View From Other Side
How exactly do memory and imagery function in the context of stored and archived media and data? What traces remain of these distant places and moments within the linings and packagings of converted analog film and the reversal format of a slide projector? What does it mean, in the world of modern image production, to find impressions left decades ago in discoloured strips of plastic film, coated in gelatin and silver halide grit? Entire lives transposed in increments, from birth to death, with joy, and pain, and boredom, and obscure sorrow all pickled in aspic, stacked in dusty cellars, forgotten. What sense can we make from these shadows, and how has their meaning dissipated or altered over time? What happens when new light is sent through them, here, now?
Alice Oliver’s exhibition View From Other Side is an evocation and investigation of these lines of memory and light, and the negative space of obscurity one can discern within. Oliver’s work is an almost reflexive continuation of the photographic process, moving beyond nascent questions of the act of capture and primary reproduction themselves, and instead concerning itself with the other end of the story, with the effects of time and of arranging records according to sensibilities of the memory-space, by which the images themselves move into the world of the abstract. It involves several projected channels across a low-lit, white walled room, some disrupted in their passage by a bank of gauze veils suspended from a looming overhang. There is a cool, humming ambience to the space, in its colours and tones, that contributes to an overall sensation of strong gravity and slow motion. Nothing can move fast here, the air is too still, and any pace is calmed and muffled, its disruptions easily captured and dissolved in the lazy movements of the swaying fabrics. It has the sense of a secret space, an inner chamber, a tabernacle of unclear recollection. The only sound is an echoing thrum, which contains shifts in pitch that resemble many enveloped and indistinct voices chanting together in containment. Apart from that, there is only the clicks and whirrs of the slide and film projectors, which are relentless and punctual, the loyal tenders of streams of light.
These channels are arranged in wary and fragmentary relation to one another, overlapping, or distant, or indeterminate. Some are still slides, others short acts of footage, all found, all collated. One channel is projected high into the secondary ceiling, warping away into the gloomy recesses. Others are stark and clear, the sepia of their age only serving to intensify their presence. The images themselves are disjointed. The old slide projector shows things we can recognise as memories - holiday snaps, birthday parties, weddings, the first day of school. Sometimes the washed-out vista of a mountain-range - solid, ancient lines of landscape pulling down blooms of amber light. Sea-front resorts in different times. But the others can vary. We may see children playing in water, or the slowly rotating wings of a flying dove, or the crackling emanation of a nuclear test. This is a place not just of personal memory, but of shared memory, cultural, political - moments of consciousness, of understanding, of terror. Yet the space is reverential, not volatile or tormenting. By physically entering the installation, one is encircled by stillness, and can observe the gentle decomposition of old images. The scratches and scars on slides and film stock show the degradation of the physical substrate that transliterates the processes of time and the inevitability of memory decay. Each image is a palimpsest of something before, now fading, soon gone.
This effect of the thinning of our perception is portrayed not only by the manner in which the data and media is arranged and presented, but also by how it has been collected. The footage is sourced from online video archives, and the slides purchased online. Dating from the 50’s and 60’s, they are relics from the explosion of amateur photography, left undisturbed until reappointed by transaction. Their sources are anonymous, their content ambiguous, the faces and locations they contain nameless. The divorce of image and meaning articulates further the arbitraged memory, and with this act comes a great sense of sadness. These people had lives, free and open and palpitating - unfathomable - and yet here they are, flattened, preserved and interred. It is eerie. This is perhaps one of the effects of analog media as a form of record - to capture idiomatic signals and leave them resonating in place, long after their origins have become extinct. The vintage analog projector portraying these slides is louder in clicks than its digital neighbours, which themselves are actually presenting digital conversions of analogue footage - footage which has been mechanically reproduced and disseminated over and over, spreading exponentially across the circles and banks of retained data. Meanwhile, the slides of the older projector only exist here, and have mostly likely never been copied or duplicated. Thus, they are testaments not to mass reproduction, but, rather, to the singular lines of flight that media may follow.
The grammar of Oliver’s series of projections contains within it an important challenging of the doctrines of the materiality of photographic art. In the present historical moment, it seems more and more probable that photographic art and installations of it will be deferred to information media platforms, to be viewed remotely and distantly by on-line audiences. The massive accumulation of data allowed for by the ‘information age’ is often posited as representing the annihilation of the importance of physical formats in visual media. Yet this totalisation of the photographic image into a digital screen-based format, or even into a web format, betrays a desire not for greater interrogation and analysis of the captured image as art, but rather a desire for expediency at the expense of it. The web image itself contains its own unique pattern and style, but it cannot replace the variety of the photographic image en tout. The vernaculars of reversal film, of Super 8 and 35 mm, of the many formats in the long history of analog image processing, and the transformations and reincorporations made possible by conversion and projection, are, in themselves, central to the methodologies and, if it can be said, purpose of the photographic medium as an artform. These things cannot be neglected, and Oliver’s work and the techniques she employs, with her invocation of light, and materiality, and time, proves their potential and their importance. It is through mechanisms like this that the tangibility of installed art maintains and evolves. A digital image transmitted through the polarised glass and liquid crystal of a computer monitor will, in time, carry its own accumulations of history and meaning - of memory - but it cannot yet subsume that which preceded it and allowed for its synthesis.
Walter Benjamin once famously theorised about the impact of mechanical reproduction on the nature of the image in a mass-culture society. He posited that the mass mechanical reproduction of images allowed for by the technology of the 20th century would have the concomitant effect of alienating the work of art from its semiotic aura - its artefactual authenticity and uniqueness. This was predicated, according to Benjamin, on the material development of industrial capitalism, and we could question what impact digital reproduction has had on the nature of the image in our contemporary society, almost a century hence. Yet Oliver’s work proves, in a sense, that a process of semiosis can be recovered from the debris of time and memory. The final element of the work that I have waited until here to address is the use of coded graphics that snake and spiderweb in white overlays across the projected footage. These are visualisations that employ the erratic stirring of Brownian motion to portray statistical data about both digital memory storage and the human memory. The effect of their synaptic creeping across the flickering projections is one of rhizomatic super-position. The mapping of multiplicities over rapidly growing connections, interrelations and breakages between semiotic chains, processes of causality, occurrence circumstance, all placed over transmuted echoes, perhaps implies that artefactual authenticity is not lost by reproduction, but rather what is perceived as decay and destruction becomes a process of heterogeneity, of the remediation of time and application. Here, whatever aura may be found is produced by the mechanical processes, and the subsequent decomposition. It becomes a new modality of expression and communication, a syncretism of human neurological memory processes and of the memories held within physical and digital media.
Thus the content of the images themselves must be departed from the artist, as instead it is the effect of documentation and re-appraisal, of arrangement and association, of memory and projection, that Oliver is inviting us to contend with. In this manner, the subject here is not the image itself, but instead its conditions, and the negative space surrounding it.
- Ben Oliver