The Thaumatropic Theater, 2006
The THAUMATROPE is a toy that was popular in Victorian times. A disk or card with a picture on each side is attached to two pieces of string. When the strings are twirled quickly between the fingers the two pictures appear to combine into a single image due to persistence of vision.
The ZOETROPE is a device that produces an illusion of action from a rapid succession of static pictures. It consists of a cylinder with slits cut vertically in the sides. Beneath the slits, on the inner surface of the cylinder, is a band which has either individual frames from a video/film or images from a set of sequenced drawings or photographs. As the cylinder spins, the user looks through the slits at the pictures on the opposite side of the cylinder’s interior. The scanning of the slits keeps the pictures from simply blurring together, so that the user sees a rapid succession of images producing the illusion of motion, the equivalent of a motion picture. Cylindrical zoetropes have the property of causing the images to appear thinner than their actual sizes when viewed in motion through the slits.
The PRAXINOSCOPE is an animation device, the successor to the zoetrope. It was invented in France in 1877 by Charles-Émile Reynaud. Like the zoetrope, it used a strip of pictures placed around the inner surface of a spinning cylinder. The praxinoscope improved on the zoetrope by replacing its narrow viewing slits with an inner circle of mirrors, placed so that the reflections of the pictures appeared more or less stationary in position as the wheel turned. Someone looking in the mirrors would therefore see a rapid succession of images producing the illusion of motion, with a brighter and less distorted picture than the zoetrope offered.
The PHENAKISTOSCOPE (also spelled phenakistiscope) is an early animation device, the predecessor to the zoetrope. It was invented in 1831 simultaneously by the Belgian Joseph Plateau and the Austrian Simon von Stampfer. One variant of the phenakistoscope was a spinning disc mounted vertically on a handle. Around the center of the disc was drawn a series of pictures corresponding to frames of the animation; around its circumference was a series of radial slits. The user would spin the disc and look through the moving slits at the disc’s reflection in a mirror. The scanning of the slits across the reflected images kept them from simply blurring together, so that the user would see a rapid succession of images with the appearance of a motion picture. Another variant had two discs, one with slits and one with pictures; this was slightly more unwieldy but needed no mirror. Unlike the zoetrope and its successors, the phenakistoscope could only practically be used by one person at a time.
The STEREOSCOPE is a device for viewing stereographic cards, which are cards that contain two separate images that are printed side-by-side to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image. This is an example of stereoscopy. When stereographic cards are viewed without a stereoscopic viewer the user is required to force his eyes either to cross, or to diverge, so that the two images appear to be three. Then as each eye sees a different image, the effect of depth is achieved in the central image of the three. This is the oldest method of stereoscopy, having been discovered in the mid-19th century by Charles Wheatstone. In the late 19th and early 20th century stereo cards, stereo pairs or stereographs were popularly sold. The cards had a pair of photographs, usually taken with a special camera that took the pair of images from slightly separated views simultaneously. Cards were printed with these views (often with explanatory text); when the cards were looked at through the double-lensed viewer, called a stereoscope or a stereopticon (a common misnomer), a three-dimensional image could be seen.
The MAGIC LANTERN is an ancestor of the slide projector. With an oil lamp and a lens, images painted on glass plates could be projected on to a suitable screen. By the 19th century, there was a thriving trade of itinerant projectionists, who would travel across the United Kingdom with their magic lanterns, and a large number of slides, putting on shows in towns and villages. Some of the slides came with special effects, by means of extra sections that could slide or rotate across the main plate. One of the most famous of these, very popular with children, was the Rat-swallower, where a series of rats would be seen leaping into a sleeping man’s mouth. During the Napoleonic wars, a series was produced of a British ship’s encounter with a French navy ship, ending patriotically with the French ship sinking in flames, accompanied by the cheers of the audience.
One of the most famous chapters of post-war Japanese art is Genpei Akasegawa’s 1000-yen Note Incident.
In 1963, the young han-geijutsu (‘Anti-Art’) artist had printed several hundred single-sided monochrome 1000-yen note semblances, mailing them in the post office’s cash envelopes as invitations to his exhibition of collage works in Tokyo. In the following months he made several thousand reproductions of the image, burning some of them in a performance and using others to wrap objects, like the bag pictured below. Nobody took much notice outside his own circle of artist friends.
The following year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police launched a criminal investigation on Akasegawa, referring to an old, vaguely termed law prohibiting manufacture of objects with an exterior that “may be confused with currency.” This led to a highly publicised and drawn-out trial at Tokyo District Court which raised more provocative questions and reached more people than Akasegawa’s art works could ever have managed to do without the state intervention.
The case (which has been recounted in recent years by Reiko Tomii and William Marotti) necessitated a close consideration of the boundaries of legality and of art. Backed by a group of like-minded artists and critics, Akasegawa stressed the blatant unusability of his notes, arguing that they weren’t counterfeit because they weren’t pretending to be real or true – they only referred to real and true money (albeit aiming thereby to disrupt its imagined reality and truth). The uselessness of the notes gave them their status as art objects, but the court’s response was that what he did may well have been ‘art’, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t criminal. After two appeals, the supreme court upheld the lower court’s indictment in 1970, activating the artist’s sentence of three months incarceration and one year probation.
An ironic side effect of the incident was that it cemented the otherwise barely noticed work in the public consciousness, and in art history. The event is remembered as a forensic interrogation of the nature of representation, replication, imitation and simulation – which, it turns out, are all quite different things. Akasegawa named his notes ‘models’ – they weren’t intended as currency but as images of currency, money abstracted from monetary value.
The aforementioned Ming Dynasty bank notes were printed with warnings that forgery was punishable by death. This serves today as a reminder that due to the huge gulf between the low material value of a piece of paper and the high promised value of the state-issued symbol, the risk of counterfeit has been a concomitant part of every paper currency. One of Akasegawa’s responses to the trial was to create the Greater Japan Zero-yen Note (1967) (above), which was ‘money’ that made explicitly clear the fact that it had no monetary value. People were invited to exchange three hundred real yen with him for an ‘original’ zero-yen note, his ambitious idea being that once he swapped it all, there would be no ‘real’ money issued by the state left in circulation.
A member of the avant-garde art collectives Neo Dada (initially Neo Dadaism Organisers) and Hi Red Centre, Akasegawa was associated with the radical han-geijutsu or ‘Anti-Art’ movement of the 1950s and 60s. In later years he would develop a theory of cho-geijutsu or ‘Hyper-Art’, which was less overtly political but would continue to seek intersections of the spaces of art and daily life, and interrogate notions of individual authorship and originality.
He also went on to be a prolific author under the pen name Katsuhiko Otsuji, and wrote the screenplay for the 1989 film Rikyū (by Hiroshi Teshigahara of Woman in the Dunes fame), which chronicles the life of the sixteenth century master of the Japanese tea ceremony. At one point in the film, Sen no Rikyū looks upon a statue made in his image and says, “I now see that I am little more than an effigy myself.” Here, the copy doe not reinforce the originality of the original – in Baudrillard’s terms, the copy suffices to “render both artificial.” This harks back to the institutionalised fear that abounds around semblances of money; mechanical reproductions of mechanical reproductions, they threaten to destabilise the consensual authority of money, and the precarious apparatus of faith required for homogenised symbolic value to function.
One of this outstanding Cuban film maker’s shorter films. A true materialist filmmaker, in the philosophical sense. Note at the end of the film Alvarez’s use of the same machine gun title technique as the US based film collective The Newsreel, with whom Alvarez exchanged footage. A shame that no decent documentary has been done on him. Wilkerson’s remains unfortunately not very rigorous, not covering his vital and necessary international connections for example.
Flucht (Flight) , 1931, Collage, 9 1/10 × 7 1/5 in
Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919