Scientific Film: Filming Science

Michael Punt, Martha Blassnigg and Claudy Op den Kamp

In this seminar we will screen examples of early scientific film to contextualise a discussion on realism, representation and instrumentation in scientific film and in particular the role of movement in reinforcing the authenticity of truth claims. We will address issues of instrumental realism in relation to modes of popular culture such as film and television and ask how we might see this in relation to a broader issue of memory. The material presented is expected to inform the discussion outlined below.

Proceeding from the assertion that all instruments are the materialisation of a theory, we will ask what ‘theory’ (or theories) shaped machines such as the filing cabinet, phonograph, cinematographe, tape recorder, floppy disc, solid state memory, that write for the future? How do we account for the fact that these machines, which have such different technological provenances fundamentally all write the same thing? Is this a reflection of the enduring nature of human memory or evidence of a ‘bottom up’ imperative, which acknowledges recollection as a subjective, dynamic and fragile manifestation of a human dimension? If so to what extent might the political, military and legislative dimensions be regarded as a counter-move to exclude the interpretive agency of the user from the history of technology?

The premise that we are going to explore in the format of a seminar is that the intellectual enterprise of art and artists can be regarded as an antidote even a contradiction – to an inevitable history, which rewrites the human free from doubt, uncertainty, contradiction and frailty. A history that refines recollection through a concept of memory to achieve the status of a fact. As Aby Warburg made explicit in his Mnemosyne Atlas, memory comprises association, attention and affection, which is both subjective and trans-historical. Manifest most clearly in contemporary curatorial practices Warburg’s theory of art is a keystone for the recovery of human agency to the interpretation of memory in an intellectual climate of overbearing determinism. In a more or less overt recognition of these tensions, archivists are radically reconsidering what their role and function is in relation to those who finance the collective memory and those whose intellectual property comprises the raw data.

The background context for this seminar will comprise a brief overview of the origins of contemporary audio-visual technology and consider it from the point of view of machines that were intended to write for the future. The nineteenth century impulse for this – which clearly stimulated Edison and many European inventors – was driven by an imperative in the scientific community to restore science’s contact with the human realm. New sciences such as Physiology and Psychology along with disciplines such as Modern Cultural Anthropology, Religious Science and Art History, emerged to recover this lost ground. Figures such as Marey and Munsterberg championed these new sciences backed by the public interventions of philosophers such as James and Bergson who were also engaged in drawing the human back into science through reflections on memory, time and consciousness. In parallel to this the widespread popular (and professional) interest in telepathy and parapsychology, which was at first integrated in the practices of science, was subsequently devolved to the public domain in the arts and entertainment.