look at the way that surveillance studies has drawn upon visual cultural approaches (art theory, photojournalism, art practice) and the ways that it can get stuck within a visual trap.

One of the questions repeatedly asked at various points during the conference was 'is this surveillance?' or 'how can we tell if this is surveillance or not?' Part of this may well be the sort of inclusion/exclusion activity that can mark interdisciplinary fields ("I'm fairly sure I'm working on surveillance, I'm not entirely sure that you are"). There certainly is a place for conceptual clarity on the way that surveillance is used, but I think there's been plenty of this within surveillance studies, which would be useful. I'm cautious about essentialist definitions, but rather see 'surveillance' as a conceptual concept that we can apply to practices in the world (or to elements of cultural products) as an analytical lens. That said, I've got a soft spot for surveillance as 'political epistemology'.

The editorial for a special section of Sociological Quarterly, by Torin Monahan is 'Surveillance as Cultural Practice'. I contributed a paper to this section, which looks at the ways surveillance is represented and discussed in the UK print news media, as well as making an argument about the importance of language in understanding surveillance (available behind a journal paywall here). I'd like to raise the editorial in the context of the UCL conference, because it speaks to several of things I thought about during the event. Torin suggests that cultural studies of surveillance might be better placed to embrace reflexivity, and to be part of a useful expansion of the field beyond what he sees as its origins within sociological approaches and a focus upon institutional power dynamics. The article traces one version of the trajectory of surveillance studies, and it is a version which might well be useful to conference participants. The list of references would also be of particular use.

The conference also left me thinking about research methods across disciplines, and in particular how this might affect a 'transdisciplinary enterprise' as Monahan calls surveillance studies. I'm convinced that cultural depictions and representations of surveillance practices are meaningful and important. But I think I need to think more about the methodological ways to integrate that. I think I know how to do political discourse analysis, and feel comfortable looking at the way groups talk or write about a practice such as surveillance. I don't quite yet know how to integrate the analysis of a film in terms of surveillance. To what extent does this privilege the perspective of a particular director, and if it does, why are we privileging that over somebody who does not have the cultural and financial resources to produce art? I suspect there might be resources within film studies to help me answer that. It's the sort of debate a discipline has with itself, but that might not be the sort of thing an 'outsider' looking to that discipline for inspiration would encounter.

I'm encouraged by the spread of the concept of surveillance throughout a range of academic networks. Over the last couple of years I've been to conferences on surveillance where I didn't know most of the academics there, and its been exciting. I think it speaks to the purchase the concept has been getting in public life over recent years. Surveillance is a concern, but also potentially a paradigm. The other side of this diversity is that for many papers at such events, the particular work presented is often the author's first (and sometimes sadly last) engagement with surveillance. Without wanting to play at disciplinary gate-keeper (and not actually being able to) the danger is that such contributions tap up against the edges of the body of surveillance studies literature, appropriate the panopticon, or perhaps the synopticon, quote David Lyon, and then return to their own disciplinary home. Surveillance studies carries quite a few concepts and ideas that would be helpful - for example the discussions over the meaning of surveillance. My response would never be to exclude or disregard these contributions, because they've not read all the papers I've read. I think the role that those of us for whom surveillance is a core interests can play is to point such contributions towards those particular ideas and concepts that would help them the most. That requires engagement and participation. My suspicion is that this works in both directions.

So my thanks to the conference organisers, for some movement in that direction - (and also for the lunches, the lunches were pretty good).
 

David Barnard-Wills


Re-posted with permission from Surveillance and Identity.

 
 
Amid this season of festivals, here are two events that have caught our attention.
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EXHIBITION: 15 August - 4 September 2011
Tristan Bates Theatre, 1A Tower St, London WC2H 9NP

The Museum of Broken Relationships is an award winning exhibition of seemingly ordinary yet incredibly poignant objects. Donated by individuals from all over the world, each object tells the story of a past relationship.

More information from Tristan Bates Theatre.
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FILM SCREENING: 22 August 2011
Opera Holland Park, London

A Summer Celebration of Iranian Film will include cultural exhibitions and an outdoor screening of The Song Of Sparrows (dir. Majid Majidi).

For more more information and details of the forthcoming 2nd London Iranian Film Festival see the UKIFF website.