“Martyrs for the Mass” by Kevin Lee and Kriss Ravetto
Hoc memorabile est: ego tu sum, tu es ego; uni animi sumus.
— Plautus, Stichus, v. 731
(line borrowed from Michel Serres, The Parasite)
In Greek, the word for “witness” is martyr, but, as Michel Serres explains, the act of witnessing (or martyrdom) is never straightforward. The martyr is touched by an invisible and immaterial presence—the divine, an historical event, a traumatic experience. This touching entails the witness be marked as a unique individual: “The mark designates a subject, who, without it, would not be a subject.” While marking propagates individuals as subjects, it simultaneously subjugates these individuals to the marks they bear. All the while, the vision that the martyr actually beholds (the divine) withdraws into the indefinite, the uncertain, and the untouchable. What remains is an invisible mark borne by a visible witness. How is it then that the mark transforms itself into a sign of general meaning (a message) through the witness? How do we read such a message: as a sign of faith, an indicator of the significance of an event or a person, or as an icon (an image) of martyrdom? For after all, we don’t even see the mark, we just see the witness as marked by subjectivity. The martyr offers us only vicarious witnessing—seeing the one who sees or has seen.
For Serres, a rather complex series of substitutions is required for such vicariance to produce meaning: first, the affective encounter with the divine (or the traumatic) is replaced with an icon of the martyr. The image stands in for touching, but it is the image that touches those who cannot witness for themselves. Second, the act of being subjected to the system of meaning embedded in the mark is supplanted by the gift of language where the individual becomes a subject, an “I.” This subject transforms the passive role of the one subjected to the image (and its system of meaning) to an active position of the subject (the one who beholds). And third, those who stand in the place of the “I,” effectively substitute one subject for an another (“I’ takes the place of “witness” in the process of recognizing and identifying with the one who sees). Identification works as a mode of transmission, transporting the “I” (and the system of meaning inscribed therein) that makes the collective “we” (a discursive community, or a community of believers).
There are parallels between Serres description of witnessing and the way film and media theorists describe how we experience images, icons, films, and identify with characters, individuals, narratives and other forms of representation. We are addressed by images as subjects, and in many cases, we are affectively touched by these same images. We are, therefore, also, subjected to the vision or system of meaning these forms of representation impress on us. If I witness the martyr who suffers for her convictions, I recognize her as an individual and acknowledge her suffering. Here empathy works to blur the line between ideas and feelings. For example, when we watch Joan’s (Renée Falconetti’s) tear-stained face as she declares her own martyrdom in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) it is not clear if Joan is the subject in the image (the one we look at as an object) or the subject of the image (the one that controls how we see and feel). The blurring of feelings with ideas continues to vex film and media scholars, animating debates over what distinguishes perception, affect, and experience from social engineering and ideology.
It is this question of both the idea of martyrdom and its emotional impact on the spectator that Bill Viola asks us to contemplate in his 2014 Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire and Water). Installed in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, Martyrs consists of four separately framed digital-video-portraits of four nameless Christian martyrs (three men and one woman). On each of the four vertically hung plasma displays, we see (in vivid colour) a martyr who suffers at the hands of one of the four elements. Each figure individually endures a specific form of torture uniquely designed for them, but all four figures seem to be liberated from their suffering simultaneously. Stunning in its synchronicity, the ascension and transformation of the martyrs suggests that the four share an extremely singular experience, despite their spatial and screenic separation. But what makes this video so uncanny is not just the synchronicity of each enactment of martyrdom, as much as the coupling of this performance with the indeterminate gestures and expressions caught on high-definition film.
As visually striking as they are, these moving-image portraits do not simply overwhelm us with emotions. Martyrs is shot on a Phantom camera that can shoot upwards of 3,300 frames per second at full resolution and is slowed down to such a rate where is seems possible to watch each drop of water flowing downwards as one of the martyrs ascends skywards. Viola, therefore, demonstrates something that is counterintuitive: the duration of the shot beyond what can be immediately perceived renders our ability to apprehend and relate to the image difficult, if not impossible. The process of radically slowing down expressive gestures ends up disfiguring those gestures that we usually associate with pain, anguish and suffering, offering us in their place an unrecognizable sense of movement. This combination of technological control and surprising modulation of the rate of projection is disorienting. It is no longer clear if the images refer to a passing emotion (like suffering coupled with conviction), the return or reenactment of an iconic image of suffering, or the onset of an indeterminate enlightened state—one that is made present only through technological mediation.
“Martyrs for the Mass” takes the position of the vicarious witness (witness to the image of witnessing), and attempts to contemplate how we (along with the thousands of others who visited St. Paul’s Cathedral on 23 June 2016) confront, encounter, and, in our case, ingest these video portraits. Our short essay-film is the product of a collaboration between a renowned video-essayist and filmmaker (Lee) and film scholar and media theorist (Ravetto) who were invited to participate in a three-day workshop on “indefinite visions” at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The organizers of the event, Richard Misek and Allan Cameron, paired scholars with filmmakers and challenged us to create an essay-film that explored the workshop’s theme. Each pair was given a couple days to learn from each other about various possible approaches to making a video-essay. The video-essays we studied ranged from pedagogic exercises designed for the classroom to something more like essay-films in the tradition of Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard.
Given the topic of the workshop, Kevin’s interest in the politics of transmitting and appropriating images, and the fact that Kriss was going to give a talk on Bill Viola and the Uncanny for the workshop, we decided to visit St. Paul’s where Viola’s work is permanently installed. The Cathedral sits on the highest point of Ludgate Hill in the City of London, at busy intersection in the financial district. An imposing baroque structure designed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London (1666), this iconic church also stands as an enduring symbol of British resilience (during the Blitz) as well as, paradoxically, the symbol of many erasures—like the Christian cathedrals before it, St. Paul’s was completely burnt down in the 1666 fire. It is now a major tourist attraction.
Because we arrived in the morning (and the day of the Brexit vote) we did not have to wait long in line. The church was not empty, but the patrons were, for the most part, not British, and they were certainly not parishioners. People moved through the cathedral as if it were a museum, stopping to take in its grandeur and to behold the various works of art, but moving on from image to image. We quickly found Martyrs at the end of the cathedral’s long south quire aisle. Martyrs takes up the space of the entire back wall, but is hung under an enormous window that (depending on the weather) bleaches the piece with natural light. Fortunately, for us, it was raining, but the light from the window still provided what appeared to be a halo hovering over the work. Armed with our mobile phones and the audio-guide (that was provided in the cost of the entrance fee), we spent the better part of the day there watching the installation (over and over), while observing other visitors who would come and go. Some would simply pass by, looking at the piece for a few seconds, others would wait a few minutes, just a few would watch the entire 7 minutes and 15 seconds cycle of Martyrs. We noticed that Martyrs attracted a lot of young people: we thought to ourselves, maybe this is because these are the only moving images in the cathedral? But, even then, it was the dramatic moments—the moments of the most intensely saturated image—that drew crowds to the installation. As the moment of climax passed so did the crowds.
The people who stayed to watch hushed their voices, but we could hear English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese, Swedish, and Arabic spoken and echoed throughout the aisle, only to be drowned out by the sounds of the city just outside the walls of the cathedral. Most of the people came in groups—of school children or families—but, for the most part, they kept their distance. An American mother warned her son not to get too close, as if something in the image could possibly harm him. We agreed: there is something dangerously seductive, even hypnotizing about these images that invite us to encounter the pain but see the unequivocal act of belief embedded in them. A French woman, accompanied by a docent, stood back and refused to be swayed by the images, commenting “it is not for everyone.” She and her daughter were wary of the power that images have to blur the sacred and the profane. They turned and walked away. An Italian couple with their son were the first people we saw who came close enough to touch the screens. We followed in their footsteps and noticed that other visitors had touched the screens. All of the screens were marked with fingerprints. Some of those prints involved a single touch with one finger, others multiple touches with the same small finger, and in one case a whole hand left its caress on the screen that projected the image of the martyr destined to die by water. We did not know what to make of these imprints: some prints suggested that visitors treated the screen as a touch-screen, an interactive display; other prints suggested that spectators were so moved, they reached out to the image as if they could touch what was held within it. It is difficult read these traces or to be able to discern whether the possessor of the finger was touched by the image or whether she wanted to control the image, thereby confusing the subject with the subjected once again. We tried to capture the traces of these many touches, for they stand out against the pristine high-definition video of Martyrs. But it is hard to see a touch on a screen through yet another screen.
The fingerprint adds another dimension of time to a work that itself manipulates time. It marks the touch of the spectator. But the fingerprint seems to change its meaning with every movement of the image beyond it, rendering the touch both vicarious and indefinite. The work of Viola is instead, precise, even in its multilayered treatment of time. In the two outside panels (the martyrs tortured by earth and water), time flows in opposite directions: on the northern most panel the earth rises upwards off of the martyr, moving backwards in time, while on the southernmost panel the water pours down as the martyr ascends, moving forwards in time. The woman in one of the two middle panels, who is drawn by ropes that bind her hands and feet, in one of the two middle panels is blown sideways by the wind. Here time endures. And the man in the adjacent panel is seated as fire reigns down on him. As the fire burns out, time seems to also wear down and decay. If we look at the image as a composite of different flows of time that when put together collectively run through a cycle and then repeat, then we cannot select and organize time according to one particular model. And we ourselves become unmoored from those narratives that situate (keep) us in place and in time. Time is, therefore, presented singularly (as an effect impressed on the spectator by the image) and collectively (as indefinite).
Impressions of time are doubled and redoubled in the images we captured. These images flicker, making visible the mismatch between the scan rate of our phones and the refresh rate of the screens. We liked the fact that in the process of copying we revealed the underlying materiality of these everyday mobile devices. The clash of projection and capture produced their own ghost effects, rendering these spectral images even more ephemeral. We can also see that our own images haunt “Martyrs for the Mass.” We have been caught by our own technology—reflected on the screen of Martyrs only to be projected back onto the cathedral and onto the screens of our devices. This entangled vision produces its own mise en abyme, where we are seen filming the film, that reflects and projects us back to ourselves, but also projects us forward onto Martyrs and backwards into the space in front of the work (the space behind us). The interface of two screens force us to see ourselves displaced, moved in space and time.
Conscious of being touched by Viola’s work, we tried to remain faithful to its structure and precision. Kevin recorded the spectators of Martyrs in slow motion (stretching and bending time), walking back and forth across the aisle as if to cross and reverse the vertical motions of Viola’s installation. We matched the running time of the original piece, and attempted to treat each martyr as both a separate entity as well as a collective set of four images. Some of the images we captured are shown backwards and forwards simultaneously, while others run parallel to each other, as we both moved parallel to each other in slow motion. Rather than comment on or try to explain the meaning of Viola’s work, “Martyrs for the Mass” tries to understand this complex set of relations between individual spectators who encounter, witness, absorb, resist or avoid images, and iconic spaces that come ready with legions of ghosts, histories, collective ideals, ideas, prayers, and dreams of touching what is beyond the screen. We recorded snatches of conversations, the audio-guide, ambient sound, including the sound of our own voices. “Martyrs for the Mass” appropriated images and sounds but it is not a copy, rather it is an experiment and contemplation of witnessing images that in turn touch us indefinitely.