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When the Carousel stops turning …What shall we say about the slide show?

  • Martha Langford

…plus d’informations

  • Martha Langford
    Concordia University

Couverture de projeter,                Numéro 24-25, automne 2014, printemps 2015, Intermédialités

Corps de l’article

The Kodak Carousel, introduced to the market in 1961, was not the first projector – modern slide projection technology, which had superseded lantern slide projection, was a creature of the interwar period – but the round tray that held eighty 35 mm slides [1] literally doubled the capacity of the Kodak Cavalcade (the straight tray model it replaced), retaining useful features such as repeatability or continuous play, and the capacity for synchronization with sound programs from tape recorders. The company ceased manufacture of the Carousel projector in 2004, so we are talking about an audio-visual apparatus with a relatively short active life in the commercial market. Artists became interested in making slide shows in the 1960s – works appeared under the signs of formalism, conceptualism, performance, public projections, and critical practice – but they were late to the party. Slide shows were events of everyday life as marketing and training tools; family slide shows and personal travelogues were holding audiences captive in the dark; the age of the multi-screen slide and sound extravaganza was upon us. When we speak of the slide show, we are speaking of many things.

Still I begin with the recognition that the question posed by my title has already been answered, at least partially, by artistic creation and curatorial intervention. The Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition SlideShow was mounted in 2005 – the body was still warm. [2] Nineteen artists were included in the exhibition whose catalogue explains their preoccupations and processes: Robert Barry’s rigorous systematization of projected words and images, Lothar Baumgarten’s bountiful “manipulated realities,” Marcel Broodthaers’s monocular inspection of an academic painting, James Coleman’s deconstruction of a single artless photograph, Jan Dibbets’s monumental six-frame horizon line, Willie Doherty’s ideological brandings of a suspected IRA terrorist – letters projected on a woman’s face, Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s encyclopedic display of nature, Ceal Floyer’s struggling-to-focus machine, Nan Goldin’s improvisational tribal album, Dan Graham’s “serial logic,” Louise Lawler’s nocturnal projections of private collectors’ interiors, Helen Levitt’s economical and efficient presentation of a social document, James Melchert’s compressions and relocations of space, from wall to floor, Ana Mendieta’s nine-frame solo performance, Jonathan Monk’s translations of family snapshots into projected phrases, Dennis Oppenheim’s dissolving multiple frames, Jack Smith’s stagey “obscure narrative,” Robert Smithson’s improvisational travelogue, and the restaging of a site-specific action at Hal Bromm Gallery by Krysztof Wodiczko. I have respected the catalogue by organizing this list alphabetically. A timeline would run from Graham’s Homes for America (1966–67) to Louise Lawler’s External Stimulation (1994–2005), with heavy traffic in the early 1970s and the post-millennial slowdown into works of memory and mourning. Most poignant for me are Monk’s One Moment in Time (Kitchen) (2002), in which family snapshots have been replaced by phrases (“Me and Ben (my dog) at home”), and Ceal Floyer’s Auto Focus (2002) featuring a machine on life support (electricity), that is starving to death (deprived of slides), and projecting its own hagiography (a halo on the wall).

SlideShow must have been a fine exhibition, though its catalogue reveals certain gaps. In Darsie Alexander’s curatorial essay, the history of the slide show is back-formed by conceptual and performance artists’ appropriations of the slide projection, which are traced to the 1960s. It was a “found medium” – part of the alternative artists’ uptake of “technologies once considered too familiar, accessible, and low.” [3] The backstory as Alexander narrates it includes some of the domestic and commercial applications already mentioned; under early history, she brings out the use of slides in public lectures and classrooms, capturing the “synchronicity between images and words,” whose delivery could be controlled by “teachers and business professionals alike.” [4] This allusion to power – Jacques Rancière would have pounced on it – is not pursued. [5] Instead, the fusion of education and entertainment is traced to the magic lantern: “elaborate spectacles combining multiple projections, musical accompaniment, and complex image sequencing.” [6] At this point in her chronicle, Alexander inserts a most telling distinction, for however creative the producers of these works, by her light they were not artists. Public slide shows remained in the realm of popular entertainment, “a people’s medium, appealing to a general rather than an elite audience.” [7] They were spectacles – made to impress and, occasionally, to deliver information to large heterogeneous groups.

So in SlideShow we are not dealing with a large and bumptious family of resemblance, but a branch of that family that went on to better itself. This is the line that interests Alexander – it is elitist and institutional to the core. The “ingrained associations” that she detects in artists’ uses of this “found medium” are close, whether in the living room or the classroom [8] – a very small step, we might say, from pop to conceptualism, and easily plotted on a modernist timeline that must include the rise of the scene: the cosiness of Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt’s loft, where dinner and drinks might be followed by a slide show, promoting both conversation and careers. [9] A later scene was the seedbed of Nan Goldin’s early use of the slideshow; she gave her first slide-show performance of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1979) at Frank Zappa’s birthday party, held at the radically chic and elitist Mudd Club. Chris Townsend calls it “an artwork through which a subculture recounts its stories to itself.” He underscores the point that the various iterations of this work have alienated it from “the original community of reception that its narratives served.” [10] These are the terms by which we tend to describe family albums that wash up in museum collections: their translation from the private to the public realm is determinant, though they have an active afterlife in collective memory and public history. [11] The important point in both Alexander’s and Townsend’s analyses is the axis of the shift: it is horizontal. When artists such as Smithson or Goldin take up the slide show, the medium makes a horizontal move from one social circle to another. No re-skilling or de-skilling is required.

Omitted or glossed in the rationale for SlideShow are other kinds of “ingrained associations” that spectators might have brought to their reception. Under the heading of mass culture, multi-screen slide shows generated by high degrees of skill – in the form of editorial and technical mastery – were transfixing audiences. Under the heading of public art education, displays of knowledge and connoisseurship had been training audiences to see and feel since the post-war effort to democratize education. In the 1960s, these events were not part of some phantasmagorical past or hermeneutic circle, but concurrent with the artists’ discovery of the slide-show technology and happening regularly in middlebrow institutions nearby.

Left out as well are the slide projections that were brought to the people in their agoras – site-specific works of protest by Krzystof Wodiczko and recovered memory by Shimon Attie. Although Wodiczko was included in SlideShow, it was not for his politically charged projections on mountains, monuments, and public buildings. It was, rather, for the parochial turn of his practice, which denounced not nuclear escalation or apartheid but the gentrification of New York’s East Village. These things have to be said, of course, but the auto-referentiality of this work, complemented in the SlideShow exhibition by Louise Lawler’s projection of a collector’s soigné interior on the façade of a leading New York gallery, Metro Pictures, should be noted as further evidence that SlideShow was concerned with this vernacular form only as it registered on the consciousness of an elite art-world scene.

How else to explain the neglect of Shimon Attie’s highly charged installations of the 1990s: expressions of memory and temporary monuments to the victims of the Holocaust created by a series of ghostly projections. Developing his project in Berlin, Attie had struggled with the lack of historical photographs of the city’s Jewish quarter. The Writing on the Wall was a simulation of life in the quarter, “momentarily recreated.” [12] The effectiveness of Attie’s work depended in part on interruption of the temporal flow – the element of surprise – as the people of Berlin encountered his eerie projections, as if by chance, in neighbourhoods gradually erasing the histories of the disappeared through gentrification. Utterly dependent on the historical thickness of place, this type of work could enter the gallery system only through in-situ documentary photographs. Such facsimiles did not figure in SlideShow, which exclusively referred to institutional histories of white, or grey, box experience.

The omission of Michael Snow from the Baltimore exhibition is more of a puzzle, as his projects engage directly with modernist art conventions. Beginning in the late 1960s with three works – Slidelength (1969–71), Sink (1969–70), and A Casing Shelved (1970) – and returning to the slide-projection form with Recombinant (1992), Snow used the projected slide in single-screen projection and twice in conjunction with other elements, including the projector itself on a plinth. This last gesture is Duchampian – minimalism had exiled the plinth from the contemporary gallery. Figuratively speaking, Snow dragged it out of storage: the Carousel projector, a machined object that is part of the artwork, occupies the plinth as a sign of its status. In Sink, images (35 mm slides) of a paint-spattered enamelled sink – eighty variations made by filtering the light – are projected beside and at the same size as a photographic print of the same still life (See Figs. 1–7). In a science laboratory, the colour print would be the “control” and the slides, the experimental variables. In an art gallery, the work offers a comparative structure, testing the visual acuity of the spectator.

Fig. 1

Michael Snow. Sink, 1970, colour photograph, slide projector with eighty 35mm colour slides. Photograph: 63 x 64 x 1.5 cm.

Courtesy of the artist

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Figs. 2-7

Michael Snow. Sink, 1970, colour photographs, slide projector with eighty 35mm colour slides. Details.

Courtesy of the artist

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The artist has explained the work as “a kind of elegy, a memento mori for painting.” [13] Here, with the return of the plinth, I am adding sculpture to his backward look – a reverence for the object that delivers the experience. Sink also affects the rhetorical structure of conceptual language works – Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965) for example – in Snow’s case, this mental exercise is prompted by the pun in the title: “sink” sounds like “sync,” the short form of “synchronized sound,” which was the birth of the “talking picture.” And this is apt, for the artwork talks in the projector’s idiom.

The system of comparison set up by Sink also refers to art history’s convention of the “double-slide projection” illustrated lecture, a system of comparative formal analysis commonly credited to Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. [14] Brett Bligh and Katharina Lorenz have analyzed the power embedded in this system through the synchronization of word and image, to which Wölfflin added the device of the “anchor slide,” “in which one image is used to provide long-term contextualisation to a sequence of images presented on the opposite slide-projector.” [15] Launched in 1970, featuring the latest technology in democratized and disciplined education, Snow’s Sink was the perfect metaphor for this dual impulse; the “memento mori for painting” has now become a memorial to itself.

Art historians trained under Wölfflin’s system began grieving for the Carousel in the late 1990s, when rumours that Kodak was giving up on slide technology lost all deniability. The industry had been projecting the end of the slide for some twenty years when Robert S. Nelson delivered the news to the humanities. His keynote address of 1998, published two years later in Critical Inquiry, brought great phenomenological precision and considerable wit to the description and analysis of art history’s slide shows. Nelson’s article frames these illustrated lectures as oral performances, tracing their lineage to the rhetorical tradition of ekphrasis. A semiologist drawing on the dramaturgical theory of the social sciences – in the background are Erving Goffman, Clifford Geertz, and Bruno Latour – Nelson conjures up different types of audiences, different degrees of familiarity with disciplinary codes:

When slides from a summer vacation are shown in someone’s living room, amateur speaker meets amateur audience; in the university classroom, discipline and disciplined interact. At both sociological extremes, speakers make similar assertions to the same effect. [16]

As this extract suggests, Nelson’s tight focus on the art historian’s slide lecture nevertheless allows that certain aspects of the slide performance occur in both amateur and professional contexts. In this article, I explore some of those contexts, though not treating them as “sociological extremes” but as common pools of photographic experience that act upon the actors who are interacting within what Nelson calls the “performative triangle […] of speaker, audience, and image.” [17] Each of these categories has its complexities – none more than the “speaker,” in which intermingle the authorial voice, the audio track, and the sound of the projector itself. Taken most literally, the speaker is understood as a living being – that orator of knowledge, in the case of the slide lecture (one replicated by the creator of Sink), a master of “visual arguments” built upon “carefully observed particulars” that are elucidated in a pedagogical system of compare and contrast. [18] But just as Nelson concludes his historiographical analysis by reminding us of certain conditions that had crept into art historical method through the slide lecture – a reliance on photography “mechanically produced, without human intervention and interpretation and thus objective,” and, more fundamentally, its replacement of the art object, for “the original is not present” – we are encouraged by artists’ uses of the slide lecture to eliminate the orator, to locate her “ekphrasis and epidectic oratory” in the machine. [19]

In 2000, Nelson can already see this coming, though it might be said that the shift had already occurred in the death or mislaying of the author. In philosopher Ian Hacking’s comparative study of Goffman and Michel Foucault, the latter’s project – “pure description of discursive events” – is characterized by Hacking as “abstract” discourse: “their description as entities in themselves, uttered in particular sites, with definite presence or lack of authority, yes, but with the speakers or printers or technical artists left out, or present only by implication.” In 1971, Hacking remembers, Foucault while lecturing imagined himself in the back of the room, hearing the words of his lecture “floating freely, in their own space, not related to himself as speaker.” [20] This oratorical manner carries its own performance values, of course, and there are many shades between Goffman’s vivid presence and Foucault’s virtual absence, but a redefinition of the speaker within the performative triangle was already in place.

Looking forward, Nelson predicts a memory of orality encoded in the system: “new art historical rhetoric will try to put audience and probably art historian inside a virtual object, further collapsing the distinction between object and subject and potentially re-enacting the phantasmagoria of the magic lantern shows.” [21] But here again, this virtual object has its own genealogy that leads us to another pre-photographic phenomenon, the automaton. Backward and forward – just like the Carousel – for the automaton, a modern mechanical toy of precision and wonder that has been revived by future-minded art educators as a tool for “discovery-learning” in the classroom. [22]

The definition of “speaker” as a point on the performative triangle should thus be expanded to a floating voice performed by a machine that prompts auditory engagement. For the synchronized slide projector does not need a human speaker, nor indeed does it need an ancillary soundtrack, to make itself heard. The sound of the mechanism is the surrogate voice whose admittedly limited script goes something like: look at this; time’s up – or, if you will, the reverse. The removal of an image that you may not have finished inspecting only increases its significance. It creates what John Dewey described in Art as Experience as “resistance that calls out thought.” [23] The imaginal monologue of the machine – a deictic dictator, if ever there was one – thereby becomes dialogical; “Hey, wait” might be viewer’s response. This conversation is initiated by Sink and further developed in Recombinant, in which the “control” is not another image, but the “minimalist” white panel that Snow, who sometimes describes himself as a “maximalist,” wittily transforms over a non-stop cycle of eighty slides. Still photographs of this work do not convey its dialogical effect of offer and denial, a pattern of brief attachment to a particular combination that is just as quickly snatched away (see Figs. 8–14).

Fig. 8

Michael Snow. Recombinant, 1992, eighty 35 mm slides in a Carousel projector on a painted cylindrical plinth and projected on a painted wood wall panel. Plinth: 104 x 42 cm; panel: 74 x 108 x 3.5 cm.

Courtesy of the artist

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Figs. 9-11

Michael Snow. Recombinant, 1992, eighty 35 mm slides in a Carousel projector on a painted cylindrical plinth and projected on a painted wood wall panel. Details (projection on panel, 74 x 108 cm).

Courtesy of the artist

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Figs. 12-14

Michael Snow. Recombinant, 1992, eighty 35 mm slides in a Carousel projector on a painted cylindrical plinth and projected on a painted wood wall panel.

Courtesy of the artist

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Nelson’s tripartite system can be further complicated, for its speaker addresses an audience that is fully capable of response, being neither muzzled nor screwed to a plinth. The spaces of sociability created by a slide show – any and all kinds of slide shows – are carried forward when the same machine is encountered in an art gallery. The audience may express its familiarity in a most “undisciplined” way by interjecting comment, internally or audibly, into the procession of images. This breaching of decorum – a breakdown of the distinction between speaker and audience – may also be replicated in the image, whose conveyer, a beam of light between projector bulb and projection surface, is most vulnerable to intervention: the inattentive audience member who breaks the beam; the mischievous audience member making hand shadows, possibly a duck or a rabbit.

A stranger’s body in the way of art is not such an unusual experience – been to the Louvre lately? But the sense of permission to enter and alter a public work of art with one’s own voice or bodyto playfully sabotage its authorityis a carry-over, I would suggest, from other uses of the form and apparatus. Associations with the family album and the lesson plan place the Carousel projector at the service of personal and collective memory; the rhetoric of SlideShow establishes connections that I will return to below. But I first want to press the point that the Carousel projector was a multi-purpose device that cultivated heterogeneous audiences engaging in highly undisciplined associationsspeaking back to powerwhich is another history of the machine, embedded in its resurgence in contemporary art.

A-V and its Uses

For the visual historians in the crowd, the slide show is the successor to the magic lantern show, a form of public entertainment, education, and propaganda that the Carousel projector both spectacularized and democratized. [24] Image/sound combination, or the “light-show” as contemporary French artists called it, was another way of training the senses toward meditation and affectivity. If experimentation in this area was ongoing through the 1960s, certain high moments of expectation and expenditure accelerated creativity. Such was Expo 64 at Lausanne, Switzerland, as Olivier Lugon’s illuminating research has shown. [25] For Canadian visual historians, the ideological extravaganzas created for Expo 67 are inescapable models.

The most famous of Expo 67’s multi-screen exhibitions was the Labyrinth Pavilion, which was produced by the National Film Board working with a team of systems engineers and architects. This cinematic work was organized on the principle of “simultaneity,” which co-creator Colin Low connected with memory and mysterious emotions, aiming for a form of poetry – “multi-screen being to single-screen what the language of poetry is to the language of prose.” [26] Capturing and retaining the spectator’s full attention through shifting images and directional sound was the key, and Low could imagine the multi-screen experience applied to documentary and teaching films“the optical scanning of reality” would become “inadequate” as “perfection of the moving image and the total automation of photography” became possible. [27] These effects were observable in two other Expo 67 productions: Diapolyecran, created by stage designer Josef Svoboda for the Czech Pavilion and the Christian Pavilion, designed by multidisciplinary artist Charles Gagnon. Critic Judith Shatnoff described Diapolyecran as a “poetic paean to technology, presenting an optical narration, The Creation of the World, on a wall of 112 moving screen-cubes, each of which housed two slide projectors.” In eleven minutes, the viewer experienced a flow of 15,000 beautiful images (drawings and photographs). [28] At the Christian pavilion, humanist photojournalism and documentary photographs were combined with slide projections and other forms of montage within walls of sound, including a human heart beat, emanating from forty speakers. Most photographs were obtained from agencies, such as Magnum and Black Star, though intriguingly Montreal photographer John Max was assigned a series of New York cityscapes. [29]

Max would later produce his own slide show, which was presented in 1973 at the NFB Photo Gallery / Galerie de l’image as part of his now canonical work Open Passport. Toronto-based artist David Heath, who had developed his ideas about visual poetics and narrative in books and sequences of black and white photographs, turned to the slide show in the mid-1960s. His Le grand album ordinaire (1973), composed of found family photographs, was screened at the Photo Gallery / Galerie de l’image in 1977, and a subsequent work, An Epiphany was shown on demand from 20 April to 5 June 1978. The exhibition history of the Photo Gallery / Galerie de l’image includes no less than eighteen multi-screen slide shows synchronized to music, and many more were commissioned of the NFB Still Photography Division by government departments for information, training, and propaganda. Some were yawn-provokers; others were interesting experiments in episodic narrative and combinatory visual-aural effects.

Audio-visual techniques were also being deployed by teachers, documentarians, and clinicians – albeit more modestly, perhaps, than Colin Low might have hoped. A few examples serve to illustrate the range of applications. In Mass Media and Adult Education (1971) John A. Niemi used the “fascinating, intricate, at times maddening structure” of Labyrinth as a metaphor for the “bewildering array of media” on offer to educators. [30] Technologies were colliding in the early 1970s; then as now, new and improved technology left many creative efforts in its wake. NFB staffer Dorothy Todd Hénaut remembers the intriguing fact that the agency’s community activist video series Challenge for Change, then under the direction of Low, briefly experimented with “automated slide and sound track systems” before adopting the 1/2-inch video technology for which it became famousthe portapak. The slide-show idea made sense in terms of local participation – “bringing mirror machines to communities”though broadcasting the people’s stories was naturally a higher goal.  [31]

Translations between media created hybrid slide-show experiences. The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (1971), which had turned university students into sadistic guards and craven inmates, was videotaped, but it was studied by thousands of Western psychology students in the form of a slide show conceived, designed, and executed by principal investigator Philip Zimbardo. [32] Eighty slides in a Carousel projector, accompanied by a stereo-cassette tape with narration on one track and electronic pulses on the other, moved the carousel and the audience through the horrifying facts in just 51 minutes, 24 seconds. This was a thoroughly structured and disciplined educational experience, though as a slide show, it offered entry points beyond the creator’s control. The presentation came with a script that could be read by the professor or student who lacked the Kodak Slide-Sound Synchronizer, or who simply didn’t have the time. [33] So the voice of authority might not be Zimbardo’s but a more familiar one who told the same horrific tale, yet could be interrupted with comments and questions.

Turning to psychology and criminology brings out a silent slide show – silent except for the sound of the projector – originally devised by a Czech psychiatrist as a way of outing heterosexual males who were claiming homosexual tendencies in order to evade the armed services. Dr. Kurt Freund combined phallometry (the measurement of blood flow to the penis) with photography to measure arousal as the test subject watched a fixed random set of slides of possible erotic objects: “nude men, women, and children of both sexes.” [34] The Czech military’s version predated the Carousel, but Freund’s method was widely adopted by psychologists and criminologists, and adapted to the Carousel as a test for the effectiveness of aversion therapy and to estimate the likelihood of recidivism by sexual offenders.

Photographic art, social documentary photography, information, entertainment, education, discipline, and punishment … the Carousel projector was part of all these histories, and to an appreciable degree these cultural products shared not just a technical apparatus, but its language and embodied effects. Slide shows were created within a cultural network of positive and negative inspiration – same tools, different objectives – and their delivery systems having disappeared from everyday use, we are increasingly reliant on visual and textual documents, as well as creative translations, to try to understand works’ meaning and effects. My approach has been to interrogate these accounts and representations to grasp what was particular to the slide-show medium, regardless of authorial intent, subject matter, and the increasingly porous division between high and low cultures. Here again, I am intent on key words, which rhetoric often disposes in contradistinction – two ideational projections side-by-side.


Private/public is a recurrent duality. In “The Family Slide Show as Critical History in Renée Green’s Video Partially Buried Continued,” Monica McTighe carefully describes one element of Green’s 1997 work, which is a video reconstruction of her father’s slide show:

Partially Buried Continued opens with a familiar but now outmoded private ritual. We hear the whir of a slide projector as the image of a bird flying in a blue sky comes into focus. The slides click and change while a narrator’s voice explains the circumstances of this scene. This slide show consists of snapshots that the artist’s father took during the Korean War. [35]

Whir, click, change, and narration … these are the carriers of pastness within a layered montage of personal memories and public histories, including the history of a site-specific work: Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, to which the title refers. The narrator further describes “how the artist experienced her father’s slide show as a child,” which is recalled as a presentation by the father in dialogue with the child: “He would describe what was in the image. She would ask the who and where of the images and he would give her an answer.” [36] The link between images, between “dark living room” and “distant location,” between present and past, was her father’s voice. This is what she remembers, or claims to remember, in the face of the image, and puts on the soundtrack: secondary orality (the voice-over narration that translates past into the present) embodies nostalgia for primary orality (the evanescent father-daughter dialogue).

This work exploits the oral-photographic framework of certain kinds of slide shows, genres in which amateur production was both voluminous and affective, the slide shows of family life and tourism. [37] Monk’s One Moment in Time (Kitchen) (2002) does the same in an ekphrastic treatment of the family slide show. That his phrases say everything and nothing is part of the work’s verisimilitude: a slide mount holds very little information, so “found” images can be hard to identify; slides stored in little plastic boxes are found to be deteriorating, even in the dark; inheritors of slide collections tax their faulty memories of projection events, while sometimes admitting to boredom or adolescent hostility in their younger selves. Green’s attachment notwithstanding, the average person’s will to preserve and catalogue their family slide shows may be weak, unless motivated by a desire for knowledge, personal or professional. [38] And satisfying these goals may bring further complications. Through art or scholarship, the personal slide show can be promoted to visual culture, but who will take the torch of preservation? Most archives and museums will not accept this copious, fugitive, and undocumented material, even from the famous. This leaves an inestimable number of private slide shows living in closets and damp basements; some have been culled for particular interests, those images digitized, and sent to the Cloud; others have passed in bulk through lawn sales, actual or eBay, on their way to the landfill. But collective memory of the slide show is no less powerful; indeed, the affective power of cultural production based on this technology may be heightened by personal memory, a sense of loss, overwhelmitude, or guilt.

The private Carousel projection has been exploited within visual art and mass culture as a cluster sign, both sentimental and cynical of social values within a particular period of image consumption. Acts of appropriation, reconsideration, memorialization, and critique performed by artists and cultural theorists have stressed the staging or event-ness of the slide show as something that engages all the senses. Within the art world, a ready example is Road Trip (2004) by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, in which two characters – a man and a woman – try to unravel the mystery of a set of slides that constitute a travelogue. The purpose of this journey is the subjects of the two characters’ speculative conversation. [39] Not everything can be understood, but enough is remembered, decoded, and translated into communicable feeling to make a generally affecting work.

Fig. 15

Still from Mad Men, season 1, episode 13, “The Wheel,” directed by Matthew Weiner and first aired on October 18, 2007.

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Within popular entertainment, the Carousel projector is the focal point for the much-cited first-season closer of the television series Mad Men. Men of authority gather in a corporate boardroom, a female secretary discreetly taking notes. The Eastmans’ new product is to be launched; the Kodak representatives refer to it as “the wheel” – the oldest technology made new. But as art director Don Draper pitches his advertising campaign, he explains this product to its makers as not simply new but rather novelty’s antithesis: nostalgia, which Draper etymologizes as “the pain from an old wound.” The “wheel” should be re-baptised as the “Carousel,” a fantasy ride for children that goes around and around, but just as importantly, “goes backwards, forwards.” [40] The new Kodak Carousel will be a time machine for nostalgic returns to the loving atmosphere of the family; thrillingly for the TV audience that knows Draper as a made-up man and a marital cheat, he illustrates this desire with his own family photographs. [41] Another touch of genius in Mad Men’s scenography is the cigarette smoke wafting through the projector beam and drifting like wispy clouds across the innocence-drenched images on the portable screen – the actors’ breath fuses with the imagery (see Fig. 15). By the sixty-seventh episode of the series, a slide show of the reconstituted Drapers’ stereotypical Hawaiian holiday pictures screened for dinner guests in their living room brings out the dreariness of their marriage. Oscillations between nostalgia and melancholy are activated by these works, and infect the reception of any slide show, however unheimlich are its homey effects.


Obsolescence as a seedbed for reinvention instantiates and institutionalizes other kinds of backward looks. In 1999, or one year after Nelson’s identification of the “performative triangle,” Rosalind Krauss’s contribution to a thematic issue of Critical Inquiry on Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” – his iconic interpretation of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) – focused on the slide projection work of James Coleman. [42] In the spirit of Benjamin, there is a tension between past and future: “obsolescence” and “reinvention” are Krauss’s key words. Obsolescence in Krauss’s mind covers far more than the doomed Carousel projector – she seems only dimly aware of this prospect. For Krauss, it is the medium itself, photography, that “at this moment of postconceptual, ‘postmedium’ production” has “suddenly become one of those industrial discards, a newly established curio, like the jukebox or the trolley car,” and this propels the medium into “a new relation to aesthetic production. This time, however, photography functions against the grain of its earlier attempts at self-destruction, becoming, under precisely the guise of its own obsolescence, a means of what has to be called an act of reinventing the medium.” [43]

Coleman is the agent of this reinvention by his adaptation of two “by-now” outmoded forms: “the low-tech support of the promotional slide tape” and “the degraded mass-cult vehicle of the photonovel.” [44] One represents commodification, the other nostalgia; more accurately, they are each a little bit of both, rather like Mad Men – Deborah Tudor critiques the Carousel projector episode in just those terms. [45]

Krauss, who admits no precedent for Coleman’s use of the slide projector, is of little use to us here as an art historian. She is a theorist who notices things in the moment. In this case, she notices that Coleman “insists that the projection equipment be placed in the same space as the viewer of his work.” [46] Why should he have to insist, one wonders, when the precedents for this kind of installation go back twenty years? Still, this insistence, according to Krauss, creates a medium from “this paradoxical collision between stillness and movement that the static slide provokes right at the interstice of its changes,” a phenomenon “underscored by the click of the carousel’s rotation and the new slide’s falling into place or by the mechanical whir of the double projectors’ zoom lenses changing focus to create the effect of a dissolve.” [47] Sound is always embodied, as we know. The click of the advance, the landing of the slide, the mechanical whir – these audible features of the work situate Krauss, the performative theorist, at the interstice. Fixing her gaze on the postmodern catastrophe of pastiche, she is being blown backward into progress, which is discerned in Coleman’s step outside the “privileged space called Art.” [48] It is Krauss, not Coleman, who is the Angelus Novus of the piece, and her performance of this photographic experience can be both model and caution to ours as we encounter the Carousel projector in other projects of reinvention.

Allan Sekula’s Waiting for Tear Gas [White Globe to Black] (1999–2000) consists of eighty-one slides, organized in a sixteen-minute timed sequence. The photographs were made in Seattle, Washington, during demonstrations at the World Trade Organization meeting of 1999, and edited at a light table for sequenced projection. Sekula’s statement explains his choice of plain and plentiful description over iconicity: “The rule of thumb for this sort of anti-photojournalism: no flash, no telephoto zoom lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence.” [49] The slide show runs continuously in an otherwise unlit gallery. The only sound is the click/change of the advancing slide, although a much louder and, for some, iconic sound is remembered in the artist’s statement:

One fleeting hallucination could not be photographed. As the blast of stun grenades reverberated amidst the downtown skyscrapers, someone with a boom box thoughtfully provided a musical accompaniment: Jimi Hendrix’s mock-hysterical rendition of the American national anthem. At that moment, Hendrix returned to the streets of Seattle, slyly caricaturing the pumped-up sovereignty of the world’s only superpower. [50]

In all other respects, by which I mean the actual work, Sekula’s representation of the event resists its transformation into myth. He uses the copious form of a slide show to achieve “a simple descriptive physiognomy” to capture the “alliance on the street” and the “attitudes of people waiting.” [51] It is curious to think of Sekula, one of social documentary photography’s most severe critics, putting his faith in transparentness, which he aimed to achieve through a carousel of uncaptioned transparencies – a slide show that has become his monument at Tate Modern.

Institutional interest in works that depend on obsolescent technologies – in this case, the Carousel projector as both object and apparatus – introduces a new set of conditions within the performative triangle. [52] The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York acquired Michael Snow’s Sink and Slidelength in 2012. Obsolescence means something different to Snow. He is naturally concerned with the longevity of his work and has made copies of the slides. Two aspects that cannot be preserved in this transfer from the private to the public are the spontaneity of the loading – Snow originally felt free to present the slides in any order – and his judgement over how much fading was too much. Museum conservators will endeavour to keep the work precisely as it was received. But this cannot go on forever – not just the machine but also the slides will one day become unavailable, so Snow has had to consider whether the work should be adapted to new technology or represented in a high-definition video recording that includes the projector on its plinth projecting, clicking, and whirring. He has settled on documentation, a record of the work still working. This documentary work needs to be produced while the Carousel and 35 mm slides are still available – there is a certain urgency. But this solution also raises the issue of primacy, one that has been vigorously debated by theorists of performance art in terms of re-enactment and remediation. [53] Will the creation of this document lead to two tiers of art objects, or categories of primary and secondary art experience, attached to the same mechanically produced work – arguably yes, since the machine and slides would likely be preserved, and possibly brought out on special occasions. Perhaps one day we will go to the MoMA to see an exhibition entitled “The Projector is Present.”

Backward/Forward: A Place of Inconclusion

This paper has been written in the twilight of the apparatus. Archives and ekphrasis are the living remains, and considerable space has been devoted here to the descriptive language and its structure, words echoing between art and near-art experience, which one might legitimately project as the future form of these works. Sound has been as important as the image, for synchronization of image and narration was a key factor in the Carousel’s success, while the mechanical noise of the advancing machine inscribed itself in the collective memory as a rhythmic life force. While not every artist “insisted” that the machine be present in the exhibition space, its low-tech profile brought “sociological extremes” into shared spaces of socialization. Now, as slide production moves from industry to artisanship, as jamming and heat-seared transparencies mark the end, capitalism’s social engineering delivers us toward the solitary pleasures of the text. This is where the article ought to conclude, though it cannot, because the industrial trajectory of planned obsolescence – the logical progression to the new – is being interrupted by new works of art that draw on pools of experience. These artworks do not cultivate nostalgia or collective associations with the “familiar, accessible, and low,” [54] but with nostalgia’s very opposite: the unfamiliar, the inaccessible, and the authoritative. They have been conceived and executed at a time when other delivery systems – digital as opposed to analogue – were recommending themselves. These digital solutions plainly lacked key characteristics valued by these artists. So by way of conclusion, I can only try to answer another question: how shall we interpret the use of this exaggeratedly dead technology in two recent manifestations?

The place of encounter is always decisive, and never more than in this first example: a pair of Carousel projector works by Mikko Canini, Untitled (Interview) (2011), and Untitled (Lecture) (2012), experienced at BNLMTL 2014 (La Biennale de Montréal). They were installed at the Musée d’art contemporain, under the biennale’s banner of futurity: L’avenir (Looking Forward).

Fig. 16

Mikko Canini. Installation view. La Biennale de Montréal / BNLMTL 2014, L’avenir (Looking Forward). Left to right: Untitled (Interview), 2011, slide projection: eighty 35 mm slides; Untitled (Lecture), 2012, slide projection: eighty 35 mm slides.

Photo: Guy L’Heureux / La Biennale de Montréal, 2014

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Canini’s are modest works whose presence in an exhibition of large projections, some delivered by elaborate machines, might easily have been overlooked. Some visitors literally tripped over them, as the Carousel projectors were fixed to the floor in a rectangular passageway, projecting into opposite corners of a small space (see fig. 16). The space was not very dark, but the proximity of wall and machine made the projections quite intense. This arrangement brought the audience into close contact with the machine that was providing and disciplining their experience. Indeed, this was the sole formal property mentioned by Canini during his panel presentation at the Biennale: he liked the “machine regularity” of the slide projector, in large part because it delimited the viewer’s agency, leaving no escape from the forward-looking mood that he wanted to create, which was dread. [55]

The images alone would not cause much apprehension; they are neutral to the point of opacity. Untitled (Interview) is a fairly homogeneous, though not uninteresting, set of black and white architectural views (see Figs. 17 and 18). The buildings are strictly modern: clean, angular, with glazed stairwells and cantilevered connections. They evidence some decay, though this is not fetishized to make them into Brutalist ruins. As photographed, they are devoid of human presence. Trees cast shadows on the brick and concrete walls; small patches of grass are contained within geometric designs. Each image carries a phrase, as though close-captioned for the deaf, but since there is no sound save for the projector’s, the audience is set to reading and must concentrate to catch the longish sentences that stretch out over several slides.

Fig. 17

Mikko Canini, Untitled(Interview). Installation view.

Photo: Guy L’Heureux / La Biennale de Montréal, 2014

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Fig. 18

Mikko Canini. Untitled(Interview). Detail.

Courtesy of the artist

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There is a story. It is based on the memory of the person being interviewed as they reconstruct their involvement in an international urban planning project, and their dawning realization that an intellectual exercise conducted within a university might be part of something much greater, with unanticipated, possibly sinister outcomes. Mounting dread, in other words, constructed in two times as the interviewee looks back on present-based engagement, remembering how it gave way to uneasy speculation and a loss of faith in the visionary leader – signs imperfectly decoded in the moment:

It was unsettling
to hear our ideas expressed
as though they were
authorless principles
derived from nature.
I have a recording of those lectures
so I know it’s true but
in responding to questions
two times he speaks in perfect loops
and no one seems to notice. [56]

Without belabouring this connection, I would simply mark the parallel with Hacking’s observations of Foucault’s ideas “floating freely” – authorless, and more powerful for it. [57]

Fig. 19

Mikko Canini. Untitled(Lecture). Installation view.

Photo: Guy L’Heureux / La Biennale de Montréal, 2014

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Fig. 20

Mikko Canini. Untitled(Lecture). Detail.

Courtesy of the artist

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Untitled (lecture) is an even more explicit as a display of power in the form of a public lecture imprinted on a heterogeneous set of colour pictures that have been harvested from the web (see Figs. 19 and 20). The slightly histrionic text creates suspense and considerable alienation from the speaker who reminds the audience of his or her expulsion from the university, a misadventure that has nevertheless led to important discoveries in psycho-botanical research methods that will not be disclosed on this occasion, but will redeem the reputation of the speaker when published in a scholarly journal. The orator’s insistence – a textualized effect – seems to demand some associative effort from the audience, but meaning is unchained. Rather one is filled with the all-too-familiar horror of exposure to yet-another unrecognized genius who may or may not have set something dreadful in motion. If the choices of images seem arbitrary, the text is anything but. As the speaker intones and the audience internalizes in silent reading:

Simply, contingency does not exist
for ladies and gentlemen
having glanced into the void
earlier this afternoon
I can faithfully report
it is machine. [58]

The machine employed by Canini to deliver this message figures that look into the void. Knocked off their sculptural plinths, Canini’s Carousel projectors occupy the floor, silently (except for that relentless click), issuing inchoate warnings about conspiracies, complacencies, misuse of power, delusions of grandeur, and viral confusion. As their narrators recast history, they are showing and telling (pre-texting) personal stories of hubris and flawed conjecture. Hindsight stares bleakly into an ominous future.

A minimal installation – mimicking afterthought – served this work. The passageway was tight. Two machines operated in that “performative triangle,” but back-to-back. There was no virtual space for these sculptural objects and no ideal point of view for the formalist; these two works would not be disciplined into a tidy comparative structure. Instead, they squeezed into the audience’s mind (when they were noticed at all), first one and then the other (duck/rabbit), in abrupt imaginal dialogue. Thus they functioned under the rule of simultaneity, but without spectacle or poetry. They were not designed to impress. Canini has explained his ambition to replace the politics of fear and the politics of anxiety with a politics of dread – dread being a more productive model for critical thought. [59] He has found his anti-hero in this relentless and doomed projection machine.

Still its power persists. In her recent two-part installation, une certaine instabilité émotionelle (2013–15), Sophie Jodoin uses the Carousel projector as a tireless examiner, tormenting the willing spectator with questions about her body and state of mind. The creation of this work was labour-intensive, in the old analogue way. Eighty personal questions were printed in black type on slips of paper and photographed on 35 mm slide film to be projected at a small scale on a gallery partition (see Fig. 21). Spectators cluster around the machine, which is roughly shoulder height, securely installed on a metal projector stand. On the other side of the partition and perpendicular to it are three long tables, with forty-two unframed drawings spaced evenly along the length (see Fig. 22). These are black and white drawings, some with collaged elements. They have been executed in conté, charcoal, mylar, and inkjet at an intimate scale, each sheet measuring just 25.5 by 20.5 cm. The spectator works her way along the line, bending over to see the drawings. She can only be amazed and fascinated by Jodoin’s prodigious and subtle renderings of everyday objects or bodies, though she is somewhat anxious for the unprotectedness of these fragile works on paper (see Figs. 23–6).

Fig. 21

Sophie Jodoin. une certaine instabilité émotionnelle 2, 2015, eighty slides, Kodak projector 5600, metal stand, 133 x 33 x 33 cm. Installation view. Battat Contemporary, Montreal, April 15-June 6, 2015.

Photo: Paul Litherland. Courtesy: Battat Contemporary

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Fig. 22

Sophie Jodoin. une certaine instabilité émotionnelle 1, 2013-2015, forty-two drawings: conté, charcoal, mylar and inkjet archival print on Zherkall paper, 25.5 x 20.5 cm each. Installation view. Battat Contemporary, Montreal, April 15-June 6, 2015.

Photo: Paul Litherland. Courtesy: Battat Contemporary

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Figs. 23-26

Sophie Jodoin. From the series une certaine instabilité émotionnelle, 2013-2015. Untitled (1), 35.5 x 28 cm; Untitled (17), 35.5 x 28 cm; Untitled (29), 35.5 x 28 cm; Untitled (37), 35.5 x 28 cm.

Photo: Sophie Jodoin. Courtesy: Battat Contemporary

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These two parts are clearly delineated in separate, though adjacent exhibition spaces that share a common wall. Each space choreographs its distinct exhibitionary code of behaviour; each produces its relational intrigues. At the work’s inaugural installation at Battat Contemporary in Montreal, the spectator’s first encounter was with Part 1, the drawings, so the entry sequence that one can imagine from Paul Litherland’s installation view should be reversed, as the entrance to the gallery is just beyond the picture’s right edge (see Fig. 27). Except aurally, that is, for the two parts are conjoined in sound. For Jodoin, the “distinctive ‘breathing’ sound of the projector” is an important element that seeps into the consciousness of the spectator before she even sees it. [60]

Fig. 27

Sophie Jodoin. une certaine instabilité émotionnelle, 2013-15. Installation view. Left to right: part 2 (projection), part 1 (drawings on tables). Battat Contemporary, Montreal, April 15-June 6, 2015.

Photo: Paul Litherland. Courtesy: Battat Contemporary

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From this careful arrangement, visual art critic Dagmara Genda takes away an impression of fragmentariness: une certaine instabilité émotionelle is the work of an artist-collector whose translation of bits and pieces of reality into realism looks “closer to evidence than art.” [61] This is its reality effect, of course, and a fiction, but even fictional evidence builds arguments, and this is precisely where Jodoin’s work distinguishes itself in its refusal to resolve into discourse. Careful not to lead the viewer – her use of the authoritarian machine is boldly counter-intuitive – Jodoin rejects linearity, presenting both drawings and slides in no particular order, and as a work subject to additions and subtractions for the rest of its life. [62] The discipline of the museum could threaten that plan, as we have seen, but Jodoin, like Snow, will doubtless find strategies to preserve her project’s openness to improvisation.

While rebuffing both discourse and narrative, une certaine instabilité émotionelle is not overly mysterious. My own impression is of a deep, if fragile, coherence, and I am not surprised to learn that the texts have not been collected, but crafted in a terse realist voice by Jodoin. [63] Her initial inspiration was a questionnaire found in an older book on female beauty – from this she seems to have retained the basic mode of address, for her text benefits from a certain familiarity, the medical examiner’s voice of authority. Her own questions are more than skin deep, evoking a subterranean space where the patient can only be shamed by the deficiencies of her mind and body as she betrays them to the diagnostician. Michel Foucault’s “medical gaze” and Goffman’s close descriptions of mental patients come hurriedly to mind. [64] A few, not so random, samples of the projector’s probes:

Avez-vous des tics ?
Votre langue se colle-t-elle à vos dents ?
Votre cou raide tire-t-il en avant ?
Votre mâchoire est-elle serrée ?
Vos orteils se crispent-ils ?
Votre menton avance-t-il ?
Votre nuque est-t-elle tendue ?
Vos jambes sont-elles lourdes ?
Votre sourire est-il sincere ?
Vous pensez à inspirer et expirer ? [65]

Here again, the temporal discipline of the Carousel projector and its powerful floating voice are crucial to Jodoin’s work, as the light-casting, heat-exuding, and agenda-hiding medical automaton pokes and prods the psyche of the respondent – the viewer’s psyche, in effect. The artist has explained that she could not have imagined this experience delivered by another machine, the digital projector for example. From this, I can only infer that she wanted a degree of historical distance: digital technology is still too close for us to pull focus on its system failure, or to project our failing bodies on its demise. [66] In une certaine instabilité émotionelle, the Carousel projector performs in what Jodoin delicately explains as “a certain temporality” [67] – a human life span, perhaps. The Carousel can be an actor in the performative triangle, as long as it has breath left in its body.

In Jodoin’s assemblage of “emotional instability” and Canini’s orations of “dread,” we find profound reflections on late modernism’s visionary and ordinary aspirations, both figured in a polyphonic technology that is still stuttering toward the future: “it goes backwards, forwards.” Its multiple associations make this machine unpredictably powerful; we should not presume to know what its audiences are thinking or feeling. The Carousel projector is a symbolic and utilitarian presence that speaks to art, near-art, and non-art experience. It has accommodated them all, and the ride is never over.

Parties annexes