David Green, Cinema, art and dissimulative practice
Laurent Montaron’s Somniloquie is a work comprised of image and sound. A large colour photograph shows a room in which a woman lies asleep and a man seated on the floor closeby. A microphone placed near her is connected to a tape recorder and to the headphones that he is wearing. Whilst she is in a state of slumber, he too appears lost in a moment of reverie; both are oblivious to the world, both are self-absorbed. The sense of the subjective interiority of those it represents resonates with the pictorial quality of the image itself, which has been carefully framed and composed to suggest a space separated from that of the viewer.This is an image that we don’t look at but rather into. Like the view to the garden beyond that is seen in the photograph, we look, as it were, through a window to another world. The‘otherness’ of this world resides partly with this feeling of enclosure, partly with its stillness as a photograph that arrests and preserves a brief and ephemeral moment in time, but also here with the silence of an image that must remain mute even whilst it directs us to the presence of sound. This absence or lack would appear to be rectified by the fact that the artist offers us, when we stand before the image, a recording of the women’s voice as she talks in her sleep. We must infer that what we hear is what he – the man in the image – hears. Image and sound are hence reunited; but the act of reparation seems partial and fragile.
If, as will argue here, Somniloquie, is about the relationship between sound and the image, between seeing and listening, it clearly poses that relationship in a way which is different from the dominant forms and conventions of cinema which is arguably the paradigmatic mode of the audio-visual in contemporary culture. That much of Montaron’s work, however, is closely bound to cinema seems obvious. It is discernible in many of his photographs that have characteristics of the film-still, the single photogram extracted from- yet still suggestive of - an unfolding filmic narrative. The short single-shot videos Ce qui se réalise dans mon histoire and Island have a similar episodic quality; whilst his most recent video work, Readings, comes perhaps closest visually to a purely cinematic language through its use of the balletic mobility of the film camera. However, it is with regard to those works that employ sound, or use sound in relationship to the image, or even, in some examples, reference sound through its absence, that I will concentrate on as examples that involve a critical project of inquiry into the nature of the cinematic.
Perhaps it seems too obvious to point out that, in addition to the fact that the traditional forms of pictorial art are static objects, they are also invariably mute. Yet it is precisely this convergence of silence and stasis, the absence of sound and movement, that is important to the way in which we attend to paintings, for example, as objects which are bound to a particular way of seeing. Indeed, it is this specific disposition towards the inert and silent image that makes it distinct from the general mode of perception that governs our everyday experiences. Whilst photography may have brought a different conception of time to the image, it nonetheless preserved the stillness and silence of art. And, as regards the manner of its reception at least, it continued to offer the possibility of a mode of reading the image with no fixed duration. As with a painting, the photograph provides the viewer not only the opportunity to extend the time spent looking at an image but also to control the pattern and procedure of his attention.
In this way both photography and painting can be contrasted to film where the spectator is confronted with an experience of a pre-ordained sequence of images within a time-frame, which is both linear and finite. It was film too, of course, that first, and most decisively, violated the silence of the image. After film (and notwithstanding the continuing growth of print media) the visual image would become inextricably bound to the simultaneous presence of sound.
In the history of cinema the introduction of sound marked a decisive reorientation of narrative filmmaking. The beginnings of what is called ‘classical decoupage’, involved a series of conventions that governed the techniques of editing from one shot to another, from each scene to another, and so forth, that together came to produce a specifically cinematic articulation of space and time. However, this specifically cinematic language was only fully realisable with the introduction of sound and the possibility of individualised speech and dialogue. The primacy of the voice and the importance of dialogue in classical narrative film was the most obvious instance of the desire to synthesise image and sound in the interests of creating a single, homogeneous fictional world for the spectator. The evolution of various techniques of sound production for film – in particular what is known as ‘sound perspective’ – have therefore been motivated by the need to directly anchor sound, and particularly the voice, to the spatial and temporal dimensions of the image and to events that unfold on the screen. What is therefore suppressed is the crucial difference between images and sounds in cinema, which is that whilst the image is contained within the visible space of the screen, sound cannot be. Sound cannot be framed like the image; it will always exist outside the space of the screen, within the actual space of the auditorium, enveloping the spectator. There is always, therefore, the potential with sound to threaten the imaginary unity of the filmic diegesis that is carried primarily through the image-track. Mary Ann Doane has noted, for example, the infrequent use of ‘voice-off’ in classical narrative film is because it always entails a risk that it will expose the material heterogeneity of the cinematic text.1 As a disembodied voice that comes from a place that cannot be seen, the ‘voice-off’ runs counter to the necessary co-incidence of the sound of speech and the image of the speaking body, thereby threatening the ideology of an audio-visual unity.
More pertinent to my argument here is Michel Chion’s identification of the non-alignment of sound and image in what he calls a cinematic acousmêtre.2 Unlike the ‘synthesised’ voice that is both seen and heard, and also the ‘voice-over’ in which speech is heard but its source is not seen, the acousmêtre is someone (or something) that speaks whilst present and audible in the visual scene, but is not seen to speak. The voice of the acousmêtre may be produced by a character who is partially obscured from view or from a non-human mechanism such as a tape-recorder or radio. According to Chion, the acousmêtre exists, as it were, between sound and image, and is not reconcilable with either one or the other. In the face of such uncertainty we are left with an irresolvable process of exchange and transfer between the audible and the visual.
Following Chion, I would propose that Somniloquie is an audio-visual work in which the relationship between sound and image is dislocated and, for this reason, it might also be regarded as acinematic. Unlike the conventions of narrative film, which demand the simultaneity of sound and image, Somniloquie involves a certain fissuring between the audible and the visual. It also involves, as an extension of this division, a fissuring of space and a fissuring of time. On the one hand there is the space of representation within the image, which is both silent and static. On the other hand, there is the space of the gallery itself, an acoustic space in which the flow of speech marks the passage of time. Yet what is put into play here is an oscillation between the past and the present, between a kind of absence and a kind of presence. Whilst the image appears to us as a self-contained space, a world separate from our own, the sound of the woman’s voice provides a bridge into that space. Whilst the image is thereby drawn into the ‘here and now’, so too the recorded voice of the women is relocated in a ‘there and then’ that, as Barthes reminds us, is the essence of the photograph.3
The senses of vision and hearing have often been starkly contrasted in the history of Western philosophy; the former associated with notions of distance and detachment, the latter with proximity and intimacy. Whilst sight seems to involve a fundamental division between the embodied subject and the object of perception, with audition the body seems to resonate with what it hears, diminishing the opposition between the inside and the outside, subject and object. This idea of sound as inseparable from the body would appear to be nowhere more evident than with hearing the sound of oneself speak. To hear oneself speak encompasses the sense that the voice belongs to oneself or, more precisely, that it is the self. Speaking thus involves a reflexive operation that would seem to distinguish it absolutely from the act of seeing. Yet one cannot hear oneself speak without experiencing one’s voice as apart from one’s self. Any utterance involves the issuing of the voice from the body and its inevitably separation from the subject who speaks. With the advent of the mechanical recording of sound not only was this essential exteriority of the voice made evident but with it the possibility of the complete severance of speech from the body. This disembodiment of the voice by means of its mechanical analogy is what Somniloquie directs our attention to through the presence of the tape-recorder within the photograph and, even more so, through the presence of the record player placed directly in front of the image in the gallery space. The mechanics of auditory reproduction are thus revealed and with it the metaphysics of presence laid bare.
Machines have always been seen primarily as a means of replicating (and thereby replacing) physical human actions. To think about machines as substituting for the body is not unusual. In the nineteenth century, however, with the invention of photography and phonography, a qualitatively new technological logic profoundly changed our perception of the relationship between the machine and the embodied subject. Whilst early accounts of photography laid stress upon its unprecedented abilities to reproduce appearances and thereby to make things more real, more life-like, the photograph’s capturing of an instant of time made the passing of that ephemeral moment into the past more obvious. As Roland Barthes observed, the photography does not preserve what is but what has been, not reality but reality in a past state. For these reasons Barthes concluded the eidos of the photograph is death.4
Perhaps even more than photograph, the invention of the phonograph brought awareness of the fundamental ambivalence of the mechanical indexical trace of a once bodily presence. Like the photograph, the recorded sound of the human voice was regarded as a wondrous thing, capable through its mimetic power to simulate the presence of a living human being. Yet this virtual presence of the speaker through his mechanical reproduction in absentia would mean that the voice would continue to ‘live’ after the body dies. Thomas Edison himself, commenting on his own invention, not only recognised this but made explicit what he saw as the connection between the phonograph as a sound recording and speaking machine and the human organs that it had replaced: ‘this tongueless, toothless instrument, without larynx or pharynx, dumb, voiceless matter, [which] nevertheless utters your words, and centuries after you have crumbled into dust will repeat again and again to a generation that will never know you, every idle thought, ever fond fancy, every vain word that you choose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm.’ 5 Ironically, in the case of Somniloquie Edison’s prophetic announcement of speech recorded for perpetuity proves unfounded. As the record endlessly circles on the turntable the stylus gradually but irreversibly erases the sound of the woman’s voice, restoring to this technological apparatus perhaps another aspect of humanity – the capacity to forget.
As with Somniloquie, in other works by Montaron the presence of, or reference to, the means of the mechanical reproduction of image and sound is a key feature. In Spit the viewer’s awareness of the image as a projection is heightened by the large fan that is placed between the projector and the screen. The revolving blades of the fan interrupt the beam of light causing the image to flicker. The still image thus appears more film-like, more animate. At the same time, however, the persistent noise made by the fan and the projector reminds us that whatever ‘life’ the image possesses is the product of an electrical and mechanical apparatus. The same is true of Candy says I’d like to know completely what others so discreetly talk about, where the intermittent illumination of a photographic transparency might simply be the malfunctioning of the machine but which, nonetheless, leaves the image hovering between being live and being dead. The photograph itself shows a young woman alone on a station platform talking into a personal dictaphone. Speech, in this instance, is inferred yet absent. In Readings the voice of the fortune-teller that accompanies the image track of the video exists not as sound recording but in the form of subtitles. Writing is, of course, another kind of disembodiment of the voice and one which - as Derrida has insisted – threatens the primacy accorded to speech. In the context of the cinematic text the threat is not dissimilar since the subtitle sits uneasily with the expectations of the seamless integration of the film’s different elements.
Here, I think, lies the key to that aspect of Montaron’s work that I have been concerned with in this essay. As I have already mentioned, the conventions of classical narrative film, which have provided the dominant model for cinema until now, have been organized primarily so as to suppress the essential material heterogeneity of the medium of film. In particular they have fused together images and sounds with the end of securing the imaginary unity of the film’s diegesis. By the same token it has also proved necessary to suppress the actual mechanisms and technological apparatuses of image projection and audio reproduction in order to focus the viewer’s attention solely upon the screen as the privileged site of the cinematic spectacle. Unlike the cinema auditorium, in which the viewer remains seated and immobile before a screen that demarcates another space with its own spatial and temporal logic, the viewer in the gallery inhabits an actual space in which perception is ultimately bound to the ‘here and now’ and an embodied, kinaesthetic experience.6 The main difference, therefore, between the space of the gallery and that of the cinema might be thought of in terms of spectatorship: each constitutes a distinct experiential and perceptual domain in which acts of seeing and hearing take place. The historically determined nature of these different kinds of space provides for, or, more precisely structures, particular modes of attention that are both psychical and corporeal.
The proliferation of video art over the past two decades has arguably seen the gradual erosion of the differences between the spaces of the gallery and the cinema if only for the reason that the work of many contemporary artists seems concerned with the phenomenon of the cinematic. Yet there is an important distinction to be made between those practices that would appear to emulate the cinematic and those that would subject it to critical inquiry. For the latter the forms and conventions of the cinematic text, together with the phenomenological dimension of the spaces of spectatorship, become the focus of what I would call practices of dissimilation. I think of Laurent Montaron’s work as an example of such a dissimilative practice that – through the revelation of the fundamental heterogeneity of the cinematic text – problematises the imaginary unity and effect of the real that cinema remains closely bound to.
The mechanised and automated technologies of representation of both images and sounds, beginning with the nineteenth century inventions of photography and photography and leading to the various forms of electronic and digital media today, have become the principal means by which we relate to, and interact with, the world and with others. It is beyond doubt that the capacity to record, store and disseminate visual and audio information has irreversibly transformed our everyday lives; what is equally important, however, is that they have also transformed our sense of ourselves and of our ‘being-in-the world’. We experience the world as mediated through technologies that shape our perceptions of space and time and of ourselves as embodied subjects. The objective and material practices of representation have and continue to both symbolise and constitute the conditions of modern consciousness. For artists to engage in the interrogation of these practices of representation still seems both vital and necessary.
1.See Mary Ann Doane ‘The Voice in Cinema : The Articulation of Body and Space’, in Film Sound : Theory and Practice, ed E. Weiss and J. Belton, Columbia University Press, 1994
2. See Michel Chion Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, trans C. Gorman, Columbia University Press, 19943. Barthes originally formulates forward this idea of the splitting of the spatio-temporal dimensions of the photography in his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’, reprinted in Image, Music, Text, trans. S. Heath, Fontana Press, 1977.
4. See Roland Barthes Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. R. Howard, Hill and Wang, New York, 19 1.
5. Quoted in Ronald W. Clark Edison: The Man Who Made The Future, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, NY, 1977, p. 1.
6. I have dealt with these issues in my essay ‘Beyond Narrativity: Time, Space and the Embodiment of the Viewer’, in David Claerbout, ed. Susanne Gaensheimer et al, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2004.