A Taste for Cinema: Chemoreception and Media

Curator's Note

In keeping with the “Liquidity” theme of the conference, my presentation at Rendering (the) Visible III considered cinematic spectatorship in terms of direct chemoreception, or the sensory relationship between an organism and the chemicals with which it comes into contact. At a cellular scale, direct chemoreception can be observed in chemotaxis, or the movement of cells (including both single-celled organisms and cells within more complex organisms) in response to the chemical gradients of solutions in which they are suspended. In human sensory perception, direct chemoreception is most associated with taste, or the gustatory sense. The 1901 film The Big Swallow, directed James Williamson, is often cited as an early confrontation between audience and character, between actor and camera, and between diegetic space and exhibition space. In my talk, I argued that it is also a representation of a gustatory relationship to media, one in which a man (played by stage actor Sam Dalton) recognizes a threat in the mechanical gaze of the camera and responds via a primordial gesture that incorporates (a) the reciprocal threat of obliterating the film apparatus, and the cinematic image, by consuming it; (b) the presentation of the inside of his mouth as a form of agonistic display; and (c) an act of direct chemoreception in which he tastes the camera and thereby subverts the power of its vision. In the act of mouthing the camera, the man reasserts the liquidity of the relationship between media technologies and bodies, both onscreen and off.

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