PRINT September 2012


Tacita Dean, FILM, 2011, 35-mm film, projector, screen, seating, 11 minutes. Installation view, Tate Modern, London.

IN A SHORT VIDEO made to accompany FILM, her 2011 piece for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London, Tacita Dean begins by describing the making of The Green Ray, 2001. The title alludes to the last flash of light from the setting sun—which is “just slower than the red or the yellow ray.” To capture this elusive aura, often witnessed by sailors, she watched the sunset off the west coast of Madagascar. Positioning her camera, loaded with its spool of celluloid, she began the exposure and waited. As the sun disappeared under the horizon, Dean “believed but was never sure” she saw a flash of green. Next to her were two observers with a video camera. They neither saw nor captured the phenomenon, and insisted their video proved that Dean had not seen it either. But when Dean’s film was developed, there—unmistakable in the fleeting movement of film frames—was the green ray. It had been too elusive for what she calls “the pixelation of the digital world.”

Triumphant about this unimpeachable evidence held on chemical emulsion, Dean was acknowledging what has been called the indexical nature of film. “Index” is the term famously used more than a century ago by the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce to register the difference between the photographic and the manually composed, pictorial image. The photograph is indexical, he argued, because a trace is causally registered on film (much in the way fingerprints or footprints are left at the scene of a crime). In Peirce’s taxonomy, painted images are, by contrast, iconic, because the relation they have to their referents is not causal but contrived. The latter also applies, despite first appearances, to the digital image, and marks out its difference from the indexicality of photographs and celluloid film. This is why Dean insists that analog and digital are two different media, which is to say, two separate “technical supports.” A great chasm divides them.

Dean has called her Turbine Hall installation a “portrait of film.” It was shot on 35 mm using an anamorphic lens so as to double the width of the frame. Normally such lenses are used to create an extended landscape format, but here Dean turned the image on its side, into a looming vertical. Projected onto the east wall of the Turbine Hall’s cavernous space, the background image of the film was itself predominantly a replication of this wall, replete with its signature oblong windows rising above a kind of metal wainscoting. Subjected to various color filters and tints, this became the backdrop for footage shot around Berlin, featuring patches of bright monochromatic color, ostrich eggs, a waterfall, an escalator, and bolts of lightning, as well as various other interventions made possible using what Dean calls “disused film techniques” such as masking, tinting, and glass matte painting.

For the duration of the film, the central image is flanked by two rows of sprocket holes, which were created using a custom-built aperture gate that “worked as a sharp and precise mask.” These sprocket holes figure forth the filmstrip itself not only as the material support for the image but also as the apparatus for its very projection. In this figuring forth, Dean asserts the specificity of her medium.

FILM thus runs headlong against the contemporary conviction that there is no “itself” to which a medium, of any kind, can be “specific.” (This is one of the subjects of my 1999 book A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition.) Deconstruction, in the hands of Jacques Derrida, dismantled the very idea of that selfhood, which undergirds what modernism called “specificity.” In his 1978 essay “The Parergon,” Derrida challenged Kant’s insistence, in the Third Critique, that aesthetic judgment properly applies only to the ergon, or the interiority of the work. Everything else, Kant maintains, is superficial—decoration or non-essential embellishment. Another parergon is color, which Kant deems inessential and thus extrinsic to the work, because it is merely an addition that charms. The intrinsic object of pure aesthetic judgment is, instead, its form—called forth by the drawing or contours that achieve its compositional unity. Without the frame, Derrida argued, the ergon—the work—is not self-sufficient but is vitiated by lack, a lack that necessarily welcomes the parergon. Thus the frame comes from the outside to constitute the inside as an inside, an interior from which nothing is lacking. Derrida’s deconstruction of Kant’s argument turns, then, on the impossibility of privileging the intrinsic over the extrinsic and thus the impossibility of the proper as pure.

Medium-specificity also came under attack from Conceptual art, which took as its subject “art in general” rather than a probing of the qualities of a specific medium. And the binary coding that supports digital imaging, meanwhile, has itself advanced a related flattening of distinctions: As Friedrich Kittler puts it, “digitization . . . erases the differences among individual media.”

Tacita Dean, FILM, 2011, 35-mm film, projector, screen, seating, 11 minutes. Installation view, Tate Modern, London.

All these factors have brought about our current plight. There are, however, some contemporary artists who truculently hold out against the meretriciousness and vulgarity of what I have called the “post-medium condition.” Tacita Dean, with her refusal to accept the obsolescence of celluloid film as a living medium, is clearly one of them. Her choice “to make an experimental 35mm film inside the camera” and to use a number of techniques invented at the outset of cinema creates a sense that FILM is in part a response to the very logic of obsolescence, as formulated by Walter Benjamin, who, as I once summarized it, “believed that at the birth of a given social form or technological process the utopian dimension was present and, furthermore, that it is precisely at the moment of the obsolescence of that technology that it once more releases this dimension, like the last gleam of a dying star.” Dean, moreover, made not only film as technical support but cinema itself the narrative subject of her installation in the Turbine Hall.

This is, of course, a complex task, and FILM acknowledges cinema as a heterogeneous apparatus in which the it of itself is hard to locate. Is it the screen? Or the beam of light that pierces the blackened void to project the image? Or is it the camera? The projector? Or, as the sprocket holes on either side of FILM suggest, the filmstrip? Such questions were, of course, a vexing problem for structuralist filmmakers of the 1960s. In various ways, their endeavor was to articulate the field as a medium. To this end, they addressed the whole apparatus of film, taking into account various aspects to uncover the “unity of this diversified support”—to identify what constitutes cinema itself.

A related operation is at work in FILM: If Dean’s drive toward the specificity of her medium (Roland Barthes would call it film’s “genius”) is realized most explicitly with the sprocket holes, she has also, for example, kept the flash frames—a by-product of filmmaking normally excised during editing—that occur when film stops and starts in the gate. This recalls the way in which many structuralist filmmakers paid special attention to the consequences of film being made up of individual frames that are sequentially exposed. In Arnulf Rainer, 1960, for example, Peter Kubelka alternated opaque frames of black leader with transparent ones. Film as technical support here becomes visible as a series of interruptions. The projection screen is arguably another itself, as the blank frames make it erupt into pure blooms of light. Tony Conrad and Paul Sharits also adopted this flicker technique, turning it into a reflection on the essential nature of cinema that bears comparison with Dean’s own probing of the medium’s internal and necessary conventions in FILM.

Yet the installation of FILM at Tate Modern went beyond this question in order also to address the permeability of any division between intrinsic and extrinsic. Dean has identified her decision to turn the Turbine Hall into a giant film as her acceptance of the “spectacular” that the space requires. The surface onto which FILM was projected was a freestanding, vinyl-clad column, set just forward from the wall that was itself featured in much of the film. The result was the illusion that we were looking through the celluloid itself, as if through a two-way mirror. This made for a perfect mise en abyme, as though the Turbine Hall had folded itself over the strip of film to imprint its image upon the film’s face. (In one scene in the film, the effect was redoubled as we saw an enormous escalator descending between the sprocket holes, evoking the passage of the filmstrip through a camera or a projector as it winds itself onto the take-up spool.) It is hard to grasp the brilliance of Dean’s representation of the filmstrip folding back onto a figuring forth of the very act of shooting—and thus onto the production of the work we were viewing.

This Möbius strip–like effect recalls Derrida’s discussion (in his 1980 essay “The Law of Genre”) of the beginning and the end of Maurice Blanchot’s 1973 story “La Folie du jour”(The Madness of the Day) as a “double . . . invagination.” Almost at the very end of Blanchot’s text stand the words “an account? I began. . .”—which brings us right back to its opening. In the final line, the “account” that is “La Folie du jour” itself is deemed impossible by its narrator even as it is the very text we have just read. In a similar manner, FILM’s flanking sprocket holes frame the film we are watching, leaving us vertiginously fascinated by its capacity to reenact itself.

In her catalogue essay, Dean writes of the sense that she was “grieving the potential loss of [her] medium.” The warning signs are clear: A processing lab in London that Dean used stopped printing 16-mm film in 2011, and most feature films will soon be distributed only in digital formats. The significance of such a loss is Dean’s constant focus. Last year, she took a set of beautiful photographs of Leo Steinberg’s unmistakable hand penning his essay on Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, present in a reproduction on his desk in front of him. If calligraphy has already been replaced by word processing, so the images (titled The Line of Fate) can be understood as bearing witness to the constant anxiety caused by the threat of obsolescence—and, in this case, the threat digital technology poses to the survival of photography and, further, to celluloid film. FILM showcases the potential held in the conventions and tools of celluloid film. Although some of the effects in FILM seem echoed in those possible in digital postproduction, they are resolutely, materially specific to film, manifesting both the conventions and constraints of celluloid and its shifting, ever-elastic capabilities.

“Failure,” Dean wrote of FILM, “would be if people said: ‘She could have just done that on digital.’” No one who has watched it could possibly say that. This is the work’s stunning success.

Rosalind E. Krauss, university professor at Columbia University, teaches twentieth-century art and theory.