Visible Evidence 2021

The Production of Evidence

Wolfgang Boehm
Debjani Dutta
Scott Curtis
Chair: Antoine Prévost-Balga
Fri, Dec 17
90 Min
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“Credible Observers of Incredible Things”: Evidence and the 20th Century UFO Imaginary

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the U.S. experienced a “flying saucer” fixation. This strange historical moment calls to mind a particular set of images, like grainy photographs of discs hovering over barns or lo-fi 8mm footage of lights in the sky, which reveal the privileged role of photographic technologies for a developing post-war UFO imaginary. I suggest that this imaginary houses a vernacular discourse regarding the evidentiary quality of still and moving images, which emerges from an increased legibility of the sky by technologies developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1956, United Artists released the semi-documentary Unidentified Flying Objects, a precursor to the now ubiquitous pseudoscientific media that populate video streaming platforms such as YouTube, SVOD services like Netflix, and cable networks like the History Channel. In the film, viewers are presented with footage of alleged UFOs, whose authenticity has been “verified” by the U.S. Air Force. The footage is slowed down, images are enlarged, and still frames are projected, offering viewers the ability to scrutinize filmic evidence to arrive at their own conclusions. I argue that the film showcases a mode of spectatorship that pre-dates the post-war UFO fixation. It reveals how pseudoscience and paranormal communities are prolific producers and consumers of a unique genre of media that casts spectators into a paranoid viewing position.

I historicize this media and mode of spectatorship, tracing its emergence from conspiracy theorists and paranormal researchers that date back to the early 20th century. These conspiracy theorists and researchers respond to the sky’s legibility, which resulted from the development of technologies like astrophotography, film, and radar. Meanwhile, the media these research communities produce and the paranoid gaze they employ have been mobilized by Hollywood studios, television networks, and other entertainment industries, aestheticized and tailored for popular consumption.

Wolfgang Boehm

Wolfgang Boehm is a PhD student in the Cinema and Media Studies Department at the University of Chicago. He received his MA in moving image studies from the School of Film, Media and Theatre at Georgia State University and a BA in philosophy from Sewanee: The University of the South. His areas of research include North American animation, film theory, paranoia and media, and science fiction and horror genre studies.

Capturing Time, Mapping Space: Seismographs as Media During the Great Assam Earthquake of 1897

This paper draws the scientific instrument of the seismograph into a broader history of media and technology while exploring its unique role in colonial knowledge production. I argue that seismographic devices form part of the late 19th century landscape of inventions that transformed spatio-temporal and sense perception. Focusing on the Assam earthquake of 1897, the paper maps its massive disruption of the technologies of public timekeeping in the early colonial era like the mechanical clock, telegraph and railway system. Utilizing the mechanisms of motion photography, the seismograph emerges as the most accurate ‘medium’ for capturing the time and location of tectonic movements.

This paper looks at how international seismographic networks were able to anticipate the possibility of instantaneous communication over large distances before modern media infrastructures could withstand massive environmental disruption. The Milne horizontal pendulum seismograph, which came to be deployed across the breadth of the British Empire, used the impression of light rays on bromide paper to produce a singular image of the time, duration, and location of an earthquake. The seismograph became the most efficient time-based technology that documented an image of homogenous time during a period when the rhythm of life in India remained unsynchronized with the standardized time of the British empire. This allowed geologists and colonial officials to carefully observe and ascertain the epicenter of the earthquake and its rate of propagation. This paper examines how the recording of invisible and inaudible geological phenomena would become crucial to the project of colonial territorial expansion and consolidation. I create a technological history of the earthquake-measuring device, exploring the latent dreams and desires it evoked.

Debjani Dutta

Debjani Dutta is a doctoral candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and holds the Andrew W. Mellon Humanities in a Digital World Fellowship (2018-20). She received graduate training in Sociology and Film Studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Her current research connects the aesthetic and philosophical concerns raised by the movement of the earth to the visual and avisual movements of cinema and media.

Drawing Things Together: Tracing the Film Image in Scientific Research

We know that motion pictures have played an important evidentiary role in scientific research since their emergence in the late nineteenth century. The reasons for this are well known: the detail of film’s photographic image provided a powerful field from which to further explore the object of study; film provided a permanent record of an event that could be shared anywhere there was a projector; and film’s succession of frames could capture movement in real time while also allowing frame-by-frame analysis of that movement. Yet the path from documentary evidence of an object or event to the production of knowledge about that object or event was not often clear.

How does one translate a frame-by-frame analysis of a movement, for example, into a new understanding of that movement? How do you extract data from a film frame? There have been many techniques for measurement, but at least since the 1920s, researchers have often traced objects depicted in the frame as a first step in the production of knowledge and understanding of their object of study. These tracings could form the basis of further calculations, such as time-distance equations or size comparisons between different objects in the field. But the tracings also stripped the object of its temporal and spatial individuality to propel it into the realm of the ideal. That is, these drawings functioned as evidence of a different sort than the photographic base: they were steps toward and evidence of the typical; they were abstractions that could express the general validity of the research. This presentation will focus on behavior studies in the 1930s to trace the history of this technique, its role in making scientific evidence visible, and its connections to present-day computer software that does this work automatically to create animated evidence of scientific research.

Scott Curtis

Scott Curtis is associate professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University and in the Communication Program at Northwestern University in Qatar. The author of The Shape of Spectatorship: Art, Science, and Early Cinema in Germany (Columbia University Press, 2015) and editor of Animation (Rutgers University Press, 2019), Curtis has published extensively on the scientific and medical uses of moving-image technology.

Chair: Antoine Prévost-Balga

Antoine Prévost-Balga is a Ph.D. candidate at the Goethe University Frankfurt and at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. He studied Theater-, Film- and Media Studies at the Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle Paris 3, the University of Montreal and the Goethe Universität Frankfurt-am-Main. From 2017 to 2020, he was a member of the research collective “Configurations of Film” at the Goethe University, Frankfurt. He is a sessional lecturer at Université Sorbonne-Nouvelle Paris 3 and at PSL – Paris, Sciences et lettres. Since June 2019, he is a member of the NECS (European Network for Cinema and Media Studies) steering committee. Antoine is currently developing a dissertation on the images of microtemporalities, in film and photography, in art and science.