The index and trace in everyday life

At this point, I hope to have shown the importance of intermediality in shaping the historical context of Creed’s art work, as well as the consciousness (or muscular memory) that the spectator draws upon in witnessing these documentary attractions. Creed’s paintings, installations, and particularly his films draw upon a number of varying traditions, which each inspire and problematize a contemporary analysis of Creed’s work. Since I have labeled Sick Film and Shit Film as body docs, I want to propose an analysis of these films as films in the documentary film tradition. This is not to suggest that the films should only be seen as documentaries or that art historical discourses should be minimized. Even in my attempts to focus this analysis in a film historical framework, I turn to consider a number of art-historical questions, which play a major role for Creed as a contemporary artist. While weighing these questions, I think also looking at these films within the documentary tradition will illuminate both cinematic and art-historical issues, so as to raise further questions for the study of films such as these (many of which were discussed earlier in this essay) in both contexts.

As discussed earlier in this essay, Sick Film and Shit Film can be associated with the earliest form of cinema — the actuality. The actuality films of the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison (Workers Leaving The Factory, etc.) serve as brief documentaries of a specific historical moment, event, or happening. John Grierson established the term documentary in 1926 as “the creative depiction of actuality.” To summarize the difference between actualities and documentaries, actualities can be seen as the recording and display of a single historical event, whereas the documentary is some form of creative outgrowth. Nevertheless, the actuality and the documentary serve a similar function in representing a social reality. While the form of documentary is difficult to define and under constant scrutiny, Bill Nichols argues

“the linkage between documentary and the historical world is the most distinctive feature of this [the documentary] tradition.”[27] [open endnotes in new window]

The actuality and the documentary serve as an historical record of whatever they have recorded — whether it be workers leaving a factory, the activities of indigenous cultures, or political upheaval. But if the recording is of an everyday activity of no historical significance, then how do we stake a claim for the film as a historical document(ary)?

If Sick Film and Shit Film serve the function of  “body docs,” their status as documentary immediately comes into question. While we may recognize getting sick or shitting as historical — yes, everyone poops — how does the commonality of these functions affect their historicity on film? How would considering this work as documentary change how we view it? And why in the hell would we watch it? To begin examining these questions, I want to take a closer look at body docs in terms of recording history.

Creed insists on using 35mm film for Sick Film and Shit Film. He wants to provide the films with a photographic base. Evaluating the imprint of reality on a photographic base was long considered a critical aspect of understanding the cinematic image. If the image is imprinted on celluloid, then we have proof the event actually happened. Instead of offering a mere representation of reality, photography brought a direct reproduction of the real. This at once makes the photographic image historical and present. While Sick Film and Shit Film could be understood in the context of video in museums and performance art, I argue that the use 35mm film rather than digital technology — something Creed has explained as an aesthetic choice — insists upon having an indexical base for the images. That aesthetic choice also influences this documentary reading rather than my seeing Creed’s work more in the context of gallery installation/video loop. In the way that Creed positions the films in and outside of the gallery setting creates a paradox between the blank cinema screen and the white cube space, for he sets the mise-en-scene of Sick Film and Shit Film in a similar space. This paradox, which underscores the contemporary shift in moving image viewing practices, can be usefully understood in an historical context. For this, I want to turn to recurring issues in documentary film theory around the index and the trace.

Charles Sanders Peirce defines the index as

“a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of being really affected by that Object... and it is not mere resemblance of its Object...”[28]

Peirce gives examples of the index such as rap on the door and a footprint, as well as pronouns such as “this,” “now,” and “here.” These signs all refer to an object — a hand/person on the other side of the door that we do not see or a foot that was previously in the position of the print — that is not actively longer present. The pronouns mark the index as a kind of symbol. Mary Anne Doane notes the “uncomfortable position” of the index in Peirce’s complex category of signs. She recognizes the distinctive nature of how an object like a footprint, which embodies “the order of the trace,” is opposed to a pronoun in language. In the case of a footprint, the index becomes a trace of the non-present object (the foot) through a visible sign (the footprint). Pronouns merely act as hollow pointers to objects. Doane finds in both cases that “the index is defined by a physical, material connection to its object.” However, she finds the index more complicated than other signs by raising a dialectic between the empty (a hollow pronoun) and the full (a photographic trace). This complication makes it difficult to refer to the index merely as trace or as a kind of pointer. Without ignoring this needed distinction, I want to move forward and examine the relation between the index (as a kind of historical marker) and the trace (as a way of the contemporary spectator-witness brings the index to the present).

Malin Wahlberg compares the still image and the moving image to mark the distinction between the index and the trace. She places the argument in the context of Jean-Marie Schaeffer who argued that

“the moving image...is image within time, whereas, the immobile image...is image of time.”[29]

Where Schaeffer sees a limitation for the spectator in viewing moving images, Wahlberg finds contemporary benefits, especially in relation to documentary and historical imagery. The moving image is, at once, both historical and contemporary. It allows the viewer to perceive

“continuous change, denoting the present tense of involvement and identification.”[30]

Wahlberg explains that moving image experiences exist within a plane of multiple temporalities (both past and present) which gives greater significance to the viewer by allowing historical events to be (re)created as present day narratives. Wahlberg argues this aspect gives moving images greater aesthetic and existential impact. Moving images, therefore, operate simultaneously as indexes of the past traced into the present.

Philip Rosen helps clarify these issues by providing an outline for what he calls the “indexical trace.” He explains,

“When Bazin compares cinema to such indexical signs as a fingerprint, a mold, a death mask, or the Holy Shroud of Turin, his examples consistently turn out to be the kind in which the reference was present in the past. I willl call this subcategory of sign the indexical trace. Photographic and filmic images have normally been apprehended as indexical traces, for the spatial field and the objects were in the camera’s “presence” at some point prior to the actual reading of the sign. The indexical trace is a matter of pastness.”[31]

Rosen goes on to explain the role of the spectator in viewing the filmic image and its relationship with indexicality and the indexical trace.

“The referential credibility of indexicality assumes something absent from any immediate perception: a different when from that of the spectator. Since this different when cannot be immediately present, it must be ‘filled in,’ ‘inferred,’ ‘provided’ by the subject. Thus, if indexicality is a crucial aspect of the image, we must assume some active capacity at work beyond perceptual activities, be it memory, mental activities, subconscious investment, rational inference, the effectivity of cultural discourses, or whatever.”[32]

This argument lets us see a distinction between the index and the indexical trace with recognition of the spectator’s critical role. It is the spectator who traces the indexical sign into the present, and it is through the spectator’s capacities beyond mere perception that gives the indexical trace contemporary significance.

But how do we view Sick Film and Shit Film as documentaries? And how does their being body docs affect the way we participate in viewing them? Vivian Sobchack in her article, “Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience” helps us understand different modes of viewer perceptionby identifying what she calls “documentary consciousness.”[33] Sobchack dissects how spectators engage with cinematic “documentary” images as opposed to images in fiction films and home movies (film-souvenirs).  Following Jean-Pierre Meunier’s phenomenology of cinematic identification, Sobchack argues for varying modes of consciousness as we watch film. In the film-souvenir, Meunier argues we existentially perceive images as already known to us, and thereby “elsewhere” than solely on the screen. We essentially look through the screen and to the “elsewhere” imbedded in the image. In the fiction film, we have a “fictional consciousness” in which

“the cinematic object is perceived as ‘irreal’ (like Lassie) or ‘imaginary’ (like a dragon)...the images of fiction are experienced as directly given to us, and they exist not ‘elsewhere’ but ‘here’ in the virtual world that is ‘there before us.”[34]

Since we do not already know the images or the people before us, we look at the screen rather than through it. In the documentary, we use a documentary consciousness, which is the most complicated mode of cinematic identification. Documentary consciousness lets us apply our own existential and cultural knowledge to the image, while it also recognizes a lack of our personal knowledge. Photographic or cinematic images of John F. Kennedy or the Iraq War are recognized as from a real past or present, but they are modified by our personal knowledge or lack thereof. We simultaneously look at and through the image, rather than one or the other. This creates a contradictory temporal relation between the past and present that accesses two modes of identification.

Wahlberg locates a similar dialectic in the documentary where the modes of identification shift into two distinct, yet simultaneous types of phenomenology — aesthetic and existential.[35] She also discusses in depth the relation between documentary (the historical image) and the trace. Combining these two levels of temporality, we recognize the indexical aspects of the image — the pastness of social and historical markers — while we also identify the events as past and ourselves as present. We are able to leave the events in the past, to some degree, while we are also incapable of doing so because of our contemporary position in relation to the images. Wahlberg argues that “historical time is the time of our shared experiences, mediated through the constructed discourses of history” and

“in this context, the trace becomes an ethical responsibility, linking the experience of the past to the responsibility of the present...”[36]

Here, we rely heavily upon the trace and our own documentary consciousness in regard to the image. The film-souvenir and the fiction film are dependent upon only one distinct mode of identification with the image whereas in viewing documentary, we must access both. This recognition allows us to understand the moving image as a document of a past reality while we also trace it to our intersubjective present.

I want to take a closer look at the questions I posed earlier in relation to Martin Creed’s body docs. Sick Film and Shit Film both feature everyday bodily functions on screen. However, Creed does not record people shitting or getting sick on the streets of London or Los Angeles where the films were recorded. If so, we would gain access to the idea of London or Los Angeles on that day at that time. Instead, we see people getting sick and a person shitting in a large, unidentifiable white space. There are no indications of a worldly location or of a specific time period. The only documentary connection we have with what is on screen is the presence of the human body. The assumption behind the dialectic of the index and the trace that gives cadence to a documentary consciousness is that we recognize the images as historical.

Sick Film and Shit Film provide us a kind of history-less history. The 35mm projection (as well as the edits in between performers) assures us this is not a video feed and cannot be happening in the present. What we are left with are images of the everyday set in the very location where the film is seen — a cinema screen or a white cube gallery. The blankness of the set is echoed in both viewing situations by the blank, white screen or the white walls. Sick Film and Shit Film are positioned as everyday actualities in an everyday location. Mirroring the concept of his art and installations, Creed crafts Sick Film and Shit Film as a contemporary everyday documentary.

The concept of the everyday is not new to documentary practices. Many of the early films I discussed earlier fit into the mold of the actuality as they recorded everyday processes. The development of the documentary film arguably began with Nanook of the North, which was meant to show the everyday lives of an indigenous culture. Again, the actuality seems more appropriate for Creed. Rather than using his camera to record an Other culture, Creed records practices that he, and everyone, also does, albeit not on screen. Here, the relation between everyone and the everyday alongside the index and the trace needs further examination. While these theories can intersect, I will argue that Creed’s use of “everyone” in the contemporary everyday rather than an historical everyday further complicates our relation to his films and contemporary moving image viewing practices.

Jane Gaines’s article “Everyday Strangeness” presents a brief history of the “everyday strange” in the documentary film. Gaines finds theorists of everyday life primarily concerned with the ordinary and its uses. However, she finds “a fascination with the problem of the difference between ordinary and extraordinary.”[37] Gaines identifies two key categories of strangeness —  “the familiar made strange” and the “always already strange.” She questions the specific differences between these positions, especially in light of the cinematic audience. Gaines summarizes the studies of historian Neil Harris who wrote on P.T Barnum and found

“an audience that is drawn to oddities is an audience that is not duped but is rather intelligently engaged in philosophical questions as well as scientific inquiry.”[38]

She relates this inquiry into the audience for oddities to Tom Gunning’s analysis of the “curiously engaged” spectator of early cinema. Gaines argues,

“Everyday oddity could be seen here as fostering (on the part of the curious spectator) a new interpretation of culture, a reevaluation of the entire scheme of things, and even, possibly, a readjustment of worldview.”[39]

However, Gaines finds Ripley’s Believe It or Not to operate under a “smug worldview” in which “everything in the world could be odd except for you and me.” Instead of the films’confounding our curiosity toward the images of the “ordinary weird” and the “familiar strange,” the spectator of these films is mainly led to believe rather than question the status of what s/he sees. The viewer looks “for confirmation of what s/he already believes to be true.” This serves

“only a familiarizing function, whereby everything in the world is classified according to a preexistent schema. Rather than expanding horizons, the new-media explorer confirms our most reactionary suspicions and reinforces the narrowest of view...”[40] 

Sick Film and Shit Film find themselves once again entangled in these contradictory positions. They show us familiar bodily functions, which seem on screen both strange and off-putting. Such a presentation would seem to position body docs in the realm of the familiar made strange. If we are familiar with our bodies, then watching bodies similar to ours on screen should be familiar. It is the function, the action, the attraction that makes our bodies seem strange. Creed takes a function that is normally private and brings it into a public sphere. Although the functions may not seem strange when we personally do them, witnessing others “perform” these actions allows access to a form ofmuscular memory where we identify and react to the strange bodily process witnessed on screen.The specific bodily functions — vomiting and shitting — are strangeness coming from our familiar bodies.

So, are our interior bodily processes always already strange? In Near the Big Chakra, we found Anne Severson attempting to demystify the vulva as non-erotic and natural. By making visible the unseen object, Severson sought a normalizing function against the position of females as sexualized in dominant image culture. Later, Scott Stark’s Speechless showed that the same questions still persist years after Severson’s film brought theses issues to the forefront. James Broughton’s The Hermes Bird inverted this process by showing a slow-motion close up of a penis becoming erect. This positioned the phallus as erotic and beautiful rather than a symbol of power and dominance. Again, we find the process of taking a part of the body usually unseen on film and making it visible to alter the way we consider the object. Broughton’s voice-over poetry at one point reads,

“This is the secret that will not stay hidden.”

While men (and women) knew that the penis hardens when it becomes erect, Broughton’s showcasing of the bodily function on film takes something thought to be strange and familiarizes it to the viewer. These examples highlight that private parts of the body and invisible bodily functions as always already strange. The films themselves are what attempt to enact a familiarizing function with the spectator.

Sick Film and Shit Film work much in the same way. When they show us men and women vomiting and a woman shitting, the functions are received by viewers as strange, but through the repetitive loops, even if the volume of the vomit increases, we notice that each body creates vomit and shit. The familiarizing function removes vomit and shit from the realm of transgression and into the real of the everyday.  Body docs such as these confront the viewer with familiar bodies and functions that are understood as always already strange. The films serve as a way of taking these processes and making them familiar and “normal” for us. Body docs achieve this by allowing us to watch bodies on screen while also requiring a questioning process by turning the films back on the spectator.

Sick Film and Shit Film manage this by displaying the same setting in the films (the white cube/the blank cinema screen) where the spectator views the films (the gallery/the movie theater). This activates the viewing space as an critical component in watching the films. Since the spectator is present in the space seen on screen, the films operate in a non-historical everyday rather than merely as an imprinted past. Sick Film and Shit Film double back to the position of the spectator, which creates a dual-layered process in film viewing. The films act as historical documents of the bodily processes seen, yet they pivot upon the spectator’s position as equivalent to those on screen. The space on screen is mirrored by the viewing space of the spectator. This positions the spectator as part of the everyday histories seen on screen. I have argued that the use of 35mm film is a critical decision by Creed. Film’s chemical process allows access to a documentary tradition rather than just an art-historical one by providing his films with an indexicality that requires a documentary consciousness and a documentary trace. But how can we see the films as historical? Of course, we recognize the acts are not happening right now, but Sick Film and Shit Film have no significant socio-historical mark surrounding them. To use Rosen’s language, when was this then? The blank white background blends with the cinema screen, so all we are left with is the act on the screen. Yet, the screen remains white (albeit not illuminated) after the film is gone and the projector shuts down. All that is left is the blankness of a white screen.

Is the setting then the same diegetically and non-diegetically? Since we immediately recognize the filmic image as past yet are (ideally) confronted with a similar setting where the films are viewed, the blankness of the setting in Sick Film and Shit Film serves as a stand-in for the white cube gallery /blank cinematic screen that the spectator-subject attends everyday (and, in fact, would be attending when they see the films). We are no longer dealing with a specific historical moment but a perpetual history of the everyday. Sick Film and Shit Film, as body docs, question the status of the viewer-subject in relation to the indexical trace and the social environment of which we are taking part. Our “muscular memory” incites an intersubjective response to the historicity of the bodily functions, while the setting turns the films back on us as participants in an everyday strange, documentary attraction. We are no longer just watching a documentary — we are the documentary. Rather than reinforcing a “smug worldview” where we are assured of our “normal” status against always already strange imagery, body docs require us to question our own bodies and reverse the negative familiarizing function. We are all strange. We all vomit and we all create shit. Sick Film and Shit Film shows us these are processes that cannot be stopped, nor should they be. The question that lingers is how do we deal with ourselves everyday. Sick Film and Shit Film may not provide any answers, but it starts by contemplating what we create and questioning our everyday activities every everyday at a time.

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