writings

The moment we are in
by Kika Thorne

An incomplete report on what I have thought about regarding In the Kingdom of Shadows, a film by Francisca Duran

We are all moving images colliding with other moving images. —Bernadette Corporation

In 2006, the year that Facebook and Twitter went public, a year after the arrival of Youtube, Francisca Duran released a video, shot on 35mm film, about the birth of cinema. In a single frame, In The Kingdom of Shadows pins us to a moment in history, where bodies react to the new media, beyond the squeal of novelty, as if forecasting in a single gesture, — a century of morphosis.

Maxim Gorky’s [1] description of that first screening in Paris — Lumière Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat — has been cast on a Ludlow Linecaster by Nicholas Kennedy of Trip Print Press in Toronto, Canada. A hot metal typesetting system used by letterpress printers, the Linecaster squirts hot lead alloy into a composite stick, a negative mold of the chosen text, that instantly produces a hard slug, to be applied with ink, multiplied on paper, dried and disseminated. The machine is a good choice for a small press that can produce modernist poetry books and radical broadsheets, or wedding invitations to make the rent.

Heated and cooled, liquid to solid, cursive to sans serif and back again, the calm tactile pleasures of ink on the page disguise this active topology, a homeopathic remedy for some, toxic grave for others…

Gorky’s paragraph, cast in Tempo Black, hovers in the gleaming shudder, a gelatine heat, hot enough to twist words. Bubbling, the font dissipates, flows, reappears distorted, like an anti-spam security test. Two voices speak backwards, the base track of machine, hissing the catalogue of a process.

The melt is slow and sudden — whole phrases sink into the dense alloy of lead, tin and antinomy; systems of sublimation (invisible to the eye, but logical) turn rigid solids into vapourous fluid. Here the material vitality is most visible, activated at 327 degrees celcius, we can witness external clues to the frenzy that subsist within the atom. 2,8,18,32,18,4; 6 valences of electron activity are in Lead, Pb 82, and it is this energy that manifests the form.

Forces, Nietzche says, life is but forces playing out upon one another… [2]

Suddenly something clicks, everything vanishes and a train appears on the screen. It speeds straight at you – watch out! It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack of lacerated flesh and splintered bones, and crushing into dust and into broken fragments this hall and this building, so full of women, wine, music and vice.

But this too is a train of shadows.

“To give an accurate description of what has never occurred is the proper occupation of the historian” quips Oscar Wilde and while there are countless references to this original event in cinematic criticism, writers tend to treat the audience reaction as if it were the squall and horror of a suicide bombing. Buildings and bones are splintered, people scurry, terrified, but historian Tom Gunning refines the argument, “People did not flee, but they were tremendously excited. If they were used to Magic Theatre — the projection of the still, this coup de theatre, a sudden transformation from still image to moving illusion was made doubly uncanny by rendering the banal streetscene with the apparatus of the phantasmagoric.”

Chiding the others for their exaggeration Gunning reads Gorky’s alarmist prose through the attitude of the last line, …But this too is a train of shadows. For Gorky follows the rule that spectacle precedes disappointment. Maxim maximizes the affect in the room, to illuminate the polarity of action and sedation. Gunning argues that it was not fear for life but sheer surprise, but either way, at the end of Duran’s film we see the footage described, and it is a surprise to me that something once so powerful could mean so little now.

We wanted it to move us, but we just sat there, merely hoping for destruction. We were so amazed to see ourselves, we stayed fixed in our seats for over a century, becoming halflight to our vicarious desires.

Shock or delight, cinema was the grand distraction of the 20th Century. It swallowed the book, digested the book, and its capacity for dissemination outweighed the book. But what it showed us about ourselves, we could not turn away from. Our eyes, a black hole that no knowledge can escape.. We can choose to ignore what we have seen, collateral damage for instance; we can deny knowledge, but it has transformed our subjectivity, our singularity. Each picture searching out its correlates, becoming dense, fixes an attitude.

‘Socrates feared the written word, fortelling a laziness that would stretch out across memory and thought itself. With the arrival of the press, monks, whose chastity was bound up with the act of copying the scriptures, expected Gutenburg’s invention to incite sedition. ‘“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, states the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”’[3]

Of cinema, Jean Luc Godard suggests: we are bored with our lives, they are not edited.

If cinema ate the book, the internet ate cinema. Watching the dissolve of the dissolve: In the Kingdom of Shadows; I ask not what does this mean, but, why now? What can this film tell us about the technological transition we are in?

“When everything is easy, one quickly gets stupid.” — Maxim Gorky

“As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid

I found these quotes on the internet, which is where everything takes place now. Modern plazas lie empty, silent — the air above them teems with interface. In 2011, I google “affect of the internet” and instantly have access to a host of complaints, speculations and statistics. Nicholas Carr traces the lineage of efficiency from the invention of the clock to Taylor’s breakdown and choreography of labour that produced the assembly line, to Google; suggesting that what Taylorism did to the hand, Google is doing to the mind. Cutting up thought into byte sized pieces, with a cookie for corporate gain, while nudging its way into our personal lives, to heighten the parasocial, intensify the quest for weak ties, and thin our emotional energy in order to produce new markets… One can almost hear the Communist Manifesto, a Cassandra in the background. “…It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”

“Print culture is the technology of individualism… Instead of tending toward a vast Alexandrian Library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existance… Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time. …” Wikipedia, quoting Gutenburg Galaxy, McLuhan

In the flux and flurry of de-authored images, circulating to produce a laugh, tension, confirm commonality, or to hold on to some kind of, feeling — some artists are producing artworks to exhume the plethora, their strategies oscillating from the analytical to the absurd. While many “professional” artists use the internet to platform their work, shockingly few make net specific art, and fewer still make work about it. In an interview with Hito Steyerl, Rosemary Heather writes, “One of the forms of your practice is the representation of data; or more specifically, its characteristic of being in motion, and so to a certain extent being beyond representation.” Steyerl’s consistent observation of the migration of images, moves perfectly from the protest, through the archive to eBay. Ryan Trecartin’s opera of excess gathers a cast from all valences of the digital glitter, so embedded in the hyperstimulated omniverse that is the internet, that Heather uses Trecartin to back up this very same argument in her AP engine essay on him and well, by extension, everything else.

So why take on this contemporary big bang with a slow boil. Why does Duran return to the origins of the moving image, and its conflict with print to depict the contemporary confusion?

Duran contextualizes the origins of cinema for the moment.
The sluggish recycling of movable type for use on the internet.
Her practice demands an equally unhurried and mutable consideration.

She maintains our gaze in the moment when metal is most alive with potential –
rupturing static with static –
Let’s melt this down!

McLuhan holds a logic that we may entertain.
Let’s melt this down!
Now we know
the medium is the form,
the force,
and the structure,

what will we design?

 

Endnotes
1. Maxim Gorky, b. Russia 1868, was pulled out of school at 8 to work, beaten by his employers, homeless by 12, wandered, half starving, a migrant labourer befriending hobos and thieves. Jailed for insurrection, a Bolshevik whose two favourite words were: Not Guilty. When he began to write, he spoke from this experience and touched the Russian people, becoming a sort of folk hero. Originally called Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, he renamed himself Gorky, literally meaning, the Bitter. Perhaps Gorky’s best known play, The Lower Depths  premiered in 1902 at the Moscow Art Theatre with Stanislavski performing the role of Satin. The production ‘thrilled and stirred the middle-class audience, then swept the world’s capitals with 75,000 copies of the play sold in a year.’ I like to think his English translations were printed on a Ludlow Typograph and read by union activists in Butte, Montana during the clampdowns of the early 1900s, as described by Travis Wilkerson in the gorgeous experimental documentary, aka indie pop powerpoint, An Injury to One (2002).

2. Alchemy’s dream realized, lead turns silver when Duran’s 16mm’s silver halide salts render a crusty old melting pot full of the burpy metallic sheen.

3.  Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid, Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2008