Saturday, April 7, 2012

Message Pictures Part Three

My column, "Message Pictures: Adventures in Reading Images," concluded in the Winter 2012 issue of BlackFlash.  The content is not on-line, so here is the unedited text below:

Message Pictures
Adventures in Reading Images, Part Three
By Michael Davidge

The following is the third and last in a series of three texts that focus on the pleasures and frustrations, the rewards and dangers, of reading images and imagining readings.

A triptych of images from the Toronto-based conceptual artist Erica DeFreitas’s series A Teleplasmic Study with Doilies (2010-11) portrays a young woman who appears impassive and calm, but her expression is hard to read. One element disrupts the fabric of these images, and that is the multi-coloured knit doily that emerges from her mouth in each instance. The stillness of the poses retain the kernel of an action; though perfectly motionless, viewed sequentially they appear transitional, transformative, and a stuttering or shuddering rhythm is suggested. In an artist’s statement, DeFreitas links these images to both the silence of grief and the silence after the expiration of breath from one’s body.  Part of the fluency disorder of these images is established by the visual echo of early spiritualist photography, such as those explicitly cited by DeFreitas that were conjured up by Dr. T.G. Hamilton during séances in Winnipeg in the early 1900s. The mechanical processes and low-resolution appearance of early photography were exploited to create ghostly images that were proffered as empirical proof of the spirit world. DeFreitas tests the suspension of disbelief by supplanting the early ephemeral cottony otherworldly appearances of ectoplasm with her own high-resolution depictions.  They couldn’t possibly show with less clarity that the subject of her digital images has a doily stuffed in her mouth or draped over her face. And yet a tension remains and the images retain a haunted look. 

Considering various aspects of reading in specific images, I have championed both master readers and deliberate obfuscators in a bid for control over the meaning of their work. The cartoon character Tintin has guided me so far, as a dashing and handsome young man who is able to solve every mystery no matter how occult.  Tintin is a sceptic and a pragmatist, and he has a knack for uncovering the reality of a situation: For example, the sounds haunting a house in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, he discovers, are generated not by ghosts but by a hidden gramophone.  Tintin’s mechanistic worldview cannot account for the supernatural, however.  DeFreitas’ images are beyond him, and they take us beyond the role of the reader and reading in images and introduce us to the spooky mystery of the act of expression in the first place. Uncannily, a quick look at a reference book shows that spelling is found at the very root of casting a spell and that grammar has links with black magic.

Darker and more occluded than the role of the reader is the role of the writer.  Writing is closer to the occulted source.  Though there are problems attendant to reading, at least there is a primary text to start.  Writers have to conjure up something that has never existed before.  It is as if one has to enter into a pact with the Devil to do it.  The primal scene of this conflict is the process of language acquisition.  The great mystic Antonin Artaud decried the moment he learned the name given to him by his family as the moment when he lost his original identity.  The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan had a droll way of illustrating this process with the phrase “Nom du père” or Name-of-the-Father and also No-of-the-Father.  The Father is a strict authoritarian, and entry into the symbolic requires interdiction. First and foremost, the thing that is denied is communion with the mother.  Having acquired language, the subject is divided, cut off from a womblike immersion in the world but compensated for this dismemberment by the ability to speak and make known what he or she lacks.  The fact that speaking directly addresses this lack in countless ways on a daily basis hardly gives pause.  The torturous blank page for the blocked writer, however, is the scene for a struggle that gives off a whiff of sulphur: in order to write, one must simultaneously recognize the laws that structure language usage but also fail to recognize the other voice that speaks it as anything but one’s own.  The horror lies less in the realization that the voice may not be your own, but that your own voice is completely lost and foreign to you, monstrous and disfigured.

Perhaps this is the reason why the most striking examples of language acquisition in popular culture feature females as the protagonists whose literal entry into the symbolic under the name of the Father is altogether alienating and horrifying. The Exorcist, for example, portrays the bad education of the young girl Regan, who, in the first bloom of puberty, is often left to her own devices, since her mother is working and her father is absent.  One of these devices is a Ouija board, through which Regan communicates with a being she calls Captain Howdy: “I ask the questions and Captain Howdy gives the answers,” she says.  The answers are spelled out as the communicating device under Regan’s hand travels across the board, letter by letter.  It isn’t long before Regan begins swearing like a sailor and then spewing things even more vile, like buckets of vivid green vomit and steaming sputum.  Howling, ferocious and grotesque, Regan speaks in a legion of voices, often male and often backwards.  It must be Regan’s own being that writes, in raised welts on her stomach, the phrase “Help Me.”

Another film based on a book that features spelling as a crucial turning point in the plot and a moment where the female protagonist begins her terrifying entry into the symbolic is Rosemary’s Baby. Rosemary figures out the true nature of what has been transpiring in the apartment block where she lives by using wooden Scrabble tiles to unscramble an anagram in a message from a friend that has consequences more dreadfully serious than a high score.  Ironically, her act of spelling leads her even deeper into the clutches of a witches’ coven that has designs on her.  Rosemary may try to resist the prescriptions of the paternal authorities in her life, but she ultimately embraces them by assuming the role of mother to her child.

What makes these stories so terrifying is the degree to which they are rooted in a world that is familiar to many viewers.  When Regan first begins exhibiting erratic behaviour, the first impulse is to examine her according to scientific principles of Western medicine.  But Regan’s condition cannot be diagnosed by her doctors, and as time passes the horror of the unknown begins to tear the family apart.  Under an X-ray, Regan is a perfectly normal, healthy child, but that does not mean that her problems don’t exist.  Similarly, incidental details ground the events of Rosemary’s Baby in a very specific time and place: New York City in the winter of 1965. Involved in a bizarre sequence of events culminating in a truly Satanic orgy, a drugged but lucid Rosemary cries, “This isn’t a dream, this is really happening!”  Rosemary’s declaration is a newsflash at time in New York when there was a newspaper strike.  If, as Hegel wrote, the newspaper was the atheist’s morning prayer, then this horror film as cinéma vérité would be the atheist’s black mass. 

The mind’s proclivity for magic and its relationship to representation was spelled out by André Bazin in an early essay dating from the 1940s that is still relevant today: “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Of course, now that digital manipulation has entered the picture, doubt plays a greater part, but the image still retains its objective nature just as the French word for camera lens is still the objectif.  The “quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making” that Bazin found in photography still exists. The photograph, despite all that we know about it, like a fetish, still contains, as Bazin describes it, an “irrational power to bear away our faith.”  Bazin notes that photography was a key Surrealist activity because of the way that it blurred distinctions between the imaginary and the real: the Surrealist image was “an hallucination that is also a fact.”  Extraordinary images, as in Defreitas’ series, or in the scenes from The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, are presented as matter-of-factly as a reality of nature. Conscious that she is living a nightmare, Rosemary is only able to say, “Unspeakable. Unspeakable. Monsters. Monsters.”

When I set out to write this series of texts, my source of inspiration came from the spelling scene in Rosemary’s Baby.  I was sure that my adventures in reading images would lead me to make a conclusion such as Walter Benjamin’s in his “Little History of Photography” and that I would extol visual literacy as an important skill in the age of mechanical reproduction where the captioning of images is crucial to their reception.  But I have only just now arrived at the starting point and I find myself both spellbound and undone.  One can simply read images, but the thought of writing them is more problematic, especially if you think of photographs as thresholds that breach the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic.  In DeFreitas’ images we witness instants where breath becomes an object, like a misshapen word. The gasps, stutters, gestures, grimaces, and flatulence that connote an antechamber for language work to unravel a message as much as they constitute it.

(By the way, part two is on the blog here, and part one is here.)