Spill Writing

Spill Geist: the monitor, the camera and the self

‘Seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’
Walter Benjamin


If contemporaneity is a constant process of passing (duration) and being, then history is its messy record. But to articulate history, and to embed the present in the past, is not the same as seizing hold. I am thinking of the changes in paradigms of viewing; I am thinking of free-fall, during which ‘the horizon quivers in a maze of collapsing lines and you may lose any sense of above and below, of before and after, of yourself and your boundaries’ (Hito Steyerl, 2011).


I invite Steyerl here for the ways  in which she speaks of falling not as a falling apart, but as a means to establishing a new certainty, a precarious and powerful and ever-shifting vantage point that reveals ‘a social and political dreamscape of radicalised class war from above, one that throws jaw-dropping social inequalities into sharp focus.’ This new, visual normality, she proposes, makes links evident between policing, division and representation. Thinking of surveillance, of aerial views, nose-dives and Google Maps and panoramas from above, we realise how this virtual ground imagines a ‘superior spectator floating up in the air.’ What this displacement results in is a ‘remote-controlled gaze, outsourced to machines.’


So on the one hand, this free-fall, it offers a constant, shifting series of vantage-point, a kind of nomadism of viewing and on the other, it makes evident a confrontation with different mechanisms of surveillance and appropriation, a kind of ‘from-above.’


I am thinking here of the monitor, the camera, the lens, the body, the mirror, the figuration, the documentation, the fiction (and other poetics of erasure and construction).


Surveillance as a poetics and as a state of urgent confrontation that repeatedly disowns us from our representations, but also potentials for resistance (or at least models, or maybe just fragments of maybe).


I am thinking here of Ria Hartley, her digital body, a recrafter of memories, a space of exchange (again, the artist as historian). Our own memories, whatever confrontation they might instil, are now embedded into a different cultural politics through their fragmented enactment and recall. The switch from observer to observer, from monitoring to inviting, from opening up to recrafting is important here, because it changes the dimension of our personal memories, our relationship to value and imprint.


The care placed in the relationship, the gently confrontational guidance, the gift, they are important currencies in the relationship (and I think, empowering too). This is a free-fall through time, but also one through history, from which we wake up a little different, with a shift in agency.


And I am maybe saying this because my own memory placed me in 1989 Romania, in the midst of a confusing protest, from the small kitchen of a cold apartment block to the streets, from the streets into a derelict building in which I imprinted a more collective history. And in the midst of my recall, now, following burning bodies and again, protests, and a potentially orchestrated resignation (what happened to accountability) and who knows what the future holds and it’s over there, whilst the Million Mask March spreads and dissipates.


And of the letter I held in my hand, imprinted on the walls of the former Central Committee with chalk and blood, and of the letter I wrote to the my future self, bathed in milk, read out loud and frozen, nested and light and a candle burning alongside it in Zierle and Carter’s Swan Song. A kind of time-travel, a falling into the future.


Of the dog in Robin Deacon’s White Balance: A History of Video, the threads of autobiography and narrative and total documentation, and re-documentation and appropriation and erasure and control. The aestheticisation of memory, the erasure (or problem) of the original event. The falling in between past and future, the search for the original, the one, distilled memory. Surveillance as author, as cultural agent, as legislator, and the act of self-erasure, and our confrontation with those mechanisms (memories gain materiality in Deacon’s work, as this live and digital essay unfolds, as we travel in and through time).


I keep returning to Wegman’s Dog Duet, this strange choreography of attention and synchronicity (two dogs, same gaze, same floppy ears, different heights, same postures), and Deacon’s dog with the human eyes, and video art and digital representation, editing and film reels and cameras of precarious portability.


From Back to the Future to Slaughterhouse 5 (and us being in someone else’s gaze) to Peeping Tom, to the dog with the human eyes that’s been transported to the past (time travel), to re-enactment and remembrance and the medium as agent (the camera as author). The process of disposal and recovery (dog turd and/as the ultimate memory) and the recorded double, and becoming the original and erasing traces.


The beautiful materiality (and complex politics) of obsolete devices. The five-camera set-up in the black box space, the reflection and spectatorship and the flippancy of the self as techie.


We ask: what role do memories play in the surveillance era, where experience becomes a site, in which mediation and reality merge? Tales of the monitor and the self.


– Diana