“If architecture is entombed structure or thanatos, ornament is the frontier of the surface. It is at the surface where lively variability takes place.” – Lisa Robertson
Rachel Rose’s videos are surfaces. Or else, Rose’s videos comprise a series of discrete but interwoven meditations on surface, some of which include but are not limited to the purview of, or at least appear over the whole cloth of the screen seemingly sometimes in tandem, or otherwise cut-away to split between them with: the weather on the surface of the skin, the sonic surfacing the image harmoniously non-diegetic, that is, the diegesis of a visual harmonic series, the texture of art-historical representation, the fabric of an act of viewing, the material surface of a painted scene, the architectural surface of a digital illumination, the subtitle’s surface of signification that obscures or overlays, at least, a visual cue, the surface of the word that collects and coordinates the images it points out or to, the collar on a coat or jacket, the surface of the cut or edit, the surfaces elided by the cut or edit, the temporal surface of a look or lesson, each landmark interior domestic surface patiently and carefully exploding in a million shards of Adobe After Effects, the symbolic surface of the various repeated motifs, for example, animality, element, landscape, rhythm, gesture, countdown, catastrophe, cartography, colonialism, cops, water falling from the sky or in a tray, developing. Surface in Rose’s work operates profoundly superficially. It surfaces itself to foreground that which on the surface speaks, or at least is spoken for. Rose’s videos are surfacers.
Deer appear often, enclosed within a frozen scene or stuck mid-loop like a damaged .gif repeating, like itself. In one scene of Palisades in Palisades (2014) the Facebook movie theme tune played inside a 3D animated reconstruction of a painted deer is heard just off-screen as the shot cuts from the deer-interior, following the path of a 3D animated reconstruction of a bullet passing through the deer-interior in slow motion, obviously, the cinematic pun on “shot” there emerging into some red litter on the road. In one comparable scene from A Minute Ago (2014) the deer is possibly in the first panicked fragile moments of being startled, although one might only know this by pausing and pausing to reflect on it, whereas the video itself flashes forward in a series of hyperactive intercut and intercutting interiors with rain or Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion hung in said human interior and housed there. What is the equivalent in digital video of the tiny to minuscule animal and human forms that pepper Poussin? What is the smallest part of the film? A dead fox by the side of the road that mimics the corpse of Phocion (or which brings to mind the dead man in the foreground of Landscape with a Man Killed by Snake) in the final frames of A Minute Ago could be a contender if the question could be answered with an image and not a component, relation or technique. But I think it cannot. The act of looking proves a relation to history reflected in the frightened eyes of an animal alive or dead, since in that blank mortality is found the image of the null and central fact of history itself, freshly circumscribed by every act of looking, every view.
The whiff of death catches you off-screen, a kind of counterpoint to the Glass House’s dialectic of fragility and permanence, of destruction and resilience, or even of fleeting impermanence and hateful immortality, that peculiar combination of affects that seem to structure the experience of life in the digital archive. It’s much like a dog, sniffing its way into the room. A stronger smell accompanies Philip Johnson’s iterated claim repeated vaguely in the video but also elsewhere that the Glass House’s central brick cylinder was inspired by the beautiful remnants of burnt out Polish ruins, since Johnson’s early Nazi sympathies structure this claim in ways he later stoically regretted. “Um, I’m the voice of dead people, so…” The uneasy itemisation of this particular facet of the inspiration behind the house, however, only exaggerates the overwhelming stench of death – of organised manslaughter – that subtends the law of private property in general. Of course the Glass House’s most prescient pair is seeing and being seen, exhibitionism and the exhibit. The beautiful landscape it surrounds and encompasses passes for the Death of Phocion doubled, as the world that property owned expands mid-century to realise and counter-claim the art-object permanence of Cold War universalism. But the constant surveillance, the Polish ruins, the central hearth: there is not a little of the camp in Johnson’s house. Even before the house is animated out of existence, the shelter it imagines is already compromised; it is already an immaculate “mausoleum,” housing both the representable and the un-representable dead. [See Wendy Vogel, ‘Reel to Real: Rachel Rose’s Trippy Videos Have Painterly Roots,’ Modern Painters (Jan. 2015).] At the climax of A Minute Ago the post-war architectural apogee of modernist dematerialisation digitally dematerialises to be replaced in the film’s final act, its coda, by a belligerently material Landscape that brackets and intervenes, and resolutely refuses to be atomised, a reminder of the funereal in the midst of its comprehensive architectural deletion. Isn’t architecture the art most permanently threatened by the death it seeks to sullenly apportion and contain, and isn’t digital hi-definition video the act of looking made most contemporaneously immortal par excellence, divorced from any necessary spectator, sequestered by the animation’s purview in a state of the art impervious and weirdly unimpeachable? The video itself is a kind of tomb.
In Palisades in Palisades the camera lingers on someone looking. The act of looking centralises the skin of paint. The paintings depict idealised moments of revolutionary significance, and include most prominently John Trumbull’s Surrender of General Burgoyne and Edward Savage’s The Washington Family. The person looking is presumably standing in Palisades Interstate Park, looking out over the Hudson River, possibly over Snedens Landing. “At the end of the war the new American nation was first saluted in the person of George Washington by a British warship lying off Snedens.” [Alice Munro Haagensen, Palisades and Snedens Landing: From the Beginning of History to the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Tarrytown, NY: Pilgramage Publishing, 1986), p.2.] Or else it approaches them to look at them looking out over the landing, or about to turn away from it, or turning round and walking, in the person of whoever it is that’s looking, the camera winding its way snakily towards them where they stand, or reversing. Skin segues into Savage’s massive background, into Eleanor’s forearm, into Martha’s forearm pointing down the National Mall with fan, so that the body’s and the nation’s surfaces confuse each other, mingle. George’s forearm’s next. Later the slave to the far right of the scene who once (at least) tried to escape is barely visible. The child’s white arm at the centre of the newly established nation. The someone looking is further found next to a rock, or railing, sometimes smoking. Sea becomes skin becomes colour becomes paint becomes land becomes smoke in a narrative fungibility that takes what it looks at to exchange it for the history it illuminates by obscuring: the birth of a nation as analogy for the sovereign power of representation the work of art simultaneously both excludes and officiously commands. The cost of this analogy is that which remains uncollected by the metaphorical transfer it enacts. Some portions of untraceable smoke or rock, an abandoned coat or camera, a camera lens still spinning. A button.
Right in the middle of the video is that smoke from the twin towers on 9/11 billowing into the air behind a gasp? In A Minute Ago and Palisades there are a number of gasps and breaths etched into the diegesis from without it. Sometimes sound wants to describe what is happening by sharpening the scene into a sonic superposition of varying instants, as when a cigarette burn ignites the cannons in the Revolutionary War and a car backfires; sometimes description has nothing to do with it, as when someone’s eyes blink in time with a digital chink timed and carefully adjusted to the type of blink, whether full or only partially covering the eyeball sheltered. That sound is indexical of a human gesture by dint of sounding so tantalisingly inhuman. The surface of the sound and the sound of the surface are in the contemporary moving image so infinitesimally spliced as to almost inhabit the same audio-visual picture plane, which is to say that the more the videos self-consciously navigate between their fields of image-complex by a series of super-expository clicks and sighs to signify transition, the more these sounds seem to emerge from and inhabit the internal flux of visual material for which they provide the punctuation. In this sense sound is essayistic in the work, lacing the image-complex through by anchoring the scenes to each other and themselves. Sound keeps scraping the surface. There is nothing outside the film.
As the process of producing, reproducing and circulating images becomes ever more transparently ubiquitous, an understanding of the means of such image-production in the sense of a knowledge of the systematic parameters of both the hardware/software operations that produce an image in the first place or reproduce it in the next million, and the fantastically de-centralized networks of dissemination and distribution, become correspondingly shrouded in mystery. This and so much else, of course, has been pointed out before. But it’s worth remembering.
[The] aura is no longer based on the permanence of the “original,” but on the transience of the copy. It is no longer anchored within a classical public sphere mediated and supported by the frame of the nation-state or corporation, but floats on the surface of temporary and dubious data pools. [Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), p.42.]
But then neither is the original or natural in any fit state to revenge itself upon the superficial, the derogatory, the imitative, the slavish or the derivative. As the digital meniscus of A Minute Ago shatters in the final moments of the film’s penultimate scene, the catastrophe cannot return us to the Arcadia its destruction might seem to promise - only to the frenetic memory of the landscape concocted by the video’s bizarre conglomerations of past and present. What is Big Sean doing there? A spokesperson for the notionally authentic in the contemporary pop culture imaginary, perhaps. I remember as a child I would stare at the ceiling in bed, hoping it would come off, or loosen. The one, two, three, four sides of the Glass House correspond to the one, two, three, four sides of the video screen: you can count them but you can’t look out. The architectural possibilities that Rose’s videos discern are not therefore physical and spatial but lateral and palimpsestuous, overlaying the surface of the temporary and dubious body with the data pooled from its temperamental environment. Perhaps they are films about being on a place instead of in it, being on the surface of things liable to collapse into hypostatized impossible mourning.
There is no such thing as a natural disaster. A sunny beach is plunged into a hailstorm shattering the leisure time expected or desired, a house of glass is carefully and clinically deconstructed. The simple collage or super-juxtaposition at the heart of A Minute Ago points to the pernicious unreliability of anything so manipulated and manufactured as a natural disaster, in the context of which “the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus” in any case: look at Katrina, to which the deluge besieging Johnson’s property in the final stages of the film might plausibly allude. [See Neil Smith, ‘There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster,’ Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences.] Johnson died in his sleep in the Glass House on January 25th 2005. Feuerbach says in his Thoughts on Death:
As much and as far as other things and essences exist outside of you, so much and so far you do not exist. And as many of these things as exist, so many edges and boundaries, in and at which you and your being cease, have you. In every tree, every wall, every table that you touch, you touch your death, as it were, you touch the boundary and the edge of your existence. [Ludwig Feuerbach, Thoughts on Death and Immortality: From the Papers of a Thinker, trans. James A. Massey (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), p.31.]
Both A Minute Ago and Palisades end with countdowns, scored into the surface of each film by sound or sign respectively, their edge and boundary exacerbated in the service of a) a parody of theoretical postmodern self-awareness to their quiet end, both, sort of, underwater crumpled and complete, b) an index of repetition that, especially if the videos are played on a continuous loop, would make each video’s end the concomitant edge and boundary of its beginning, c) a kind of melancholy digital last rites. The more trees, walls, tables (struts, screens, beams, easels, rafters, scaffold) you have around you the more you come up against the edge and boundary of your existence codified in cartographic corporal materiality, for better or for worse, the films set out to dramatise this surface tension by a corresponding tension on the surface of the film, where am I on the front of my residual self image – what kind of boundary do I touch exactly when I touch a screen or painting, or a screen or painting full of things to see and touch and by those senses multiply the edges of my existence, have you? Perhaps the most illuminating psychoanalytical concept or descriptor for an understanding of the actors on the stage of social media would not be narcissism, but the death drive.
If tracking shots like those that – fragmented and worked over, nevertheless – accompany Johnson into the Glass House in A Minute Ago are a question of ethics, pace Godard, raising once again the spectre of the camp and the burden of representational proof upon any camera straining to articulate, what is the ethical status of the digital zoom? We alluded already to the punning “shot” through the deer-interior in Palisades, but the temporal surface of the screen is brought to bear or surfaced by the sped-up, close-to, lugubrious or microscopic zoom throughout. The detraction zoom effected from the total social image, pace Berger, can today be read as well as the critical extraction from the object under consideration of a particular tone or germ of colour, in order to cinematically interweave the isolatable but ultimately indivisible strands of temporality that structure that same total social image. [In the Vogel article Rose names them as “this deep, evolutionary physical sense of time; this social, historical sense of time; and then this bodily sense of time.” For John Berger on zooming, see the first episode of Ways of Seeing (1972).] The zoom has lately achieved heights of optical clarification hitherto unheard of by photographic means, and Palisades’s chosen choke points exploit this fact chainmail cigarette to smoke to painterly dismemberment to beheading back to skin again and so on, a technique that speaks to almost everything we’ve touched on here, including surveillance, surface, the exchange of looks and looking, the identification of the single infinitesimal life to be exalted or removed as seen fit, the exacerbation or suppression of the history of what is framed, the jargon of authenticity, the closer you look the more becomes obscured, the mediation of surface by surface through surface, the relation of each frame to the next itself the focus of the spinning lens, the stillness of the surface of the painting being moved.
Which bring us finally to animation and its discontents and to the limits of spectatorship, to what T.J. Clark calls “all this unnoticeable animation that prepares the ground, so to speak, for the place where the animation stops,” since it also stops, so to speak, with the watching viewer:
Perhaps I imagine such a viewer especially now, in our current circumstances of image production, when stasis and smallness and meticulous coordination are by and large the opposites of the qualities – the kinds of world-making – that visualizations are involved with. [T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), p.63, p.43.]
Rose’s method of putting on the excess of the image that her films work with isn’t to stack or to frenetically cajole her scenes but instead to surface them, to bring them to the point of almost calamitous proximity, zooming as far as one possibly can in to a human, or witnessing first hand an very everyday disaster. The meticulousness of A Minute Ago and Palisades is found in the grain of their strangely marmoreal, lapidary medium, and in the way in which their shots seem so arranged as to form a kind of score for visual interpretation, each scene so fixed proceeding, even when quickly interlaced, or layered, glitching or overlaid, in the manner of some mid-century avant-garde graphic notation. What are we to do with them? What to do with the rotoscoped Philip Johnson hovering around Poussin’s Landscape over an imploring Big Sean’s plea never to regret anything and to apologise for what you’ve done next to a 3D simulation of the Glass House beside a song played backwards, and doesn’t any song played backwards accrue some veneer of magical pathos played backwards? The kind of world being made here is deceptively precarious. The two most unsettling phrases of the two films discussed in these notes are “if we die - know that I love you ^_^” and “um, I’m the voice of dead people, so.” They both appear or get heard at one remove from the surface of the video: the first in translated subtitle, the second dubbed. They sound like the films talking to each other. We could listen.