Gestation, 2013

The light is turned off: in complete darkness, the film is gently pulled away from the womb. The fifty foot-long-series of unborn images are gathered together and dunked into bucket number one containing the first developer. The chemical begins coating the film aided by the back of a hand that drowns it, flips it, pushes it below the level of the solution. Six minutes and fifteen seconds later, the light is back on and the strip of transparent-looking images is moved into bucket number two. The rhythmic process continues for another eighteen minutes until the film is fully born, the images are fixed to the celluloid and it is hung up to dry. The fifty feet of film are fed into the projector and move through space to reach the bulb. The machine’s pulsating sound is accompanied by each frame being converted into light that travels onto the nearest surface. There is a physical and temporal gap not only between filming and seeing but also between frame, projector and projected image. The following paper aims at investigating the temporal space between capturing and visualization, tactile frame and etherial image and the consequences of the involvement of the artist, the audience and their bodies within the transitional stages of the medium.

The immediacy present in digital equipment can make the user feel numb to their creation as the ease with which the sensor is clicked is an act that is taken for granted. As film becomes more obsolete and costly, the analog click becomes a much rarer and significant event. The presence of a physical connection is immediately noticeable when using film cameras, as the materiality of the object is felt to a greater extent than with digital equipment: not only is the proximity between eye and viewfinder much greater, as the camera needs to be placed in direct contact with the face, but the time the finger spends on the shutter is largely more significant as it requires pressure in oder for the light to hit the film. Luke Fowler describes his relationship with an analog camera, stating that he was “immediately struck by the flexibility and tactile nature of the Bolex as an instrument” (Fowler, 2011:71). Holding a reel of Super 8, which records up to three minutes and twenty seconds, is like holding a slice of time: when loading it into the camera and fiddling with the mechanics of the machine to secure it in place, the finite quality of the medium is felt both mentally and physically. Film and body share a common mortality, both existing for a limited period of time.

As stated by Tacita Dean, “a lot happens in your head between when you film something and when you get it back. So it’s a gestation, it’s a thinking period that happens” (Dean, 2011). The content of the film is cooked over time: the mind becomes a foggy LCD display where the captured images are recreated, imagined and re-imagined, thus a stronger emotional attachment to them is formed as they are mentally appropriated and processed. When the real images replace the imagined ones, the mental processing that had already created a strong bond between user and object is enriched by owning the tangible negatives. When taking charge of the gestation period, the temporal space between filming and seeing is occupied by both an emotional and physical engagement with the medium where the fate of the film is in the hands of the user. As it goes through an existential limbo between stillborn and tangible images, the film is accompanied by its creator, whose body actively participates in the process of making the frames visible to the naked eye. When discussing his time spent in the darkroom, Peter Hutton recounts: “I go into the room with the lights on and lay out my reels and cans, put down pieces of tape on the edge of the rewind table and line everything up. I then close the door, turn off the lights and wait about 30 seconds as my eyes adjust to the darkness” (Hutton, 2011:82). The environment of the processing room is methodical and its layout is designed in such a way to ease navigation: the body adapts to film’s natural darkened habitat, and the act of touching becomes the primary sense (Cherchi Usai, 2011: 60).

The body plays an active role in the realization of the object in question: the photograph above was taken by one of the audience members invited to Super 9 Processing Performance (2013), a collaboration between myself and Adam Burton, a fellow chemical and film enthusiast. The viewers were instructed to provide photographic documentation of the event which consisted in two people processing a reel of Super 8. The image is particularly significant as the focus is on the position of the body within the environment: kneeled down on the floor with arms swung over the edge of the bathtub and hands submerged in the bucket, the proximity with the process is evident. The body is fully active and present during the event, almost resembling a meditative or religious praying position. The temporal disconnection between the event of capturing and the subsequent event of viewing the captured, is filled with the user immersing itself in the physicality of the medium, the odor of the chemicals, the magic of the frames slowly becoming concrete images. “While the untethered nature of the digital image allows for viewers all around the world to conveniently view an eclectic work via a website, analogue film brings viewers into a common space to share an experience from beginning to end” (Lockhart, 2011:96): the presence of the being, its body, is crucial to determine the difference between the uniqueness of film, which is different every time it is screened and cannot be broadcasted across the globe, and the accessibility of video, whose illusionary nature does not allow it deteriorate or mutate, nor does it always require an experience to be physically shared. Inviting a series of people to enjoy the excitement on giving birth to a film whilst constraining them inside a tight, intimate environment, forces bodies to mingle, share a common experience and negotiating their space within the room.

“Time leaves its traces on it [film]: the emulsion eventually shrinks, fades, peels off, exudes humidity; dirt, blotches and scratches become part of its identity, just like human flesh” (Cherchi Usai, 2011:60). Every time a reel of film is fed through a projector, it gathers new layers of scratches and dust, adding new dimensions to the content. In the case of Rosa Barba’s Stating the Real Sublime (2009) (Figure 2), the film projected is simply clear leader that hangs, together with the projector, from the ceiling above. The rectangle of light beams at the wall in front of the machine and constantly mutates, “accumulating new dust, scratches and wear on its surface” (Bergen Kunsthall, 2013). There is a clear relationship between the intimacy and physicality of film and that of the body, highlighting the importance of the presence of the being within the medium: “film is like the body. It is physical. Like the skin, it scratches and tears, fades and ages” (Iles, 2011:84). As Chrissie Iles points out, the aging of the celluloid mimics that of the skin, it is inevitable. Rosa Barba’s installation, where the content of the film is non-existent, clearly underlines the physicality of the medium that, according to Iles, “needs people in order to thrive” (Iles, 2011:84). A film projector does not activate itself, nor can it be switched on with the click of a remote control: the spacial proximity between object and user is what makes film a corporeal, tactile medium. When hand-processing a reel, the hands immerse themselves in the warm chemicals and the body becomes familiar with the environment the film is in. The two cells are inevitably linked and, as one gives birth to the other, film mimics the journey the body eventually goes through, of mutation and aging.

The unmistakable sound of the projector rattles through the gallery space. It cannot be silenced as it cries out for attention. The decision made by artist to include “old fashioned” projectors as a means of screening their work, allows the object to become part of the installation, at times the main component of it. Differently from video projectors, “whose noiseless operation facilitates the direction of the viewer’s attention to the image” (Hamlyn, 2003: 4), film projectors are there to be seen. They do not hide in the darkness, out of reach, rather they present themselves within the same space as the viewer, on plinths or on the ground, becoming sculptural components of the work. The viewer is allowed to gaze upon the projector’s laborious task of transforming a physical frame into a flash of light: the film moves through the gallery space to reach the machine, therefore the audience engages with both the movement of the images within the environment and their subsequent movement on a surface. Nicky Hamlyn states, when discussing the differences between sculpture and painting, that sculpture is “more strongly temporal than painting, because the experience of having to move around a sculpture reminds the spectator, through the bodily effort required to take in the object, that time is passing, that the experience is temporal” (Hamlyn, 2003: 46). When film is screened with its original projector, the projection is not the sole component of the work, as the machine is included for a specific reason, drawing attention to itself (Eamon, 2009:120); the viewer is allowed to move around the whole, circling the installation to experience the flickering image as well as the mechanism of the flicker. The temporal disjunction between film existing as a solid, tangible negative and it being converted into temporary light, is occupied by the involvement of the audience’s body, that experiences the sculptural whole.

Rosa Barba decides to directly link the body of the audience member to her installation Flightmachine (2002) (Figure 3): the film, which shows a bumble bee attempting to fly, is activated by the viewer pedaling a bicycle. Not only does film become a sculpture, but the viewer is required to physically engage with it in order for it to fully exist. The projector was altered, screening a series of images simultaneously allowing the viewer to see the dark line of separation between each frame. “Due to the different function of the light and the direct movement of the viewer’s body the perception of the image changes” (Barba, 2002): the viewer is in control of the image making process and becomes the projector’s extra limb. “When you enter a gallery and see a projector with a reel of film connected, you know that a strip of finite length is passing through a light source at a particular speed” (Godfrey, 2011:77), and in the case of Flightmachine, the finite nature of both film and body is brought into direct contact as the viewer operates the machine and dictates its weight upon it.

“As a human being all my senses and my reception function in analogue; each little thing depends upon and is influenced by other little things” (Treu, 2011:130). As Wolfgang Treu suggests, film’s inherent characteristics create a powerful relationship between the negative and the person. The tactility of the analog camera enables a physical proximity between machine and artist, becoming an extension of a limb as it mimics its movements; the importance of the body’s presence during the birth of the tangible and visible images, strengthens the act of appropriation and allows body and film to share the same habitat; film’s inevitable degradation through the projector or simply through time, mimics its creator’s aging process: the unavoidable nature of celluloid to scratch and fade and that of skin to wrinkle and graze, results in both entities to exist until fully consumed, an irreversible mutation that highlights their mortal nature. As one enables the other to come to life and become visible to the naked eye, the other allows a habitat to be shared, an experience to be unique and an umbilical cord to tighten as the connection grows stronger between artist and medium.


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