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Text - @ the speed of light - an interactive installation of self developing photograms - © Lloyd Godman 2002

Slowing down the speed of light

Leoni Schmidt

Late in 2002, Lloyd Godman installed the bromeliads with which he often works by stringing them up vertically along the suspended surface of a net-like partition along the spine of the Blue Oyster Gallery. Their forms cast shadows across the space between them and opposing walls on which light-sensitive photographic sheets of paper arranged in a grid absorbed the shapes of their silhouettes over a period of weeks.

Walking into the installation on closing night, it became clear to visitors that time was the factor which linked this installation to an audience through the duration of a performance. At a careful and leisurely pace, the artist removed modules from the grid of sheets of paper and developed them in pre-arranged trays of photographic fluid. Very slowly the images became fixed and permanent as he replaced the sheets on the wall and a bigger picture reflecting the wall of bromeliads strung along the partition emerged as the artist went about his tasks in “…a littoral zone, a space between a space that defies orthodox understandings of art, life and theatre…a zone where the ‘art world’ and ‘life worlds’ overlap.” 1 Jennifer Hay discusses the history of such performance work in New Zealand and refers to the work of artists such as Bruce Barber, Phil Dadson, Andrew Drummond, David Mealing and Billy Apple.2

Godman was dressed in the white uniform and mask associated with the scientific researcher working with volatile chemicals in a laboratorium. He invited his audience to participate, but many of them declined and preferred to watch the performance – probably because the white uniform suggested a dangerous element augmented by the almost totally darkened space. Boundaries between art and science seemed blurred and trumpet jazz by Trevor Coleman complicated the scenario further. The effect extended one’s sense of time passing extremely slowly: the artist developing each sheet, walking measuredly as if in a cumbersome space suit; the music moving in and out of the activities; audience members moving stealthily around in the near darkness, some holding sheets of developing paper; the grid of silhouettes slowly coming together; minutes, hours passing.

Godman’s At the Speed of Light forced one to reconsider time and how it has been used in Western science as a measure for dating planets, calculating cosmic distances and providing us with an historical framework which seems measurable and comprehensible. But there – in the Blue Oyster Gallery – one could feel the effect of time slowed down and how this affected one: slowing one’s movements down to an almost catatonic state; slowing one’s thinking down to a torpor; not allowing the fast pace with which we normally negotiate early 21st century life. Unexpectedly, the audience was forced to hear it all and to see it all in slow motion, and again, and again.

The artist used the tools of his trade – photographic sheets and developing trays; light and dark; silhouettes and shadows; images appearing as if magically on paper; the bromeliads’ photosynthesis as analogous to the photographic process – to ask questions about cultural assumptions and certainties in the era of post-photographic digitalisation. Exactly by using the now almost archaic processes on show during the performance and slowing down their effects, he referenced current scientific realisations concerning light as being after all not such a relatively dependable measure of calculation as popularly accepted since Ole Roemer estimated its velocity at roughly 130,000 miles per second in 1676 while observing fluctuations in the time of arrival of the eclipses of Io, Jupiter’s first satellite. Later, modern measurements give a value of about 186,282 miles per second.

The problem is that these calculations approach light as if in a vacuum. More recently, scientists have realised that the speed of light is dependent on its context as certain gasses can, for example, slow it down considerably and thus its dependability as a measure for calculation has become contentious.

In an analogous way, the work of art in contemporary practice can hardly be considered in a vacuum either. Audiences are now considered an integral part of the production of meaning; and each particular context will alter the processes through which the artist’s clues and choreography of an event will result in variable outcomes. As Marvin Carlson writes: “The audience’s expected ‘role’ changes from a passive hermeneutic process of decoding [as in theatre] to become something much more active, entering into a praxis, a context in which meanings are not so much communicated as created, questioned or negotiated. The ‘audience’ is invited and expected to operate as a co-creator of whatever meanings and experience the event generates.”3

Godman’s installation in the Blue Oyster Gallery had to morph into a performance culminating in an exaggeratedly sluggish closing event because this was necessary for him to emphasise that speed slows down depending on where we are; that nothing happens in a vacuum; and that the archaic processes of manual photography are not merely relics from a pre-digital time but can become the very materials with which to unsettle some of our assumptions.

During the closing event, the artist made sure that the installation/performance was carefully documented in full, later to be circulated digitally on the web. Thus, the slow came to be absorbed within the fast again and other questions arose: how can the processes of photosynthesis, photography and digitalisation be read across each other; which aura’s do they conjure up for 21st-century audience members; and how does Godman’s practice fit within the contemporary extension of earlier, 70’s and 80’s performative interventions in New Zealand art?

Emma Bugden recently provided one critical perspective on much of current performance art in this country4; while Jennifer Hay agreed with Ian Hunter in 2000 that a “future comprehesion of performance art, recognising the need for a shift in understanding, will enable the performance repertoire of this country to relocate – in meaning, message and position…Thus a resulting parallax of perspective can displace and side-step conventional attitudes toward performance practice, opening parameters within, across and beyond the ‘margins’.5 entails an apparent displacement of an object or objects due to the different positions of observers. All audience members present at the closing event of Lloyd Godman’s At the Speed of Light were invited to ask themselves where his contribution intersected with their own positions and with current ideas – such as those of Bugden, Hunter and Hay -- about recent performance art in New Zealand.


1Jennifer Hay (ed.), 2000. “Trans-Marginal: New Zealand Performance art 1970 - 1985” in Intervention Colloquim. Christchurch: Robert McDougall Art Gallery & Annex, p.6.
2 Ibid., pp.6&7.
3 Marvin Carlson, 1996, “Conclusion: what is performance?, in Performance: A Critical Introduction, London & New York: Routledge, p.197.
4 Emma Bugden, 2001. “I wanna be a performance artist or, a lesson to all of us about losing your youth” on the “Symposium 2000”: An international Conference on Post-Object and Performance Art in New Zealand in the 1970s and Beyond” (Christchurch: Robert McDougal Art Gallery, 10-13 November 2000), in Log Illustrated, 13 Winter 2001, pp. 46 &49.
5 See endnote 1, p. 25.