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

The shaggy dog in the river
Graham Parker

About six years ago I attended a conference at The Cooper Union in New York. The theme of the conference was Art and Science crossovers and in the dialectical spirit that supposedly marked the web’s then wonder years, speakers had been told that they may speak for a maximum of five minutes before questions were thrown open to the floor. My favourite speaker was Billy Kluver, who in the 1960’s had been the co-founder of Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) with Rauschenberg et al, but was also an electrical engineer of some renown. Needless to say, the combinations of an eventful life and his William Burroughs-like drawl, meant that after five minutes we were only up to 1966 in his rambling narrative, yet noone noticed, and he continued his story of explosions, artificial rain clouds and fax machines for kids for a further half hour, before the flustered chair could call for questions. He held the delegates’ attention perfectly with a talk which moved through and beyond the time allotted, through a constantly eddying mix of the anecdotal and the technical, slipping back and forward through the years. Not exactly linear, but certainly progressive.

I think Grace Weir would have appreciated it. Much is made of the precise mathematical elegance of her films, and the scientific and philosophical concerns of her subject matter, but for me, there is also a fine understanding of the pace and potency of what we can call progressive narrative. And even more so of what an interruption to that flow can achieve within a tightly organised loop of film.

This year she spoke at that same Cooper Union conference as Kluver had - posing the enigmatic question: “An artist, a scientist, some pencils and paper... can an artist and scientist collaborate on 'gedanken (thought) experiments' to illuminate art and science?” She spoke largely of her collaboration with astrophysicist Ian Elliott – with whom she had developed simple drawn and filmed attempts to externalise the eponymous gedanken experiments. An essential quirk (quark?) at the heart of most theoretical physics is that it resists attempts to leave the mind – language defeats it, to paraphrase a thinker from another field. One of the films on show in Cornerhouse shows the artists’ and scientists’ hands sketching out the principles of relativity – part said thought experiment, part Esher-esque closed visual loop, possibly even partly a delicate atonement from two disciplines for the Babel trauma of the Enlightenment.

The work with Elliott is of course just the latest part of a rich investigative vein which runs through the body of work on show here. At the centre of it is a mutual frustration with the limits of language, both visual and spoken. In The darkness and the light, a film which Weir indeed calls a “frustration piece”, the camera follows Elliot as he meticulously prepares the telescope at Dunsink observatory and attempts to observe the sun – constantly thwarted by the scudding clouds moving across the observatory’s dome. The camera work and editing capture this act with a calm authority, mimicking the implicit didactic certainty of particular documentary film forms (it’s a technique Weir also uses in Distance AB, of which more shortly). And Elliot’s voiceover, when it arrives, also appears to be in a mimetic relationship to these forms, as he describes his own speculative version of string theory. But as he cuts the piece of paper in exponentially smaller divisions and describes the point at which such an action reaches an atomic level etc., the ineluctable logic implied thus far begins to reach crisis. Crisis at the point where what is physically demonstrable by the scientist reaches its limits, even as his speculative logic continues towards its theoretical conclusion - forces combining in a certain way to “tear a wormhole into a parallel world.”

At just the point where the useful limits of the quotidian material (paper) the scientist is using to illustrate his theory occur, he holds it to the telescope and sacrifices it to the focus of the sun. The paper burns as he reaches his conclusion; the limits of speculative languages and materials are reached; the film fades - as if in the “frustration” Weir has alluded to. Both she and Elliot reach the limits of what can be shown, even as they retain the optimism of what might just be known. It puts me in mind of Bas Jan Ader’s response when asked why he made so much work about falling: “Because gravity defeats me.” “The darkness and the light” manages to be both deadly serious and deadpan.

There’s a gentle humour in Distance AB as well, where a visual example used by Einstein to illustrate relativity (that of a man lying on his back in Potsdamer Platz, pointing at a cloud with a stick) is recreated as if in an educational film. But the impossibility of this vernacular example truly illustrating the intended principle emerges as the film unfolds. The voiceover intones the theoretical principles informing the film, even as we watch the cloud apparently refusing to play its part. Even Potsdamer Platz itself refuses to be a constant cipher. The film is shot amongst the cranes and clamour of post-unification reconstruction.

These tensions, flaws and narrative blips are important in Weir’s work. The whimsically miraculous interruption in the flow of the tracking shot in Dust defying gravity can be read as being about narrative film’s dependence on a very singular understanding of the flow of time – our experience of the flow of the camera through the room as it tracks the dust motes creates the space for the sudden leap which startles us into another space, if only for a second. A glimpsed narrative wormhole to the sublime. In an earlier film, The Turning Point, a tree suddenly spins on its axis after a carefully structured series of interior and exterior establishing shots in a Dublin suburb. They’re almost shaggy dog stories – if only in the way shaggy dog stories elongate the lead in time and structure of the standard joke or story in order to make the crispness of their irrelevant cut off point more pronounced.

In Déjà vu, the artist further plays with complex ideas around time, in a film which nods to Einstein’s description of time as a river with rivulets which can break up and return to the body of the river. A woman driving a car happens to glimpse a man on a shore, before the momentum of her vehicle takes her past a built structure behind him - thus obscuring her view of him skimming a stone, then turning to watch her car pass the end of the structure. When for some reason she reverses back to the position just before the structure and sees him standing again, between throws, her renewed forward momentum seems to trigger off a repeat of the sequence. She misses the bounce of the stones, he sees her pass the same point twice. This is the ostensible narrative, but the principle being illustrated in the film permeates right the way through each of its structural levels – each pan, cut and visual composition seems to create a heightened awareness of time and of the forces of the natural world slipping and pulling every which way. The partial linear experiences of the two protagonists in the film, mixes with our own partial experience of the events outlined within Weir’s structure. Our own subjective rivers of thought flow in and out of the work.

The impossibly elegant play on perspective of Around Now also places us in a partial position within the work – even to the extent of physically implicating us in structuring our subjective experience. Two large screens face each other – one showing the view of a cloud as filmed from a helicopter describing a perfect circle around it, the other showing an equally perfect circular view of the landscape as seen from the clouds position looking out. The work alludes to Deleuzian critique of linear perspective – and creates myriad ways of experiencing the installation. Wherever we sit, stand or even lie within or even outside the work’s ostensible physical space, we are all too aware of all of the other subjective possibilities one might have for experiencing it. It’s a complex work and actually one I almost find physically uncomfortable to experience. When I first saw it in the Venice Biennale, I become acutely aware of the aporia that is the idea of a single perspective and aware of the myriad visual choices and perspectives I had not experienced in time.

Jumping from Venice back to the Cooper Union. Three years and half a sentence apart. A written tone shifting. Billy Kluver addressing a question on intellectual property and what to do if someone takes your idea. “Have an-oth-er one”. Forward six years to the same hall and Grace Weir and Ian Elliot sketching out the principles of relativity. In the intervening time the elevator outside the main hall rises and falls down a lift shaft actually built in anticipation of Otis’s invention. The lift rising a floor. A man at a word processor hesitating every time he types a friend’s surname when describing her work for a catalogue essay. Conventions and principles govern these moments. Grace Weir understands this.

Rivers flowing, cameras fading.