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Interpreting “screen time”

The screen is so unremarkable in its ubiquity that it might seem to take going out to the very limits to make us aware of the extent to which image projection has become our very condition. Take the migration of the phrase “screen time” from its place in film analysis as the descriptor for the edited duration of an action on screen. Screen time now demarcates the time we spend facing the screen. The new use of the phrase makes us aware of the screen only to the extent to which it encroaches. Or, rather, through the device of “parental controls,” screen time is what must be restricted from “children”– that displacing shorthand for those deemed vulnerable to the screen’s altering powers. But it is not just the situation of the ubiquitously scattered and presumptively attention-scattering screen that constitutes our condition. The scene of projection functions as an apparatus of power by just such displacing projection—casting off vulnerability onto the “children” who figure the precarious susceptibility we might refuse to admit.

However, the scene of projection as an apparatus of power can also be turned to critical and potentially transformative effect by calling out our “screen-time” susceptibility and calling on its performative magic to substantially alter us. Recent art projects that take up the phantasmagoria machine and camera obscura demand an extension of this theorization. Take the particular hailing of Philippe Parreno’s art installation hyped as the “art event of the summer” that, if not inducing an actual trance state, sets itself the challenge of luring us away from our wrists and handhelds and keeping us in thrall enough to stay for at least two hours. The sound, light, and image machinery of Philippe Parreno’s art installation H (N)Y P N(Y) OSIS (fig. 2) occupies the drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory (11 June to 2 August 2015) to play out the conceit of opening the black box or camera obscura of cinema and photography, the dark chamber of the unconscious, and the black hall of undeveloped history. (The Armory was built for the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard in the aftermath of the US civil war, a war over racial violence, property, and the carceral state that’s far from over). In what the Armory’s President Rebecca Robertson described as an “infernal machine” of digitally-orchestrated automation, the engineering of the armory’s architecture becomes part of the playable assemblage. Shuttered windows and skylights rise to admit the light from outside while ricocheted live feed of the hum of traffic noise from Lexington Avenue vibrates along with the rumble as three large cinema-scale screens lift and lower like the safety curtains of the old-school cinema, concert hall, and musical theatres from which the rest of the machinery takes its melancholy echo. Twenty-six light sculptures and an LED screen suspended in two parallel rows relay the lights of Broadway. But, while these marquees convert the central axis of the drill hall into an avenue of attractions, the brands of Times Square are flagrant in their absence. The on and off flash of the marquee’s white lights do a dramatically different striptease–it is the signs that are naked and the “live girls” are somber adolescents. In intermittent performances conceived by collaborating artist Tino Sehgal, the girls introduce themselves as incarnations of the manga character AnnLee whom Parreno bought with Pierre Huyghe in 1999. Each asks of us the piercing question, “What is the difference between a sign and melancholia?”

While the bleachers situated between the three screens at the back of the hall rotate slowly, the burning question of loss and the refusal to let go of lost objects of desire suffuses the haunted hall with a dragged sense of time. The ghosts of what was relegated to a pre-cinema past (from the magic lantern and prism to vaudeville) join the motley phantasmagoria show of a present recast as deeply mixed inside and out. That is, the black box of the Drill Hall as an altered and porous camera obscura doesn’t just appear to open to the world beyond it. In the words of Parreno’s advance statement, the “prismatic” machine is to function as a “mirror” of the city, reflecting the New York whose branding letters are to be seen but not heard in the show’s title. Despite the parenthetical stutter of the extra “N” and “Y,” it is still spoken like “hypnosis,” the old school tool of psychoanalysis which Sigmund Freud replaced with free association on the couch. And that is all to the boomeranging point. When the screen on the left descends, Parreno’s film Marilyn (2012) focuses our attention dreamily on the empty couch (fig. 3) at the center of what Parreno describes as a phantasmagoric re-creation of the apartment at the Waldorf Astoria where Marilyn Monroe lived while taking acting lessons from Lee Strasberg and undergoing intensive psychoanalysis. The camera slowly scans the rooms while we hear the contents described in that distinctively breathy voice and a pen scratched across the hotel stationery, inking a version of the waking dream diary Monroe wrote while in analysis. Although the Waldorf Astoria is not where Monroe was found dead, the dramatic pathos builds as rain beats against the windows and the phone’s insistent ring goes unanswered until suddenly the camera pans back to expose that the hotel room is a stage set and the pen’s automatic writing is propelled by a robot arm.

This move might seem to re-enact the classic ideological reveal, disclosing the machinery to dissolve the seductive hold of the cinematic illusion for which “woman” is the image incarnate. Yet, there would seem to be nobody and no body to be seen here. Much has been made in film theory, media archaeology, and the history of art about the ostensible occultation of the device of image projection itself–as if the shaping power of the apparatus depends on whether or not one can see the machine, its internal workings, and its labor of operation. Yet what the scene of projection as an apparatus of power conventionally pulls off is a rather different trick of performative magic than hiding or revealing the levers or the “man behind the curtain.” By giving us a kind of fall girl, the scene of projection as a persistent and punishing pedagogy in rational, discarnate vision trains us not to occupy the place of feminized frailty. But the surprise and the bite of H (N)Y P N(Y) OSIS is not that the giant metal robot rig points to the elements of construction we cannot see, exposing that Marilyn is an assemblage of biometric algorithms for voice, hand, and eyes. Rather, as in each of the films screened in the installation, the pierce is in the point of view and the way in which it becomes ours and we become other than we think we are. Whether it is the position of the camera as a ghostly machine Marilyn (Marilyn, 2012), the seemingly impossible point of view of the dead body of John F. Kennedy on the train that took the corpse back to Washington (June 8, 1968, 2009), or the paranoid perspective of one of the “invisibles,” the Chinese immigrant boy in Manhattan’s Chinatown whose paranoid visions of monsters (etched into the skin of the film) constitute his superhero power (InvisibleBoy, 2010), the paranoid and exterminating projection, rather than enable us to displace our vulnerability onto anti-types, becomes a vehicle for facing the screen time of what we’re taught to abjure, including our own dependence–maligned as weakness or susceptibility and social and economic precarity.

The minor hope in the counter-version of the society of spectacle orchestrated by H (N)Y P N(Y) OSIS is most palpable via the new film produced for the installation, The Crowd (2015). Filmed in the cavernous space of the drill hall itself, a mixed mass of spectators (in terms of age, gender, race, and bodily type and capacity) flow on screen in patterns of attention oriented toward a spectacle that remains ominously off-screen. The effect hovers somewhere between the staging of a sci-fi alien encounter and the uncanniness and narcissism of the mirror in which we start to see ourselves, the audience, as both resembling and yet—we might insist—fundamentally not like this crowd whom Parreno claims were hypnotized for the performance. Here in this encounter with the screen-time question of whether we are, if not literally hypnotized, open to our vulnerability sits both the shiver of possibility and the dangerous fall. Parreno calls H (N)Y P N(Y) OSIS a “paranoic formula” that functions “sort of like Alice in Wonderland.” But one may well wonder for the scene of projection may persist in reconsolidating the fantasy of the fortress ego of a phantom sovereignty. The machinery of paranoid projection is deeply volatile. Projection has a lethal force in the material real of screen time. The Black Lives Matter movement recalls our attention to the way in which paranoid projection animates the long history of police brutality as a continuation of the terrorism of lynching redressed in cop clothes.  Paranoid projection does not just cast out the violent fantasies we do not admit but returns them to us in the alien forms in which the targets of our own dark inventions transform into external threats requiring extermination.. Yet at the same time, the volatile contacts between bodies, screens, affects, sensations and the material residue of ghosts in the opened dark chamber of the drill hall also produce a mixed zone for the radically imminent possibility of transformation. Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura experiments leading up to 945 Madison Avenue (2014) at the last Whitney Biennial in the old building show us that the dark enclosure of the room with its walls turned screens for the projection of an image of the world outside is not necessarily an isolation chamber or armored armory for the formation of a militantly walled subject. (The camera obscura, through a small aperture fitted with a lens, projects its image of the street outside onto the wall opposite – but upside down.) Leonard analogizes the experience of looking together in the social space of the camera obscura to the collectivities of dialogue and politics. It is hard to dispel the no less imminent possibility that screen time in the opened dark chamber may be fiercely social, providing a habitable miniature of the unseen conditions of mass enthrallment. At the same time—call it hope or melancholy—we might find here the platform for a commons that doesn’t demand sameness or even identity. That is, we might lose ourselves in a camera collectiva that affords the experience of ways of navigating screen time for other forms of being and becoming besides the subjection of the fortress ego and its abject objects. Such a scene of projection is an object of desire hard to let go.

Image credit: “VS211947” by Joris Leermakers, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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