writings

I want to do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.[1]

Mr. Edison’s Ear makes use of found sound. I am used to working with, and am very drawn to found footage. Images from another time have another life; maybe other lives, no doubt other meanings. This inclination of mine has to do both with pleasure and a sense of disquiet not fully abated. I have explored different forms of mechanical and digital reproduction, archival footage of various kinds, and the durability and duration of the moving image. I enjoy the probing, the exploration of these histories and the mnemonic possibilities of the footage. Mr. Edisons’s Ear examines and manipulates found footage through the use of animation, optical printing, looping and other experiments with duration. Still: What is the truth, or where is the truth, of an archival image? Can the archive be trusted

To query the copying of moving images ultimately leads to questions and decisions about the duration of these same images. And questions about duration, these days, lead me to the conclusion that all moving images are animations of one sort or another. There is a strong sense in which a film is always an animation. Whether drawn or not, a film is made up of discrete images that when passed through a projector at a set frame rate simulates the illusion of motion.

We can make a similarly reductive claim about digital technology. We can, in an editing program or even by freezing an image on a DVD player or VCR, reduce any footage to an individual image that can be identified, named and described. This individual image contains details that can be missed once it is part of the larger moving image sequence. Video and computer images are created and output electronically. They are brought into existence through technology. It is these processes of creation that have led people to describe video and computer images as temporary or as ephemeral. We should resist this temptation because the reduction to an individual image is at the core of viewing or at the very least, of making sense of what we are viewing.

These thoughts on how moving images work at an elemental level were important for two reasons: First because I was seeking the reduced version of a sound clip and second because the mechanics of the moving image made sense of the use of animation in my film. Professor Gitelman was helpful here again:

When Edison started to work on—more importantly his employees—started to work on motion picture technology the first idea was to use something very like the phonograph mandrill. In other words to have a cylinder, but instead of the sound being inscribed onto the cylinder, to have lots of tiny microscopic pictures around the cylinder and you’d look through a microscope-type device and you could get the cylinder to actuate in this precise way, you’d have motion picture technology.[2]

The connection I sought lay in the mechanics of the phonograph. The development of a viable motion picture technological system at the Edison laboratory was at its inception,

based upon experiments using the same repertoire of machine parts (mandrill, stylus, etc…) as the phonograph. The device Gitelman is referring to is the kinetograph, motion writer. I have imagined this relationship between the emergent technologies of mechanically reproducible sound and mechanically reproducible image as a conversation between machines. This led me to develop formal approaches that grew out of or emphasized the way that sound was spatialized and visualized. Thus I connected the inscription of these tiny images to the picture of sound I was craving, and this connection lay in formal studies of duration and in animation..

The connection was further strengthened by the knowledge that when the first phonograph patent was submitted, it was classified by the patent office with measuring instruments, (thermometers, other machines that recorded invisible yet tangible things).[3] This classification indicates at least an initial inclination to connect the capture of sound to scientific inquiry and a quest for precision that predated the phonograph’s eventual resting place as an entertainment and leisure device.

Endnotes
1. Tom Gunning. “Doing for the Eye What the Phonograph Does for the Ear,” The Sounds of Early Cinema, ed. Abel, Richard and Altman, Rick. Bloomington: Indiana UP, pp. 13-31. Thomas Edison as quoted by Gunning.
2. Interview with Lisa Gitleman. This clip appears in Mr. Edison’s Ear.3. Interview, Lisa Gitelman, Later a sound reproduction category was created when these kinds of patents mushroomed at the patent office.