Flickering on the Skin of the Screen
In considering Christine Davis’ slide projection works, something needs to be said about the darkness of the space of projection. In the cinema, it is always night. Take in a matinee and you will walk out blinking, shocked to see the sun. That there is something profoundly dreamlike about the experience of cinema has been
remarked upon often enough, but the significance or the observation is not to be dismissed. This oneiric dimension derives not only from the darkness of the cinema theatre but also, and perhaps more so, from the viewer’s passivity within that space of darkness. Wakefulness in a state of darkness normally elicits vigilance and alertness. Our primordial certainty is that darkness covers unknown and therefore potentially limitless dangers. Of course, this unillumined wakefulness is something that has become rare in modernity, thanks to the constant availability of artificial light. But it remains as a sort of atavistic memory.
What is most dreamlike about the cinema theatre is the willingness with which we accept the surrounding darkness as natural. The situation is rather different in the case of what I have taken to calling cinema for galleries, referring to the new art of projected images in the form of ﬁlm, video, or, as in the case of a number of recent works by Davis, sequences of slides. This art form has only begun to mature over
the last decade or so as the liberation of video from the prison of the monitor has made the projected image more of a true plastic material contending with architectural space. In our engagement with cinema for galleries, we are not as passive as in the movie theatre. Although a bench may be provided, we are typically free to walk about the space and interact with the image as if a painting or sculpture. We are not as captivated by the image as we are meant to be in a theatrical situation, but are drawn to inspect and peruse it: that is to say, to enjoy it by way of a certain aesthetic detachment. Even if the work has a structurally significant internal time sequence, we are usually not bound by this in a gallery as in a theatre. We need not
adhere to its schedule as we would that of a train that we want to take (or rather, that we want to take us somewhere). Too often, the viewer’s move from a passive to an active position has been seen as a progression from mystification to demystification. But when we get to the bottom of one illusion, we often find the door to another.
Still, Davis’ slide works might well be seen as a project aimed at demystification. At the very least, they can be seen as an analysis of the founding illusion of cinema, that phenomenon known as the persistence of vision, possibly itself a myth, said to account for the way our perceptual apparatus allows us to see movement in what are, after all, a sequence of still images. The truth, twenty-four times a second, as Jean-Luc Godard once had it, or perhaps we should better say, as Laura Mulvey recently rephrased it: death, twenty-four times a second. Of course, it is not only film that is made of stills; video, after all, has its own scan rate. At the heart of the moving image there is always an intermittency and absence of movement. Even, one might say, a little death. We are tempted to ask if there really is any moving image, or if its just a sequence of stills. By presenting her image-sequence in the form of stills, Davis deconstructs the sense of movement essential to cinema. But if she does deconstruct the moving image, that is to say that she undoes it completely. Although we never actually see movement in these works, a sense of movement is presented to the mind’s eye. In looking at these works, we inevitably feel a movement that is not perceived as such.
In Davis’ slide works, unlike a film or a singe-channel video, one does not see, strictly speaking, a single sequence of images; rather, because there are two projectors dissolving images one into the next, two sequences of images appear, intercalated and interwoven. For this very reason, the intermittency of the images is not displayed as such. Before one image has vanished, another is already being superimposed upon it. What Davis shows through the use of the dissolve is that even the still image is essentially in movement. Even when there is no movement internal to the image, the image itself is aways in the process of coming and going, not all at once, but through time.
Davis’ work substantiates a theoretical assertion of Gilles Deleuze, who opened his monumental explication of cinema with the seemingly counterintuitive affirmation that “you cannot reconstitute movement with positions in space or instants in time: that is, with immobile sections (coupes)…In short, cinema does not give us an image to which movement is added, it immediately gives us a movement-image.”1 Perhaps, in a different way than Deleuze could ever have anticipated, Davis shows how an image is never static, it is always coming and going. In principle (more than in appearance), it is dissolving. In the night of cinema, there is always some darkness between, around, and within the image. We are tempted o ask wether there really is any still image.
The light that moves through the space of projection always finds a lace to rest, to gather itself. In the theatre, this place is called the screen. In the gallery, this is not necessarily the case. There may not be a screen: the light may come to rest on a wall. Or the screen may be transmuted into something other than a screen — détourned, to borrow the language of the Situationists. Moreover, something else can be turned for tar nonce into a screen. There are some famous early examples, among them Roberts Whitman’s extraordinary “environment” in Shower (1946), which includes a transparent shower curtain onto which is projected the film of a woman taking a shower, and described as “one of the earliest examples of the projected image’s shift away from the cinema screen into the medium of sculpture.”2 By contrast, Michael Snow’s Two Sides to Every Story (1974) uses a screen that is just a screen. But by hanging it in the middle of a room, it takes on an unexpected physical presence—a divider of the space—and, since a different film is projected onto each side of its surfaces, served to hide one image as it shows another. The two films show the same woman, the same scene, the same actions, but from diametric positions, as the woman walks between one cameraman and the other. These works bring to mind Jacques Lacan’s contention that “the look…is deeply hidden and unattainable to the same extent that I am unable to see myself from the place where the Other is looking at me.”3 It is a question of beyond the scope of this essay why, for both Whitman and Snow, the paradigmatic object of the look must be a woman, but it is important yo point out that Davis began her rejection work with the same idea. What the slides projected in her Pluck (2000) show is a sequence of movements made by a female trapeze artist, signifying not only circus performing but also the performance of femininity.
And if one doubt that Davis’ slide projections are fundamentally not just cinematic, but cinema: Pluck is derived not from what was originally a sequence of still photographs, but from a movie, a found film from which frames were extracted and transferred to slides. It is a though Davis took a film apart and only hallway put it back together. More than that, she put it in the wrong place, throwing the image onto a screen that is somehow not a screen since it is not a neutral, blank surface. What one looks at when seeing Pluck is not immediately clear. The constant dissolving keeps the image in a state of non-resolution. In addition, the strangely lush and saturated hues resemble a constellation of deep stains in the texture of the image rather than the phenomena of its surface. The image is interwoven with a certain texture, a grain, to which it is even, to some extent, subordinated.
Only gradually does it become obvious that the screen in Pluck has an unusual material character: it is made of dark feathers. One might imagine that a black surface would absorb rather than reflect all the light projected onto it, rendering the image entirely imperceptible; it must be the sheen of the feathers that allows the figure of the trapeze artist to emerge to the extent that it does. As Janine Marchessault has observed, “the variegated light of the dissolving images…takes on the quality of an Impressionist painting,” both because they approximate brushstrokes and because they compose a reality that is evidently transitory, that has “an illusive temporality.”4 Curiously, the material tangibility of the image’s support underlines the spectral quality of that is imaged. The projection makes visible the skin of the screen. As a parallel to this, one might think of Richard Artschwager’s paintings on Celotex panels; painting on the reversed of the insulated construction boards, Artschwager uses the swirling patterns of their surface—oddly reminiscent of Van Gogh—as the substrate of his imagery, a sort of readymade brushstroke that tends to dissolve rather than reinforce the solidity of what is represented. Paradoxically, this breakdown of the pictured reality (in Davis’ case as much as in Artschwager’s) intensifies the work’s reality-effect, reminding us that our experience of temporality has more to do with the fugaciousness of things than with their presence.
When I vicariously experience Artschwager’s use of a brushstroke to build up an image, it is my own censorious that is brushed. Likewise in Pluck, the way the feathered surface half-absorbs, half-reflects the image by dissolving it into stroke-like perceptual units is something that, obscurely, happens to me as I share my consciousness with it. The image lights up in a sort of theatre whose darkness is simultaneously a part of me and outside of me. It is a mutually enveloping darkness that I inhabit as much as it inhabits me. In this obscurity, things become harder to name. Facing the image, I still see it only out of the corner of my eye.
Water Benjamin, in one of his most famous phrases, writes, “The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.”5 This statement is essentially a poetic formulation that works through the imagination more than reason, and its seductiveness allows to it illuminate and mislead in equal measure. The relation between the camera and those “unconscious optics” of which Benjamin speaks may, in some technical sense, be analytical, but not in the sense that psychoanalysis could ever have recognized, at least assuming that the goal of psychoanalysis has something to do with liberating the subject from the sway of “unconscious impulses.” In fact, the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as a pusher introduces us to drugs. (The very title, ”DRINK ME”, recalls the sixties reception of Alice in Wonderland as a fable of hallucinogens.) Image and reality interfuse, recalling Proust’s evocative description in Swann’s Way: “Just as, in the transformation scene in the theatre, a fold of the fairy’s dress, a trembling of her little finger, betray the physical presence of the living actress, whereas we has not been sure if we were not looking at a simple projection of light.”6 Where the awareness of the construction of the image reinforces physical presence, the suggestion of something unconscious, the dream-state, is entirely in keeping with Davis’ slide dissolves. It is in this dynamic that she makes so vivid, this interaction on the skin of the screen.
1Gilles Deleuze, Cinema I: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Haberjam (London: Continuum, 1992), 1-2.
2Chrissie Iles, Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977 (New York: Witney Museum of American Art, 2001), 86.
3Jacques Lacan, “Le cleavage du suet son identification,” Scilícet 2-3 (1970): 120, quoted by Jacqueline Rose, in Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 2005), 167.
4Janine Marchessault, “Christine DavisL The Power Plant,” Artforum (October 2001), 164.
5Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 237.
6Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 179.