Reproduced from RevolveWire, magazine Issue no.1: Winter 2006-Spring 2007

Judith Palmer: Don't Blink Now

"It is frequently at the edges of things that we learn most about the middle: ice and steam can reveal more about the nature of water than water alone ever could." Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye

"Towards the beginning of Fight Club, Brad Pitt's character, the schizoid iconoclast Tyler Durden, discusses his night-job as a cinema projectionist. As well as revealing the joys of guerrilla editing: inserting single frames of hard core porn into Disney movies, which flash by so fast the unsuspecting audience are left discomfited but none-the-wiser; he also explains the legitimate tricks of the projectionist's trade. Up there in the booth, to ensure a seamless changeover between the different reels of film, the projectionist is looking out for the secret signal which warns him to start the motor on the second projector, lower the light-trap and release the shutter. The signal is a tiny circle in the film's top right hand corner, flickering into life for four brief frames - just enough for perception, but not enough for distraction.

Intrigued by these arcane cinematic diacritical marks, Manchester-based artist Dave Griffiths has been making a series of filmworks in which the 'cigarette burn' or 'cue-dot' finally comes in from the sidelines. No bit-part player in Griffiths' universe: the cue-dot is star of the show. "Part of the strategy was to reframe them, blow them up, and put the audience in the position of the projectionist's perceptual viewpoint," says Griffiths.

For the last eighteen months, Griffiths has been trawling the daytime TV schedules for old movies, recording them onto a hard-disk recorder, then combing the footage for those few precious frames. Although they're redundant in a television screening, those old projectionists' marks often remain, embedded within the print. "It requires a very fixed, attentive, mindful stare at the corner of the TV set to find something that might not be there. It's about attention, and perception, this work," says Griffiths. Although friends have offered to devise software that would find each dot in a jiffy, Griffiths refuses to be rushed: "I like the labour process - the durational aspect of looking."

With avid tenderness, Griffiths presides over an archive, now of 1600 dots. One day he hopes to found an on-line museum. Only a few of his dots, so far, have made that lucky breakthrough into his movies. Mechanically punched into the celluloid, or occasionally scratched in ad hoc by the projectionist, the dot takes different forms - a spot, a halo, an eclipsed sun, a bubbling budding cell, or most glamorous of all a green and purple VistaVision starburst, serrated like a buzz-saw or a crimped jamtart.

Love is a burning thing sequences seven-second phrases around the cue-dot's appearance, complete with snatches of dialogue; whilst Ozymandias pushes the dot even further upstage, sampling only the four marked frames, and splicing them together into a pulsating celebratory spotted dance routine. Beneath the dot, glimpses survive of top-corner movie-action: hats, and hair-do's, curtains and lampshades: an inventory of life's peripherals. Imagine a commemorative stamp; there's that rectangular snatch of an image, and a cue-dot floating above instead of the Queen's head.

Out there on the far-side - on the edge of the frame, and on the edge of perception - the cue-dot is a quintessentially marginal form. "It must be the smallest structure in film. I like the idea of making apparent the smallest form, working almost at the molecular level of film," says Griffiths.

If the cue-dot marks a point of transition in a movie (from one reel to another), Griffiths' cue-dot filmworks mark a point of transition in film history. Cue-dots are still around in cinemas today, but they are barely clinging on. In order to cut down on projectionists, multiplex cinemas already squash films onto one giant reel (a 'cakestand'), requiring no changeover, and no cue-dot. And with the inevitable takeover of digital projection within a few years… hasta la vista baby. Even the old dots aren't safe. In our culture's insatiable lurch for 'perfection', as movies are digitised, bands of film preservationists are erasing the cue-dots, like cosmetic surgeons excising an unwelcome mole. Inexorably, our gaze is directed to the officially sanctioned centre, forbidden to drift out to the cultural fringes.

Ozymandias, named after Shelley's poem about encountering the vestigial ruins of a once-mighty power ("'…Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains.") highlights the archaeological nature of Griffiths' process, as he sifts through the matinee footage to locate and preserve his faltering relics. The shattered colossus of the ancient despot Ozymandias, whose cold command once demanded obedience, mirrors the waning power of the cue-dot. "That simple time signal, superfluous or subliminal to the audience is a tyranny for the projectionist. It's a governing pulse," Griffiths considers.

Like the goalkeeper's anxious wait for the penalty kick, or the boundary fielder's readiness for that sudden top-edge, the projectionist must stay focused and alert, for a message concealed within four scarcely perceptible frames. Fellow Manchester artist Andrew Bracey, worked for two years as a projectionist at the Cornerhouse cinema. "You can blink and miss it," recalls Bracey. "The first time, I was like a goldfish staring. It's strange because you're not looking at the movie; your eye is really centred looking for this one thing. Every time a new film shows, there's a sense of expectation, but at the next screening you don't have to look for the dot anymore because you know that it happens when that actor takes his hat off, or whatever."

"I loved it to start with. It had this Cinema Paradiso glamour. Then it started being on your own in a dark room with whirring machinery, and it didn't have any magic any more." Unable to watch the movie because it's playing through a window with the sound all muffled, Bracey did still manage to use his time inventively in the projectionist's booth however, smuggling his paintbrushes in, and peering away in the dark to finish off a succession of the miniature paintings which would form his installation, Clout (2003-4). Maybe it was the supremacy of the cue-dot, inveigling into his unconscious mind, which made Bracey create Clout. At a distance, it looks like a giant dot painting. Up close you realise there are 5000 different pop-cultural images painted onto the tiny circular heads of roofing nails, and hammered into the gallery wall.

Fascinated by the relationship between the individual and the crowd, the one amongst many, Bracey is now directing his awesome patience, and obsessive meticulousness, towards a new series of paintings, inspired by the single film-frame. With the working title 100 Frames, the new work celebrates some of movie history's quieter moments. Working his way through a popular list of Top 100 Movies, Bracey is watching each of these iconic films, and finding within them, a non-iconic moment. "It's looking for all these bits you'd usually pass over. Mundane or unusual images not directly about the film they're from," Bracey explains. No Travis Bickle staring into the mirror here. No Marilyn with her skirt billowing up. From movies we know intimately, so over-familiar that our eyes almost cease to see them, Bracey plucks a fresh image, untainted by instant recognition. A plate of corned beef sandwiches. An electricity pylon. A songbird in a tree. Some films prove easier than others. "Requiem for a Dream had hundreds of shots to choose from, probably as light relief from the mental torture of the rest of it. But let's just say, I haven't done Star Wars yet, which is my all time favourite film," says Bracey. "I know every single frame of that film, so how can I find one that's incidental?"

As with Dave Griffiths' cue-dot work, Bracey's methods are painstaking. At 24 frames per second, that's 172,800 frames to weigh up, from a standard 120-minute picture. Process is king, and he imposes certain rules upon himself. Each DVD he watches has to come to him via a friend or friend-of-a-friend. No renting. Rather than following the order of the masterlist, the painting sequence is necessarily randomised. Delays are unavoidable. Certain of the films on the list, aren't even available. "My work is always the lowest tech. It's not the easiest way," he admits. Though the raw material may be mass-media, Bracey's firsthand principle keeps each painting intimate and personal.

Once he's selected his chosen frame, Bracey paints the image in oils, directly onto 35mm film. He uses the empty rectangles of leader film: the preliminary strips that count down the seconds to the start of the movie, pilfered from his time in the projection booth. "It's like the blank canvas of the film. Painting onto the proper film would be sacrilege," suggests Bracey. The miniaturised image reflects the projectionist's relationship to a movie. "I like the absurdity. The big screen is the false size really," he says.

Inevitably, the viewer scans the paintings, searching for favourite films, second-guessing which movies will be there in a Top 100, and super-imposing their own preconceptions. We see what isn't there. And in that space, the imagination opens up, building a new narrative from the associations and memories we bring with us. Just as the frames depicted are easily ignored during a normal viewing of the film, with one hundred tiny paintings to view, the eye will notice some, and miss others.

Artist Elizabeth McAlpine knows how much of a movie we usually miss. She has measured it. In 2003, McAlpine filmed a friend as they watched Nicolas Roeg's cult thriller Don't Look Now. Clapperboarded to ensure exact synchronicity, the footage of the viewer was compared frame for frame with that of the movie. In total, 7 minutes 15 seconds of the film had been left unseen by the viewer. Elizabeth McAlpine's subsequent filmwork,The film footage that was missed by the viewer due to blinking while watching the feature film 'Don't Look Now' (2003) compiled the lost frames.

The result is a jerky, but strangely synoptic version of the movie. A daughter dies, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland (sporting a particularly unsettling 1970s moustache) go to Venice, have sex, cheat death, and have encounters with strange blind ladies. It's a bit confusing, but that's also the nature of the tricksy original. "I'm trying to reveal the patterns that repeat and reoccur," explains McAlpine, and indeed this flash-forward digest brings all the motifs to the surface: the colour red, the phonecalls, the water. Dialogue and narrative recede while visual structures advance.

"I'm a fanatical geologist," McAlpine confesses. "I love the way you can track a history through it. Things have been put on top of one another. You weren't able to see what had happened, then something comes through and ruptures it and it's all laid bare. To me, cinema feels geological in some way, with one image laying on top of another. Although this work takes video as its final presentation, to me it feels like sculpture."

Fast-forward a VHS and you see it all at top speed. Fast-forward a DVD and it progresses by suppressing the majority of information, for example showing every 32nd frame. On the surface, McAlpine's blink edit of Don't Look Now seems similar to a digital forward scan, but the human blink eliminates frames far more subtly. We blink on average 10-15 times per minute, but not randomly. McAlpine's filmwork demonstrates the way we respond to the film editing process. "The reason you get such a sense of the rhythm of the movie is because quite often the viewer was blinking on the cuts. It becomes so fractured because within a blink you're seeing two sides of a piece of footage," says McAlpine. "An edit works like a blink. We blink once we've understood a piece of information. Like a resting point," she continues. "If people were blinking on pretty much every cut, the original editor did a very successful job."

A study by University College London neuroscientists last year, revealed that the brain actively shuts down parts of the visual system every time we blink. This means we get an uninterrupted view of the world, sparing us the distress of seeing the world go dark every few seconds. In McAlpine's "blink" Lawrence of Arabia (2003) she subverts this state of oblivion, by blacking out the frames that a viewer had blinked through during the staring scene in David Lean's epic. Paradoxically, each new viewer will see many of the blacked-out frames, but will unknowingly blink through an assortment of others.

Most recently, McAlpine has been lifting individual film-frames to compose neo-pointillist re-renderings of abstract paintings by Frank Stella (Hyena Stomp, 1962) and Piet Mondrian (Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-3). For her 'pigments', she's using single frames of actors caught blinking (in appropriately coloured clothing). Unlike the wide-eyed Hannibal Lecter/Anthony Hopkins, who famously blinked only once in Silence of the Lambs; Vivien Leigh fluttering her way through Gone With the Wind, has had much to contribute. According to Hollywood film editor Walter Murch, it is the rhythm of an actor's blinking which most accurately conveys whether or not they fully inhabit their character. Blink unconvincingly and we sense their emotions and thoughts are elsewhere. At the minutest level of a single blinking frame, the integrity of an entire movie can be jeopardised.

The carefully chosen single frame was also the material for McAlpine's filmwork Light Reading: 1500 Cinematic Explosions (2005). As the title suggests, she scanned every action film she could lay her hands on in order to watch explosion scenes, and then select the whitest frame from each combustion (her favourite frame sees off the Great White in Jaws). Freeze-framing each scene's crescendo, she watched the soon-familiar pattern emerging of matter occupying the space and falling away again, peaking when the screen achieved total white-out. Her one-minute sequence is like a flickering minimalist painting, moving through slight variations in tone. Its edges explore the boundaries of the monitor, fluctuating in and out, inhaling and exhaling, as the frames flit through widescreen then back. In its jitteriness, Light Reading recalls the earliest moving image technologies, the what-the-butler-saw machines, the zoetropes, praxinoscopes and chromatropes.

In their forensic sifts through the remains of cinema, Elizabeth McAlpine, Andrew Bracey and Dave Griffiths, have discovered a nanoscopic film culture. Don't blink now. Pause a while. Capture that moment. There's a world of possibilities passing you by, one frame at a time."