Seán O Sullivan is a writer and curator whose work focuses on the politics and preservation of localities. He has curated projects and written critical texts dealing with community, ecology and the bonds between people and places. He holds an MA and a BA in Visual Arts Practices from IADT, Dún Laoghaire. He is a former chair of Black Church Print Studio, Dublin. He is Visual Arts Adviser to the Arts Council of Ireland / An Comhairle Ealaíon.
This page: A text entitled ‘Thousandfold’, which was written to accompany Colin Martin’s exhibition ‘Keyframe’ at Platform Arts, Belfast.
Archives tend to have an inscrutable feeling to them: an air of late nights spent locked away and underground, or a sense that whatever memories are secreted below the surface have been buried too distantly to be fully reanimated. Scanning past the shelves reveals a codex of labels and reference points, a set of unjoint dots, isolated markers and by-products of what formerly existed in the instantaneous present. It is that historical and revelatory potential of archives that keeps them interesting: the way that each artefact is its own solitary thing, a document presenting a fixed perspective from one particular moment. These perspectives stay disguised in their finitude until they are situated against others—until they are alchemised into context by the eye and the gaps between them are bonded by the mind. Archives preserve the things we might find difficult to call back into memory, but which we are still loathe to forget. This is different from the desire to produce mementos for posterity. The truest archive would be a repository of the worryingly forgettable, and consequently it would be a place lending itself to questions, discoveries and remembrances.
Colin Martin’s Keyframe was shot in the pale green light and mechanical hum of the Irish Film Institute’s archives. It uses five simultaneous sequences to traverse the room and explore its objects, asides and corners—to saturate the moment with context. The room appears a certain way on-screen. It feels appropriately still, held solid under sedimentary layers of documentation and time. The five perspectives begin digging for connections at the entrance and gradually shift forward and around to meet a photograph taped to the far wall and lit from above. The details harden and clarify as the photo comes fully into view. It depicts the film’s opening frame, and it begins to fill up each screen as Keyframe’s sequences amble towards closure. The film ends once the taped artefact has been completely reached and after a flicker of transition the cycle begins again. By seeing Keyframe through its closing transition one arrives at a different set of visual and spatial questions than those that first orbited around the five divergent perspectives. The work becomes grounded in the surreal experience of movement and transition. It sets aside the purpose of the room itself and converges on the camera’s passage through it. The journey has its own special metaphors and signals, it asks about how the camera causes us to interpret the archive as a physical form. It confronts us with the filmic distance that is both borrowed and repaid by the camera. It requires that the mind abstract itself from what is present and solid in favour of stepping into the next place. In Keyframe’s metaphor, the camera informs us that we the subject will enter the frame whilst we the other make our exit—one person leaves to arrive.
Susan Sontag once claimed that ‘when crossing spatial borders, the photographer becomes “a tourist in other people’s reality,” and eventually in his own’.1 Ultimately, the camera is always simulating the feeling of being present in a place, and always crossing the border between what is real and unreal in order to repeat the experience of seeing. But there is a remaining measure of mystery left in asking how deeply a camera can capture, and how well it remembers the actual place and time it depicts. Is the memory truly repeatable? When remembering things, the mind doesn’t dust off its ingrained experience of the event itself. Instead, memory is always newly constructed out of the mental fabric generated from the last time the thing was remembered. Incidentally this is how reality and fiction can sometimes become confused. The falsehood bridges itself along the gap between two truths, and the mind makes their newly connected structure feel more hard-edged—just enough to take on all the proper characteristics of what’s real. There are no meaningful differences between remembering and thinking. It all comes from the same archive; it’s all one journey towards forming the same mental picture. But there is a difference between experience and memory. We are always feeling memories being imposed over the momentary reality in which we exist, we compare the two and by that function we introduce new information onto the old facts.
In film parlance, the keyframe is the image that defines the beginning and end of a transition. It is the point of greatest deliberation, of departure and return. And to soften the jagged leap across two distant keyframes one should concoct a blurring journey in the intervening space. This blur is called tweening. It brings the ghost of an image into existence because something more important desires a by-product and is thus allowed to leak context into its surroundings. To follow the film’s analogy, there are two keyframes. The first arrives in the opening moment when all five sequences fix their gaze on the far wall. The second comes with the taped photograph that is the film’s focus and final moment. The passage outwards through the archive’s interstitial space, along its references, noises and atmosphere: that’s the tweening.
There are places that are known and not known. There are places that only seem familiar. And in this transition, there is a moment where all knowledge has been synthesised and suggested by the archive and the camera. Being physically there would supply no special feeling and no sense of having something slowly revealed. Instead, it’s in the camera’s re-seeing where we become able to locate themes and structures sidled away in finite perspectives, sitting between the beginning and the end, and hidden somewhere within the transition thereafter. Only the camera can cyclically reanimate the place and make it resonate along the valleys of our mental tissue. In the archive, no single perspective is self-contained. They are all continually subject to interpolation, consolidation and re-contextualising. They are all part of some strange mosaic. With their pliability the past is remade in the mind. With their fabric we try to remember.