Time takes a cigarette by Sara Arrhenius
Some notes on Runa Islam’s film Time Lines
The old fairground looked totally unaltered. It was all still here: the creaky roller coaster, the flashing merry-go-rounds, the lanterns and the tombola stand, the promise-filled smell of candy floss, and the chilly Nordic spring with a nip in the air for us children. This was already a place for nostalgia when I was small. Built in the late 19th century on the outskirts of Stockholm, it was a gaudy memento of that century’s desire for pleasure, relaxation and a moment’s giddiness. Now more than ever, it seems like a monument to a historical epoch: the age of the machine with its hopes and promises to liberate humankind with the wonders of technology. But, despite our living in a time of virtual realities and of technology that has created fusions of man and machine far more sophisticated than that era could have dreamed of, the magic lives on, the squeaky mechanisms are still able to cast their spell. I stand far below on the ground, keeping a close eye on my daughter: she is plunged down the steep slope of the roller coaster, the car groans, the tracks creak, she screams until she almost chokes, and for a moment she is flying, the laws of gravity suspended.
It is in this dream – this fantasy of a machine being able to carry a human being through time and space, allowing her to fly, to float, to see everything – that Islam’s new film Time Lines takes place. One of the main characters is an aeroplane, built in 1928, going round and round at the top of the Tibidabo Amusement Park in Barcelona which was originally created by a philanthropist at the end of the 19th century. Another is the cable car, from the same period, that carries visitors up to the Amusement Park. With their old-fashioned mechanical technology, both are monuments to that age’s utopia of man and machine.
The film’s opening scene shows an elderly couple, dressed appropriately for the time, gazing in fascination at the aeroplane, its vertiginous speed blowing gusts of wind through their clothes. The new age is here, and with it a new humanity without limitations. Before the great wars, technology and modernity seemed only to offer new opportunities and play. The cable car station, a pavilion of iron on tall legs standing high above the city, is in itself an image of the era’s dreams of the potential of technology and architecture. From there people could travel high above their everyday concerns, into the future. But the cable-car station is also a vantage point from which to behold the world. A panopticon, a place where we have total oversight, and where the eye of humanity is all-seeing and in control.
In the work of the early filmmakers, contemporaries of the cable car and the aeroplane at the amusement park, we find ideas about the camera as an improvement on the eye. The mechanical gaze of the camera was able to register things that the defective human eye could not. The film camera offered the potential for a new way of seeing and a new art. But this utopia of the power of seeing is not without flaws. In his pioneering study on the history of seeing Martin Jay shows how there is an underlying ambivalence in this period’s notion of visuality. The belief in the capacity of technology to offer total visibility coexists with a mistrust of the human eye that was to manifest itself in the art and literature of modernism.
Islam’s rich, multifaceted films are frequently about how in our culture underlying political structures manifest themselves in art and other cultural production. The object here seems to be the accelerating modernity of the last century. In Time Lines an aeroplane at an amusement park becomes the starting point for a reworking of the way our technology can mirror the collective unconscious of a culture. She has the camera intrusively examine the machinery of the aeroplane and the cable car’s power lines. She playfully dwells on the old-fashioned folding camera that a young woman dressed in flowing garments from the 1920s is playfully using to take photographs. It was specifically at this time that women photographers acquired a professional identity and became seeing subjects. In Time Lines such small details become significant, an important part of the historicisation of the moment that becomes a route towards making things visible, and towards understanding. Our technologies for seeing, for instance, the camera, are never innocent, but are part of the period’s special historical circumstances, which also play a role in the history of seeing and the image.
In the film the grand, old-fashioned cable car serves as a metaphor for time and its motion. Like in a time machine hovering high above all confining temporality, the cable-car platform becomes a meeting point for memories and forgotten moments from all ages. In this one lingering, dreamlike shot the station is populated by carefree people from the era of its birth. The time feels totally new. Another journey is the one into the viewer’s present, into our own time, amid contemporary faces. Here the camera eye also follows an elderly couple, whose dignified and beautifully sculpted faces feel familiar from earlier on. Then, their age was a sign of the old era on the threshold of the new, but when they are situated in the present moment, we read their age as signifying experience of the history of modern Spain.
As viewers we have been invited to take part in a journey that seems to move within various intersecting circles, but which, despite that, never carries us along with it back to where we started from. We are brought face to face with different epochs, in a moment in which personal and collective memories are mingled, in which the past and the present are transformed, moving as rapidly as the clouds of smoke that envelop the cable car station. An experience that is reinforced by the film’s soundtrack, which gets the wires of the cable car to act as conductors for voices, music and events that propagate themselves through time.
As always in her works Islam makes use of arresting beauty to lure viewers into a complex game with various levels of fiction, narrative perspective and ways of seeing. She skilfully stages the magic that is the film’s very own – the hallucination of the moment, the experience of losing oneself in the image – so as in the next moment to reveal equally elegantly how the trick is done, and to show how it is a part of and dependent on its specific cultural circumstances. The illusionistic magnificence of the opening scene is followed by a scene showing a model of the aeroplane and the amusement park. Different modes of narrative are juxtaposed, and as viewers we become intensely conscious that both are constructions and only offer partial accounts of reality.
Time Lines was shot on 35mm film and is shown as a film installation. In today’s digitised image world choosing to work with film, and to include in the work traditional filmic spatial modes of display, reinforces its historicising dimension. Besides the experience of the work’s strong visual and audio quality, the choice of technology and mode of display make the viewer intensely conscious of the work’s materiality. The film that runs through the projector, projected frame by frame onto the screen. The film reel that has to be changed manually by the cinema machinist and which will gradually wear out. When the work was shown at the art biennial in Göteborg, the cinema was built in a part of the exhibition that visitors had to pass through to get to other parts of the show. As viewers, we were constantly being observed by others. Between showings of the film, the room was dimly lit, like a cinema auditorium in readiness for the next show. As much as it was a place to see the film, the room was an image of the experience of seeing films. As viewers we were made aware of our own seeing, in contrast to the classical cinema that allows us to remain invisible in the dark while being hypnotised by the shimmering screen in front of us.
Film will always in some sense be about the time dimension, and time has also been used as subject matter by many of the contemporary artists who are interested in film as a mode of expression. In Islam’s work time always seems to be present as structure, material and motif. The movement of time is in many ways a driving force in Time Lines. But the time lines that Islam allows to unfold in the 17 minute film are never linear, nor is it possible to follow them like the handy chronologies found in history books. Time does not go forwards in a progressive, cumulative development, in which event is piled upon event. Instead, as viewers of Time Lines we get to see a time that moves in different directions and layers simultaneously. A time that does not keep to an objective scale, but which slows down, turns back and repeats itself in unpredictable ways.
A striking example of how this formation of gestalts of time manifests itself in the work is through the subtle use of anachronism as an ambivalent, ambiguous time signal. Costumes and reconstructions of an imagined past are principal motifs in the film. When we take a closer look specifically at the scenes that show another time, despite their meticulous staging, they have a strangely out of place aura. Things typical of the time seem de-familiarised and not quite right. We never actually get a chance to surrender ourselves completely to the escape from the reality of the epochs in the film. As viewers we are instead reminded, by very subtle means, that this is specifically a reconstruction, of an original whose provenance is obscure. Anachronism can often give the impression that all times exist simultaneously, and so create a sense of ‘historylessness’, that history is a prop that has been stored away with its batteries flat for retrieval when topical colour is to be added.
In Time Lines the anachronisms perform another function: they create a space of reconstructed history that gives us a chance to see differences and specificities in certain places and at certain points in time. But we do this conscious of the fact that our vantage point is that of the period we live in. The cable car and the people who wait chatting to take a seat in the cabins to travel out over the city belong to a specific historical moment that is created out of distinct political and social circumstances. We can never return there and nor can we ever fully reconstruct it. Here is anachronism’s nostalgic dimension, which is a powerful thread running through Time Lines. We know that the reconstructive act to some degree is always a matter of returning to something that has been lost forever, vanished into the depths of the past. The anachronistic reminder brings us back to the present and causes us to remember that all history writing and all attempts to recreate a past are necessarily incomplete. We know this, and that is why we persist in trying time and time again. But this repetition also has – and it is precisely this that I see as a crucial dimension in Time Lines in particular and in Islam’s work in general – a creative aspect. Reconstructing, re-reading and altering the past via additions, reinterpretations and re-phrasings is a reworking of the past, but to an equal extent it is a creation and making visible of the moment in which we find ourselves now.
First Published in ‘Timelines’, Runa Islam, White Cube 2005