Monday, April 16, 2012

David Bellingham | The Sound of A Silent Film

I’m increasingly drawn to artworks about cinema, and in particular works which foreground the soundtrack, or divorce it entirely from the image. In 1979 Louise Lawler screened the 1951 John Houston film The Misfits at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. She played only the audio portion of the film, leaving the screen blank for the duration. The work is titled A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture.

Christian Marclay’s Up and Out (1998) takes Antonioni’s 1966 film about a photographer who witnesses a murder and unwittingly captures it on film and couples it with Brian De Palma’s 1981 remake. Blow Out transposes the occupation from photographer to folio artist, and therefore from image to sound. Discovering that their running times differ only by two minutes, Marclay combined the soundtrack from Blow Out with the image from Blow Up. The edit is child’s play compared to the intricate mash-up video work that Marclay followed it with, but it remains one of his most conceptually solid video works.

Filmmaker Derek Jarman’s final film, released four months before his death, and made while complications from AIDS rendered him partially blind, consisted of a 79 minute single shot of saturated blue, with a full soundtrack. Rather than designing a work for radio, Jarman pointedly produced a film that privileges sound over image.

The cinema theatre experience is fairly central to the above works; seated strangers sharing something in the dark. More portable projects include Douglas Gordon’s bookwork Feature Film and Jack Goldstein’s influential A Suite of Nine 7-inch Records. The former consists of photographs of the conductor’s hands as he leads the unseen orchestra through Bernard Hermann’s score to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which is played in full on the accompanying CD. Goldstein’s records, from 1976, feature isolated single sound effects, intended for use in film production, produced as coloured vinyl 7 inch 45 rpm singles, the colours corresponding to the sounds.

David Bellingham’s The Sound of a Silent Film, which arrived in the mail the other day, is a 7” inch record documenting the playback sound of a silent movie. In place of the film’s ‘soundtrack’ we hear the mechanism of the projector.

Beyond re-illustrating the Cagean idea of silence as an abstract notion that is never really fully attainable, the strength of the piece lies in the conflation of the two antiquated playback devices. The home projector was less ubiquitous than the family turntable, but memories of the machine are no less evocative. Much the way the record crackle on a looped drum sample gives it a history and a presence, the unmistakable sound of celluloid traveling through the projector’s gate creates a distinct ambience, and is capable of triggering strong memories. The Flaming Lips employ it as both a rhythm track and an atmospheric emotional centre for their 1995 song The Abandoned Hospital Ship.

The design of Bellingham’s disc draws parallels between the two formats, with the sleeve designed to mimic the Super8 box and the disc’s label graphic connects the spinning of both. If the physicality of the phonograph helps place sound in time and space, the projector reels offers their own potential metaphors: the future thins out as the past piles up.

The Sound of a Silent Film is available in an edition of 350, available for £10 inc tax, here and here.

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