Uncontrollable Universe

To be touched by a sequence: a piglet decomposing in What Weakens the Flesh is the Flesh Itself (2017); the flower brushing against a sphincter in Rosebud (2013); Niagara Falls spraying tourists in Raking Light (2014); Venetian partygoers at carnival in Radio at Night (2015). James Richards specialises in moving images that prod the attention of their viewer: which image, when and why, are the parameters he leaves open. His film segments carry the quality of Roland Barthes’ famous ‘punctum,’ that almost accidental part of a picture that ‘pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me),’ ‘which attracts or distresses me.’ 1 

Richards’ films are compilations of mostly digital pieces of footage: scenes come and go with the rhythm of a recollection. But perhaps that’s why the sharpness of Barthes’ prick is most native to the author’s chosen objects: photographs.

Although Richards’ work does often chase the erotic and the queer, he uses moving images to massage the sharp angle of the ‘prick’ into a rub, a smear, a brush. His films exemplify the ‘haptic’ spectatorship theorised by film scholar Laura Marks: the viewer doesn’t ‘optically’ receive the overreaching perspective on the images that their eye would secure.2 Instead, one touches these images, gropes them until they get a full sense of their shape. And they don’t be need to be looking at actual bodies on screen to feel haptic: pacing, cuts, montage, and sounds build up like skin. You could be looking at wilting lilies.

There is thus a necessary vagueness to talking about Richards’ work. In order to describe it, we are reduced to listing all the images that pass us by, or we must register all the feelings they induce—and Richards is aware. “I view the frame of the image not as a window into something but more like a surface across which sensations pass,” he has said. “This idea of a precognitive relationship, of an uninterpreted, sensational kind of looking, is definitely one of the interests that run through my videos.” 3     

To watch digital films like they are pure sensation would require some habituation. One would have to make some peace with the ubiquity of images and with their very malleability, their purpose as the clay of a new kind of self-expression.

16 years old, Wales: Richards plays around with analogue radios and old television sets, figuring out what could later be sampled for his own use.4 Early 20s, London: Richards interns at the artists’ moving image organisation LUX, checking returned film reels for scratches and other damage, watching hours of footage on end.5 A following summer, New York: Richards works at artists’ moving image distributor Electronic Arts Intermix, filing in the mornings so he can watch their film collection in the afternoon.6 25 years old or so, London: Richards buys VHS tapes in bulk from charity shops: “I would scoop them up and sit in my studio to watch through them, going kind of numb, watching on fast forward—waiting for moments or odd glimpses of things that would snap out of me. The sort of things that work outside of narrative or logical forms of communication, and instead hold a kind of atmospheric, hypnotic or affective resonance.” 7

The earlier work holds close to noughties genres like the mash-up and the remix, or the more local mode of the scratch film. Richards will eventually start to shoot his own material and use the digital techniques of Adobe After Effects. 30 years old, London: Richards is nominated for the Turner Prize.   

This promiscuity towards images marks Richards and his peers from an older generation of image-compilers. According to the filmmaker Leslie Thornton, a collaborator with Richards on their 2016 film Crossing, ‘We are from different generations. I think James and I met at an intersection that we reached from almost opposite places… In the 1980s there was apprehension about ‘an information explosion,’ a time when there would be an excess of imagery and data via media and computers, an accumulation to the point of collapse, bringing about a concomitant flattening of experience through excess; a flattening of meaning.’ 8

Now, we wade through pictures, mostly above breathing level. The film curator Ed Halter offers that “Richards’ work is not so much a commentary on this electronic over-saturation as an attempt to express what it feels like to live within it—to communicate through media, to learn through media, to imagine through media.” 9

At the 2017 Venice Biennale, Richards installed his exhibition Music for the Gift in the former church and sacristy of Santa Maria Ausiliatrice. It comprised a six-channel audio work, a film made with artist Steve Reinke, a small book with Chris McCormack, and Rushes Minotaur, a series of inkjet prints that work and rework pictures of tattered skin and a storefront. At the Whitechapel Gallery in 2015, Richards had designed an immersive exhibition around Francis Bacon’s 1953 painting Study for a Portrait. And also in 2015, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis commissioned Radio at Night, a film briefly available online. This is all to say that how we feel the haptic procession of images does depend on the structures they inhabit: in an old Roman Catholic church, in a white cube gallery, on a computer browser, or perhaps for the first time in Richards’ career, on the big screen of a commercial cinema.

In its debut at Tyneside Cinema, Uncontrollable Universe taps into a feedback loop of anachronism: the digital image returns to its shadow origin in the cinema, an institution that has had to embrace the digital over the celluloid, an institution that here shows a short film that through Richards’ artisanal touch, employs computer software to collate various analogue media into a digital scroll. Uncontrollable indeed.

There is a furrowed reference to the first image we see in Richards’ film, the white lily. In 1910, the British scientific filmmaker F. Percy Smith made The Birth of a Flower, one of the first instances of stop-motion cinema. Across its roughly seven-minute duration, crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, and other genera bloom in various filmic tints and shades. The media historian Oliver Gaycken has tracked the reception of the film, which while altogether positive, drifted from praise of its heuristic lucidity and celebration of its formal beauty to wonder at its uncanny estrangement of an everyday botanic phenomenon.10 As Gaycken explains, this early period of film saw no distinction between the objectivity of scientific display and the enchantment of mystery. The affective range of media was large.11

Notice what Richards does: the opening shots of the wilting lily, sentimental as the notion might be, encounter the lovely vocalisations of singer Kirsten Evans, who improvised melodies based on audio clips Richards fed her live. Yet the start and stops of each sequence turn the ur-iconography of vanitas, fading petals, into tools of demonstration; Evans’ lines are marked and repeated by the audible parting of her lips, while the background feedback noise from a detuned radio marks the scene with an air of laboratory experimentation. More than any other film Richards has made, Uncontrollable Universe taps into a genealogy not just of cinema, befitting the work’s commissioners and context, but of modern media itself. And in doing so, Richards broaches the curious modality of spectatorship identified by Gaycken, wherein the difference between understanding what we watch and feeling what we watch are brought into both proximity and tension. 

The second half of Uncontrollable Universe is a veritable panoply of imaging devices. Not just Archimboldi’s paintings or Prussian sculpture, but x-rays, photograms, photographs, anatomy dummies, and the digital desktop which the film’s scrolling recalls. For film theorist Akira Mizuta Lippit, the simultaneous inventions of x-ray, cinema, and psychoanalysis in 1895 marked the rise of a joint epistemology that ‘pursued the scene of interiority, the opening of the mind, the body, and the world.’ 12 Surface and depth became entangled in their mutual (in)capacity to express. When making Uncontrollable Universe, Richards toggled between the material tangibility of the document and the pure surface of the desktop rendering; some images were made by hand, others by Photoshop, but all modified in paper form, and then re-scanned and re-worked on the computer. These procedures feel different than Richards’ standard collage technique; rarely are his images so globally flattened, even inert, as when under the thumb of the scanner. Richards explores, even performs, the limits of his method in the transition between the camera’s luxuriating gaze on the fleshy lilies and its futile probing of surface after. Can one craft a haptic cinema while submitting all corporeality to the literally flattening dictates of the screen? Or has this been the anxiety surrounding all camera-based media, to insist on the value, frisson, and matter of physicality while embracing new modes of image reproducibility, exchange, and refunctioning?

New York, 1968: art historian Leo Steinberg delivers a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art rebuking the over-valuation of Abstract Expressionist American painting. He identifies a new mode of picture-making that doesn’t take the flat quality of canvas as a supreme telos, and that doesn’t require the interior psychic life of artist as a pre-condition. Steinberg evokes his alternative, the ‘flatbed picture plane,’ a horizontal take on surface that ‘makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards – any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed –whether coherently or in confusion.’ 13

Robert Rauschenberg is the model artist here (and noted inspiration of Richards’),14 an artist who placed objects on blueprint paper, used newsprint as canvas primer, installed sculptural readymades on paintings, and superposed photographic transfers.15 But, as Steinberg insists, ‘To repeat: it is not the actual physical placement of the image that counts. There is no law against hanging a rug on a wall, or reproducing a narrative picture as a mosaic floor. What I have in mind is the psychic address of the image, its special mode of imaginative confrontation, and I tend to regard the tilt of the picture plane from vertical to horizontal as expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture.’ 16 Furthermore, this is not the melancholic argument adopted in the 1980s, as Thornton put it earlier, where the total translation of world into information must be feared as diluvian excess.

‘The picture conceived as the image of an image,’ Steinberg says. ‘It is a conception which guarantees that the presentation will not be directly of a worldspace, and that it will nevertheless admit any experience as the matter of representation. And it readmits the artist in the fullness of his human interests, as well as the artist-technician.’ 17 Steinberg’s ‘nevertheless’ is almost utopian: the worldspace will never transparently take form, but it will allow the locution of one’s own experience. The artist ‘in the fullness of his human interests’ can still exist.

The cinema auditorium will probably become an antique curiosity in time, as our laptops will become the default mode of watching film (I mostly watch Richards’ videos myself through private Vimeo links). Uncontrollable Universe is almost a eulogy for cinematic experience and whatever collectivity that experience hoards (the lily dies, over and over again). But in historicising film through his film, Richards also reminds us that our perennial artistic quest is to update the representation of experience with the means at our disposal, and/or the means thrust upon us. And put it this way, although it is practically a truism to say life now is ‘precarious,’ hopefully the universe is, ultimately, uncontrollable.


Joseph P Henry

Joseph Henry is a PhD Candidate in the art history programme at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and an Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Dia Art Foundation. His research focuses mostly on German modernism, with secondary emphases on contemporary art and performance. He has been a Helena Rubinstein Critical Studies Fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program and written for venues including artforum.com, Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, The New Inquiry, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.