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Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Ray Got His Gun - Antonia Hirsch's Komma

After Griff wrote yesterday about an art event that has just closed (see 'here') I thought I would restore our reputation for getting on at the ground floor by writing about an amazing installation, currently running at Tramway until July 1st, which you can all go and see for free this month (if you live near Glasgow). Regular readers will be familiar with the Streetlamp team embarking every so often on a spiritually refreshing 'day of culture', and our most recent included a trip to the 'South Side', a rare treat for me and Gordon, who don't often get down that way. Our destination was Tramway a contemporary visual and performing arts venue based in a former tram depot in Pollockshields. If you've never been to this venue before then try to make time for a visit as it is a wonderful performance/exhibition space.

So what brought us there? That's what I want to share with you all - an intense and visceral installation, by Canadian visual artist Antonia Hirsch, entitled - Komma (after Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun) Presented in an installation context, is a 16mm film based on Hollywood script writer Dalton Trumbo's seminal anti-war novel. 

The central device of Trumbo’s novel is the horrifying predicament of the protagonist, a young American soldier who, tragically, has lost his face and both arms and legs during combat. Unable to see, speak, hear, smell, or act, he is fully conscious, but seemingly completely without agency. As he struggles to come to terms with his personal tragedy, he strains to communicate with ‘the outside world.’ 

Set around the time of World War I, the novel with its—then particularly inconvenient—anti-war message, was first published in 1939. The book came into true prominence during the Vietnam war era, after its author had re-emerged from McCarthyist blacklisting throughout the 1950s. Disturbingly, Trumbo wrote his novel after being inspired by an article he read about the then Prince of Wales' visit to a Canadian veterans' hospital to see a soldier who had, just like the fictional character, lost all of his senses and his limbs. Interestingly, the entire book was written without commas, though all other punctuation conforms to established conventions. This stylistic idiosyncracy makes sense when you consider that the term comma is derived from the Greek komma, meaning 'something cut off.' 

Hirsch's 16mm film takes this irregularity and runs with it, featuring the novel's text as a spoken word audio track with flashes of illumination marking the pauses where the commas should have been. The voice we hear speaks the internal dialogue of the central character but is rendered emotionless by being computer generated. This is intended to contrast the idiosyncrasies of articulation with binary modes of communication.This distinction, between negative and positive, light and dark, on and off, forms a rhythm, the black voids and illuminations highlighting the use of the comma to underpin the relationship between the voice and the written word. Hirsch explains the work as follows:

“It was the lack of commas in Dalton Trumbo's original novel that initially sparked my interest.

Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter in Hollywood, he is behind such movies as Spartacus and Roman Holiday. Yet in the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten. Although he continued to write during this time under a pseudonym, it struck me how the novel's author had also been temporarily robbed of his voice that he couldn't "own" his voice during this period.

For my film I extracted those segments from Trumbo's novel where the protagonist reflects on the sensation of his own body, and most of this is a terrifying discovery of all the parts that are missing.”

I can assure you that the film is indeed an uncomfortable experience but one which everyone should force themselves to confront. After being ushered, by torchlight, into a pitch black screening room the viewer finds themself cut off from any point of reference other than the impersonal voice of the 'narrator' and the occasional sudden bright and blinding flash of light directly in the foreground. Truly, it makes for a very powerful and moving work of art, one that we here at The Streetlamp, highly recommend. So, take a trip down to The Tramway, we’re sure it will be an experience not to forget. 


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