Tacita Dean—The Materiality of the Signifier

In her monumental exhibit at Tate Modern last year, Tacita Dean used celluloid frames as tableau on which to write a solid defense of analog cinema. The spectacular spaces of the Turbine hall supported the much needed manifesto for the moment as the digital threatens the existence of celluloid film. She returned to the techniques of early cinema-glass matte painting, masking, mirroring and multiple exposures so we could see the celluloid for what it was: a distinct signifier with its own materiality, richer in its capabilities of indexical signification. Cinema cannot die any time soon, despite the attempts to kill it. That exhibit will remain as one of the definitive gestures keeping the medium alive, protecting it from the threats of its demise, tempering the talk of re-locating/reworking, and replacing cinema by its pretentious digital successors and its attractive technologies. The digital, she seemed to assert, deprives itself of this materiality. It is poised to co-exist with the celluloid, not replace it. The digital needs to chart its own history and not mix its paths with that of film, the celluloid, and the cinema.

Dean’s demonstration of the “green ray” off the coast of Madagascar, where the digital cameras gazing at the sinking sun failed to capture the magic of the green ray in its final moments for the day, is a testimony to the essential difference between celluloid and the digital.  The abilities of indexical signification of film are richer while that of the digital are manipulable and deceptive. As the medium that Dean and many other artists thrive on disappears—16mm film—so is 35 mm film. Along with film, vastly rich and complex discourses of viewing, social relationships, institutions and habits are vanishing in front of our eyes. Dean’s work cannot be dismissed as merely an anxiety of an artist or a defense of nostalgia that pines for the return of the past. As Marshall McLuhan cautioned us decades ago, we look to artists and poets to think of the future that we cannot see. Dean’s FILM installation at Tate Modern emphatically asserts the specificity of cinema, denying, as Rosalind Krauss points out in her elegant speech at Tate Modern, the mythical grip of “post-medium” condition. Celluloid and digital are not all cinema; each is a different manifestation of a generalized experience called cinema.

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When Francesco Casetti speaks of “re-location” of cinema, he speaks a broad experiential realm of watching images. In his recent comments on Tacita Dean at Tate, he brackets the Turbine Hall experiment as only an artist’s vision, while at the BFI Southbank or in London Neighborhoods, one could watch various formations/re-locations of that experience. If experience is to be a guide at the crossroads of history for film viewing, then it is also clear that each experience is structured by the signifier which provides the essential seat of that signification. The thetic experiences of watching a 35mm film in a theater, watching a pixilated image on the desktop, or on handheld device are constitutively different. To assume they are the same is to deny the complexity of the experience; it is to disengage meaning from the factors and forces that shape it.

This notion of materiality of the signifier is not something that merely belongs to the exploration by art and artists. It defines the discourse of signification. In our times, it was Jacques Derrida who challenged the primacy of one signifier- speech over that of the other- writing. In his “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” Derrida muses that attention to technology of inscription would allow us to see history of “literary forms themselves” differently. Like Freud, he is mindful of the materiality of the signifier, the intricate writing of the dream apparatus, defying mere images or language, but constituting both. Their attempts to assert materiality of writing suggested hermeneutics ought to pay attention to the signifier and not equate their difference to a signifying generality. In his sensuous approach to this question, Roland Barthes returned to the “grain” of the voice. The “grain” he said, “is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.” He concludes that “simple consideration of ‘grain’ in music could lead to a different history from the one we know now,” breaking away from the “tonality accomplished in modernity.” For Barthes, “grain” was corporeal; it was “ingrained” in the movements of the muscle, dancer’s calves, and the finger tips. Speech and voice have presented enigmatic questions to philosophers and practitioners alike. Gregory Whitehead asked one of the most central questions in what he called “schizophonic” culture, where disembodiment and disengagement with the moment of time define our engagement with recorded and broadcast sound. As he dives deeper into the waves that make radio, he returns again and again to the “dead” letters, sound that is felt at its core, in textured materiality of its construction and its intricate work of radio art rather than the mechanical reports of its delivery or acceptance.

Tacita Dean Spine_small

Corporeality was, of course, the main reminder that allowed Maurice Merleau-Ponty to rescue perception and thought from the clutches of Cartesian grip. He found what was already there: le corps propre, from where he would then discover an entire energetic enterprise of recognizing materiality of perception. It wasn’t just that eyes perceived and the mind registered, but the whole corporeal apparatus that made it possible. History of perception looks different after Merleau-Ponty. As Vivian Sobchak has showed us, watching films from the seat of our lived bodies with Merleau-Ponty looking over our shoulders is very different from free-floating perceptual observations we bring to bear on the moving images. In Western philosophy, all this begins to change with Wilhelm Dilthey and Edmund Husserl. They re-directed perception, experience and meaning away from unquestioned rigidity of categories onto a terrain of “thesis,” that foundational gesture which is inaugurates meaning. Meaning, from Husserl onwards, is a process based on the materiality of founding gestures, on distinctiveness of experience. This turn in philosophy is what Alphonso Lingis calls the “spirituality” of Western philosophy. The incarnate experience reigns over rules, categories and concepts. Merleau-Ponty’s enigmatic concept of flesh is that beguiling middle ground where the subject-object duality merges and we begin to sense a different kind of materiality. It is here that Foucault would find the origins of discourse, defying the dualism for good and opening up inquiries into forces that constitute the haunting dualism inherited from Descartes.

It was McLuhan, the English professor turned closet phenomenologist, who observed that experiences are structured by technologies, by the signifiers. McLuhan was so persuasive that it became fashionable to dismiss him as a deterministic. The basic force of his argument was effective; not all significations are alike and most owe much to the materiality of the medium. In fact, the signifier is the message, he said, in a fit of blasphemy.  The distinction between one wave of signifiers and the other is in their shape, their contours, their embrace of our senses and their abilities to immerse us in their world. Thus, the African drums: the radio ruled for a while and then came the military marches of the printed words in linear discipline that dictated our orientation to the world. The tactile was the most superior to him because it had the dense materiality of all senses. In his schema, even the optical, the visual was sensed as tactile. He spoke of touching the TV screens, whose tiny images forced Americans to grasp everything around them. Crazily but correctly, he prophesized a world of miniature goods in sprawling America. We are just beginning to fathom McLuhan as Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio help us find a locus on the rapidly shifting terrain. Also, the skilled dexterity of Friedrich Kittler awakens us to see the new world of digital storehouse as a merging of signifiers.

Standing on McLuhan’s shoulders, Kittler embraced the sheer materiality of technology, beginning with their surfaces and deep into their essences. His descriptions of the emergence of cinema have a Dadaist provocation to them, but the invitation is similar to McLuhan’s—to think outside the box until we cannot escape the forces that are shaping our primal experiences of the shifting environments. McLuhan was one of the most alert witnesses to the transformations of one medium into another, and Kittler one of the most provocative. The old medium never dies; it is re-made into a new world. The “post-medium” never arrives. Cinema belongs to the new world of information storage and collapsing of time and space, but its essences remain unique to itself. Its specificity is endowed with a gift that cannot be snatched away. The digital needs to navigate in this new world by looking in its rear view mirror just so it does not lose its bearing.

From his perch in California, cinematographer John Bailey gives an “insider’s” account of the demise of celluloid and the coming of digital era. It is worth a read because Bailey recalls, again and again, his sensory experience of handling film and working with it. He aligns himself with Dean, who experiences film in its “physicality, tactility, even olfactory qualities.” As a working practitioner of both analog and digital, he says that by watching Dean’s work on film, “we can almost smell the film as she lifts it, a shimmering backlight catching its tight wind around a yellow plastic core.” The sensory awakening to the materiality of the signifier that both Bailey and Dean experience is owed to the stable reflective moment of the transition from analog to digital. It is as if we are returning to the materiality when it is most highlighted by the signifier that threatens to surpass it. The rush of celluloid has settled in our veins and now we have entered the much needed contemplative phase of thinking of what celluloid meant to us and what we will miss in its absence.  Film theory and film thinking are ever so preoccupied by phenomenology and philosophy in this moment. Thomas Elsaesser’s reconsideration of film theory through sensory experiences and Laura Marks’s work on “haptic” visuality shares the same moment on cinema. As we engage ourselves with all these emerging currents, we will know that as cinema re-locates, it is also transformed and perhaps, what is re-located isn’t cinema; it is something else, with its own different and distinct materiality. In that moment of awareness, Tacita Dean will be the visionary that McLuhan entrusted us with.




The book catalogue published by Tate Modern for the exhibition, FILM, reads as a veritable collection of testimonies on the distinct materiality of celluloid. Filmmakers, artists, actors, theorists, and archivists all make clear the overarching distinction between the celluloid and the digital. The former is a trace of reality, even in its manipulation; it is a remnant, an archive of material existence, an inscription of the event as it occurred. The latter, attempting to claim that prized quality of belonging, cannot escape the cruel curse that it is a translation; it is a code, a manufactured texture in its essence. When the digital claims to be like its predecessor, it resorts to the glitz of its casing, its glamorous frames and its technological wizardry. To say that the experience of the two is the same is to differentiate between what is life-like and the life itself.


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In her introductory piece, Dean recalls Maya Deren’s “vertical” cinema which defies the linear, narrative traps of “horizontal” cinema. The very frame of the celluloid, the canvas on which one can write poetry and art and with which the viewer engages as if entering a deeper treasure of meanings, is the precious ground of that vertical cinema. It wasn’t explored only by the experimental film makers but by the poets of cinema who worked to persuade cinephiles to embrace, caress, and enter the cinematic frame. The cinema of Resnais and Renoir, and Ozu and Tarkovsky, and Ghatak and Hsiao-Hsien is different because they understood the labyrinthine richness of cinematic frame.

Dean’s exhibition and the book, she asserts are not meant to be “valedictory.” “But they are, nonetheless, a call to arms.” The advocates of the celluloid who join her, from Nicole Brenez to Martin Scorsese and from Amy Taubin to Marina Warner, vouch to maintain the slipping specificity of the celluloid while most acknowledge and the book clearly recognizes that the analogue film has to be preserved in the inevitable onslaught of the digital. The two can co-exist, but it is necessary to join hands to protect the celluloid, the cinematic for its distinct materiality is a gift rooted in existence. And above all, as a trace, it holds memory, preserves it for us. Detached from a connection with the real, the digital re-writes the memory without even recalling its trace. The consequences of losing that connection are frightening.

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