Martin Vincent

 

If you hit the
ground you die

 

If you hit the

ground you die

 

Martin Vincent

 

 

Sitting on the underground train thinking of the time it takes to make a journey, and how you are not doing anything, but you are getting somewhere. You are still, but you are moving, you are only waiting to arrive. You stare at the floor of the train, at the aluminium grid that provides grip for the feet of boarding and detraining passengers, and it becomes fascinating. Your eyes follow the positive lines of the raised areas, then the negative lines of the spaces between, the intersections of grids and networks.

 

On such brief journeys you could learn to remove yourself from aimless reverie by reading a book, but sometimes the very book you are reading can encourage your drifting thoughts.

Italo Calvino's famous novel, 'If on a Winter's Night a Traveller', might be simplistically described as a sequence of beginnings of stories that in the end add up to a story in themselves. There is a lot more to it than that of course, it is a limitlessly self-referential book. One of the chapters has the tautological title 'In a network of lines that intersect' (if the lines did not intersect it would not be a network). How intentionally the tautology is implanted in this most tautological of fictions is open to question, because this is the English translation from the author's original Italian. Perhaps the tense is slightly different, and we should be thinking that the lines are in the process of intersecting, of becoming a network, and that this process is continual. In Calvino's fiction, if you follow one path then it is inevitable that you will, sooner or later, intersect with another.

 

In the opening title sequence of Alfred Hitchcock's 'North By Northwest', animated lines descend and cross the screen, intersecting to become a network, a mesh onto which the words of the credits slot, sliding down and across, stopping like trains at a station, then moving off to allow the next credit to slot into place. An extraneous decorative bar regularly slips down one side of the screen, just to add extra movement. An image emerges behind the lines, and we discover that they delineate the grid of a glass-fronted high-rise building, seen at an angle. The title sequence was created by graphic designer Saul Bass, whose name is synonymous with this specialised area of cinema.

 

Bass' titles for Martin Scorsese's 'Casino' presage the entire film. Beginning with an explosion, we see the silhouette of Robert De Niro flung into the inferno, falling through flames, a descent into hell depicted in the most literal way imaginable. The flames fade into the lights of Las Vegas casinos, seen closeup in geometric sequences of gorgeous artificiality. Set to Bach's St Matthew Passion, the sequence is fearlessly camp and indulgent. De Niro continues to fall as close-up flames rise up from the bottom of the screen. It is a dreamlike space from which we awaken into the movie. The kind of space permitted only in title sequences, experimental animation, or artists' video.

 

Pat Flynn speaks admiringly of Saul Bass' willingness to adopt the visual styles of contemporary art without concerning himself with the conceptual baggage attached to them. Bass is not afraid to luxuriate in the purely visual. A title sequence has no obligation to forward the narrative, it is a few minutes where time stands still, like the underground train ride, while we wait for the story to begin. A Bass opening sequence can contain the whole story within its graphic lines, and stand up as work in its own right. His early sequences, from the 1950s and 60s, used animations that looked like paper cut outs (to most powerful effect in 'The Man with the Golden Arm', where angular lines replicate the harsh intensity of Frank Sinatra's portrayal of a reforming heroin addict). Later, working with his wife Elaine, he used more lush, computer-generated images.

 

Usually, in galleries, art on video is shown on a continuous loop, projected on a screen in a darkened room - a black box. Often the work shown this way has a beginning, a middle and an end, but the demands of art require constant access - that's the nature of the way art is exhibited, and demonstrates that the tradition of object-making cannot easily be bucked. Some artists fight this context by demanding timed showings, many simply capitulate and allow films which have a clear narrative to be dropped in on and sampled at random, placing reliance on the diligent viewer staying until the video reaches the point they came in at.

 

Flynn doesn't fight the context, his recent computer-made films have no beginning or end - he makes loops. The work is, in this sense, gallery friendly. The lottery balls spin and fall constantly, the mobile of the Ptolemaic universe keeps on rotating, the snake weaves endlessly through the toe of the shoe. An earlier work does have a beginning, and is an appropriate starting point. It shows coins falling to the ground and bouncing, spinning and finally settling. It uses a computerized simulation of gravity - one which is imperfect, because gravity is the hardest thing to simulate, and within the world of computers, the easiest thing to avoid.

 

There was a cheaply made programme shown on satellite television a couple of years ago titled 'The Race Against Gravity'. It was about space exploration, but that title prompts the thought that racing against gravity is what we are all doing on Earth anyway. Or perhaps fighting gravity. We always lose in the end though - or gravity wins, dragging us inevitably back down to Earth. Except perhaps for those people who get their ashes sent into space. Gravity and mortality can be synonymous, and the purpose of space travel is to represent the possibility of escaping both.

 

While Italo Calvino seems to offer an infinity of intersections, the possibility of no intersection also needs to be faced. The Voyager spacecraft is right now moving along its pathway further and further from Earth. It carries with it a gold-plated disc containing information which, it is hoped, could be read by other intelligent life forms in the universe, should it ever cross their path. It is a twelve-inch analogue disc designed to be played with a stylus (also included) at sixteen and two thirds rpm. It contains images and music from the cultures of the earth selected by a team led by TV scientist Carl Sagan. It represents a time-capsule of Earth in 1977. (And is the ultimate unattainable holy grail of any record collector.)

 

Flynn has depicted the Voyager isolated against the dark nothingness of space, and framed by a distant halo, a star nebula. He has also made use of the image of the disc designed to convey the hopes of all humanity. Voyager is a physical encapsulation of our hapless desire to communicate - even if we have nothing to say: it includes people saying 'hello' in 55 languages. Voyager has escaped gravity, and is drifting on a quest which might never end.

 

After his death, Scotty from 'Star Trek' (aka Irish Canadian actor James Doohan) had his remains launched into space. Well, not quite. Scotty never escaped gravity, a small part of his ashes were sent up in a rocket over the New Mexican desert, where they reached a height of 72 miles, before being parachuted back to earth, to be retrieved and placed in a garden of remembrance. Except the ashes were lost, and Scotty joined the ranks of those ill-fated, anonymous crew members who stood at the back of every Star Ship Enterprise landing party, beamed down to an alien desert, never to go home again.

 

In a diptych of images, Flynn pairs the Voyager with the eye of a shark reflecting the night sky. Look at Saul Bass' titles for Hitchcock's 'Vertigo' for more clues to Flynn's visual inspiration - Kim Novak's eye in extreme close up, containing a spinning vortex. And it is not just title sequences, Flynn's snake animation is an unashamed steal from 'Indiana Jones'. It picks up on the movie's fetishism and amplifies it through isolation and repetition. It is disconcerting and ambiguous.

 

Flynn's snake, as we've observed, is endless. It is like the snake that eats its tail, the ouroboros. One of the most ancient human symbols, the ouroboros is said to represent the cycle of the universe, creation coming out of destruction, life constantly consuming and renewing itself. Carl Jung identified it as a central archetype in the human psyche. In Flynn's work this powerful symbolic presence is alloyed with the cheap violation of popular cinema. An extenuated ouroboros creeping through a shiny white stiletto-healed shoe. The glossy artificiality of the image should have a dehumanising effect, but what is happening here is all too human. Snakes are inextricably connected with humanity's lowest urges. Their association with the Fall is more than metaphorical, it is a physical, visceral thing. Crawling on their bellies they constantly remind us that gravity is in operation, and we are all only a slip of the foot away from crashing to the ground.

 

Flynn chooses to show his work on monitors rather than projections. Again, it is part of the recognition that presenting something in a gallery means that it is inevitably encountered as an object, to be approached by the viewer and given as much or little time as the viewer feels it warrants. Films in galleries, time-based works, are in constant conflict with this. Flynn's looping animations give us a sense of suspended time. We wonder if they continue when the gallery is closed. Within the closed world of computer animation the snake never stops moving. The gallery visitor can rest assured that he or she has not missed the beginning, and can leave without missing the ending. Gravity is always present, but falling can be infinitely extended. It is very much like a dream of falling, where, they say, if you hit the ground you will never wake up.

 

The shininess of computer-made works lends sufficient distance to allow the themes to emerge, and there is no escaping the quiddity of real objects. The computer's clumsy gravity underlines both its artificiality and the human failings that go into its making. Real gravity, as Scotty now knows, cannot be so easily set aside.

 

There are no intersections on the Glasgow Underground. It is not a network, it is a simple loop, with two lines - clockwise and anticlockwise. If you get on the wrong train you will get to your stop the long way round. If you miss your stop you can stay on the train and in twenty minutes or so you will arrive again. Or you can defer your responsibilities and ride all day, knowing that as soon as you stop your life will continue, and then there will be no escape.

 

 

Martin Vincent is Captain of Aye-Aye

Books, Glasgow and Salford.