Dead Time

Curator's Note

By Catherine Fowler, Claire Perkins, and Andrea Rassell (University of Otago, Monash University, and RMIT University)  

With Dead Time, we are attempting to make a double intervention. On the one hand, we want to respond to debates about whether media scholars can discover anything new by using eye tracking methods; on the other, we want to contribute to discussions as to the balance between the expository and the poetic in audiovisual essays.[1] Through our research for this project we came to the realization that what eye tracking methods and audiovisual essays share is, first, an interest in how viewers are ‘grasped by’ (as in seized by) moving images, and second, a commitment to the provision of resources for scholars to grasp (as in comprehend or understand) that keeps the power of the visual (viewing) moment intact.[2] More specifically, both eye tracking methods and audio-visual essays offer responses to the problems posed by the movement of moving images for those who study them.

Can eye tracking methods reveal anything new about the viewing of moving images? The wider ETMI group’s research has already yielded a number of answers to this question.[3] However, taking up the audio-visual essay form allows us (Fowler, Perkins, Rassell) to explore points of contention and fissure in more detail. Here we must confess that two thirds of us begin from a position of skepticism regarding quantitative methods and cognitive film theory. Being well versed in either the rather lethargic practices of Chantal Akerman (Fowler), the distentions of American Smart Cinema (Perkins), or creative practices located at the art/science nexus (Rassell) our collective ‘take’ on eye tracking is attentive to different visual and temporal rhythms than those of many other researchers in eye tracking before the ETMI group. Intuitively more aesthetic than analytic in approach, we find ourselves especially interested in the new images that eye tracking tools produce. Watching the multicoloured dots, lines, and blotches that represent the traces of our test audience’s attention, we found that it was ‘seeing’ rather than ‘knowing’ that we wanted to explore. For us, eye tracking methods can reveal something new because they keep track of the moment of seeing as it happens, rather than after the fact. In other words, seeing viewers seeing reveals something that we could not get to if we were to ask them about their viewing after the screening. This is because of the particularities of moving images, as Christian Metz puts it, in the cinema: ‘we see a new image only at the cost of a certain “forgetting” of one which preceded it’; for Kaja Silverman all cinema-going therefore involves ‘a certain amnesia’.[4]

Our essay explores this potential of eye tracking through the form of the long take as taken up by recent slow cinema scholarship, because this gives us a specific focus on the key concept of labour. Through the form of the audio-visual essay, we are able to engage a dilemma that lies at the centre of this field of screen theory, and is posed by Karl Schoonover in our opening quotation: ‘Who gets to describe the work of the spectator? Who can speak for the viewer and transform him or her into an abstract agent? In other words, who is authorized to quantify, substantiate, or measure the labor of reception?’[5] Schoonover’s question should be foremost in the minds of those eye tracking researchers whose background is in more quantitative methods. Had we been drawing our thoughts together for a written essay we might have elaborated upon Schoonover’s question by borrowing from theorists such as Walter Benjamin or Jonathan Beller. But since this was instead an audio-visual essay, it seems appropriate that our thoughts took shape in the editing suite, while footage played back and forth in front of our eyes. And what became increasingly evident was the tension between abstraction and materiality that is set up when we 'see' the traces of attention (or fixations) actually imprinted on the screen as large red dots. While watching eye tracking data it is impossible to transform the viewer into an abstract agent, and the audio-visual essay gives us the medium through which to experience the uncanny optical oscillations between researcher and research subject.

Rather than describe the work of the spectator, our essay offers a glimpse of what the labour of spectatorship looks like. In Dead Time the iconic final sequence from The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975) becomes a space/time in which the viewer of the essay can themselves labour - to inhabit the scene as a means of getting at the results of what others looked at on their own viewings. Our choice of clip is meant to put eye tracking research in dialogue with recent debates around slow cinema: both are interested in the triangulation of intention, perception, and attention. For eye tracking research, Antonioni’s (literal and metaphorical) dead end provides the ground upon which we might explore the figure of the ‘unstructured’ gaze. This notion refers to moments when attention is not tightly aggregated through narrative and editing. Of interest to researchers are questions of what  viewers look at, and how this varies between individuals. Slow cinema criticism’s take is more qualitative and is characterized by sharply divided opinions on whether the labour and investment it demands from the viewer constitutes a rich experience or a waste of time. As Nick James has infamously claimed, ‘such films are passive aggressive in that they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects: sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes it’s not’.[6] Matilda Mroz more gently suggests that ‘[what] for one viewer might seem too long for another might offer a moment of elongated rapture’.[7] Hence, both eye tracking methods and slow cinema scholarship focus on the smallest of movements - of eyes, of frames - which they interrogate, amplify, and unpick.

Mroz’s mention of ‘elonga[tion]’ in relation to the possible pleasures of slow cinema is significant because it coincides with a focus that emerged from our research: on the notion of suspension. Researching a sequence that is absent of editing, the saccades that the eyes make from one point to the next were of less interest than the moments of suspension, when the eyes linger on details. The division of our essay into three sections – look, labour, and body - is meant to draw attention to these fixations. Each section uses different aesthetic techniques: split-screen, slow motion, and exaggeration to isolate different gaze plots.[8]

To come, finally, to debates around the balance between the expository versus poetic in audio-visual essays: in our discussion thus far we have hoped to justify our resistance toward explanation. Rather, it is important that the impact of the visualization of attention that eye tracking software allows stands alone and is experienced by the viewer/s of our essay. The final aspect of our double intervention concerns our discovery of a ‘slow approach’ to both eye tracking and the audio-visual essay. Such an approach is designed to interfere with what William Brown has called the ‘temporal politics’ of eye tracking studies of the moving image, where, via an overwhelming interest in the ‘successful’ elicitation of attention, the methodology is enmeshed in a capitalist economy of attention and control.[9] By exploiting the audio-visual essay’s ability to delay, return, and repeat, Dead Time preserves the singular affect of the moment of seeing – and thus offers to eye tracking research a glimpse into what attention to the ‘marginal’, ‘minor’, and ‘idiosyncratic’ might yield.

[1] See for instance the response to Drew Morton’s curation of Ben Sampson’s video in [in]Transition 1.1 (2014).

[2] In our choice of words we are inspired by Georges Didi-Huberman. In his book Confronting Images Didi-Huberman writes of two different kinds of art historical gazes. The first (associated with Panofsky) he alleges  would ‘draw close only to recognise, to name, what it grasps at any cost’(16). In such a gaze a search for certainty motivates the act of looking. By contrast, what he is interested in is a different kind of gaze (associated with Warburg) which ‘would first distance itself a bit and abstain from clarifying everything immediately’ (Ibid). Crucially, he adds, ‘there would also be, in this alternative, a dialectical moment … consisting of not-grasping the image, of letting oneself be grasped by it instead: thus of letting go of one’s knowledge about it’(16). Didi-Huberman, Georges,. Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

[3] See for example the special issue of Refractory curated by the group in 2015:

[4] Metz, Christian (1982). The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 158. Silverman, Kaja (1996). The Threshold of the Visible World.New York, London: Routledge, 200.

[5] Schoonover, Karl (2012). ‘Wastrels of Time: Slow Cinema's Laboring Body, the Political Spectator, and the Queer.’ Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 53.1: 65-78.

[6] James, Nick (2010). ‘Passive-Aggressive’. Sight and Sound 20.4: 5.

[7] Mroz, Matilda (2012). Temporality and Film Analysis, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 41.

[8] In the third section, the ghosted body of Jack Nicholson that is superimposed on the image is part of this exaggeration, and was added while working with the gaze plots after the data was collected. As such the technique does not represent a manipulation of the viewer’s original attention to the scene, or of the data that shows this. 

[9] Brown, William (2015). ‘Politicizing eye tracking studies of film’, Refractory 25 (2015).