Exhibition essay for Rebecca Cummins' "To Fall Standing" (c) 1993 Paul De Marinis
To touch without being touched. To see without being seen. To know without being known. This series of conundrums describes a complex of one-way ties, once attributed to supernatural beings, that came to comprise the mainstay of patriarchal governance. The age of invention that followed the collapse of the old regimes sought mechanical aids to spread the message of liberty, fraternity and equality. But new forms of oppression lurk in the ostensibly two-way street of democracy. Many of the the old one-way ties percolated through human consciousness to produce a series of cultural artifacts that depict and enforce our brotherly love: the camera, the machinegun, the spy satellite, the bullet.
Projectile-hurling weapons distance the hunter from the victim and offer the best prospect for interspecies or intercultural exchange. They fall into two categories: ballistic and line-of-sight. The rock, the catapult, the cannon, the intercontinental nuclear missile - all are of the first type. The bow and arrow, the rifle, the machinegun and the camera are instances of the second. While the former depend on gravity's comely rainbow for guidance to their final destination, line-of-sight weapons unite in a flash the acts of seeing-without-being-seen and touching-without-being-touched.
The title of the present project, To Fall Standing, brings to mind the cat landing on its feet, suggesting the natural harmony with gravity that animal shares with intercontinental ballistic missiles. Or it may be interpreted as a description of the instantaneous death which occurs when a line-of-sight projectile penetrates its human target, a death which is complete even before the corpse has a chance to succumb to gravity's power. Like the many deceased subjects of photographs, the reanimated dead may be thought of as "the standing fallen."
Rebecca Cummins invokes both ballistic and line-of-sight trajectories in the in her large time-motion sequence prints of runners and divers. The image of the runner viewed from above portrays the satellite's view as well as the ballistic projectile's view as it approaches impact. Too, it calls to mind the most impossible view of the body - that seen by the soul as it departs. The vertical and horizontal arrangements of the images echo several of Cummins' earlier works: Apparent Line in which vast landscapes are collapsed into narrow vertical or horizontal strips, and Descending Metaphors - a vertical stack of computer monitors that scroll the insidious catchphrases of technological warfare like the endless parade of credits at the end of a George Lucas film.
The central and interactive element of To Fall Standing is the video machine gun. Here, Rebecca Cummins makes deliberate reference to Etienne Jules Marey's famous machine-gun camera, widely accepted as being the direct precursor of the cinematograph. Marey designed this device in 1882 to assist in his studies of the dynamics of bird wings in flight and later employed it to chronophotographic studies of male athletes(1). His device, based on an earlier gun-camera designed by the astronomer Pierre-Cesar Jules Janssen to record sequential images of Venus's solar transit, was capable of recording 12 frames per second with an exposure time of 1/720 of a second. The fact that the renowned scientist Marey cast his experimental apparatus into the form of a weapon of violence cannot help but make us wonder: how, in a few decades, did the photographic apparatus evolve from the camera obscura - a roomy and passive receptacle for the faint traces of light - into a bizarre phallic weapon without a projectile ?
We could search for exclusively practical reasons for the design. It's easy to forget, in this point-and-shoot era, that before celluloid film and George Eastman's Kodak( ca. 1890) , the act of positioning the photographic apparatus vis-a-vis the subject required staring at an upside down image on ground glass under a black velvet hood. To carry out the time-motion studies Marey wanted with requisite speed and accuracy, he needed a mechanism which could move a single plate into successive positions while stopping it long enough to record the image. Among repetitive start-and-stop technologies available at the time, the machine-gun, as designed by Gatling and refined by Maxim, offered a well designed solution. In addition, Marey, as Janssen before him, needed to track fast moving objects with a long focal length lens, suggesting both a long barrel-like lens mount and an apparatus that was easy to point. Although these research requisites could suggest a machine gun, some gadget that fused the elements of a telescope and a clock might have been equally plausible.
The profound connections between warfare and cinema have been exhaustively examined by Virilio (2). We cannot ignore the fraternity Marey's device shares with contemporaneous developments in the technologies of imaging, identification and localization on the one hand, and the technologies of warfare and execution, on the other. Cameras carried by pigeons were proposed as surveillance devices to cover territory invisible to soldiers in balloons using telescopes. The identification, trial and conviction of the leaders of the Paris Commune was carried out on the basis of photographic evidence gathered from souvenir snapshots taken during the first triumphant days of that uprising. The progress from these early applications to present day technologies of surveillance, tracking, sensor-fusion and automated firepower appears as an unbroken continuum.
Without denying either the practical design basis or the psycho-social firmament surrounding Marey's cinematic machine gun, it may be of additional interest to view it within a context of a class of inventions that can only be thought of as chimeras. Jonathan Crary has discussed in detail the profound transformations that ideas of vision and perception underwent during the 19th century (3). A glance at the procession of apparatuses Victorian inventors devised to make flesh these new notions discloses a legion of phylogenetic monstrosities. Derby hat cameras, vest pocket cameras, silk flower cameras, cameras inside canes, accordion cameras, etc. ad absurdum. As MacLuhan observed that each new medium incorporates as its content the previous medium, so may we infer that new media will inevitably generate chimeras. While some of these teratogenic spore were undoubtedly whimsical creations of dilettantes, Marey's sport of nature has borne much credible scion.
To Fall Standing updates and elaborates the invention of Marey to create an interactive experience in which each viewer takes turns at being observer or observed, hunter or quarry, inside or outside of realtime. It also places this experience within a context reminiscent of the shooting gallery of a carnival. Travelling sideshows, devoid of any central spectacle, were the original purveyors of natural chimeras, and the point of conception of many more (4). Cummins allows us to shoot at each other, that we may each visually experience our own death and reanimation at the hand of our companions. This leap from realtime into analytic time forces ourbodies to participate in the creation of a chimera of life and death, time and space, of self and other. To Fall Standing helps to reveal the tangle of one-way ties and mechanisms at work constructing and unmaking the individual within "the regime of the brother."(5)
(c) 1993 Paul DeMarinis
(1) Marta Braun, Picturing Time - The Works of Etienne Jules Marey, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993
(2) Paul Virilio, War and Cinema - The Logistics of Perception, Verso, London, 1984(
3) Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer, MIT Press, 1991
(4) The video-game was conceived by the founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, during years spent working in carnivals. Steven T. Mayer, personal communication
(5) Juliet Flower MacCannell, "The Regime of the Brother", Routledge, 1991