La Jetée’s Spiral

By Benedict Seymour, 5 January 2012
Image: Still from Rosa Barba's A Private Tableaux , 2010

The image's mediation of the past is far from nostalgically comforting, writes Benedict Seymour in his review of Les Marques Aveugles at the Centre d'Art Contemporain in Geneva. If the visual returns of the show prove that modernist film tropes still have life in them, they nevertheless also evoke the painful loops of post-Fordist restructuring and its futureless futures


To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was' (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain the image of the past which unexpectedly appears to a man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes.

- Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History'


 In a week in which the speed of light was wobbling and the Euro along with it, I visited a show in Geneva - capital of banks, clocks, and nuclear physics. Les Marques Aveugle at the Centre d'Art Contemporain pivoted on forms of what Freud called ‘Nachträglichkeit' (deferred or retroactive action), and explored the temporality of traumatism as played out in images conceived as ‘marks' and traces. Many of the 17, mostly contemporary, works in the show featured narratives in which cause and effect are reversed, image and sound diverge, run out of sequence or are superimposed. In Les Marques Aveugles (Blind Marks) - as in the now notorious neutrino jokes virally replicating across the internet (‘Who's there?' ‘Neutrino'. ‘Knock knock.') - the premise and the punchline often change places, and time is tied in more or less elegant, but generally thought provoking, knots.


Around the potentially over-familiar lodestars of Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962) and Hollis Frampton's wonderful Nostalgia (1971), several contemporary works of interest were constellated. The curators, Katya García-Antón and Emilie Bujès', conception of the image as a ‘blind mark' derives directly from the premise of Marker's film:


‘La Jetée' (‘The Jetty', 1962) opens with a still image of Orly airport, followed by this sentence, almost as seminal as Chris Marker's film itself: ‘This is the story of a man, marked by an image from his childhood'.


Here it is the hold the image has over the protagonist that makes his time-travel possible, the condition both of his love, and his doom. This narrative device enables a refunctioning of the image archive inherited from the trauma of World War II and, in the process, sees the invention of what will become the most exciting sci-fi film tropes of neoliberal cinema. Frampton's film represents its own kind of reworking of the (personal) archive, with its own pattern of superimposition and retroactive action.


Marker and Frampton's films were not necessarily direct influences on the more recent film works in the show, but as the curator's statement makes clear, they did provide ‘a point of departure' for the show's research into the image as ‘mark' or, indeed, marker. The idea that historical events are the Real of artistic production (and reproduction) was very present, even as most of the works simultaneously emphasised their fictive or ‘performative' aspects. This was not a merely formal or psychological engagement with the image as a mark that marks those who mark it. The social, political and economic stakes of the image market - of the circulation of images - were at issue, too.


Particularly interesting in this light was Wendelien van Oldenborgh's slideshow/sound piece Après la reprise, la prise (2009). The artist arranged for two women, ex-workers and strikers at a Belgian jeans factory now working as actresses, to visit a class of secondary school pupils. This 15-minute work was assembled from the artist's documentation of the encounter. Sharing their experiences of Fordist and post-Fordist work and struggle with the younger generation, the piece reminded me of Paolo Virno's notion of virtuosic labour and ‘communicative capitalism': the women workers whose words and images constitute much of the artwork literally went from silent stitchers in the jeans factory to vocal (if intermittent) actors on the stage via the medium of the strike and its very articulate political speech/action. From secure muteness to a life of precarious volubility, their trajectory could be read as exemplifying a wider social movement or restructuring. The form of the artwork emphasised this thesis, presenting a contrast of overlapping and articulate voices, luminous and sometimes layered images. During the course of the slideshow, we discover that the recently closed down sewing area of the school in which this inter-generational exchange took place had exactly the same model of sewing machine the women used to use in the now closed down Levi's factory. One emptied workshop stood in for another, a kind of accidental reconstruction of the space in which the women went from workers to strikers to actors of a different kind. Here trauma was present as that which returns, not to mention as the ongoing shock of closures and foreclosures.


The image both testified to this and, through the disjunct relation to the soundtrack, posed the question of articulation in its own form. The combination of discrete and flowing slide images projected on the wall - La Jetée style fragments from an absent continuum - and a sound track woven of voices, combined different styles of articulacy from the two generations of post-workers. The ex-strikers' were distinct and clear, the teenagers an ebullient babble itself framed by one of the two actresses' injunction, ‘you have to articulate.' The viewer/listener was invited to do the same, to reconcile the images with the soundtrack's flow of words as parallel but distinct sequences of doubling and mirroring which ran through from singing off-screen at the beginning to comments on the actresses' current condition as 'intermittents du spectacles' performing precarious labour at the end: ‘We're not Sophie Marceau.' ‘Then again she hasn't done much lately.' 'She's wealthy enough she doesn't have to'. The loop structure of the work was more than a mere convenience here, implying both the persistence of alienation in work, old and new, and possibilities of inter-generational solidarity for les enfants de Levi's et Michael Jackson.


Image: Still from Chris Marker's, La Jetée, 1962

The title of the piece - Après la reprise, la prise - alludes to Jacques Willemont's famous document of 1968 ‘La reprise du travail aux usines Wonder' (‘The Return to Work at the Wonder Factory'). 'Reprise' means both 'return to work' and 'retake' as in the cinematic take, so one might translate the title as ‘After the retake, the take'. Among other things this refers to the history of artists taking up the Willemont film again (Reprise by Hervé le Roux, 1995), but also obviously the sense in which work becomes a kind of re-make of work. Further the title intimates a reversal of temporal sequence that resonates with others in the exhibition. As the artist explained in an email: ‘My take was to do something which is a "take" again, something in the present, referring to the present... but it comes after the retake.' As a work on work it presented its disjunctions intact for the viewer to work through (Nachträglichkeit as dreamwork, the delayed processing of events?) rather than as a spectacle of far-off activity. As such it spoke to our present conjuncture and invited reflection on the necessity (and forms) of communication between generations, and between workers and non-workers, in the present. If an increasing number of us are now beyond the return to work and indeed work itself, what new forms of speech and action are necessary (and not just for survival)? As one of the women (ex-)workers says, ‘I gave my presentation and they understood', but clearly her mode of address, as actress and striker, was quite different from the everyone-speaking-at-once of the youth. What dialectical or disjunctive synthesis is possible in this meeting of voices and images?


The pensions strike in the UK last November raised similar questions of articulation and resistance, precipitating both solidarities and tensions between generations. Questions of striking, marking and indeed trauma, are not going away in the current showdown between capital and post/workers. Is a one-day strike any more than a striking image? Is a purely symbolic strike effective? Will something ‘real' build out of such gestures? And what effect would an escalation from symbolic action into real shows of force have on proletarians who do not conceive themselves as workers? Here again the striking image, the clear alignment of voice and action or us against them was complicated, requiring further work (within, against, or without, work).


Advancing the curator's research into images as marks without losing its own distinctive voice was Rosa Barba's film A Private Tableaux (2010). It treats the hermetic and hieratic marks left by road engineers on the ceiling of subterranean service tunnels as traces of a vanished civilisation, a Lascaux cave of the modern era. Poetically precise and economical in 'reading' the signs by means of textual inter-titles, functional marks are revealed by torch-light to a shaky handheld camera and reinscribed: the dreaming of a lost civilisation, a diagram of an alien cosmology. Barba manages to avoid whimsy, instead suggesting the mythical qualities of scientific knowledge itself. Like La Jetée, this is a trip into our own antiquity, an archaeology of the present. As such it was a useful corrective to the visitor centre at the nearby CERN institute of nuclear physics which I visited during my time in Geneva. Such absence of poetry at the epicentre of global research into the neutrino was striking in another way. While engaged in undermining the fundamentals of modern science, CERN shrouds itself in an aesthetic straight out of the '80s ‘Innovations' catalogue, with a dash of ‘Terminator 2' for the entrance foyer. Perhaps Barba's film is the last (displaced) redoubt of ‘the wonders of micro-physics' such outreach projects strain but fail to convey. A Private Tableaux recognisably follows in Marker's footsteps, forced to leave the high road of advanced science to find more suggestive material in the unconscious of the engineers' mundane underworlds. No neutrino will be shot through these service corridors to outrace light in pitch darkness, but they have the feeling of Egyptian tombs, of codes and secrets to be deciphered. Barba's camera catches the auratic afterglow of a purely practical activity, the antithesis of Herzog's recent 3D Cave of Forgotten Dreams which made the sublime ridiculous with sonic and visual supplements, selling its ancient sources short. As opposed to stereo-optic enhancement and deflation of the ancient marks, a spiral of specular bubble and bust, here the flatness of the sign opened up a (semantically and acoustically) resonant space of much greater depth and suggestiveness.


This trip into the underworld was also a journey across time. Watching it returned me to Marker's piece with fresh eyes. La Jetée, video projected from 35mm but itself originally a 16mm production, seemed an even more deft and beautiful reframing of the traumatic past. Here it is World War II that provides much of the visual material for projection of a post-apocalyptic future, though it is clearly also mediating the Cold War moment in which it was made. The story's central convolution involves scientists sending the captive protagonist back to a period before the World War and then forward into a technologised future (‘Paris reconstructed. 2,000 incomprehensible streets') in an attempt to save humanity - or at least ‘human industry'. Famously it is because the hero remains obsessed by ‘an image from his childhood' that his captors are able to target him at a particular moment in his life with the precision of nuclear physicists aiming a neutrino. In the process however they unleash a destiny at once anticipated and obscured by its own image. The protagonist meets and falls in love with the woman of his childhood memory, an ante-bellum idyll, but then is parted from her as the scientists send him into the far future to bring back the energy packs needed to regenerate society. On return to the present, attempting to escape execution by his captors, he asks the people of the future to send him back into the past so he can rejoin the woman he loves. He finds her but is followed and killed by one of the captors, realising at the last moment that he has become the object of his own childhood gaze. The image which ‘marked' him for life will have been that of his own death. The protagonist follows his fixation on an image to the point of incarnation, fulfilling it as a destiny by entering it, becoming simultaneously subject and object at the point of annihilation. The image here is not merely representational or descriptive but performative, it casts a spell, and unravels into love story and death sentence. La Jetée is a (modern) tragedy, in which narrative is predestination, action self-erasure, and the choice of humanity and love over ‘social regeneration' is paid for with death; the project of happiness ends with an execution. The film's implications are endless, contradictory, but seen in this constellation and at this conjuncture a timely reading suggested itself: that ‘sacrifice' is the price demanded for renewed ‘growth', and that society continues to use our memories and desires as ‘bait', trading our lives for a few more years of dominion.[1]


Image: Still from Robert-Jan Lacombe's Au revoir Mandima, 2010


The work most evidently influenced by Marker's technique in La Jetée was a video by a young Swiss artist, Robert-Jan Lacombe which likewise revisited a haunting childhood image. Au revoir Mandima (2010, video, 10') renarrated a photograph of the artist as a young (white, European) boy taking leave of the Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) of his childhood, saying goodbye to his (black, African) friends and disappearing into the consumerism and cartoons of far away Europe. Lacombe's work literally and lucidly scans every section of the picture of his young self, preparing to embark on the journey to the North, to adulthood, and away from incipient civil war. Here, as in La Jetée, the image source is static - a colour photograph of the boy and his doctor parents preparing to climb onto a small plane, surrounded by their former friends, neighbours, and patients. The film dissects the central image and journeys out from it on divergent image chains, opening the family archive to reveal other scenes, the young boy at play with his cousins in France or with his friends in Zaire. Once again the protagonist of this story is displaced, sent across space and time (i.e. ‘combined and uneven development' means that all our journeys involve time travel), separated and reassembled for life in a richer, whiter society. ‘You're already thinking of Europe' says the voice over, addressing his childhood image, ‘You think of ice cream, Nutella, fresh milk, elevators, your cousins, cartoons at grandmas...' But the narrator is also losing something, almost everything: ‘But do you realise what is happening? Do you realise you wont come back?' It's goodbye to the old gang, to Swahili, to the people with whom 'you' learned to speak, ‘full stop'. Like the image of childhood in La Jetée we begin to understand this scene of departure as a kind of death, a kind of instant real subsumption under the future. The film itself is quietly devastating, successfully reanimating and reactivating an otherwise mute and private image. And one is acutely aware of other stories not narrated here that end in literal deaths, trauma of a different order.


As a whole (of fragments) Les Marques Aveugle sustained this level of coherence, each work engaging others in a productive play of resemblance and difference. There was evidence of both the continuing legacy of Marker and Frampton and, beyond the categories of authorship and the canon, the persistence of the image as a mark, a wound, in a supposedly virtualised reality. The show reminded one of the sting and burn of images. Not only those which, as in Frampton's film, are literally incinerated, or which burn in the memory (‘nostalgia' as an overblotting of images, a condition in which one instant is being over-written by the memory of the previous and the preview of the next), but also, as in Gitte Villesen's photocollage and video interviews with participants in the first Auschwitz trial, which hurt because of the ambivalence as well as the awfulness of their testimony: Authentic. Objective. Subjective. Or Which Rules Does one Follow? (2004) - the work's title raises the question of scientific standards of truth, a rather different but still related approach to that in Rosa Barba's archaeology. Here the reconstruction of a historical trauma was at issue. The occasion for the enquiry - the restaging of the trial as an art exhibition - provoked an insistence by the artist on her own part in the epistemological process, emphasising (in Heisenbergian fashion?) the interplay between subject and object: ‘the one asking the questions always affect[s] the answer and the reaction.'[2] This in turn raised questions about the whole process of re-enacting the trial, and what it says about contemporary society's potential to stop repeating its violent marking of us all. However solicitous to the past, to the truth, the obscenity of the system is perhaps most pungent where the effort is made to ‘do justice' to a particular atrocity.


Other works in the show engaged with the mark as historical record at drastically less momentous levels while, in their minimalist attention to their means, sharing a certain reference to film. At the entrance to the exhibition there was Pavel Büchler's conceptual piece The Shadow of its Disappearance, 30 September 2011, Sunrise/Sunset, 2011. Two framed sketches with the stubs of the pencils that made them, the work presented the indexical and representational trace of the two pencils' gradual consumption in the process of recording their own shadows over the course of a particular sunny day. A feedback loop of sorts producing a graph of the means of representation's progressive depletion. In his introduction to the work at the launch, Büchler was acute about its relation to Frampton's performance script, A Lecture, in which the film-maker (and retired photographer) demonstrated that the essence of cinema is not celluloid but the projector, and the creation of obstructions between it and the screen. ‘Our white rectangle is not "nothing at all". It is, in the end, all we have. ... So if we want to see what we call more, which is actually less, we must devise ways of subtracting, of removing, one thing and another, more or less, from our white rectangle.'[3]


Katja Mater's Density Drawing (polaroids), (2011) produced something out of the ‘nothing' of a corner of the exhibition space, putting the photographic image into a kind of representational relay with painting and installation. The process began with a white triangular wedge on the floor (still present) and ended with a series of polaroids of a monochrome painting pinned to the wall. Like the highest stage of a formal reification, the photos evidenced the vanishing mediator of the painting, which seems to have been altered progressively and rephotographed at different stages between two extremes of blankness - black and white. Like Büchler's work, this sequence could be read as a kind of film liberated from the condition of movement, a series of stills, like La Jetée. Minimalism's legacy here seemed to be a continued attention to the material/institutional support, but not one of institutional critique; Villesen's work was closer to this kind of enquiry into its conditions.


Image: Louise Hervé & Chloé Maillet, Avant le monde, et après (sérial), 2011
Courtesy: the artists and Marcelle Alix, Paris. Photo: Annik Wetter


On the other side of the exhibition, which it should be mentioned took place in the former warehouse space that constitutes the Centre d'Art Contemporain (the gallery itself is always the most material example of refunctioning and retroactive action ‘in' any show), was Louise Hervé & Chloé Maillet's new work Avant le monde, et après (serial) (2011). A translucent scroll of responses to Bachofen's hypothesis of prehistoric matriarchy or ‘Le droit maternel' developed in the mid 19th century, this particular ‘film' would be unrolled gradually over the course of the exhibition. Interspersed with scraps of advertising blurb instancing the fascination for ‘Prehistoric women', their ‘Savage struggle!' and ‘Primitive passions!' in pulp movies of the 1950s, this work of ‘Serial' archaeology placed two (or more) different texts in parallel to create another kind of (typographic/textual) ‘movie'. It read as an unscientific (playful, interested), but serious, enquiry into a primal scene rather different from, but related to, that which structures La Jetée or Au revoir Mandima. One could connect the historical constellation presented here to the post-WW2 ‘consumer society' as a new phase of primitive accumulation and struggle for recognition of women's labour, with its own reminting of myths and counter-myths. Or consider the present crisis through the prism of the lost maternal abundance which structures both Bachofen (and Marker's) narratives of social alienation. Can we go back? If we did, would She be there? Does idealised matriarchy only exist by virtue of the obstructions of (capitalist) patriarchy, a mythical back projection? (Chris Knight and Camille Power - please take note). As the carefully inked transparency with its montage of textual fragments made clear, Bachofen's influential theories emerged from this Swiss jurist's descent into the antique tombs below Rome, to the ancient city. As the artists point out, Walter Benjamin - whose ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History' link retroactive action with a materialist historiological principle of engagement (epistemological subject and object are mutually constituting, effect produces cause) - admired Bachofen. In the Arcades Project, he held up the notion that the ‘mother right' excavated by the jurist, and the conception of ‘nature as a ministering mother' could oppose capitalism's ‘murderous idea of the exploitation of nature.' On the other hand, Benjamin also suggested that the conditions of a mythical primal origin are ‘installed in the heart of commodity capitalism itself.'[4] No communism, polyamory and nomadism without domination - or at least, not yet.


Hervé & Maillet's work's own dialectical montage technique (antiquarian mythology intercut with pulp primitivism) emphasised the contradictions involved in a return to myths of matriarchy as a counter to techno-scientific domination. Barba's and Villesen's scepticism toward scientific mythology reverberated with this elegant piece of philological ‘cinema'. One wondered where the unrolling of the textual montage might lead over the course of the show, but clearly there was an attempt here to negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of primitivism and patriarchy.


By emphasising the multiple valences of the ‘mark', Les Marques Aveugle reminded one of Adorno's conception of art as sedimented suffering. The aesthetic is always marked by social violence, every document of civilisation a document of barbarism. Along with its carefully structured correlation of art works and themes, it was also clear that this constellation itself is only possible because trauma remains abundant; the one raw material we don't seem to be running out of. Art's energy packs come not from the technologically perfected future, but as Benjamin saw, its ruinous past and crisis stricken present. To discover the persistence or resonance of some of Marker and Frampton's concerns and techniques evidenced through something more than mere recycling or reproduction indicates signs of life, or at least vigor mortis, in the culture of an undead capitalism. Les Marques Aveugles was encouraging in that it took a potentially hackneyed curatorial trope and made it remarkable once more.


Benedict Seymour <ben AT> is a contributing editor to Mute



Also featured in the show: Hito Steyerl November, 2004, video, 25'; Margaret Salmon Untitled (Colour Line), 2011, 16mm film transferred to video, 3'; and Akram Zaatari, Red Chewing Gum, 2000, video, 10'. The project includes a four-screenings cycle presented at the Grütli cinemas. (19.01 - 22.01.2012): Chantal Akerman, James Benning, Brent Green, Isidore Isou, William E. Jones. Curators: Katya García-Antón and Emilie Bujès. The show is part of the project ‘Spirales. Fragments d'une mémoire collective autour de Chris Marker' (25.11 - 4.12.2011) developed in collaboration with various cultural partners in Geneva.



[1] Like Rosa Barba’s film, with ‘La Jetée’ we are again in the tunnels, though this time underneath the Palais de Chaillot in Paris. This is just up the avenue from the Palais de Tokyo and the Musee d’Art Moderne. The project to send a sensitive and memorious protagonist through time to save the world would, in an alter-modern future, be run not by aesthetically challenged scientists but by a curator like Nicolas Bourriaud. Cultural regeneration had the same utopian-technocratic temporal and economic logic, exploited the same ruse of history, though the scheming scientists were displaced by culturepreneurs. Artists took the bait, marked by an image from their childhoods, restoring a facsimile of ‘industry’ but ending up displaced and erased. The temporal convolutions always ended in coffeeshops. 

[2] Gitte Villesen in an interview with Lotte Møller, here: 

[3] Hollis Frampton, ‘A Lecture’,

[4] Peter J. Davies, Myth, Matriarchy, and modernity: Johann Jakob Bachofen in German culture 1860 - 1945, p.399. Berlin, De Gruyter, 2010.