Uriel Orlow reviews trailer, an interactive art piece by work-seth/tallentire in Dublin, 1999.
...trailer... - Uriel Orlow, 1999
• Trailing behind: Today is the 7 May 1999, five months after I have traveled to Dublin, trailed as it were, behind John Seth and Anne Tallentire for a few days during the 'making' of trailer, in order to visually document their activities. It is too late to write a proper review (whatever that means). Instead, I will attempt to retrace some of their steps, and my own fragmented experience of trailer. Trailing behind... five months after having walked down from the top floor of a building in the centre of Dublin, five months after having seen the last image of trailer on a monitor sitting on the first landing of the staircase of that same building:
Then I was mesmerised by this image of a puddle of water, the reflection of the sky and a wooden stick slowly floating off-frame.
• The trail: a series of signs left behind by the passage of someone or something. What I know: Somewhere in the city of Dublin, over a period of two weeks and in a daily routine, a series of actions took place. These could never be witnessed in the first instance and were instead retraced by moving images (on monitors or as projections) somewhere else in Dublin. Additionally, one selected still image per day was made available in an internet archive:
Now I am looking at these images which can still be called up; one at the time, fragments, single images stored on the internet; off-space.
• Trailer: images that form a series of extracts from the collaborative project trailer by work (John Seth and Anne Tallentire). That aspect of the work, which, whilst being a trace of it, also points ahead and continues to announce itself and the work:
As such these internet-images (the trailer of trailer) are not in the past tense (of the archive) but belong to an anterior future of memory and anticipation; off-time.
• Michel de Certeau describes the city as split in two, occurring at two levels. One, above, the theoretical city of maps and grids, the total city of the panorama or bird's eye post-card, created by urban planners, cartographers, politicians. This is also the city of the cinema. The other, the enacted city, down below, on the contrary is inhabited by practitioners, who live "below the thresholds at which visibility begins." [de Certeau, 1984] This city which defies a total experience is fragmented, incoherent, unmastered. Walking is an elementary form of experiencing this city.
Every weekday-morning during those two weeks in December, John Seth and Anne Tallentire let the daily newspaper determine through an arbitrary yet pre-defined principle coordinates on the map of Dublin. These were to be their starting points for the day, where they let themselves fall, so to speak, from the map, the conceptual home of the meta-city down into the factual city, the homeless city without map (and the city of homelessness). They enter the city as walking practitioners:
• "Their story begins on ground level, with footsteps. They are myriad, but do not compose a series. They cannot be counted because each unit has a qualitative character: a style of tactile apprehension and kinesthetic appropriation. […] Their intertwined paths give their shape to spaces. They weave places together. […] They are not localised; it is rather they that spatialise." [de Certeau, 1984]
Without coordinates at hand, they let themselves be guided by the very act of walking. And by small signs washed onto the urban shore, left behind or appearing as if from nowhere. Signs beyond immediate recognisability, things beyond immediate form, sites beyond location, and still not without specificity: the brickwork of a house, nails on the ground, a broken piece of glass... Moments of hesitation, of contemplation. Moments of reading the text of the city. Sometimes in a whispering voice, barely audible. Sometimes, the signs beckon more. They become questions looking for a response. Responsibility, being called into question, made answerable, this most fundamental of urban conditions is what trailer negotiates.
• As such, trailer can be read as a series of attempts at finding a response - even if a hesitant and provisional one - to some of the city's almost invisible signs lingering at the thresholds of the common focused field of vision. What links these attempts is the urgent necessity of entering into relation with the signs, of becoming practically (as opposed to conceptually) involved in their tiny mechanisms of material signification, and thus, possibly, "escaping the imaginary totalisations produced by the eye", which would drag them from that threshold of visibility into focus, into mastered vision. It is thus a process of handling (rather than showing), literally of touching and moving. And above all, it is a process of transformation, of effectuating formal changes whilst leaving the material intact, that is, blurring outlines, balancing between opaqueness and transparency.
Seth and Tallentire engage in inter-ventions (they literally come between so as to alter or interrupt) in order to acknowledge that which "does not surface, or whose surface is only its upper limit, outlining itself against the visible." [de Certeau, 1984] The visible is turned inward, listening to its material core; and then turned outward again, but not as a clearly defined object or place, but rather as an object of transformation, oscillating between one form and another, a place in suspense, crossing-over from here to there. The interventions can be of various types. An encounter : an ear pressing against a wall; listening, waiting. An exchange : picking up a piece of litter from the ground. Or an action: turning a motorbike on a wooden pallet by the sea. Always: something is taking place, without claiming territory, something is occurring but does not assume any status. Almost an event.
• If anything, work's intuitive (as opposed to instinctual) interventions, quite clearly belong to those practices described by de Certeau as "foreign to the 'geometrical' or 'geographical' space of visual, panoptic, or theoretical constructions." They are " operations, [referring] to 'another spatiality' (an 'anthropological', poetic and mythic experience of space), and to an opaque and blind mobility characteristic of the bustling city. A migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city." [de Certeau, 1984]
To be sure, Seth and Tallentire are not so much the authors or performers of these almost events but rather their agents. As such they do not claim any authority, nor insist on any final meaning and instead promote a significatory network across space and time: a series of minimal trans-actions. They are operators inserting tiny, barely decipherable footnotes into and across the urban text. Footnotes, written in a language so simple that reading them once does not convey their full meaning. Moreover, these footnotes bear the mark of the absurd, of a Beckettian emptying out of meaning until there is nothing left but meaninglessness, and thus (possibly) again, meaning. Once we see them tying sellotape around a bunch of woodsticks and then with the same determination untying it afterwards. Binding and unbinding. Work undoing itself.
• trailer is de-scribing the city, literally writing it apart. Sites are marked and unmarked at the same time. Site-specificity is taken to its most extreme and most minimal extent also in the presentation of the work. Video footage of their daily walks and actions is shown every evening in a new location. Seth and Tallentire are traveling players whose 'procedure' somewhat resembles that of the very earliest manifestation of cinema: that of the Lumière brothers traveling from city to city around the turn of the last century, to film one place and simultaneously screen the footage of another. A century later, trailer bears witness to the signs of wear and disillusion with this fascination and obsession of global roaming and urban showcasing. In trying to remember the local, trailer literally zooms in on one city. Instead of the Lumière's wide-angle cinematic views–the first images able to satisfy the desire to see the city fully, from 'above', and thus providing the project of the modern city with its visual motor, its vision– trailer picks up, down 'below', the pieces of a shattered urban panorama. What we see are bleak fragments, without any nostalgia of the once unbroken vision of a whole or total city.
If the early Lumière films did not have any narrative or performance as such, but only showed the city's very own everyday hustling and bustling, unfolding as it were, by itself in front of the camera, this kind of cinema paradoxically emancipated the modern city from its everyday reality in presenting it as a painless image destined only for contemplation. Thus this new, purely specular experience of the city promoted the autonomy of the city as image, as spectacle, dampening at the same time, first the wish, and eventually the possibility, for intervention. trailer, also without narrative or scripted performance, is on the contrary, all about intervention. Without proclaiming any large-scale redemptive goals, its minimal actions are more like precursors of intervention, the first movements of engaging with a place. The videos replay these attempts, making the viewers (across space and time) witnesses of their almost-events, where something took place. Alternatively we see a scene where something might have taken place or will take place. And if Seth and Tallentire are the agents in and of these videos, then trailer as a whole could be described as a kind of agency, as a de-centralised center organizing transactions between two parties, the artists and the viewers, and between two sites, the daily changing area of their trailing and the screenings in a different location every evening. Indeed, work, that is Seth and Tallentire's collaboration, defines artistic activity in terms of this image-event- agency, as a source of trans-action and intervention; across space and time, whilst being very specific about both space and time.
• But what are the internal mechanisms of this agency? What does it mean to show an image of an event or a place? Moreover, I ask myself, with Blanchot, "what happens, for example when one lives an event as image?" [Blanchot, 1982] Indeed, this question concerns the agentprotagonists of trailer and its viewers alike, who, in some sense, are accomplices in their experience of events as images. The video-camera accompanies the walking-agents throughout the day. What they see is always as if through the lens of the camcorder. They know that there cannot be an urban experience which is not in some way already mediated, already image (even if at the threshold of visibility). Moreover their very interventions are images. Similarly, in the evening-screenings where the transaction takes (another) place, these images become events once more.
"To live an event as an image is not to see an image of this event […]. The occurrence commands us, as we command the image. That is, it releases us, from it and from ourselves. It keeps us outside; it makes of this outside a presence where 'I' does not recognise 'itself'." [Blanchot, 1982] This expulsion from the image into an outside (of the image and of oneself), where self-identification is no more possible means that instead the self has to identify the image as other, and in turn be identified by the image as other. In this act of witnessing, the image is defined by a kind of ethical demand. A demand which is 'kept open', which can never be fulfilled, for one (as spectator) arrives always too late. trailer exemplifies this powerfully: the event, always being premediated and premeditated has always already taken place. But, in the screenings, the image (of the event, or of the place) is not a re-presentation (of that event or place), that is a return to its presence (a defiance of time in the service of 'eternity'), but rather a presentation, a bearing witness to a present which is (by definition) late, and an indication of a rupture of time (and space). trailer presents the image as an open wound, instead of representing an already healed wound, a scar.
• One of the screenings enacts this in a particularly moving way, albeit (or because of) being a projection of an image without progression. The image–projected on a screen in a conferenceroom in the middle of a library which itself is in the middle of a shopping center–shows a wall. On the ground in front of it, a small pile of stone-debris appears to have fallen out. The hole in the wall, however, does not reveal anything behind the wall, but only more wall. The image lasts, indeed endures its belated presence for ten minutes, without any change. We do not know who made the hole, when or how. The image is its own aftermath, but also its own announcement, keeping itself up, in the same way as the wall keeps the hole open. During the ten minutes there is no sound. Then the screen goes black, and as if echoing the image we hear a short, roaring urban sound, and possibly a plane crossing over. A moment of suspense, we are hanging between image and non-image. And the sound as aftermath of the image, hits us, belatedly. We are left behind, after the (non-)event, after the (non-)image, and suddenly, the present becomes almost painfully overwhelming and emptied out at once.
This scenario exemplifies the paradoxical economy of time in trailer and consequently its particular mode of address. The nightly screenings cannot be understood as the opening of an archive-drawer allowing a glimpse at something which has taken place during the day. No past, however immediate, is made accessible. Instead, something is taking place again.The videos are thus of the order of repetition or reproduction and not of representation. By repeating an event or place where an event might have occurred or will occur, in another place, both places leave the realm of unique locality and enter the realm of spatial and temporal interrelation. This event-as-image or image-as-event commands us away from the distant, viewing, knowing and controlling 'I' into an uncertain, unknowable, and barely visible immediacy.
• The videos that comprise trailer never provide a spectacle. They are not intact skins peeled off a place or event, but flakes blown away by the city's different winds. Accordingly their iconographic syntax is minimal but dense. They are video-haikus, few-image-poems, fragmented and thus resisting totality, completion, arrested meaning, finality. The spectators have to go to different places every evening. Consequently, trailer doesn't exist as a whole, defies being fully accessible at any one time or in any one place. As spectators we are ourselves wrapped into this migration, following the images for a few nights in Dublin, or a few clicks on the internet. Experiencing a single screening or seeing a single image, we cannot but open up this singularity and turn it as an unanswerable question to the whole. The whole which is never accessible, always already over. And thus the image leaves its trail behind, in us, as an image-question. Another image (of the last day's screening in the staircase of project arts centre's temporary location): sea-containers, standing, waiting, abandoned, destined (destined-for-what-andwhen?). Somehow a cinematic image, but motionless, devoid of narrative progression. An image returning to the fixed shots of the earliest cinema, returning to the still photographic image before cinema, or presenting the cinematic after its end, after all movement has been drained from it? A film, after the film has ended and the protagonists have left the scene. But then, "the film can continue after the word 'end', or even begin after the death of the main character, or of the country, or of the idea, for, this death is but a passage, it is not reduced to immobility. Death is only experienced as absence or disappearance to the extent that one measures or shows, on the contrary, what survives. In the cinema [this means] to prove that having arrived on site, the tombs were empty." [Cayrol/Durand, 1963] trailer shows exactly this, that, having arrived on site the tombs were empty. In this emptiness, in this immobility we sometimes glimpse a figure doing something. An activity with no obvious reasoning, no immediate reward. But, nevertheless an activity. One or two players involved in an endgame. Sometimes none at all. Then it is us, who become the players, surviving the 'game' after its end, surviving in a city without a map.
• Some reflections, matching the condition of these images here on the internet which are accessible from everywhere, whilst residing nowhere. Some reflections, across space and time, clearly belated, clearly unfaithful to any particular locality presented in trailer, but trying to listen to its echo, trying to see its after-images, trying to think about its trailer, that which is left behind and points ahead. Not for-ever, but for now and then. Not only for one place, but for here and there.
Maurice Blanchot: The Two Versions of the Imaginary, in The Space of Literature (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982)
Jean Cayrol & Claude Durand: Le droit de regard (Paris: Editions du Seuil,1963)
Michel de Certeau: The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)