the lure of the ordinary V

Prosodic time is horizontal, poetic time is vertical[1].

A formal use of words as words, from 1920s Russian formalist Roman Jakobson’s writing, through William Carlos Williams’ concrete poems to Ian Hamilton Finlay, foregrounds the material conditions of the work. The word is felt as a word and not a mere representation of the object being named or an outburst of emotion[2]. In this way, the poetic is the opposite of the performative speech act, and if any announcement of action were to be made, it would be thoroughly veiled. Moreover, the action would be subjugated as belonging to a more prosaic and horizontal system of linear narrative, whereas a poem is a vertical investigation, not so much with what is occurring but with what it feels like or what it means[3]. Maya Deren’s ‘vertical-moment’ or ‘poem-films’, for instance, do not correspond to the expected film structure’s beginning, middle and end. Without orthodox narrative, her patterning, internal rhythm and echoes culminate in a vertical concentration of poetry. In a way, nothing happens. No resolution is attempted. The word’s function, as it were, becomes phonological, graphic and connotative. It is detached from its referent and shown to be a construction. As George Steiner says, the noun tree does not necessarily capture the essence of a tree any better than Baum or arbre[4]. One of Roger Pol-Droit’s 101 experiments draws this to our attention:

No.2 Empty a Word of its Meaning

This can take place anywhere, and at any time. Simply make sure, once again, that no one can here you. Best to avoid the fear of being ridiculed while you're doing it. Speaking to oneself is nothing. But to be spied on and teased would spoil the desired result.
So, choose a place where no one will hear you. Take what comes to hand, the most ordinary object – a pen, a watch, a glass – or even a piece of your clothing: a button, a belt, a pocket, a shoelace. Whatever. Just let it be ordinary. Its name is known, its presence familiar. You have always called this object by the same word. Consistent, natural, normal. 
Now take this inoffensive, familiar, safe little object in your hand. Repeat its name, in a low voice, as you look at it. Stare at the watch in your hand and repeat: 'watch', 'watch', 'watch', 'watch', 'watch', 'watch', 'watch'. You can keep going. It shouldn't take long. In a few seconds the familiar word detaches itself, and hardens.You find yourself repeating a series of strange sounds. A series of absurd and meaningless noises, that denote nothing, indicate nothing, and remain insensate, formless or harsh. 
You probably experimented like this as a child. Nearly all of us have felt the extreme fragility of the link between words and things. As soon as it is twisted, or pulled, or distended, that link becomes problematic. It becomes contorted, or it breaks. The word dries out and crumbles. A scattered shell of sonorous inanity. 
And what happens to the object is no less startling. It's as though its substance becomes thicker, denser, cruder. The object is somehow more present, and differently so, the moment it escapes the fine net of recognisable syllables. 
You should repeat this old game of dissociation. Try to observe the moment when meaning dissolves, and how a new, raw reality emerges outside of words. 
Glimpse the hard scale beneath the prose. Repeat the same word several times, for the same object, and dissipate all meaning. Is it not marvellous? Terrifying? Funny? Just a few seconds are enough to tear that fine film within which we make sense of things, smug with the power of giving things a name[5]

T J Clark recognises a trend in late Impressionist painting in which the content (everyday street life, sewing, cleaning) is matched by an ephemeral and unfinished mode of representation. In Droit’s experiment, the repetition of a word to the point of disintegration is similar to slow-motion in a film. The everyday is the fleeting, the transitory, the ephemeral. Film can capture all of those things, and is thus a conduit for poetry. Film can either match the everyday in an unfinished form, or monumentalise it. If the latter, there is the potential of destroying the ephemeral quality of the everyday, but many films manage to poeticise without pinning down the everyday too fiercely.    

Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono’s 1966 film One follows the lighting, life and exhausting of a safety match. The film lasts five minutes because it is projected slower than its recording. In recording, cameraman Peter Moore used a scientific camera that captures 2000 frames per second, rather than the usual 24 or 25. Moore also worked on Pieter Vanderbeck’s Five O’Clock In The Morning and Joe Jones’ Smoking, using the same camera to capture and extend transient events usually imperceptible to the eye or regular camera. The slow-motion effect of projecting the film at a lower rate transforms the flame, cigarette (Jones) or falling chestnuts (Vanderbeck) into celestial beings. Things seem to be happening: the chestnuts are like planets aligning, and the match an orb racing through a chiaroscuro sky. All three films are beautifully lit, silent, and have their own speeds of disclosure. It takes several minutes of Jones’ 5 minutes 19 seconds film for us to realise that the cigarette smoke is curdling around a pair of glasses, a nose and a chin. The deceleration of the film in projection makes the image ethereal and monumental, ironic considering that its fluid quality is due to its original recording speed, in which it was liable to whir off the sprocket and generate great heat. Time is the protagonist and muse of these films. There is the time represented in the image (the momentary flare of a match); the time of representation (high-speed camera capture); the time of projection (decelerated); and finally the time taken by the spectator to respond to the image. Each type of time is different and acts as an ambivalent value for the work.

Lefebvre says that time is a standardised, urban one: the type that is required to run railways and connect rural and urban time. In film, this horizontal and highly structured clock time can be melted. Time can be made to gush, to ooze, to stop completely. Andy Warhol filmed at 24 frames per second (real time) but projected at 16 frames, calling this speed a ‘silent speed’ and thus alluding to slow-motion’s capacity to create ellipsis. As in the minutes before a tornado, time becomes ritardando and crystallises: there is a silence and stillness. Poetry is precluded in this way, and then, after the empty sonorities, it produces its moment[6]. Silence is often key to a film or poem, accentuating a passage or blockage of time. Some artists such as Rosa Barba foreground the ambient sound of film projection, while others reject sound in order to promote other senses: how does it smell in the cinema? How does your companion breathe? So accustomed are we to diegetic, naturalistic sound that removing or altering either sound or image has a profound effect on the pair.

Rosa Barba

Warhol’s projection time is utterly dissociated from that of the audience[7]. To quote Bachelard, suddenly all commonplace horizontality disappears. Time no longer flows. It gushes[8]. Once familiar clock time feels just slightly Other[9]
Perhaps our perception of time depends on our alertness. In the void before an event, every sinew strains in expectation, and time seems to extend also. Elsewhere it is as if time is sucked into the tornado; time flies; the vacuum steals it. 
When we watch Warhol’s Couch or Sleep, our real-time moves in explicit contrast with the adagio of the films. Unlike traditional cinema, we are not in tandem with linear action. Extended takes of banal and repetitive scenes – women eating bananas, the Empire State Building – comment on interest, boredom and speeds of disclosure. Nothing happens in one sense, yet other things do. We witness perceptible flickers, staccatos of film-reel-endings and sprockets that punctuate the oozing hours of footage every three minutes. In this way the footage is what Hito Steyerl calls an illicit fifth generation bastard of an original[10]. Like a formalist’s use of words, Warhol uses the materiality of film as a subject in itself.

Andy Warhol

Variety issues from any object looked at long enough[11] says Ivone Marguiles of Warhol’s technique. The same could be said of Margaret Tait and Simon Denison’s practices of ‘peering’ at the everyday until it speaks. Marguiles also says the extended take and slow-motion suggest authenticity because nothing is edited or too fast-paced to be analysed. Indeed, Warhol’s slowed footage of banana eating in Couch feels at once anthropological and poetic; the lack of speed both giving and removing clarity. We are bored into a state of transcendence, dream and poetry.  Chantal Akerman’s elongated shots of Vermeer-like rooms in Hotel Monterey are similarly ambivalent, both analytical and elliptical. In her case, the projection is in real-time but the lack of movement and lingering mood of the camera lends it a static feel. Nothing happens here, yet some scenes are almost unbearable, particularly one of a glowing red corridor that seems to concentrate and heat up with every breath or blink we take. Almost as static as Eggleston’s 1973 photograph of a red ceiling in Mississippi, here time certainly mounts not flows.

William Eggleston

The problem of seeing poetry in art is that it implies art has some transcendental, spiritual power of synecdoche, in which one part can throb with the life of the whole, every accent enclosing the entire destiny of mankind[12] in an extravagant Platonic conception of form. Applying this kind of pressure to art and poetry risks crushing it under its own weight, like a tower being erected ever higher without reinforcements. Yet some artists like Margaret Tait exert such a light touch that the vertical poems are not even dented. In Aerial, a film of rural time and the passing of seasons, there is no narrative and argument; the theme’s more like a musical theme, conjured out of the whole[13].

Ambivalence is a vital aspect of the poetic. Ezra Pound says the poetic image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time[14]. The poetic is at once one thing and another: a pile-up of paradoxes. Bachelard shares Pound’s sentiment, highlighting the importance of the moment to poetry; a metaphysical moment in which the most scattered and disunited being achieves unity […] a harmonic relationship between two opposites[15]. In Tait’s films, there is ambivalence about time. While images are piled like poetic phrases, a sense of seasonal progression also flows. Snow thaws and drips from branches, an earthworm winds its way past a bird’s corpse, and dawn approaches. Although this time is not marked on the dials of clocks[16], it is none the less a narrative of sorts. Yet the narrative is perhaps so vast and eternal that it flows cyclically, escaping absolute horizontality and spiralling into vertical poeticism.

David Lamelas also shows time to be this complicated duality. In his performative piece Time he uses clock-time as a medium to investigate subjective time that a person experiences when he or she is ‘given’ a minute in which to contemplate, stand still and be silent. Each person experiences this fragment of time before passing it on to the next person and minute. Again, silence is crucial, seeming to aid the negotiation.

David Lamelas

In his film The Clock, Christian Marclay follows 24 hours in realtime through a montage of film clips that depict timepieces. In dipping into the film and staying for five, twenty or sixty minutes, we find ourselves weaving a narrative between each collaged fragment. Yet after a while, we realise nothing is happening, and whatever narrative we might try to make ends up going round in circles, spiralling into a vertical mass in which temporal equality is accorded both significant and insignificant events[17]. In watching The Clock we realise the inordinate amount of time we pay in clock-watching everyday and in trying to live as if in a narrative when in fact we live in a world of vertical time, simultaneity and ambivalence.

Christian Marclay

[1] Bachelard, G The Right To Dream
[2] Wyman, S ‘The Poem and the Painting: Roman Jakobson and the Pictorial Language of Paul Klee’ in Word and Image vol20 no2
[3] Deren, M quoted in Nichols, B (ed) Maya Deren and the American Avant Garde
[4] Steiner, G After Babel
[5] Droit, R-P (2001) 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life
[6] Bachelard, G op.cit
[7] Koch, S (1973) Stargazer. The Films of Andy Warhol
[8] Bachelard, G op.cit
[9] Koch, S op.cit
[10] Steyerl, H ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’ in eflux
[11] Marguiles, I Nothing Happens. Time for the Everyday in Post-war Realist Cinema
[12] Croce, B quoted in Eco, U The Open Work
[13] Tait, Margaret in Todd, P and Cook, B (2004) Subjects and Sequences A Margaret Tait Reader
[14] Pound, E quoted in Nichols, B (ed) Maya Deren and the American Avant Garde
[15] Bachelard, G op.cit
[16] Baudelaire, Ch Petits Poèmes en Prose
[17] Marguiles, I op.cit

thanks to Stephen Johnstone.