I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery to see Fred Herzog‘s Vancouver Photographs, which are indeed a fascinating record of something like peripheral modernity in full colour 1950s and 1960s Kodachrome. At precisely the time that the city must have felt like a true Finis Terrae–long after it had lost its role as waystation of Empire, and before the invention of a “Pacific Rim”–it also boasted more neon lights than any other city in North America.

Granville and Robson,
But I was also very much taken by the exhibition “Acting the Part: Photography as Theatre”. The contention here is that the manifestly staged images of a Cindy Sherman or Vancouver’s own Jeff Wall, from its very inception photography has been intimately tied to performativity.

Against the notion of the photograph as snapshot, a moment frozen from an ongoing temporal flux, the exhibition argues that photography has equally often conjured up an event, a scene that would not exist but for the technology’s power of organization and arrangement. This is photography as literally composition: a marshalling of resources to produce a particular narrative or affective effect.

Yet the piece that most struck me was not a photograph, but a film, which plays precisely with the fine line between snap and event, around an investigation into one of the West’s most iconic painterly images. Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcázar imagines Velásquez’s Las Meninas as both composition and interruption.

In what is apparently one long take, a beautifully choreographed 360 degree steadicam pan, Sussman presents us with the figures who inhabit Las Meninas before and after they take up the pose portrayed in Velásquez’s painting.

On the one hand, we’re waiting for everything to fall in place, for the King and Queen to take up position, the Infanta to step forward, the courtiers to take up their positions, including the shadowy figure in the doorway at the back of the room. Slowly we see the various components arrange themselves, inexorably forming the famous image. On the other hand, the moment of the “snap!” in which briefly we have Las Meninas is shown in all its contingency, placed back into the flow of time full of many other potential narratives, many other instants that (had they too been frozen) would have implied other stories, other affects.

What’s presented is a process that comes to seem accidental and inevitable at the same time. Running in a continuous loop, it’s as though the complex flux of people and perspectives had endlessly to resolve into that one single moment, as though we were backstage of what is already perhaps the most famous of “backstage” images. (And the film respects that aspect of the painting… we never see the image that the artist himself is painting.) But we also are presented with other moments, and so other images. As a whole, the film is a mesmerizing and fascinating performance.

89 Seconds at Alcazar


One thing I liked about Pete de Bolla’s book Art Matters is his comment on the way in which a work of art can strike the viewer or listener dumb. The aesthetic experience gives us pause, if only briefly. We catch our breath, uncertain as to how to continue.

Mark Quinn, SelfDe Bolla’s example of art throwing a spanner in the works of discourse is his account of Marc Quinn’s Self. This is a sculpture of the artist’s head made with nine pints of his own frozen blood.

I was reminded of this listening the other day to an account of Teresa Margolles‘s Instalación con Vapor, in which spectators enter a misty cloud made up, they soon learn, of water used to wash the dead in Mexico City’s morgue. (More on Margolles, perhaps, anon.)

But there’s no need to look simply at experimental or high art. Think for instance of the point at which the credits start rolling in the cinema, and the silence as you walk out of the building, before the commentary begins. We’ve been affected by the experience, but have yet to convert that affect into critique or analysis.

In these pauses all sorts of reactions are still possible. They constitute a temporality full of intensity, of incompossible articulations that have yet to be actualized. This is a silence that’s far from empty.

We are normally suspicious of silence. Silence=Death. Silence is cowardice. Silence is the result of power’s silencing.

But especially in the face of the hyperarticulacy that circulates in and around politics, the media, and the academy, it might be worth revalidating those brief pauses in which everything is still to be said, in which positions are yet to be taken. In which judgement remains in abeyance.


Last night we were discussing the differences between “presentist” and “historicist” approaches to literature, especially in the classroom. I’m not entirely sure that this distinction is well put, though it echoes the recent discussion over at Long Sunday about “interpretation”.

A presentist approach to a text would treat it as though it spoke directly to our present circumstances. So we read Virgil on Empire, Chaucer on popular culture, Sarmiento on barbarism, because they like us are concerned with these issues. Shakespeare is our contemporary. And if Dylan is the new Keats, that’s because Keats was the old Dylan. Whether because of transcendent values (great works speak across the ages), transhistorical problems (the poor you always have with you), or tactical considerations (selling the classics to the kids), the point is to emphasize how familiar these texts are.

A historicist approach would say: no, we are not yet equipped to read the text. When we fancy we see our own concerns addressed in Chaucer or Keats, in fact we are imposing those concerns upon these authors. We need, rather, to read these texts as they were read in their time: and Empire meant something rather different to Virgil than it does to us; and Shakespeare’s plays only fully give up their sense once we see them as embedded in a whole series of cultural and political discourses very much of their own time (and place). So the point is to show the strangeness of these texts.

But this dichotomy is itself strange. On the one hand, the present is elusive: which present? Whose present? On the other hand, so is the past: and when precisely does a work become historical?

And a text in a class is unavoidably contemporary: we are all Pierre Menards; we cannot unlearn what we know and Cervantes did not. But it is also unavoidably strange: it comes from elsewhere, bearing the mark of the other. And so in reading we always run the risk of being moved or disturbed, or losing ourselves to some small extent. But isn’t that the attraction of literature, or indeed art in general? That it offers an unlearning: we are no longer quite so sure of who we are.

Or so, at least, one might hope…

Bush reading


Another short post, mainly a placeholder. I very much like the following image, by Russian photographer Alexey Titarenko:

Viewed from the perspective of a slight temporal extension or duration, running together or blurring the precise chronometric moments fixed in ordinary snapshots (not quite sub specie aeternitatis, but getting there), the crowd shows its commonality. Individuality disappears even as elements of singularity (hands, shoes) remain readily discernable.

From lens culture via Space and Culture.