Flickering before my eyes
Staring at screens defines life in our time. It is a common experience to leave the screen that we have stared at during work and merely substitute our employer’s screens for personal screens. We glance at smartphone screens to the point where we can ignore our friends, lovers and pets for videos of stranger’s lives and acquaintances’ kittens. There is no moralising to be done here about the loss of lived experience for mediated reality, as it is a choice we have collectively made. Few of us manage more than temporary reprieve from our screen addiction, self-consciously going offline for a few days.
It is, however, worth analysing the allure of screens, and Jurgen Ots, new series Periaqueductal Gray serves as perfectly catalytic objects for this consideration. The artist starts with old-fashioned sparkly projector screens that he collects in thrift shops. This uniquely identifiable material speaks of an earlier time, a media age of innocence when screens were unfurled before the assembled family with the majesty of sacred objects. When the potential enthral of moving images left the movie palace for the home the potential for todays screen-world was born whole.
Ots takes these found screens apart as spectacularly loaded material, slicing them into strips to better understand their power, He also combines ones from different periods, and as a particularly volatile material the older ones are the most yellowed, the most universal comprehensible sign of aging next to human wrinkles.
Someone under 35 is unlikely to have any memories of family films projected on to these ungainly freestanding screens. It happened so rarely as to be of significant effect when it did occur. Our jazzy Super-8 camera was a pride and joy of my dad’s who understood that film was supposed to tell stories with motion. I remember family squabbles over my mother’s inability to take his direction. Instead of performing the action my father was trying to capture she would freeze and just wave at the lens, and get a slightly pained expression as my dad urged her to walk, jump, anything other than ‘stand still and wave’.
More often on that sad screen we watched those weird edits of popular Hollywood kids movies on Super-8 that were found in flea markets, such as ‘Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy’. I could watch those repeatedly causing the old screen to come out of the closet more than the endless home movies.
More loaded though was the tattered leather briefcase I found as a snooping pubescent. I assumed rightly that anything locked and hidden was of interest. Pulled from the back of my dad’s closet I quickly picked the lock and enjoyed on the same screen, Super-8 porn loops, amusingly amateurish by today’s standards. While I don’t feel good about not respecting their privacy, those tattered screen sexual images pop into mind before family visits to the Parthenon. An arty gay bar in NY called Pork realised that this was a common association with old screens for many people and replaced their clichéd video monitors with freestanding screens and stacks of plastic-reeled films. This referenced the underground history of ‘smokers’ parties for ostensibly straight men where they would smoke cigars, drink whiskey and watch porn on Super-8 and allow themselves to masturbate alongside other men, a gateway for male desire for many. I was amazed how anyone of my generation, born in the early 1960s had a similar erotic resonance with these screens, there tatters testament to our endless scopophilic desire. The ageing yellow on Ots’s screens is equal parts smoke and desire.
I share these family case studies as a case study for the power of the moving image, entering our home and our brains. There was considerable debate about whether these new image technologies might actually be harmful, whether evolution would have a chance to catch up with the image world being born. When Ots hand makes, in shredded screens, a technological history, adding to it a gooiness and a fleshiness, he speaks of the introduction of image technologies into our bodies. The browned material on the surface speaks of the messiness of sexual desire and each tatter records some untold event. Ots owns these histories with his cuts and glue, taking as his unique right the joy of being a much younger man, employing his generation’s distance from these pre-digital screens. Technological histories are always shifting, we write stories the better to understand where we are now. Ots works, once exhibited, become historical objects themselves. How will they appear when the last person who have seen their lives and lusts flicker before them has passed from the planet. That is the final open-ended question of Periaqueductal Gray.
Text by Bill Arning.