Here & There: ‘Round Midnight
by Seán Padraic Birnie
Violence permeates the language of photography. We point and shoot. We capture moments, places, and people.
A photograph is taken. It is grasped away. Sometimes surreptitiously, almost gently, sometimes with overt aggression. (Saul Leiter peering through the rain; Weegee’s flashbulb shocking the dead on a New York sidewalk.) Adverts for cameras in photographic magazines resemble adverts for guns in gun magazines.
In his autobiography, Felix Nadar recounts the novelist Balzac’s description of the bodily and spiritual violence inflicted by the photographic act:
According to Balzac's theory, all physical bodies are made up entirely of layers of ghostlike images, an infinite number of leaflike skins laid one on top of the other. Since Balzac believed man was incapable of making something material from an apparition, from something impalpable - that is, creating something from nothing - he concluded that every time someone had his photograph taken, one of the spectral layers was removed from the body and transferred to the photograph. Repeated exposures entailed the unavoidable loss of subsequent ghostly layers, that is, the very essence of life.
The absurdity of this idea does not gainsay the essential truth of its terms: ghostlike images upon images, a haunted materiality, transference, repetition, exposure and loss. It is a better language for making sense of photography than any idiom comprised of megapixels, noise and f-stops might be, never mind golden ratios or rules-of-thirds or magic hours.
In any case, something is taken. Some Thing. It is taken away.
Away from where? From here, wherever here may be. And taken where? (Taken how?)
It is a displacement, then, as much as it is a temporal procedure. Time is dis-placed; by the same measure, place is temporalised, eternalised in the amber of photographic spectacle. (Recall Hamlet’s description of the deep corruption of Elsinore: the time that is out-of-joint – a peculiarly spatialising turn of phrase that might cast a certain light, I think, on the strangeness of photography, on the dislocations of time in photographs.) In this place the violence of taking coincides with the impulse to preserve, to stow away precious things (special moments, special places, special people), to keep them safe from the depredations of time and change. The most violent dimension of photography coincides with its most tender. Wherever the latter might be found you will always also find the former.
Each are to be found, in form and theme, in Benedetta Casagrande’s installation ‘Round Midnight. Taking and giving, stealing and preserving, in a blue room offering, contra Balzac, both something material from an apparition and apparitions from something material, or rather from a range of materials: from thread, paper, cast resin, photographic emulsion, wood and the chemistry of cyanotypes. ‘Taken where?’ In answer: taken here, at least in this instance, at least for now, displaced from the sites of the personal memories the work describes (the canals of Venice, the forests of Trentino) and consecrated in this room, which becomes the site of such consecrating processes, the place of such displacements, a dark room not unlike photography’s other dark rooms, wherein darkness always forms the precondition of a delicate and evanescent visibility. These are processes comprised of gestures, which is to say of actions worked upon the materials: threading, piercing, grasping, scratching, pointing. Throughout, a range of surfaces are interrupted and broken, and carefully, tenderly maintained against such damage. Because one disturbs the surface in order to test its integrity: subject to such afflictions, might it maintain itself? Might the seductions of surfaces – of flesh, of photographs – still hold their power? In this way the break-up of the surface only attests to the force of that seduction, only confirms that integrity. Throughout, the porous membrane holds.
Photography’s commercial present might be defined by the vanishing of surfaces, a consequence most obviously though not only of digitisation, wherein the surface becomes something inessential, something blandly and infinitely interchangeable: displayed on any screen, sprayed on any substrate, the bearer of image-content becomes invisible in the moment the image is perceived. The commercial imperatives driving the development of ever higher resolution sensors also play a part, insofar as the constituent elements of the image, the material conditions of visibility, disappear from view. (Apple, not without irony, terms the high-resolution screens of its iThings Retina displays.) But this was a drive already in play in the developmental trajectory of film chemistry and the promise of ever sharper images, and part of a larger teleology of media technics founded on the goal of immersion. A drive so commonly accepted that we take it to be a natural given: this is just what technical progress looks like. From the phantasmagoria, from panoramas, cinemas, surround sound, 3D television, to its seeming perfection in the new VR headsets from companies such as Sony, HTC and Facebook.
‘Round Midnight sits with much contemporary work in its return to analogue processes and its probing of the surface, but insofar as the work describes a pained nostalgia it is not quite the reflex nostalgia for analogue tat so common today (I am looking at you, Lomography), which is always a rote reaction and therefore subservient effect of the new computerised dispensation. And I cite computerised immersion not to set ‘Round Midnight against the digital regime, which would be vain and absurd, but rather to contrast its immersive method with the Immersion 3.0 of the present moment: an immersion of cuts and grain and visible seams, against the totalising completion of 1080p or 4k or whatever new standard of VR. It’s an immersion that lets you see the structures of its effects, but it is no less immersive for that: the display of artifice does not involve an alienation effect. In this way it describes the operation of memory, of those memories we know are splintered with falsities even as we must live under their spell. And it is the dark and irrational force of such spells – of memory, of love and lust, of photography – that the work confronts.
Step into the blue room. Here. Memory, love, photography – of course they make irrationalists of us all.