Frame-line to On-line: Freezing the Medial Slipstream

Curator's Note

Reversing the focus of this week’s forum about on-line viewing (but with a complementary perspective from the other side of the same coin), I look away from the plugged-in or remote-access monitor to the interrupted linearity of the moving image captured by the literally arresting work of French “cinephotographer” Eric Rondepierre—and then from his practice to a conceptualist counterpart (another two-sided coin) in the “photopainting” of American artist Matt Saunders. It is in fact the former’s long view of the moved, rather than just the moving, image that takes us back from immersive duration to the intermittent linear collage (before projected screen montage) on the segmented strip of the original “film” medium: its frame-lines partitioning one photogram transparency from the next. But the wide historical swath of Rondepierre’s work also points us forward, across several stages of media history, to the photographically petrified digital glitches of on-line streaming. Moreover, as an increasingly prolific avant-garde novelist as well, Rondepierre is ultimately an optic textualist, a reader of the visual—and its own frequent tension with pictured script.

In its unique contribution to photography as Conceptual art, Rondepierre’s is a quintessentially “research-based” practice in which he combs the media archive for certain defining vulnerabilities of the filmic support in screen viewing: flaws in succession that reveal, by default, the law of flow. These are fissured or defaced images that, in their deviance and exception, prove the rule of masked intermittence in everything from sprocket advance to scanned and streamed bitmap arrays. Where film and literary critic D.A. Miller delimits a habit, if not a method, of “too-close reading” in the tally (rather than taxonomy) of continuity errors in Hidden Hitchcock (2017), Rondepierre’s mode of “too-close viewing” depends on slowing down film and its video transfers to the minutely calibrated frames of their own lockstep temporality in projection: no longer an act of viewing at all, really, but a segmental ungluing of the photogram queue. The result is an uncompromising look at the illusory persistence generated by what is hidden beneath “motion pictures” (as pictured motion): namely, the requisite mechanics for moving-pictures-along. In contrast to Miller, and one level down in the medial constitution of screen imaging, Rondepierre’s interest lies in what we might call continuum errors.

In an appreciation of his genius by film theorist Phillipe Dubois, the artist is celebrated for probing in this way the “photo/film” matrix, with Dubois’s calculated slash hinting at a forward specular vector as well as a hovering “neither/nor.” The artist’s secondary photography of the photogram is understood as “excavating” what there is to see, as Dubois puts it, when one is in fact “not seeing the film”).[i] Or put it that Rondepierre’s photo/grammatology of difference “sees” only film per se, never the film. This is a scalar constraint extended over the whole course of his stop-time work, in everything from the palpably decaying nitrate frames of early cinema stock (aging as substance in a flow of time, not its own as representation) to the disembodied flux—including pixel breakup—in the occasionally (but symptomatically) splintered Net flux of remote digital access. In this way Rondepierre’s evolving focus aligns revealingly with the sequence of my own image writing: from a subtitled “photo synthesis” in the sped track and thrown light operating Between Film and Screen (1999) to the Framed Time (2007) reconfigured in the shift from celluloid to digital projection, including the eventual understanding of each under the sign of “apparatus reading” (as distinct from “apparatus theory”) in Cinemachines (2020)—while, in the meantime, certain curated works of kinetic imaging have been relocated from movie house to museum in the prevalent Cinesthesia (2020) of time-based gallery display.

From a novelist with an early and telltale thematic penchant for fiction about film, the textualist emphasis in Rondepierre’s image work reaches a salient point in the “Loupe/Dormeurs” series (1999-2003). These photo-composites typically contain three or four filmstrip frames held up in front of an out-of-focus human image further hazed, in transparent palimpsest, by the microscopic overlay of his entire novel (Dormeurs)—so that the striations of the latter’s illegible print rows may seem to conjure the corrugated blur of a video monitor in closeup. Call it a pentimento of mediation writ small, from reduced script to optic strip—with photography holding down a tacit middle ground. In other typifying work, two polar ventures in denaturalizing the image, cataloged on Rondepierre’s superb website, can illustrate at least one long arc in the spectrum of his experiments. Working with archival film strips and a pair of scissors in his Diptika project (1998), he bisects adjacent photograms and enlarges what’s left in a resulting caesura of cognitive mismatch across the frame-line—so that the viewer must reconstruct the coherent image like a puzzle, as, for instance, with the severed face in Le Cri (Fig 1 in the attached media component [Le Cri (1998-2000)], from near the end of the celluloid century). Interceding in the normally unseen filing-by of succession, we appear instead to be staring at some radical jump-cut on the edited spool.

Whereas subsequent work by Rondepierre hews more closely to the medial base in operation—the strip in manifestation as screen track, in its own latent discrepancies and elided jam-ups—his slicing vandalism of the photogram in the diptych series does look forward to a later dis/integration of the image (and this regarding more than just his choice of female closeups resistant to feminist narratology’s visual pleasure). In the voice of song rather than scream, though you’d only know that from context, see the mangled screen-grab titled Veronique (2017, from Kieślowski’s The Double Life thereof), part of Rondepierre’s F.I.G. suite (rebus pun for “Effigy”) in his “Digital Subscriber Line” series (Fig 2 in the attached media component [Veronique (2017)]): dialectical antithesis to the on-line clips inserted by other writers in the present dossier on streaming. In fact, all but presciently absorbed into the pixel spasm of this neo-gothic glitch is the further turn in media history by which, several years along in the proliferation of computer affordances, Veronique’s unnerving splayed optic bears some resemblance to the thumbnails of the AI-generated frontispiece—searched, we’re told, under “Contemporary Streaming Style”—for the first week in this journal’s current series. It is as if the deforming torque of such contingent pixel splutter has become by now part of a branded image repertoire of warped figuration and its associated digital “typefaces.”

Rondepierre’s abiding interest in optic risk goes back, it is worth stressing, well before digital “interference,” to his “Moires” series (1996-1998) of found nitrate corrosion—time’s graduated work even on the stopped image. In that phase of his research, the effects are developed further, under his recognizable textualist impulse, in found silent film intertitles (the suite of “Cartons” under the general website category of “Decompositions”). These are the original narrative aids whose decorative lettering can appear, in decay, smeared and speckled like a neglected manuscript—but whose puckered welts can also sometimes extrude an accidental image from the worn-away wording, here (Fig 3 in the attached media component [“Cartons,” 1993-95]) as if a twisted-mouth phantom were spewing the words themselves: a rorschach blot of lost enunciation “personified.”

Yet again in Rondepierre’s work: an equivocated axis between viewing and reading—including, most broadly, a reading of motion from its aggregated fragments. Given his usual decoupling of the single photogram from its kinetic retention and protension, the closest his art comes to a normative decoupage in reconstructing a strip’s time-based narrative sequence derives from these very ravages of time in image decay. Such blotched modules of narrative advance can in one case seem routed partway toward processual sequence when thirty corroded photograms of a single filmed embrace, extracted from a thousand-frame sequence in the vaults of the Bologna Film Library, are designed to be exhibited not just separately, but en bloc, under the slant-rhymed title Les Trente étreintes (1997-1999). Media history once again under differential inspection and, in this case, flagged as an almost alphabetic parable of subsumed multiplicity—since, as this assemblage suggests, every big screen clinch is a clutch of many little ones squeezing together on the minimally shifting strip.

But wording, as we know, is regularly destined to invade Rondepierre’s images rather than just orienting them by title. Certainly this is the case in his recovery of disoriented, snagged subtitling (the suite called “Excedents” [1989-1993])—and especially in his fascination with the deliberate full-frame overlay of textual hype upon sampled scenes in old-fashioned, rhetoric-heavy movie trailers. If his scissored vertical bifurcations confounded ready viewing in the Dyptika series by resembling baffling jump-cuts, this more characteristic work in the found art of optical anomalies installs what amounts to the freeze frame of the phi phenomenon itself, persistence of vision stopped momentarily dead in its track(s). Working mostly with pause-button grabs from a video monitor, though sometimes with the original plastic strip, his “Annonces” series (“Trailers” or “Previews”) captures a certain formative photogrammatic frame just where promotional wording has only abruptly begun to take resolved form, still illegible in microsecond transition between tantalizing background samples of the advertised mise en scene. In the remarkable “Peinture” variant of this series, such photos of arrested evanescence, of text in transit, are then projected in the manner of photorealism, painted at enlarged scale, and finally, just before the brushwork and its backing are destroyed, captured in a return to photography: a snapshot of the clotted transmedial gap between image and wording. Here one’s own “conceptual research” is invited, at least in my case, by sending curiosity back to the (yes) on-line trailer. For in one such image (Fig 4 in the attached media component [“Annonces Peintures”: The Show Boat, 1992]), it turns out that the three golden blobs mark a tardy transition between the promise of “the biggest musical MGM ever made” (the 1951 Show Boat) and the pitch’s tautological punch line about it being therefore “the biggest musical you’ve ever seen.” Rondepierre has landed on the larval moment when the still unshaped transitional text appears graphically tongue-tied in its three-tiered smudge. The result, one finds, is that the irrefutable consequence marked by “AND THAT MEANS” (MGM=biggest by definition) stands exposed, in a nice incidental irony, as having no meaning at all yet in the unreeling filmic chain. As everywhere in this series, the materialized text of the trailer is caught trailing behind the hype it would “announce.”

And it is here that the deep metamedial engagement of Rondepierre’s work with the photogrammar of the screen image, over against his later “subscriber-line” ironies of remote reception, looks all the more intriguing when brought into comparison with the strictly artifactual making of the other contemporary artist I’m singling out. Everywhere in painter Matt Saunders’ exacting film-based facture, the effects are steeped in resistance to unfiltered uptake and instant gratification, forcing upon rumination a sense of making’s labored duration. True to the transmedial role of his joint institutional appointments as Professor of Art, Film, and Visual Studies at Harvard, such is the conjuncture of craft and analysis in Saunders’ conceptualist executions. Early in his career, Saunders turned Polaroid shots of Andy Warhol videos into serial pencil drawings narrowly staggered to capture the roughly 24 frame-per-second, several times over, of a single closeup. Saunders’ metafilmic draughtsmanship has since evolved a method even more intimately engaged with the material basis of image history, working with enigmatic and painstaking (momentary typo: “paintstaking”) medial finesse from single film frames through canvas (rather than screen) mediation, back to the pre-mechanical index of the light-seared Victorian “photogram,” then forward again (at times) to the moving image: a process whose layered complexity, in one work after another, is impossible to parse with isolated illustrations—though is fortunately detailed in his own illuminating public commentary (again, yes, in streaming video).[ii]

In his most ambitious recent projects, Saunders paints the imagined negative of a single movie frame onto thin linen, and then passes high-intensity light through it to produce a low-resolution color imprint on emulsified paper (the pre-mechanical light-writing of Fox Talbot’s “pencil of nature”), thus backing up cinema one notch further beyond photo-mechanics toward its own historical and technical base in the single rectangular index. After this assiduous “negative” mediation—including the vanished canvas source (as in Rondepierre’s repainted “preview” clips in their posthumous survival of the discarded pigment interface), sometimes Saunders goes so far as to turn these literally fabricated (canvas-sourced) freeze frames into photograms (the other, filmic sense), increments of a new film strip for gallery projection. Elsewhere, and in another oblique convergence with Rondepierre’s found damage in the nitrate archive, Saunders, reversing direction across the evolution of media from painting to automatic imprint, makes his latest layered move. Having once cast aside the obverse chromatics of his painted linen scrim—a mere catalyst in the optical chain reaction it precipitates (though with the loose edges of its interface sometimes visible around the edges of the resulting photograph)—he now returns pigmentation to his resultant light-seared, non-mechanical photograms. He does so by overpainting their cinema-sourced surfaces in discrete zones of abstract color: streaks and stains that recall the invasive, often weirdly lovely decay of found frames in Rondepierre—long before the latter’s turn, that is, to pixel flashpoints in the disturbed sluice of on-line streaming. So it is that, in calling his latest series “The Distances” (2021—), Saunders may seem to evoke and rechart the always receding horizon of media evolution from paint through photo-trace to film—and beyond.

And that “beyond” is Rondepierre’s most recent reach—in his interceptions of the on-line stream. On this score we cut to the quick of his signal (pun permitted) pertinence for this topical issue of In Media Res: namely, the phenomenology of elective immediacy in remote internet upload—and uptake. But we do so only in view of the previous dispensations of photographic celluloid and analog video that his work has persistently unsettled. Suddenly in his snared digital rarities, his catches—via forcings—of the webstream’s random glitches, as before in his photogram work with the imposition of text in arrested serial consolidation, we are faced, in high-definition gallery prints, with the radically dematerialized matter of computer picturing. Whereas, previously, his own camera foregrounded under enlargement what one might term the split seams of filmic succession, more recently his computer screen-shots offer the un-streaming of “subscribed” optic inscription, algorithmic rather than alphabetic. Across the whole technological scope of his aesthetic, Rondepierre’s commitment has been to manifest by anomaly and default the made beneath the given—and lately, that is, the ingredient pixel grid exposed at base only when blasted open into disintegrated visual grit and chromatic smear.

Here then, with the canny craft of Rondepierre and Saunders, each resisting the restless “on-demand” of commercial streaming under analysis by this dossier’s present rubric, are two artists worth special contemplation—by the readers/viewers of In Media Res—for precisely the way these photofilmic painters, one using pigment only in passing, one as the anchor of his processual art, return recognition quite pointedly to the proverbial in medias res. They do so in the form of our redirected gaze at one middle space at a time: the leveraged intervals of machinated continuity brought to light now by secondary photographic capture, now by canvas-mediated reconstitution. For such, within my sense of “cinemachination,” are the overridden gaps between flickering serial glimpses (Rondepierre) and, behind that, between screen image and the originally seared trace of indexical imprint (Saunders). The former gaps are mechanically elided and disavowed, sublimated, until an interception of the strip can find them thrown into relief against flux—bringing programmatically to light the founding fixtures of the kinetic image. This interstitial aesthetic ranges in the case of Rondepierre from the smudge of not-yet-resolved verbal text, in overlay upon photo-mechanical image sequence, to the pixel interference of an on-line algorhythmic optic and its aleatory punctu(r)ation. In Saunders, this picturing of mediality reaches back, in the layered displacements of internal (aesthetic) distance, from paint’s replay of an eclipsing visual technology to the prehistory of mechanical image capture. In the spooky beauty of the results for each artist, the often gorgeous disfeaturings transacted in the image serve to spotlight for us—in the matter (dematerialized) of remote viewing, certainly—the strictly figurative status not just of the vestigial “on-line” but of “streaming” as well, neither term more than a metaphor for algorithmic reconstitution in the electron current of aerial signal transmission. Casting back to previous technical dispensations of the moving image, both Rondepierre and Saunders are out to staunch the supposed flow in order to ruminate on its composition. By two related kinds of “negative” screen imagining—one artist canceling time-based propulsion by dissection, the other starting from archaeological scratch in reinventing the mechanical index from the inverted canvas stroke—their works achieve a comparably deep feat in the uncanny photography of mediation itself.


[i] Along with film-philosopher Jacques Rancière’s similar stress, in a catalog essay on Rondepierre under the title “What the Eyes Have Never Seen,” Dubois’s remarks can be found, unpaginated, on the artist’s website under “Works”/“Texts Published” “About”:

[ii] See Saunders’ 2020 lecture at the University of Buffalo:

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