by Sean Cubitt
15th February 2010
Writer and accademic Sean Cubitt's essay looks at global tourism and our facination with recording and playing-back our found treasures and memories.
It was recording that changed everything. It was transmission that changed it all. In the years 1876 and 1877, the telephone ('far-hearing') and the phonograph ('sound-writing') transformed what it meant to be alive, transformed even the meaning of photography, made possible the imagination of cinema. Film scholars often remark that cinema was born mute, and acquired language over a slow, thirty-year process. But it wasn't so. Photography began it, the seizure of the now and the here, but the telephone could make two heres meet in a single now; and recorded sound not only made it possible for noises to travel through time, but instantly doubled the number of sounds in the world. Time itself could be transported, the experiences of time and space, combined in the experience of distance, could be moved: Einstein's theorem is only comprehensible in a world with transmitters and records: photography can only be reimagined as cinema after this total reappraisal of sound.
Transmission takes its root in the Latin 'to send across'; translation comes from 'to bring across'. Thinking these transmissions, across space and time, as translations, makes it possible in turn to understand that distance, the dimension of space-and-time, is not neutral, but has a direction. Those with power transmit. Those without are translated. This is the story of orientalism, that cultural movement to exoticise the East, and to project over it the colonist's sensual imagination of his subjects. It is the sad dialectic of the tourist, whose ineluctable and unfulfillable dream is to be welcome among strangers. But the price of exoticism is to be forever estranged, just as the cost of rule is to be forever hated. The tourist is impelled to translate what she sees into what she can understand, for no selfhood is as hard to lose as the identity of the rich. True comprehension would demand the loss of that identity, and a share in the jeopardy of the poor, but that is not only unthinkable, it is unachievable: St Francis still clutching his alien gods amid the alien corn. At the same time, the traveller transmits, will he nill he, the global rubrics of corporate capital: the Japanese camera, the Swiss watch, the American travellers cheque. The acts of recording and playback, of sound and image, are more than mechanical arts: they embody the delays that distance brings. After the invention of recording, instantaneous communication becomes more, not less, difficult: hence Duchamp's alternative title for his great parody of glass plate photography, 'Delay in Glass'. The direction of a distance is measurable in delay: faster from LA to Mexico City, slower North from Mexico over the border.
So one begins to lay out the tools with which a work of media art in the late 20th century can be thought. In Bashir Makhoul and Richard Hylton's Yo-yo Yo-yo we have the pyramid. But what do we know of the geometry of Gizeh? As André Bazin argued, cinema is a dream as ancient as the Egyptians, a pledge of memory against death, the record that supplants, in its own integrity, the mortal being. But it is not only in Hollywood and its dream palaces that these dreams of an Egyptian art are transmogrified into the rhetoric of a new baroque. In the half-forgotten language of the amateur, the 8mm footage whose colours are drifting from truth with age, the scratches on the emulsion may come not just from storage, but from the dust of the actual moment of filming, a record more tangible than even the record of the light.
In Egypt, that nub of caravanserais and silk routes, there is the very type of the global interchange of the Old World. The pyramid is its emblem, its legacy of flight beyond mortality still preserved in modern myths of astral gods from distant galaxies, from Stargate to the sharpened razorblade. The tourist film that plays across it is the dream of Africa projected on to an Africa of dreams. Here, in this most mock-Grecian of Augustan cities, it articulates to another life, to aspirations above the tyranny of trade that even the Bristol slavemasters must have harboured: the dream of ancestry woven in a single cord with the dream of futurity. It is an act of translation that becomes an act of transmission.
The giraffe, alone among quadrupeds, lifts it two left legs forward in synch with one another, then its right, walking in step with itself like a pantomime horse. No beast was ever as surreal. No creature better emblematises the unforgiving absurdity of evolution, nor better encapsulates the way in which this utterest abstraction of the wild becomes the endearing, familiar, icon of the tourist trip par excellence, safari. Dali would have had no need to set fire to his giraffe, if it had not already become the tired resumé of travellers' tales. Unlike the lion and the elephant, this animal escaped heraldry and fable, only to fall victim to the photograph. The giraffe is the Eiffel Tower of the savannah, a movable landmark that fixes landscape as geography, the dusty indeterminancy of Tsavo and the Taita Hills as a location, anchored in the mental atlas of the merest schoolboy. It is not that there is a real giraffe that we could know, or that no camera can capture the immensity of strangeness in the Kenyan bush, but that the giraffe, which so successfully escaped the cartoonist and the neotenic infantilism of the cuddly toy, is twice lost: first in the lens, and second in projection. It seems only fair to seal that emblematisation with a further step towards abstraction, isolating this aloofness from its ground with electronic chromakey.
Chroma is a strange device. Its commonest use is to replace a dull studio backdrop with moving images: they do it on the news, and always with the weather on TV. It works by using a specific tone of blue as a reference of colour, a flat field that can be magiced into depth and motion. But what if - what if the flat field were to replace the cues for depth? What if the screen became, like the most sensual of modernist abstracts, a shimmering pure extension of colour in two dimensions? Now the creature walks, icon of a place which no longer exists, as a disruptive stranger in an absolute world. It is only in this third turn of the abstraction that the giraffe reassumes its candid autonomy, its resolute muteness in the face of human questioning, its calm pursuit of girafeness. Out of the flotsam of the tourist memory resurrects the impossibility of welcome, the refusal of intimacy, the violence of being which alone vouchsafes the independence of a colonised universe from the imperialism of the gaze.
In this circuit of resistance, from a savage to a digital freedom, the looped steps of the giraffe in Yo-yo Yo-yo are not empty repititions, but the central trope of a work whose preoccupation is with the difficult identity and non-identity of the journey and the return. Stepping out and stepping back, the giraffe now occupies a smaller space/time-frame than the natural and nomadic life from which the camera so rudely and abruptly seized it. Yet it occupies that narrow range with an intensity and purpose which, for seconds in each pass of the projection, is utterly complete. That repetition alone, that occupation of the outlines of its own body coming and going, is at home with itself among the other images of tourists and those who wear appropriate masks for tourists. The way chromakey works, it is not the ground that defines the outline - of the giraffe - that displaces the ground against which it moves. Now the to-ing and fro-ing of the animal determines its world as that which is, though trapped, as whole as a moment between breaths, a moment without need.
But then, every holiday is by definition needless, an extraneous and absurd expenditure of time. The Maasai who poses for the camera, his hunting weapons blunted, who exists, as we must see him, only for the photograph, has understood this to a T. What the traveller wants may be the intimacy of welcome, but what he must accept is the image of it. And yet, this is not a simulacrum, not a representation of an original that never existed, but a sublimation, a twist of the machinery of imaging to allow the picture to become the medium in which that impossible friendship can be realised apart from the commerce that makes it possible. As the tape loops backwards, it is the Maasai who hands money to the tourist for the right to be photographed. In this reverse, again a technique of abstraction from the real, the hidden, utopian reciprocity lurking beneath the banal home movie slips into the foreground. This secret mutuality, this intimacy on the plane of the image, even at the cost of outliving life itself, is the site at which contact becomes transmission.
The dust on the emulsion is the trace of physical contact. The soundtrack too derives from a device, the contact mike, which records not the vibrations of air, but the vibrations of the maternal body and its foetal passenger, that rapid, near-mechanical patter an ante-natal heartbeat recorded from the belly of its mother. That sending out of sound is the child's first transmission to a world from which as yet it receives safety and sustenance but no meanings. Yet to us those sounds are themselves pregnant with significance. This traffic of meaning is one-directional: it transmits, we translate. But it teaches too that on the brink of the first step on that long journey into darkness we must all perform, we are irreducibly the source of rhythms, patterns and behaviours that will radiate out into other lives, whatever silence we might wish to keep along the way. For this is the subtle nature of the recording media which Makhoul and Hylton have deployed: to find, in the never innocent tourist gaze, the mechanisms by which, despite the swiftness with which raw images flow inward to the Western metropolis, and processed images flow outward to the colonised, even the private collections of images we keep in our family albums broadcast their yearning through difficult and circuitous routes back into the global circuits of humanity.
The rendering of time into the arbitrary 24 frames per second of the movies is not, as perhaps the clock was, an imposition on the world of an administrative grid, but a process of projection through which the constitutive elements of movement and change are uprooted from the limitations of the local, thrown outwards on the air, broadcast through space and time, and join the nomadism to which, with the giraffe, we return, transformed, in the media arts. For if the giraffe's tight circumscription of its own place defines a new and newly abstract autonomy, it does so within a renewal of the here and now in the place and instance of the installation as you walk around it. The titled walls that make the screen; the doubled alternation of the images in sculptural, architectural and urban space; the way the work asks that we move as the images move, demanding motion, change, a nomadic audience; the allusive translation of Africa to Somerset, of the domestic memoir to the public park; the substitution of movie with video that means as much as that of equestrian statue with video installation; the reflected and scattered light of projection; all of these take up the promise of the recorded and transmitted world - that the audiovisual, the definitive art of distance, is the art of diaspora, returning, transfigured, the imminent freedom of migration and communication perverted in slavery, imperialism and the tourist gaze.
If memory serves, every point on a wave-front acts as a secondary transmitter. Richard Hylton's father visited Kenya with his wife to fulfil a lifelong wish. This Spanish-Caribbean couple's son works with their images of Africa, no more and no less tourist work, because diaspora is a condition which cannot be healed, but must be lived through to the full, for from it, and from the machine perceptions which it has so profoundly seized upon, will emerge whatever counter-strategy can emerge to turn the globalisation of trade and power into the globalisation of communication and human community. To imagine that exile might yet become a transport of delight; that in our going forth and our returning we are transformed utterly; that only stillness is to be dreaded, though travel must be feared; that in the very nightmare of the eternal return and the inequality of distances there lies the contradiction that unravels enforced identities of visitor: in a world whose veneer of complexity hides its brutality, its stupidity, its single-mindedness, this is what beauty must look like - a Sahara that no longer divides, but which carries the dusty caravans of love between peoples who have no other ground on which to meet.
In the 1980s Sean Cubitt worked freelance in art schools, community arts, journalism, the Open University and as National Organiser for the Society for Education in Film and Television. He spent the 1990s in Liverpool, where he became Professor of Media Arts at Liverpool John Moores University, and was involved in developing the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT). In 2000, he moved to New Zealand where he was Professor of Screen and Media Studies at the University of Waikato. In 2002 he was appointed Honorary Professor of the University of Dundee. He now holds dual nationality with New Zealand and the UK. In July 2006 he moved to Melbourne.
Bashir Makhoul and Richard Hylton came together to explore their different experiences of cultural migration / displacement and to raise questions