subliminal: the lucretian picnic

Ensemble, electronics, text projection.

Commission from Festival in de Branding for a multimedia work for the ASKO Ensemble October 2003.

subliminal: the lucretian picnic is an audio-visual composition commissioned by The Festival in de Branding in 2003, and written for ASKO Ensemble. The intention was to explore the powerful connection between images, text, sound and music that lie on the threshold of our possible perception. How they affect each other's expressive potential and meaning, and how our perception changes depending on the type and amount of information it is fed. The piece takes the form of ‘dream’ essay where fragments of film, soundtrack, music, and psychoacoustic electronic sounds are combined in constantly shifting polyphonic textures to produce an overall disorientating effect.

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My fascination with text films to music sprung from an idea about subliminal messaging, perhaps even a misconceived idea. Flashes of hardly perceptible text would interfere with the audience’s experience of the music. Why this could be said to be a misconceived idea is because the level of subliminality that I was at first imagining was, in practice, very difficult to achieve; requiring a tachistoscope, a projector with a capability of open and closing a shutter at speeds of about 1/100th second or shorter. Furthermore there was the lingering artistic issue of whether something so much under the conscious radar would significantly influential our perceptions. I wondered whether it was not more interesting to work on the conscious level of language perception; after all does not music have plenty of subliminal qualities going for it already. Furthermore, the background historical context of the use of subliminal messaging is fascinating, and this became more of focus of exploration than simply adopting the technique myself.

Accounts of the first use of this in advertising are part of the folklore of modern media history. In 1957 James Vicary, a market researcher claimed that over a six-week period, 45,699 patrons at a movie theatre in Fort Lee, New Jersey were shown two advertising messages, ‘Eat Popcorn and Drink Coca-Cola’, while they watched the film ‘Picnic’ (directed by Joshua Logan, 1955). According to Vicary, a message was flashed for 3/1000 of a second once every five seconds. The duration of the messages was so short that they were never consciously perceived. Despite the fact that the customers were not aware of perceiving the messages, Vicary claimed that over the six-week period the sales of popcorn rose 57.7% and the sales of Coca-Cola rose 18.1%. These claims turned out later to be false, (he himself admitted that he had invented the whole story as a marketing ploy), but nevertheless, the idea of techniques he had supposedly used caused nationwide unrest at the time. People became fearful about being susceptible to these kinds of subliminal manipulation. This fed into the general climate of paranoia, in part stoked up by the political climate of the time, but also by the changes that were taking place with society and media. ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ by Vance Packard, published in 1957 , were one of the books that helped popularize this myth of subliminal advertising and its potential dangers.

The cinematic material of the work is made up of direction quotations from the actual 1955 film Picnic. This was a commercially and critically successful romantic drama staring William Holden and Kim Novak about a drifter arriving in a mid-western town on Labour day and falling for a girl who is set to marry a local. What is remarkable about the film is its portrayal of rural life in Midwestern America in the mid-fifties, albeit through tinsel-town-tinted specs. The manipulation of the film consisted of firstly, playing the narrative in reverse order, in order to confuse any conventional narrative reading. In the second scene for instance we see the hero descending a moving train and running backwards to meet a lover whose hands he grips passionately. In actual fact this is the penultimate scene of the film where we see the lovers parting, and the hero running to jump on the moving train. A second form of visual manipulation is the rhythmic editing which marks the flow of the footage. Here I used techniques borrowed from flicker films, where I create a rhythmic polyphony of something like 2 to 4 positions in time that are cut between in an ever fluxuating rate of change. The final form of manipulation, and the one that has the most important visual impact, is the dimensions that the film is shown. The film is cropped to a ration of 10:1, and is subsequently projected onto a 10m x 1m screen in front of the ensemble, what is visible is predominantly hands and feet. The idea behind this was twofold: to destroy the completeness of the original material, in order to bring it into dialogue with the music and the text, and to make a comment on the form of ‘subtitling’, where the combination of visuals and text, in this case, become the ‘subtitles’ of the music. Both these ideas are relevant in my later work; specifically the idea of an incomplete medium that draws the listener from one perspective to another. This idea about ‘multimedia’ where the media problematize each other rather than reinforce or repeat the message is the heart of what I have been trying to do.

The ‘Lucretian’ part of the title refers to the text used throughout the work which is taken from the Rolfe Humphries’ translation of ‘De Rerum Natura’ by 1st Century Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius. I took Lucretius as a source of commentary on what we would be seeing and hearing. The texts used allude to how we perceive the world, about dreams, sensations and thoughts; with a strong emphasis on the Epicurean philosophical ideology. This I imagined would be a suitable antidote to the hysteria conjured up by Vicary’s experiment. Text such as: “And just as children fearing everything tremble in darkness, we in the full light fear things that really are not one bit more awful”, “Your life is death already, though you live and though you see, except that half your time you spend in sleep, and half you dream with eyes wide open.” About consciousness and dreams: “No man when body and soul are lost in sleep finds himself missing, or conducts a search for his identity. For all we know, for all we care, sleep might last forever and we would never list ourselves as missing.” “Images are like skin or film peeled from the body’s surface, they cause terror in our minds whether we wake or in sleep see fearful presences, replicas of those who have left the light haunt our dreams”.

The type of text animation used in this piece varied enormously. There was a certainly an exploratory approach to the many rhythms and layouts used. Nevertheless the central premise was of the short fast blinking text, which appears a number of times through the piece, for example in the first visual scene of the train and bus where a text about perception appears, blinking at an on/off rate of 1:12 at the speed of 120 bpm. “In a single time, no longer than it takes to blink, our mouth to utter half a syllable, below this instant, this split second, lie times almost infinite, which reason knows as presences; and in each presence dwells its own peculiar image, all of them so tenuous that no mind is sharp enough to see them all.” Later two or three consecutive text might appear at the same or extremely fast scrolling of text, different strategies that frustrate the viewer in being able to process all the information. In fact this was one of the strategy used in the piece; to explore the perceptual borders of text, visual and audio perception. This is reflected in the structure used, whereby the 64 sections contain all the possible permutations of text, film sample, music and sound. I wanted to the viewer to have to constantly reassess what they are watching at each new section, and specifically what the relationship between image and music is.

The music itself is divided into multiple layers which also come across in differing hierarchies. There is the instrumental music which contains quotations from the film score, various electronic and instrumental pulses which are there to emphasise rhythms or disorientate the listener regarding the relationship between sound and image. There are almost subliminal uses of voices from the film, and resonances of these that appear within the orchestra or wave based electronic means. The music develops in these polyphonic blocks, switching between different points of view, and only gradually gaining a sense of momentum towards the last part of the piece. This form which can be said to frustrate the audience’s ability to be immersed in the piece, taking an alienating stance regarding the use of media, can be said to be adopting a Godard-like technique. The type of text narration in this regard is an extra-diegetic commentary, which does not have an explicit connection to the visual or aural information, but only an incidental one. That is to say that we know that the text does not directly refer to the images or the music, but are general philosophical musings, and it is up to the viewer to make their own connections. But because it’s unclear where the voice is located in the narrative, the audience must switch back and forth between the media in search of it.