LLS 387, vzw
Paleisstraat 140 - 2018 Antwerpen
mobile: 0032/(0)0497/481727


The Autonymist.
The Video Works of Wim Catrysse

by Jon Thompson

'The enigmatic copy, the interesting one, is the dislocated copy: at the same time it reproduces and reverses: it can reproduce only by reversing, it disturbs the infinite sequence of replicas...
(the) barber getting a haircut, shoeshine boy (in Morocco) having his shoes shined, a cook making herself dinner, an actor going to the theatre... All of which is autonymy: that disturbing (comical and banal) strabismus of an operation that comes full circle: something like an anagram, an inverted over-printing, a breakdown of levels.'

Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes

tending away from or towards the centre;

to centrifugalise
to subject to centrifugal force;

a centrifuge
a machine which, by rapid rotation,
separates substances of different densities or
particles of different weights...

The centrifuge, manifest as a spiralling motion, is present in three recent video works by Wim Catrysse: Pursuit and Untitled (Shadow) made in 1998 and Unmastered Behaviour, a multi-screen installation completed in 2000.

In the first of these, Pursuit, a semi-naked male figure is seen from behind, crouching and scurrying away from us anti-clockwise. Always veering to the left in search of the darkness. Like Lautréamont's Night Rider, he is trying desperately, it seems, to escape the eye of the camera. Enclosed by walls that form a circular passageway from which there is no apparent means of escape, the camera echoes, very precisely, the man's frenetic, animal-like, forward motion. It would appear that the man himself is deeply implicated in this watching game too; that he is locked into a system of surveillance for which he is both trigger and subject; that caught up in the mechanistic play of the centrifuge, the man is pursuing and watching himself. And the more he tries to take flight, the more stutteringly insistent does his image become. The flow of information is arrested - used up - even reversed and because of the fixedness of the light source - like the looping and leaping, ghosted image produced in a magic lantern - the running figure seems to assume the character of a psychic recurrence, a spiritual emanation. The 'fugitive' is returned to us almost as a supraphysical phenomenon: man as figment of the imagination; man as 'uncanny' presence.

Like in a haunting too, the normal function of memory has been short-circuited; the specific referent - the one who haunts – paradoxically, is rendered tragically absent. The real human subject has been lost to the action. Given this emptying out, it is perhaps not surprising that in the second of these 1998 works, made only a few weeks later using the same constructed space, Catrysse chooses to absent the figure altogether.

Here, the camera circles the space on its own; seems to be looking for rather than at something. Still the space twists away into the darkness, but now the image seems to have acquired some of the psychically charged qualities of a mirror. Out of its very blankness, our unconscious preoccupations are played back to us almost as eternal recurrence in the Nietzschean sense: a staged recycling of imminent experience; as an endless rehearsal of our own 'returning'; the serial, successive nature of being itself. Where Pursuit retained a notion of the subject as 'other', independent of both the person of the author-artist - and of the viewing-subject, in this, its, Untitled (Shadow) companion piece we are left alone naming ourselves as both 'stand-in' author and subject of a strangely animated, 'cinematographically-inscribed' - spatial apparition.

In Unmastered Behaviour this question of agency is brought into even sharper focus. The figures who inhabit the space are victims, it seems, of a force that they cannot resist, and one that we, the viewers, have difficulty in pinning down. By fixing the relationship between the light-source, the video-camera and the architecture of the space, and by setting them in motion and rotating them absolutely together, Catrysse forces us to ask the question "who and by what means is the image made afresh as an 'inscription' of movement."

Although the device is a simple one, its linguistic implications are highly complex. Figurally speaking, it is precisely what Roland Barthes calls autonymy; an endlessly self - replicating, apparently stable mise en scène is used to anagrammatise - seemingly put into reverse - the actions of Catrysse's human protagonists. They struggle desperately to achieve the centre of the space whilst seeming to be acting in relation to the walls. But there is a shift in levels involved here too. The clue is to be found in Barthes' reference to the condition of strabismus – the suggestion of a simulated squint - a pretend, involuntary movement of the eye and a decentring of the gaze which results in something like a 'real' impairment of vision. In Catrysse's installation, for example, we are clearly seeing precisely what the camera sees and at the same time misconstruing its behaviour (the very fact that it is in motion) to the point where the 'real' begins to assume an almost sinister aspect. The tendency then - the resulting shift of levels - is unmistakably towards the 'sublime', but in a very particular way. Arriving at a 'realisation' of what is actually being pictured by the camera involves us in an intimate 'making' or 'remaking' of the mise en scène; in the first instance as a mental construction, in order that afterwards it can 'become' vivid to perception and to the imagination. By this means our understanding of both the mechanism and the resulting image-pattern is made part of a synoptic apprehension of something approaching a 'totality'. This is the point at which Catrysse's work draws close to and at the same time separates itself from the cut-and-paste language of cinema.

The inherent 'sublimity' of all cinematic images depends upon a fragmentary, 'scopic' serialisation of visual impressions, usually held together by the inner workings of narrative. However, in Catrysse’s work, all of the trappings of narrative are stripped away. The actions of his protagonists seem inconsequential arbitrary even. A hidden temporal ‘anamorphism’; a stretching out to breaking point, and a flattening of the directional and temporal relationship between cause and effect have replaced narrative time.

a deformed figure appearing in proportion when rightly viewed,
e.g. in a curved mirror, or from a particular direction.
(From the Greek, 'anamorphosis', a forming
anew, a shaping 'back' anew.)

This combination of strabismus and anamorphism occur in a more direct form in two other works by Wim Catrysse, Si Ça Vous Arrive Ce Soir made in 1998, and another multi-screen installation work, Contractions, made in 1999. Here the shift towards 'sublimity' is even clearer. Both are shot through a flexible mirror. In Contractions it is used to collapse and render liquid the space-time continuum of the image while, more interestingly, in Si Ça Vous Arrive Ce Soir it is used to 'split' or 'double' the subject. The face of a man, somewhat blurred - hinting at an indirect imaging process of some kind, slightly elongated but otherwise in a state of repose, is revealed, fist of all on the right-hand side of the screen. There is a feint and hard-to-source sound - a 'bleep' almost - and the same face, now with its mouth wide open and screaming, suddenly reverses, and shifts to the opposite side of the screen. The 'bleep' seems to function as a trigger for both the sound track and the relocation of the face within the frame. Otherwise this endlessly repeated visual drama of physiognomic 'relocation' would seem to have been looped in some way.

Now it is characteristic of Catrysse's work, that while the effects, or indeed, the linguistic implications of the different pieces might be complex and difficult to read, in principle, the means employed – as with his use of the centrifuge - is almost always simple; the application disarmingly direct. This is where he parts company with the dominant, bifurcating mainstream of contemporary video art in which the rhetorical tropes tend to constitute a sort of 'poor' cinema: the skewed documentary, for example, or the truncated and highly personalised psycho- narrative. By contrast, Catrysse's aim seems to be one of establishing an atmosphere of objectivity. Editing, if it is used at all, is kept to the bare minimum and the camera is either hand-held or it occupies a fixed position in relation to the subject. Like the works that use a centrifugal device, Si Ça Vous Arrive Ce Soir also asks us to complete the circle of interpretation by reading back from the image to the means; to close the gap between arrangement - location of the thing pictured within the frame - and selection - the choice (or otherwise) of the overall image; to reconcile its syntagmatic aspect - spatial sequencing - with its paradigmatic aspect - its function as part of a language system. The enigmatic nature of the image and its downright inscrutability here takes on a distinctly linguistic aspect in which 'time' must be understood not simply as a given property of the moving image, but as a crucial element in the play of figural language. In asking us to decide whether we are facing a continuous sequence during which the camera's eye remains fixed unblinkingly on the subject, or a carefully contrived pattern of generic fragments which have been spliced together piece-meal, Catrysse is also asking us to test its cohesiveness as metaphor and to weigh its metonymic density.

It is a curious, even a compelling characteristic of this particular work that despite the repeated points of dislocation we end up concluding that it is metaphoric before it is metonymic. Whatever it is that is going on (and at first sight the piece seems to be quite opaque) the passage of time is continuous, the continuity of the image, pretty well seamless. Rather than an edited piece - a demonstration of cinematic artifice - we are facing a phenomenon in which the facts - it turns out that he is quite simply switching the face across the surface of a flexible mirror by flipping it backwards and forwards and screaming with the image as it jumps and reverses itself - appear to be entirely at odds with our initial perception of them. Catrysse plays the same game to great effect in another work of 1998 called Walking, Up and Down, although here the means are more transparent and the effective life of the image more dependent upon metonymy than metaphor. In Walking, Up and Down we can quickly deduce what is going on by paying attention to the cropping of the image. The illusion, while it is thoroughly engaging, is more amusing than it is profound. By contrast, the metaphoric force of Si Ça Vous Arrive ce Soir, which starts from its refusal to divulge its means, does not end there, but slithers and slides instead into a Beckett-like metaphoric conundrum between self and other; the familial and the strange.

Watt asked the man who he was and how he had got in.
He felt that it was his duty to do this. My name is Micks, said
the stranger. One moment I was out, and the next I was in.

Beckett's mysterious stranger in Watt whose profession turns out to be an 'opener of doors', like Catrysse's jumping physiognomic trace in Si Ça Vous Arrive Ce Soir, as well as a 'doubling' is also a 'substitution'. He doesn't just change places but he also crosses a crucial figurative threshold and in the process, becomes, quite literally, 'another'. In this respect the work’s delay in yielding up the manner of it's making to the viewer, is crucial to our reading of it. And even when we begin to understand how it is done, rather than it loosing power by laying stress upon the mysterious central darkness within the image; by producing it as a kind of temporal hiatus, it continues to accrue metaphoric force. As the result of this creative operation which itself participates in the facticity of the experience, Si Ça Vous Arrive Ce Soir succeeds in creating a hole in the fabric of reason - Beckett was fond of referring to this type of device as a Vicoean regress - into which is sucked all of our speculative energy. Linguistically speaking, then, the two images even though they are clearly images of the same head, act in a similar way to the twinned but otherwise unrelated referents in a metaphor. They become metaphorically co-active, but afford no immediate means of rational mediation.

Like Samuel Beckett and many others before him, Catrysse is here playing with the permeable membrane that separates the tragic from the farcical. When eventually we come to an understanding of what precisely is going on in works like Walking, Up and Down and Si Ça Vous Arrive Ce Soir, the initial seriousness suddenly gives way to something approaching an experience of the comic. And this transition is heavily underscored by repeating the image sequence; the stuffing full- or the filling out - of time.

Farce is an ambiguous form, since it permits us to read within it
the figure of what it mockingly repeats: as with Accountancy...
This farce recurrence is itself the mockery of the materialist emblem:
the spiral (introduced by Vico into our Western discourse).
On the spiral's trajectory
everything recurs, but in another, higher place...
Farce, however, recurs lower down;
it is a metaphor that leans fades and fails (slackens)

At first sight, Barthes' referencing of the Vicoean gyre in terms of Accountancy might appear somewhat obscure. Indeed, it makes sense only when we see it as a means of recording a transaction of the kind mentioned above: a translation from one value system into another; material value into a metaphysical value. A movement from a lower to a higher plain: monetary value, for example, into aesthetic value. Such a vision takes us back to the pre-Socratics, the Alchemists and most particularly to the Platonist, Bernadus Silvestris, who provided the poet Dante Alighieri with his geometric model joining hell and purgatory in a spiralling closed system; a balance sheet, if you like, of human action and consequence.

Like all centrifugal visions and this applies also to the works of Wim Catrysse, Virgil’s descensus - inescapably an image of invagination – is a descent towards a very particular kind of zero point - potentially a moment of divine intervention or immaculate conception - where the word is transformed into matter in the bowels of the feminine... or not, as the case may be. Zero, viewed from this standpoint, is at one and the same time all and nothing; presence wrapped up in the garb of eternal absence. As Vico clearly states in his Scienza Nova; divine law is inescapably at the centre of things, the place where 'natural law' is aligned with 'poetry' - imagination, passion, sense - rather than with reason. 'Under the sway of divine providence', Vico argues, 'men build better than they know.' Vico's spiral, like Dante's then, is subject to inversion. It moves outwards towards the ordered material life of nations (the Gentes) but once reversed, inwards to the originating moment of divine intelligence. Its still centre reveals itself as a chiasm; a point of intersection from whence there arises a backwards and forwards, simultaneous unwinding of the life of the flesh and the life of the spirit. In this respect, Vico's dialectic is nothing less than an all-embracing theory of mind and body. 'We make images by imagination, recollections by memory, passions by appetite and all of these reside within the physical body...’ and he goes on, 'but does not intelligence create matter out of itself.' The implication of an autoerotic 'self-making', then, and the risk of hubris, is inescapably a part of the imaginary of the gyre. Once again we find this duality beautifully expressed by Beckett in his Three Novels, in the second of these The Unnameable.

I must have got embroiled in a kind of inverted spiral,
I mean one the coils of which, instead of widening more and more,
grew narrower and narrower and finally, given the kind of space
in which I was supposed to evolve, would come to an end
for lack of room. Faced then with the material impossibility
of going any further I should no doubt have had to stop,
unless of course I elected to set off again at once
in the opposite direction, to unscrew myself as it were,
after having screwed myself to a standstill, which would have been
an experience rich in interest and fertile in surprises
if I am to believe what I once was told, in spite of my protests...

In this heavily sexualised, 'evolutionary' metaphor (deliberately skewed, even dislodged by an undisguised auto-eroticism), the protagonist, the one who cannot be named (the suggestion is that it is Beckett himself), finding himself 'wedged' in a narrowing spiral space, fails victim of his own orgulous corporeality and is unable to proceed with his journey towards the 'fertile' centre. Instead, he is forced to think about immediate 'withdrawal'; the backward retracing of his steps; the unscrewing of himself. There is no turning-turtle either. To interrupt figural coitus in this way is in the strictest sense a retreat. It is to throw oneself violently into reverse; to give up on the goal of physical satisfaction, no less. But it is also a failure of vision. If The Unnameable can see himself and his predicament at all, it can only be without any certainty that it is himself he is seeing. Unscrewing oneself can only be achieved without turning away from the receding image of the thing desired; it is to rewind the tape but as if in a mirror. Significantly this autoerotic mirroring in Catrysse's work is achieved by repetition or by looping. The viewer is always starting over again and never completing. The images rise up for the most part in flickering tones of grey. They occupy the metaphysical no-mans-land, somewhere between black and white. Like a night-moth attracted to the flame the viewer is invited to rehearse the psychodrama of eternal recurrence by endlessly circle the centre between the twin destructive forces of absolute light and absolute darkness. It is to risk a fiery consumption on the one hand and a loss of identity, a final dissolution in darkness on the other.

published in: Wim Catrysse, 'Witness. Listen...and sign as having seen',
argos editions, Brussels, 2000