December 10, 2016 – January 28, 2017
I have dreamed of doing a film of “twenty-four hours,” about an ordinary couple in an ordinary trade.… Some mysterious new apparatus makes it possible to film them “without their knowing about it.” They are subjected to an acute visual inquisition during these twenty-four hours, with nothing escaping the camera: their work, their silence, their private life, their love life. Show the film unpolished with no editing. I think it would be a really terrible thing that everyone would flee from, scared to death, calling for help as if confronted with a worldwide catastrophe.
– Fernand Léger, “Speaking of Cinema” (1933)
Wolfgang Staehle has given us, in his extended digital photographic record of Ludlow Street, not one but ten recordings of twenty-four hours each. Using chance operations, a single day was chosen from each year between 2005 and 2016, except for 2008 and 2014. Instead of focusing on the claustrophobic terror of domestic life, however—An American Family meets the Milgram experiment via covert webcam—he presents ten spacious views of Ludlow Street, looking uptown towards Houston from the window of his upper floor apartment in the block between Rivington and Stanton, on ten monitors around the perimeter of the back gallery at Postmasters. Urban landscapes, yes, but neither Atget’s Paris nor Weegee’s New York. They are populated, but not with “characters.” From a distance, we observe the behavior of random passersby, or the fellow inhabitants of his street, who happen to have fallen under the gaze of his camera.
Staehle uses the word “chronophotographic” to describe this work. This is the process: for each day selected out of the year, a digital camera records a single image at regular intervals, starting at midnight and ending just before midnight comes round again. Playback is synchronized by the original time stamp to the “clock on the wall,” so that what we observe in the gallery takes place at precisely the same instant on the day it was recorded. Each still image remains on the screen until replaced by the next.
The effect is a dilation and fragmentation of time, rather than the compression of time-lapse recording, where people scurry about like jittery mites under a microscope. Though the angle of view is wide, the scale of display recalls the domestic: the monitors are the size of an average HDTV but, hung like paintings on the wall, they are actually more physically approachable than a screen embedded in an “entertainment center.” And there’s no remote to mediate access; access to these ten chronophotographic screen worlds, comes from our engagement: our perceptions, thoughts, observations.
We witness successive moments of arrest, segments held for brief examination and reflection. The intervals are too short and the images too detailed to memorize. We sense the fallibility of our own perception against the inevitable advance of time regulated by Staehle’s electronic apparatus, which has “chosen” to record and playback just these particular moments. They are offered not so much for our delectation, but as evidence of the slippage between our consciousness and the world.
Yet within the space for reflection, which these chronophotographic sequences open to our view, certain details stand out: over a few successive instants, a woman appears at a window on the top floor of a building down the street, gazes out, then disappears behind a curtain. A man emerges onto the fire escape in the building next door, looks around, then disappears. The shadows of birds we cannot see are projected onto the building across the street, they shift, then disappear. As the text by William Barrett on the wall of the gallery remarks, “It is the familiar that usually eludes us in life. What is before our nose is what we see last.”
Yielding up our expectations of spectacle, we experience a state of incidental observation, comparable to that of the first viewers of the Lumière films. Maxim Gorky, responding to those films, noted repeatedly that the leaves on the trees were actually moving. The setting for his viewing—a fairground café frequented by female sex workers in Nizhny Novgorod—prompted him to see the potential for replacing the dull black-and-white shadows of everyday life, with more “piquant” scenes. He also imagined a nostalgia behind the bitter laughter of these women when viewing the bourgeois family scene in Baby’s Lunch. Ironically, if what Hollis Frampton once told me is true, at the very moment Gorky wrote those words, the first pornographic films were already being made in Buenos Aires.
Staehle’s project does not purify our vision and return us to some prelapsarian state, nor move us with the lurid, or the tragic. We can say that, at the very least, we leave with a heightened sense of the perceptual implications of the passage of time and of the way we inhabit the space around us. Staehle’s immediate point of film historical reference is more likely Warhol’s Empire, than the films of the Lumières, though Warhol’s films and the films of the Lumières have often been compared.
Warhol’s Empire works by a strategy of sensory deprivation: after hours of deprivation of the usual kinds of stimulus, we become finely attuned to variations in the grain of the film, the smallest flicker of light. When a light goes on in the room where the camera was placed across the street from the Empire State Building and we see Jonas Mekas and Warhol standing by the camera, we experience a revelatory shock within the banal. Warhol’s film, if one bothers to watch it from beginning to end, is quite a different experience than the one-liner status it is usually allotted in film history and popular journalism.
Staehle, in fact, made his own transmitted chronophotographic record of the Empire State Building—titled Empire 24/7—in the old Chelsea office of The Thing. It was active from 1999-2004. Empire 24/7 was simply there, seeming to defy all bounds of material closure. It was constant and resided on a small screen in the corner of the room, with its architectural pretext visible out the window in the background; it could also be seen on a web stream. It was a kind of deadpan echo of the building’s iconic status and a challenge to the iconic status of Warhol’s film as one of the longest and most demanding ever made.
If Warhol’s film represented a kind monumental destruction of wealth, exceeding nearly any viewer’s capacity for endurance, Staehle’s digital project aspired to the status of a technological icon: a pointer to an “eternal” Modern reality viewable anywhere in the world at any time. Empire 24/7’s defiance of the limits of space and time was ultimately struck down by the most powerful iconoclastic force in the urban landscape: real estate speculation. The strategically located office, which made it possible, quickly became too expensive. The project remains as an incomplete collection of digital stills: a monumental, virtual technological ruin.
If Empire 24/7 was an omnipresent pointer to a mock eternal reality, then Ludlow Street is consciously designed to deploy within the physical space of the gallery during viewing hours, a carefully circumscribed world, understood to be immanently subject to change.
Ludlow Street is synchronized to the clock on the wall and that synchronization means that the majority of what was recorded is displayed without our being able to see it. This is true of much of Staehle’s chronophotographic work, including the monumental Hudson Valley landscape currently on view at the Met. Though each is smaller than Empire 24/7 in scale, each still exceeds our capacity to take it in completely.
In the case of Ludlow Street, it also means that since the days chosen for recording were taken in different months of the year, the sun sets at different times. Since sunset, in our world, occurs between 4:29pm and 5:09pm over the course of the exhibition, the most radical divergences between the scenes begin to occur just outside most of the gallery’s normal viewing hours. During the last few hours of the afternoon, if we are curious enough to compare the scenes on different monitors—to perform a chance synchronous montage—we might notice, among other things, the appearance of a new hotel and the replacement of the hand lettered sign for the beloved and ghastly Mexican Restaurant “El Sombrero” (aka “The Hat”) with a sign bearing a neon image of a hat. Two indices to gentrification made without editorial commentary. A satisfying insight, but we still can’t keep track of ten screens at once.
More important than arcane seasonal or micro-social observations is the fact that the word “chronophotographic” recalls the 19th century French physician Étienne-Jules Marey. Marey, who coined the term “chronophotographie” for his scientific work, is generally recognized as one of the progenitors of the cinema, though the exact nuance of his historical role remains the subject of debate. Marey’s work belongs to what is sometimes called the “prehistory” of cinema; that is, it occurs before what some historians recognize as satisfying the technological, psychological, and ideological requirements to be considered “cinema,” as we currently understand it. Staehle’s work, like Marey’s, stands in an oblique relation to “the cinema,” to the movies in a theatre near you, whether that happens to be a multiplex, the Metrograph, or the Anthology Film Archives. Marey’s work begins before, overlaps with and even resembles the “cinema”; Staehle’s work comes after and stands just outside of “cinema.” But policing these borders is less interesting than the enhancement of the perception of space and time made possible by both Marey’s and Staehle’s chronophotographic projects.