“Anticipation of the Mechanical Memory”
(800 word prose with illustrations)
in DAMP: Experimental Media in Vancouver (Anvil Press) 2008
click here to download a PDF of the publication, graphic design and all...
I massage the knots in my right arm as train whistles signal crossings in the distance. Standing in a dark room with my hand on the camera body, ripples of mechanical quiverings from the optical printer penetrate the skin on the palm of my hand and travel the veinous track from hand to wrist to shoulder to spine, finally taking up residence in the small of my back where the whirr and hum of the machine linger and resonate like the deep base rhythms of loud music and passing trains. In this way, I engage my body with filmic machines that have fallen into disrepair; machines forgotten about and pushed aside to the back rooms of labs, schools, and co-ops making room for newer, ‘cheaper’, ‘more versatile’ digital technologies. These older machines ride on the heels of an industrial age once said to alienate the worker from direct production; looms, canneries, presses, steamships, and trains where fathers worked amidst oil, smoke, squealing brakes and the grinding of gears; where they stood as operators while levers and drive shafts stepped into the line of direct production, alienating efforts from results. Ironically, the analogue and mechanical descendents of these industries now draw the operator back to her bodily senses. Contemporary digital technologies, on the other hand, reduce the range of bodily movement even further than the industrial technologies of the last two centuries – where once we used our whole bodies - raking, hoeing, hoisting, pulling, pushing – now we sit statuesque in posture, only our fingers moving on the keyboards in set carpel tunnel choreographies – our kinsephere growing smaller and smaller with the advent of each new techno-toy.
To revisit these mechanical processes now that it is not actually necessary to engage in them -- now that there are more ‘efficient’, less physically demanding/engaging modes of production – can actually perform a sort of anti-alienation, triggering and exciting our physical bodies as they inscribe maps of remembered experience and sensuous geographies into the flesh, through the skin which serves as a thin penetrable film between the sensor and the sensed, baring traces, lines, and scars of past contact.
For those of us who have chosen an analogue practice in a digital age, there is a direct physical impact on our bodies resulting from repetitive physical patterns, exposure to toxic chemistry, and working long hours in the dark. There is also a direct social impact on our economic behaviors, as we work on the outskirts of the capitalistic entertainment industry, scavenging for materials and supplies that are beyond our financial means. We shoot super 8 and cheap 16mm optical sound stock not meant for recording picture, we find short ends for free from various industry shoots, we process it all ourselves in our hidden darkrooms and bathrooms. We find old discarded equipment from schools and labs, from dumpsters and on E-bay – we restore projectors and contact printers, create mutated Franken-machines from miscellaneous parts and ply our art after dark when ‘light-tight’ is easier to find.
This salvaging of old machines is an act of economy and alchemical mysticism; like raising Lazarus from the dead, we can breathe new life into old machines. These resurrected bodies then breathe new life into us; engaging our sensorium through the use of muscle, joint, bone, and ligament.
The maps of remembered experience are both directly related to the mode of production and vicariously related to other similar physical experiences. As I go through the motions on the optical printer - two steps from the handwinders to the lamp, three steps from the lamp past the aerial lens to the camera, one step to the computer, two steps back to the table - my mind can drift as my body moves through its own memory – muscle memory – like riding a bicycle, playing guitar, or rehearsing set dance choreography – the body follows the repetition and engages the machine on a purely physical level. It is here and that muscular engagement activates other memories of physical experience only vicariously related to current actions: the memory of physical experiences which have nothing to do with the filmmaking process, but which involve similar actions and sensations on a bodily level.
The click cachunk click, of the optical printer when automated at a 1:1 ratio takes me to the clickety clack of the trains my father works on in the CN yards, while the smell of the machine oil on its various moving parts evokes the smell of train grease that lingered on my father’s coveralls and boots after work. My mind wanders back to childhood memories visiting my father at the train shops.
The repetitive foot pattern from the handwinder table to the lamp to the camera vaguely resembles variations on the jazz square patterns from beginner dance classes that I took as a child. While testing exposure and filtration on the optical printer, my mind is often transported to early dance classes through the actions of my body.
The machine, like a dance partner or a lover, leaves as much of its imprint on the operator as the operator leaves on it. At the end of the day, my feet are sore, my body is tired and the muscles in my right camera arm are a little stronger. My right eye has become slightly near-sighted from over-exertion through long black tunnels of glass and metal in dark rooms, while my left eye has remained mostly unaltered. These areas of strength and weakness, bruise and callous, are laid out on the geography of my form, like topographical indices on a cartographic travel diary of my body’s journey with film.