– Spring 2013

David Claerbout’s Indecisive Moments

Erika Balsom

Tags: Chris Marker, Hal Foster, Willem de Rooij

David Claerbout, The Algiers' Sections of a Happy Moment, 2008, single-channel video projection, 1920 × 1600, black and white, stereo audio, 37min, still. All images courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, London, Zürich and New York


On an improvised football pitch atop a roof in Algiers, a smiling man holds his arm aloft to offer a seagull a piece of food. The gull hovers above him, its wings pushed forward. Their gazes seem to meet. A look of wonder has spread across the man’s face. Neighbourhood boys hang around behind the encounter. One looks away; another tries to pull himself up to sit on the ledge; and two more cast their eyes towards the sky. Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote that everything in the world has its decisive moment, and for this bird and this man, this might be it.1 The photograph has captured a fleeting instant the human eye could never apprehend with such precision, and has inscribed it as an enduring representation.

The notion of the decisive moment would provide an excellent way of understanding the temporality and affective pull of the image of man and bird if only it were a single, still photograph snapped from reality. Instead, as a part of David Claerbout’s The Algiers’ Sections of a Happy Moment (2008), it is one of 180 digitally composited images that are integrated into a timed sequence of images and exhibited as a 29-minute video projection. A solo electric guitar slowly plays a North African air as each black-and-white image dissolves into the next. An even, warm grey pervades the successive views of neighbourhood boys looking on at the scene. As this series of perspectives on the rooftop and its occupants unfolds, all the while the man’s arm remains extended above him in precisely the same position. Despite the forward progression of the sequence, all its

  1. Henri Cartier-Bresson, quoted in Clément Chéroux, Henri Cartier-Bresson, London: Thames and Hudson, 2008, p.96.

  2. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960, p.48.

  3. The American Room (2009—10) is related to this cycle but was created using a different and more complex technical process that simulates panning camera movement around still figures. For a description of this process, see David Claerbout, ‘Wie haben Sie das gemacht, David Claerbout?’, Monopol, July 2010, p.22.

  4. Of Louis Lumière’s L’Arroseur arrosé (The Sprinkler Sprinkled, 1895), Georges Sadoul wrote, ‘In the background, in the garden, the leaves quivered in the sun, a detail that a spectator of today would have to make an effort to distinguish, but that filled the crowds of 1896 with enthusiasm.’ G. Sadoul, Histoire générale du cinéma: Tome 1, L’Invention du cinéma, 1832—1897, Paris: Denoël, 1946, p.247. Unless otherwise stated, all translations the author’s.

  5. On the ‘heroic tree’, see Seymore Slive, Dutch Painting: 1600—1800, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, p.190.

  6. See, for example, Sam Taylor-Wood’s Pietà (2001), Still Life (2001) and A Little Death (2002); Bill Viola’s The Greeting (1995) and The Quintet of the Astonished (2000); and Eve Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcázar (2004) and The Rape of the Sabine Women (2007).

  7. Raymond Bellour, L’Entre-images: photo, cinéma, vidéo, Paris: La Diff.rence, 2002, p.9.

  8. Hal Foster, in George Baker, Matthew Buckingham, H. Foster, Chrissie Iles, Anthony McCall and Malcolm Turvey, ‘Round Table: The Projected Image in Contemporary Art’, October, vol.104, Spring 2003, p.75. Foster’s position is very different than that of 1970s film theory, despite sharing its critique of illusionism. For theorists such as Christian Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry, the cinema’s lack of acknowledgement of the spectator did not deny him or her the status of subject but on the contrary set up a transcendental subject position offering the impression that the on-screen world unfolded not just in front of but in fact for him or her. See J.-L. Baudry, ‘Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus’ (trans. Alan Williams), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader (ed. Philip Rosen), New York: Columbia University Press, 1986, pp.286—98; C. Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzzetti), Bloomington, IL: Indiana University Press, 1982.

  9. Most of Claerbout’s work could be included in this broad category, though the artist has produced several installations using motion sensors that marry his interest in pictorialism with the kind of interactivity Foster prizes. These include Untitled (Carl and Julie) (2000), Man Under Arches (2000) and Rocking Chair (2003).

  10. See David Norman Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007, p.163.

  11. Tacita Dean, ‘Artist Questionnaire: 21 Responses’, October, vol.100, Spring 2002, p.26.

  12. Christine van Assche, ‘Interview’, David Claerbout: The Shape of Time (ed. C. Van Assche), Zürich: Ringier, 2008, p.9.

  13. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoön: An Essay Upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766, trans. Ellen Frothingham), Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1880, p.92.

  14. The term ‘any-instant-whatever’ is drawn from Gilles Deleuze, who describes it as ‘the instant which is equidistant to another’. He writes: ‘The modern scientific revolution has consisted in relating movement not to privileged instants, but to any-instant-whatever. Although movement was still recomposed, it was no longer recomposed from formal transcendental elements (poses), but from immanent material elements (sections).’ See G. Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam), London: Continuum, 2005, pp.4, 6. Emphasis orginal.

  15. Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002, p.181.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Though these works have often been included in Claerbout’s catalogues, to date they have not been exhibited alongside his videos.

  18. Roland Barthes, S/Z (trans. Richard Miller), New York: Hill and Wang, 1974, pp.4—6.

  19. Inka Graeve Ingelmann, ‘A Conversation with Inka Graeve Ingelmann’ (trans. Christine Rädish and Shaun Samson), in I.G. Ingelmann (ed.), David Claerbout: Uncertain Eye (exh. cat.), Munich: Pinakothek der Moderne, 2010, p.23.