Friday, 10 November 2017

Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie

The Last Silent Movie

Hiller orchestrates voices of the last speakers of extinct or endangered languages. Subtitles translate their utterances while the screen remains black. … this work provides the framework for the audience to reflect on the speakers and the conditions that may have prompted the loss of their language. These silenced speakers buried in archives, have literally been given voice again by the artist.

I would like to have seen (heard?) this film, and was only able to find some clips online.

Alexandra writes about the work as rescuing these voices from the archives, and about the 'recording voice as index of an already fleeting human presence.'

The work is ‘full of shadows’ eg. the recording device which crackles audibly and the shadow of the anthropologist or data collector who assembles the clips.

Referencing Charles Sanders Peirce’s description of the index as a sign that denotes the object through an actual connection, and Roland Barthes’ idea of the index in Camera Lucida as ‘a haunted and haunting quasi-signifier’  the essay is about the effect of the recorded voices. (Barthes was writing about photography but his idea is applied here to the sound recording of the human voice.)

‘The recorded voice can become a melancholic vestige of presence now past and a testimony to this passing. '

This discussion of the uncanny, of loss and haunting reminded me of Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, a non silent movie.  It is partly about the themes of memory and home, and the plot revolves around the index, in the form of old home movies.

The protagonist Mike has a form of narcolepsy (cataplexy) in which he falls unconscious when he experiences strong emotion. The memories of his childhood and his lost mother which trigger the narcolepsy are seen on the screen as home movies featuring various lost childhood homes.

Author Peter Brooks, writing about memory in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principal, writes ‘The understanding of time.. is the work of memory… or more precisely we could say with Freud, ‘of remembering, repeating, working through.’ Repetition, remembering, reenactment are the ways in which we replay time so that it may not be lost… All we can do is subvert time, which is what narrative does’. (Freud’s Masterplot, Reading for the Plot p 92)

Film represents what was filmed in the past in the present moment, and this narrative film plays with its power to subvert time by bringing what has been lost alive in the present.

I think the theme of loss, which is more political in this example of Susan Hiller’s work, is something often expressed in art. 

My Own Private Idaho is a mainstream film, but by drawing attention to the mechanics of  recording through the home movies, it is also dealing with the mystery of time which has passed and is irretrievable. 

Art may try to record time and to relive it, but it is only a recording.  Gus van Sant’s film draws attention time and again to home movies by replaying them, underlining the recording of a ‘fleeting human presence’.

The essay quotes media theorist Friedrich Kittler ‘Voice is neither dead nor alive: its status […] is that of a “living dead” . Alexandra writes “In recording, the voice has its intrinsic uncanniness simultaneously amplified and repressed.”

I was not sure but I thought that this meant that it is uncanny because it is as though the person is alive, and a recording of their voice seems more ‘real’ than a photo – so the uncanniness of it not being the actual person is repressed. At the same time we know that it is only a recording and the person whose voice it is may be gone, so the uncanniness is amplified.

I find Susan Hiller’s subject moving because when I lost a friend to cancer, after she died I heard her voice, (rather than imagining I saw her.)  Whenever I think about her it is always her voice I hear. It is especially strange to think that her voice is still so clear and vivid in my head when I won’t ever hear it again.  I think this is the core of the mystery that The Last Silent Movie deals with.

I ran out of word count to write about Claire Pajazkowska's Tension, Time and Tenderness: Indexical Traces of Touch in Textiles.

In brief, CP anaylses textiles through semiotics and theories of child psychology.

“Tension” - she discusses the texture in relation to semiotics, and how material and meaning are bound together.

In semiotic terms,  it is made by hand and therefore an index of the hand, but can also be symbolic.

Time - to summarise, it takes time to make the textiles

Tenderness - about child psychologist Winnicott  and the theory of 'holding' & containment (both physical holding, and in the sense of holding ideas).

In theory it should be interesting. I  remember some of this from last time at university nearly 25 years ago. Just wondering why we still haven't moved on from Freud and semiotics yet.

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