Oh what a lovely war

I started to complain about Peter Jackson’s commission from the Imperial War Museum to colourise their archival war footage when I first heard about it earlier this year, and now I’ve actually seen the result, ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, I’ve decided to keep on complaining. This, despite two moments in his feature length film about the experience of English men at the Western Front which do truly take the breath away.

Jackson bookends his VFX historical concoction with two extended sequences of ‘authentic’ black and white footage complete with scratches, hair in the gate, and even the clattering sound of an old film projector. About half an hour into the film, at the moment in the film’s narrative when the men arrive at the Front we, the audience, see the ‘archival’ film magically transition to full colour, correct speed, and full cineplex-quality Dolby sound. To Jackson’s credit it is a truly astonishing, and moving, moment. We are exiting History and entering Experience. After about another hour, when the men have won the War, we transition again, back home to jerky black and white, from Experience back to mere History.

These moments have roots deep in the history of media. In the 1890s many people  saw their first kinematograph film through a hand cranked attachment placed on the front of a magic lantern. Canny operators would hold the first frame of their ninety second filmstrip in the gate so the audience thought they were looking at a standard glass magic lantern slide, then they would begin to crank the image into lifelike animation. This moment of phenomenological wonder wrought by drawing attention to the very apparatus of representation itself has been rehearsed frequently since. Perhaps most pertinent to Jackson’s film is the transition from black and white to colour, at about the same narrative points, in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, where the film transitions from the familiar Hollywood black and white to the new Technicolor. We’re not in Kansas anymore in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, just as we’re not in Documentary anymore in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’.

These two moments are the film’s triumph, and all the talk has rightly been about the creation of lived experience from supposedly inert archival material — the lip reading, the stretched frame rate, the image sharpening, the 3D, and so on. So it is interesting that many of these ‘effects’, so lauded for their technical novelty today, were in fact in play before the War itself had even ended.

A giant composite mural coloured with aerograph and oil stick on dispaly c1918, from Imperial War Museum archive.

Jackson composites separate archival images together into the one frame, he passes off footage shot of training exercises as actual battles, and he closely edits together images shot far apart to make it seem as though we are seeing one action, one dramatic moment. I’m not going to be churlish, that’s fine. In fact it was being done in 1918, even before the Armistice, by the photographers Ivor Castle and Frank Hurley who worked for the Canadian, British and Australian propaganda units. They did it for a series of giant collages and hand coloured murals made for exhibitions in the UK during 1918. The only VFX Jackson has in his arsenal which Castle and Hurley didn’t have is the loop. And he uses the loop to dilate time like the master he is. In his film men look over their shoulder with impending dread, or stroke the necks of dogs with PTSD distraction, for a sublime, looped, eternity.

The fact that the War was actually being commemorated before it had even ended is only one of the about five billion other inconvenient truths about the War which Jackson’s film has to ignore in order to sustain itself. The film might be about a male English soldier’s experience, but surely we can handle more complexity than the Joseph Cambellesque narrative arc of: we didn’t know what we were getting into, it was an industrial hell, we had a battle where we found reserves of Edwardian heroism we didn’t know we had, we won that battle, we returned home and nobody understood us.

That this is a story from the cineplex, not reality, is betrayed by the fact that in the frenzied thick of its digital editing of the battle sequence the film doesn’t distinguish between photographic imagery and popular graphic imagery derived from Boy’s Own propaganda. True, there is virtually no imagery directly from WW1 battles, so Jackson had a problem. A film which used the same footage as Jackson’s, Charles Urban’s ‘The Battle of the Somme’, shown in London in 1916  (two years before the Armistice)  to bring the reality of trench warfare home to complacent UK audiences, had the same problem, and also had to use footage of training exercises to stand in for actual battles. And perhaps Jackson was also trying to make the point that for these brief moments the young men temporarily entered the mythology of war under which they had enlisted, but even if he is trying to make this jingoistic point, is it is lost in the ontological muddling.

The only thing masking the narrative banality which is at the heart of Jackson’s film, and which it cannot rise above, is the voices of the returned soldiers which drive the soundtrack. They also have been been conjured from the archive of oral history, but come through, along with all their distinct and distant accents, as clear as a bell. Without those voices, Jackson’s VFX would bleach to nothing.

Their voices, and their dental work. In 2018 nobody can exit the film without wondering at the rank tombstone teeth of the soldiers. Thank God Jackson didn’t give them digital orthodontics. Those crumbling teeth stoutly defend the truths of history in the face of Jackson attempts to conjure the cinematic effects of experience.

Dear Dr Nelson,

I reject utterly your statement today that the Australian War Memorial is the ‘one national institution in this country that reveals more than anything else our character as a people, our soul.’ Our national soul is embodied in more than just our experience of war, it is just as fundamentally rooted in our environment, our history of settlement, and our first peoples. It is expressed not only by our military actions but by our culture and our everyday lives.

I also reject utterly your demagogic rhetorical manoeuvre of immediately invoking the blood sacrifice of our soldiers whenever you are challenged. The blood shed and the traumas experienced were on behalf of our whole country, not just its military aspects.

I reject utterly your completely disingenuous statement, when asked about the enormous disparity between the income of your institution and other national institutions, that ‘as far as decisions that are made by governments in relation to other institutions, that is a matter for the Government,’ when you yourself are very close to the Government, and you must also be aware that your colleagues in other national institutions are suffering under the 2% so called ‘efficiency dividend’, such that they can  now barely do their vitally important jobs. Have you ever stopped to think, Dr Nelson, that the trauma of the wars commemorated in ‘your’ Memorial have their echoes throughout Australia, and are therefore also recorded in our libraries, museums, and archives?

In the end the size of the tab isn’t really the point, and who suffered the most isn’t really the point, the point, as you say, is ‘our soul’. What kind of soul do we want to make for ourselves within our hard won freedom?

Torch light on the Opera House

Salvation Army ‘War Cry’, Melbourne 1894

Heritage Council chair Stephen Davies is unable to issue a stop work order against the Opera House advertising projections of Racing NSW because light does not cause physical harm. Instead The Chaser projected Alan Jones’s phone number on the Supreme Court and NSW parliament from a moving car, while citizens disrupted the racing ads with torches. This David and Goliath contestation of public space has a fascinating history. In 1894 the Melbourne Salvation Army was just as aggressive as Racing NSW, but for the cause of Temperance. They used the latest limelight powered magic lantern to obliterate a schnapps ad on the side of a pub with a projection of Jesus and images from ‘The Rock of Ages’, while their band played hymns. 

While light does no physical harm, as anyone who works with projection knows, it completely redefines space, transforms mood, and rewrites meaning. The act of projecting on a building is strangely exhilarating, because a small act is ‘projected’, not just optically by the lens, but semiotically by the stored symbolic power of the building. 

Heritage values are created by lighting. Think of how the warm tungsten lights, which nightly bathe the newly cleaned sandstone facades of the public precincts of virtually all the world’s cities, have reshaped our mental image of those cities. And they can be destroyed by lighting. Fortunately, in the optical arms race, guerrilla action can still outgun the big boys.

Five Scenes for a Modern Prometheus

A video of the magic lantern performance I devised in collaboration with Elisa deCourcy, Alexander Hunter and Karen Vickery is now available for viewing online. We performed it at the ANU twice during September 2018, once in the Sir Roland Wilson Building at the Magic Lantern in Australia and the World conference, and once a week later in the NFSA ARC Theatre at the Frankenstein: Two Hundred Years off Monsters conference. It goes for about half an hour, and uses about sixty slides. I decided to hang it off Mary Shelly’s book because I knew we would be performing it for the Frankenstein conference. It was wonderful reading the book again after so long, and I picked out some choice quotes for Karen to intone at intervals through the five ‘scenes’, which begin in a scientific laboratory, and end lost in snow and ice, but otherwise have little to do with the story! I was initially going to commence with a moiré pattern chromatrope to set the dark mood, but I eventually decided to use the new chromatrope that Miheng Dong had cut from acrylic in the ANU Makerspace, working from a pattern coded by Kieran Browne. After that it wasn’t much of a leap to some microscopic slides of bacteria and bacillus from the Atlas of Bacteriology by Slater & Spitta, then after a ‘Flash of Lightning’ slide (Copyright T T Wing), with some great music effects from Alex, Elisa flickered up an anonymous slide of a monstrous skeleton using her fingers. We then dissolved to microscopic cross-sections of rectal cancer growths (!) originally used at the Westminster Medical School, which were also meant to look like aerial views of icy wastes. After Alex’s great music, Karen came into her own as we showed panoramic caricature slides dissolving into comic mechanical slides in the next scene. Her wetly mouthed responses to the slides as they came on the screen were fantastic. it was Elisa’s idea to project both of the Steward lantern simultaneously for a ‘tongue in ear’ sequence, and for a dancing skeleton sequence (with some skeletal EDM from Alex) during the next section of ‘monstrous’ mechanical slides. We used some temperance motto slides, a J W Beattie Port Arthur Slide, two slides from Jane Conquest, some hand painted slides, and an amateur double-exposed ghost slide for the next sequence, which required a lot of changing between carriers. For the final sequence we began ‘finger flickering’ between a group of slides which I originally thought were slides illustrating the Franklin North West Passage expedition of the Erebus, but which I now realise are simply illustrating ‘Arctic Phenomena’. We ended with my favourite slide from my collection, a hand painted slide of some Byronic figure roiling around in the snow, overlooked by a distant church perched high on an icy cliff. Elisa once again had the inspired idea of holding what I call our ‘Cardboard Ken Burns’, a piece of cardboard with a hole in it, in front of the lens, to ‘spotlight’ key elements of the scene. I couldn’t have done it with out Elisa, Alex and Karen, all of whom contributed inspired original ideas. The video was made by Amr Tawfik, who was able to handle the low light OK, and was able to give a good impression of the labours of Elisa, Karen, Alec and myself. The audience reaction to the first performance was good, we filled the room up with fog from a  fog machine before they entered, and they filled the basement room to capacity, and were well primed for the show. The audience reaction to the second show was more muted, for several reasons, the necessary intimacy of the performance was somewhat swallowed up by the larger space of ARC, and the audience was less primed as to what to expect.

Flocking Australians — My 1989 essay for Anne Zahalka’s ‘Bondi, Playground of the Pacific’

Working through Anne Zahalka’s excellent website Zahalkaworld I came across this old essay of mine, so I OCRed it.

Flocking Australians

If you wanted to write the story of recent Australian photography you could say that, about ten years ago, some photographers of Anne Zahalka’s generation found themselves engaged in a kind of oedipal drama with the grand traditions of photography.

They began to doubt whether photography’s contiguity with the real automatically guaranteed the privileged access to social, historical and psychological truth which it claimed for itself. They also doubted whether the camera’s internalisation of Renaissance perspective automatically created a universal language innocent of contextual inflection.

Against photography’s core documentary and transcendental traditions they counterposed an array of critical strategies: a deliberate play with its significatory codes; a seditious appropriation of its most persuasive and pervasive images; and a provocative flirtation with either the theatrical or the filmic mise-en-scene.

Photographic denotation now came chaperoned by irony. And the viewer’s simple delight in the photograph’s self-evident truth was displaced by a knowing complicity with the photographer’s intertextual virtuosity.

Very good. And all, by now, more than familiar. But perhaps, in the heat of their battle, these photographers surrendered what remains one of photography’s main functions – the recording of our social environment. In their strategic opposition to the assumptions that underpinned photography’s entrenched, but exhausted traditions —such as Documentary — they neglected the task of ‘The Social Record’. The two are not necessarily identical.

You don’t have to look far past the critical spotlight to see that the visual representation of our current historical formation is still in the thrall of those who are themselves enthralled by dead photographies. Not only does the Australiana book-mill continue to churn out their all too familiar images of ‘social history’, but even our galleries have an institutional stake in maintaining the continuity of their own art-historical investments.

Of course no theoretically aware photographer ever believed that their critiques of the dominant traditions would revolutionise the mainstream of visual representation, or even end up as anything other than yet another art-historical moment. But by re-addressing their obligations to The Social Record on their own terms, and re-using the visual tactics developed in their skirmishes with the problematics of picturing, a long overdue re-occupation of abandoned territory can begin. Photographic records of us, which are now no longer beholden to the monosemic truths of the documentary tradition can circulate in the media.

Take Bondi for instance. How can you photograph somewhere which is not so much a place, as a site for the contestation of nationhoods? Bondi is invested with so many different meanings by so many different people that it resembles one of those thick, gluey wads of rival dance-party posters which slowly slough off hoardings under the increasing weight of their own commitment to splintering cultural identity. Or perhaps it’s more like a bus shelter onto which so any messages have been sprayed that no one graffitist’s contribution is actually legible. How do you photograph Bondi without simply adding another layer to this furious accumulation? To document it – to collect its ‘characters’ and ‘sights’, and celebrate its freedom’ and ‘diversity’ – is simply to do what Bondi already demands, expects and requires: it is only to confirm it as the effect of prior representations, and therefore further aggrandize its mythological status. How, then, to record it without also succumbing to it?

Bondi, we are often told, is the place to which overseas visitors and Australians are equally attracted. They flock there in a kind of instinctual migration. But Bondi is no originary site, it is the birthplace of nothing and has been sanctified by no momentous events. Its significance as a place resides solely within the national rituals it is witness to every day. The flocking tourists are drawn to the various versions of Australiahood which are eternally enacted there. It is only when they arrive that they realise that they have contracted to be both spectator and spectacle, because the symbolic economy of Bondi runs on mutual voyeurism and exhibitionism.

If Bondi has no ‘essence’ other than the eternal flame of enactment, then maybe the time-honoured conventions of the stage are a way of recording it. With this in mind Anne Zahalka turned the amphitheatre at the back of Bondi Pavilion into a temporary stage cum studio. She strung up a backdrop onto which had been painted three broad bands of sand, sea and sky; she brought in some of the beach’s sand to spread over the concrete; she unrolled some Astro-turf; and she dragged in a few park benches and picnic tables. Bondi wasn’t so much recreated as imploded.

Under a mixture of sunlight and artificial fill-light Bondi’s cast of character-types hold themselves in timeless containment. Each pose typifies and distils the parts they play. Each tableau illustrates one aspect of Bondi’s cultural cavalcade. These portraits share their premise with the nineteenth century studio portrait — in which backdrops, clothing, furniture and pose were similarly deployed in order to firmly install the sitter in a pre-existent social niche. Their air, however, is quite different. Rather then the solemn density of the nineteenth century studio, Bondi’s players are portrayed in the transparent gelato colours of an imagined ‘perfert day at the beach’ – cool, charmed, and impossible.

But this imploded, distilled, typified Bondi no longer performs its usual function of invitation and promise. All the other photographs of Bondi we have seen, from postcards to sociological studies, say ‘where are you, why are you absent from this census of flocking Australians?’ Anne Zahalka’s formally complete images do not invite us to enter them. Only in these closed tableaus is our absence not included, because there has been no place left for us on the stage.

As The Beach Inspectors adopt their characteristic stance to gaze into the infinity of nature we certainly recognise Bondi, but we also realise that the inspectors are really only staring at the painted backdrop which hangs a mere four feet in front of their noses. We are therefore not invited to identify or anticipate, but rather to observe, compare and notice. We observe the firm plant of their feet, we compare their broad backs and sensible hats, and we notice how their walkie-talkies are worn in such a way as to draw our attention to a lifesaver’s best assets.

The Japanese honeymooners photographed being photographed in Tourists are, as always, cute as buttons. But now they are not simply our spectacle, and we are not theirs. Instead it is Bondi’s economic exchange of mutual spectacle which we see.

Although Anne Zahalka photographs the various cultural sub-groups that make up the ‘colourful’ population of Bondi, she is not interested in describing ethnicity as it is accommodated within the bureaucratic regime of Multiculturalism. Each of her characters, although typified, is not abstracted – each retains his or her particularity. In her photographs, as in Bondi itself, Asians hang with Asians and Anglos hang with Anglos. And judging by the inflated poses brandished by some members of those groups, Bondi’s sun has provided no benediction for broader social conflict.

She also addresses that aspect of Bondi with which it has been associated the longest — the nationalist surf-cult of health, strength and purity. The historical phallo-anglo-centrism of Australian beach culture is addressed in two pastiches which appropriate key icons from our collective beach memory. In the classical beach Arcady of Charles Meere’s 1940 painting Australian Beach Pattern the white nuclear family is presented as the paradigm of the Australian race. The Australian body is painted as though it was the finest product of Imperial engineering – almost as smooth and powerful as an aircraft engine. In Anne Zahalka’s elaborate restaging the physical individuality of mortal flesh is re-introduced, breaking both the metaphorical connection between the natural family and the national race, and the historical nexus between the colonial beach and the Imperial battlefield.

Similarly, the shock of red hair and pale skin of her The Sunbather #2 gently lightens the masculine weight of Max Dupain’s monument to Modernist bodily architecture — his Sunbaker 1937. But her images are not just the blank parody of Postmodernist pastiche. Within this context they serve to record a Bondi which is changing on both a material, and an ideological level.

Finally, acting as visual pauses within the exhibition, are photographs of ‘raw’ nature – the sun, surf and sky which were painted onto the backdrop. This is Nature’s Infinity – Bondi’s gift to the city of Sydney. But in this context the ambiguous squares of abstracted Nature lose all their pre-cultural significance. The ‘natural’ of Bondi is not a tabula rasa upon which we have written our culture. There never has been a clean bus shelter or an unpostered hoarding at Bondi. The Natural is something which is always already deployed within the culture of Bondi. For instance, the munificent bounty of the sun now becomes an insidious, cancerous threat just as it once caused madness and sunstroke. The cleansing briskness of the surf now becomes a toxic source of infection, just as it once threatened the pioneers with shipwrecks, sharks and drowning. Similarly, Anne Zahalka’s squares of nature only become a natural landscape within their specific cultural context.

If you wanted to establish the importance of this show you could say that, at last, it indicates the beginnings of a return by some of our photographers to what will always be one of photography’s primary tasks — the maintenance of The Social Record. Yet in recording Bondi today it continues to refuse an easy nostalgia for the truth of Bondi. The beach remains the stage it always was.

Anne Zahalka, The Tourists, 1989

Anne Zahalka, The Bathers, 1989

Anne Zahalka, The Lifeguards, 1989

Anne Zahalka, The Girls, 1989

Anne Zahalka, The Sunbather, 1989.

The apparatuses of science, entertainment and belief in colonial Australia

The paper I read and powerpoint I showed at the conference Imagineers in Circus and Science: Scientific Knowledge and Creative Imagination, ANU, 3-5 April, convened by Dr Anna-Sophie Jürgens

Introduction

The 1870s was a big decade for the colony of Victoria. The money flowing from the gold fields had led to rapid growth in its size and sophistication. By the early 1870s passengers could reach Melbourne from England in as little as two months, and Morse code messages could be relayed from London in just seven hours. Victorian colonists were feeling themselves more connected to the rest of the world than ever before. They too were part of the tension between traditional religion and the great scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century. They too craved novelty and modern experience. But their place in the world meant that they engaged with these ideas in ways that were distinctly their own. During the decade three events cast emerging ideas of ‘science’, ‘belief’, ‘entertainment’ and ‘technology’ into new configurations for the colonists of Victoria.

Spiritualism

Modern Spiritualism, the belief that human personality survived beyond death and that the dead could communicate with the living, was an integral part of the general foment of 1870s Victoria. It was part of the broader Free Thought movement, reconciling the terrifying divisions that seemed to be opening up between religion and science.

In the powerful experience of the séance the Spiritualist believer, suffering from what psychologists would now call apophenia, or cognitive confirmation bias, was gradually enmeshed into a seductive relationship with a ‘medium’, who used techniques of misdirection learnt from stage magic to convince them of what they wanted to believe — that their dead could return to them.

In 1870 William Terry opened a shop as a bookseller, Spiritualist medium, and magnetic healer. Customers could buy imported herbs for the ailments which Terry had clairvoyantly diagnosed, they could buy the latest copies of spiritualist journals and pamphlets published in Australia or imported from the US and the UK, and they could buy factual evidence of Spiritual truths in the form of carte de visite spirit photographs.

Spiritualists thought they were at the forefront of progress, leading the way for the rest of the world. They embraced rational scientific methods, which they thought were equivalent to the methods that were leading to the other great technological breakthroughs of the age. Terry claimed that:

spiritual intercourse can be proved as conclusively as telegraphic communication, postal delivery, or any other fact know to one section of the world’s inhabitants, and not to others.

In late 1873 visitors to Terry’s shop may have perused the latest copy of the London magazine The Spiritualist and read that the medium Florence Cook, a young girl of 17, had produced what was known as a ‘full body materialization’ of the spirit Katie King. Florence materialized the Spirit at a séance while supposedly entranced and tied to a chair in a curtained-off cabinet. On 7 May the spirit was photographed by the ignition of magnesium powder. The Spiritualist reproduced an engraving produced directly from one of the photographs. The magazine advised its readers:

The efforts of the experimentalists have been successful, and the large engraving […] is about a faithful a copy as wood-cutting can give […] In the photograph itself the features are more detailed and beautiful, and there is an expression of dignity and ethereality in the face, which is not fully represented in the engraving, which, however, has been executed as nearly as possible with scientific accuracy, by an artist of great professional skill.

There was at least one enthusiastic Melbourne reader of this amazing account. He was William Denovan, a successful gold miner, parliamentarian and chairman of a séance circle in Bendigo called The Energetic Circle. There were many séances held in the goldfields during this period. They successfully produced Spiritualistic phenomena because, it was reasoned, the deposits of quartz running underground along the veins of gold were acting as crystal concentrators for spiritual forces.

As the Energetic Circle held hands, prayed, and sung hymns, they slowly began to experience more and more manifestations of spirit communication. After a period, the male medium began to levitate, they smelled delicious perfume, felt cool breezes, and spirit lights appeared. Then the sitters began to brushed by spirit lips and spirit hands, then they began to see disembodied arms. Then, finally, in June 1874, the Bendigo female medium fully materialized the beautiful spirit Katie King, almost a year after she had been photographed in London. She stood in the middle of the séance room illuminated only by the dying embers of the fire, and clothed head to foot in ‘robes of white muslin or gauze’. Denovan marveled how:

… those who saw the face of Katie King on Sunday evening state that she wore a turban on her head just as she appears in the photograph of her published in the London Spiritualist of the 15th of May 1873. […] The face appeared to some of swarthy colour, to others fair, with fair hair, and parted down the middle; but to me it appeared copper coloured, with drapery round it and over the head similar to the photograph of Mrs MacDougal Gregory, of London, and her spirit sister. […] as [Katie] made herself visible to all present — distinctly and unmistakably visible — all became deeply impressed, and several sobbed audibly. None who were present will ever forget what they saw on this occasion, and the feeling of solemnity and awe to which the sight gave rise, and all inwardly offered up their thanks to Almighty God for his goodness in thus having by his great natural laws vouchsafed to them by positive demonstration, the reality of another life. It was a solemn yet joyous moment never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it. And it is just the beginning.

But Denovan and his circle hadn’t only witnessed a modern miracle, they had witnessed it in Bendigo. The Spirit of Katie had instantaneously travelled to where the mediumistic power was concentrated. Denovan declared:

I have now the satisfaction of informing you that we have no need to go to England or America to see the spirits in mortal from, as they are here in our midst.

To you or I, the fact that the materializations in Bendigo wore the same style of drapery as seen in the photographs and magazines sold in Terry’s shop may be evidence that the huckster mediums were simply copying the photographs. But to the Spiritualist believers it was corroborative. It was powerful proof that it was the actual Katie King they were seeing, who was able to travel from a séance in London to a séance in Bendigo even faster than an electric telegraph message.

While these extraordinary Bendigo visions were being reported, a new spirit photograph was also being discussed in Melbourne. The Melbourne Spiritualist Dr Walter Lindesay Richardson had attended a photographic séance in London. He wrote back to Victoria:

… a draped figure projected itself beside my likeness. I send you specimens. During the process [the photographer] afforded me every facility for scrutiny, allowing me to clean the glasses myself, to follow them through several stages, and to see them developed.

Terry tried to wrap his head around exactly what he was seeing:

… a Gothic chair is standing before the sitter with its back in close proximity to his knees; a female figure which is kneeling in front of him seems to permeate the chair, portions of the chair being visible through the form, as though the matter of the chair offered no obstruction to the more refined material of the Spirit form

So, this form must be a transition stage to full materialization.

As far as we understand it, the Materialized Spirit form which appears on these occasions, is a condensation of sublimated matter, brought about by a scientific process known to Spirits who have studied Chemistry. The power used is Electricity, brought to bear through the magnetic emanations of the Medium.

Professor Pepper’s Scientific Festivals

One of the major figures of the London entertainment scene was Professor Henry Pepper who had become synonymous with the popular Royal Polytechnic Institution. In the 1850s and 60s Pepper developed a spectacular lecturing style incorporating many new ‘scientific’ entertainments that demonstrated the principals of physics, chemistry and optics, while also feeding the audience’s appetite for illusion, wonder, and even the occult.

At the Polytechnic he patented an illusion that directly fed into the public’s appetite for gothic and spiritualist effects. The ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ illusion required the use of a new technology developed for shop windows, plate glass, and a magic lantern. The angled glass reflected a concealed figure brightly lit against a black background, while the audience could still see the scene behind the glass. As the original inventor of the illusion said:

Mesmerism throughout all its harlequinade, down to its present disguise under spiritualism or spirit rapping … has never had nerve enough or nous enough to produce such thorough full-length ghosts as are now every day to be seen.

Pepper’s Ghost was both a theatrical illusion and a scientific curiosity at the same time. In one of the first illustrations of the illusion Professor Pepper himself stands off to one side, observing the materialization with cool detachment. Pepper was therefore caught in a paradox. He needed to protect the secret of his illusions to maintain audience interest, but to also be a ‘scientific’ professor he needed, at some point, to explain the scientific principles behind the illusion.

Pepper eventually left the Polytechnic, but increasingly found it hard to get audiences. There was even criticism of what had come to be seen as his ‘ponderous and didactic’ delivery style. He developed another mirror illusion, the Metempsychosis. But even this wasn’t enough to revive Pepper’s flagging British career so, in 1879, he decided to lecture in Australia.

He arrived with ‘a large amount of scientific exhibition apparatus and full staff of professional assistants’. ‘Pepper’s Scientific Festival’, billed as an ‘ILLUSORY ENTERTAINMENT’ featured all of his Polytechnic hits, with the added excitement of an electric light. Like the many other touring celebrities, Pepper’s fame preceded him. Shortly after his arrival, Melbourne’s St Georges Hall was crammed with people ‘evidently anxious to hear the wonders of Nature unfolded and explained by the lecturer, who for more than a quarter of a century has amused and at the same time instructed thousands in London.’ Unlike in London, where his oratorical style had seemed ponderous and didactic, in Melbourne, ‘[h]is luminous and genial mode of elucidating the various phenomena which he exhibited rendered the lecture a genuine treat.’

Judging by newspaper reviews, for his new audiences Pepper was able to rebalance the tension between ‘illusion to entertain’ and ‘illusion to demonstrate scientific truths’. On the one hand ‘one might be tempted to believe that he possessed supernatural powers’. On the other hand ‘[he] is a man of science [who recognises] that the time has passed when the secrets of nature were explained only in the cloister’.

Some even recognized that Pepper’s doubling of the idea of ‘the marvelous’ could be a weapon against the errors of Spiritualism. The journalist Marcus Clarke wrote:

[A]mid the nonsense being talked and written on all sides concerning “Spiritualism” and miraculous intervention, it might be a good thing if the Government would suffer the children it educates to see some of the marvels which can be produced by human ingenuity. A course of Pepper would give a tone to the youthful stomach, and brace it to the withstanding of tales of dancing tables and hovering apparitions of dead children.

Conversazioni

Pepper’s arrival was greeted with well-orchestrated fanfare. However, the press noted:

Not that we have no scientific men amongst us; on the contrary, they are as plentiful as in other civilized lands; but our scientists have neither the time nor the opportunity of coming before the public as Professor Pepper does in the cause of natural philosophy.

This comment must have come as an insult to the Royal Society of Victoria, which had in fact been promoting science to the public since the early 1870s. They had even held a ‘conversazione’ a year before Pepper arrived. Conversazioni were mixtures of entertainment and education, where gentlemen and ladies could promenade, have hands-on interactions with new technologies, listen to lectures, and talk to individual ‘proficients’ who were drawn from science, academia, government and commerce.

At each conversazione the President of the Royal Society summed up the previous year’s progress in colonial science. In 1878 he commented on the pace of technological change:

In my last address I referred […] to the then recent invention of the telephone. Since then this wonderful little instrument has been greatly improved, and is now in actual use in Melbourne, not only as a scientific toy, but as a means of communication. We had no sooner become familiar with the telephone than we were astounded by accounts of a still more wonderful apparatus, the ‘phonograph’, […] Still later we heard of the ‘microphone’ […] although their practical applications are as yet limited, there can be but little doubt that they will eventually become of great value […].

Two years later he noted approvingly that the sophistication of the colonists was keeping pace with this heady technological change:

… the subject of science attracts in this community the same keen attention, and is pursued with the same ardour, given to it in all intelligent communities. We are at least able to show that the intellect of the colony perceives the importance of scientific investigation; that the Government and the public are liberal in its support …

But people went to conversazioni to see inventions. In 1878 a phonograph played Rule Britannia and He’s a Jolly Good Fellow which ‘sounded as if it was being sung by an old man of 80 with a cracked voice.’

The phoneidoscope reproduced the vibrations of words sung into its mouthpiece as an ‘an endless variety of exquisite designs, resembling those observed in the ordinary kaleidoscope’, on a film of soap water and glycerine.

The microphone, powered by a galvanic battery, amplified the sounds of a telephone so that a ‘[t]he ticking of a watch could be heard at the other end of the room.’ Ammonia gas was liquefied under pressure, and microscopes showed rock sections, algae and invertebrates from across the colony, while the siren produced ‘melancholy and discordant’ sounds throughout the night.

In his address the President of the Society had speculated about the future offered by these inventions. But, once they had tried them themselves, the ordinary visitor to the conversazione found they could speculate about the future just as well as he could. The ‘remarkable nature’ of the displays ‘was productive of much wonderment’, but they also ‘gave rise to varied speculation as to their ultimate development’.

1000 people, including many ladies, attended the 1879 conversazione. An Edison phonograph was displayed, and a working printing press. But the magic lantern was the central apparatus. Amongst other things, the magic lantern showed some striking experiments with vortex rings and astronomical views.

Many of the ladies and gentlemen caught in the newspaper illustrations of 1880 look remarkably contemporary, like customers at an Apple Store Genius Bar, as they confidently manipulate the various devices on offer. Technology had gone from ‘philosophical toy’ to ‘personal device’

Conclusion

The people in these three case studies thought they had very little in common with each other. Although he flirted with the occult, Professor Pepper ultimately regarded the Spiritualists as gullible dupes. He and his audience knew that his illusions were just that — illusions — and that if he chose to, he could scientifically explain how they were created. If you had asked them, the members of the Royal Society would have most probably looked down on Pepper’s broadly popular audience. To these middle class consumers of knowledge, science didn’t need Professor Pepper’s carnival effects. To them the effects of science were being felt in the actual utilitarianness of its inventions, which were usefully recording invisible phenomena such as sound or performing real actions at a distance.

At face value these three case studies could therefore be seen to be following a familiar developmental trajectory: from the observer being tricked by hucksters into believing something that isn’t true, and in any case is no longer necessary; to observers willing ‘suspending disbelief’ for the duration of a scientific entertainment, and experiencing an occult illusion in order to have it deconstructed into its scientifically knowable components; to, finally, observers becoming individual operators of new technologies, and rehearsing their forthcoming role as consumers of technological devices as future customers of Bell Telephones, IBM, and Apple.

It is tempting to see a millennium’s worth of progress refracted into the decade. But although we can easily arrange these case studies into a single developmental line, we can also arrange them into at least two different constellations that are perhaps more illuminating.

The first constellation is phenomenological. Although there are epistemological differences between the three case studies, there are also deep phenomenological similarities. There is an identical sensation of science that persists through the arc of progress. Through seeing Spirits with their own eyes, and then correlating their vision with the photographic proofs sent from England, the Spiritualists knew the truth of Spirit return. Through having their eyes willingly ‘tricked’ by Pepper’s machinery and then being shown how it ‘really’ worked, attendees at Pepper’s shows felt they knew a little bit more about the nature of light and reflection. By placing their mouth to the mouthpiece, or their ear to the earpiece, or their eye to the eyepiece, and then seeing, hearing or feeling the invisible, conversazioni participants felt the future enter their own bodies.

In each case a single observer is instantiated as the ground for belief and understanding. To reach forward into a future where they would routinely converse with the dead, as the Spiritualists expected; or routinely call each other up on the telephone, as visitors to the conversazioni expected, each visitor was asked to stand on no other evidential ground than themselves. But in each case, the human test subject of perception is only instantiated through, and within, the apparatus.

The second constellation is geographical. It interests me that all of the experiences from my three case studies are in some sense ‘airy’. They happen up in the air in some virtual space in front of the observer, which is sort of still ‘in Victoria in the 1870s’, but sort of ‘all over the world’ as well. And all of my examples — spirit materializations, wonderful illusions straight from London, telephones, microphones and phonographs — collapse time and space. Although they were seven hours ‘behind’ via the telegraph, or two months ‘behind’ by ship, in some sense these colonial audiences were ‘ahead’ of the rest of the world in this new experience of the globe. I think that the experiences of instantaneity, simultaneity, immediacy and proximity were more powerful for colonial audiences, who were part of the same currents of modernity as everyone else, but who joined hands in Bendigo, or bought a ticket to St Georges Hall or attended a conversazione, in Melbourne, at the outer edge of the modern world itself.

Martyn Jolly

 

 

Chromatrope at Mt Stromlo

On 20 April we performed this 130 year old chromatrope under the stars at Mt Stromlo Observatory. We projected it through a 130 year old magic lantern  onto the scarred wall of the shell of the dome which was built to house the 26 inch Yale-Columbia refractor telescope in 1955, and destroyed by the ACT Bushfires in 2003. Music Ben Keogh, video Clare Jolly. For Heritage in the Limelight: The Magic Lantern in Australia and the World.

Ian North, Manifest Destiny I – V, 1988/89

Catalogue essay for Ian North’s 1991 exhibition Manifest Destiny I – V

Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, 1991, ISBN 0 9588325 7 9

(The works were 79.0 x 246.5 centimetre laminates of wood, acrylic, ink, plexiglass, and colour coupler photographs, juxtaposing four different landscape images of the American West, to which were then added brush strokes of paint.)

Thanks to Helen Ennis and Ian North for reclaiming this forgotten historical text for my blog.

Ian North, Manifest Destiny, 1988/89.

Ian North, Manifest Destiny, 1988/89.

Appreciating the Scenery

As early as 1864 the American geologist Clarence King was complaining that the prominent points of the Yosemite Valley were being overrun by an ‘army of literary travellers who have planted themselves and burst into rhetoric’. He might have had in mind someone like the editor of the Springfield Massachusetts Republican, Samuel Bowles, who planted himself at Inspiration Point in 1868 and wrote: “The overpowering sense of the sublime, of awful desolation, of transcending marvelousness and unexpected­ness, that swept over us, as we reined our horses sharply out of green fields, and stood upon the high jutting rock that overlooked this rolling, upheaving sea of granite mountains, holding far down its rough lap this vale of beauty of meadow and grove and river — such tide of feeling, such stoppage of ordinary emotions comes at rare intervals in any life. It was the confrontal of God face to face.’

But in fact King had his own highly developed scientific rhetoric with which to admire the Western Landscape. His geological theory of Catastrophism accounted for Yosemite’s jutting promontories of rock overlooking the moist vales of meadow in the following way: ‘He who brought to bear the mysterious energy we call life upon primeval matter bestowed at the same time a power of devel­opment by change, arranging that interaction of energy and matter which makes the environment, from time to time, burst in upon a higher current of life and sweep it onward and upward to ever higher and better mani­festations. Moments of great catastrophe, thus translated into the language of life, become moments of creation, when out of plastic organisms something newer and nobler is called into being’. King asked ‘what sentiment, what idea does this wonder-valley leave upon the earnest observer? what impression does it leave upon his heart? …..First, the titanic power, the awful stress, which has rent this solid tableland of granite in twain; and secondly, the magical faculty displayed by vegetation in redeeming the aspect of wreck and masking a vast geological tragedy behind the draperies of fresh and living green’.

In both closely related rhetorics — the literary and the scientific — geology is generative and, as in the biological order of things, He has given progenitive force to periodic rocky cataclysms.

Despite the immediate potency of these ideas, at first the Western Landscape was officially regarded in mundane economic and strategic terms. In 1867 the U.S. Department of War ordered King to head the 40th Parallel Survey: ‘to examine and describe the geological structure, geographical condition and natural resources all rock formations, mountain ranges, detrital plains, mines, coal deposits, soils, minerals, ores, saline and alkaline deposits…[and to make] detailed maps of the chief mining districts’

However, because of the persuasive power of the scientific rhetoric of the Catastrophism and the literary rhetoric of the sublime, by the twentieth century the American Western Landscape had become famous as the most recognisable bit of scenery in the world after the Swiss Alps. But the best definition of the word ‘scenery’ remains an economic one: it is that topography which has become so overgrown with rhetoric that its principle product is not crops or livestock or minerals, but admiration. And via recreational parks such scenic wildernesses are inserted into a system of economic usefulness.

With this historical background in mind we can see Ian North’s juxtaposition of an Ansel Adams photograph with a painting by Georgia O’Keefe as a comment on the gender politics of the Western Landscape. The hubristic monumentality of Ansel Adams, twentieth century inheritor of the sublime machismo of the nineteenth century geologists, wilts somewhat in the face of the voluptuous experience of Georgia O’Keefe’s fleshy envelopings. (Such a startling juxtaposition gains even more meaning when one reflects that both artists, in their turn, are claimed by two distinct types of contemporary greenie: the rugged Paddy Pallin wilderness trekker, and the nurturer of intimate Earth consciousness.)

North flanks these already rhetorically productive diptychs with a tourist postcard image and a landscape photograph taken by himself (which he describes as ‘the artist’s pursuit of what might be his own eye — or a simulation thereof) and reminds us that a famous piece of scenery is just as much caught up in the problematics of aura in the age of mechanical reproduction as a famous oil painting.

And finally, by embedding all four jostling, argumentative images in a museal slab North refers us to the role of institutional sanctification in our ‘natural’ knowledge of Nature.

If that was all it would be enough, a bit didactic perhaps, but enough. However the series is taken far beyond this clear-headed investigation of the relationship between topography, landscape and scenery by the brush marks which the artist has urgently applied across all four images. Or, rather than taking us beyond, perhaps this brushwork takes North himself inside those historical and rhetorical relationships.

The trenchant critique created by the juxtaposition of the four types of landscape image — Adams, O’Keefe, postcard and North himself — is both amplified and distorted by the seemingly delinquent vandal­ism of North’s brush. The paint makes visual rhymes and puns, it fictionalizes events within the images and fabricates connections between them. The textural immediacy of the brushwork returns North to that jutting promontory of rock. Yet now he is no longer an imperious, disincarnated eye gazing over either a Vale of beauty’ or ‘detrital plains’. The gestural brushmarks re-embody him, they glance across the landscape and reintro­duce the duration of lived time into the moment of perception. The flux of somatic humours record themselves in scudding sweeps and juddering dabs.

These works claim that in appreciating a landscape there is no retinal instant, no unmediated visual epiphany; rather there is a necessary dilation of the event of looking and an intrinsic rhetorization of sight. Perhaps, in these terms, sublimity is a measure of the inadequacy of rhetoric to its task.

In this sense the brush marks are a residue of the act of looking. They follow the con­tours of the image, annotate it, or act in counterpoint to it. At times North’s brushwork reminds me of somebody conducting an imaginary orchestra which they are listening to on headphones. By hapticly reinscribing the act of perception back into the scenery itself the brushwork complicates the proscenium space of the view. It is now a warped and anamorphosistic space, one could almost say a baroque space, in the sense that it incorporates within itself the subjective contingency of its very perception as space.

North introduces doubt and duration into these traditional images of the Western Landscape and renegotiates a place for himself within the received rhetoric of looking, a provisional and insecure place to be sure, but a place from which he can appreciate the scenery as equally a geological and a cultural topography.

Martyn Jolly

References:

Alan Trachtenberg, “Naming the View”, Reading American Photographs: Images as History Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, Hill & Wang, 1989.

Ann-Sargent Wooster, “Timothy O’Sullivan Reading the American Landscape”, Afterimage, March 1982.

Martin Jay, “Scopic Regimes of Modernity”, Vision and Visuality, Hal Foster (Ed.), Bay Press, Seattle, 1988

Corrosive Colourisation

 

Peter Jackson’s colourisation of Imperial War Museum footage.

 

Three years ago, so the media release goes, the Imperial War Museum approached Peter Jackson, famous director of The Lord of the Rings, ‘to see what could be done’ with their archival film footage of the Great War. Jackson’s answer was to slow the footage to the frame rate at which it had been originally shot, remove scratches, grade it and sharpen it. All this is what any good digital restoration does. But Jackson then went on to add colour to it. This is not restoration, because something is added which was not there in the first place. And it is not even ‘enhancement’, it is destruction.

 

Any creative re-use of archival footage is generally to be supported, and purist approaches to some notion of untouched archival sanctity get us nowhere. But the wholesale colourisation of archival footage is becoming more and more common recently. Jackson is not the only film maker to claim that colourisation is essential to bring ‘neglected’ or ‘lost’ or “forgotten’ footage to new audiences. And his is not the only company with a digital colourisation process to sell. For instance this year Screen Australia’s documentary funding program supported Stranger Than Fiction Films to use a French company to colourise ‘pivotal moments in our nation’s history’ for SBS. So it may be worthwhile to take a step back and consider the long term impact on our historical consciousness of wholesale colourisation as an archival default. What is its effect on affect?

 

The director of the Imperial War Museum, Diane Lees, states the argument for colourisation: ‘what we want to do is to take film that is very often dismissed by audiences because it is black and white’. There seems to be two strands to this argument: colour will somehow appeal to young eyes put off by boring old drab black and white with its association with – yawn – school history lessons; and colour is closer to the ‘reality’ for which the original cameramen strove, but were prevented from achieving because the technology they needed was yet to be developed. Both arguments are wrong.

 
Colourisation is not a gift to young people, it robs them of visual and historical literacy. It diminishes their ability to appreciate the full and beautiful range of tonal and chromatic spectra associated with each decade’s intrinsic technology. The technologically immersed young clearly have no problem in choosing from amongst the 24 default Instagram filters, including several in monochrome, with all of their historical associations, so why is their discrimination not trusted by Jackson and Lees?

 

And is a digitally colourised frame, where colours from a pre-determined palette are arbitrarily overlaid in a paint-by-numbers fashion, closer to reality than the original 256 tones of grey? We may know the original colour of a uniform, or an epaulette; but somebody’s skin, or their wallpaper? We can all, now, have a little snicker at Roland Barthes who, writing as late as 1980, still couldn’t help himself thinking that colour was: ‘a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph.’  For somebody like Barthes, who grew up when press photographs and films were overwhelmingly black and white and expensive colour was reserved for special portraits and fiction, colour was an artifice, a cosmetic like the kind used to paint corpses. Now the situation is reversed, for those who came of visual age amongst colour, black and white is the connotational accent, signifying a certain classical aestheticism, laid on top of the RGB substrata. This indicates the fluidity of the exchange between black and white and  colour. It is not just from an incomplete to a complete image potentiality, it’s an historical dialectic.

 

Even during the Great War itself, colour was perceived as a ‘lack’. When, in 1918, Australia’s War Records Section projected Paget Plate magic lantern slides at London’s Grafton Galleries (panchromatic emulsion exposed, and re-projected, through a three-colour matrix screen giving a pixelated colour image) they were rightly applauded as the first ‘real’ colour images of the War. They were recognised as ontologically different to the thousands of hand-coloured War photographs that already had been, and would continue to be, produced. (In 2016 the State Library of New South Wales held a wonderful exhibition of hand coloured Great War photographs from Melbourne’s Colart Studios.)

 

But anybody who has worked in the area of colour reproduction, Peter Jackson most particularly, knows that there is no prelapsarian urcolour waiting to be discovered. From Paget plates, to Dufay colour, to Kodachrome, to Technicolor, to the bling of today’s Canon or Sony firmware, all supposedly ‘natural’ colour is technologically sampled and replicated, and therefore of its time. Jackson is not returning what was lost, not clarifying what was muddied. He is just adding a supernumerary layer and obscuring the past with a chromatic corrosion from today. This is the first sin of historicism. Some colour profile has to be generated for the palette from which different colour values are assigned to various areas in the tonal image. The colourisation efforts I have seen so far project a vaguely retro palette back into the past — unlike today’s colour technology but also unlike any actual primitive colour technology of the past either — perhaps closest to Instagram’s ’Slumber’ filter.

 

Jackson says: ‘the people come to life in this film’. And that is the problem. They are not alive, they are dead. Allow us to meet them in their own technological time,  not in a fantasy of ‘presence’ which is really just a current technological effect.

 

Some of the news reports suggest that Jackson is even adding digital 3D (although perhaps, let’s be thankful for small mercies, they mean 2.5D) to the archival footage. The hyper realism of stereoscopic photographs was also an important part of the contemporaneous experience of the Great War. (For instance in Australia the Rose Stereographic Company produced thousands of stereo views of the War.)  But if it is true that Jackson plans to invent a new 3D effect within the archival footage, then the revenant automata manufactured out of the indexical template of the scanned film frames will even further divorce contemporary audiences from a profound acknowledgement of the significance of those who once lived within a specific past. They deserve to be more than just retro effects within the present.