The work of Rufus Butler Seder and Darren Almond occupy very different ends of the artistic spectrum. Seder’s concerns are primarily with vision and optics while Almond’s often deal with historical and social narratives and our response to specific places and events. They both take forward however within their distinctive practices some of the interests of the early chronophotographers in the depiction of time, space, movement and duration. Our subjective experience of time and the role of memory, and imagination in the perception and construction of place and space also figures prominently in Almond’s work, while Seder plays light-heartedly with the phenomenon of kinetic movement and animation, hinting at the possibilities of audience engagement and interaction when he remarks on children activating his work by running past it at varying speeds. Both use different strategies to engage with their audience and the social context of their work, Seder creates murals for public sites and mass-produced commercial cards for retail, while Almond works almost exclusively within the gallery system. 

Chronophotography’s contribution to the early part of the 20th Century is in the development of a range of techniques and apparatus that made possible a systematic and analytical recording of movement in time. The dominant reading of the pioneering work of Muybridge and his contemporaries is for it to be assimilated into the history of cinematography and the development of the moving image. Chronophotography at its inception however presented a number of alternative possibilities and seeded a number of ideas, which have been taken forward within the visual arts. These include issues regarding the veracity of photography, the use of serialism and repetition, the role of memory and imagination in acts of perception, and our subjective experience of time and space developed by Bergson in his theories on felt time and duration which he developed contemporaneously with chronophotography.

The initial impulse of chronophotography was to analyse movement by taking photographs of moving objects at regular intervals, developing a new visual technology for capturing the body in motion and constructing a scientific and quantitative knowledge of movement in space. This is commensurate with the spirit of the age and its desire to develop technologies for the systematic observation and classification of ‘nature’ in the pursuit of objective ‘truth’. The application of these techniques of observation and classification and the discursive formations that they circulated within are described by Foucault in the Archaeology of Knowledge and in his analysis of panopticism with its accompanying modes of regulation and control. An example of the application of these technologies can also be found in the chronometric charts and ‘scientific management’ techniques introduced by Taylor, which broke down the labour process into a series of discrete repetitive tasks applied to the assembly line units at Ford in order to maximize human performance and output.  Jules Amar the French kinesiologist had also embarked on a similar endeavour with his time and motion study of factory work using chrono and still photography with a view to humanising the labour process and providing an alternative to Taylorism with its instramentalizing and homogenizing of time and labour. His book The Human Motor was first published in 1914. Problematic as his methods may have been – he had his Kabyle Arab subjects strapped to ergographic instruments and respirators while he photographed them – he saw in chronophotography an alternative to the empirical observations of Fordism and the view of the worker as a machine. The philosopher Henry Bergson provides a philosophical alternative to the scientific quantitative representations of time with his image of immutability, felt time and duration, which finds an echo in the visual arts and literature of the period, most noticeably in Proust.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty indicates that we have ‘already met time on our way to subjectivity’ [1] we are not just thrown into the stream of time, we make time ‘It is of the essence of time to be in the process of self – production, and not to be completely constituted.’ [2] Almond talking about his interest in time and the construction of his work Meantime 2000, which consist of a huge clock incorporated into a steel sea container regulated by a computerised electronic control system, (the container/clock was transported from London to New York crossing the International Date Line to be shown at the Mathew Marks Gallery) remarks that with the analogue clock there will never be a pause, it is organic and continuous, but with digital clocks there is a split between the units of measure, there is a pause before the next digit of time occurs. Almond suggest that ‘somewhere between the analogue and the digital lies remembrance’ [3] this poetic analogy is appropriate, it not only points to Almond’s engagement with memory and the past but with the transition from modernity to post-modernity that his work engages with, the age of the machine and history gives way to the digital age and the speed of forgetting, in fact, to the ahistorical.  The fluidity of time and the dialectical nature of perception are expressed by Merleau-Ponty when in relation to Cezanne he suggests that perception is like a dance, where the world is not so much constructed as composed. ‘Vision happens in the world as one of its facts, we do not simply see the world it also shows itself to us. We are in these terms, the place through which the world comes to visibility and our seeing of it is not simply our own’. [4]

Almond grounds his practice very firmly in this fact that we are situated beings and that it is within duration that we think, feel and see. He wishes to impress on us that our experience and perceptions of place and time are constructed and penetrated by a number of economies, political, geographic and aesthetic. His work endeavours to engage with the present through an encounter with the past and the function of memory and expectation in this process. Places and spaces for him are sites of witness, where spatial relations and social relations arise together engendered social stratification and relations of difference. Places shape social organisation and behaviour creating hierarchies and topographies of class, profession, gender and race. They are saturated with histories and competing narratives. For Almond they are psychological spaces of the imagination where the border between the real and the virtual becomes thin and permeable. It is at this point on the cusp of the real and the virtual that he suggests that the artwork generates its effects. 

The work by Almond included in the Sequences show consisted of two road signs signalling the entry into and the leaving of the town of Auschwitz (after the defeat of the Polish forces in 1939, the Polish town of Oswiecim was incorporated into the Third Reich and renamed Auschwitz). The whole weight of the work is predicated on our knowledge of the historical fact of the holocaust and the enormity of its horror. In this work the past and the present collide, the signs are arranged so that we pass through the space of the work, as though we were re-enacting the journey taken by so many Jews between 1940 and 1945. In our imagination as we enter and leave Oswiecim our prescience that those who entered in 1940-45 never had such an opportunity provides the work with its salutary power. Here the psychological density of place and the thickening of time and duration bring Bergson to mind, if the factory and the machine subjected individuals to the instrumentalization of time and performativity the charnel houses of the Third Reich applied this principle to the mass murder of European Jewry. 

This play with the passage of time, and the existential moment are recurring features of Almond’s work, together with an interest in travel and transportation. This includes the transportation of objects and spaces from one location to another. Bus Stop consisted of two original bus shelters from Auschwitz being transferred from the town and exhibited in the Max Hetzler Gallery in Germany (1999). Here objects and places have detached themselves from their original geographical surroundings and have been redistributed through the devices of culture and representation. What is being represented? Perhaps the whole net of relations that formed around these quotidian objects, their historical location, as triggers for cultural memory, the narratives that they give rise to, the whole range of ties whereby they exists in the world. The relocation is accompanied by the idea of the artwork as a form of transportation where the individual is emotionally and intellectually transported through sight to site.

On travel he notes that his engagement with specific places has been over a considerable period of time allowing ‘comparative observations made through political and physical navigation to seep into the work, the works nature [5] allowing him to forge a historical understanding of the place and its geopolitics. On travelling by train he remarks on the continuous horizontal line of the rail track leading ‘directly to the political landscape’. Noting that the rail network is directly linked to modernity and capital as Greenberg remarks like ‘the artist to his patron by a thread of gold’.

Butler Seder produces optical work that can be traced back to the early experiments in chronophotography and the work of Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge. The works are static until engaged with by the viewer. Seder’s concern for the moving image is developed in large-scale mural installations ‘LIFETILES’ and small intimate devices entitled ‘The Kineticard’ and ‘CineSpinners’. Both make use, at a different scale, of  ‘Picket Fence animation’, which is familiar to us from looking through a fence or iron railings whilst moving past. (Any moving object on the other side of the fence appears to us to be moving in an abrupt series of transitions, somewhat like a jerky film.) As you walk past the small kinetic ‘CineSpinners’ or move the plastic sleeve on the ‘Kineticard’ the static images of a dog or dancing figure spring into life. In these pieces the optical effects and the play on perception is introduced in a light-hearted way. The ‘LIFETILES’ murals take this interest further through the development of lenticular glass tiles 8 inches square and made from lens-ribbed glass producing ‘Movies for the Wall’. Seder started out as a filmmaker and the influence of the sequential image and the framing devices of the cinema are echoed in these large (over 70 feet) works. Each tile carries compressed and encoded information using analogue and digital technology, to capture specific phases of movement. Seder draws his material from ‘original or archival motion picture footage or hand–drawn motion studies’. The encoded images are then fused to the back of the tiles and reflected through their specially constructed glass lenses. As the point of view of the spectator changes, the image changes, creating the illusion of movement. We are drawn into an arena increasingly occupied by contemporary practice, that of interactivity and the physiology and psychology of perception as they relate to consciousness and intentionality. Seder’s work also points in the direction of ‘future cinema’, where the new media technologies bring together telematics, video, computer games studies and artistic practice into a new synthesis, in which the complex relationships between perception, interpretation and agency are played out. Future cinema could, as Seder does, exploit the diffraction of light instead of its diffusion (as in traditional cinema), through the utilization of lenses which produce ‘films’ that have no need for any projection device and the frames of which have no correct order of viewing. 

Almond and Seder find a common link in the physiology and the psychology of sight. For both artist sight is no longer conceived of as passive, with vision being seen as a ‘passive window on the world and intelligence as active problem-solving’ [6] Increasingly the visual system is viewed as multileveled in which past knowledge, processing intelligence and innate ‘releasers’ which trigger innate responses, perhaps similar to Chomsky’s notion of grammatical competence act together. Paul Virilo in ‘the vision machine’ remarks ‘the discovery of retinal retention is much more than an insight into a time lag (the imprint of the image on the retina) it is the intensive time of human perceptiveness.’ [7] It is this perceptiveness that is the characteristic of the chronophotographers and this attentiveness that is characteristic of all vital art.

1 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (Routledge & Kegan, Paul   (1962)

2 Merleau-Ponty (1962) ibid

3. Darren Almond, A conversation between Darren Almond and Julian Heynen in Darren Almond, 50 moons at a time (K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen – 2005)

4. Merleau-Ponty (1962) ibid

5. Almond (2005) ibid

6. Richard L Gregory, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, (1997) 352, 1121-1128

7. Paul Virilo, The Vision Machine, Bloomington. (1994)