by Gautam Pemmaraju
The world about us is a set of ends to be reached or avoided, and the spatiotemporal distance of the ends is organized in perception as the means by which these ends may be so reached or avoided.
– George Mead in The Philosophy of the Act
Eadward Muybridge’s pioneering experiment Sally Gardner at a Gallop revealed more than just the gait of a galloping horse – it oracularly hinted at an entire range of spatiotemporal possibilities of cameras capturing motion. Subjects, objects, and phenomena move in time and space, but then so can cameras. How cameras and what they film are linked within time and space, and how technological variables can shape, refine and elevate this complex consanguinity is a fascinating area which has profoundly influenced science, art, cinema and popular culture in general, not to mention shaped our ideas of perception of the reality that envelops us, and the meta-realities that we thereby unfailingly, and unwittingly conjure up. The image can transform in a multitude of ways – from progressively slowing down to an intractable stasis, to accelerating at blinding speeds with iridescent blurs and light trails, achieving in some sense, cosmic values. The moving image can warp, slyly morph and shape shift as it travels; it can do so very many things that we can only see in our restive dreams. There exists a rich cosmology of how things move, how plants move, how we move, how friends, and lovers move, how indeed absolutely everything moves about within our minds; it is then our attempts to reframe these movements within, these feints and flights of our indefatigable, cunning minds, that is a human endeavour of significant creative proportions. This endeavour, an enriched (or impoverished) translation of what resides within, is tinctured with ‘an existential gloss’, as Iain Sinclair says on the English translations of WG Sebald’s work in the thoughtful, engaging film Patience (After Sebald).
What Muybridge tantalizingly suggested were the possibilities inherent in the use of an array of cameras on a predetermined path. In effect, he presciently suggested timeslice photography, also known as ‘bullet time’ or ‘frozen moment’ photography, made popular by the film Matrix. What if, asks Mark.J.P.Wolf in Space, Time, Frame, Cinema (pdf), a schematic theorization of spatiotemporal possibilities, Muybridge had placed all his 24 cameras on a curve, and instead of tripwires at periodic distances setting them off, they were instead all triggered simultaneously? It’s a simple enough idea – a series of cameras in a straight-line, a curve, or an arc, photographing the same event at exactly the same time. Although Muybridge did set them in a semicircle for certain motion studies, Wolf writes, he did not simultaneously release them, and it would take another century for this filmic effect to be realised. This temp morts (see also this) is but one of the many intriguing possibilities, Wolf indicates, of how cameras can move in space and time.
Space and time are the primary variables for a moving camera, and if a camera moves through space but not time, it is then that we have a ‘frozen moment’: the subject is frozen in space while the camera moves to reveal the contours of the frozen instant. A dancer or a fighter midair, an exploding car, the stream of water from a falling vase – these all then can be ‘seen’ in a manner that had not been previously possible. Our renewed vision, our perception is wrapped around the frozen moment and the ability to ‘move around it’ in complex ways with urgent changes of speed, was hitherto only ever possible within the dark, dexterous recesses of our minds. Timeslice is a way to approximate the ‘spectral geographies’ inside us, on occasion with prosodic cadences.
This reframed temporality wherein the viewer sees a shot (of a certain length of time embedded in a larger narrative frame) of an instant craftily, and eerily, frozen in an act of animation or dissolution, has great artistic heft to it. As John Wylie writes in The Spectral Geographies Of WG Sebald (2007), such unconventional temporalities that perturb linear arrangements of the past, present and future, are spectral in nature. Citing Derrida’s thoughts on the inadequacies of a ‘general and historical temporality’, he writes that spectrality offers more nuance than the ‘reassuring order of presents’:
The spectral not only displaces place and self through the freight of ghostly memories; it works to displace the present from itself. As ‘that which secretly unhinges it’, spectrality ensures the ‘non-contemporaneity of itself with the living present’. Pasts and futures, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet, still haunt the present, and are in a supplemental relation to it, always coming back. ‘They pass through walls these revenants, day and night they trick consciousness and skip generations’. Spectrality – the unsettling of self, the haunting taking-place of place, the unhinging of past and present – is an irreducible condition that demands new, themselves haunted ways of writing about place, memory and self.
WG Sebald’s masterful The Rings of Saturn deploys such spectral circumnavigation of frozen images and objects chanced upon during the walking tour of the narrator, Sebald’s ‘doppelgänger’, in East Anglia. As the narrator stops a while here and there, the melancholic writer is able to with great precision and emotive import, trace the ‘rips and tears’ in time and history with ‘oscillations and echoes’ through ‘restless, rootless and meandering spatiality’, as Wylie writes in the aforementioned essay. The gloomy narrator looks upon his chance findings with much the same mobility as does the timeslice shot; he moves about them, keenly observing subjects that often appear to be irradiated with primordial dust and light, much like those in frozen moment shots. An arc of vision refines this mobility and Sebald’s alter ego is oftentimes able to see things from different vantage points, indicating then, a more nuanced and sophisticated motion path. Sebald’s narrator loses his way in Dunwich Heath, lost in thought, ‘numbed by this crazed flowering’ of multiple hues from ‘pale lilac to deepest purple’, but in retrospect he recalls a villa with a glass domed observation tower “that presented itself time and again from a quite different angle, now close to, now further off, now to my left and now to my right, and indeed at one point the lookout tower, in a sort of castling move, had got itself, in no time at all, from one side of the building to the other…”. In Kafka Goes To The Movies, an essay in the posthumously published collection of essays Campo Santo, Sebald writes:
The all-revealing, all-penetrating gaze is subject to compulsive repetition, always wanting to reassure itself that it really did see what it saw. Nothing is left but looking, an obsession in which real time is suspended while, as we sometimes feel in dreams, the dead, the living and the still unborn come together on the same plane.
George Méliès 1898 short film Carrefour de l’Opera is considered to be the first theatrical exposition of time-lapse photography, writes David Lavery in his very extensive and intriguing collection of writings on the subject. The physicist Ernst Mach had first theoretically proposed the idea a decade earlier, but the technique was employed initially by the German botanist Wilhelm Pfeffer who filmed a growth cycle of beans over 11 days. From the demolition of an old theatre, putrefying fruit and insects, growth of bacterial colonies, the rising and setting of the sun, to thousands of other subjects, time-lapse was at first predominantly ‘a scientific aid’, Lavery indicates, pointing to film historian David Parkinson. Over time of course, mainstream filmmakers, artists and avant-gardists alike, began using the technique (see also this). Le Corbusier’s thoughts are quite interesting in this regard, Lavery continues, particularly in remarking on cinema’s ability to “’extend…certain of our means of perception and…throw out bridges beyond the impassable zones of our senses and our skills’”. Lavery moves on to Lazlo Moholy-Nagy here, who while ‘condemning its [cinema] lazy utilization for dramatic purposes’, went on to praise time-lapse as a revelatory technique. Proposing an imaginary time-lapse film of a man from birth to death, Lavery writes, Moholy-Nagy ponders the effects of such a film:
It would be most unnerving even to be able to watch only his face with the slowly changing expression of a long life and his growing beard, etc., all in five minutes; or the statesman, the musician, the poet in conversation and in action; . . . Even with a proper understanding of the material, speed and breath of thought do not suffice to predict all the obvious potentialities.
Discussing also Rudolf Arnhiem’s unbridled enthusiasm of time-lapse, “’an uncanny discovery of a new living world in a sphere in which one had of course always admitted life existed but had never been able to see it in action’”, Lavery moves on to the French avant-gardist Jean Epstein. ‘The stultifying development of narrative cinema’, according to him, could be confronted through time-lapse, and the ‘early sense of wonder’ that was at first revealed by the power of cinema, could thereby be revitalized. Scientific discovery could be animated by this technique Epstein further suggested, and it could ‘redirect epistemological inquiry’. A fine observation to my mind, and at the very heart of this essay, is Germaine Dulac’s idea of the ‘decomposing’ effect on movement in cinema, that Lavery reproduces in his detailed discussion:
A grain of wheat sprouts; it is synthetically, again, that we judge its growth. Cinema, by decomposing movement, makes us see, analytically, the beauty of the leap in a series of minor rhythms which accomplish the major rhythm, and, if we look at the sprouting grain, thanks to film, we will no longer have only the synthesis of the moment of growth, but the psychology of this movement. We feel, visually, the painful effort a stalk expends in coming out of the ground and blooming. The cinema makes us spectators of its bursts toward light and air, by capturing its unconscious, instinctive and mechanical movements.
Intriguingly, Lavery wonders in Poetry as Time-lapse Photography, if poets preceding the aforementioned writers, and before the technique came to be in use, had not already ‘opened up the doors of perception’ through their writings. The Romantics, he argues, ‘possessed time-lapse consciousness’ in his proposal of a ‘psychic archaeology’ of this unique vision device.
Quite appropriately, Lavery points to William Blake at the outset, where, in Jerusalem he describes cosmic awakenings much like a time-lapse shot:
The Vegetative Universe opens like a flower from the Earth's center
In which is Eternity. It expands in Stars to the Mundane Shell.
And there it meets Eternity again, both within and without. . . .
Invoking Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Goethe amongst others, Lavery writes: “Time-lapse vision, poetic or photographic, lessens the obscurity and brings illumination through the imaginative enhancement of merely biological organs.” Most interestingly, he brings up the 20th century Swiss/French poet Blaise Cendrars (see this Paris Review interview) who, ‘flabbergasted’ upon first encountering time-lapse in a Parisian theatre, described the ‘accelerated life of flowers’ as ‘Shakespearean’, and in doing so, Lavery writes further, “Cendrars had evidently recognized a sister art”. The “’complex skeins of a human character on screen’”, the mysteries of life itself, may be revealed by such a delphic technique, and the cinema’s future role will be to ‘rediscover man’. Tellingly,
You, yourself, you, anonymous as you are to yourself, alive, dead, living dead, wild rose, angelica, hermaphrodite, human, too human, beast, mineral vegetable, chemistry, rare butterfly, the residue in a crucible, the root of the voltaic arc, a plummet to abysmal depths, two fins, an air hole, mechanical and spiritual, full of gears and prayers, aerobic, thermogenic, winged foot, ion, god, automaton, embryo, seal with peyote in his eyes.
It is you in instaneity.
It is you in eternity.
In full becoming,
You in the flow of time.
From Rilke, AE (George Russell), Hart Crane, Eberhardt to Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke amongst others, Lavery writes of a persistent time-lapse vision revealed through their words, their imagery.
Places are not merely about the past, Wylie writes in the aforementioned essay, and inherent to Sebald’s writings is an ‘uneasy mobility’ and “set in restless motion like an orrery, places and memories, presences and pasts, instead orbit and kiss in ghostly, poignant fashion, as if the narrator were stepping through a series of wheeling, interlinked tableaux”. Intriguingly, Wylie writes further that there is a “temporal turmoil set in motion by motion” in his writing, which is never resolved. Sebald’s own ‘meta-commentary’ in Austerlitz is emblematic here, Wylie points out:
It does not seem to me, Austerlitz added, that we understand the laws governing the return of past, but I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of spectrometry.
Sebald often employs (and perhaps was afflicted by) vertiginous perspectives, which Wylie argues can be seen as a metaphor for temporal dislocations. These ruptures, bruises, abrasions and cicatrices of time, space and narration, are central to Sebald’s voice and technique. He is in many ways singular in devising these mobile thoughts that move in time and space in ways that we are yet to approximate cinematically. Speaking on Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Katie Mitchell in Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald) mentioned earlier, says it is closest to Virginia Wolf’s The Waves, “where there is an attempt to capture perception in all its fleeting and all its fast way in which we perceive and put things together…”
Contemporary art has interestingly engaged with these ruptures, these spatiotemporal fissions, writes Susanne Jaschko in Space-Time Correlations Focused in Film Objects and Interactive Video (pdf), and filmic space-time has been influenced by interactive virtual aesthetics and mechanics for some time now. The physical possibilities (and phenomenological) for further spatiotemporal experimentation with cameras are numerous, Wolf writes in his schematic analysis mentioned here at the start – one can devise many possible shots, and in doing so, push the boundaries of visual reconstruction for film. What if the structural rig itself, upon which the array of timeslice cameras is affixed, undulates, snake-like, as opposed to simpler geometric motion? What becomes of the quasi-blurred, distorted, iridescent frozen moment? Is this yet another way to film what lurks within?
Saccadic movements are said to be the fastest produced by human bodies, and they seem to occur unconsciously between the random stops in our vision as we construct composite ‘maps’ of the scenes we view. Time and space are distorted during saccades and these distortions, scientists say, are linked. Having not discussed motion-control, hand-held movements, subject propelled innovations, motion graphics, animation, CGI (motion capture and virtual camera motion), not to mention the ideas of countless others who have discussed spatiotemporal perception in great detail, over time, and at various historical moments, I will instead seek recourse in George Mead’s thoughts who says that man’s unique characteristic is his ability to “place himself in different perspectives…In the case of the man in a train beside which another commences to move, the man may actually be now in one perspective and now in the other without placing himself in the perspective of the station and so translating to either”. And time and space may be torn asunder, they may be indeed ripped, distorted and blurred; they may be sliced, frozen at ‘timely’ moments, or may even lapse, over time and in space.
I end here with George Mead’s words once again,
A future object that is present must be the future of a past object. If we compress the anticipated world into the present, we force its temporal distances backward. Our conduct implies a set of contact processes which bring about a future anticipated contact experience. If that anticipated contact experience be postulated as now existing, it must have been an earlier world that was responsible for its distance or future characters.