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Sound Seen & Worn Floors
(Regarding Amy Granat's F.G.B / The Open,
Milwaukee July 16, 2016)
If you wear glasses you know what it’s like to go through the whole day without cleaning them. Because the eyes are so good at looking through near-field glitches to focus on the far subject, you can allow yourself to hardly notice the smudges, “bits of mac ’n cheese” (as my optometrist puts it), loose eyelashes, scratches and dings collected in your field of vision. Those closer to the 99% end of the economic spectrum can even go years with scratched-up lenses, which isn’t so different from sitting on the bus or subway every morning going to work, looking at the world through graffiti-etched plexiglas. At a stretch, this is the visual equivalent of listening to a John Cage composition while aware of incidental noises outside the intentional spectacle, concentrating on how the two forms, randomness and intent, intermingle.(1)
Cage famously welcomed such disruption, already no doubt conversant with the constant cacophony of city life in New York, and that there is no such thing as true silence.(2) Many times have I found myself sitting in a darkened theater watching a movie, unable to concentrate because of a disruption on one of my glasses lenses. Maybe it rained as I rode my bike to the theater, and I can’t clear the streaks, which refract the projector light in rays across my vision, or there’s just some weird skin oil-cloud that won’t be cleaned off without a more fervent intervention of spray cleaner and microfiber cloth. My movie, then, is very different from your movie, if you’re sitting next to me. Mine is full of discomfort, occlusion, distraction, and who knows how my fitful viewing will affect my memory of the film. If this sounds like a dumb way of approaching critique, think of all the gunk collected in your mind, occluding its screen, as you watch the movie next to me. In short, there’s no way we can really approach a work without copping to a sort of audience interventionist position. We shouldn’t let such things affect our reception, much less our critique, but writ large, we can’t help it. We see through the lenses we’re wearing, invisible or shaded.
There are many reasons artists engage in materialist intervention. Once Stan Brakhage (and others) solidified paint-and-scratch-on-film as a viable medium, the cineaste’s sense of dimensional projection was changed. No longer can we allow our eyes to be fooled by the window effect of the movie screen, without awareness that the film itself is a physical object, a thing moving through space and time, reliant on the brain’s capacity to connect and fill gaps in perception. Amy Granat ties this tradition together with the installation tradition to engage a ground-level cinema, of interruptions, interventions, scratches, blips and pops, light flares, chemical spills and purposeful imperfections, to return an auratic sense to the experience of film.(3)
The word ‘auratic’ is an odd duck, and a quick search for a definition returns it to its original source, Walter Benjamin. In his famously prescient “Artwork” essay of 1936, Benjamin holds experimental film in high regard, as one means of transcending technology to show us to ourselves.(4) His ideas revolve around the ‘aura,’ or the authentic and real thing behind the projection. I can’t hope to explain it in full, without talking in concentric circles, since it’s such a flexible and paradoxical concept, but think of a JPEG, an endlessly reproducible form; then think of the moment that JPEG was originally taken.(5) In the difference between the two lies the ‘aura.’
I wouldn’t box in Granat’s work with any sort of Benjaminian theoretical framework, only to call forth the physical experience of seeing her 16mm film work F.G.B./The Open, Milwaukee July 16, 2016.(6) The title itself refers to its specificity in place and time, and Granat e-mailed a gratified response to the event:
Having the work self destruct was PERFECT and exactly what I could have wished for. Part of these film installations is about lessening the recorded images and remembering the physicality and fragility of the media…(7)
‘Fragility’ refers in part to the spliced 16mm film strip, which got caught in the spindles of the projector several times, rescued only by the quick, expert hands of film-familiar Ben Balcom (who facilitated the project via Microlights microcinema). ‘Physicality’ refers to the awareness of the film strip spinning through the projector, the fact of the light cone moving through the film and stopping on the surface of the white wall, as well as the entire contraption making the audio-visual spectacle fill the room without outsize sound (the scratches, pops, and marks on the celluloid were amplified through my Fender Blues Tweed amp, which lent a low-end guttural growl to the otherwise delicate noises). Granat inscribes her effects into the air of the room, and in my experience it felt unnecessary to connect what my eyes saw projected onto the wall (night city scene, blue marker patterns, color flares) with the sounds rumbling out of the speaker at seemingly random intervals. What I was aware of was that something was happening, right then and there, and that each time it repeated it was a different experience from the last.
Inscription as an act changes a surface indelibly. During the running of Granat’s film, I became acutely aware of how the old hardwood tongue-and-groove floor of The Open had worn over the span of its existence, unevenly, tracing movement through erosion. It might be silly to philosophize about a worn floor, but it’s nice to feel like part of a process normally assigned to nature—to recognize a self as process.
1. My best experience with this was sitting in the literal back row of Carnegie Hall, listening to the premiere of Cage’s 88 (the numeric title refers simply to the number of orchestral musicians involved in the piece), while New York city traffic blared outside in its usual daily course. Sirens, truck horns, engine roars, squealing brakes and such interrupted the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion on stage, though I’m sure if Cage were alive he would have enjoyed the spectacle. This was November 1992, if memory serves, and Cage was to be in attendance for the premiere, but died two months earlier.
2. Cage frequently told a story about visiting an anechoic chamber, presumably soundless. After spending some moments alone inside, he told the hosting researcher that he heard two sounds a high one and a low one. The low one is your circulatory system, he was told, and the high one your nervous system. If you’re unsatisfied with my telling, you can hear Cage tell the anecdote himself on Indeterminacy, a two-CD collection of minute long tales:
3. Granat’s photogram work also runs in this vein, returning photography to a direct sense of the making of the indelible image. Photograms are, for practical purposes, unique and unreproducible light-inscriptions, resisting one basic purpose of the photographic medium, but telling its truths against the illusion of ‘true’ reproducibility. Each physical photograph is a unique object in space and time (as is each JPEG, if the recipient’s experience of it is accounted for).
4. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Harry Zohn, trans., Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt [New York: Schocken Books, 1969]. Scholar Susan Buck-Morss defends this title translation (as opposed to the more literal German translation: “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”) as “now-conventional” in English, and sidesteps the problem herself by simply referring to it as the “Artwork essay.” Other scholars confuse the issue with the usage “art work essay.”
5. Digital degradation notwithstanding—JPEGs are essentially re-written each time the file is opened, which risks the normal, simple processing glitches that can occur and disrupt or eventually corrupt computer files. But the process work swell enough that until full-on pixel loss occurs, we rarely notice such degradation—unlike xeroxes, which begin to degrade as reproductions basically on the first pass.
6. ‘F.G.B.’ in the title stands for ‘Faux Gras Bones,” a dual reference to the fact that the installation at The Open/N.F.P.L. was a truncated version of the intended, much larger and more involved multi-projector/amp installation. “Bones,” I’m assuming, refers to the physicality of the film object in its installational body, and possibly also to the structure/content of the visual imagery, and/or the light it calls forth as substance.
7. Hi Amy! Hope it’s okay to quote from your e-mail of July 24, 2016. Your language puts it perfectly.