Rodney Graham talks about The Phonokinetoscope
ArtForum, November 2001
The Phonokinetoscope comprises a five-minute 16 mm film loop and a twelve-inch vinyl record with fifteen minutes of music on it. The projector is activated when the needle engages with the record--technically making it a phonokinetoscope, after Edison's early cinematic invention. Reading W.K.L. and Antonia Dickson's amusingly florid 1895 History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope and Kinetophonograph, the first history of the cinema, I was reminded that, contrary to popular belief, the earliest experiments in film integrated image and sound. The Dicksons effuse: "The inconceivable swiftness of the photographic succession and the exquisite synchronism of the phonographic attachment have removed the last trace of automatic action, and the illusion is complete. The organgrinder's monkey jumps upon his shoulders to the rich strains of Norma." Perhaps the Wizard of Menlo Park was already thinking of music videos.
My phonokinetoscope is somewhat more rudimentary than Edison's: Not only is there no guarantee of synchronicity, but in fact my unsynched loop allows for innumerable sound/image juxtapositions--and thus myriad music videos. The score for the film has demonstrative dynamics, and by coming in at different points in the narrative, it creates different dramatic effects.
The cinematographic portion of this work is a semi-documentary account of a bicycle ride and (actual) LSD trip I took in the Tiergarten last May. In front of the reconstruction of Rousseau's tomb in Ermenonville, I ingested a blotter of "Mad Hatter." (I had wanted to get a few tabs of "Hofmann," which shows the inventor of LSD on his bicycle, but it wasn't available.)
Among the slender repertoire of stunts that the exhibitionistic part of me draws on at outdoor gatherings is my ability to ride a bicycle backward. I have long wanted to exploit this actually quite unremarkable skill in a documentary but felt the piece lacked a hook. When my wife suggested I do it on acid, I took to the idea, remembering Albert Hofmann's inaugural bike "trip" of 1943. I was also thinking of the film document of the first acid trip of a nineteen-year-old Syd Barrett as he gamboled in the pastoral Cambridge countryside. I was interested in the idea of representing (or not representing) a kind of external manifestation of an interior experience. Tripping on that idea, I was reminded of the Syd Barrett song that concludes the first Pink Floyd album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which evokes something like the feeling of an organ-grinder's monkey jumping on his shoulder to the rich strains of Norma, and which itself concludes with an alluring sonic invitation to embrace a psychedelic reality.
The Syd Barrett song in question is titled "Bike." (The song that I wrote, sang, and recorded for the phonographic component of my phonokinetoscope quotes his song in the chorus: "You're the kind of girl that fits in with my world.") Elsewhere in my song I tried to summon a feeling of the post-Barrett Pink Floyd's classic stoner-rock sound track for the sequence in Antonioni's Zabriskie Point where a house is repeatedly blown up in slowmotion--surely the purest instance of the music video avant la lettre. But then there's also Burt Bacharach and Hal David's so-beautiful so-stupid "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," featured in that montage sequence of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Katharine Ross and Paul Newman frolic on a bicycle in the countryside. Doesn't it end with Newman riding the bicycle backward into a bull pen?
Bas Jan Ader rode his bicycle into an Amsterdam canal not long after Butch Cassidy came out, and his work is as important to me as Bacharach's soft pop. Ader's life work centered around the idea of voyage and underscored the truism "Sometimes when you take a trip you don't come back." When I think of Bas Jan Ader, I think of the boy who fell over Niagara Falls, and when I think of the boy who fell over Niagara Falls, I think of another boy who took a journey down a river: Huck Finn. When I think of Huckleyberry Finn, I think that Twain's novel should be rewritten as a loop, short-circuiting the Phelps farm sequence. After the raft trip proper, the action shifts to the farm owned by Tom Sawyer's aunt and uncle, and here is where the novel (famously) flounders. With the surprise appearance of his friend, Huck regresses to Tom's childish world of fantasy schemes, turning his back on the adulthood hard-won on the raft. Twain's abrupt loss of interest in his subject and sudden break in tone once the story leaves the river locale have long been thought of as serious lapses--literary failure. They didn't the concept of automatic pilot in those riverboat days, but that's what he's on. My point is, the trip is the thing.