Six hundred photographs – One visual adventure

Nathalie Vissers

‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ by David Claerbout

We blink 15-20 times per minute. Our eyes make 2 to 4 quick movements per second. Light that does manage to get in reaches its destination – light-sensitive cells in the back of the eye – only after travelling through layers of other cells. The array of light-sensitive cells is essentially a flat sheet, a blind spot exists and only the part we focus on is coded in detail. Still, our brains manage, continuously and seemingly automatically, to work with this information and give us an impression of a stable, coherent, three-dimensional and meaningful world. Visual perception is not perfect. A perfect illusion, maybe.

A photographer looks through his viewfinder. Boys and men playing football, a Mediterranean setting, a guy lights up his cigarette, the sea behind the roofs of houses, seagulls flying over. Then, one of the men raises his hand with a piece of food – is it bread? – a seagull dives down and approaches the hand, a moment between man and bird.

David Claerbout – ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ installed at Fotomuseum Antwerp

Click – a fraction of a second, that’s all it takes. The decisive moment is captured. The photographer took control of time and froze the moment. He didn’t dream it, it wasn’t an illusion, it is there – black on white – the man feeding the bird. Photography at its best – freezing time. Photography at its worst too – leaving out so much information surrounding that one decisive moment. The surrounding context that has the capacity to enhance the meaning of that one moment: The smiling face of a young boy looking at the scene from the side line – his laugh captured for infinity; the goalkeeper, leaning with one hand at the pole – his actions ceased by the short interruption; the man lighting up his cigarette. Photography is not perfect. A perfect illusion, maybe.

Can we ever fully grasp a moment, through our eyes or a camera, given that both are imperfect and new situations are unfolding every fraction of a second? We cannot see front and back of a situation at once. Once we move our body or eyes – to get more information – the moment is already gone and something slightly different takes its place. We cannot see front and back of the same situation; we cannot see front and back of a photograph.

That day, we paid our entrance free, walked upstairs and sat down – on a bench, in front of a large screen. Photograph of man feeding bird projected largely in front of us. Our imperfect eyes watched the incompletely captured moment.

Suddenly, another photograph is projected. We now see the smile on the young boy’s face, sitting by the side, watching that decisive moment. And another photograph, the man lighting up his cigarette. And another, the goalkeeper, leaning and waiting. New photographs, new context about that same fraction of a second. Time is frozen, the moment now infinite. Our eyes are free to wander into the photograph and explore the situation AND its context.

David Claerbout – ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ installed at Project Arts Centre Dublin 2015 (photo Ros Kavanagh)

David Claerbout – ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ installed at Project Arts Centre Dublin 2015 (photo Ros Kavanagh)

Free? Not completely, we are guided by the artist. He has chosen which aspects we will see – out of the 50.000 shots, he carefully selected 600 photographs – and in what order to show them.  A seagull, an overview of the scene, a detail in the back, a view from another side, the artist is guiding our eyes – and thereby also our attention.

27.2 seconds, that is the average time people spend looking at a piece of art [i]. Quickly extracting the meaning of the work – then moving on to the next one. We wouldn’t want to miss anything on our trip to the museum.

Here, we stay seated – for 37 minutes – watching a situation of a fraction of a second through 600 photographs. The artist hijacked our attention by feeding us the situation frame by frame, adding more nuance as we spent more time with the work. Every new insight into the moment satisfies our inherent curiosity. What else is happening? Where is this scene taking place? What was that guy in the back doing? What was going on above, below, left and right?

Which artworks do we find most beautiful? Is it the one that is attuned to our eyes, so that we can fluently perceive it: the prototypical, the familiar, the easy to grasp? Or is it the one that raises challenge, shows us something in a new and different way, forcing us to put effort in understanding what we are seeing?

Can a work of art be both? The simplicity of a beautiful moment, captured at the right time, shown through the familiarity of black- and white photographs. Everyone understands its beauty; our eyes easily grasp the scene. Adding to this, however, the complexity and mystery of the combination of these 600 photographs, projected back to back.  We are seeing the moment in a way we could never have seen it with only our eyes or only one photograph. Time was frozen and we walked in – our brain surprised by the new way of seeing. Our awakened brains now eager to find out more: How did the artist do this? Where were the cameras? We don’t see them in the other photographs. Did they all go off at the same moment. Was the moment choreographed? Was this the only moment photographed this way? Was something manipulated? Were we manipulated? The seemingly simple was complex after all.

David Claerbout – ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’

Do I even want to know the answers? I am not sure. Maybe I like the work better without knowing all the details of its origins. Wonder might be the most central aesthetic emotion [ii]. And those 37 minutes with ‘The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment’ by David Claerbout certainly made me wonder.

The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment by artist David Claerbout was recently on show in the exhibition ‘The still point of the turning world – between film and photography’ of the Fotomuseum Antwerp. It consists of 600 black-and-white photographs of one ‘happy’ moment projected in a 37-minute stereo audio loop. Impressed by the work, and how the artist played with my visual system, I wrote this article.

More info about David Claerbout and his work can be found at: www.davidclaerbout.com

Single photographs don’t do justice to this work that in its essence is about a temporal sequence of photographs. Below you can see part of the loop playing at mamco Geneva 2015

 

References

[i] Smith, J. K., & Smith, L. F. (2001). Spending time on art, 19(2), 229–236. The study examined how long 150 visitors spent looking at six paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[ii] Prinz, J. (2017). Art and wonder. Keynote talk at Visual Science of Art Conference 2017, Berlin