Coding and Representation Conference
Guildhall Art Gallery and the Courtauld Institute of Art
20-21 January 2017
Confronted by a face, we no longer find ourselves within a space at all.
– Béla Balázs, Béla Balázs: Early Film Theory
In capturing the face in close-up, cinema confronts us with a trace of the individual, an imprint of identity. Yet, through its exaggerated focus, the close-up also promises the legibility of the universal: a mute language of facial expression. Unlike the fixity of a still photograph, we experience the close-up of a cinematic face as duration: a distended temporality unhinged from narrative time. This duration exposes the plasticity of the face: its ability to change form, to resist identification and intelligibility. These tensions underpin theoretical discussion of representations of the face within early cinema, a terrain charted by Mary Ann Doane, Class of 1937 Professor of Film & Media at University of California, Berkeley. Renowned for her pioneering work within feminist film theory, Doane recently visited London to deliver the opening keynote at Coding and Representation: an interdisciplinary conference focused on the interconnection between the use of codes and forms of representation within telegraphic to digital communication. Emerging out of a wider research project led by the Courtauld Institute of Art, Scrambled Messages: The Telegraphic Imaginary 1857-1900, the conference spoke to the history of theoretical concern around how media and communication technologies shape our conceptions and representations of time and space. Addressing a gathering of academics and practitioners at Guildhall Art Gallery, the site of affiliated exhibition Victorians Decoded: Art and Telegraphy, Doane interrogated the relationship between physiognomy and the close-up within early cinema, exposing how gender and racial differences structure and inform discourses of cinema’s universality. On Saturday at the Courtauld Institute of Art, a second keynote by Dr. Gail Day (University of Leeds) and Professor Steve Edwards (Birkbeck, University of London) concluded a day of panels anchored around themes of distance, transmission, and impedance. The two keynotes not only bookended the conference’s exploration of coding and representation, but also traced its lineage within film history. Moving from Doane’s exploration of early cinema (1895-1905), to Day and Edward’s focus on the contemporary film and photographic work of Allan Sekula, the conference asked: how does cinema mediate these shifting spatial and temporal configurations? More specifically, how are these shifts inscribed within representations of the face and the sea?
The Forgotten Space (2010)
The relation between cinema and temporality is the central basis of Doane’s 2002 book, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. Her more recent work on the close-up considers how both scale and screen size reflect the changing relations between body and space in modernity. Doane’s keynote, “The Face in Early Cinema and the Discourse of the Universal,” drew from both these projects, examining how the de-temporalization and de-spatialization of the facial close-up both embodies and resists the desires of physiognomy. Doane situated this desire for a universal language – embodied in facial expression – within the specificity of its historical moment. By connecting and compressing space, the dual forces of colonialism and telegraphic communication incited encounters with otherness, prompting appeals for a universal language. Doane considered how this universal language of physiognomy became a form of hermeneutics within the new context of globalization. (Racialized) surface differences became not only legible, but intelligible.
This notion of a universal language was a recurring theme across the conference, discussed in relation to utopian impulses in turn-of-the-century painting (Dr. Grace Brockington, University of Bristol), and to our affective experiences of material objects (Dr. Sarah Wilkes, Institute of Making). For Doane, the fantasy of a universal language is projected onto early cinema in the form of the facial close-up, wordless and transparent in its indexical representation of material reality. Yet, as Doane reminds us, the universality of this facial close-up has gendered dimensions. Through a series of clips depicting close-ups of women in early cinema, she called attention to how representations of the plasticity of the female face operate as modes of refusal and resistance. In Photographing a Female Crook (1904), three men attempt to stabilize a woman in front of the camera to take a mug shot. Moving her body to escape from their physical (and visual) grasp, the woman contorts her face in a series of grotesque expressions. In its mobility and multiplicity, this performance of faciality evades photographic capture, foregrounding the opacity and impenetrability of the cinematic face. How can we think about the performance of a “hysterically expressive” female face as a form of noise in the cinema? Noise that impedes the immediacy not only of facial legibility, but of cinema’s own mediation? In counterposing the physiognomic desires of classical film theorist Béla Balázs, with Jean Epstein’s consideration of the cinematic face as affective surface, Doane reveals the tensions of modernity’s investment in the immediacy of the facial close-up at a historical conjuncture marked by accelerated media and communication technologies.
Fish Story (1995)
In “Differential time and aesthetic form: uneven and combined capitalism in the work of Allan Sekula,” Day and Edwards interrogated how Sekula’s photographic and filmic representations of the global maritime industry resist this fiction of acceleration. In his feature-length essay films, The Lottery of the Sea (2006) and The Forgotten Space (2010), as well as in multimedia projects Fish Story (1995) and Ship of Fools (2010), Sekula examines the maritime industry as the material basis of global capitalism, calling attention to its uneven reconfigurations of time and space. As opposed to the immediacy and immaterial flows of digital communication, the global maritime industry remains anchored in ports and shipping containers, shaped by the sea’s material forces of resistance – elemental conditions of wind, weather and water that impede rapid transmission of goods. As Day and Edwards argued, Sekula mediates the coexistence of differential temporalities and spaces through aesthetic form. Recurring images of the sea in his films underscore its frictive, liquid materiality. In the previous panel, Dr. Matthew Kerr (Southampton University) underscored the sea’s illegibility, arguing that its epistemological impedance (or noise) shaped literary form. The principle of horizontal montage in Sekula’s work, its gesture of accumulation as opposed to progression, further impedes a linear or singular model of acceleration. Yet, the charged discussion that followed highlighted the stakes of cinema’s representation of our shifting conceptions of time and space. Like the plasticity of the face, Sekula’s images of the materiality of the sea resist the immediacy and transparency we continue to demand from cinematic mediation.