:: Article

Re-Framing History

By Steve Finbow.


Stephen Barber, The Projectionists: Eadweard Muybridge and the Future Projections of the Moving Image (Diaphanes, 2020)


In the opening pages, Stephen Barber relates how, in 1979, while the Gang of Four, Delta 5, the Mekons and Scritti Politti were playing their early gigs in Leeds, he was working as an itinerant projectionist, travelling the Moors and West Yorkshire during the summer holidays before he became a student at the University of Leeds art department. So here he is hands on (techne) with the subject (epistêmê) of his book but, as always with Barber, the history he is addressing — that of Eadweard Muybridge’s projectionist tour of Central European cities in 1891, his Chicago Exposition projections of 1893 and the influence of Muybridge on other artist/projectionists — is always excavated in a deep archaeological and genealogical analysis of the peripheral and the forgotten, the people on the reverse page of history, the shadowy, the splinter events that, in the end, underpin and underwrite the Event itself. Barber’s works — from Antonin Artaud: Blows and Bombs (1993), through Caligula: Divine Carnage (2001) and Hijikata: Revolt of the Body (2006) to Berlin Bodies: Anatomizing the Streets of the City (2017) and White Noise Ballrooms (2018) are explorations of the forgotten and the immanent and/or the miscellaneous and the unread, the unseen. Barber creates counter-rituals to narrative history.

“I’m an eye. A mechanical eye. I, the machine, show you a world the way only I can see it. I free myself for today and forever from human immobility.”

The Projectionists — excuse the pun — illuminates a peri-history, a circum-history and adds another level to Barber’s idiosyncratic publications. Barber doesn’t use any obvious overriding critical theory but moves swiftly and seamlessly through what could be New Historicism, post-structuralism, Freudianism and many other critical means of establishing narrative for his fringe actors in the history of cinema in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is one of those rare books, a very readable and erudite academic account of the innovative filmmakers and projectionists Barber believes should be more prominent as players in the history event of the arts.

“I’m in constant movement. I approach and pull away from objects. I creep under them.”

The majority of Barber’s writing is concerned with cities and bodies. These are past urban spaces, present cityscapes, future metropolises. And they are also past corpses, present corporealities and future ghosts. These are asylums, cafés, cemeteries, streets, ruins, walls, ballrooms, battlefields, hospitals and cinemas peopled with the likes of Caligula, Albert Speer, Shirō Ishii, Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet, Tatsumi Hijikata, Kurt Kren, Jimmy Savile and Peter Sutcliffe and these locations and people are situated mostly in Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Vienna and Berlin, with the odd stop in London and Leeds. So Barber has created an imaginative-fictive and also a research-based literature in specific loci with particular subject matter and distinct characters; in this he is close to J. G. Ballard, another artist Barber has written about in Terminal Atrocity Zone (2013).

“I move alongside a running horse’s mouth. I fall and rise with the falling and rising bodies.”

There is another theme in Barber’s work and that is the sense of the abandoned, the neglected, the overlooked, the disappeared — what amounts to a rejectamenta manifesto concerned with subject matter other writers would not deem interesting enough for the academy. In The Projectionists, he focuses on those little known engineer-artists of the cinema, the invisible men and women in their tiny booths who project the films of the likes of Fritz Lang, Michael Powell and Wim Wenders. He also explains the history of Muybridge’s influence on later projectionists and the films they went on to create, such as Tenji Furuhashi’s Lovers (original 1994), an immersive installation piece showing images of Furuhashi and other members of the Dumb Type artistic collective digitally projected on to the walls of a thirty-two feet by thirty-two feet enclosed space. The ghostly figures overlap, perform spectator-triggered movements around the space. Cinema meets erotica meets a spectral corporeality in a space of techne, a technology and time — the composition and decomposition of movement and light.

“This is I, the machine, manoeuvring in the chaotic movements, recording one movement after another in the most complex combinations.”

Barber writes about a present absence and an absent present. Gary Gutting writing on Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on Michel Foucault goes someway to explain Barber’s methodology, “The genealogist, we must remember, reads dusty manuscripts line-by-line in order to tease out complexly intertwined micro-causes. This is due to a conviction that what he needs to know is in these highly localized details, not in any sweeping accounts of what things, in general, are, or should be, like”. Barber visits old cinemas, abandoned projection sites, little-known museums and galleries to sift through the debris of cinematographic history — Muybridge’s projection discs, travel cases for the Zoopraxiscope as the ichnofossils and coprolites of newly discovered dinosaurs.

“Freed from the boundaries of time and space, I co-ordinate any and all points of the universe, wherever I want them to be.”

This is not a history of Hollywood but a para-history of Berlin, Munich, Prague, Vienna and on to Chicago, Kingston upon Thames, then Potsdam, Szczecin and further still to Osaka and Spiral Hall in Tokyo’s Minami-Aoyama district. Likewise, the actors in these projectionist events are Muybridge, Max and Emil Skladanowsky (inventors of the Bioscop). Furuhashi, Artaud, Francis Bacon, Genet, Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard. These are artists from what Laurence Thompson describes as, “the Shadow Canon — an unsystematic, non-codified and broadly transgressive memetic organism growing alongside the conservative concept of the ‘Western Tradition.’ While a cohesive list of shadow-canonical authors would miss the point, its denizens tend towards the subterranean, mercurial, and bleak”. He goes on to list Georges Bataille, Genet, and Artaud as exemplars. Thompson adds, “Properly understood, then, the Shadow Canon is also not a list of obscure, undervalued, or transgressive texts. It is also a method of understanding — like Derridean deconstruction, a way of reading the Western Canon against itself. The two canons entwine, and even flow into each other. If one wanted to imagine a visual metaphor of the Shadow and Western Canons, it would resemble a double-helix structure or the caduceus carried by Hermes, the God of Communication”. So Rebecca West and Annemarie Schwarzenbach, W. Somerset Maugham and Boris Vian, Jeff Koons and David Wojnarowicz, Ridley Scott and Stan Brakhage, Pet Shop Boys and Coil — interesting cultural polynucleotides — inverse, reverse, perverse modalities.

“My way leads towards the creation of a fresh perception of the world.”

The research and writing in this book is close to one of Deleuze’s descriptions of cinema, “the fractions of reality which the painter presents do not have the same denominators of distance — of relief or of light. The cinema, even more directly than painting, conveys a relief in time, a perspective in time: it expresses time itself as perspective or relief”. And so Barber constructs a perspective in time, through time and light of these projectionists and their innovations. This book — and the majority of Barber’s other works — brings news from the margins, acts as an antidote to what Paul B. Preciado calls “dominant categories,” questions the pervading artistic-cultural paradigm and promotes a collective re-signification of history

“Thus I explain in a new way the world unknown to you.” ~ Dziga Vertov.

Published on 11 April 1910 (twenty-eight years after Muybridge started his The Horse in Motion studies), the Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto, co-written by Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini, states, “Indeed, all things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing. A profile is never motionless before our eyes, but constantly appears and disappears. On account of the persistency of an image upon the retina, moving objects constantly multiply themselves, change shape, succeeding one another, like rapid vibrations, in the space which they traverse. Thus a running horse has not four legs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular”. Barber triangulates the hidden, the little-known and the marginalised, his prose multiplies the possibility of the Event, and his ideas cause rapid vibrations in a reader’s angular gyrus.


Steve Finbow’s non-fiction includes Pond Scum (PulpBits, 2005), Allen Ginsberg: A Biography (Reaktion, 2011), Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (Zero Books, 2014) Notes from the Sick Room (Repeater Books, 2017) and Death Mort Tod: A European Book of the Dead (Infinity Land Press, 2018). The Mindshaft will be published by Amphetamine Sulphate in 2020. He lives in Langres, France.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 11th, 2020.