Time Overlaps Itself
"The moment of actuality slips too fast by the slow, coarse net of our senses." —George Kubler
James Benning's John Krieg Exiting the Falk Corporation in 1971 (2010) is a single-shot silent video—a slow pan to the left following a man as he exits a Milwaukee factory, crosses a street, and then stands on the near street corner with his back to the camera. The video is a revisitation of an early Benning film, Time and a Half, a 17-minute narrative that premiered at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. Krieg is a 14-second segment from this earlier film slowed down, by a process of recapture and manipulation, to 71 minutes.
Like Harun Farocki's Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades (2006), Sharon Lockhart's Exit (2008), and Allan Sekula's Untitled Slide Sequence. End of Day Shift, General Dynamics Conair Division Aerospace Factory, San Diego, California, 17 February, 1972 (1972), Krieg plays off overt reference to the 19th-century actualities of the brothers Lumière.1 Benning's video, however, slips well off into its own territory by moving away from the extensive straight-on representation of much of his recent work and into an intensive visual cascade of superimposition that is at once fluid and micro-elliptical. Over the length of the video, multiple single diaphanous frames are suspended on the screen, in trios and in clusters—groupings of images appearing, mutating, and dissolving, like Bergson's sugar cube, in extended decay-time.2
And it's in this multi-frame circuitry that the film gains so much of its charge. The viewing experience is an oscillation between shifting presents and arrays of near-pasts. And while Benning's act of moviemaking is here a generally forward trajectory, he's created a space of internalized circular causality in which the act of watching is "non-linear, recursive, and multi-directional all at once...as if history has moved not forward but backward, then forward again."3 The result is a heavy, immersive drone of feedback.
To describe the film as psychedelic—which it decidedly is—could risk making it sound escapist. The firmly grounded results, however, are anything but. For in all the ways that this video represents a departure for Benning, it resolutely retains a focus that has sustained the entirety of his career—that of heightened seeing. Much of this seeing is determined by a lament that Benning often expresses—the idea that movies were snatched away by narrative moviemaking far too quickly, resulting in a stunting of early cinematic experimentation. To quote the artist: "I thought of myself as going back to that point in time and trying to re-establish a way of making films, of looking and listening in a much more intense way."4 It's a position that finds sympathy with sentiments from Jacques Rancière's The Future of the Image: "When images left behind brute presence and became the collective metonymy, they rapidly became expressions of capitalism and irreducibly non-sensical desire." And by this standard, Benning has made some of cinema's most defiantly sensical work, work that both allows for and advocates for the value of patient, focused observation, for the opportunity to more deeply know an image. If the work of someone like Ryan Trecartin, as one example, represents a kind of dromology, a surrendering to currents of time and speed in digital culture, Benning's work is a vital counterpoint—an active, work-earned resistance to that sort of apotheosis of atrophied attention.
In so much of Benning's work, there's a sense of an immeasurable vastness expanding outward not just from the final frame but also rearward from the first frame as well. And Krieg is no exception. It's a valuation of duration over time that fills Benning's images with the weight of that which came before and that which will surely follow. And in this sense we can see parallels to the somewhat "empty" transitional spaces of Ozu, Antonioni, and De Sica, moments of the seemingly banal that are infused with the echo of some unseen, recent event. In Krieg, the most immediate weight is the fatigue of a day's labor, echoing into the video in the strides of a man leaving his workplace at that day's end—a transition from labor time to one's own time, a description of action gone slack, a relaxation into de-Taylorized movement.
Such meditations on labor are nothing new for Benning—from his debut, Time and a Half, on through mid-career works like El Valley Centro and into more recent films like Ruhr and Pig Iron. Although here, in an increasingly post-industrial America and with the ongoing labor policy conflicts in Governor Scott Walker's Wisconsin, Krieg's re-used images acquire a new salience. And this focus puts the film in the company of a welcome, if minor, recent proliferation of films that take work as a central subject. We can look at notable examples not just from Benning, Farocki, and Lockhart, but also from Eugenio Polgovsky, Uruphong Raksasad, Michael Glawogger, Lee Anne Schmitt, Lucy Raven, Naomi Uman, and Mika Rottenberg.
With his process of digital recapture, Benning opens up, in these originally scripted film images, an aleatory quality that turns the experience into an exercise of memory, both for the maker and the viewer. If we're to think of memory as a conservation and preservation of the past in the present, Krieg takes this process and makes it concrete—a literal illustration of the coexistence of memory and duration. A sustained recollection. And in so doing the film attains a quality so often absent in contemporary observational fare, what Bergson called élan vital: "virtuality continually in the process of being actualized, a simplicity in the process of differentiating, a totality in the process of dividing up."5 And in this, we find the essence of life and an invitation to more freely engage the subjectivity of our own experience. Which here, in this highly recollective space, and in addition to more idiosyncratically personal memory, could lead to logical associations toward Minimal composition, Smithsonian Folkways/Takoma Records textures, Cubism, Studs Terkel, Benning's affection for the Zombies, Giacomo Balla's plastic dynamism, DJ Screw, Phase Patterns, and the attenuated quality of psychedelic time.
Italian Futurist Anton Giulio Bragaglia, in his 1911 treatise Fotodinamismo, laid out a foundation for his theories on photography, a means of describing movement through time that he saw, somewhat bombastically, as criticism of and improvement upon Etienne-Jules Marey's chronophotography, specifically Marey's more abstract work from the 1880s and '90s. For these chronophotographs, Marey dressed his subjects in black and affixed reflective material to various spots on their limbs and torsos. He then photographed them against black backgrounds as they performed simple, Muybridge-like movements—walking, leaping, and so on—and then layered the photographs into haunting, staccato descriptions of bodies in motion.6 In Bragaglia's view, this was a process, with its remaindered gaps in time, insufficient to capturing the visceral and emotional quality of movement. Bragaglia's corrective was the creation of long-exposure single images capturing his subjects' movements in contiguous, ghostlike blurs.7 In contrast to Marey, he found these images to be more deeply imbued with a kind of natural spirit as well as being a more thorough depiction of movement via simultaneity. With Krieg, James Benning has crafted something of a reconciliation of Bragaglia and Marey, an act of détente. His is a kind of third-way solution that falls between these two precedents while successfully refamiliarizing and reclarifying the specific identity and value of his subject.8 This is a notion doubled down in the title of the film, John Krieg Exiting the Falk Corporation in 1971, a democratic valorization of an otherwise all-but-anonymous figure.
In the video's finale, if such a term is appropriate, we move away from John Krieg for the first time in a long, slow zoom, an inadvertent reminder of Michael Snow's Wavelength (1967). A shot that finally settles, not on a picture of ocean waves, but on the license plate of a sedan stopped at the intersection near where Krieg stands. About a week after seeing the video, I interviewed Benning for this article, and he mentioned, "It's nice how the license plate on the car came into focus." To which, all those days later, I was able to immediately reply, "Yeah, H72•455," the plate's number. This is a testament not to my own memory, which leaves a lot to be desired, but to the consistent power of Benning's work to forge memory against the overabundance of information in our everyday. And while this specific detail may be of little consequence in isolation, it speaks to the broader force of Benning's practice to engender a more active audience, a more engaged micro-populace. It is work that, quite literally, activates better listening and seeing.
And in executing this zoom, Benning performs a neat, deft irony, a retooling of cinematic denouement—a climax not of narrative but of mapping. This de-establishing shot, this physical narrowing in of our focus, this coming to rest on a plate stamped WISCONSIN: in its movement inward, it simultaneously expands our focus outward, delivering a broader, rooted orientation in this newly familiar corner of America's Dairyland.
In 1965, Louis Althusser, in Reading Capital, proposed a notion that perhaps resonates with even greater trueness and clarity in our contemporary and still nascent digital landscape: "I venture to suggest that our age threatens one day to appear in the history of human culture as marked by the most dramatic and difficult trial of all, the discovery and training in the meaning of the ‘simplest' acts of existence: seeing, listening, speaking, reading—the acts which relate men to their works and to those works which are thrown in their faces, the absence of work." With Krieg, James Benning continues his four-decade dedication to this trial, and here has made a crucial entry into his canon.
James Benning's John Krieg Exiting the Falk Corporation in 1971 will be shown daily at 5 p.m., October 7-10, at the Elinor Bunim Munroe Amphitheater as part of the New York Film Festival's Views From the Avant-Garde section.
1. Just as it also harks back to the early cinema tradition of re-enactment films such as The Battle of Chemulpo Bay (Edwin S. Porter, U.S.A., 1904) and Execution of Czolgosz, with Panorama of Auburn Prison (Edwin S. Porter and Thomas Edison, U.S.A., 1901). Also of note is that fact that Krieg is shot as a single pan-as the pan, in those early days of cinema, registered for audiences as a signal of the real, creating an assumption of nonfictionality.
2. In this way, the film, with its heterogeneous and virtual duration, has quite a lot in common with the theory of continuous multiplicities derived from the work of 19th-century mathematician Bernhard Riemann. This relationship, even if unwitting, seems only natural as Benning himself began as a mathematician. In this same vein is the idea that so much of Benning's work would make for such fitting companion pieces with the work of other former mathematicians such as Henry Flynt, Bruce Nauman, and Tony Conrad.
3. Was reminded of Pamela M. Lee discussing similarities between cybernetics and George Kubler's remarks on time. Chronophobia, pp. 245, M.I.T. Press, 2004.
4. Radical: adj. a) (1) of or growing from the root of. (2) growing from the base. b) of or relating to the origin. Etym.-Middle English, from the Late Latin radicalis, from Latin radic-, radix ROOT. First known use: 14th century.
5. Gilles Deleuze, Le Bergsonisme, pp. 94, Presses universitaires de France Vendôme, 1966.
6. See: Etienne-Jules Marey, Leap Over an Obstacle (1894).
7. See: Anton Giulio Bragaglia, Salutando (1911).
8. And in the process, Benning renders beside the point Joseph Plateau's myth of the persistence of vision.