- The Materiality of Impermanence
A shiny pink plastic strip streams through masses of machineryat its birthplace in Chalon-sur-Saône, France. This celluloid is the protagonist of Tacita Dean's forty-four minute film Kodak (2006). As part of her winning the Hugo Boss Prize in 2006, Dean exhibited the film and other recent work at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Like her earlier films, Kodak addresses themes of obsolescence, nostalgia, and longing.
Dean records a Kodak manufacturing plant, the material's point of origin, to make a work about the death of film. The factory was the last in Europe to produce black and white standard 16 mm film stock, the artist's medium of choice. When Dean contacted them to make her film the factory was preparing to close its operations. The black and white takes interspersed in Kodak were shot on some of the last few rolls of stock. These bits document the final images of the film's own making, underscoring the reflexivity of her project. There are many films about filmmaking, but usually from the perspective of film as a creative artifice—its direction, acting, and storytelling. Kodak is about the physical making of film—its materiality and its impermanence. It shows the production of film before it is overtaken by digital technologies. Meditative and melancholic, it is a record of loss.
It took some time for Dean to obtain permission from the factory to make her film, but the wait proved fortuitous. Normally the buildings that are used for the emulsion process are kept completely dark due to the material's light sensitivity. On the day of shooting, the plant decided to run tests through the system with brown paper, allowing lights to illuminate the factory's dark spaces. Because the polyester film was still in the machines when the tests were conducted, Dean was able to record the glistening translucent plastic in contrast to the dull, opaque paper. In an interview, the artist described the scene:
The pink film travels through, all illuminated, and then suddenly they send this paper through, and it's brutal, absolutely brutal. [End Page 64] It turns the light out, and the scene becomes totally dull and ordinary. The paper goes through and at a certain point it reaches the end of its cycle and the film comes back and suddenly the whole place is illuminated again. It's such a compelling metaphor for what we're giving up. The dullness of the digital world, the pixilated and numeric paper.1
Dean presses the superiority of film over video by exploiting its potential in Kodak. Film has a better capacity to imitate real life, with a greater depth of field and the ability to capture light more accurately than digital recording. Video cannot reproduce true black the way that film can, which is emphasized in Kodak's color. The factory, bathed in Caravaggio light and shadow, possesses the seduction of a painted image. Its hues—deep reds, rich blacks, blue-violets, and the blush pink of the polyester strip—soften the machinery's geometry. Close-ups of the celluloid running through the apparatus contrast to wider views of the workrooms. The film's reflective surface glistens with newness. These tightly cropped shots reduce the image to color, light and movement. As the camera directs our gaze through the celluloid's transparent body, the materiality of the film is at once tangibly present and absent. Seeing through is both seeing the literal substance of film and its nascent potential as projected image. The abstract form provides a subjective counterpoint to the documentary style of the wider angles.
Dean alternates the close-ups with views of the facility's interior. By utilizing depth of field in wide, steady shots and placing us inside the workrooms, she creates an autonomous space. Surrounded by the machine, we are cloistered within the concrete and metal architecture of technology. The perpetual humming of electric motors can be heard. Pulled back for long shots of the facility, the views suggest the cool distance of objectivity. At times, the still camera passively observes the factory as if it were an instructional...