As if enacting a reversal of cinematography’s day-for-night technique,1 the filmic device deployed by Emily Wardill in Night for Day generates the kind of chiaroscuro that evokes baroque simulations of light and dark. The night shots—made during daylight with the help of filters—render the contours of people, objects, and surroundings in an amorphic plasticity and sculpturality. Wardill’s visual language, as Rainer Bellenbaum has written, thrives on “abrupt changes in lighting” that connect the various scenes—bathed as they are in “the twilights of dusk and dawn, underexposures, or performatively shifted light cones”—while also pulling them away from one another: alongside wavelike camera pans, technological distortions like pixilation and glitches help destabilize the images, as if they threatened to collapse at any moment. Watching the film, I often got the feeling that I didn’t see details clearly enough or that I had seen them too late. Pan shots circling around themselves, across houses, places, and landscapes, shift the images into a state of liminality.2 Shadows on floors, walls, and water surfaces seem to form thresholds between the places documented and their imagined histories—as if they were quasi-kinetic projections of a time withdrawn from consciousness, compressed into clocked montages of acousmatic voices and recurring triangle sounds. The tension of connection/separation that ensues from the juxtaposition of cut and threshold is also present in the relation between text and role; here, it takes the form of a scripted ‘I’ that seems typed into the film image, addressing an initially abstract and familiar you that ultimately emerges as the double figure of a mother and a son. It would be reasonable to assume that the protagonist of Wardill’s film essay is the mother figure and doctor Isabel do Carmo, who narrates her struggle—conducted at night in collaboration with a number of anonymous women—against the Fascist dictatorship in Portugal. It is in her recollection of the fictive narrations the activists drew on to maintain a facade of housewifely normativity that the dissolution of patriarchal genealogy into female self-empowerment emerges—a dissolution from which even the parent-child relationship is not spared. With a glance to the long-established heroization of male resistance, Isabel emphasizes a political consciousness developed and long maintained by women, helping them to brave the constant threat of imprisonment and torture.
A voice-over dialogue between astrophysicists Alexander Bridi and Djelal Osman keys into Isabel’s recollections, thus contrasting the utopia of a just society with the posthuman utopia of artificial intelligence. Both develop software-based learning programs within their start-ups. Are they the text that writes itself into the fades-to-black, asking the “mother” if it is her “son”? The liminal states created in and between the images thus also configure relations between the narrative(s) and the roles. The militantly defended dreams of the “mother” find an analogue in nocturnal tracking shots; evoking the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Laura Mulvey, they pan along the illuminated facade of a modernist residential building that is a testament to bourgeois affluence, the image interrupted by snapshots that combine traces of colonial history with a mass tourism-informed, picture-book view of Lisbon. In the intervening moments, Isabel repeatedly recalls a time when the future promised a decolonized, socialist society—a promise that is today no more than a nostalgic narrative confined, as Isabel explains, merely to housing and labor policy, even while a globally resurgent fascism projects an image of itself as a resistance movement.
The structural loss Isabel observes within leftist politics seems to be reflected in the blurred contours of places and objects. Rather than a polarization of political and digital revolution, it is Portugal’s delayed modernization that Isabel identifies as the cause of revolution’s failure. While she presents her Marxist-informed view of Portugal’s history as a neoliberal society suffocated by unproductive colonialism, we see a pixelated recording of a dance performance—as if the ruins of modern art had been stored in badly preserved video archives. It is surely no coincidence that the spliced-in Google Maps simulation of Lisbon is so evocative of Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero (1977), whose worldview testifies to a scientific optimism that also reverberates in the dialog between two astrophysicists discussing digital methods for detecting structure within “random pictures of environments” and citing images of waves, buildings, trees, and faces as common resources in visual design: precisely the same images that Wardill uses, then. But as Night for Day approaches its conclusion, it dissolves more and more into glitches and flickers. However, as one of the two scientists explains, there is no white noise. The technology is itself a trace of the memory that it erases.
It is thus that I read Night for Day in reference to Bernard Stiegler, who spoke of a retrospective awareness of the co-constitution of technology and memory. The media theorist’s image of the “flowing of my own time of consciousness,”3 accompanied by a melody played several times over, is close to Wardill’s permutative montages of image, text, and sound insofar as it refers to an unconscious knowledge “that we already had before listening to the statement.”4 For Stiegler, mnemotechnology always consists in the repetition of “horizons of expectations” that are “accumulated by our past experiences.”5 Following the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, Stiegler speaks of “tertiary retentions”— “orthothetic”, that is to say “phonogramic, photographic, cinematographic, alphabetic and diasthematic (as the notations on musical scores are called)” storage media.6 At the same time, he regards the industrial exploitation of conscious time as something “catastrophic in the history of the spirit”—a position seemingly shared by Wardill’s protagonist when she speaks of the destruction of the same “collective temporality”7 in which Stiegler identifies a symptom of “capitalist modernity”8 and which, in his view, manifests itself in the “extremely reactionary temptations [which] are emerging, such as xenophobia, diverse fanaticisms . . . and all possible forms of ressentiment”9: social phenomena, then, that demand an (infra)-structural reorganization of collective time of consciousness.
From this, there emerges the utopia of an anti-technology technology; a utopia that is productive for my reading of Wardill’s process to the extent that it shifts the flowing temporal structures of repeated acts of perception into transitory, liminal states that exist in between aesthetic and technical images: insofar as images, voices, texts, and sounds have always already been fed into orthographic storage media and thus made reproducible, they have long been a part of the technical organization of social relations between subject and system. As the scenographic presentation of Night for Day at the Secession in Vienna revealed, each of its components transports an unconscious knowledge that only upon repetition demonstrates itself to be a collectively experienced flowing of conscious time. And this is precisely what Wardill’s blueprint for an aesthetic memory enacts: temporalized repetition of horizons of expectations as yet unfulfilled by politics.
- See Rainer Bellenbaum, “Figuren von Ich und von Anderen. Rainer Bellenbaum über Filme aus dem Forum und dem Forum Expanded der Berlinale 2021,” Texte zur Kunst 122 (June 2021): 189–192, here 191–92.
- See Kerstin Stakemeier’s catalogue essay “The Life of Pseudo Problems. ‘The I Is unsalvageable,’” in Night for Day, exhibition catalogue for the Secession, Vienna (Berlin: Revolver Publishing, 2020), 16–26.
- Bernard Stiegler, Philosophising by Accident: Interviews with Élie During (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 69.
- Stiegler, Philosophising by Accident, 69.
- Stiegler, Philosophising by Accident, 70.
- Stiegler, Philosophising by Accident, 70.
- Stiegler, Philosophising by Accident, 71.
- Stiegler, Philosophising by Accident, 76.
- Stiegler, Philosophising by Accident, 71.
Sabeth Buchmann is art historian and critic, Berlin/ Vienna, professor of the History of Modern and Postmodern Art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna. Co-ed. of PolYPen. A series on art criticism and political theory (b_books, Berlin); board member of Texte zur Kunst and European Kunsthalle. Regular contributions to anthologies, catalogues, and magazines including Afterall, Artforum, Camera Austria, Springerin, Texte zur Kunst etc. Publications include: Kunst als Infrastruktur (summer 2022), co-ed. of Broken Relations: Infrastructure, Aesthetic, and Critique (autumn 2022), co-ed. of Putting Rehearsals to the Test. Practices of Rehearsal in Fine Arts, Film. Theater, Theory, and Politics (2016), co-ed. of Textile Theorien der Moderne. Alois Riegl in der Kunstkritik (2015), co-author of Hélio Oiticica, Neville D’Almeida and others: Block-Experiments in Cosmococa (2013), co-ed. of Film Avantgarde Biopolitik (2009), Denken gegen das Denken. Produktion – Technologie – Subjektivität bei Sol LeWitt, Yvonne Rainer und Hélio Oiticica (2007); co-ed. of Art After Conceptual Art (2006). Founding member of the theater, art and author group minimal club (Munich/ Berlin 1984-2000); co-curator of various exhibitions, including Einrichtung und Gegebenheit: Infrastruktur als Form und Handlung (Exhibit/ Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, 2022), Putting Rehearsals to the Test (Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, SBC Gallery, and VOX/ Montréal, 2016), Ready to Sleep (Galerie Mezzanin/Vienna 2014), Empfindung oder der Nähe der Fehler liegen die Wirkungen (Augarten Contemporary/ Vienna, 2009), When Tekkno Turns to Sound of Poetry (Shedhalle Zurich, 1994/ Kunst-Werke Berlin, 1995).