IMAG(EN)ING THE EXTREME SPACETIME CONTINUUM AND DURATION: THE CINEMA AS METAUNIVERSE

24 02 2009

By MARTHA BLASSNIGG

This paper is about the discrepancy between the measurement of time and space and our internalised perception of events as duration in, what could be called, a post-Deleuzian re-Bergsonian reading of images as spacetime continuum. It suggests that the cultural products of imag(en)ing some of these extremes make the inherent processes and contradictions apparent, and it discusses imaging techniques of so-called outer space and their spacetime correlations in relation to the extremities of ‘inner space’. The notion of the ‘extreme’ in this paper is ultimately defined not as the far-end or outermost, but rather as the challenging gap between the experience and the description of events and things we perceive, and suggests a model of consciousness in relation to time and light to reconcile these contradictory paradigms.

In so-called outer space, far distance is commonly expressed in time: how long it takes light to travel over a certain distance. The unification of the Eucledian space coordinates with the dimension of time in the term ‘spacetime’ is exemplified through the distance measurement of the ‘speed of light’. At the extreme, we seem to experience the greatest difficulty in reconciling the experience of time and space with the externalised measurements of it.

The same goes for the movies: as spectators we are used to think of a film-time in terms of its duration in minutes — a measurement that usually expresses only the actual screen-time, and not other time measurements such as the plot-time or story-time, the production time or let alone the very personal time-experiences we undergo as audiences. The exact measurement of films in meters, however, is a much more familiar measurement for film-restorers and archivists and those involved in the production process, or the scientifically informed counting of shots, scenes and intervals by film- theorists for a structural analysis of films in their material manifestation in relation to their fleeting experience of perception (1). At the beginnings the filming process was all about timing (as the early Lumière films so neatly show) in order to fit the chosen event onto the length of the filmstrip that sometimes did not last more than a dozens of meters; the Lumière Cinematograph for example could initially only hold 17 meters of film, which provided a duration of approx. 50 seconds — depending on the cranking speed. Workers Leaving the Factory (Sortie de l’Usine Lumière (2)) for example from 1895 features the opening of the Lumière factory doors, the outpouring of workers who walk away off-screen to the right and left, and is carefully directed to include the closing of the doors at the end in this single shot. In one version the direction even incorporated the return of the dog before the doors shut to conclude the event (3). The choice to measure in meters (or feet) was also determined by the early film projection practice whereby exhibitors would run the films at their individualised choices of speed, with new inter-titles for foreign distributions and even re-editing the films and speeding up or slowing down the projection in order to meet their local audiences’ tastes (4); hence a measurement in time units would not have been reliable.

From the very beginnings onwards film enthusiasts experimented with the most sophisticated time modulation techniques; expansions, contractions, inter-cuttings, flashbacks, reversal, etc., to support an apparent public desire of space- and time travel that the cinema seems to be fulfilling since its inception. An explicit vision on the cinematic facility of time-travel had for example been envisioned in the 1890’s by the instrument maker and cinema pioneer Robert Paul drawing on H.G. Wells’ Time-Machine (1895) (5). Terry Ramsaye reported:

It [the Wells-Paul idea] sought to liberate the spectator from the instant of Now. The Now to which our consciousness is chained is but a mathematical point of no dimensions travelling ever forward, describing the line which extends behind us as the Past and ahead of us as the Future. (1926, p. 158)

Beyond the conceptions of a chronological time concept, the cinema most significantly involves internalised experiences of time intrinsic to various processes of cognition, which the French philosopher Henri Bergson, simultaneously with the inception of the cinema, called ‘duration’ (durée) (6). Consequently in terms of spacetime correlates, the cinema operates on various dimensional levels simultaneously: the measurements of the spacetime distance between two events can refer to the actual action on the set, the imaginary action in the creative and perceptual processes of the scenario, the projected events on-screen and their perception by the audiences which are designed to trigger personalised cognitive processes in the interacting human mind and consequently similar neural responses in the brain. Hence it could also be said that if we travel by way of a thought experiment from the extremities of outer space –—those extremities we are able to conceive through scientific measurements —— into the perceptual apparatus’ of the human mind, from an experiential point of view we are again dealing with relative and qualitative time experiences in the largely unknown realms of the unconscious. The virtue of seeing it this way is that when dealing with something familiar, it is often useful to look at the edges, at the threshold to the unknown and unfamiliar in order to gain a better view of what is embedded in the familiarity of either automatic or unconscious activities. Charles T. Tart has reminded us in his workshop at the Tucson conference in 2006 that the ‘ordinary mind has little skill at observing itself, as well as being very active and “noisy”; he proposed skilful introspective observations bound into the context of the paradigm of science and scholarship to enable a deeper understanding of the mind (7). — Let us take a short introspective journey and examine what happens in the ‘inner space’ when we look at images from so-called outer space. ‘So-called’ because when talking about ‘images’ it is often spoken about as if images were something that existed ‘out there’ in the world independent of the perceptual apparatus of the human mind, commonly referring to the products of media technologies. Contrary to the common view that these technologies, especially the photographic techniques, have detached the image — and metaphorically speaking the eye —from the body, Jonathan Crary (1990) has argued that it was the conceptual detachment of vision from the body of the observer in the first half of the 19th century and this led to a variety of instrumentation that reconstructed and reinterpreted the disparity between the description and the actual experience (8). Hence in outer space we find ourselves within the same spacetime continuum problems as addressed earlier in relation to the cinema or the vast distances of the universe: how to reconcile the description or measurement with the actual experience — or to its most extreme: with the experience of the imagination of the unknown which commonly does not seem to be able to exceed the frameworks of the familiar?

Crary further pointed out that this paradigm shift was part of a much wider discourse in the 19th century, which detached sensory perception from the material world and shifted the focus in science to the acknowledgement of subjectivity in relation to the phenomenon of vision. It could be said that the photographic image became an icon of a negotiated stabilisation between the discrepancies of the experience and the description of an event, between the apparent dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity, of embodied experience and instrumentation. — In this context it could be added that any form of mediation (technological and/or artistic) carries a mirroring of one’s own perceptual apparatus within the processes of visualisation regarding both the image’s creative as well as perceptual processes. It may be worth considering what this means for ‘imaging’ as well as for ‘imagening’ so-called outer space?

We are all familiar with the rapid expansion of space imaging (including the most elaborate technological extensions such as the Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys ACS and the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-object Spectrometer NICMOS, etc.), and their distribution beyond a scientific context is being reinforced by the space agency’s strategic marketing campaigns particularly during the last couple of years; see for example the ESA Multimedia Gallery (9) or the NASA Image Gallery that is serving daily images from space through their ‘Image of the Day’ gallery on their multimedia website (10). It is worth taking a closer look at these galleries: it immediately becomes obvious that what they display are not merely images from outer space with excellent resolution and the most amazing (artificial) colorations. The extremes in space imaging have shifted from the first degraded images transmitted back to earth of the Apollo moon-landing to close encounters with Saturn’s surface patterns or stellar manifestations light-years away. The seeming familiarity of the contemporary imaging techniques can almost make us believe that this is what outer space actually looks like. We assumed the reliability of the telescopic techniques as much as we are habituated with photographic images and we very quickly got used to the distortions and discrepancies between what we actually experience and what these seeming detached images tell us afterwards as a sort of coordinating space-time indicators (11).

What the NASA daily image gallery displays in terms of content is a brief ‘history’ of imaging space in visual imaging techniques since the moon landing and the written or painted documentations of ancient astronomical discoveries. A short history of human kind, of technology, science and the arts exemplified at its extremes, can be extracted from this gallery, since as it is argued here, the cognitive apparatus at work lies always embedded in the image. It is not surprising then that we always find ourselves looking back at the seeming familiar on our planet, in our closest environments. We may be reminded of the introduction of certain technologies and techniques such as early television and the moon-landing in 1969; the mirroring in Astronauts of basic human needs which become exemplified in extreme environments: nutrition, clothing, social networks; as well as cultural traces; inspirations of beauty and the transcendental — as it is sometimes even expressed in the given titles of seeming mysterious visual manifestations (for example: ‘Star’s mysterious light’ by NASA or ‘Ghostly reflections in the Pleiades’ by ESA). Scientific imaging with its constructed production processes, as much as historic as well as contemporary futurist (science fictive) visions of colonisations on the Moon or even on Mars (which are being discussed expansively at serious forums at conferences), as well as more populist imaginaries (such as the filmmaker Georges Méliès’ visions around 1900), can all be regarded as significant documentations of the way humankind is imag(en)ing outer space against the background of the concrete historical moment with its various social, cultural, economical and ideological manifestations.

On a formal/aesthetic level, we also become aware that when looking at the most ‘extreme’ images in terms of distance: very rarely appear blurred images in the NASA gallery, they stand out — even though it can be expected that they are rather the rule than the exception in daily practice; but most frequently in such extreme cases artistic images appear to take their place instead. It could be stated that at the most extreme the involvement of the human apparatus becomes most visible, as well as the visibility of the technological apparatus or the imaginative traces that fill in the gaps of the Unknown.

What is at stake in this incidental and brief critical revision of certain aspects of the audio-visual culture of space science and so-called space exploration is the fact that the visual mediation of the universe also seems to carry a meta-discourse of certain recent paradigm shifts which has been largely ignored in the wider domains of the economical and political agendas. In this regard there is an important discussion to be held which concerns the complexity of the space science’s audio-visual ‘apparatus’’ — a term here understood as a complex construction at the nexus of ideological, economic, technological forces and viewing practices which carry an ideological effect in much the same way as Jean-Louis Baudry (1986a,b) and Jean-Louis Comolli (1980, 1986) have argued in relation to cinema. From the 1970’s arguments of ‘apparatus theory’, it could be repeated that the dominant ideology that also forms our social relations is always a priori inherent in the apparatus (signifying the whole network of implicated forces) and could signify a key tool to analyse space imaging within the complexities of the space science’s apparatus. This seems especially appropriate, since as recent international space science and astronautical conferences show in their exhibition areas: visualisation technologies (software and satellite hardware) are at the forefront of the commercial exploitation of so-called outer space (12). As Steven Heath suggested:

Hence the necessity to engage not a history of the technology of cinema [space exploration], but a history of the cinema [space exploration]-machine that can include its developments, adaptations, transformations, realignments, the practices it derives, holding together the instrumental and the symbolic, the technological and the ideological, the current ambiguity of the term apparatus. (1980, p. 7) [my additions]

To remain within a discussion of the images as such, what interests us here for this short essay is rather an understanding of the products of these apparatus’ in their complexities of relational networks rather than as an understanding of these items as representations. The recent paradigm shift from objective science to a critical discussion of the observer in a variety of disciplines has revealed a new kind of transparency in the way that the technologies and techniques involved in image making reveal certain power structures, ideologies and social or political imperatives and also, most significantly, highlight the importance of the beholder. In the visual atlas of imag(en)ing space this paradigm shift is apparent and embedded, whilst seldom fully recognised in the meta-discourse.

This implication leads us to a last move into the extremes of the unconscious perceptual processes, or in Tarte’s words ‘introspective observations’, of the invisible/immaterial dimensions that these images may reveal.

Simultaneously with the emerging cinema technologies of the late 19th century, the French philosopher Henri Bergson has argued that images should not be understood as ‘representations of reality’, but rather as full embodied relational networks of something inbetween the realist notion of ‘a thing’ and the idealist’s notion of a ‘representation’:

… a certain existence which is more than that which the idealist calls a representation, but less than that which the realist calls a thing — an existence placed halfway between the “thing” and the “representation.” This conception of matter is simply that of common sense. (Bergson, 1991, p. 9)

Bergson’s conceptions of images goes further than Crary’s analysis or the common perception of matter, it could be said they venture to an extreme: he conceived of all existing matter as an aggregate of images: it could be said that every single perception of anything exterior stands in a complex interrelational connection with our human perceptual apparatus. It has to be emphasised that image in a Bergsonian sense does not purely refer to the visual, but to any sensory perception included in an embodied view of a cognitive activity. The crucial insight of his philosophical treatment of perception is that once internalised, external perceptions turn into qualitative conditions of conscious states, which are experienced as a time quality of duration (durée), and are not measurable, nor separable into quantifiable units. In the far edges toward the unconscious states, the spacetime continuum collapses into a purely experiential plane of lived duration (durée).

Similar to the cinema ‘apparatus’, when imag(en)ing outer space, we have to do with a multifold time-delay: not only are the manifestations of far-reaching stars systems, etc. many light-years from the past appearing within the scope of our limited earth-centred vision in the present, but also do the various processes of image mediation through the complex technological apparatus’ incorporate various degrees of time-delays to finally reach the perception of the beholder who once more incorporates these perceptions within one’s own personalised time-experience. These internalised, immaterial images finally are not merely stored in our memory-database where we can continuously draw from like a filing system of a kind of internalised digital image-gallery, but a Bergsonian understanding of the perceptual processes rather suggests that these memories continually push into the present moment of perception to either be recognised and remembered or to find a gap in our conscious attention where they can slip in whenever they find a matching correlation with our needs of action in the present moment — hence they endure and eventually may actualise again from the virtual realms. In this way the perceived images from the extremes of our extended perceptual apparatus create a microcosmic universe in our conscious states and create ever new interconnections in the realms of imagination in a constant dialogue and negotiation between what Bergson called ‘spirit’ or the ‘virtual’ (memories, the past) and matter. It is this space between the experienced and the described or measured, between the subjective and objective, between the material and the immaterial, that perhaps the most extreme dimension is situated, extreme because this apparent gap causes such difficulty in any rationalisation or attempt to bridge it.

When dealing with the qualitative characteristics of the conceptualisations of imag(en)ing outer spacetime correlates, they can better (or from Bergson’s point of view only) be expressed through time rather than through space… possibly similar to qualities of light and colors (as we see in artistic scientific imaging) than exact scientific measurements, or the measurement of the speed of light for spatial distances. Jonathan Crary has pointed to this convergence and meshing of art and science which could be transferred to a contemporary context:

Rather than stressing the separation between art and science in the nineteenth century, it is important to see how they were both part of a single interlocking field of knowledge and practice. (1990, p. 9)

To conclude, for the sake of this essay it could be said that the NASA ‘Image of the Day’ gallery or the ESA Multimedia Gallery can be seen as attempts to incorporate both: the scientific as well as experiential perspectives in order to embrace a fuller spectrum of the way humankind imagines so-called outer space at the present moment. This convergence seems to create a negotiated stabilisation of the discrepancy between the way we measure the extremities of the known and the way we experience its traces and leads. In this way space science appears – at least temporarily – liberated from its paradigmatic materialist constraints and opens to inclusive investigations for a broader involvement of a fuller spectrum of not only human desires and imaginations, but of concrete social, cultural and other interrelational dimensions. This view in the context of space science may reversely liberate the strand of space art from its tendencies to put an overemphasis on either a scientific or materialist bias at the cost of the qualitative explorations of original creativity and experiential values and inspirations.

The potential as well as the challenge for media technologies can be regarded in the liberation of spirit (and time) from material constraints as it appears to have been realised in the early experiences of the cinematic perception. Plunged into time through an experience of continuous presentness — as it seems to be suggested by the popularity of continually floating loops of zero-G movements (as they recently have also appeared in television advertising) — the abstract remoteness and extremes of outer space may turn into a qualitative experience of internal (embodied) conscious states in full awareness of the perceptual apparatus’ (technology and mind) at work. Neither entirely material (actual) nor immaterial (virtual), the discrepancies of the apparent instability between different paradigm shifts may finally only be bridged by the quantum leaps of the spacetime continuum, or in other words by the contingent flow of consciousness of which we would finally like to ask the question: can it move faster than the speed of light?

Notes:

(1) See for example CineMetrics, an online software program, which makes it possible to take shot lengths in real viewing time with sufficient precision: http://www.cinemetrics.lv

(2) Also known under the titles La Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon-Montplaisir, La Sortie des Usines, Les ouvriers et ouvrières sortant de l’Usine Lumière, Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory, Leaving the Factory, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, Lunch Hour at the Lumière Factory, Dinner Hour at the Factory Gate of M. Lumière at Lyon, Exiting the Factory, La Sortie des ouvriers de l’usine Lumière. See for example http://www.silentera.com/PSFL/data/S/SortiedesOuvriersdelUs1895.html

(3) For work on the Lumière see for example Deutelbaum (1983), Gaudreault (1983), Lumière ([1936] 1967), Vaughan (1990), Williams (1983).

(4) Only later on the projection speed became standardised to 18 frames per second to overcome the so-called flicker effect. For research into the various customised projection speeds see Brownlow (1990); for a discussion on the flicker effect and the perception of movement see Nichols and Ledermann (1980).

(5) Robert Paul has experimented with the concept for a fully immersive cinematic time-travel experience, for which he is reported to have collaborated with H.G. Wells (Ramsaye, 1926, pp. 155-58)

(6) For an elaboration on this dimension see Blassnigg (2008).

(7) http://www.consciousness.arizona.edu/tart.htm

(8) Crary discusses in particular the embodiment and subjectivity involved in the processes of seeing and their impact on the technological development at the rise of modernity, which brought forth new forms of control and standardisations of vision.

(9) At http://www.esa.int/esa-mmg/mmghome.pl including approx. 4.800 images, 400 videos, 200 animations and 100 screensavers and wallpapers.

(10) See http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/index.html (which also features as a customary item on the Google homepage).

(11) Some of these discussions set at the convergence between science, technology and the arts are elaborated by Pisano (2006); see also Blassnigg (2008).

(12) This was particularly evident in the exhibition area at the 57th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Valencia in October 2006. That the commercial exploitation dominates the rocket launch market also became apparent at the Expanding the Space art-science event parallel to IAC in Bernard Foing’s (European Space Agency (ESA) SMART-1 principal scientist and director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group) remark that overly only 10% of a rocket launch carried scientific payload, the rest concerned satellite and communications technologies.

References:

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___ 1986b. The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in the Cinema. In: Rosen, Philip, ed.

Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology. A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 299-318. [French original:

1975. Le Dispositif: Approches Métapsychologiques de l’Impression de Réalité. Communications, no. 23, pp. 56-72.

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Crary, Jonathan. 1988. Modernising Vision. In: Hall, Foster, ed. Vision and Visuality. Seattle: Bay Press, pp. 29-49.

___1990. Techniques of the Observer. On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

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Pisano, Giusy. 2006. L’Instant Choisi et Métamorphosé dans la Matière et l’Instant Quelconque Photographié. In: Font-Réaulx, Dominique de, Lefebvre, Thierry and Mannoni, Laurent. EJ Marey. Actes du Colloque du Centenaire. Paris: Arcadia, pp. 91-104.

Vaughan, Dai. 1990. Film, Narrative, Narration: The Cinema of the Lumière Brothers. In: Elsaesser, Thomas, ed. Early Cinema. Space Frame Narrative. London: British Film Institute, pp. 63-67.

Wells, Herbert George. 1895. The Time-Machine. London: Heinemann.

Williams, Alan. 1983. The Lumière Organization and ‘Documentary Realism’. In: Fell, John L., ed. 1983. Film Before Griffith. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 153-161.

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