Whisperings from the Wormhole with @talluts

The Proof is in the Punctum

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Film still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Once, my day job was a freelance graphic designer and I worked from home in Brooklyn. My desk was in a corner of the combination living-room-kitchen-dining-room, right next to the TV. I had cable, and while I worked, I would put on Turner Classic Movies because they didn’t play commercials. And those of us who worked from home during the golden age of cable know that the middle-of-the-day commercials were the most depressing.

TCM showed black and white movies from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s in an unending ribbon of celluloid, one right after the other. And after months of working like this, it began to amaze me how little the films stuck in my head. They just pleasantly wafted into one ear and floated out the other. There were two exceptions, though, that seemed to have the ability to stick: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey and The Bells of St. Mary (starring Casablanca’s Ingrid Bergman as a nun). And this forgettable/unforgettable phenomenon got me wondering: Why those two? Why did they stick and not the hundreds of others that I had watched?

It was always something I wondered about, until a few years later, when I was introduced to Roland Barthes’ theory of the “punctum” and its opponent, the “studium.” This theory is detailed in his book: Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. As the title says, it’s written specifically to apply to photography, but if you stretch it a bit, it can have broader applications to all the arts. If you haven’t yet read it, I’ll give you a quick “Cliff Notes” summary. Barthes invented a term called the studium to describe art that looks: fine, but is easily forgettable. It’s a type of work that is of general interest and produces an average effect; it is understood, but remains pat, inert. Per Barthes, the studium is “of the order of liking, not of loving; it mobilizes a half desire, a demi-volition; it is the same sort of vague, slippery, irresponsible interest one takes in the people, the entertainment, the books, the clothes one finds ‘all right.’”

Roland Barthes c. 1975 (photograph by Jerry Bauer) and his book “Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography”

Now here comes the punctum to puncture the studium’s pleasing predictability. The punctum shoots out of the work like an arrow and pierces the viewer through the heart and eyeball. The punctum disturbs the expected. It’s “the accident which pricks me but also bruises me — is poignant to me.” In other words, the punctum is full of surprises and meaning.

But let’s pop back to TCM. In Bells, Ingrid Bergman’s Sister Mary is an unusual nun, to say the least. In one scene, she is hilariously trying to teach a bullied boy to fight using a boxing instruction manual. She keeps bouncing around in her black robes and veil, encouraging him to try and hit her, all the while chiding him for his lack of footwork. He eventually socks her one in the face. And she flops down in a chair in shock, laughing and critiquing her own technique: “I forgot everything! I forgot to bob. I forgot to weave. I had my mouth open…I ran right into the payoff!” The whole scene is just so funny and unexpected. The boxing nun is definitely what pierced me.

Film still with Ingrid Bergman as “Sister Superior, Mary Benedict” from The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)

And moving on to 2001 A Space Odyssey, we can see the punctum at work with help from a review of the film by critic Roger Ebert. He writes, “The film creates its effects essentially out of visuals and music. It is meditative. It does not cater to us, but wants to inspire us, enlarge us.” In other words: punctum-a-tize us. Ebert says that many people, including actor, Rock Hudson, stormed out of the film’s premiere, completely bemused. Rock stomped up the aisle, loudly grumbling, “Will someone tell me what the hell this is all about??”

Ebert also mentions that director, Stanley Kubrick, commissioned composer, Alex North, to create a score for the film, but slotted in some classical music tracks (such as “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss and “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II) as placeholders. The eventual North arrangements were good typical scores made to manipulate the viewers’ experience of the movie and “underline the action.” But Kubrick ultimately decided to not use the North scores and kept the classical music tracks because they ended up complementing the film in so many new and surprising ways.

The ageless appeal of 2001: A Space Odyssey
Film still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

His was a brave decision to allow accident and openness into a film that would have been shut down in the viewer’s mind and imagination by a more expected musical treatment. The music is slow-paced and eerie, yet familiar. It follows its own path parallel to the action. The audience is allowed room to feel and interpret the unusual pairing and contemplate the new meaning made by the spaces in between the two.

But just like we saw with Rock Hudson’s exit-bound tantrum, not everything moves everyone in the same way. The punctum can be deeply personal. To illustrate this, Barthes describes the punctum he discovered looking through images of his recently deceased mother. In her left-behind photos, he stumbles upon a photo of her as a child that contains her essence more than the others.

“There I was, alone in the apartment where she had died, looking at these pictures of my mother. one by one, under the lamp, gradually moving back in time with her, looking for the.truth of the face I had loved.

And I found it.

The photograph was very old, the corners were blunted from having been pasted into an album, the sepia print had faded, and the picture just managed to show two children standing together at the end of a little wooden bridge in a glassed-in conservatory…called a “Winter Garden” in those days. My mother was five at the time (1898), her brother seven.

I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother…This Winter Garden Photograph was for me like the last music Schumann wrote before collapsing, that first “Gesänge der Frühe” (Songs of the Morning) which accords with both my mother’s being and my grief at her death. It achieved for me, utopically, the impossible science of the unique being.”

Horticultural Exhibition Paris 30 October 1931 Photographer/Credit : Agence ROL / Vintage photo of children in a garden circa 1900

But he says that he will never show us this photo, “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’… at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photography; but in it, for you, no wound.”

Different punctums for different folks, it seems.

Everyone’s experience, and therefore experience of the punctum, is different. We are all pricked by things we personally find resonant or astonishing, that encourage us to linger, to find magic. So, when we next see an exhibition, we might take a moment to consider which works we remember, i.e., which ones get caught in our brain wrinkles and don’t immediately float away. These works have punctum. The punctum is the result of two things meeting: the work and the viewer’s eyeball. The piece cannot be complete until it is experienced by another. When a work’s punctum-gauge is high, we can connect with it, and allow it to bloom beyond the wall or floor, into our own psyches.

That’s how we identify it in other’s work. But how do we go about transcending the forgettably-pleasant in our own work? Barthes says that we can’t, really. It’s not possible to control it or insert it forcibly. But I think we can encourage the seeds of the punctum to germinate by allowing receptivity, unpredictability and surprise into our process of making. In other words, a work that surprises its maker, has a chance of surprising its audience. We can’t architect it into everything we create, but we can make sure the conditions are right. The punctum is beyond language and culture: almost like a timeless, country-less soul that communicates to another person through time and space. It holds a little surprise, a challenge to expectations: as Barthes says, “a kind of subtle beyond.”

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Film still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Sometimes we’ll see another artist out there, and they’ll annoy us. I know people say not to compare-and-despair yourself to others, but come on, we all get weak and do it sometimes. Maybe they’re working in a similar type of vein, making extremely attractive work, and showing it everywhere. Before we let envy backflip in, let’s consider that work: Does it have punctum? If not, don’t despair or compare! It’s just a pleasant-to-look-at, expected, unpricking studium parade…and not worth our green eyebeams. Online too, we are bombarded with endless pleasing images of artworks. But, which ones do we really, truly remember the next day or care to bookmark? Very few.

The punctum is rare. And the nice thing about when we do find punctum-infused, piercing work is that it feels inspiring to know it. Rather than envying it, we root for the punctum because we all want it to be out there pricking everyone it can. Its success is Art’s success. When weirdness wins, we all win. Because, when it succeeds, the golden trophy at the end of everything is a new glimpse into a startlingly eccentric human soul.

English writer, Graham Greene, was once quoted as having said, “When we are not sure, we are alive.” In that spirit of unsure-ness, let’s leave in the glitches and strange accidents and unusual inspirations. Let’s let our work veer here and there, questing for new ways to express itself, yet remain stubbornly indefinable.

And remember, don’t sweat the studiums.

Special thanks to P. Elaine Sharpe for their contribution to this essay.

About the writer: Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens. Also, don’t miss her upcoming group exhibition “Blush” at Auxier Kline Gallery (NYC), April 1 – April 22, 2023