When I see someone, who does not look back at me, I wonder how many times they have seen me, without me being aware of their observation. Like the oblivious figures I see from afar, someone else must have held my image during a period of wander. The rude fellow I wish to never see again, or the kind stranger I yearn for but who prefers to stay apart, may have seen me cross the road—creating an instance of affection, animosity, or apathy. It would be ironic if it happened while invoking them in my thoughts. If lost in rumination, unaware that the subject of my mind has turned me into the object of their gaze. It recalls the image of an angel contemplating Earth from above, or a creep doing whatever it is that creeps do that makes them creepy. Either way, this gulf offers me a sense of certainty rather than doubt, as it is an unresolvable gap. For it is in proximity where hesitancy proliferates and in closeness that doubt becomes unbearable.
Such thoughts came to me while on-board of the performance and photographic work Leisuretime I by Aaron Claringbold and Rebecca McCauley, which involved a lot of covert seeing. This installation took place inside a tourist ferry moving across the Birrarung/Yarra River for 50 minutes, where the artists had installed a camera obscura, which Catherine Ryan complicated with a spoken tour. A camera obscura is a naturally occurring phenomenon that casts an upside-down projection. One can create it by darkening a room and only allowing light through one small hole that projects the outside world on the inside. For example, some 17th century churches became colossal camera obscuras by making a perforation in the roof that cast the sun on the ground, to resemble cosmic pornography or a scene in a steampunk film. While it is a strange and imposing phenomenon to a supernatural degree, it is also hilariously simple.
Claringbold and McCauley used this mechanism to display a moving image of the Yarra in the loins of the ferry, where the audience sat to watch the entertainment and leisure sprawl that surrounds the river—heaven inverted. Unlike surveillance, the goal here was to meditate on space rather than people and to consider the ways in which we use places for leisure.For me the work began in the queue for the ferry, where Claringbold and McCauley greeted me, wearing polo shirts branded with a small Leisuretime I logo—the kind expected from a Tripadvisor listing about Top 10 things to do in Melbourne’s CBD. Their worn-out sneakers stood out in contrast with their pristine shirts, a gracefully unprofessional mirage. “Ah, it is like the inverse of spotting an undercover cop”, I thought to myself, even though I have never had to. While this relational moment was ripe for a performative encounter, they stayed thankfully out of character, which created a natural but ambivalent atmosphere. Like the flipped image, we were about to meet, this state of ambiguity became a recurrent motif. For it is in the reimagining of the familiar, turned anew with slight distortions, that new possibilities for thought are born.The next stage in this realm of skewed encounters involved a small period of waiting on the ferry with refreshments, before entering the camera obscura. We soon found ourselves sitting in a blackened room, with a flipped image of the river projected in front of us, resembling a cave holding a miracle. The upside-down picture was desaturated and high in contrast, affected by the downcast weather so that it resembled the colour grading of a mainstream thriller, in which a dangerous mystery swallows the viewer. However, unlike a commercial film, we were looking at a single shot unravelling in tranquil motion, invoking the fixed framing of structural film. These echoes positioned the work somewhere in between Hollywood and Experimental Cinema to envelop the frame with doubt. The resolution of the image emphasised this condition of formal uncertainty, for it was crisp, yet slightly blurry, oscillating between the aesthetics of an mp4 and a mov file (minus pixels). It was like watching a resolution that does not exist, even though it was a primordial effect created by a device that precedes lens-based media.
Catherine Ryan began delivering a faux tour as the ferry started to move, in a distant tone that resembled a left leaning guide working their first shift for a tourist company. Ryan explained that a camera obscura is the earliest form of photography and that it mimics the mechanics of our eyes. It is upside down—we register the world in this manner but the brain reorients it. She then told us the precedents of the now heavily polluted river, as a source of drinking water and a meeting place for the Kulin nations. This historical narration moved on to colonial settlement, then meditated on the photographic horizon, while disrupting our attention with remarks on the bland vistas that surrounded us, such as Crown Casino. The effect was hilarious but also encouraged new ways of looking. For instance, making us aware of the kinds of metals and plastics that haunt the water, or reciting an exhaustive list of the shops in the Southbank DFO.Looking at the Southbank and its patrons without them looking back, allowed us to claim the meaning of this encounter. The distance from these people and places offered a degree of certainty, making this urban development and its guests knowable characters. Suddenly, I knew that there is an extraction of 250,000 cigarette butts from the river every year. But the river does not know that I smoked a pack a day from 15 to 21. It allows me to see the dirtiness of other people while keeping my own uncleanliness hidden. This should be the most knowable state of watching. But Claringbold, McCauley and Ryan have engulfed this knowingness in a state of total volatility, which births a meaning that is mutable, knotted, amorphous and ethereal.Indeed, as I was listening to Ryan’s words and staring at the projection in the ferry’s dark chamber—an act of sinister devotion—I began to experience a cognitive disjuncture. Sat still within a moving object—the bowels of the ferry invoking a biblical journey within a whale—my recognition of space slowly eroded. The sound of the bow penetrating the river no longer followed the projection of the Yarra. Since we were staring at a flipped representation, this was a movie out of synch. While Ryan’s recitation grounded the meaning of image and sound with language, its density made it an abstract blur, challenging retention with technical descriptions and attention with its featurette length. The totality of this sensorial rupture became a device of the beyond. It allowed us to experience the Yarra from an elevated plane that surpasses urban development and photographic practices: every single wave, shop and bike rider felt like it never had before. At the risk of sounding basic AF, it felt like magic.This piece was written in response to the 3:30 - 4:30pm, Tuesday 29 March 2022 performance of Leisuretime I.