Mel Bochner, Measurement Room, 1969. Tape and Letraset, dimensions variable. Copyright Mel Bochner 2008.
One theme inparticular from last month's Tarkovsky conference at Tate Modern has continued to trouble, prompt and perplex, notably the much discussed notion of the long take and the way a viewer responds to it. To combine several of the day's speakers into one: the image is a field, with eye and mind liberated by the duration of the long take to drift productively around the image. I didn't necessarily disagree with this as a concept, but it didn't particularly correspond to my behaviour when I was watching a film, or anything else that moved slow enough to supposedly liberate my perception from the act of keeping up with it.
As often happens, several quotes leaped out from books I was reading this week, which whilst not offering any conclusions, did provide some ideas for a more satisfying notion of reading the long take. First Chantal Mouffe, from an essay I came to through an interview with K8 Hardy in the May/ June issue of Art Papers:
What are the consequences of the agonistic model of democratic politics that I have just delineated for visualizing the public space? The most important consequence is that it challenges the widespread conception that, albeit in different ways, informs most visions of the public space conceived as the terrain where consensus can emerge.
For the agonistic model, on the contrary, the public space is the battleground where different hegemonic projects are confronted, without any possibility of final reconciliation. I have spoken so far of the public space, but I need to specify straight away that, we are not dealing here with one single space. According to the agonistic approach, public spaces are always plural and the agonistic confrontation takes place in a multiplicity of discursive surfaces.
I also want to insist on a second important point. While there is no underlying principle of unity, no predetermined centre to this diversity of spaces, there always exist diverse forms of articulation among them and we are not faced with the kind of dispersion envisaged by some postmodernist thinkers.
Nor are we dealing with the kind of 'smooth’ space found in Deleuze and his followers. Public spaces are always striated and hegemonically structured. A given hegemony results from a specific articulation of a diversity of spaces and this means that the hegemonic struggle also consist in the attempt to create a different form of articulation among public spaces.
As I was reading Mouffe's essay I imagined it as a description of the long take, where the slow perusal of the image became a movement in the direction of public space. I don't know if the speakers at the Tate saw all the different elements of the long take image as engaged in consensus, but it certainly sharpens the concept for me to understand them as engaged in agonistic relations with each other, charging a viewer-image relationship that otherwise can seem passive.
In contrast, some ideas of Mel Bochner's - taken from Solar System and Rest Rooms: Writings and Interviews 1965-2007, the latest excellent title in MIT's WritingArt series - sought to understand issues of perception and understanding, relations of eye and mind to frame and image, at a level before any verbiage and prior to conceptualisation. In an interview with Elayne Varian, Bochner discussed his Measurement series, in which sheets of paper were pinned to gallery walls and the measurements of the paper written around them:
MB: The way things are contained physically and mentally is an important issue to me. For example, the measurements that are marked on wall around the sheet of paper read 36" or 48". However, to measure the entire work you must include the 2" width of the numbers, which makes the actual measurement of the piece 38" x 50". In other words, in order to contain the boundaries you must inevitably enlarge them, ad infinitum. I think that the real subject of these pieces is boundaries - the perceptual boundaries of thought. How much of something do we include within our field, how are the boundaries determined, how much of it is visible, how much of it is filled in by the viewer, how much of it doesn't need to be filled in - how much of it can exist without any physicality? (57-8)
And, later in the same interview, discussing Measurement: Room (1969):
EV: I think of the Measurements as "volumes," but I can't think of them as sculpture.
MB: I like that, because the Measurement: Room, where I mark the measurements of a room directly on the walls, like a three-dimensional blueprint, encompasses a concept of volume, without becoming a sculpture. Rather than thinking about my work categorically as painting or sculpture, I think of them more like "gerunds," verbs that act like nouns. So that the work is an active thing, both the doing and the thing done. It could be a simple question of orientation, like placing something in a specific position, for example, in relation to the compass. I feel that the basic question in my work - back to containment again - is how do you experience yourself in the world, which is to say, how do you inhabit an idea of the world? (58)
Rather than a vague faith in the perceptual inclination of an imaginary viewer, here the viewers response to the long take becomes a precise relationship, attaining an ontological specificity in order to open up a more genuine sense of possibility. As with the Mouffe quotation, I'm making these connections to Tarkovsky intuitively and speculatively, noting how, by juxtaposing them, the long take emerges, not as automatically equated to some spiritual value or ethical or aesthetic good, but as a space of charged, uncertain, measurement and debate.