For several years we have been looking at transitions and ruptures in media history—the extended moments when a medium or technology emerges, changing not only the forms of representation available to the artist or producer, but also setting off far-reaching effects across the whole of culture, like the concentric ripples when a stone is thrown into a pond. We are particularly interested in the philosophical presuppositions and underlying ideologies exposed in the decisions concerning the appropriate ways to make use of a new medium.
Frames, an interactive cinema piece completed about 10 years ago, is based on photographs produced in the very early days of photography—between 1845 and 1853 (photography was announced in France and England in 1839). The work of Hugh Diamond is the subject of Frames—he was the director of the Springfield Mental Asylum and an enthusiastic amateur photographer, who documented the inmates of his institution and then used the images as the basis of a new diagnostic method—analyzing the subject’s posture, facial expression, and physical features as indications of her (or in rare cases his) condition. Relying on an emergent technology of the late 20th century, interactive cinema, Frames attempts to draw attention to some of Diamond’s assumptions about the nature of the medium, especially the idea that photography provides an impartial and unbiased view of reality ‘as it actually is’—an idea that is only now, in the 21st century, beginning to lose its hold over us.
With the same kinds of questions in mind, we’d like to investigate some very early cinema pieces. We have been looking closely at the films made in the last years of the 19th century at the Edison ‘Black Maria’ Studio, produced by Edison’s collaborator, William Dickson. The first assay into this project is based on the Serpentine Dances, short films that involve elaborate costumes, highly rehearsed, virtuoso performances, precise sets, and controlled lighting—and then depend on extensive, labor-intensive processes in post production: frame by frame hand-tinting of the film strip. That is to say, the production of these short , strange films include all the trappings that became the regular procedures of conventional cinema production.
We plan to recreate the costume, sets and choreography as closely as possible, and try to develop ways to replicate the look of hand tinting. We have begun work on the technicalities of the project, assessing and testing the weight and substance of the fabrics with Cindi Howatt, costume designer and dancer; we have made contact with Edison biographer Neil Baldwin, who has agreed to speak with us about the ideological background of the films. We plan to document the many steps required to reach the goal of an authentic recreation of the work, including costume and set design and construction, casting, rehearsal, and performance. It is likely that some of this documentation will be incorporated in the final piece.
The Serpentine Dances are extraordinary examples of choreography for camera, investing the traditional values of modern dance into the concept of a purely visual cinema—the splendid costume with its huge sleeves and yards of excess material enables the dancer to form abstract geometries and perfect symmetries which are not visible except as cinematic objects—these are dances, resplendent in mutating unworldly colors, that exist only on film. Annabelle the Serpentine Dancer is a miniature ballerina on a music box, twirling and carving cinematic space as if she is a product of pure desire and fantasy. Perhaps the first movie star, Annabelle was immensely popular: her fans were in love with an image.
We will record the dances with multiple HD cameras set in a semi-circle around the performer, so that the image is accessible in a navigable 3D space. As one of the possible forms of exhibition, we intend to investigate the technology of augmented reality, whereby an image can be placed in a virtual space, forming a scene which incorporates and envelopes the viewer. Augmented Reality depends on external data: the best known example involves the viewer holding a simple black on white icon which is recognized by computer software. A pre-recorded movie sequence replaces the icon, so the viewer is holding not a square of cardboard inscribed with a mundane pattern, but an entire street scene or graphic firework display, which can be turned and examined from different angles. Alternatively, more esoteric data can also be the input mechanism, such as GPS location coordinates or atmospheric features like humidity or temperature, which opens up the possibility of exhibition on portable devices such as smart phones.
The viewer will be able to hold the little Serpentine Dancer in his or her palm, in the image space if not in reality, so that the uncanny, ‘unheimlich’ aspect of this experience will connect with the earliest moments of the medium of cinema and bring to mind aspects of the world-view that underlies our obsessive-compulsive relationship with the media star.