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.

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.

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.

Save Australia’s precious kitsch heritage before it is too late!

The Rolfoclasts with their attempts at Rolfoclasm are at it again!

Somebody stop them!

In 1986 Rolf Harris painted for Warrnambool’s Lighthouse Theatre a lovely mural in vivid tones of ‘outback red’ and ‘charcoal black’, presumably supplied by  British Paints. The mural, with its artful paint drips and edge-of-the-brush paradiddles, has roots reaching deep down through Pro Hart and Eric Jolliffe, picking up some hints of panel van on the way.

Yet through a primitive idolatorous thinking that comes from the dark ages, some equate the  painting of a  landscape by a pedophile with the act of pedophilia itself. Purely to expiate their own unresolved anxiety over the epidemic they equate a painting with the man, and want to erase both. They are putting pressure on the Warrnambool City Council, who have already voted to cover the mural up. That was never going to work. “Hiding the mural behind perspex is exactly what’s been happening with sexual abuse,” Warrnambool City Councillor Peter Hulin said. “We’re covering it up and pretending it’s not there.” But the iconography of  bush hut and blasted sapling seems innocent, is there something secretly encoded in the onanistic brushwork?

Of course covering the mural does nothing to address the issues that cause pedophilia. I’m sure I’ve gone to restaurants where paedophiles have worked, driven on roads they have built, and so on and so on. And covering a mural is one thing, erasing Rolf from my psyche is quite another. You only have to whisper ‘Caractacus’ in my ear and Rolf’s interminable version of Court of King Caractacus starts up all over again in my head. Once seen, Jake the Peg cannot be unseen. Will everybody who, like me, was a television addict in the 1970s have to submit to neurological erasure?

Rolf painting the mural in 1986

The mural before its cover up, now threatened with total destruction

 

Tintype of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

What a magnificent concoction of hocus pocus was mixed in today’s piece about a newly discovered tintype which may be, perhaps, of Billy the Kid. All the tropes are there: bought at a flea market for ten dollars; photographic experts supposedly dating the object to just a two year window of 1879 to 1880 (how so precise, exactly? one of these experts is a friend of my friend Craig Tuffin, and he doesn’t know either); then, from material connoisseurship, we swing to contemporary facial recognition software which supposedly picks Pat Garret and Billy the Kid’s faces out from the algorithmic line-up; finally the handwriting experts chime in with their confirmation. The ten dollar tintype may now be worth five million. The proud owner said what the narrative inevitably demanded he say: ‘One day it may end up at an auction house somewhere. We’ll see what happens.’ Meanwhile the smudge of the supposed Billy the Kid’s face, with it’s  doll-like splodges of pink hand-colouring on his cheeks, stare out at me from the iPad. And I feel like David Hemmings from Blow Up, staring back at the clump through my ridiculously ostentatious magnifying glass, wanting, just wanting.

Billy the Kid?

Charge! And Charge again! And again! And again!

No other Australian battle has been reenacted as often as the Battle of Beersheba. Although the America Civil War is the most reenacted war in history, something about the 1917 charge of the Light Horse on the Turkish foothold in Palestine has the same elements of attraction for Australian reenactors. It’s probably the comforting links back to preindustrial warfare and to an ‘Outback’ national mythos that makes this ANZAC Melbourne Cup so attractive for those who want to feel what it felt like a hundred years ago.

But, reenactment was at the battle’s very origin. For decades a photograph of distant horsemen against a parched horizon was taken to be an authentic document grabbed by a frightened Turk as the 800 hoses thundered down on him. It wasn’t, it was taken by Frank Hurley more than three months after the battle in early 1918. Hurley characteristically exaggerated the number of men put at his disposal for the reenactment to 1000, but the men themselves resented being conscripted for such a ‘rehearsal’ so soon after the trauma of the actual event, and refused to push  their horses to a full gallop.

A supplied image obtained Wednesday, October 11, 2017 of “‘Thunder of a light horse charge’. This photograph has been described as one of the charge of the 4th Light Horse Brigade at Beersheba on the 31st October 1917. It’s now believed to have been taken by photographer Frank Hurley in February 1918. (AAP Image/ Australian War Memorial) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Forty Thousand Horsemen

Hurley filmed the charge again twenty years later in 1938, this time as a teaser for the financial backers of Charles Chauvel’s patriotic blockbuster Forty Thousand Horsmen, eventually released right on cue for World War Two in 1940. They borrowed some cavalry horses from Sydney’s sesquicentenary celebrations and got them thunder over the sand hills at Cronulla as Hurley filmed them from a trench dug into the sand. (The future famous war photographer Damien Parer, who also occasionally included reenactments in his subsequent newsreels, was also there filming amongst the horses)

Beersheba Reenactment, Winton Queensland, September 2017

In September this year a hundred horses reenacted the charge at Winton in Queensland, and on the hundredth anniversary of the Battle a couple of days ago Australian enthusiasts reenacted the charge in front of the prime minister and opposition leader back at Beersheba, now in Israel, on  horses borrowed from an Israeli pony club.

Beersheba Reenactment, Israel, October 2017

Beersheba Reenactment, Israel, October 2017

The first assault on the dignitaries was at a slow trot, but later  thirty horses suddenly returned for a charge at full gallop.

Beersheba reenactment, Israel, October 2017

Happy Birthday Cyanotype

OK, the big two oh oh is usually the one you pop the champagne and light the fire crackers for but, you’ve got to admit, a one hundred and seventy-fifth birthday isn’t too bad either. It is one hundred and seventy five years ago that Sir John Herschel discovered the process we are celebrating in this exhibition. All you needed was ammonium ferric citrate, potassium ferricyanide, and light. That was it! It was so simple, but oh, look at that blue. Blue, the most sublime the most pure of all the colours — the colour of the sky, the colour of the ocean when it was smiling, maybe the colour of Heaven, certainly, in its lighter version, the colour of the Virgin’s cloak. A colour so pure and airy, but laid down in that chemical reaction with a ferric fist of iron. Herschel’s amazing discovery of what, on 16 August 1842 he called, chemist that he was, the cyanotype (I would have called it the skyograph, but that may not have caught on) endured and endured. In the twentieth century it became the blueprint. Every steel-girded skyscraper, every streamlined jetliner, started out as cyanotyped lines on an engineer’s diagram. The technical blueprint gave three-dimensional form, through physical construction, to our modernist aspirations. But earlier artists had already discovered that through the magic of light modulation the cyanotype also gave three-dimensional form to physical objects that were laid on the sensitive paper out under the sky. When Anna Atkins laid two specimens of dictyota dichotoma, one in its young state the other in fruit, on cyanotype paper for her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions she was the first of thousands to discover that the seaweed recorded itself in a magically volumetric way — floating in a virtual space of blueness. One hundred and seventy four years later the seaweed is still suspended there as though not a second has ticked past. How do I know it is dictyota dichotoma? Because Anna Atkins wrote a label, using all of her knowledge of biology, and placed that on the sensitive paper as well. Herschel’s implacable reaction photogrammed Atkins’ Linnaean knowledge and the seaweed’s objective existence together into the same stuff of knowing.

So cut the cake. In a hundred and seventy five years’ time people will still be knowing the world by making cyanotypes. Of that I have no doubt.

My words for ‘Out of the Blue’, curated by Ursula Frederick and Kerry Martin, opening tonight  at Photospace in the ANU School of Art & Design. Featuring work from 1981 by Mazie Karen Turner, Bronwyn Rennex, and others

Justine Varga ‘Maternal Line’

Look I don’t want to add to the beat up, but jeez some ridiculous things are being said about Justine Varga’s winning photograph for the Olive Cotton Portrait prize. Now a professor of Law at the University of Sydney is saying the chemical and light produced image of Justine Varga’s grandmother’s pen marks and spittle isn’t authored by Varga but by her Grandmother. Does she know nothing of the history of, say, conceptual art (Lewitt: ‘The idea becomes the machine that makes the art’) or participatory art? This completely out of touch law professor thinks that ‘expression’ must lie in the perfunctory hand made mark (presumably because Shakespeare wrote his plays by hand?), not in the photographer’s highly developed and thought through photographic process of indexical translation. Somebody else (responsible for the nausea we feel when we are landing in QANTAS planes) reckons it’s not a photograph, even though at its core it is driven by light and chemistry and touch, the things that have been celebrated as the core of photography by photographic theorist since, oh, I don’t know, 1839? Somebody else reckons its not a portrait of Varga’s grandmother, even though all anybody has been talking about is — her grandmother! And even though, to return to our Sydney Law professor’s valorisation of the hand in her misunderstanding of art authorship, we have all long  been valorising and fetishising the hand made mark as a signature of the person.