In the mid 1990s Martha and I worked in the same small department of Film Studies at the University of Amsterdam and lived in the same district a few canals away from each other. Although we must have passed each other from time to time I was obviously too self-absorbed and we did not meet until 2003 when I returned to Amsterdam to give a paper at the Netherlands Film Museum at the kind invitation of Mark-Paul Meyer. In that paper I suggested that some of the unanswered questions around the amazing popularity of the Cinématographe might dissolve if we remembered that, at the turn of the nineteenth century, Spiritualism was a profound and ubiquitous influence in the very groups of people who attended the screenings, made their desires heard to the exhibitors and shaped the technological form. After the paper Martha came up to share her work on a PhD proposal that she was seeking funding for and we have collaborated ever since.
Her concept was infinitely more subtle and sophisticated than mine and we were able to find funding for her to develop the thesis and eventually publish it as a book. Whereas I was happy to enrich the material aspects of cinema with evidence of determinants that were immaterial, Martha refused the implicit dichotomy and proposed a continuity between matter and thought that was partially manifest and available to perception. The fascination with Deleuze in film theory certainly prepared the ground for understanding her thinking but the radicalism of her approach was to insist on returning to the spirit of the times and (against the grain of fashion) re-read Henri Bergson in conjunction with a detailed archival research into the canonical technological antecedents of the Cinématographe, in particular Étienne-Jules Marey and the wider understanding of the sciences including the neglected work of nineteenth century chemists. She stabilised and held these competing narratives in place textually in an analogous relationship with Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas.
The outcome of this research was developed in her thesis and was revised and subsequently published in 2009 in Time, Memory Consciousness and the Cinema Experience. Cinema, that object that we had so assiduously grounded in the economic, the social and the technological was, according to her, primarily a spirit machine in that it articulated in a public and collective experience a spiritual dimension that was repressed by an overbearing materialism. The resonance of this thinking was not confined to resolving the enigmas of the lure of the Cinématographe, which was after all a pretty ordinary machine in the contexts in which it was experienced, but at the same time and in subsequent years embraced a breathtaking range of topics. To me this was no surprise because the underlying thesis of her academic and aesthetic engagement with film, art, music, media, and languages was consistent throughout: the experience of the real is a temporal phenomena in which memory and perception become indistinguishable.
In twelve years she published many articles, gave many papers and workshops, was invited across the world to speak, supervised a dozen or more PhDs and also managed to touch countless people who simply came her way with her intellectual grace, charm and an infinite patience. In parallel to this Martha had a deep commitment to the concept of life as a responsibility. For her the responsibility was to live it as openly and harmlessly to herself and others as possible, but most of all as fully as she was able. She acquired the skills and gifts that this demanded and also shared them effortlessly through relentless practice and dedication, learning new languages and methods while reading and re-reading papers and essays to find value that might have been missed by others. She carried this commitment to find the good in the easily overlooked both as a reviewer and as a supervisor. It was this imperative to nurture and liberate spirit that shaped her academic work, her teaching, her meditation, her daily swimming in the sea, her passion for growing orchids as it also shaped her training as an anthropologist in which she developed the skills required to understand and reflect what was important for the subject.
When I first met Martha she had just completed a project in which she interviewed a number of clairvoyants in order to give conscious shape to the concept of an angel – something that to most academics sat between kitsch and fantasy. However, in this work she gave intellectual substance to the visions of those who spoke with her such that, even in their apparent disconnection with the world as it is generally known and believed, their visions had dignity and authority. In the same way she captured the concept of the technological imaginary at Transtechnology Research at Plymouth University in ways that attracted the minds of researchers who were looking for new paradigms, and through that group worked on dozens of projects including Leonardo Reviews and L | R | Q as collaborators. We published joint papers, and shared a large research grant that allowed us to work with people that she valued at the EYE Film Institute, the Institute for Sound and Vision and the Angewandte in Vienna. She worked independently on projects including the anthology Light Image and Imagination in collaboration with Gustave Deutsch and Hannah Schimek. At the time of her death we were working with a large group of researchers from the cognitive sciences, the arts and the humanities on creativity and cognitive innovation. We also set up a small laboratory project revisiting the psychological experiments that were important to media in the late nineteenth century, and were working with some hospitals and the Dental School at Plymouth to build a new centre dealing with health and creativity. We also established a network of researchers from across many disciplines, including Roger Malina, to work on methodological issues – in particular those that involve questions about transdisciplinarity and academic collaboration.
It seems today as I write this that the answer to many of our questions about academic collaboration were hidden in plain sight. Martha was a natural collaborator – or perhaps more precisely she made it very easy for others to collaborate with her. At this distance it is clear to me that this was not simply a consequence of her intellectual qualities and her natural compassion for the world around her, but was the legacy of her refusal to acknowledge the dichotomy between matter and spirit as an irrefutable given. For her this refusal was a gift of personal freedom and intellectual grace; the irrevocable continuity of time, memory and perception permeated her work as a scholar, teacher, thinker and colleague. I know that many of us hope that we can take this gift forward in our shared futures as we continue the projects that we started with her. Among the countless photographs of places, flowers and people that she loved there are many projects, books, papers, research projects unfinished and in development among her papers, but the most important of all of these was an enduring plan that she shared with me at our first meeting – to build an archive of her grandmother’s papers and designs in St Christophen. For Martha painstaking research and elegant synthesis was a gift to be used to illuminate other peoples’ visions.
Over the past decade I often wondered how it was possible that, despite our co-location in Amsterdam, we somehow did not meet until after I had left. I can only imagine that I was simply not looking in the right direction. As a constructivist historian of cinema I was very clear that what we see depends on where we stand. It may seem obvious now, but those of us fortunate enough to work with Martha have also learned that it is also important to have one’s senses open to the world in all its fullness in order to let the light shine in.
Michael Punt (2016) “In Memoriam: Martha Blassnigg, 08 September 1969–27 September 2015”, Leonardo. 49:1, 87-88
Roger Malina – Passing of friend and colleague Martha Blassnigg, the art science technology community mourns
The Eye Film Institute – Film scholar Martha Blassnigg passed away
Memorial Page at Trauer Hilfe – Frau Prof. MMag. Martha Maria Blassnigg