Revisiting: Tony Oursler – The Influence Machine

In Madison Square Park in New York, and subsequently in Soho Square, the heart of London’s media world, video artist Tony Oursler created a spectral audio-visual experience for an image-saturated society. Conceived as a kind of psycho-landscape, The Influence Machine delves deep into the history of media, rousing long-forgotten spirits and setting them to roam about both squares at night. The ghosts of the Fox Sisters, who made telegraphic contact with the spirit world in the mid-nineteenth century, haunted alongside the ghost of television pioneer John Logie Baird.

Jointly commissioned by the Public Art Fund, and Artangel, and realised in 2000, the work is now part of the Artangel collection, and has been restaged in a range of location both in the UK and elsewhere.

What the work itself comprises is difficult to delineate, as it not only relies on Oursler’s quintessential ‘talking heads’, and thus also sound (including a sound track by Tony Conrad), in this case moving image’s ephemerality is pushed even further because of the outdoor projections onto whatever they fall upon – buildings, trees, people and, most strikingly, smoke, which forms an integral part of the realisation of the work. As a result it is not only literally always fleeting but also different in every context, visibly influenced by the surroundings in which it is revived.

In the book Oursler’s then most elaborate deep media project is condensed in an illustrated time line, ‘Timestream, I Hate the Dark, I Love the Light’, while accompanying texts elaborate on the phantasmagorias of the late eighteenth century, its contemporary equivalents, and the influence of spiritualism within the general development of media. With an introduction by Susan K. Freedman, Tom Eccles and James Linwood, a conversation between Tony Oursler and Louise Neri, and essays by Carlo McCormick and Marina Warner, as well as extensive image sequences.

The design is by Mark Diaper, who came up with the idea to break up the ‘Timestream’ and divide it in different strands that, as time passes, cross each other, or new strands ‘fade in’ and old strands ‘fade out’. The hardback cover also has a dust-jacket on which the title on the front cover and spine lights up in the dark…

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Feature Film: A book by Douglas Gordon

One of the publications I worked on while at Artangel was in relation to Douglas Gordon’s Feature Film. In this work – Douglas’s first feature-length film, produced in 1999 – the camera follows the hands, and the facial expressions of a music conductor – James Conlan – while conducting a full orchestra playing the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo by Bernard Herrmann. Therefore the length of Feature Film is determined by the length of Vertigo and its accompanying score. It was first shown on a large suspended screen in a space on Brick Lane, London, with Vertigo on a much smaller screen in the back of the space. The film on its own also did the rounds along the film festival circuit for several years. Since 1999 the work has been shown in many different configurations (I remember a screening at the Royal Festival Hall, for which a sound installation had to be brought in), and in many different settings.

The idea for the book was to come up with something that allowed the different elements of the work to be encountered in different ways – the visual, the aural and the more conceptual. I remember Douglas saying something along the lines of “I want my parents to be able to engage with the images and the sound, without actually watching the film.” In other words, the challenge was to find a way of translating these different aspects into a publication that somehow comprised all of them. These consideration also led to the title: Feature Film: A book by Douglas Gordon. 

As a result, the publication contains a selection of stills (selected in one of Soho’s many post-production studios, which was fun to do, but also highlighted the issue of using stills derived from the film in the sense of print quality – there is only so much extrapolation one can do with 72 dpi) of Feature Film, with a much smaller selection of stills from Vertigo, which together provide the basis for the actual book. The challenge in the selection process was to find visually interesting stills across the length of the film – which has whole periods of very slow panning shots, but also vigorous accelerations, with the hands and arms of Conlan moving in and out of the frame very rapidly – for which we could also find matching stills (i.e. the same moment in time) from Vertigo from various image libraries. In the pre-digital era, for most films there was only a certain amount of stills in circulation for press and publicity purposes. So without wanting to contact the current right holders for the film, our source was a range of stock image libraries across London. Looking at the reproductions now, am also aware of the fact that while Douglas was very specific in wanting to use a particular film stock that would enhance the black that was so present in the footage, while we used the digital edit version of the film to select stills, which has delivered varying hues in the flesh tones of Conlan’s face and hands. This translation back and forth between different mediums is an interesting aspect when considering documentation of  presentation and representation of the work. It was something that also played itself out in the presentation of the film: when it was screened as film, the quality of the image was entirely different from those occasions where a digital version was used.

Each spread in the book has a Feature Film still on the right, while the opposite is black– so to some extent trying to mimic the large amount of black in the film, for which a double run through the press was used, if I remember it correctly – except where there is a matching Vertigo still, where the background is white. So while the unfolding of the film narrative is mimicked – but plays itself out between the front and the back cover – the realisation of this being a book, with its own space and its own conventions, is present. In addition to the visuals, the full orchestra performance is available on a CD, which is attached literally inside the conductor’s ear in the cover. The sound and visuals are accompanied by an in-depth essay by renowned French film scholar Raymond Bellour, and an American Bernard Herrmann expert, Royal S. Brown, which are inserted in the back sleeve as an appendix, allowing the reader to look at the images unencumbered by text, while listening to the music.

The book was designed by Phil Baines, and co-published with Book Works (my first encounter and collaboration with them) and agnès b., while the film was a co-production between Artangel, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Kunstverein Cologne, in association with Gagosian Gallery and Lisson Gallery. The book in the end had two print-runs, where the difference between them resides in a colour shift in the title.