Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Muybridge and the Illusion of Motion

Michael Brown's sculpture, "Unsupported Transit (aka Ghost Horse"), is an interesting example of the ways in which art and new media can be used as critical tools.

The artist's website describes the project as follows: "Reverse cutouts of Muybridge's galloping horse overlaid on ten small mirrors; Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) aimed at each mirror produced a reflected image of a galloping horse onto a frosted glass dome. With sequenced flashing LED's and precise overlapping of the reflections an animation of the galloping horse is created" (

I first encountered Brown's sculpture when I contributed a video to the NPR Muybridge contest in the spring of 2010, held in conjunction with the "Helios" exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery. My entry, titled "24 Frames", examined the notion of the "frame" in the age of new media by breaking down a second of digital video footage, captured on an SD card in a Lumix camera, into 24 consecutive frames. The video image, of course, records at 30 fps (or, to be more precise, 29.97), and in fact, in digital video, there is no more "frame", only a series of zeroes and ones. By returning the digital image to the standard "24 frames" of the celluloid film stock, I hoped to reveal the amount of information that each frame can hold. This, of course, was directly inspired by Muybridge's notion of the individual images that he had to capture separately in order to create the illusion of movement.

But where my project involved a digital image, Brown's sculpture (which, incidentally, was the winning entry in the contest), returns the viewer to the pre-cinematic mode of spectatorship that was, of course, the only means of spectatorship available to audiences of the 1870s and 80s. Therefore, it might be more appropriate to term his work "non-cinematic", but even that is misleading, as his principles of motion provided the very foundation, along with other models, on which the cinema itself was built. As I argued in a recent paper on Muybridge's contribution to the project of documentary, his work as all too often been written about only as it relates to the cinema. Rather than thinking of him merely as a precursor to "real" movies, it's worth exploring the amazing contributions Muybridge made to the capturing of motion outsidethe cinema as we know it. As I noted in an earlier post about Muybridge’s contributions to the Panorama, his work presented ways of viewing images that are still not entirely possible within the cinema. Similarly, Brown’s “Unsupported Transit” offers, in its sculpture form, a unique experience that cannot be replicated by film.

Michael Brown's "Unsupported Transit" takes Muybridge's most famous motion study and turns it into a self-reflexive study of the medium itself. Significantly, the video that Brown posted to YouTube for the Muybridge contest is simply a recording of his sculpture. Like Muybridge's work, Brown's sculpture itself stands as a work of art. The beauty of the piece is that it re-creates the illusion of movement totally independent of the recorded moving image itself. A still image - that of a silhouette of Muybridge's horse photograph - is mounted in such a way that when the light from the diodes reflects off of it, it creates the illusion that it is in motion. By taking this approach, Brown forces the spectator to confront the very artificiality of the moving image itself. What is a movie, after all, but a series of still images that are granted the illusion of life when played back at a certain speed, just like the illusion created by the lights hitting the still image of Muybridge's horse.

Aside from providing a neat link between the 19th century series photography and new media, Brown’s sculpture also demonstrates the way in which these tools can be used, self-reflexively, to comment on the nature of the medium itself, and the properties inherent to each form (be it moving pictures, photography, sculpture, or light show) that are unique to each and provide a distinct experience in themselves.

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