The post below is Paul St George’s initial response to the questions posed in the JVC Online roundtable on Paul St George’s Telectroscope. Paul St George is an artist and the creator of the Telectroscope. To view the questions and ongoing conversation, as well as the other participants’ initial responses, use the links below.
I thought I would join this conversation by answering one of Lisa’s questions. In doing so, I will make some assertions and suggestions about Victorian Culture. Some of these suggestions will be intentional and perhaps a few will be accidental. I am not the expert on that era so I am looking forward to being corrected.
I hope the narratives I propose, if faulty, will be replaced by narratives equal to or, even better than my humble suggestions.
I have been asked what makes the Telectroscope so accessible to so many people. I have also been asked how the Telectroscope elicits such joy from its participants.
Well, my answer would be ostranenie (остранение) or defamiliarisation. We all, I hope, encounter other people every day. But we do not jump up and down or behave like puppies in the park when we see other people. But, this is what people do when they see other people through a Telectroscope. What is it about the Telectroscope that makes people behave in such a joyous and uninhibited way? The Telectroscope frames our view of other people so that the familiar, the overlooked, becomes unfamiliar again. Through the Telectroscope we see other people as if for the time.
This is an aesthetic affect. Very simply, if anaesthetics send us to sleep, then an aesthetic work awakens us to an experience or an event. We can use this quick definition to understand Warhol’s Brillo boxes. When Brillo boxes are displayed on the supermarket shelf we merely recognise them, or we do not see them at all. The most we are likely to do (pre-Warhol) is check them against our shopping list and decide whether we need to buy any or leave the oven dirty for another week. When Warhol took the Brillo boxes and placed them in a gallery window the boxes changed. Visitors to that gallery would not have merely recognised the boxes, they would have seen the boxes as if for the first time. The viewers confronted by the Brillo boxes in the art gallery would have been awakened, through defamiliarisation, to the humble cleaning pads.
This example is useful as it also shows that the defamiliarisation effect wears off, it has a shelf life. Putting Brillo boxes in a window nowadays would have little or no aesthetic effect. We know too much about Brillo boxes and Warhol, they are now too familiar.
The Telectroscopes I am planning for next year will have new features. These new features will maintain and extend the defamiliarisation effect. I cannot disclose what those new features will be. Surprise is part of the technique.
There have been inventions throughout history. It seems to me there were many in the Victorian era and that these inventions changed visual culture. Consider cinema and its early development in the last five years of Victoria’s reign.
To truly understand what it must have been like to encounter Cinema for the first time we have to imagine cinema in its unfamiliar setting; to make it strange. We can recapture this early strangeness of Victorian Cinema through the short stories of HG Wells. A perfect example is ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes’.
I will not provide a synopsis of the story. I am sure you have read it, or you will now. I want to tell instead the story of its writing. Wells, being a friend of the Lumière brothers, was one of the very first people ever to see cinema (a recording of some movement projected on to a screen). The story was published in 1895, the year the Lumières held their first private screening of projected motion pictures.
In the story of Davidson and his eyes, an accident in a chemistry lab is a literary excuse for Wells to write about what it is like when one of your senses is divorced from the other four or five senses. This is not an imaginative short story; it is an account of audience response. Wells was the audience and his account describes his amazement at seeing a recording of an event in which sight is present but all the other senses are absent. This, then, was unfamiliar and so Wells was awakened to the experience and found cinema amazing. So amazing that he wrote a story that attempts to convey that amazement to readers.
I am amazed at many things and especially by what I read about late Victorian devices. I try to imagine what it must have been like to see the first television picture, see the first film, or read the first telegram. I then try, following the example of Wells, to create an analogous experience that will give a contemporary audience that same thrill and joy.