Daniel Crooks: Time Lord - Art Collector

Issue 40, April - June 2007

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Over a century ago the first cinema audiences leapt to escape a train that rushed at them on the screen. The train in Daniel Crooks’s digital video is equally miraculous. It warps time. Edward Colless leapt at the chance to take the ride.

Once you’ve seen a Daniel Crooks’s DVD you’re not likely to forget the experience. Confronting and captivating, these digital video works provide a truly altered perception of the world – altered as much by technological innovation and by analytical intelligence as by an aesthetic imagination. They’re usually short, perhaps only a few minutes in length before they loop back to the start, but the more time spent with his work the more it feels that you’re encountering a surprisingly new way of seeing the world. Something as bewildering perhaps as the tessellations and facets in Cubist paintings, and as unearthly as the first X-ray photographs. It’s not just the bizarre shapes of his pedestrians who hover mid-step on city streets in eternal moments or the grotesquely distended office workers gliding into elevators that make his movies so alarming. Crooks’s digital videos give us an experience similar in kind to the one reported by audiences of early cinema who, back in the 1890s during a program of “actuality films” by the pioneering Lumière brothers in Paris, leapt out of the way of an oncoming train flickering on the screen. We don’t jump in fright of Crooks’s trains (he’s done eight with trains so far), but we can be just as beguiled and fascinated by the strange and novel space they inhabit.

One of the most spectacular demonstrations of this has been the installation of his video projection Train No.1 in the immense subterranean screening hall of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image during its 2005 exhibition of contemporary digital media, World Without End. Crooks’s piece was a single continuous tracking shot, taken from a Melbourne suburban train as it travelled from one station to the next. But what could be a prosaic, even banal, subject had an astonishingly complex outcome, as exhilarating as it was perplexing. To a reverberating techno-ambient soundtrack, seemingly derived from the steady rhythms of the train on its tracks, narrow vertical slices of the video footage were multiplied smoothly a hundred times along a screen at least ten metres in length down one wall of the darkened gallery space. The vast rippling surge of a moment in time travelled like a Mexican wave along the screen, as the fragmented moving image in each slender strip repeated itself a split second later in the next slice. It was like seeing a hundred ribbon-like slivers of the same movie simultaneously, yet with each copy running a fraction of a moment apart. In a sense this was a time-lapse movie of the original video tracking shot, but one that repeats the time of the shot in a feedback loop, hypnotically and elegantly attenuating it.

“I’ve had an obsession with time-lapse photography since experimenting with still photography back in high school in New Zealand,” explains Crooks. “Shots of night skies with arcing trails of stars. And I loved those famous nature documentaries with sequences of plants spiralling up and out searching for light. With that sort of time-lapse photography you gain a different perspective on life, on the real, obtained by stepping out of your normal sense of time.” This interest became a passion for animated film and after finishing a degree in graphic design (much of which, he reflects, was spent exploring the uses of Super8 and video), Crooks moved in 1994 to Melbourne to do a graduate diploma in animation at the new film school in the Victorian College of the Arts. Ren and Stimpy may have had cult status at the time, but Crooks’s mentors were underground surrealists and maestros of stop-motion animation, like the Brothers Quay and the Czech Jan Schvankmajer. “I wasn’t so interested in hand drawn cell animation,” he adds. “I preferred the richness of real objects: the three dimensional form, the texture of things in space that you can’t ever adequately draw.”

Stop-motion animation provides this texture in abundance, but it’s time consuming and hard labour. Crooks produced a seven and a half minute animation for his major – and, later award-winning – work in film school, which he figures took him seven and a half months working daily from 8am to 11pm to complete. Moving objects a fraction each, moving the camera a fraction, manually snapping a single frame and then doing it again. And again. Twenty-four times to get a mere second of film. Time is stretched out in an excruciating delay that, to many of us, might feel like purgatorial punishment. Motion is mapped in microscopic intervals, so fine that in the studio to a normal or untutored eye it doesn’t occur at all. But he loved it, and even yearns to be able to immerse himself in such a work routine again. It’s a regime requiring not only endurance and tolerance, but also rigorous project management. The capacity to analyse and control complex motion into superimposed series of discrete instants, and to envision the expressive outcome or synthesis of this almost immeasurable ocean of detail.

You can see these skills and the attitude sustaining them also driving Crooks’s digital art, even if the results are different. Many of the swirling patterns and abstract linear configurations in his DVDs vaguely resemble the sort of bustle and elastic gesturing of the heliotropic plants that inspired Crooks as a kid some two decades ago. The narrow horizontal slices of action that compose Static No.9, for instance, track pedestrians crossing a bare concrete city square, and these appear as flashes of body parts and clothing which flicker in long chains up and down the screen and twirl about each other like magnified scaley strands of hair floating in the wind or strings of DNA. But if there’s an invisible animating force directing these filaments to proliferate and dissipate, to spin or whip around, it isn’t a natural one like gravity acting on stars or the sun on plants. Crooks uses sophisticated computer tools in postproduction, and although he rightly insists that the graphic principle that drives them is simple – as simple as the footage of a train entering a station or of waves lapping on a deserted beach – his lyrical abstract whorls and fantastic mutations of space are deliriously generated by automated, machinic routines.

It’s this important difference – a kind of anti-humanist aesthetic – that makes Crooks’s images so inventive and breathtaking. The panoramic still photographs that Crooks produces with this technique may seem reminiscent of the celebrated time-lapse photographs of Jules-Etienne Marey and Eadweard Muybridge from the late nineteenth century. But Marey and Muybridge divided the continuous time of animal or human motion as a calculus of static photographic instants or quanta – like the successive frames that you see on a strip of motion picture film. Crooks’s “time slices”, as he calls them, are instead composites of time, much more like the lines that build up a TV image by scanning, or in waves. Crooks creates many of his composite images by taking a tiny slice – perhaps only several pixels wide – from the same location in each consecutive frame in his original video footage, pasting these slices one next to the other to make a new video frame. Video runs at 25 frames per second, so each sliver in the composite frame will be one twenty-fifth of second ahead or behind its immediate neighbour. If it takes, for example, one hundred time slices to complete a frame of the composite then that one frame (itself only projected for a twenty-fifth of a second) will contain four seconds of the real time of the original footage. What is happening on one side of the screen will be occurring four seconds ahead or behind what is on the opposite side. There are two experiences of time here, deftly but hazardously superimposed: the real time of the original footage scanned into the composite image that is literally the length of the screen; and the composite time embedded in each single frame that itself advances with each frame, as if in real time. The second mode of time – a false version of real time, or scanned time – Crooks calls “output time”.

In Train No. 8, shot while travelling along an elevated section of tracks in London, this temporal hazard provokes a dramatically weird inversion of spatial relations. The buildings directly in front of the camera seem to shrink and rotate as they slide by, being sucked violently away off the right of the screen. Bizarrely, the buildings further away sweep by faster than those closer to us, and they travel in the opposite direction! Strangest of all, in the cyclonic, turbulent corridor of the middle distance, where the two spatial flows of past and future accelerate and converge, the world becomes a thin smear. “On that plane, the plane of ‘cohesion’,” says Crooks, “things are everywhere instantly. To me, that interstitial space is where the present moment is, repeated in the same place across every frame.” Anything there is an endless, instantaneous and featureless blur. This is where real time and output time are identical. Where the scanner records reality and real time in a one to one ratio.

“Imagine,” Crooks ponders, “if this computing could itself be done in real time with 360 degree coverage and three-d projection. To materialise time to that extent! I think of myself at Tokyo’s Shibuya train station, in this dense weave of spatio-temporal beings, and I’m crying out, ‘Where’s my reality scanner?!’” It seems appropriate, a century after the Lumière brothers filmed a steam train pulling in to Lyon station, that Daniel Crooks might be standing at Shibuya’s intersection where ten thousand pedestrians cross at a time. And where is this “reality scanner”? “It’s coming,” he declares, “it’s going to come!”

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