Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pistols! Treason! Murder!: Textual Realism and Reenactment

I recently contributed a chapter entitled 'Textual Realism and Reenactment' to a collection of essays on Historical Reenactment: From Realism to the Affective Turn (Re-enactment History), edited by Paul Pickering and Iain McCalman, which has just been published. In part, this chapter is an explanation for the presence of the illustrations in Pistols! Treason! Murder! In it, I discuss pastiche as an activity related to reenactment, under the broader theme of realism (although in retrospect it would have been better to structure the argument around the idea of mimesis). There follows an extract from this essay, which is also a commentary on the illustration reproduced below.

Bzz bzz

Above: The Arrest of Antonio Foscarini (click to enlarge)

This illustration is the centre piece of a strip that summarises Gerolamo Vano's fall from grace, which was connected to the arrest of a noble named Antonio Foscarini. The charges against Foscarini were not proclaimed publicly, which provoked a great deal of ill-informed gossip, a state of affairs that is dramatised in the illustration. The background is the Great Council Hall in the ducal palace, where the entire noble class met for debates and elections.

An argument that is never explored directly in the text of the book is dramatised visually in this illustration. At the same time that the Venetian state was beginning to mount systematic surveillance operations targeted at individuals, Galileo was busy up the road in Padua, observing the surface of the moon and the satellites of Jupiter, and drawing some startling conclusions. By 1622, the year of Vano’s execution, the first microscopes were circulating among curious cardinals in Rome. Moreover, the first question raised by Galileo’s critics was the same one asked by Vano’s readers: How can you be sure of what you have seen? So there is an obvious connection to be made between the spy and the scientist. As Foucault would argue, power—in the form of surveillance—and knowledge —in the form of scientific observation—were intimately connected. This argument is alluded to directly by the ‘signature’ on the telescope at upper left.

The motif of the flies serves more than one function. Flies are not just examples of a preferred subject for early microscopic observations. They also refer to a linguistic metaphor introduced in a much earlier chapter. In the relevant passage I am addressing the reader directly in the portentous voice of ‘The Historian’.

The living body does not exist for us, cannot speak to us, even if the corpse still hosts a different kind of life that has nothing to do with the consciousness that once inhabited it. Rather, this life is parasitical—a swarming mass of signs, continually multiplying, crawling across the page. Their buzzing is loudest around the body’s wounds, where the text is most ‘corrupt’, as the philologists put it. The ligaments and cartilage that once articulated it have rotted away.

This passage foreshadows a later throwaway comment about Foscarini’s trial, in which ‘No one ever originated rumours; no one confirmed or denied them. They were generated spontaneously, like flies in rotten meat’. The illustration echoes all these previous allusions to flies. Finally, I suspect that these overdetermined insects are also direct descendents of Mosca, the buzzing parasite from Ben Jonson’s play, Volpone.

No doubt I’m already testing your credulity, but there is yet another argument implied by the contents of the other two telescope bubbles, in which the ‘thing’ being observed is actually a written text. This apparent paradox raises a point about the relationship between eyewitness testimony and hearsay and their respective evidential value in law—an issue that was crucial in the trial, condemnation and execution of Antonio Foscarini. The same point is also hinted at by the frieze of alternating eyes and ears, which have temporarily migrated to the panel border from Vano’s cloak, where they normally reside (because Vano is not in control of the flow of information in this panel). Theoretically, evidence based on sight (the most noble of the senses) was of greater value that evidence based on hearing, which was frequently dismissed as mere gossip. However, in practice that distinction was virtually impossible to maintain, as the outcome of Foscarini’s case demonstrates eloquently. Again, this issue is not discussed explicitly in the text.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Plate 29 from E. J. Bellocq, Storyville Portraits

4 Bellocq Plate 29

She’s naked, with her back to me, standing on a bare floor, facing a bare wall. Her toes touch its skirting board. Her right hand is raised to the scratched outline of a butterfly on the wall. Her face, which was presumably once visible in profile, has been scratched off the glass-plate negative. I see no reason to infer sinister motives for this. Whoever did it – not necessarily Bellocq – may have wanted to protect the woman’s identity, perhaps at her request. Other ruptures in the image’s integrity are more obviously the work of chance. There’s a jagged splinter in the shape of a knife blade missing in the upper left corner and a faint scratch over the tendon on her right heel. Another scratch accompanies a detached flake of emulsion on her right buttock. It looks like a parody of an eighteenth-century beauty spot.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Plate 1 from E. J. Bellocq, Storyville Portraits

3 Bellocq Plate 1

She’s topless, with the gown drawn down from the shoulders to form a shallow ‘V’ underneath the breasts. Her eyeline moves out of the left side of the frame, and she’s sitting at a slight angle to the camera. As is often the case when Bellocq uses a white screen as a backdrop, he doesn’t crop the frame accordingly, so the screen remains clearly identifiable, floating unfocussed in the background. Two corners of the plate are missing, leaving angular, black shapes on the print that cut sharply into the screen’s diffused outline and complement the angles of the gown’s bunched fabric. Her hair is arranged and parted neatly, with only a single loose wisp behind her left ear. Her complexion is clear and even, entirely innocent of whatever history she may possess. She has nothing to protect or individuate herself – no prop or pet or costume – and yet she looks perfectly at ease. Who or what is she smiling at?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Plate 18 from E. J. Bellocq, Storyville Portraits

2 Bellocq Plate 18

She’s pinned to the plane of focus – a soldier at attention. She’s naked and prostrate, but she concedes the minimum possible surface area to the camera. She doesn’t hide her breasts or genitals, but she isn’t exactly displaying them either. She’s on her side on a couch, her head supported by a cushion. Her hair merges into deep shadow below her left shoulder. Her right arm twists out of sight, locked behind her hip. Her left arm is squashed into the couch below her, its half-clenched fingers amputated by foreshortening. Her bare feet are dirty. The couch appears to have some kind of covering, into which her left thigh merges, but the insulation isn’t very thick. I imagine that the rattan imprints its pattern on her skin. The shadows underneath the couch are almost blank, as if it’s magically suspended, and the emulsion has disintegrated over her right hip, as it has elsewhere on the plate, leaving nebulous clouds of anti-matter in the air above and around her. A crack in the glass bisects her torso but swerves aside from her face, which retains every detail. She looks at me calmly, steadily, with neither pride nor resignation.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Plate 17 from E. J. Bellocq, Storyville Portraits

1 Bellocq Plate 17

The spirals stand for intoxication: the shot glass in her right hand, obscured by motion blur, and the bottle of Raleigh Rye on the table that supports her left elbow. The shape is everywhere: in the lathed table legs, the drapery of an erect statue of a dancing woman at the table’s centre, and (more subtly) in the twist of her striped stocking as it passes over her knee. Her legs are crossed. The left is on top, and—like the shot glass—it’s marred by a barely perceptible blur, as if she’s tapping her foot to a tune in her head.

The diaphanous garment draped over her upper half is neither a dress nor a blouse. I can’t even tell where it ends. Her hair’s pinned up, but not rigorously. Her expression’s neutral, but relaxed.

The chair is a bit more than functional, because there are elaborate turnings on the leg shapes, and a triple stretcher between the legs. The table is even fancier. A piece of white lace displays a tableau of objects. An alarm clock—very useful in a brothel. Then there’s the imposing statue, the bottle (its position coinciding exactly with the plane of focus), an apple, and an identified object at the right. Underneath the table, on a shelf suspended between its legs, are a series of miniature wooden chairs. Each has two feathers attached to its rear of the stile at the top, one on each side. These miniature chairs look like trinkets, the sort of thing one purchases from a child street vendor.

There’s a large, floor-length window on the right with the blind drawn up. Just possibly, it’s a door, not a window. That’s the light source for the photograph. No flash: indirect, barely touching, but definitive nonetheless.

There’s a wall behind her, parallel to the plane of focus. On the wall are six pictures—a seventh may be arranged as a sort of pendant to one of the six. Since the wall is out-of-focus, the subjects are unidentifiable, but at least two are cameo portraits of women. The others might be erotic, but they’re not pornographic: the same could be said of this photograph.

Bellocq normally composes with the subject dead centre, but here she’s displaced to the photographer’s left, or rather the subject is not the woman in and of herself, but the unity of woman, chair and table, the last two indispensable supports to her (literally) shaky sense of self.

It’s possible that Bellocq has caught her off-guard, in mid-blink. But that’s accidental. An honest mistake, between friends.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

E. J. Bellocq, Storyville Portraits

The only surviving photographs by E. J. Bellocq are eighty-nine glass plate negatives of prostitutes, which were taken c. 1912 in the Storyville district of New Orleans – the birthplace of modern jazz. These images were never displayed during Bellocq’s lifetime, and were only discovered by chance after his death. Lee Friedlander obtained the negatives in the 1960’s, and by painstaking experimentation with obsolete papers, he managed to obtain useable prints from them. A selection of these prints was published for the first time in 1970, in the volume Storyville Portraits. [1]

A lengthy essay by Nan Goldin, which summarises the results of recent research on Bellocq, as well as describing Goldin's own response to his work, can be found at the website American Suburb X, here (the essay was originally published in ArtForum in 1997).

My next four blog entries will be dedicated to Bellocq's photographs.

[1] A volume with a larger selection of Bellocq's images was published in 1996, but it appears from Amazon that this is already out of print, and that the 1970 version of Storyville Portraits (which I own) is more readily available second-hand.