Spikes and Stills
by Vic Brooks
volume 6
Adapted from Brooks, Vic. “Spike and Protocol,” Programming EMPAC Vol. 2, ed. Johannes Goebel (Troy: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2021), 19–27.

“To unwind a tangled clump of wires we must lay out in parallel many independent stories [in order] to then recognize where they exist, the mutual interdependencies, or, more often, the conflicts.”1

—Manfredo Tafuri 
Martine Syms, An Evening with Queen White, production still at EMPAC/Rensselaer (2016). Courtesy of the artist. Photograph: Mick Bello/EMPAC.

In Italian architectural historian and theorist Manfredo Tafuri’s influential account of the trajectories of modernist architecture, the inevitable “shocks, accidents, points of weakness, and resistance”2 that occur in the architectural process do not constitute necessary failures or indications of something gone wrong. Rather, they are central to what he calls its “project of crisis,”3 the fundamental ground of his thinking around making that marks the tension, for instance, between the history of architectural forms and the practical frictions they confront in being built. 

Through the close reading of three “production stills” from the making of Martine Syms’ An Evening with Queen White (2016) the following text endeavors to lay out two entangled storylines that make up a Tafurian plot of crisis4 that lies at the heart of technique—not architectural in this case but rather the production of a complex moving-image work that requires the use of proprietary equipment and the technical expertise of those who operate it. 

A production still fixes and depicts the interactions between the artist and the technological, organizational, and institutional systems that they work within, although, as a still, it remains incomplete. The production still acts like a spike, those tiny bits of colored tape used on both camera equipment to mark settings and focal lengths, and on sets and stages for camera operators, performers, gaffers, and production assistants to know where to focus the lens, angle the lights, or place themselves and props. But rather than simply an indexical mark of a sequence, the production still acts like a temporal spike in an ongoing process, provided we read them in multiple— and learn how to read them in the first place. 

In this first image there is no director or camera operators visible on the large stage. Fay Victor performs for a fixed and silent camera and for an imagined future audience. Martine Syms’ An Evening with Queen White was produced at the Experimenta Media and Performing Arts Center using an omnidirectional camera—one manufactured to capture footage for virtual reality goggles. Because the camera captures everything that surrounds it, it remains static at the center of Syms’ monochromatic purple curtained set. With eight high-resolution cameras (each lens has a 195-degree field of view) built into its spherical aluminum head, the only human intervention required for the Nokia OZO after it is correctly configured is a remote control signal for the camera to start recording on the call “action!” Although the OZO also records omnidirectional sound, a large microphone is attached to the stand below the camera to capture the clarity of the single performer’s voice as she sings into a number of purple “prop” microphones positioned in various scenic configurations. These microphones, along with guitar amps, a piano, and acoustic panels that refer to the Motown recording studios of the 1960s, are the only decoration, spot-lit from above. 

Martine Syms, An Evening with Queen White, production still (video). Courtesy of the artist.
Martine Syms, An Evening with Queen White, pro-duction still at EMPAC/Rensselaer (2016). Courtesy of the artist. Photograph: Mick Bello/EMPAC.

In using this technology, which eschews the traditional rectangular frame in favor of a spherical image with no edges, Syms explores whether there remains the potential for something or someone to nevertheless remain invisible.5 With seamless technology such as this, can there still be an off-screen? Because it was captured in a single long-take, the off-screen here necessarily falls outside of the purple curtained walls, beyond the camera’s gaze. As we can see from the following production still taken outside the set between takes, there are no dynamic focus pullers or assistants moving equipment. During filming the artist cannot directly see the performer, relying on eight spherical images on screen, a person to operate the lighting control desk, and a DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) station with which to keep track of each take. An audio engineer far removed in another part of the building listens to the recordings of the performer as they are beamed digitally up from three floors below. The result is that Syms can only direct Victor between 

takes. In those moments, the artist stands at the threshold of on- and off-screen, between set and production facility and the world beyond it. And if we could see the images’ metadata, we might notice it reads November 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election. This timestamp offers a further reading, where the muted set codes as a shocked stillness provoked by the shattering of a different kind of illusion. 

A second image from the Syms production also reveals a different sort of threshold. This is not a production still in the traditional sense but rather a screenshot of the raw footage in which we can see what the camera cannot. The flattened fish-eye image captures the purple painted floor, with the bases of various microphone stands and a stool arrayed around the periphery. Wires that snake inwards, however, abruptly disappear into a short sharp line at the center that appears smoothed towards the base of the image. Three tripod legs stick through the line as if upended. Because the camera cannot film itself, its software is designed to cover over this spatial gap that its presence produces in the resulting image. But in attempting to erase the camera’s presence from the very scene it films, it necessarily leaves an unexpected trace, a blur. The metallic grey and black of the camera, microphone, and stand are therefore readable only as a smudgy discoloration, while the physical space taken up by the equipment is blended into the purple floor. 

What can this smoothed-over tear or suture tell us? It masks a hole in the image.6 It camouflages the camera’s position like the purple curtains that conceal the crew. In another sense, it gestures towards the other time of a production that we don’t necessarily glimpse in a finished artwork: it represents all the moments that happen in-between takes and edits and outside of them. It also marks the limits of the reading of production stills, which cannot capture the pauses: the resting between takes, the repetition of rehearsal, the sound check, the discussion, and all the intermittent, fragmented stop/start that animates any production. 

I would also argue, more abstractly, that it gives us a crucial image of the entanglement of art and the technical. In this image, the recording technology has been designed to negate itself in accord with the standards of seamless production value. Of course, such tools are designed not only for artists but also in response to their needs, but a gap often remains between ideal and practical use. Compelling frictions can take shape in this gap, and while they can be hard to see, images like these get us part of the way. For example, we might notice the stand’s legs that poke through the blur, an imperfection that results from a set of protocols not within the production but hardwired into the tools themselves. Calibrated precisely to fulfill the role of production’s invisible hand, in its visible negation we can challenge the purported neutrality of a technology as we glimpse a three-way relationship between machines, those who program them, and those who hope to use them for purposes that may ultimately be at odds within even their flawless function. For instance, the aesthetic of the decade-old Canon 5D DSLR camera’s “cinematic” shallow depth of field is easily recognizable from gallery installations of moving image works of the late 2000s, until it was quickly overtaken by a continuing escalation of sensor quality and image resolution offered by relatively affordable cinema production tools. Yet as significant as the influence of these aesthetic codes and technical qualities are on the final artwork, we rarely discuss these choices internal to artistic discourse or in analysis of individual artworks themselves. 

An Evening with Queen White (and its sister feature Incense Sweaters and Ice) centers on a monologue written by Syms that explores how voice, gesture, and persona are learned and performed. Syms, concerned with how representation works for, on, and through persons, explores the especially complicated and highly contested terrain of social and technological visibility in regard to social and political representation of and for Black Americans. One way to approach Syms’ practice might be through Krista Thompson’s Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice, an analysis of the relationship of video technologies to the representational visibility and political power of Black, diasporic, and post-colonial subjects. In this work, Thompson also investigates a “blur,” 7 but of a different sort, specific to the streaking blur of light that drifts across the surface of live-feed videos of people in Jamaican Dancehall clubs performing for the videographer and bathed in the bright, white “video light”8 mounted on the handheld camera. Thompson’s reading of video light is important not only for the specific case she examines in her book but more generally as a corrective against unreflective naturalizations of technology, as visual technologies have borne particular weight in the history of racialization. 

Although Thompson’s video light and the blur caused by the OZO’s unfilmable camera are potentially paradoxical (one distorts Black skin, the other partially erases a camera), they are ultimately related, as each reveals how certain implicit protocols of technical calibration get inherited or used. These are protocols that often reveal a racist history, most markedly visible in the calibration of video cameras for the “narrow chromatic range”9 of Caucasian skin. As Thompson succinctly puts it, video light is “but one instance of these distortions, the blurriness, the visual disruptions effected by the video light and video technologies.”10 

Taken in multiple, each of these production stills shows us that if we do not think through the entanglements inherent in the production of time-based art, we reinforce both the naturalization of technology and the imbedded or inherited social and technological protocols involved in such production. The production still allows us to glimpse the complex dynamics between artists and the technological tools they use that are often held at an ideological and practical distance from one another, while at the same time are sutured together within the time of production by a blur or distortion. In other words, the production still allows us to look more closely at the process of art making in order to explore “what that very distance signifies.”11 

Lux Aeterna exhibition opening, with an outdoor screening of Abigail Child, Prefaces, 1981 (courtesy of Canyon Cinema), Jacob Lawrence Gallery on July 29, 2021. Photograph: Caean Couto.
  1. Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth (Turin: Einaudi, 1980), 24.[↩︎]
  2. Marco Biraghi, Project of Crisis: Manfredo Tafuri and Contemporary Architecture, trans. Alta Price (Cambridge/ London: The MIT Press, 2013), 4. It is also worth noting the practice of architecture, both at Rensselaer and in general, perhaps forms the clearest image of interdisciplinary work and the bridge between engineering and art.[↩︎]
  3. ibid, 9.[↩︎]
  4. Biraghi also writes in the Architectural Review, 9 June, 2014 that “In his final book, Interpreting the Renaissance (published in 1992, two years before his death), Tafuri wrote: ‘Architecture and culture of the humanist period attempt to keep the two opposing poles solidly united: one pole is based on stable foundations, while the other relates to subjective will. […], it is a matter of a complexio oppositorum, a culture of contradiction’. It is key here that complexio translates as both plot and intertwinement.[↩︎]
  5. In the final exhibition of An Evening with Queen White at EMPAC (28 August to 5 September, 2017), Syms translated this question of the “off-screen” by arranging several props spatially in the black void of Studio 1 in the same location that they were placed on the original film-set. Four screens were mounted around the perimeter, which captured Fay Victor as she moved around the camera, thus creating on and off-screen space for the performer. While Victor was in the areas in-between the monitors, you would still hear her through directional speakers. The exhibition was viewed from within the space delineated by monitors, the viewer, in essence, taking the place of the camera.[↩︎]
  6. A hole that is articulated as not only spacial but temporal. See Rancière’s “time full of holes” in Modern Times, 38.[↩︎]
  7. Krista Thompson, Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice (Duke University Press, 2015), 13. [↩︎]
  8. ibid, 5. [↩︎]
  9. ibid, 131. [↩︎]
  10. ibid. [↩︎]
  11. Tafuri, ibid. [↩︎]