Christopher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Daniel Crooks: Phan­tom Ride Aus­tralian Centre for the Mov­ing Im­age, Mel­bourne, un­til May 29.

Cin­ema seems to have a spe­cial affin­ity with trains, per­haps aris­ing partly from the syn­ergy of two mod­ern tech­nolo­gies, and partly from the fact train travel in­volves the com­pres­sion of space and the re­lent­less but also fi­nite un­fold­ing of time that lend them­selves to cin­e­matic nar­ra­tive. One thinks at once of Al­fred Hitchcock’s The Lady Van­ishes (1938) or Strangers on a Train (1951), but there are count­less other ex­am­ples. A Wikipedia page has a list of films set on trains, with more than 100 en­tries.

Less well known is the fact cin­ema al­most be­gan with the train, for some of the ear­li­est films pro­duced in the late 19th cen­tury and early 20th were short clips made with cam­eras strapped to the front of rail­way en­gines. The whole film con­sisted thus of a sin­gle track­ing shot as the train moved for­ward, the lines in front of us lead­ing off to the hori­zon or al­low­ing us to an­tic­i­pate a turn to the left or right.

One good ex­am­ple that can be seen in a well­p­re­served print on YouTube is View From an En­gine Front, Barn­sta­ple (1898), just over two min­utes in length. One of the most fa­mous ones, which also can be watched on YouTube, is the Lu­miere brothers’ Leav­ing Jerusalem by Train (1896), about 45 sec­onds in length and shot, in this case, from the back of the train as it pulls out of the sta­tion, farewelled by a cos­mopoli­tan mix­ture of Euro­peans, Arabs, Jews and Turks on the plat­form.

This kind of film, which pre­ceded nar­ra­tive cin­ema, came to be known as the phan­tom ride genre, and Daniel Crooks has adopted the for­mat and the evoca­tive ti­tle for the work he has pro­duced as re­cip­i­ent of the sec­ond Ian Pot­ter Mov­ing Im­age Com­mis­sion. The Pot­ter com­mis­sion is a bi­en­nial year-long fel­low­ship, in­clud­ing gen­er­ous fund­ing for tech­ni­cal re­search and pro­duc­tion. Its inau­gu­ral win­ner was An­gel­ica Me­siti, whose mem­o­rable work The Call­ing was re­viewed in these pages two years ago, and the sec­ond com­mis­sion has been equally suc­cess­ful.

Crooks is one of the best artists work­ing with new me­dia and tech­nol­ogy be­cause the de­vices he uses in the dig­i­tal ma­nip­u­la­tion of video ima- Phan­tom Ride gery are never gra­tu­itous. Among his ear­lier work was a study of an old Chi­nese gen­tle­man do­ing tai chi in a park in Shanghai, and other works with trains and mono­rails that used a com­plex sys­tem of dig­i­tal slic­ing to pro­duce the il­lu­sion of time mov­ing for­wards and back­wards at the same time.

More re­cently, Crooks has ex­per­i­mented with a dif­fer­ent de­vice, a long track­ing shot — or what looks like a long track­ing shot — ad­vanc­ing through the back lanes of Mel­bourne. The new de­vice here was the dig­i­tal stitch­ing of sep­a­rate track­ing shots one into the other so that as you ad­vanced down one lane, a kind of por­tal opened be­fore you, lead­ing into the next. It was like look­ing down an en­filade of rooms, ex­cept the ar­ti­fi­cial por­tal was de­signed to fit per­fectly into the per­spec­ti­val con­ver­gence of the space you were in, so that each space passed seam­lessly into an­other one.

Part of the fund­ing for the present com­mis­sion has been ap­plied to im­prov­ing the tech­nol­ogy by which spa­ces can be tele­scoped into each other in this way, since the mys­te­ri­ous dis­tor­tion of time is en­hanced when tran­si­tions are smooth and mo­tion is steady. Part of the money also will have been spent on film­ing on long stretches of dis­used or ob­so­lete ru­ral rail lines, which are the os­ten­si­ble sub­ject of the work and the di­rect con­nec­tion with the genre of the phan­tom ride.

The work is pro­jected on both sides of a screen sus­pended in the mid­dle of the space; as the artist ob­serves, “I’ve pre­sented it as a twosided video, the for­ward-fac­ing jour­ney on one side and the rear-look­ing jour­ney on the re­verse. The screen be­comes a menis­cus of the present, sep­a­rat­ing the past and the fu­ture.”

Among other things, the work could be con-

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