“Letting Time Take Its Course” Douglas Crimp
Vera Lutter
Carré d’art - Musée d’art contemporain, Nîmes, France, 2012

One Day is the descriptive title of Vera Lutter’s first video-sound installation. But the title is more than purely descriptive. Like “once upon a time,” “One Day” is the way we often begin a story that takes place in the past: “One Day I lay in a meadow and listened to the nightingales in the nearby bushes,” or “One Day I set up my video and sound equipment and recorded nightingales.” But those expressions conjure up an image that somewhat contradicts the descriptive accuracy of “One Day” with regard to Lutter’s work, for when we hear “One Day” as an indicator of a time in the past, we generally think of daytime, not a full twenty-four-hour period. And in a work that records the sounds of nightingales, it goes without saying that nighttime is primary. The very name of the nightingale in many languages refers to the fact that this bird, unlike others, sings at night. One supposes that Lutter could have made a twelve-hour film, dusk to dawn, that would have captured the essence of the nightingale. But that would be wrong. In One Day, we hear the nightingales singing during the daytime hours too, just not as often and as intensely as at night. Nor is the intensity of their singing consistent throughout the night. They become especially noisy as dawn approaches, and in the case of One Day, even more so because nightingales sing louder than usual if they have to compete with ambient sounds in their habitat. One Day was shot in the Petite Camargue nature preserve, which is near enough to the French town of Saint-Louis that at dawn you begin also to hear the sounds of traffic (and occasionally of airplanes taking off and landing at the nearby airport serving Basel, Mulhouse, and Freiburg), and the birds have to increase their audibility to be heard above them.

One Day takes its place among other daylong video works—very recently Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), and some years earlier, Douglas Gordon’s 24-Hour Psycho (1993). But Lutter’s work differs markedly from these works of appropriation, both of which are more literally “about” time. The Clock appropriates scenes from the history of cinema (on video) in which the time of the day or night is marked by what happens in the movie clip—for example, during the morning, characters getting out of bed, eating breakfast, rushing off to work—often accompanied by images of clocks and watches that show the time, time that corresponds exactly to the time at which one is viewing the film. Time in The Clock is actual time, and yet it flies by, as thousands of movie moments come and go at a dizzying pace. 24-Hour Psycho extends time, slowing the Hitchcock feature film to stretch its duration to a full twenty-four hours. And, of course, like The Clock, the work is as much about film as it is about time, appealing to our experience as film buffs. 24-Hour Psycho depends on our recognition of a famous movie by a famous director, whose every shot has been analyzed.

One Day is about time in a very different way than these, and it is not about movies in any explicit sense. A better precedent for it would be Andy Warhol’s unrealized projects for films of twenty-four hours in the lives of Marcel Duchamp and Edie Sedgwick,1 since the full day’s cycle is essential both to Warhol’s day-in-the-life ideas (an idea also governing his tape-recording novel a, purported to be a day in the life of Warhol superstar Ondine) and to Lutter’s work. But, in fact, one of Warhol’s realized films seems still more, if differently, apropos: Empire (1964), although just over eight hours long, is, like One Day, also a static shot in which we see (at least in the former film’s first forty-minute reel) the passage of time marked by daylight’s darkening into night. Of course, there are fundamental differences. Empire is an analogue film, not a digital one; it is black-and-white, silent, and projected at a slower speed than the shooting speed. Moreover, since Empire’s subject is a building, almost nothing in it moves. One Day, too, employs a static shot for its entire twenty-four-hour duration, but since what we see (during the hours when it is light) is a landscape, there is plenty of movement, however subtle: branches sway, cloud patterns change, shadows move, birds and bugs fly about. So why do I think Empire is a better precedent? Partly because so much of Empire takes place in the darkness of night. Indeed, after the Empire State Building’s floodlights are turned off at 2 a.m., we see almost nothing in Empire; there are a few spots of light on the several buildings within the camera’s range, and there is, of course, the grain of the film. Similarly, during One Day’s nighttime hours, the image all but disappears, leaving only the sound of the nightingales. But the reason One Day most calls Empire to my mind is that the two films so fully attune us to the slowness of time’s passing. Indeed, they slow us down. Filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas wrote of Empire: “Where are you running? Away from yourself? To what excitement? If all people could sit and watch the Empire State Building for eight hours and meditate upon it, there would be no more wars, no hate, no terror—there would be happiness regained upon earth.”2 Mekas may sound like a wigged-out Pollyanna, but he does so in order to make a point. And the world has speeded up exponentially since Mekas made his hyperbolic claim after seeing Warhol’s early films. It is a cliché now to say that we are bombarded with information, especially visual information—while at the same time war, hatred, and terror are nightmarish facts of the daily information flow. Slowing down might not regain us our happiness, but it can feel restorative. It reminds us that the pace of our lives could be otherwise.

As I sat and watched portions of One Day (only portions of the as-yet unfinished work were available to me at the time of writing), I thought to myself: when was the last time you sat in a meadow and just watched the day going by? Not, I think, since my childhood in the 1950s. There was a time, later, in the early 1970s, when I spent a week alone staying in a dune shack at the seashore on Cape Cod. But even then I kept busy. I swam, read, and picked rose hips from the wild rose bushes on the dunes to make rose hip jam. But the days were long, there were no other people about, and I did spend lots of time just sitting and gazing at the sea. One Day brings that sort of trouble-free, contemplative activity to mind. In it, time drifts by; the image doesn’t change, except as a function of light—sunrise, bright daylight, increasing shadows, dusk, darkness. But these changes happen, as they do during an actual day, so slowly as to be unnoticeable moment to moment. There is a dramatic exception when the sun pokes through the bushes at daybreak and quite suddenly the image brightens intensely. There are also a few moments when the image changes abruptly as a function of the mediating camera itself, which we become aware of because of lens flares, or, most vividly and unexpectedly, when an insect lands on the lens.

How, exactly, does One Day slow us down? How do we watch it? In an art gallery or a museum, One Day will likely be seen for no longer than a few minutes by most visitors, although it is perfectly possible that a viewer/listener might become intrigued enough to spend a much longer time, even an hour or more. For its exhibition in Nîmes, Lutter plans to split the work in two and show separate segments of nighttime and daytime during the museum’s opening hours. Even with the film screened in two different galleries, though, one-third of the film will be unseeable without extended museum opening hours. It is unlikely, in any case, that anyone will watch One Day in its entirety. Some people have watched Empire for its entire eight-hour-plus duration at very rare theatrical screenings (I have). But unlike Empire, One Day is a gallery installation work. It implicitly poses the question of how much time we will spend with it. As soon as it is understood what the work is—that is, a real-time film/sound piece that records a landscape where there is an abundance of nightingales—the viewer will make a decision about watching and listening to it. Will I sit down for a while and take it in? Will I come back to it after seeing the rest of the exhibition and spend some more time with it? In the case of the Carré d’Art installation, where there will be the choice of day or night, will I choose the day, during which the image is clearly visible, or night, when the nightingales sing most frequently and loudly? Showing One Day in two separate segments doesn’t split image from sound, but, depending on the time, one will take precedence over the other.

We thus begin to discern the conceptual complexities of One Day. It is a work not so much about nightingales per se as about our how our attention to the nightingales alerts us to our tolerance of—or desire for—extended duration, our differing allegiances to daytime and nighttime, image and sound. The deck is perhaps a bit stacked in favor of sound, since the image is so static while the sound is so varying, especially at night. Putting it that way, though, tells me that I choose variability over stasis—that however much I might admire and laud One Day for slowing me down, I am still inevitably drawn to eventfulness.

What counts as an event in One Day? Most discernable changes to which we might give a name are not events but transitional periods, like dawn or dusk. An insect on the lens is an event, a chance, surprising one. A nightingale seen flying into the bushes counts as an event, one that occurs very quickly, then disappears. Do we wait for such things—things that seem momentous in the continuum of One Day? (Empire has such events, too—the moment when the Empire State Building’s floodlights come on, or the several moments when a reflection of one of the camera operators appears briefly as a result of the lights in the office from which the film was shot not being switched off before the new film magazine began rolling.)

Lutter’s works made with a camera obscura are suggestive here. One of them, made in the basement of the Nabisco box printing factory that was slated to be transformed into the Riggio Galleries of Dia:Beacon, required an exposure time of three and a half months. During that extraordinarily long time span, various events occurred. In a conversation with Peter Wollen, Lutter references Warhol’s Sleep and Empire, saying, “What goes into many frames in his film would go into one frame in my image.” There follows this exchange:

PW: It’s strange, that aspect of time. There are three variables, time, movement, and light, that have very complex and very different kinds of relationships with each other. You must know this better than I do.

VL: You explained it very well. It’s a triangle, a dynamic relationship, it’s never the same. In the basement of Dia Beacon very few things happened. A musician came every once in a while—he liked the acoustics of that place—and installed an entire band in front of my camera and played. In a way all of that is in the image, because it was there while my camera recorded, but none of it remains visible because in that case the dynamic relationship is very little light, very long exposure time and movement that needs to be incredibly slow.3

This dynamic is decisive in Lutter’s camera obscura works, and she speaks of it often, as, for example, with regard to Zeppelin, Friedrichshafen, I: August 10–13, 1999. In this case, during the four days needed for the exposure, the zeppelin was in place for two days and out for test runs for two. During the latter what was obscured by the zeppelin when it was in place became part of the image, making for something resembling a double exposure, with the zeppelin a ghost of itself and the hangar and all its accoutrements visible right “through” it. The most fascinating version of this dynamic that Lutter describes in her conversation with Wollen is about what she sees when she’s inside her studio camera while the picture emerges over time:

The fast movements don’t stay in the photograph, but I see the cars driving through the image, I see trains, boats going by, birds and airplanes flying through. It’s like watching a film, but the image is reversed, upside down, and very crisp. The larger the pinhole is, the more you see color; the smaller you go the more black-and-white the projection becomes. There’s an incredible variety of sensations; it does and does not look like the outside world that you see every day.4

One Day seems to me in part to be Lutter’s attempt to capture for her viewers something of that experience. Granted, of course, this work does look like the outside world—the does not part of her experience inside the camera obscura is missing. Or is it? Few of us actually see the sort of world shown in One Day, just as few of us spend our time looking at the world as the upside-down and reversed image of it on the wall of a camera obscura. This is what I mean by the film’s ability to slow us down. We begin here to see the world that both does and does not look like the world we’re used to. The bank of trees and bushes is familiar enough as an image of the real world. And yet, for my part, as I looked at the film, I wondered, “What is this image?” I kept trying to place it. I thought inevitably of landscape painting. German Romantic landscape? No. One Day’s landscape is neither hieratic nor sublime. Perhaps it’s more like a Barbizon School landscape. But in fact it’s probably not “like” any landscape painting. Rather my need to locate the image qua image is a question of my estrangement from landscape itself.

The “world outside” has, until One Day, consisted largely for Lutter, too, of the urban and the industrial. She began making her camera obscura photographs as a means of capturing her experience of New York’s cityscape as seen from her studio on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan’s garment district, indeed as a way of making the cityscape something seen by her studio: “I placed a pinhole on the window surface and replaced my body with a sensitive material, and that was the photographic paper. This setup was meant to record my experience, in place of myself. My intention was not to make a photograph as such but to make a conceptual piece that in its own way repeated and transformed what I had observed.”5 There soon followed opportunities to photograph New York City from vantages beyond her studio, notably one later the same year—1994—in which she was able to capture bird’s-eye views in all four cardinal directions from the office of a banking company situated near the East River in Lower Manhattan. But I think it is worth dwelling on the initial impulse to “repeat and translate” her experience of the city from her own workspace.

Trained as a sculptor in Munich, Lutter initially turned to photography as a documentary tool for her three-dimensional work. With a grant from the German government, she moved to New York and began taking photography courses at the School of Visual Arts. So photography—or at least photographic paper as a means of “repeating and translating” her experience in her studio—was obvious enough. But the first camera obscura cityscapes were the purely fortuitous remains of an experiment in turning the studio into an installation of sorts. Although the result has been a body of work consisting of a great many large-scale camera obscura photographs, that initial experiment in the studio remains central to Lutter’s practice. To this day, a portion of her studio is a camera obscura repeatedly capturing the scene out the window—not unusually for New York City in an era of rampant real estate development, a constantly changing construction site. (It is worth noting here that among Warhol’s projects for very long films was a six-month-long film called Building, which would show the destruction of an old building followed by the construction of a new one.6) More importantly, Lutter has brought back images made elsewhere only to make them the subject of new works showing them hanging inside her studio and rephotographed. These studio photographs, which turn the negative images of her camera obscura photographs positive, test the viewer’s perceptual acumen, insofar as portions of them reverse light and dark, while other portions restore the “proper” relations of positive and negative. This is, of course, especially the case where the “original” work (the one made outside the studio) is a picture of an interior space, such as those she made in the former Nabisco box printing factory as the result of a commission from the Dia Art Foundation. For example, in Inside Looking In, Studio VII: August 15–September 12, 2003 and Studio X: January 9–February 18, 2004, we see the mushroom columns of the factory’s basement restored to their “proper” relation of dark-painted base to light upper section while at the same time seeing the radiator and window frame of Lutter’s studio reversed light and dark. And yet everything in the works is equally image-like. The space of the rephotographed interior looks no more or less real than the space of the studio interior in which the photograph hangs. These effects are more perplexing still in the first of the large-scale rephotographed photographs Lutter made, those shot not in her own studio but in the interior of the abandoned Pepsi-Cola plant in Long Island City. In this case, the space in which the photographs are reshot is the same as the one where they were originally taken. The perceptual puzzles of these works are made all the more dizzying by the fact that, in the case, for example, of Pepsi Cola Interior, XV: August 5–16, 2001, we see the same objects in both the rephotographed photograph and the space in which it hangs, or, in the case of Pepsi-Cola Interior, XXIII: July 1–31, 2003, two photographs showing the same part of the interior but taken from different angles and different distances hang side by side.

Lutter has spoken of her work with the camera obscura as choreography: “Since many different mediums lend their qualities to my work, I feel more like a choreographer who is trying to coax this magnitude of aspects into a successful performance.”7 Because ballet is an interest that Lutter and I share—indeed, we often go to the ballet together—I am intrigued by her use of the term “choreography.” In speaking of wanting to translate her experience, to record her experience in place of herself, to replace her body, Lutter makes it clear that her work is the outcome of her self-removal. She choreographs the elements that constitute her work, after which the process takes its own course. The first text I wrote about photography takes a similar position with regard to the removal of the photographer-subject in deference to photography’s own prerogatives. The text, written for a special issue on photography of the journal October in 1978, was about Edgar Degas’s photographs. I was interested especially in a series of photographs that Degas made of ballerinas in which they are, as I wrote, “suspended . . . between appearance and disappearance, between negative and positive.”8 These photographs were the result of the so-called Sabatier-effect, a form of solarization in which extraneous light is admitted partway through the process of development of the photographic negative, which causes partial reversals of light and dark. Here is a fuller portion of what I wrote about them:

The oscillation between light and dark, between positive and negative, operates not only from one print to another [Degas printed “positive” and “negative” versions of the same photograph]; it operates, as well, within each single photograph. In the print in which the right arm and torso of the dancer appear to be normally positive, the shadow on the wall she grasps appears as a streak of light. Her face, also apparently in shadow, and her “dark” hair are registered as light. At this point, obviously, language begins to fail. How can we any longer speak of light and dark? How can we speak of a white shadow? a dark highlight? a translucent shoulder blade? When light and dark, transparency and opacity, are reversed, when negative becomes positive and positive negative, the referents of our descriptive language are dissolved. We are left with a language germane only to the photographic, in which the manipulation of light generates its own, exclusive logic.9

I attempted in this text to link Degas to Mallarmé, who theorized the author’s self-effacement in the creation of his work: “The poet disappears (this is without doubt the great discovery of modern poetry) and the verse itself projects its own passions through its leaps and bounds; its ecstasy lives alone through its own rhythms; and so the verse is born, rather than being imposed or brutally thrust upon us by the writer.”10 I wrote my essay at the moment when I began to take up poststructuralist theory in the theorization of postmodernism, with its questioning of traditional notions of authorship. Photography was to play an especially important role for me in my account of postmodernism, although here, of course, the self-effacing authors I discuss are associated with the Symbolist roots of modernism, not postmodernism. What mattered for Mallarmé—and, by extension, Degas—were the characteristics of the medium itself. For Lutter, by contrast, it is not the medium as such, but a series of mediums and processes that she “choreographs” in order to constitute the image.

Lutter chooses a subject. She constructs a camera (or locates a room that can be turned into a camera). She makes tests to determine the amount of time necessary for the inscription of an image. In some instances, where that time is relatively short, she inhabits the camera to watch the process of image formation and dodge the amount of light hitting various portions of the photosensitive paper in order to affect the results. But for all that, the final work is something that results from her relinquishing control. What happens in the world outside her camera simply happens—and produces its effects. Thus, to take a few examples, the water in Erie Basin, Red Hook, I: July 25, 2003 registers as something hazy, something that looks more like a foggy sky than a body of water. The reflection of a large industrial structure in the water is especially blurry, as the reflection changes with the water’s movement over the course of the photograph’s making. In Corte Barozzi, Venice, XXVIII, December 9, 2005, the gondolas in the foreground are less distinct than the pilings to which they are moored and less distinct still than the picture’s subject, Santa Maria della Salute, presumably because they are constantly moving in the canal’s currents. These are aspects of her works over which Lutter has little control, or better, over which she intentionally cedes control—because the magic of the work is what the world on the other side of the pinhole determines willy-nilly. In this way, it seems to me, she has succeeded in “repeating and translating” that early experience in the Eighth Avenue studio. A ballet choreographer achieves something rather similar. He (usually it’s a he) devises the steps, teaches them to his dancers, makes adjustments in their execution during rehearsals, and so forth; but, in the end, the magic of the work depends on how the dancer dances, and every time it is danced the work is different. The greatest ballet choreographer of the twentieth century, George Balanchine, whose work Lutter and I have often watched being performed, generally asked his dancers not to convey a character but simply to dance the steps. He wished to see what sort of thing his choreography would become when given to the dancers. In the best instances, they surprised and delighted him.

One Day’s choreography is exacting to a degree. Certainly Lutter chose carefully the particular view of the landscape her camera would capture. But from there on in, it was up to the nightingales—and, one must add, to the morning traffic in Saint-Louis and the planes coming and going at the nearby airport. Of course, all of this is theoretical. Lutter is a meticulous artist. The sound of One Day has been digitally cleaned to achieve maximum clarity and audibility of the nightingales. Yet the sound of the planes is there, too. Although I don’t imagine Lutter intended to have the sound of air traffic intrude on her “picture” of nightingales when she embarked on the task of recording them, it is entirely appropriate that it should have, and that it remains there for us to hear. How often is it that in the most remote places, amidst a sense of tranquility and timelessness, we hear the distant sound of an airplane or see its tracery across the sky?

For so many of her camera obscura works Lutter took industrial transport as her subject: harbors and ships, airports and planes. From the early views of New York’s East River, where we see in East View, Old Slip, New York: April 29, 1995 the piers of the former South Street seaport and the Brooklyn Naval Yard, to the pictures taken from a clock tower on the other side of the river and shown as the installation Folding Four in One (2009), in which we see the great bridges that carry traffic from one borough of the city to another; from the wharfs of Papenburg, Warnermünde, and Rostock to the Frankfurt Airport and the Friedrichshafen zeppelin hangar, this has been a consistent preoccupation (and habitat/apparatus, too: many of Lutter’s cameras have been refashioned shipping containers). One might even add to these sites the great seafaring and trading city of Venice. Looming in the foregrounds of, for example, Ca del Duca Sforza, Venice, II: February 28, 2006; Corte Barozzi, Venice, XV: March 9, 2006; and Palazzo Papadopoli, Venice, XXII: March 17, 2006 are pilings, docks, and a great variety of water transport vehicles. The great palaces and churches of Venice lie frozen behind them, while the boats’ gentle swaying makes the pictures vibrate in a blur that suggests transient, mysterious, unpredictable life. Such life is present in One Day in the form—and especially the song—of nightingales. But the occasional distant roar of an airplane or the hum of automobile traffic brings us back from the tranquility and timelessness of the meadow to our present time and place, even as One Day’s achievement is to provide us an image and a song of respite.

Notes

  • 1 Callie Angell mentions both of these unrealized projects in her discussion of Warhol’s interest in duration in The Films of Andy Warhol: Part II (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994), p. 15.
  • 2 Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal (New York: MacMillan, 1972), p. 40.
  • 3 Peter Wollen, “Vera Lutter,” Bomb 85 (Fall 2003): p. 53.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 51.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 48.
  • 6 See Angell, The Films of Andy Warhol, p. 15.
  • 7 Vera Lutter, Adam Budak, “Conversation: Collapsed Space,” in Vera Lutter: Inside In (Graz and Cologne: Kunsthaus Graz and Walter König, 2004), p. 47.
  • 8 Douglas Crimp, “Positive/Negative: A Note on Degas’s Photographs,” October 5 (Summer 1978): p. 98.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 99.
  • 10 Stéphane Mallarmé, letter to Emile Verhaeren, January 22, 1888, in idem, Selected Prose Poems, Essays, and Letters, trans. Branford Cook (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1956), p. 101.