Reflections on the Future of History: John Goto’s A Dance to the Musik of Time

This series makes no secret of its own construction.  It uses—probably tests–the possibilities of digital software, and makes no apology for its jumps and contradictions as it maps past into present, painting into Photoshop, history into dialogue, the durability of traditional “Englishness” on to an athletic, energetic diversity of races, costumes and, inevitably, relationships to the past, all in constant motion. The title is borrowed from that of a painting by Nicolas Poussin in the Wallace Collection in London, showing four allegorical figures—perhaps the seasons—dancing to a tune played by an aged figure suggestive of Time. The same title was used by Anthony Powell for a series of 12 novels published between 1951 and 1975.  Said to be the longest novel in the English language, it traces the bonds among a group of friends and lovers who become close, lose touch and later meet again, all the while witnessing and responding to events, personalities, and issues in Britain in the mid-twentieth century.  With the title, then, Goto both establishes both a relationship to history painting–to the goal of constructing a serious, nuanced statement about the world in a single image, and alludes to a particular, subjective construction English history.  But the changed spelling of Muzik also signals a dissonance, a radical departure–from history painting, from the form of the novel, arguably even from history as such.

A Dance to the Muzik of Time is a commission to picture “iconic locations in the East Midlands, featuring professional dancers.” The commissioning institutions—The Arts Council of England, East Midlands, with support from the University of Derby, didn’t explicitly mention history. But since an “iconic location” can only get to be iconic by being meaningful over time, and since dancers are lively, contemporary beings, the brief does specify some form of dialogue between past and present.  Among the best reasons Goto qualified for this commission, I suspect, is that for him such dialogue is precisely what contemporary history ought to be.

Each work refers to a specific past time and place, usually by means of a notable architectural monument coupled with the title text. The times range between 1280 and 2008, the places are all in the East Midlands. The three dance companies who collaborated in producing the work, too, are all based in the area: The Groundhogs–breakdancers–and the Kathak classical group called Manushi both come from Nottingham, and the Bollywood dancers, Desi Mast, from Leicester.  Depite the explicit dates, Goto calls the whole series not a history, but a peregrination through the East Midlands—that is, a move through space rather than through time.

These images are in the present, about the present.  This is clear immediately from the clean, evenly-lit, constructed “look,”—the evidently layered composition, unabashedly eclectic combining of sources, high-end production values, a conscious sense of “performance” insured by the disciplined bodies of the dancers and the constant framing device of a toy theatre, even the heightened, consciously-manipulated colour.  No one of the images reads as any “older,” depicting any “earlier” event than anther.  To go back in time is, rather, to go back into any one picture, to what would be the ground of a painting—the first layer in Photoshop, to the plane in which one finds the iconic building that sets the site and date—1280 for Lincolnshire Cathedral, 1486 for Southwell Minster.  In front of these, in what reads as the broad, shallow present, the dancers pose and gesture, in costumes that assert a cultural eclecticism.  It looks very exciting—however tactically, logistically impossible.  They come from everywhere, seem to represent every age, any point in modern history.  They strike extravagant poses, gesture with joyous abandon, wear rich splendid, rich, exotic clothing—or not. Sometimes when they move they leave elegant painterly marks that hardly seem photographic.  Usually they are shown on the same scale, as though they could meet—although not in Lincoln 1280, where each pilgrim seems to define a unique space.  They move and look across the space of the present, although they don’t seem to really meet each other.  Nor do they look “back”—literally to the back plane of the picture, or to reflect, rest.  A few look at us, especially the masked dancers in Chatsworth 1696, where they are usurping the plinths formerly occupied by classical statues.  But overall they seem tremendously busy with something now, in the present, something that has scant bearing on what is behind them—or on us.  In short, A Dance pictures a nation—or part of a nation–performing itself without seeming to hear the music of time very well.

There is a strong implication, though, that Goto could engage the same framing, temporal mapping, and compositional devices in another part of Britain or another part of the world.  This is to say that the work treats the East Midlands’s relationship to its own past in some respects as an intersection between Photoshop and earlier photography.  The high resolution, sophisticated layering and trained performers mark these images as of extremely recent vintage.  But more importantly, they read as insights into Photoshop’s inherently theatrical function, for example the way the software expedites the construction of layers in a single image. Some will hastily associate such theatricality with products of the consciousness industry, images that instruct us about how to buy or vote, what to worry about and when.  But the complexities of A Dance.., will not resolve into a simple, banal message, however briefly one may look.  They demand the second, longer look and then flow into a wealth of detail with the breadth of a reference work.  Clearly that this time the technology is doing something very different.

Goto was by no means alone in embracing digital photographic technology from the first moment it became available in the mid-1980s.  He must have been among very few, however, who immediately saw the technology as more than a means of doing familiar things like cutting, pasting, sizing and filtering images more efficiently, who rather identified in it a way of reflecting and constructing the world in an absolutely unprecedented way, a way suited to an unprecedented contemporary world. He was among the first, that is, to recognize the potential of Photoshop and allied digital software to sustain a life’s intellectual engagement, to be integrated into a medium as rich, complex and rewarding, as worthy of a life commitment as painting or writing.

As a result, Goto and his work currently figure in a polemic whose depth and scope he could hardly have anticipated, and which he himself still finds puzzling.  In an essay from 2005 entitled “Digital Photography and its Detractors”[i] he speculated about the reasons art and educational establishments continue to give digital technology such a cool and often superficial welcome, why even photographic artists who use digital technology tend to mask the fact behind images that obey the inherited rules of a photographically-ordered visual field.  There are institutional reasons for such resistance, Goto assumed—limited funding and technical expertise.  But he supposed that the more important reason was the absence of an adequate—or even a conventional—way of theorizing and teaching the new possibilities. I want to go a little further and suggest that it is the very possibility of an adequate theory or pedagogy that is under threat, the very concepts of “pedagogy” and “curriculum” themselves.  For the speed and fluidity of digital communication threatens the most basic models we make of ourselves, our past, our institutions, which are largely grounded in an assumption about the role of linear text, of writing and print. In challenging linear text, digital technology simultaneously challenges conceptions of history, knowledge, and theory that have long provided the foundations of the academy.

Goto’s work has always been concerned with history, that is, with an understanding of the past encoded in written texts—narratives, guidebooks, biographies.  However lightly he wears his erudition, he is clearly steeped in historical sources—visual, textual, and acoustic. He writes with grace and fluency—though now more often as clarification, elaboration, occasionally defense of the work, rather than as part of it. In fact one way to understand the development of his work his work might be as a challenge to a received concept of history—specifically the challenge presented by photography.  In its themes, Goto’s work has tended to move forward in time—from the early twentieth century to the present.  Perhaps more crucially, it has moved away from a reliance on words to “frame” or locate the pictures, and towards self-sufficient pictures.  He has himself remarked that as he approaches present-day England–his own time and place, he has felt “at a loss for words”.

Such a changing sense of balance between images and texts recalls the sweeping cultural shift from text to image that Vilém Flusser described, most fully in his 1985 text Into the Universe of Technical Pictures.[ii] For Flusser, history begins and ends with writing; images do many things, but they do not support a form of consciousness that constructs chains of events, patterns that “explain” the present.  That is the province of writing alone.  In Flusser’s account, automated image-making technologies, beginning with photography, compete with and eventually supercede writing as the most familiar, fastest, most usual way of generating, storing and distributing information.  And as we collectively begin to rely more and more on images in favor of linear texts to store and transmit thoughts, records, prospects, we no longer want or need “history” in the sense of a linear, temporal progression, an explanation of a situation or event.  We seek exchange rather than explanation, dialogue rather than truth in the “universe of technical pictures.”

Flusser had both hopes and fears for this emerging universe.  He feared its tendency to become automatic and to absorb all of us into a fixed repetitive pattern, with no chance to invent, create. He hoped that the new technologies would bring the first opportunity for people to be completely creative, completely human—to stop working and play.  The difference between the two, as he saw it, lay in the possibility of inventive engagement with the new technologies themselves, of inducing them to produce surprises, opening new fields of creative play.

All of Goto’s work presents concrete instances of an address to—or from—the past, “written”—as a series of photographs.  Each series relies on a purpose-built relationship of images to language, presenting a specific challenge to our “reading” of the past.  In this sense, any of it may be seen to confirm, complicate, or undermine such a sweeping formulation as Flusser’s of pictures replacing text. But A Dance to the Muzik of Time does this more explicitly and more effectively than any of Goto’s previous work, both because it had an explicitly historical purpose from the outset, and because these twelve pictures function so independently of text.  In this sense, Goto’s series clearly opens on to a “universe of technical pictures”.  These images are not history—at least not in Flusser’s sense, for they are not “written,” not linear text, not causally or narratively ordered.  They don’t explain why England is the way it is.  Rather they re-present selected historical content—dates and ideas, personalities and projects, successes and failures, as images—all resolutely in the present.  If anything they quite systematically undermine linear history, or perhaps better, ransack it for parts.  Goto is fully aware of the implications.

 

One of the great things about the present day East Midlands is its diversity of cultures.  What sense do national (or maybe its nationalistic) histories make in a migratory world and for citizens of differing ethnic and historical origins? Rather than see history as fixed, might it not be better to think of it as a site of negotiation, a platform for debate, where the relationship between the past and the ever-changing present is constantly reviewed?[iii]

 

And yet such a history is arguably not history—or not as we know it—but potential play, exchange, invention.  And A Dance to the Muzik of Time is neither a text nor a predictable set of technical pictures.  Here, Photoshop breaks free of its usual masters, and becomes a means of playing with potential relationships between past and present, recovering a little of the ambitions of history painters, doing things its inventors could hardly have anticipated, suggesting, however obliquely, a startling and completely new kind of freedom.


[i] John Goto (2005) , Essays, www.johngoto.org.uk, accessed 17 May 2008.

[ii] Vilém Flusser (1985) Ins Universum der technischen Bilder, Göttingen: European Photography.  The work has not been translated into English.

[iii] John Goto (2008) “Backstage: Some notes on the Production of Dance to the Muzik of Time,” www.johngoto.org.uk/Dance/pages/13_Backstage.htm, accessed 5 May.