The Continuum: a neurotic apparatus
“Time sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature. It freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable things ... in short it becomes space.”
Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness.
In the late nineteen century, Étienne-Jules Marey developed a systematic recording of movement that ultimately opened the ways of cinema. At the time, he was fascinated by the graphic accuracy of a recent development, that of photography, and envisioned a number of scientific applications related to his otherwise well established research. Up to that point, his name already backed the design of a number of devices that recorded movements that ordinarily eluded our common sensory scrutiny. Encouraged by his successful graphic registration of the subtle pulsations of the heart, he planned to further increase the accuracy of his recording cylinders, and adapt photography to that ultimate endeavor. He would never completely fulfill his dream.
One can begin to think of a case that views the history of any device as spoiled by the byproducts of its own technical evolution. One can try to imagine what it is for the design of an apparatus to remain overburdened by the presence of its own history, by the accumulated debris made of the trials, errors and failures typically present in its development. At the end, we are almost asked to accept that the technological regiment that precedes the formal completion of a recording invention amounts simply to resolve an experimental impasse that once figured must remain forgotten. And is forgotten, indeed, because the advancement of its design continues to support the notion of a supposed neutrality, the promise of an unbiassed recording of phenomena, an almost natural insistence, a trusted fidelity that ends consuming all chance to untangle the over-determination that was carried from the beginning to the final completion of its mechanism. In other words, history fails it. If it demands the transparent assimilation of all its products, what will it demand of its byproducts? Its shaping goes unquestioned, and the imaginary structures of its social dissemination will only be revealed by reexamining all those procedures that were tried and rejected from the very beginning. These forgotten ways, however, seem to point even more emphatically than ever, to all those acts of rejection. To stress the tone of that rejection is, moreover, to associate this blindfolding to the production of a kind of an untold tale, the production of a technical unconscious that could somehow, by fore-grounding itself, reflect on the hidden motives that compelled us so dearly to erase all trace of its history from our heads. With that in mind, I develop this fiction, one that finds its opportunity in the advent of the photo-cinematic impasse. It is a fiction, one could think, fully occupied with imagining that the technical development of that device is somehow submitted to the rigors of a suspicious economy; a fiction that has defined, for a moment, my own artistic practice, and that determines the premises of what I have called the production of the Continuum.
In order to adapt photography to his scientific concerns about movement, Marey exposed plates in front of a moving subject. After processing the plates, it was obvious that the images carried so much overlapped information and profusion of detail that they were, initially, totally useless for his research. In trying to bypass the conditions of that blur, he opted for selected fractions of movement. He designed a slotted-disk shutter that isolated the subject at regular intervals of time, and that allowed him to take a sequence of more than one image per plate. This small corrective mechanism was to later launch the history of cinema, and define its technical particularities and autonomy. Ironically, that meant at the end, that a huge amount of information was prevented from finally reaching the plates. As a consequence of that initial disappointment, of that annoying blur, an event gained undisputed relevance, but only as a clear symptomatic element of technical repression. Marey started to show his disappointment
The relationship between the apparent and the hidden, the manifested and the forgotten, takes its place at the establishment of that first coercion. How could it be otherwise! From the other side of the equation, the Continuum accepts, however, the multiple productions of the recording device. Let’s say that it is opened to recover the multiple possibilities that exist before the application of that element of repression; but above all, it yields ultimately to the claimed accuracy of all recordings. From the very beginning, the film industry infused the development of its own recording apparatus (especially if we accept Marey’s chronophotographies as pioneering forerunners) with the notion that it captures and reproduces movement with the overwhelming implication of establishing the terms of a known accuracy. To trust with excessive enthusiasm the neutrality of a camera forced to seize the dynamics of fleeting nature is a bit foolish. One thing is certain, what it can really do, at least, is to confirm (as it seemed to confirm to Marey) the ambiguous qualities of an uninterrupted record of movement. In fact, all exacting detail and photographic accuracy of that uninterrupted record ended up transforming themselves into the blurry traces that should be considered, strictly speaking, productions of the Continuum.
Like the recording cylinders of Marey, the Continuum is produced with a similar technology. The uniform rotation of a cylinder is coupled with a scribing instrument. When the scribe, affected by bits of information, vibrates against this pre-established rotation it leaves the evidence of a trace that could be considered complete because it is continuous and uninterrupted. Applications of this technology were vastly widespread during the nineteenth century. The wax cylinders that Edison used for his gramophones, for instance, became an unmistakable popular item of mass culture, and exemplify the broad application of a technology that we can still find today in recording devices like the seismograph, or the electro-encephalogram. The film strip also inherits from all this technology its structural form, but it is far from giving us an unbroken document of evolving time.
As productive action, therefore, the Continuum needs to be established not as a mere accident, but it should be given proper attention, a territory, a name. To carry the production of the Continuum in these terms is above all to confront the paradoxical accuracy of its images. Incapable of assimilating the dynamic capacity of such accuracy, the cinematic apparatus developed instead a systematic rejection of the uncertainties of these ambiguous records, of all that information contained in the blur. It fitted its apparatus with a mechanism that trimmed down the proliferation of all those active elements that were present initially in Marey’s first plates. In trying to overcome the enigmatic conditions of these blurred effects, cinema developed the technology that ultimately arrested the impetus of its claimed accuracy. The fragmentation that finally took place consisted in momentarily hiding the object from the recording chemistry of the film. The cinematic apparatus, therefore, based its constitutive character on the obscuring mechanism of that initial repression, on that hundredth of a second that established the darkest moment of the in-between-frames. This is how, at the end, it favored the demands of an economy of information. This is how, at the end, the coherence of the cinematic image established a considerable resistance to the integrity of movement itself.
In contrast to this resistance, the production of the Continuum pursues the proliferation of its own images in a different way. Its insistence must be marked by organizing and revealing its most difficult attributes, those most able to directly challenge the aims and assumptions of an habitual practice, that of narrative, and extend the challenge, perhaps, to even the most common claim of history. Uninterrupted records of time cannot be condensed, taken as simple totalities, or in this case, cannot be converted to discreet images, narratives, or graphic units. They unfold through time. Narratives, on the contrary, are filled with well defined, discreet moments that, played among themselves, produce contrast, interruptions, and a tirade of non-sequitors. They are condensed around a meaningful imagery, or around edited instances that congeal into some kind significant relevance.
How can we understand then the force of that continuous unfolding?
Movement, as a graphic quality of time, can only be apprehended in relation to a stable ground or reference. One moves in context, and one is capable to perceive discretionary differences of form along this passing of time. Images, however, halt that natural process. Iconographical stasis is basic to the apprehension of images. There is no before or after, for an image, there is only now. In just a small portion of a second, the Continuum can freeze also, stop, and reveal a world of definition, pregnant with detail and evidence, but nothing is alive in the realm of images.
In the blur, in this scripted image, like in handwriting, like in painting, we find, however, traces of an uninterrupted activity, that is, we find an iconography in crisis, always in the making. The photographic image, as well as the cinematographic, are synchronic, instantaneous, and hence stable, referential. The painted or the manuscripted are, on the other hand, fully diachronic. Their unfolding is trapped in the totality of an iconical status, but, paradoxically, its production can be retaken, its making can be continued. Capturing it, discerning it, ends only at the insistence of continuity.
In the diachronic unfolding of painting there is a particularly latent recording of movements, that of a disciplined body, that of the painter. The canvas has always been a surface on which to lay exposed a certain type of biography, and the art markets have always been very aware and ready to exploit the value of that recording. The body labors in front of the canvas, and it registers its performance. Painting has offered always a surface full of narrative potential because it spices the diachronic flow with numerous interruptions and details. In the production of Continuums, on the contrary, the routine of an apparatus has completely replaced the movements of the painter. If that biographical evidence is taken away by the automatic movement of a recording apparatus, is at the cost of this symptomatology of being. Narrative here is replaced by a pure expression of speed which undoubtedly collapses the amplitude of a space, and reduces the opportunity a subject has to establish its existencial value. Here rests solely the value of the neurotic apparatus. Speed shortens the life of the signifier, but it surpases the returns of its signification.