“Hagamos una breve meditación sobre el marco.”
Jose Ortega y Gasset
The frame as functional object is seen less and less, but the frame as device is as much a staple of art as it ever was. It might even be said of the present that all stories are now stories-within-stories, all plays plays-within-plays, all characters characters in search of authors. Art worthy of the name cannot be content to exist simply as such, a parthenogenetic offspring, sprung full-grown from its creator into creation; if art is to lay claim to the status of art, it must, via its own intrinsic structure and workings, effectively call attention to and justify its own ongoing condition as art. It must separate itself from its surroundings, from the world of dandelions and dogs, people and balls, computers and clouds; from rocks, trees, stairs, barrels, boats, sands, ruins, islands, oceans, shadows, skies. What is more, it must separate itself from itself: “Indeed,” as the seminal film-maker and photographic theorist Hollis Frampton wrote, “at this moment we find ourselves at a critical pass that divides work that is serious from work that is not, quite precisely along the boundary between reflexiveness and naiveté.1” Art must step back from itself, it must stand outside itself. It must, like the dissociated modern consciousness it reflects, exist at a slight remove from itself. It dare not lose itself in itself. It dare not flirt with convergence and merger. It must not risk rapture. A prophylactic self-awareness – knowledge, really -- must protect it. Knowledge as barrier, knowledge as protection. Knowledge as frame. Knowledge as edge.
That constructed set of edges known as the frame -- it may for convenience’s sake be thought of as rectangular (“our rectangle,” as Frampton described it, “a shape as familiar and nourishing to us as that of a spoon2”) or it may not, there is no essential difference in the context of this discussion of frame-as-device -- derives literally and metaphorically from architecture, from the weight-bearing, stress-shifting openings in walls: in other words, the frame is a window, a point of relief from the wall, from the containing wall’s continuity and inviolability. It is the place where the wall stops, the wall’s limit, Ortega y Gasset’s “hole of idealization perforated into the mute reality of the wall3”: it is quite specifically the not-wall. But it should be kept in mind that the window needs the wall to exist, not vice versa. An aperture, in order to be an aperture, needs closure; a point of passage, in order to be a point of passage, needs surrounding points of non-passage. The ideal needs the real. The threshold needs the limit.
The frame may and in fact frequently does call attention to itself, but at the same time it always offers, window-like, a view through itself, a glimpse of something else that is neither frame nor that which supports the frame. But this glimpse is a partial glimpse in the sense that what is glimpsed belongs to a larger whole. The frame’s construction defines and delimits how much can be perceived of that whole, and these definitions and delimitations can reveal meaning, add meaning and even do away with meaning. In each case what the frame makes very clear is that what can be perceived is not synonymous with what is. There is more, much more – there must be, for better or for worse.
What has been framed is what has come or been brought into perception’s view, either by chance or by force or a combination of the two; what is not within view, what is not perceived, is infinite, extending in all directions and all dimensions, into the past’s loss as well as the future’s infinite possibility. Indeed, if infinity can be said to have a beginning, that beginning begins there, at the edge of the frame: infinity is precisely that which is not perceived. Sensed, perhaps, but not perceived. And as any sleepless child lying in a shadow-thickened room knows – door ajar, a distant light in the hall, a surrounding silence -- the sensed unseen holds a power all its own.
There is a harrowing scene in Jean Rhys’s The Wide Saragasso Sea. A small child, a dearly beloved son, has died in a fire. In the tragedy’s aftermath, the older and less-beloved daughter pays a visit to her convalescing mother, who is unhinged by grief. The girl enters the room; the mother stares past her. But no one else follows her over the still-opened door’s threshold: “She looked at the door, then at me, then at the door again. I could not say ‘He is dead’, so I shook my head. ‘But I am here. I am here,’ I said, and she said, ‘No,’ quietly.’4”
In establishing the aperture of its being, a frame immediately erects an additional ‘side’: not between that which is perceived and that which is not perceived, but rather between that which is perceived and that which perceives. This is the threshold, what Ortega y Gasset called the “aperture of irreality that opens magically onto our real surroundings5”, and it is the essential reason for the frame’s enduring existence: it is the weight-bearing, stress-shifting arch in that construct known as art.
The arch is the domain of Janus, the god of all going out and coming in, of all places of entrance and passage, of all doors and gates, a god curiously unique to the stone-working Romans. And the word for arch is derived from the Latin word for bow (arcus), as if the arch’s framed threshold were in fact a place of tension, a tautened bow ready to release the arrow of its charge.
A frame also signals an interruption. It is isolating and fragmenting technique, a way of taking things out of context and placing them forcibly into a new contexts, a means of separation and enclosure. Its edges impose boundaries and limits. It is a way of cutting things up. It is a way of making things stop.
In 1824, in London, Peter Mark Roget, the British medical practitioner, mathematician and synonym-compiler, was watching a horse-drawn carriage roll by on the other side of a fence. Gradually he noticed how his perception of the carriage’s wheels began to change. Rather then turning in a continuous fashion, the wheels’ spokes appeared to bend and curve. There was nothing wrong with Roget’s eyes. What he was perceiving was an illusion induced by the vertical bars of the fence that lay between him and the carriage and which were interrupting his sight of the moving object. Thus the bars of Roget’s fence, by interrupting and consequently distorting his sight, were functioning as a framing device; for an instant, for what we call a ‘flash’ (although a flash of darkness), the wheel belonged to the unseen, to the stopped, and to the infinite.
Roget’s observations on interrupted sight led to the conclusive study of the optical phenomenon known as ‘persistence of vision’, whereby it was ascertained that the human retina retains an image for a fraction of a second (1/16th, the be exact) after the source of that image has been removed or obscured. This phenomenon, under certain conditions, causes distortion; and this distortion in turn forms the basis for motion photography. Thus motion photography, too, is based on the tool of the frame, the frame of the still image, the framed, glimpsed instant of movement and time. The process by which this tool works remains fundamentally unchanged from the original, literal film ‘frames’ to pixels to binary computer data: in each version, rapid sequences of still images give rise to the paradoxical illusion of movement, a paradox at the crux of one the fundamental paradoxes of experience – the paradox of permanence and change.
In the fifth century B.C.E. the Greek philosopher Zeno posited his paradoxes proving that change and movement are illusions of the senses. The third paradox is known (via Aristotle’s attempted refutation of it) as “The Arrow”. It runs more or less as follows: At every instant of its flight, a moving arrow occupies a portion of space equal to itself. At the instant it is occupying this portion of space, it cannot be moving – it is fully occupied occupying a fixed quantity of space. But the arrow will be occupying its own space all the time, at all the instants of its flight, and therefore will not be moving at any given instant of its flight. So: the arrow never moves. Nor, by extension, does anything else. Movement and change are illusory. There is no generation, no destruction. There is no empty space in the universe: all is one. Only permanence is real, and all that is real is permanent.
Zeno’s paradox is just that, a paradox, not disprovable but not believable, neither right nor wrong – or, rather, it is right and wrong at one and the same time. Hence its power. It straddles the threshold between true and false, between logic and experience, yet at the same time it erects an unsurpassable limit between the two. Like a lens in a camera aperture or a window in a wall, it joins even as it divides, it divides even as it joins. It interrupts, and in interrupting gives rise to an oscillatory, illusory condition sweetly described by Frampton: “...because she is gone, but never, to my pleasure, quite entirely absent ... and I am here, but never, to my pain, quite entirely present.6”
Within the paradoxical, oscillatory construct known as art, the interruption of the frame performs a structural function. For that which which is perceived and that which perceive must never fully meet, but must never entirely separate either, lest the entire edifice come tumbling down, or lest it simply disappear. It joins as it divides, it divides as it joins. Like a window in a wall, it carries out the task of protection occult within its very transparency. Like a Roman ceremonial arch, it shears away the unseen spirits from all who cross its threshold. It allows passage, but not all that seems to go through in fact passes through; something is left behind, something is kept away. It bears a hidden, sharpened edge. It is not neutral. It is transformative.
A paradox is a way of interrupting and in the process of interrupting heightening consciousness, a means of calling attention to the limits and thresholds of thought and observation, a way of raising the edge of knowledge.
An edge cuts, and a cut leaves an edge. This, in effect, is the essence of the photographic act – an incision in time: time the arrow that describes an arc across experience. As Frampton wrote: “But in fact the photographer does make something; and what that is, is easy enough to say, if I may be permitted a homely simile. A butcher, using only a knife, reduces a raw carcass to edible meat. He does not make the meat, of course, because that was always in the carcass; he makes ‘cuts’ (dimensionless entities) that section flesh and separate it from bone.
“The photographic act is complex ‘cut’ in space and time, dimensionless, in itself, as the intersections and figures in Euclid’s Elements...and, in the mind, precisely as real.7”
In Montserrat Soto’s “Del umbral al limite”, the combination of still photography and motion photography forms a complex, paradoxical cut in space and time that ultimately establishes the eye – Soto’s eye as well as the spectator’s eye – as the true threshold, the true limit. The eye becomes the frame and the edge, the interruption and the point of passage. The eye becomes the two-way domain of Janus. The eye become the transformative, triumphal arch of art.
1 Frampton, Hollis; “Circles of Confusion: Film. Photography. Video. Texts.”. (Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop. 1983), p. 195.
2 Frampton. p. 191.
3 Ortega y Gasset, José, “Meditación del marco” (Madrid, Salvat Editores, 1969), p. 93.
4 Rhys, Jean; “The Wide Saragasso Sea” (London; World Books. 1966), p. 48.
5 Ortega y Gasset, p. 93
6 Frampton, p. 106
7 Frampton, p. 191.