Re: surfacing by Tim Dallett


The following comments are based in part on my experience working with Barbara Sternberg and Rae Davis on their collaborative exhibition pulse.scan.fold., presented at Gallery 101 in Ottawa in 1996. That project, which combined film, video, photography and paper media in an installation environment, has already been the subject of an intense and sustained meditation by Barbara Godard (1). What I would like to do here is not to echo Godard's description and careful analysis of that project, but rather to speculate about film projection in contexts other than the cinematic, and to relate these reflections to Sternberg's body of work, including the film-related installations she has produced in collaboration with Davis.


My first exposure, in the early nineties, to Sternberg's work, did a great deal to shape my awareness of film as a visual medium. I was particularly impressed by what I took to be the visual ethic underlying her approach. As a viewer who had no formal film training, but who had studied as a painter and designer, I was drawn to her films as examples of a process of working on the film image as a visual artifact. Her work seemed to directly address the film image as a material surface, and to resonate with a profound sense of freedom in the temporal organization of image relationships.


Her very real achievement in films like Through and Through, and more recently, midst, has been to construct a highly original statement about the equivalence of images. Through progressions and juxtapositions of landscapes, people and memories, both abstract and concrete, Sternberg reflects on the nature of perception and explores its relationship to film as a medium intrinsically in motion. Images in her films are given a sense of reality and urgency by specific strategies of repetition, layering and transformation, yet their reality is always conditioned by the rhythmic flux in which they are embedded. The notion of image-rhythm, of a basic unit of visual pulsing which organizes a progression of diverse, yet interrelated imagery, seems to play an essential and vital role in her work.


The sense of rhythm as the basis for her films' composition seems to situate its aesthetic centre somewhere outside the visual itself. At a significant remove both from artistic traditions based on static formal "quality," and from the perceptual principles of monocular perspective, Sternberg's work on rhythm liberates image from the legacy of visual composition as a determining or confining frame through which movement is forced to pass. Images of all kinds—recognizable, abstract or associative—maintain their dignity and fascination as sensuous objects without the sense of being subordinated to either static compositions or narrative exigencies. Her rendering of the visual as an expression of abstract, yet somatically concrete temporal rhythms, defers and delays meaning, yet ultimately empowers viewing, making images available for interpretation by the viewer in ways which are simultaneously personal, flexible and respectful of autonomy.


This space of autonomy enables the viewer to construct his or her own sites of meaning — perceptual landscapes assembled and unfolded over the time of the film. The positioning of this viewer as observer-builder has several spatial implications. Some of these implications relate to the viewer's access to optical space within the projected image. Through movement, transformation and fracture of objects in the film-plane, paradoxes of looking into flatness and onto depth are advanced, worked over and held up for scrutiny, only to be dissolved and replaced by another cycle of rhythms. A further aspect of the films' spatial implications for the viewer is the interdependence of temporal and spatial sensations. These affect perception—as embodiment—over and beyond an apprehension of complex spaces within the film image itself. Embodied perception is stimulated not only by the manipulation of visual space on screen, but by the rhythms through which Sternberg's films orchestrate that space's evolution over time.


In a different context, spatial features of her films intersect with an abstract notion that as a medium, film is situated on a continuum between site dependence and site independence. An example of independence from site is found in the ideal concept of the exhibition print, a particle circulating freely and fluidly between an arbitrary series of viewing situations. At the other end of this imaginary continuum is a scene of radical contextualism bearing on all aspects of the projection scenario, from screen reflectance to room acoustics to program length. In such a setting, conceptual, experiential and technical factors influence the presentation of film in different ways than they do in a straightforward screening. Standard 16mm projectors offer no practical way to repeat a projection without interruption, nor to alter its duration. Continuous or repeated projection calls for varying degrees of mechanical modification, supervision, and maintenance. The general evacuation of tactile-technical competence from daily life and social contexts further reinforces a widespread (but not entirely universal) reluctance on the part of arts administrators and  curators to accommodate film in gallery contexts. These factors — further overshadowed by cultural rhetorics concerning the anachronistic materiality of celluloid itself—articulate a particular kind of tension between a film and the varying spaces of its appearance.


Yet the flexible temporal and material logic of Sternberg's work makes possible a reading of it as a sequence of images, a vast archive of visual material which has definite organizing principles, but no controlling script. Already the films' sense of the fragment, their sense of the working up of units of image-movement into rhythmic blocks suggests the idea of spatializing these blocks, of deploying them in varying ways on the continuum of film-site relationships described above. As an object that might exist in the world, how could one consider the image itself, the film projection, as a spatial event? Beyond the banal metaphor of the projected image as a "window" into an "alternative world," what are the possible spatial consequences of projection as a temporal event which interrupts or inflects the spatial reality around it?


In my conversations with Barbara Sternberg leading up to the presentation of pulse.scan.fold. at Gallery 101, we returned frequently to this idea of a continuum of film-site relationships and how it could relate to a presentation of her practice as a process. How could the exhibition both make evident the character of process found in the film work itself, and explore other aspects of Sternberg's aesthetic in ways which would work with, rather than struggle against, the spatial frame of the gallery? In parallel to Rae Davis's re-structuring of the relationship of the gallery's rooms as an eloquent dialectic of siting and seeing, Sternberg's contribution to the pulse.scan.fold. installation could be thought of as an unfolding of her film practice in space, an application of her image-making and image-assembling processes to the space of a room rather than to the film frame.


The exhibition was conceived around the use of a darkened larger gallery accommodating a number of media installations and regularly scheduled projections of Sternberg's films over a three week period. This space was linked and juxtaposed with a smaller, brightly lit gallery where Rae Davis's paper works could be viewed both directly, and from a number of different angles through a tapered viewing slot conceived by Davis and built into the wall separating the two rooms. Sternberg's strategy in her own interventions was to engage the notion of the image-sequence-fragment, constructing a series of viewing situations which while discrete, suggested and encapsulated the sense of temporal stitching evoked by her films.


Freely excising short elements from various films, Sternberg transformed them into mini-installations using continuous video playback on two intimate viewing stations with chairs and headphones. At these stations, one could approach a cinematic fragment in a different way than one would if watching it in a longer, continuously evolving film, in a distinctive combination of the familiar, shared viewing situation of the TV set and the private, contemplative listening space of the headphone-bubble. In another part of the gallery, and at a larger scale, a continuously repeated sequence, taken from Beating, showed waves advancing and receding. This was projected as a large-scale video image which acted as a link with Rae Davis' nearby components of the installation. Still other spatial translations of Sternberg's films took the form of individual 16mm frames enlarged and rendered as computer processed still photographs, and a slide projection with an accompanying text. As a pendant to, and at the opposite end of the gallery from Davis's folded paper works, pages of Sternberg's script-drawings, palimpsests of notations and sketches, were laminated to a wall, behind the surface on which her films were projected.


The ensemble of these "fragments" seemed to invoke the sense of a number of simultaneous ethical and experiential scenarios articulated, both gently and passionately, through visual gesture and auditory repetition. The multiplication of access points—standing, walking, watching a film, casting a shadow in front of a video image, sitting with others to see and hear up close moved Sternberg's filmic elements away from their usual context of directional film-flow, into a space of tangential and multi-valent address. In pulse.scan.fold concepts of rhythm, flow, opacity, transparency and depth in Sternberg's work found new and different means of expression, both through the media environments just described, and in relation to the echoes and metaphoric linkages set into motion by the textures and careful placement of Rae Davis's paper constructions.


Davis and Sternberg have continued their work together, building on pulse.scan.fold to develop Surge, an installation exhibited at the Art Gallery of Windsor in 1998 and at Galerie Articule in Montreal in 1999. This ambitious project continues to explore their concern with "way(s) of being in the world layered, shifting, expandable, unresolvable,"(2) through a combination of film and video projection, sculptural objects and spatial relationships. The continuing evolution of Sternberg's collaboration with Davis on installation projects suggests new ways of looking at ideas of space and viewership in her films, whereby images travel, on a number of literal and metaphorical levels, from the world to the screen and back and forth in flexible cycles of exchange and transformation.



(1) Barbara Godard, "Theatres of Perception: The Filmworks of Barbara Sternberg and the Paperworks of Rae Davis," in Tim Dallett, ed., Image/Duration: Installations of the Moving Image (Ottawa: Gallery 101, 1999), pp. 47-79


(2) Barbara Sternberg and Rae Davis, "Surge", artists' statement, 1998.