Essays
Published in A fine line, Cornerhouse Manchester, ISBN 0948797681


Experimental Conversations

Francis McKee

Grace Weir: If our point of equilibrium shifts, something has changed...

Ian Elliott: Oh yes

Watching many of Grace Weir’s more recent works – Paper exercises, Bending spacetime in the basement, Dust defying gravity, The darkness and the light – it would be tempting to define the subject of this work as science, and it is. But equally, as we grow familiar with the people and places in these films, they reveal themselves as a portrait of a particular scientist, Ian Elliot, the record of a dynamic personal dialogue between the artist and that scientist and a haunting inventory of the interiors of Dunsink Observatory in Dublin.

Weir has engaged with portraiture in her work as far back as Man on Houston St (1996)which sprang from an earlier photograph taken casually while on residency at PS1 in New York. The random image seemed to gain in significance as time passed and it raised questions of identity and representation. In her recent collaborations with Ian Elliot these questions resurface as we observe the flourishing relationship between the scientist and artist. In The darkness and the light (2002), for instance, the scientist is documented as he enters the small observatory, opens the domed shutter and admits the light. These simple actions filmed without pretension by Weir assume a poetic quality. The nineteenth century telescope, housed in a small eighteenth century building, evokes a more gentlemanly era of scientific enquiry. The same could be said of Elliot, too. Modestly dressed in shirt and tie, a sprightly man with white hair, glasses and a beard, he is immediately identifiable as an academic, a scientist driven by curiosity and precision. The solitude of the small observatory, intensified by the acoustics of the wood panelled room and the obsolescence of the rope pulleys and brass telescope, echoes the solitary aspects of the scientist’s life spent in observation and intellectual struggle. These qualities are amplified by the later sequences in which Elliot quietly attempts to explain superstring theory with a simple example of an A4 sheet of paper which he halves with scissors until the task becomes impossible. Then, projecting a sunspot onto the paper from the telescope, the paper eventually catches fire and burns away, leaving him grasping the charred edges. This small frustration points to the much larger role failure plays in the life of any scientist.(1) The constant essaying and testing of ideas, the acknowledgement that results will more often be negative than positive, breeds a stoicism that is perfectly expressed in Elliot’s demonstration for the camera. Weir’s title for this film reinforces this portrayal of the scientist, vacillating as it does between the literal and the metaphorical.

Elliot appears in two more films – Paper exercises and Bending spacetime in the basement– but in both cases he is joined by the filmmaker herself. In Paper exercises we see only a sheet of white paper on a black background and the hands of the two participants, drawing a schematic diagram as they elaborate on the Theory of Relativity. On the soundtrack, we hear Elliot explain the basics of relativity while Weir, with a good grasp of mathematics, follows his explanations asking supplementary questions. Although the image on screen is formally composed, the conversation is unedited and undramatic. At a certain point, however, we become aware of Weir’s growing understanding of the explanation offered by Elliot, glimpsing her in the process of comprehension as we simultaneously consider our own knowledge of the subject. In Bending spacetime in the basement we see the scientist and artist perform an experiment illustrating the sensitive effect of gravitational forces using, among other things, two Heinz beans tins and a bucket of water. There is a sly joy that the couple share in the lo-fi nature of the experiment and in the suitability of a humble basement to explain the enormity of the concept they are exploring.(2)

It may be more accurate to see these two films as self-portraits of Weir as much as depictions of the scientist, Ian Elliot. The issues they raise, though, render such problems unimportant. While more conventional portraiture is concerned with surface interpretation such as physiognomy or employs objects surrounding the subject to reflect deeper concerns of the sitter, Weir’s films probe the nature of fixed identity and ask whether it is possible to portray a stable, knowable self and these questions are underpinned by the science under scrutiny. Given the nature of relativity and the premise that to observe a phenomenon is to change it, Weir’s documents of her experiments with Elliot demand that we consider what happens when she turns the camera on the two of them and what happens when we watch the film in a gallery. As she remarks to Elliot in Bending Spacetime, ‘we should observe the difference in the environment we’ve created...’

Rather than attempt to portray some unique ‘essence’ of the subjects in these films, Weir documents the transformation of people through conversation and interaction. The exchange of knowledge, the friction of human interplay and the dynamics of collaboration propel the mutual development of each person in these experiments and demonstrations. The dialogue form employed in the films can draw on the same strengths it has shown throughout the history of philosophy from Plato onwards – the process of assertion and counter-assertion opening a space of uncertainty, denying resolution to any one question, subverting simple statements of ‘truth’.

Rather than a portrait of a fixed persona or self, Weir tracks people in states of becoming. In this she echoes the thinking of Henri Bergson where motion is the norm and fixity an illusion or perhaps, more accurately, the revision of Bergson undertaken by the French thinkers Deleuze and Guattari. Deleuze, for instance, declares that ‘Bergson was...working out new philosophical concepts relating to the theory of relativity: he thought relativity involved a conception of time which it didn’t itself bring out, but which it was up to philosophy to construct.’

In the opening paragraphs of A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari famously outlined their own disbelief in a unified, fixed self when they state that their aim was ‘To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.’ Defining their conception of reality as ‘rhizomatic’ the philosophers end this declaration with their own version of ‘becoming,’ pushing beyond the back and forth of dialogic process to plant themselves in an ever moving middle ground:

Between things does not designate a localisable relation going from one thing to the other and back again, but a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away, a stream without beginning or end that undermines its banks and picks up speed in the middle.

For Deleuze and Guattari, this radical lack of certainty stretches far beyond notions of self and can encompass even scientific ideas in some cases, providing a fertile zone for the collaboration of scientists, artists and philosophers:

A Thousand Plateaus does indeed use a number of concepts with a scientific resonance, or correlate even: black holes, fuzzy sets, neighbourhoods, Riemannian spaces...there are two sorts of scientific notions, even though they get mixed up in particular cases. There are notions that are exact in nature, quantitative, defined by equations, and whose very meaning lies in their exactness: a philosopher or writer can use these only metaphorically, and that’s quite wrong, because they belong to exact science. But there are also essentially inexact yet completely rigorous notions that scientists can’t do without, which belong equally to scientists, philosophers, and artists. They have to be made rigorous in a way that’s not directly scientific, so that when a scientist manages to do this he becomes a philosopher, an artist too. This sort of concept’s not unspecified because something’s missing but because of its nature and content.

This understanding of scientific notions offer the possibility of true collaboration in which both scientist and artist, for instance, can work together as equals and it stands as a viable template for Weir and Elliot’s conversational films. As they conduct their experiments and demonstrations they present a critique of the experimental process itself, an inexact activity that combines science rigorously with a host of other social and artistic acts.

The evolution of the scientific experiment in the enlightenment has been explored by Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer in their book, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (1985). They highlight the efforts of the chemical scientist Robert Boyle to establish an experimental programme that produced verifiable knowledge and facts:

In Boyle's view the capacity of experiments to yield matters of fact depended not only upon their actual performance but essentially upon the assurance of the relevant community that they had been so performed. He therefore made a vital distinction between actual experiments and what are now termed "thought experiments." If knowledge was to be empirically based, as Boyle and other English experimentalists insisted it should, then its experimental foundations had to be witnessed. Experimental performances and their products had to be attested by the testimony of eye witnesses.

Boyle believed that such witnesses could be satisfied by performing the experiments in a social space with a gathered audience and that this process could then be extended by producing images of the experiments - written accounts and engravings. Weir and Elliot’s demonstrations draw on this tradition, creating durable images of experiments and explanations that are then displayed in the social space of a gallery.

Their echoes of the idealism in Boyle’s criteria for verification take on a critical aspect simply because so much has changed since the enlightenment.(3) Quantum theory rendered verification and truth less viable, relativity implicated the observer in the act of observation and governments gradually emptied the social spaces of collective witnessing, preferring secrecy and espionage. The difficulty in explaining complex ideas such as string theory and hyperspace to a mass audience isolated contemporary physicists while the geneticists found themselves in an ethical maze.(4) Against this background the simple experiments of Weir and Elliot have a refreshing innocence and reveal the scientist’s desire to communicate with a wider audience. The loose script they play out in Bending spacetime in the basementis based on a web page by computer programmer John Walker:

This page presents a "basement science" experiment which reveals the universality of gravitation by demonstrating the gravitational attraction between palpable objects on the human scale. The experiment deliberately uses only the crudest and most commonplace materials, permitting anybody who's so inclined to perform it. Einstein's 1915 theory of General Relativity explains gravitation as spacetime curvature created by matter and energy. So, by demonstrating how every object in the universe attracts everything else, we're bending spacetime in the basement.(5)

There is a clear delight for both Weir and Elliot in their success with such modest materials, a satisfaction that something apparently so complex can be demonstrated so simply.(6)They both share a modesty that is also evident in The Darkness and the light and more implicitly in Dust defying gravity. In this film, Weir simply tracks through the rooms at Dunsink Observatory, documenting the ageing telescopes and measuring instruments arrayed throughout the building.(7) Modesty is implicit in the silent attention paid to these devices and when the camera captures the fall of dust motes the film enters a broader tradition in which dust suggests humbleness, the transience of time and death. The sudden visibility of the dust in the light reminds us, too, of how much our senses normally miss in the physical world. We perceive only a small range of phenomena within a narrow spectrum and in the development of experimental science this offered another reason for the building of instruments:

The power of new scientific instruments, the microscope and telescope as well as the airpump, resided in their capacity to enhance perception and to constitute new perceptual objects. The experimental philosophy, empiricist and inductivist, depended upon the generation of matters of fact that were objects of perceptual experience. Unassisted senses were limited in their ability to discern and to constitute such perceptual objects. Boyle himself reckoned "that the Informations of Sense assisted and highlighted by Instruments are usually preferable to those of Sense alone."...Things would be seen that were previously invisible: the rings of Saturn, the mosaic structure of the fly's eye, spots on the sun. And other things, essentially invisible, would be given visual manifestations: the pressure of the air, aqueous and terrestrial effluvia. As Hooke said, "There is a new visible World discovered." This new visible world indicated not only the potential of scientific instruments to enhance the senses; it also served as a warning that the senses were inherently fallible and required such assistance as the experimental philosopher could offer.

In Dust defying gravity Weir presents a silent inventory of the instruments that amplified the human senses in the past, augmenting our awareness of worlds previously invisible to us. At the same time, her focus on dust undermines any of the authority or pride that this might bring.

The moment in which the motes becomes visible in Dust defying gravity also expose the camera as an instrument, an optical device with its own limits of perception. Such moments occur in almost all of her films and constitute a critical appraisal of film through the actual making of film. In this, Weir accepts the view of Gilles Deleuze in his ground-breaking volumes Cinema I and II in which he argues that ‘philosophers haven’t taken much notice of cinema, even though they go to cinemas.’ Deleuze argues that a philosophy of film must grow from concepts specific to cinema and not from other disciplines such as linguistics. Movement and time are two of the most important concepts that he identifies in his analysis stating, for instance, that ‘cinema does not give us an image to which movement is added, it immediately gives us a movement-image.’ This emphasis on motion leads Deleuze to a formulation of film as another example of ‘becoming’ - the image cannot be separated from its motion and has, therefore, a constantly evolving meaning that remains open, never resolved. Image and thought are united in this vision of cinema and thought then is expressed through the technical choices of each film-maker. ‘A tracking shot,’ for instance, ‘sometimes even stops tracing out a space and plunges into time.’ Applied to the tracking shots of Weir’s Dust defying gravity it is possible to see how this transition could be made. The constant motion of the camera in its inventory of instruments used to measure time and space creates a flowing meditation on these very subjects. The moment when the dust becomes visible only intensifies this process, multiplying references to time as the film moves beyond the tracing of space and takes Deleuze’s plunge ‘into time’.

In Déjà vu, the technical aspects of Weir’s film are even more important in the overall creation of an ambiguous narrative that loops and confounds time, refusing the viewer any closure. There are, again, elements of portraiture but in a context that clearly suggests the ultimate enigma of the characters and their situation – a condition of becoming that is reflected in the film’s editing and the action’s perpetual recurrences. It is possible to see parallels between this film’s structure and Deleuze’s notions of the function of the edit and it’s relationship to thought:

Something that’s interested me in cinema is the way the screen can work as a brain...Cinema doesn’t just operate by linking things through rational cuts, but by relinking them through irrational cuts too: this gives two different images of thought...This is all I’m saying: that there’s a hidden image of thought that, as it unfolds, branches out, and mutates, inspires a need to keep on creating new concepts, not through an external determinism but through a becoming that carries the problems themselves along with it.

Déjà vu, with its edits, slow motion and repeated actions demonstrates our relative perceptions of time and space - ‘linking things through irrational cuts.’ The film is roughly four minutes long in an acknowledgement of the sidereal day, which is that much shorter than the solar day. The science that informs the work remains deliberately low - key, however, embodied in everyday images such as the trajectory of a thrown stone.

Déjà vu is an uneasy work for an audience in its refusal to resolve itself along linear narrative principles but it not the only work by Grace Weir that deliberately disorientates the viewer. In an earlier work, Around now (2001) there is a similar slippage of time as the camera circles a cloud in a continuous looped image on one screen while on another, the camera circles facing outward and away from the cloud. The large screens engulf the viewer and, physically, it is a vertiginous experience glancing from one screen to the other, attempting in vain to grasp the work as a whole. Conceptually, it is equally disturbing as we register two images of cameras circling a cloud, knowing the images then unfold in a linear manner before looping and starting over. The cloud - the ostensible subject of such attention - is typically modest and ephemeral. Weir seems to delight in the insubstantiality of that subject but she is also recalling Filippo Brunelleschi’s famous demonstration of perspective. Ross King outlines the key elements of Brunelleschi’s work in his account of the building of the dome of the cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore:

For the subject of his perspective painting Filippo chose one of Florence’s most familiar sights: the Baptistery of San Giovanni. Positioning himself a short distance inside the middle portal of Santa Maria del Fiore, some 115 feet from the Baptistery, he painted onto a small panel, in perfect perspective, using a geometrically constructed picture plane, everything that was visible through the frame of the cathedral’s doorway: the baptistery and its surrounding streets...In place of a painted sky he substituted a piece of burnished silver, a mirror that would reflect the clouds, birds and changing sunlight of the actual sky. Finally, he drilled a small hole the size of a lentil bean into the vanishing point of the painting, or that central point on the horizon where the receding parallel lines appear to converge.

Brunelleschi created a moving image in which the clouds are portrayed in ‘live time’ because perspective could not cope with the mathematics of unconformist clouds. The element of Brunelleschi’s painting that added movement also depicted the limits of the science he was using. For Grace Weir, the cloud and it’s disturbance of the laws of perspective provided an ideal subject for a film in which linear narrative is dismissed in favour of what Gilles Deleuze would describe as ‘the bodily sensation of time’.

In Weir’s exhibition at Cornerhouse in Manchester, Around now is accompanied by a short film on a monitor, Distance A/B (2000) which depicts one of Einstein’s ‘thought experiments.’ Here, a cloud is the subject of measurement, brought surrealistically close by the optical illusion of holding a stick under it. At the correct angle, distance is distorted and the stick appears to support the cloud in the sky. The piece is referred to by Weir as a footnote and many of the other works in the exhibition are considered in the same way - Paper exercises and Bending spacetime in the basement, for example. These works all bear a closer relationship to scientific thought than the pieces they ‘footnote’ such as Déjà vu orDust defying gravity. In all cases, they give the scientist an identifiable voice and scientific theory is discussed or elaborated on. In some ways, perhaps, they function as evidence - the scientific facts that underpin the more formal works. Footnotes suggest authority and offer references to verifiable supporting documents or ideas. But they are also qualifying statements, reminders that the full argument is not in the main body of the text and that the matter remains open to interpretation and dispute. The footnote creates a double narrative that appears to both shore up and undermine the authority of the main work. For Weir, this offers another opportunity to explore the relativity of the films on display - each in conversation with the other, hierarchies damned and forgotten.


1. The astrophysicist George Smoot describes a particularly example of success and failure on an expedition to the Antarctic in his
memoir Wrinkles in Time: The Imprint of Creation (1993):
The first time we tried our system was a thrill. I loosened the rope and Giovanni started cranking the jack. The dish began to
tilt to its scanning angle. As soon as it got to 15 degrees, I slipped the 15-degree blocks in place. Then we tied the dish into
position and ran inside the instrument tent to check the computer screens, which showed the signal rising and falling as the
Earth rotated, causing it to scan different parts of the radio "sky." It worked! We hugged each other in triumph.
After some hours of taking data at that scanning angle, we wanted to see if we could scan at even steeper angles. So, we went
outside again and manned the ropes and cranks. We tilted the dish to 20 degrees. No problem. More data collection. Then on
to 30 degrees, where it would scan across a large, intense radio source on the galactic plane. I was ecstatic. We’re doing radio
astronomy from the South Pole! I thought happily as I loosened the ropes. Giovanni was as chipper as I was, and he started
cranking the jack. Suddenly the dish lurched. I was holding two of the ropes, and the dish swung forward, dragging me toward
the pit. "What’s going on" Giovanni yelled. The one-ton dish fell on its side with a sickening crunch...We had been careless, the
thin air eroding our judgement.

2. Ian Elliot: It is an ideal place for doing it...
Grace Weir: A basement...?
Ian Elliot: yes

3. Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem compelled scientists and mathematicians to acknowledge the limits of logic in attempting
to construct an understanding of the universe but it also recognised the vital role that is played by human intuition:
The human spirit is incapable of formulating (or mechanising) all its mathematical intuitions. That is, it is when it has
succeeded in formulating a portion of them, precisely this fact needs a new intuitive knowledge, for example the consistency
of this formalism.

4. In How the Universe got its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space, astrophysicist Janna Levin recognises the isolation
and difficulty in communicating contemporary science and mathematics beyond the confines of a tiny group of researchers:
Some of the great mathematicians killed themselves. The lore is that their theories drove them mad, though I suspect they
were just lonely, isolated by what they knew. Sometimes I feel the isolation. I’d like to describe what I can see from here, so
you can look with me and ease the solitude, but I never feel like giving rousing speeches about billions of stars and the glory
of the cosmos....My curiosity about the madness of some mathematicians is morbid but harmless. I wonder if alienation and
brushes with insanity are occupational hazards...I admit I’m afraid sometimes that no one is listening. Many of our scientific
publications, sometimes too formal or too obscure, are read by only a handful of people. I’m also guilty of a self-imposed
separation.

5. John Walker summarises the value of the basement experiment as follows, reminding us that we, too, exert a gravitational force:
What we've demonstrated by these experiments is the universality of gravitation; there is nothing special about the Earth that
makes objects fall toward it. Everything attracts everything else; the Earth's attraction is greater simply because the Earth is
so much more massive than the objects we encounter in everyday life. Only by cancelling out the Earth's gravitation by means
of a torsion balance were we able to observe the gravitational attraction between masses of less than a kilogram.
The universality of gravitation means that every object in the universe is interlinked in a web of mutual attraction; the
universe is transparent to gravitation. The most distant galaxies exert a pull on you, as you do upon them--immeasurably tiny
to be sure, but present just the same. From a practical standpoint, universality means there's no way to shield your torsion
balance from the gravitational attraction of masses in its vicinity; you can only set it up sufficiently far from other massive
objects so the attraction of the test masses predominates. One interesting massive object to consider is yourself...your own
gravitational attraction on the nearer end of the beam is 0.000147 dynes, 1.7 times as great as that of the test mass. Your
actual influence on the motion of the balance arm is less, however, since what matters is the difference in force exerted on the
masses at the two ends of the balance arm. Since your centre of gravity is more distant than the test masses, the difference is
less.

6. Einstein clearly laid great store by the need to communicate clearly with a wide audience and his ‘thought experiments’ are
conveyed in well constructed, visually striking passages. The ‘System of Co-ordinates’ experiments in Relativity: The Special and
the General Theory (1916) reads as follows:
On the basis of the physical interpretation of distance which has been indicated, we are also in a position to establish the
distance between two points on a rigid body by means of measurements. For this purpose we require a “distance” which is to
be used once and for all, and which we employ as a standard measure. If, now, A and B are two points on a rigid body, we can
construct the line joining them according to the rules of geometry; then, starting from A, we can mark off the distance S time
after time until we reach B. The number of these operations required is the numerical measure of the distance AB. This is the
basis of all measurements of length.
Every description of the scene of an event or of the position of an object in space is based on the specification of the point on
a rigid body (body of reference) with which that event or object coincides. This applies not only to scientific description, but
also to everyday life. If I analyse the place specification “Potsdamer Platz, Berlin,” I arrive at the following result. The earth is
the rigid body to which the specification of place refers; “Potsdamer Platz, Berlin,” is a well-defined point, to which a name has
been assigned, and with which the event coincides in space.

7. In an essay entitled ‘Time Today’ the physicist John Wheeler states that:
The expansion of the empire of time has elevated the concept, human born as it is, to platform upon platform upon platform
of authority. Regularities of sun and season raised the first foundation. On top of it Newtonian dynamics erected a second and
tighter platform; special relativity a third, terraced further in and up; and general relativity stands at the summit, the final
level of authority. Not except out of the mouth of Einstein’s 1915 and still standard theory of spacetime can one hear the
generally agreed account of all that ‘time’ now means and measures.