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# Between Limit and Transgression

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MA Paper,
Camberwell College of Arts,
University of the Arts London,
01-12-10.

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### Between Limit and Transgression

1. 1. Between Limit and TransgressionThe Play of Meaning at the Image’s Edge ----- Matthew Lee mail@matt-lee.com Chapman, J. & Chapman, D. (2000) Exquisite Corpse. ----- MA DIGITAL ARTS (VISUAL ARTS), 01 DECEMBER 2010 Course Leader: Jonathan Kearney Supervisor: Andrew Stiff Camberwell College, University of the Arts London
2. 2. 2                                                                                                                     Abstract --- How can the frame of the two-dimensional still image instigate a tension between presence andabsence, and a play between limit and transgression? A frame, by conventional definition, is an assertion that the edges of the still imageare necessary for containing and restricting representation. As a self-contained semiotic device,the frame presents to the viewer a sign, or a collection of signs, surrounded by an indeterminablenothingness, which can never come into view. The image frame’s purpose, then, is to make theworld it contains ‘ordered and rational’ (Friedberg, 2009, p.42), by structuring, limiting andclosing the field of two-dimensional representation with the intention to fix meaning and contextneatly within its four borders. This inquiry, however, challenges the notion that the frame presents fixed and stable meaning;instead the frame is a device that is capable of facilitating a dialogue between inside/ outside,presence/ absence. It is this indeterminable space outside the frame that the first part of thisinvestigation looks at in depth. Examples from drawing and photography demonstrate instanceswhen the edges of the image support a tension between what is present or viewable in the image,and what is absent, unseen, out of view, beyond its borders. Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the ‘out-of-field’ provides the theoretical basis for an exploration into how the still image is able to signifya “somewhere else” in space and time outside the frame (Deleuze, 2005, p.18). The investigation then goes on to explore other ways in which the still image is able totransgress the fixity of the frame. The Exquisite Corpse and patchwork quilt exemplify a frame orgrid with possibilities for limitless spatial expansion. In these procedural activities, the grid is theunderlying ordering and sequencing mechanism, which structures a ‘dynamic tension’ between‘rules and transgression’ (Kern, 2009, p.5). An examination of these ideas is then explored inrelation to the pixel-based digital image, with its potential for infinite compositional transformationand spatial development. This inquiry determines that the still image frame is capable of instigating a dialogical play orirresolvable tension, between what is present in the frame, and what is absent, beyond itsborders. This inquiry also shows that the frame or gridded mechanism in dynamic spatialdevelopment facilitates a ‘movement of a chain’, a transformative process in which meaning andcontext are inherently boundless (Derrida, 1980, p.292).Key words: Frame, Representation, Presence/ Absence, Semiotics, Play
3. 3. 3                                                                                                                     Between Limit and Transgression The Play of Meaning at the Image’s Edge --- The four fixed borders that frame a conventional still image function to demarcatethe space available for representation while limiting the domain available to the artist, and, inturn, what is presented to the viewer. The frame may have a material thickness, as in thestructural gilt frame around a Renaissance painting, or it may be an immaterial border, as in theedges of a photograph. However, the essential definition of a frame is to contain and restrict. Theframe of the painting and the frame of the camera ‘always leaves out more of the world than itcan fit in’ (Hedges, 1991, p.xvi); compelling the artist to make critical choices between what isincluded and excluded from the visual plane. Michael Carter takes this further, observing that ‘thefundamental characteristic of the visual image is that it has an edge, it stops. Unlike reality whichappears as unbounded, the image constantly displays to its viewer the fact that it is different fromreality by having an edge’ (Carter, 1990, p.149). The purpose of this edge is to distinguishdifference, not only between what is included and excluded from within representational space,but also between representational space and real space. Framing is a fundamental necessity forcomprehension, because without it, differences between these dualities become problematic:‘framing always supports and contains that which, by itself, collapses forthwith’ (Derrida, 1987,p.79). The frame then, attempts to make the world it contains ‘ordered and rational’ (Friedberg,2009, p.42), by structuring, limiting and closing the field of two-dimensional representation inorder to fix meaning and context neatly within its four borders. Does this conventional definition of the frame encompass all two-dimensional images? Arethere not examples of images that transgress strict framing rationale? One such example of transgressing the frame may be the Exquisite Corpse (Cadavre Exquis), acollaborative game popularized by the Surrealists in which the frame continually extends,incorporating more and more content to a potentially ever-expanding composition. The processfor this game begins with one person drawing some visual material across a delimited section ofpaper, which is then folded over so that the next contributing artist can only see the very end ofwhat had been drawn. The second person continues the composition, joining the ends of theprevious unseen section with his own contribution; this is again folded over and hidden from theview of the next contributing artist. The game continues in this manner, with all previous sectionsremaining hidden from view until the game is considered over, all connecting sections are thenunfolded, revealing a string of heterogeneous visual material. It is at the end of the game when the work is unfolded that the mechanisms of the ExquisiteCorpse are fully observable. At the micro level it is revealed that the final image is comprised of aseries of delineated sections, with each of these demarcating (framing) the space within whicheach contributor has drawn his part. It is also apparent that each artist has joined his contributionwith the previous input and that the image parts have come to connect across the divide between
4. 4. 4                                                                                                                    these sections. At the macro level however, this content, which has continually transgressed aseries of gridded sections, has now become static, fixed within a rigid frame, encompassing allparts that make up the whole. In the end, there is no way for the still image to break free fromframing convention. In the Exquisite Corpse there is a play between limit and limit’s transgressionas more and more content comes into view, into presence, during the game; but once ended, thework reaches its boundary, it too becomes framed like any other image. Chapman, J. & Chapman, D. (2000) Exquisite Corpse. The four edges of the artwork are then necessary for structuring, limiting and closing the fieldof representation, ‘[allowing] us to experience the artwork as unproblematically present’ (Duro,1996, p.5). Though the frame usually does not draw attention to itself, it has an essential role infocusing the viewer’s gaze towards the meaning it presents and privileges above what is exterioror excluded from view. As Roland Barthes states in Image, Music, Text: The tableau…is a pure cut-out segment with clearly defined edges, irreversible and incorruptible; everything that surrounds it is banished into nothingness, remains unnamed, while everything that it admits within its field is promoted into essence, into light, into view. (Barthes, 1977, p.70) Here Barthes defines the tableau (frame) as a rigid, clinical and absolute structure thatoperates as a delimiting boundary between what is present or viewable in the image, and what isabsent, unseen, out of view beyond its borders. He establishes that the frame forms a ‘clearlydefined’ divide between dualities of presence/ absence, acknowledging that to limit, is to alsoimply there is something beyond limit, which has been rejected. Essentially, Barthes regards thestill image frame as a self-contained semiotic device, one which presents to the viewer a sign, or acollection of signs, surrounded by a nothingness, which can never come into view (Manovich,2001, p.104). In Cinema 1, Gilles Deleuze extensively critiques this indeterminable space, whichhe refers to as the ‘out-of-field’ (hors-champ) – that which exists in space beyond the frame that
5. 5. 5                                                                                                                    ‘is neither seen nor understood, but is nevertheless perfectly present’ (Deleuze, 2005, p.17).Unlike Barthes, who refers to this unseen space as absent nothingness, Deleuze instead claimsthat the ‘out-of-field’ has a persistent presence in dialogical relation with the image: In one case, the out-of-field designates that which exists elsewhere, to one side or around; in the other case, the out-of-field testifies to a more disturbing presence, one which cannot even be said to exist, but rather to ‘insist’ or ‘subsist’, a more radical Elsewhere, outside homogeneous space and time. (Deleuze, 2005, p.18) This concept of the ‘out-of-field’ then challenges the idea that the frame presents fixed andstable meaning within its borders. This ‘radical Elsewhere’ outside the image also has semioticvalue; it functions as an interpretive space and is set in motion by the viewer’s imagination,making ‘the image into a mental image, open…on to a play of relations which are purely thought’(Deleuze, 2005, p.19). This idea can be seen at work across a variety of Edward Gorey’sillustrated stories, where the ‘out-of-field’ has a prominent role in the delivery (or non-delivery) ofthe macabre tale. In Gorey’s abecedarian book The Gaschlycrumb Tinies what is not seen in theframe becomes the significant focus. Each singular illustration is accompanied by a line of textthat tells us of an absent event which has either already happened and is now out of the frame: ‘Kis for Kate who was struck with an Axe’, or is about to enter the frame in the imminent future: ‘Vis for Victor squashed under a train’. Here, the text and image signify a “somewhere else” in spaceand time outside the borders of the frame. Gorey does not present a fixed image of the eventitself, but with just enough contextual information for the viewer to form a mental image of theincident. In Story For Sara, Gorey uses text this time to describe what is happening outside of theboundary of the frame at that given instant: ‘The cat didn’t care a bit; he swallowed her in onemouthful‘. Here, the tail of the cat can be seen just in the right of the frame, but all else has beencensored from view. The specific context is then established through the text – If this text werealtered, then naturally so would our perception of the action implied beyond the frame.Gorey, E. (1963) The Gaschlycrumb Tinies. Gorey, E. (1971) Story For Sara.