I will look at two media artworks that present images of the modern city. I will not analyse these works, but rather perform an informed interpretation of them. I am an artist and this is the way I look at, attempt to understand and appreciate other artists' work. I will look at works that present a specific experience of the modern city that is at once blasé, contemplative and awestruck. I will explain briefly what this experience entails.
As we cannot fully absorb all the rapid movements of the modern mechanised and mediatised city, our attention is hesitant, interrupted and fragmented. We often need to act quickly to avoid being struck by motorised vehicles, bicycles and other pedestrians. We must be vigilant as we always feel we are at risk of being swept up by crowds of unknowns. At the same time, the rhythms and movement of the city as well as the distancing anonymity of the crowd have allowed for a disinterested contemplation of the urban spectacle, an awestruck gaze into the complexities and chaos of our built environment.
I have chosen to look at two works specifically, Tramage by Jean-François Guiton and City Slivers by Gordon Matta-Clark. The former work is a digitally edited and processed video, realised in 1999 while the latter was shot on 16mm film without editing in 1976. Despite the different technologies used the two works successfully represent the city as a contemplative, hypnotic experience.
It is widely accepted that the development of the modern industrial city has radically changed the way we perceive our surroundings and each other. In his essay, The Metropolis and Mental life, of 1903, Georg Simmel noticed the fundamentally different ways the city dweller will react to his surroundings as compared to how a villager sees his environment. He noted that the metropolitan type reacts primarily in a rational manner, ... and he adds that the rational response to a situation, unlike the villager's more emotional reaction, requires a sphere of mental activity which is least sensitive and which is furthest removed from the depth of personality. (Simmel p. 326) Simmel's thesis is based on an observation that the anonymous nature of social relations in the city is due to the use of money (which has an abstract quantitative, and not qualitative value) for the exchange of goods and services. Simmel elaborates on the effects of the predominately rational response system of the city dweller saying that it manifests itself in behaviour which ranges from the disinterestedness to the blasé.
In his essay, Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century, Walter Benjamin writes about the appearance of the flâneur. Benjamin sees this uniquely urban, and uniquely post eighteenth century figure as possessing a behaviour and response to his surroundings beyond blasé or disinterested. He sees the flâneur as being a historical first, an individual totally disconnected emotionally and spiritually from his social, familial and cultural environment. The flâneur is still on the threshold, of the city as of the bourgeois class. Neither has yet engulfed him; in neither is he at home. He seeks refuge in the crowd. (Benjamin p. 156)
To Benjamin, 19th century Paris was spectacular and shattered. He writes of the phantasmagoria of space and time that was Haussmann's reconstructed city: the spectacular axial vistas of the new boulevards, the demolished quartiers that not only housed the working classes but were home to their distinct culture. He also writes of the distinctly nineteenth century spectacle that was the panorama, a technique that preceded and predicted cinema and bought the sublime landscape of the countryside to the city. Benjamin wrote that in a panorama, the city dilates and becomes a landscape, as it does in a subtler way for the flâneur. (Benjamin p. 150) Thus the city looses its aura of lived experience and becomes a tableau, best seen from a distance.
By the turn of the century the cityscape was animated with coloured flashing electric signs and projected advertisements. Jonathan Crary writes of these in his recent book Suspensions of Perception. He writes that this animated spectacle was just the surface appearance of what was a fundamental restructuring of the architectural and social presentation of the 20th century city.
The magic lantern slides, the cinematic projections, and the electrically lit advertisements are only the more obvious elements of a formless field of attraction ... which undermines the older monumental organisation of the (city) square. (Crary p. 366)
In Society of the Spectacle, (a book that was contemporary to and influenced the practice of Gordon Matta-Clark), Guy Debord sees the development of the urban spectacle of the 1960s as being more than the development of new technologies of image production and presentation. He writes, ... the spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practice of a social-economic formation... (Debord paragraph 11) Debord sees the spectacle as a social structure which is a necessary condition for the development of media technologies. The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. (Debord paragraph 4)
The latter growth of the industrialised city coincides with the birth and development of moving picture technologies. With the development of avant-garde cinema in the 1920s, depicting the mechanised busy city becomes an obsession for young French, Soviet and German filmmakers. Throughout the twentieth-century, technologies of still and moving image reproduction have changed dramatically. The whirring motor of the ciné camera and the turning reels of the film projector, both echoing mechanical modes of production and transportation, have been surpassed by electro-magnetic and, more recently, digital modes of moving image capture and presentation.
The emigration of the middle class to the suburbs, the increased reliance on the automobile as means of transportation, the development of the communication technologies of telephone, television and the Internet have all lead to the decentralisation of business and culture and in many cases have also lead to less active and dynamic urban centres.
Instead of asking whether the conditions of distraction, disinterestedness and daydreaming are still applicable to describe the contemporary experience of urban environments, I have chosen to look at recent moving image artworks that depict the city, to see if artists are still reflecting these conditions. I will talk about one contemporary video work, Tramage (1999) by Jean-François Guiton. I will look at how it uses techniques, recently made available, of digital image and sound editing and processing to inflict a condition of daydreaming and distraction on the viewer. I will compare Tramage with an older film work, City Slivers (1976) by Gordon Matta-Clark. This silent 16mm film also induces an effect of daydreaming and contemplation but uses a simple photomechanical process to do so.
Tramage begins with strips of blue light and it is set to a mechanical rhythm of a resonant metallic grating sound. The opening montage reminds us of experiments in abstract animated film. Hans Richter's `Rhythm' films of the 1920s or Norman McLaren's painted celluloid shorts made at the National Film Board in the 1950s and 1960s come to mind. The techniques Guiton used for producing his opening montage, however, are a sophisticated combination of digital image compositing (cropping and animation) and frame accurate image and sound editing. Françoise Parfait writes of the almost physical relationship between the images and sounds in Tramage. La surface de l'écran, telle une surface aimantée, attire et repousse les formes et les sons : il n'est pas question d'ici de montage, mais plutôt de mixage. (Parfait p. 90)
The initial montage of Tramage develops into a series of tightly cropped images. Fragments of posters, the side of a tram, crowds of people, are interspersed with indiscernible flashes of light and colour. The series of images is repeated and reordered following a mesmerising rhythm. The effect of the repetition of the same advertising image across every billboard in the city is evoked and Walter Benjamin's theories of the mechanically reproduced image come to mind. The repetition and infinite reuse of an exact copy of an electronic image or sound is a key feature of digital video technology. Parfait remarks on the sophisticated technique of sampling and variation employed by Guiton in Tramage: Cette vidéo se présente sous la forme de variations à partir de motifs images-son « samplés » (découpés et isolés) qui sont répétés, combinés, rythmés ... (Parfait p. 90) The repetition used by Guiton in Tramage speaks of the repetitive nature of architecture and information in an urban setting but it also demonstrates the inherent qualities of the non-linear (digital) editing process.
As the video progresses its structure seemingly becomes more chaotic and unpredictable. The kaleidoscopic effect of viewing through the windows of two trams as they pass each other is evoked. However, the sense we have as viewers that we are witnessing (as we are with City Slivers) the fruits of a random process of image selection and combination is an illusion. The non-linear, drag and drop editing process of digital video allows for highly complex temporal ordering of image and sound elements. Without claiming to understand the intricacies of the artist's process, it is evident through careful viewing that Guiton's score for Tramage is complex yet meticulously (and musically) arranged. Thus the destabilising loss of control that the chaotic movements of the city have on the individual is very much felt when we watch Tramage, even though the digital processes used to produce the video are highly precise and infinitely controllable.
As an object of comparison (to Tramage), it is important to understand the process used by Gordon Matta-Clark to make the film City Slivers. The film was shot over a short duration using a single reel of 16mm film. To make City Slivers, Matta-Clark attached an anamorphic lens to the camera. This device, which is designed to shoot films to be played back in a panoramic, or widescreen, format, elongates the image vertically. (Matta-Clark intended his film to be shown in this elongated form and thus did not present it with the panoramic lens attached to the projector.)
Another feature of City Slivers is that it was shot with vertical masks covering portions of the lens (which may be why Matta-Clark used the anamorphic lens as its wide front would have facilitated the placing of the masks). The artist ran portions of film through the camera masking out all but one vertical strip (one sliver) of the image. He then rewound the reel in the camera, re-masked the lens to allow another slice of the image to be exposed and resumed filming. The images cut into vertical slices mirror the vertical structure of Manhattan architecture.
This rudimentary process (the editing was all done in the camera) produces a film in which several points of view are presented simultaneously. The effect is at first distracting as we try to focus our attention on each of the different sections of the image. But, as we let ourselves be drawn in by the subtle play of light and movement that the composite image offers us, we find watching the film an engaging yet contemplative experience. Steve Jenkins writes of this film, Time is fluid, again, as slivers of scenes overlap in rhapsodic simultaneity (Jenkins p.32) The absence of a soundtrack adds to the feeling of distance between the viewer and the images projected.
An important feature of Matta-Clark's approach is that the artist would have little control over the images filmed and even less control over the juxtaposition of the different strips of images; it would be very hard to pre-determine how one movement (say a man entering a building) in one strip would correspond with another (a taxicab turning) in a different strip. The resulting film has a random structure that seems to well portray the fluctuating movement of traffic and pedestrians in the city.
Through the meticulous sound and image editing process of Tramage, Jean-François Guiton has created an audiovisual time and space that represents the repetition, the rhythms and the unpredictable kaleidoscopic visual display of the urban spectacle. The granular structure of time and space in digital images and sound, and the possibilities to infinitely manipulate this structure permits Guiton to carefully compose his composition of light, colour and sound.
Gordon Matta-Clark's approach is more akin to the process used by John Cage in his Chance and Random compositions. He exposed specific places in New York City on to the different strips of the film frame and then let chance dictate how they would work with each other. The random nature of his process was partly deliberate, informed by works of his fellow contemporary conceptual and land artists, as well as by the flâneur approach of Guy Debord and the Situationists, but it was also due to the very simple mechanical technology of the 16mm ciné camera, a technology which he pushed to its full potential.
Françoise Parfait writes of Tramage: Expérience du déplacement, du transport du corps et des mouvements de l'esprit : c'est la capacité de la vidéo à rendre compte des perceptions d'un corps contemporain en mouvement dans un monde urbain moderne. (Parfait p. 91) She writes that, through a sophisticated combination of digital sound and image, the video reveals how the body and mind experience the movements of the modern city. City Slivers, using an ingenious, yet simple technique of in-camera editing shows a distracted kaleidoscopic experience of the restless and fractured modern city.
Watching both of these works, the viewer's experiences pass from blasé disinterest, through contemplation, to reverie and awe. These experiences, produced through two very different technologies and processes of moving image creation, are comparable to those felt while negotiating the arteries and passages of the modern urban landscape.
Benjamin, Walter, Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century, in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, New York, Schocken Books, 1986.
Crary, Jonathan, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001.
Debord, Guy, Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, Detroit, 1983.
Jenkins, Steven, The Last Action Hero, in City Slivers and Fresh Kills: The Films of Gordon Matta-Clark, edited by Steve Jenkins, San Francisco Cinematheque, San Francisco, 2004.
Parfait, Françoise, Vidéo: un art contemporain, editions du Regard, Paris, 2001.
Simmel, Georg, The Metropolis and Mental Life, in On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971.