homearchivesearchtpwcredits

Back to summary

Adad Hannah: Folk & Still

Steve Reinke


Folk

Folk is a one take, stationary camera video projection of what might appear, at first glance, to be a photographic image: three people hold an archly artificial pose for six minutes. Two of the models portray performers standing behind a single microphone: a man with an acoustic guitar and an instrumentless woman who is presumably the singer. Kneeling at the bottom of the frame is a female technician who may be about to, or has just finished, adjusting the microphone stand. The video is silent.

Folk is a mock allegory. It dismantles allegory. The models straining over time become intensely physiological entities unable to maintain any symbolic function. They are bodies working against the impossibility of maintaining stasis. The models’ bodies under durational stress smash allegory. In the end (after a spell) they can represent only themselves. The act of representation remains while the set of possible referents fades away.

One watches, of course, for the human imperfection, for the small movements the models make. The guitar player cannot keep his eyes fixed, the singer breathes and blinks and trembles, the technician crouched at the bottom of the frame mesmerizes because she seems perfectly, uncannily still. Folk sets an impossible task for itself that is exemplified in the impossible task it sets for its models. Moving pictures can be derived from still ones — technologically, film necessarily followed and was dependent on photography, but photography cannot be derived from film without the subtraction of duration. Film contains photography in a way that photography cannot contain film.

In thinking about Hannah’s work it is important to distinguish between tableaux and tableaux vivants. Tableau vivants were a 19th century theatrical entertainment in which performers/models struck a pose, often derived from classical painting, and held it for extended periods of time as living statues. (As a contemporary example, the work of British artists Gilbert and George is based on a key attribute of tableaux vivants: one may gaze with impunity on the artfully arranged bodies, they cannot return or acknowledge your gaze.) Tableaux is a more general term that refers to an arrangement for viewing.

Tableaux vivants when photographed become mere tableaux. They move from the fluidly theatrical realm of charming and refined entertainments that refer to les beaux-arts to being part of the stultified and fixed beaux-arts. The photography kills the vivant. Life requires presence, presence requires duration.

Traditionally, time has been viewed as an endless, divisible continuum. The two dominant metaphors are of moments strung together like pearls on a string, or the flow of a river, passing inexorably from future to present to past in such a way as to make the present continuously ineffable. In this model, time is external to experience, like a river we step into, separate from our existence and flowing always at the same rate. Phenomenologists discard this transcendent concept of time in favour of a model based on time as immanent, lived, experienced. As George Steiner says in his excellent introduction to Heidegger, “We do not live ‘in time’, as if the latter were some independent, abstract flow external to our being. We ‘live time’; the two terms are inseparable.” [1]

It is no coincidence that questions of existence and time become central to philosophy contemporaneously with the development of motion pictures; the technology itself poses questions. What is the difference between photography and film, still and motion pictures? Is film photography + time or is it something more? A mechanistic view, one that conceives of time in the traditional sense, would say that indeed motion pictures are merely still images over time (a series of still images arranged and presented sequentially). For film theorist André Bazin, influenced by the phenomenologically based philosophy of Henri Bergson and his own somewhat mystical Catholicism, film was photography + time + x, x being an aspect of time which had remained inadequately conceptualized. Hannah’s Folk, poised as it is at the juncture of the still and moving image (as a moving image which refers to the photographic image) also poses this question. For Bazin, this something else, this x in the equation, was duration, which he most famously linked with the filmic image as “change mummified.” This duration does not exist in the individual images (no matter how long the exposure), nor is it in the time of the images arranged and presented sequentially. It exists as part of the filmic apparatus as a supplement to time. Duration, for Bazin, was spiritual: it could breathe. Filmic images were in the world, and depicted the world, in a manner fundamentally different than photographic ones. [2]

In "The Ontology of the Image" Bazin develops his most famous metaphor for film: the mummy complex. Humans have an unconscious need, according to Bazin, to defeat time. This need is centred around death, of course, but not limited to it: the decay of things and the entropy of systems are parallel traumas. The fight against time is not a rational project as the struggle is clearly insurmountable. The best we can do is develop strategies to counter it, engage with it and come to grips with it. Bazin puts forth Egyptian mummy making as an initial technology of representation against time and death and entropy, a starting point for Western art history. Hence the aforementioned description of film as “change mummified.” This conceptualization, which places film in a teleological progression of representational technologies against death, supposes that film is derived from photography. [3] But Hannah’s project is a reversal of this: to extract film from the photograph. Not “change mummified” but “stasis zombified.” (Philosophers Deleuze and Guattari stated that our only new myth — the only myth developed since film — is that of the zombie.)

Still

Still is an interactive video installation. Participants enter a gallery. Their entrance plunges the space into darkness. They see nothing. An infrared camera mounted at the far end of the gallery (above the projection wall) monitors the space. Infrared motion sensors are connected to a computer. The computer is connected to a video projector. When motion is detected, the video feed being sent to the projector dims. When no motion is detected, the projector brightens. That is, if the participants stand still, they will see themselves on the screen. If they move, their image fades to darkness. The projected image is de-saturated so that it appears to be almost black and white. It is also flipped horizontally so the participants face a mirror image of themselves. According to the artist, “Participants observe each other’s behaviour, and have to collectively agree to stand perfectly still in order to see the projected image of themselves. When a new viewer enters the room, people already in the installation must interact with the newcomer to indicate the rewards of standing still.”

Hannah refers to Still as Pavlovian. Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) was the Russian physiologist — today he would likely be called a behavioural psychologist — who used conditioning to train dogs to salivate at specific sounds (most famously a bell, although it seems he never really used a bell) by establishing a connection between the sound and food dispersement. Still trains participants to remain unmoving so that they will be rewarded by seeing a live feed of themselves mirrored as a spectral, infrared video projection. This presupposes that participants will desire to see images of their selves emerge out of the darkness. My desire is to obliterate all images of myself, and I am happy to eradicate the images of all others while I am at it. Luckily, Still accommodates this desire. All I need do is move about, and my image disappears. In fact, the piece satisfies my desire for an absent or obliterated image much more handily than it does any desire for representation. All the participants in the room must be still for any images to emerge: a social compact toward group narcissism. But only one participant need move to maintain the darkness of the representationless void. No social contract is needed, just the continuous movement of one. I recommend this approach. The machines won’t mind. They will be happily processing the same amount of data whether an image is being thrown up on the screen or not. The camera receives our image whether we are gesticulating manically or strung up lifeless on a pole. It is a processor further down the data pipeline that determines if our image is revealed or suppressed. This situation, incidentally, resonates with early photography’s required long exposures, in which movement could result in the disappearance or spectralization of the subject. Speed kills (representation). Ghosts can never relax. Still calls for an audience of mannequins and narcissists. When they stare into the void, they know the void will stare back in its most comforting form.

Notes:
1. George Steiner, Martin Heidegger. Chicago U., 1978, p. 78.
2. Andre Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” What is Cinema? U. of California, 1967.
3. Philip Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory. Minnesota, 2001.