Every journey in the world is an exploration of the brain
Some flashbacks onto Katarina Löfström’s work
I don’t know for how long I’ve been here, in this position, in this exact same place. It could have been hours, days, weeks. I can’t tell for how long these waves of sound, these beams of light, these same images have been entering my eyes and ears, taking possession of my body and guiding my thoughts; for how long my mind has been adrift, unable to focus itself on anything but its own flux of distraction. My gaze is lost, my mouth is dry, my limbs are numb, my mandible aches. My skin is an alien landscape, the tip of my fingers echo loud sounds when it moves across the palm of my hand.
I don’t even know if I’m still watching something or if I’m just watching the same thing on and on. In what I perceive as an ongoing ritornello, I intuitively know which scene corresponds to each sound, what physical sensation corresponds to the images I now know so well: it all starts with a sudden fight-or-flight response, then an insane fluttery in the stomach, following by a feeling of nausea. I try closing my eyes but it gets even worse, as my head starts spinning at a slow but unstoppable pace and I lose the sense of my body: I can’t tell in what position my legs are in, my feet stop reacting to my mind’s orders. Afterwards, almost total relaxation sets in for a while, only to give way to the arousal of that same palpitation that initiates the whole cycle. Everything starts all over again.
I’ve become addicted to body-mind altering experiences. My body requires to live in speed and freed from its weight. Familiar with the physical sensations associated to such experiences, I can just let myself go and enjoy the bodily reactions to such experiences. I sense movement in me but I also sense movement around me. Movement of a city: its lights, echoes, smells, and voices. My body is the chamber onto which all visions and all echoes are projected. I just need to stand still and let everything resonate within me.
I also like to dance. I love dancing. I can dance all night long. I enjoy the feeling of freedom dancing gives me; the spasms of pleasure that arise from moving in a coordinated way; the rhythm of sound and light pulsating through my muscles and liberating colourful endorphins that navigate from the tip of my toes to my brain, slowly dispersing themselves along the way. Kidneys with coloured atomic bubbles, lungs filled with iridescence, armpits emanating bright drops of light. Knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, all moving together with one another, coordinated, bending and stretching in a vibrant pace that reveals the intelligence of a muscular syndicate. When music enters a reactive body, it makes it move in unison and nothing can stop it. Either on the dance floor or within my mind, what is certain is that I am still here, rolling on and on.
The motion of bodies and the motion of images are often a well-married couple. During the transition between the 19th and the 20th century, the train network and the industry of film met one another across rails and reels, and some of the first images to be captured by film were those of locomotives in transit. The success of the transportation of bodies was documented with the success of the transportation of pictures. Ultimately, both processes celebrated speed as the upmost manifestation of progress, generating a bouncing interplay of reflections, in which an image-recording device portrayed a modern transport means and a fast-moving vehicle supported the record of fascinating visions of progress.
It didn’t take long for new narratives to arise from the encounter between these two quasi-creatures. One of the founding myths of cinema surrounds the first séance of the Lumière’s 1895 film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. Echoes of an astonished audience, terrified with the realistic vision of a large train speeding up towards them—viewers running away from the projected image to protect themselves from the view of the menacing vehicle—quickly spread out. Anecdotes like this consolidated the idea of cinema as the ultimate source of emotion and veracity, an apparatus able of thrilling by showing of what until then remained unseen.
Not only films about, but also films shot in trains abounded in the inception of cinema, as fast but steady locomotives were very suitable vehicles to install a camera that could portray both the traversed landscapes but also depict motion in itself. The phantom ride, made entirely with footage captured from within a moving vehicle, became one of the earliest film genres. Its name derived from the fact that the propeller force remained unseen, as the camera captured the journey but not the vehicle. Their ghostly naming also implied a certain doses of animism, suggesting that what was actually being captured was the invisible train’s own gaze: viewers being give the opportunity to see through the train’s eyes, at its exact angle and pace. In a certain way, it could be consider that one of the earliest point of view shots was actually that of a machine and not of a person, as the train’s gaze was documented with the filming machine’s recording capacities.
These films were also opening way for new forms of entertainment, which would exponentially grow in various ramifications throughout the 20th century. At their basis was the possibility to allow audiences to experience the thrills of time and space travelling without leaving the same place, and their context of development was that of fun fairs or amusement parks, spaces that were ambiguously located in the intersection of natural sciences, technology, magic, and spectacle.
Exploring the possibilities of projected images to convey atmospheric sceneries and to provide the sense of travelling with one’s eyes, various apparatuses that simulated railway journeys across exotic or even familiar territories started appearing in the US and in Europe during the beginning of the 20th century. These early virtual reality capsules, or “Pleasure Railways” as they were often called, had the appearance of a single railway passenger car onto which visitors could enter and sit down to enjoy a realistic tour of “scenes of the world,” which were projected on a panoramic screen located at the front of the carriage. To increase the veracity of the experience, the pseudo-vehicle was shaken by members of staff to simulate its motion, and was equipped with a wind machine and a sound-producing device. Train whistles, steam rumours and other noises echoed inside the train, benches started creaking, and the screen illuminated itself with visions of journey across exotic or familiar landscapes, which more often than not celebrated the unfortunate glories of colonial landscapes or exalted patriotic vistas of the most remarkable locations of one’s nation.
The life of “Pleasure Railways” was relatively short, and, as happened with most of the attractions of the period, once their novelty character has been exhausted and most of their relatively scarce stock of films had been shown, they gradually faded out. Traces of the concept of a steady device that provides illusory space and time travel can still be found in many of the attractions that populate current funfairs. In other cases, the wide panoramic views of exotic landscapes flowing in front of one’s eyes gave way to far more vertical trips that relied more on the potential adrenaline side of the experience. What was lost in geographical exploration was won in the physical adventure of finding oneself safely located within a controlled capsule that was moving at high-speed, going across curved tracks, rising in specially designed patters and sometimes doing inversions and loops. The rollercoaster—and its predecessor the Russian mountain, as rollercoasters are still called in many countries, echoing the 18th century snow sled rides originally from Saint Petersburg—offered the possibility to discover the world from above, to have a bird’s-eye view of a city, to feel the excitement and thrills of moving fast while going nowhere.
Art translated cinema’s dreams of movement in surprising ways. Stan Douglas’s film installation Overture (1996) utilises phantom ride footages to situate the birth of cinema in its relation to the narrative of history, the construction of memory, and to the overall technological progress that was radically altering society in the transition between the 19th and the 20th centuries. The work combines various voice-over recordings of fragments from the opening pages of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (written between 1871 and 1922, films and text sharing approximately the same timeframe) with different segments of footage from two films, Kicking Horse Canyon (1889) and White Pass, British Columbia (1901), both shot by the Edison Film Company in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and part of their “Panoramic Views” series.
In Overture three film segments, edited together and divided by brief black intervals, are combined with six slightly different versions of Proust’s text, with the entire duration of about seven minutes for each entire looped cycle. Viewers are confronted with the various versions of the same narrative playing over the same images, slightly disrupting the memory of what they heard a few moments ago, and asserting the time of the machine as repetitive and accurate while presenting the time of the human experience as being susceptible to nuances and changes.
The various narratives describe similar circumstances of lucid dream and drowsiness, experiences in the threshold between conscious and unconsciousness. The narrator’s voice describes similar situations, as how “When I awoke in the middle of the night, I could not even be sure at first who I was; for it always happened when I awoke like this, and my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything revolved around me through the darkness: things, places, years” (…) “I lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils flaring, my heart beating; finally, the ignorance of a waking moment had, in a flash, if not presented me with a distinct picture, at least persuaded me of the possible presence of a room in the uncertain light.”
Expanding the representation of space offered by phantom rides towards a system of vision that considered other forms of movement beyond the latitude-longitude axis, Michael Snow’s 1971 film La Région Centrale offers a truly outlandish experience to its viewers. The three-hour film was entirely shot in five days in the region of the Eastern Canadian forest in Quebec and it relied on the creation of an apparatus—conceived by Snow together with film technician Pierre Abeloos—that allowed for a 360° movement of a 16mm film camera in all directions, whose course and speed could be remotely controlled.
No human or animal presence is seen on land, water or sky, only the vast, semi-flat natural area that surrounds the plateaux where the machine was positioned: stones, mosses, clouds and a distant lake are the most distinctive features of the landscape. Moving at a relatively slow but steady pace, the camera scans the surrounding region as the arm that holds it gradually leaves behind any form of classical panning to flip and turn in all possible directions. In doing so, it takes the viewer onto a unique journey of discovery, not only of the remote territory but also of another way of seeing. Gradually all sorts of conventional relations to space are broken, shattered onto the atmosphere; latitude and longitude make no more sense as forms of measuring distance and location; the disciplinary borders of geology, geometry, geography are shaken and twisted, fused onto a whirlpool. Perspective turns into movement and with it the viewer may experience a feeling of corporeal liberation from any cultural, physical and bodily constrains.
The film’s sound is derived from the machine’s movement; the electronic sonorities clash with the natural landscape of the film, enhancing a sense of an alien experience. Its repetitive, pulsating rumours stimulate a trance-like effect, while its irregular and unpredictable pace enhance a deep sense of extraneity. These dynamics between an immersive experience and a radical sense of displacement place La Région Centrale as one of the most radical proposals of revision of given canons, from questioning the human being’s position in the world, to rethinking the role and function of cinema, and even to re-evaluating concepts of time and history.
Simon Starling’s Phantom Ride (2013) video installation at Tate Britain revisited the past of museum’s main circulation area, the Duveen Galleries, by recreating the previous occupancy of the space during the history of the museum. The video combines footage of works installed in situ with computer-generated imagery that recreates other works that don’t exist anymore or that weren’t available at the time, and the installation was presented as a large projection located on the western extremity of the gallery. Displayed as a membrane positioned in front of the real space, the projection offered a virtual tour of the gallery that combined spatial simulation with time travelling, as artworks from different periods and belonging to various exhibition moments unfolded, one after the other, in a period of eight minutes that compressed history and that allowed for the coexistence of moments years or decades apart.
Instead of having a camera and a cameraman attached to a moving vehicle, as in the traditional phantom ride shootings, Starling used a motion control camera rig, a large robotic arm moving steadily, assuring a very accurate repetition of shots, movements and paces. Such precise repetitiveness was essential to create a sense of time travel, as similar shots and angles are repeated during video, each disclosing a different artwork, positioned in the exact same location where it had been installed in the past.
Presenting works as Jacob Epstein’s iconic robot-like Torso in Metal from ‘The Rock Drill’ (1913–14), Fiona Banner’s imposing large metallic sculpture Jaguar (2010) (later decommissioned), or Martin Creed’s Work No.850 (2008), featuring an athlete sprinting across the gallery’s nave, Simon Starling’s Phantom Ride adopts the same title as the film genre but changes its meaning. More than echoing the classical format of the phantom ride—the journey he offers is not done from within an invisible, ghostly, carrier—it consists of a ride across the phantoms of a place, artworks whose presence still haunts the space they occupied, ultimately suggesting that the writing of history (at least of the history of exhibition) is a science that deals with ghostly figures who recur individual and collective memory in order to claim their perennial address.
As single figures belonging to a far more complex cartography of artworks that deal with the cinematic staging of time and space, Overture, La Région Centrale and Phantom Ride have the rare capacity to induce psychosomatic reactions: they take possess of their viewer’s bodies and inhabit them, a sensation that lasts beyond the moment of the viewing experience. In doing so, they are directly affiliated to Katarina Löfström’s video Downhill (2015), which places such cinematic mind-altering journeys in dialogue with the legacy of the sound-vision experiments of the avant-garde as well as with more contemporary forms of popular culture and modes of entertainment.
Downhill’s music puts you in a drowsy mood, even if it feels inaccurate to call it music, as its most distinctive auditive feature is that of behaving like a quasi-hypnotic entity that induces a very calm state of mind and that goes beyond any melodic arrangement. But when writing about sound the shades that distinguish music from noise can be relatively limited, and Downhill’s audio is certainly more closely affiliated to the textures of music than to those of noise. The video’s sound alone explodes the conventional sense of a time in a very intense way. Repetitive yet with ups and downs, it evolves like an endless tide whose waters infinitely recede towards the sea. The synthetic beats and fluxes are highly processed and accompany the images throughout the entire duration of the video but bear delicate echoes of natural phenomena, summoning mellow visions of drizzle slowly falling down on a warm, early autumn night.
The auditive sense of light rain falling in very fine drops is complemented by the vision of moving spheres that punctually appear on the screen. Pulsating at the melody’s rhythm, they echo Oskar Fischinger’s sense of visual melody and his abstract animations in which the throbbing movement of figures suggested different paces and tempos. Such intrinsic relation between sound and image is one of the strongest features of Katarina Löfström’s artistic practice, which has been constantly signed by its transdisciplinary approach, and in particular to its closeness to music and science.
The spheres may also figure an abstract mental phenomenon, and represent the mind’s process of recollection, that action of involuntarily remembering something, when an image appears in one’s mind, bringing back a vision from past and sometimes forgotten moments. The impression of this process is not that different from seeing stars, a state of momentarily confusion and sense of displacement. Amid the abstract lights that appear floating in space, the subjective vision of the joyride is punctually interrupted by cloudy night scenes: someone leaving a house, entering a nightclub, ordering a drink, walking on the street, distorted faces of strangers appearing and disappearing. Brief interludes, these images appear almost subliminally and it is necessary to spend some time watching the video—which means being more and more absorbed and trapped by it—to fully assert their existence and to eventually get their significance.
It is only after multiple Downhill sessions that video’s complex interplay of layers start unfolding. What could initially appear as the portrait of an individual having glimpses of bohemian, altered actions while speeding up and down along the curves of the rollercoaster, everything captured in point of view shot, becomes a time travel journey onto Löfström’s own career. The flashbacks come from one of the most popular music videos that the artist—who in the 1990s scripted music videos for superstars of the pop scene—ever made.
The ghostly rollercoaster, whose face is never disclosed, becomes the ambiguous character of a 1990's electronic dance music video; becomes the hypnotised viewer, subjectively following the looping journey on the Russian mountain, and also becomes the artist reworking her own career, once more travelling across disciplinary ambits at full speed, mixing genres, cultural scenarios, figures, characters, and continuing to take dance culture with a seriousness and passion as few artists ever did.
In doing so, she becomes the ultimate joyrider, speeding beyond all the male references that share her interest in motion, sound and altered states, and intensively bringing back to life Gilles Deleuze’s assertion, "Every journey in the world is an exploration of the brain".
Filipa Ramos, August 2015
Erika Balsom, Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013).
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1989), (London: Continuum, 2005).
Mary Anne Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2002).
Stan Douglas, transcription of talk done at La Generazione delle Immagini, Milan, Spazio Oberdan, 1996. Available at: undo.net/cgi-bin/openframe.pl?x=/Pinto/gene4/douglas_eng.htm (last consulted 06.08.2015).