Interpassive cinema – A Bittersweet release
Situation by Peter O’Kennedy at PCP, February 2009.

I pay a visit to an unlikely cinema. Nestled into the narrow elongation of Pallas Contemporary Projects, the large screen & surround sound merged with authentic cinema theatre seating providing an atmospheric and ritualized space for viewing & hearing. Surprised by the transformation of the interior, through the muted light thrown into the space by the screen, I take my seat. It is quiet. The air is still – the screen is bright and displays a familiar TV scene – couch, coffee table, picture frames, newspapers, stairway, cushion, blanket, fabric of home. I sit and I watch and all keeps still.
I wait.
A rumbling emergent sound erupts around me – cacophonous – my stomach lunges and rises, taken upon the crest of it, my blood pulses harder, adrenalin released from fright. And all goes quiet – the monstrous sound subsides. My mind races to build the logic of it and relate the stimuli of scene & sound. Alert now, and prepared for more – I wait once more. The sound recurs – in different orders, a slow murmur rippling towards a crescendo – dulled & worn, echoes in a groove, I realize these sounds are voices, and what’s more, they are laughing.
In the mid 1950’s, when Charles Douglass developed his Laff Box, a machine similar to a synthesizer or piano keyboard, his invention revolutionized TV production, by freeing producers from the constraints of the Studio & its Live Audience. The Laff Box, developed by Douglass to simulate precise audience responses cut from original sound tracks recorded in studio, effectively took the place of the audience, literally within the studio, but in an extremely psychological way through the television set itself.1
I decide to stay in this odd cinema a little longer, though the sounds go through me. I feel as though invisible. The gaze is all machine – I am not needed here in this place. The peels of laughter wash over me. The imperceptible players on screen deny me any access to the joke. The laughs ebb on though it seems there’s nothing to laugh at – a mix of male & female, sometimes giggling, sometimes snorting out, gasping for breath with glee. Squeals & Screams bleating out in response to technological ghosts?
The earliest samples recorded of live audience laughter are said to have been made during Marcel Marceau’s North American tour around 1955/56. The only sound in the theatre was that created by the audience while Marceau performed silently for them. Some of these samples, amongst others from The Red Skelton show, were adopted by Douglass for his Laff Box machine. From the vociferous & hysterical to the subtle & idiosyncratic, the laughs borrowed from the audiences of the 50’s, were played through the 60’s, 70’s and on into the present day have been assembled & dj’d into live audience responses as ‘sweeteners’ (such as during the Oscars) or arranged straight as ‘laff’ tracks to footage. (In a way the Douglass ‘canned laughs’ have become the laughs of the dead.)2
I think of leaving, though the static scene compels me to stay – what if at any moment the vision is broken by the entrance of a body? What if suddenly the figures fade in and I miss it? Can I leave the sound-audience to it, laughing in my place at a joke that I’m not sure I understand anyway? After some time, I make my move to leave – the laughs roll on behind me, and as I pull the door closed I feel a bittersweet* release. Caught between the affectiveness of the installation, the immersive nature of it, and the undeniably passive role which I was induced to fill in it, the cinematic appearance of Situation combined with the Televisual (and theatrical) language of the empty set left me feeling paradoxically absent & yet implicated at the same time.
Robert Pfaller writes about the concept of Interpassivity as the Inverse of Interactivity, in relation to Artworks (where the Interactive artwork is one which ‘waits’ for the observer to make some creative activity which will complete it):
The artwork, then, would already be more than finished. Not only no activity, but also no passivity would have to be added to it. Observers would be relieved from creating as well as from observing. The artwork would be an artwork that observes itself.3
Slavoj Zizek writes about this also, using the Lacanian example of the Greek Chorus; ‘You are then relieved of all worries, even if you do not feel anything, the Chorus will do so in your place’, but also using the example of Canned Laughter in TV sitcoms:
‘[...] the Other – embodied in the television set [...] – is laughing instead of us. So even if, tired from a hard day’s stupid work, all evening we did nothing but gaze drowsily into the television screen, we can say afterwards that objectively, through the medium of the other, we had a really good time.’ 4
This Interpassive Cinema, which Peter O’Kennedy sets up in Situation, is one which draws on these notions of the passive observer, the delegating observer, the observer who gives up her responsibility to engage & respond to the medium of the Other. However, in this case it is not simply a question of sitting down, switching on & letting go after a ‘hard day’s stupid work’, this is not a nihilistic affair of the so-called postmodern human. This is an art installation which transfers the interpassive potential of television to a representation of a cinema within an art gallery. Situation in a way undercuts the notion of Interpassivity by drawing attention to its characteristics. The Bittersweet of it all is reinforced by the fact that the audience, the observer, seems hardly necessary – it’s as if the viewer is surplus to requirement, a mere token – the artwork is infinitesimally observing itself, and having a pretty good laugh at the same time.

Notes:
1. Ben Glenn, Interview, sourced: http://www.andheresthekicker.com/ex_ben_glenn.php (Accessed 22 April 2009)
2. Ibid.
3. Robert Pfaller , Little Gestures of Disappearance – Interpassivity and the Theory of Ritual, Journal of European Psychoanalysis – Number 16 – Winter-Spring 2003 http://www.psychomedia.it/jep/number16/pfaller.htm (Accessed April 22 2009)
4. Robert Pfaller, Interpassivity and Misdemeanors: The Analysis of Ideology and the Žižekian Toolbox, International Journal of Zizek Studies, Volume One, Number One – Why Žižek? Pp 33 – 50. www.zizekstudies.org/index.php/ijzs/article/viewPDFInterstitial/19/69 (Accessed 22 April 2009)

Bibliography & Sources:

Robert Pfaller , Little Gestures of Disappearance – Interpassivity and the Theory of Ritual, Journal of European Psychoanalysis – Number 16 – Winter-Spring 2003 http://www.psychomedia.it/jep/number16/pfaller.htm (Accessed April 22 2009)
Robert Pfaller, Interpassivity and Misdemeanors: The Analysis of Ideology and the Žižekian Toolbox, International Journal of Zizek Studies, Volume One, Number One – Why Žižek? Pp 33 – 50. www.zizekstudies.org/index.php/ijzs/article/viewPDFInterstitial/19/69 (Accessed 22 April 2009)

Robert Pfaller, http://www.koert.com/home/index.php

Robert Pfaller, Negation and its Reliabilities – An empty subject for Ideology http://www.lacan.com/pfallerf.htm (Accessed 22 April 2009)

Slavoj Zizek, The Interpassive Subject, http://www.egs.edu/faculty/zizek/zizek-the-interpassive-subject.html. (Accessed 22 April 2009)
Slavoj Zizek, Will You Laugh for me Please, http://www.lacan.com/zizeklaugh.htm (Accessed 22 April 2009)
Slavoj Zizek (Ed), Cogito and the Unconscious, Duke University Press Durham and London 1998.

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