April 1, 2009

Reading Between the Timelines

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Matthew Buckingham’s work challenges our understanding of historiography by its disquieting insistence that “narrative depends on silence,” as he remarked during his Monday lecture entitled “The Sense of the Past.” If the power of narrative derives from what gets left out, what’s implied and “what we are meant to forget,” then our understanding of historical narrative becomes troubled by a necessary void. Whereas both academic and popular histories have begun trying to “retrieve” voices of marginalized and silenced figures — in a sense ventriloquizing them — Buckingham’s work instead attempts to “restage” moments that are both historical and imaginative, allowing the viewer to inhabit their “structuring absence” that intervenes between the visible and the vanished, the represented time and the time in which we are viewing the representation.
Buckingham, an artist whose work in film, video and other mediums has been displayed around the world, began his lecture in Lewis Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall with a 20-minute black and white 15-mm film entitled Amos Fortune Road. The film tells the story of Sharon, who leaves New York City for the summer to teach theater camp in New Hampshire. During her time there she becomes interested in a local historical personage named Amos Fortune, and she befriends a student whom she drives to class each day. The student, who read about Fortune in school, tells Sharon many details about the slave who purchased his own freedom. However, upon returning to New York City, Sharon learns that the only historical documents that survive about Amos Fortune are a handful of receipts (including one for himself); the rest of the details she and her student learned in the biographies about Amos Fortune are fictitious.
Most of the shots take place within a car as it drives along a dirt road or a highway; we hear rumbling engines, the susurration of passing traffic or the hiss of rain. The images of the routine drive are at turns glimmering and gloomy, depicting a sift of sunlight and dappled shadow as it comes through the lattice of tree growth or a blurry wash of rain as it’s repetitively cleaned by windshield wipers. However, in place of dialogue, intertitles supply the narrative — often with decidedly missing or redundant information. Despite the relatively mundane storyline, the film foreshadows a sense that some unnamed catastrophe is waiting to happen or has already occurred unawares. One small scene shows the automatic adjustment of a side mirror, in which we see a cropped church steeple, as if to imply the past that lies behind us has been cut off, framed and reframed, rendered oblique and distorted.
[img_assist|nid=36428|title=The art of history|desc=Artist Matthew Buckingham spoke on Monday evening about his efforts to “restage” moments from the past the future, both real and imagined.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]Buckingham also shared two other projects. One consisted of a reverse timeline of Mount Rushmore, also known as Six Grandfathers, that created a kind of historical double exposure between the time scale of legal fictions surrounding the purchase of the land by the U.S. government and the projected geological fiction of a photo that shows the mountain several millennia into the future when the faces of the presidents have been eroded. The other project, “Will Someone Please Explain It to Me, I Just Became a Radical,” combines two archival photos from newspapers along with recent photos taken by Buckingham. The initial archival image that spawned the project depicts the reactions of students at Madison to the police violence that broke up a sit-in protesting the Vietnam War. The photograph is captivating because each student displays a different emotion: sadness, horror, outrage, pity, bewilderment shock or disbelief. Buckingham’s photos, on the other hand, capture the University of Wisconsin building today: an institutionally sterile corridor, nondescript office furniture, anonymous rundown bathroom stalls. The scene of violence and transformation has been evacuated of any marks that would indicate its history.
Buckingham’s work emphasizes the interface between the site where the work is being viewed and the space represented in that work, creating a temporal displacement that the viewer must imaginatively fill in. In order to make sense of the scattered and incomplete archive, Buckingham’s work suggests that each interpreter supply his or her own narrative about the unrecoverable event, projecting forward a sense of what has been elapsed. Adopting Benjamin’s metaphor of the present as the vanishing point of the past, Buckingham spoke about the sightlines that guide our knowledge. To explain this further, he gave a brief history of memory, from Renaissance memory palaces in which storytellers used mnemonic architecture to arrange their chronology, to the birth of the museum where royal collections were first made public, to the development of the modern cinema. Each institutional locus of memory conditions the stories that are told within it, and often “rely on the same resources we use for fiction.”
Buckingham finished his talk with a brief question and answer session, during which he reflected on a contemporary site of archival memory, Facebook, which causes photos to “lose their chronological aspect,” especially for older users who include photos from several decades back. Instead of a developmental timeline, we see a hodgepodge.
He used this example to reiterate that even in the seemingly egalitarian age of the Internet, we must still remain cognizant of who has access to what information and how that information is being structured. Buckingham concluded his tour of the peep-holes and vantage-points through which people have viewed history with an open-ended but compelling reflection: “From where we find ourselves, what questions will we give more urgency?”