The Act and Agency of the Slip by Isobel Parker Philip

The Act and Agency of the Slip

I always thought I’d make a good spy. I inadvertently amass information—both mundane and scandalous—without trying. Perhaps I look like a good listener. I’m careful with other people’s secrets. I respect that silence. But my own? No—I’m not good at guarding those stories. My stealth and subterfuge doesn’t extend that far. Out of excitement or angst I blow my own cover.

If I were a spy I would have told someone by now.

I’d have violated first principles—become an accidental turncoat (a double agent) through spontaneous compulsion rather than strategic manipulation. I would too readily slip out of character. My disguise would begin to dissolve.

* * *

A double agent works the disguise—folds it back on itself. Tactical deception becomes a performative ploy. Who is playing whom?

But the accidental double agent also performs. Theirs is a performance that is enacted when the cover slips without warning—when the camouflage partially collapses.

This performance is more slapstick than sleight of hand. The counterfeit persona shatters in an instant. It is all eruptive gesture and intuitive impulse. It is the point at which Charlie Chaplin—as the Tramp in Modern Times—mimics the movements of the factory machines until his imitative gestures reach a heightened frenzy (until he slips out of rhythm) and is consumed by the machine itself. Chaos reigns as the reproduction (the spurious and simulated self) is exposed.

Here, imitation and its disintegration becomes pantomimed spectacle. As we witness the comical catastrophe unfold we become aware of the complex mutation of form as it comes undone.

* * *

Re-igniting the agenda of the Frankfurt School and following the paths laid out by Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor Adorno, film theorist Laleen Jayamanne defines slapstick as a mode of mimetic performance and identifies Chaplin as ‘a preeminent emblematic figure of cine-mimesis’.1 By mimetic she does not simply mean straight imitation or representation (trompe-l’œil trickery). Instead she adopts Benjamin’s conception of mimesis as the capacity to ‘become and behave like something else.’2 It is not pastiche or parody—it is embodiment.

The distinction between subject and object (performer and performative persona) disappears. The two are indivisible. As Michael Taussig reminds us, this kind of mimesis depends upon and ensures a line of contact—a haptic connection—between the body and the embodied that is mobilized through gesture.3 Taussig talks about this line of contact as a means of image production. Mimetic performance translates imperceptible forces into concrete and defined (visible) form through gesture. Chaplin’s embodiment of the machine’s movements allows an aberrant and (as yet) undefined figure to erupt onscreen. The edges of Chaplin’s body blur. He comingles with the machine.

Camouflage—the masking of one thing with the image of another—relies on the same mode of performative equivalence. But this is always slippery. The camouflaged body must maintain an affinity between both terms, never revealing the true self but likewise never morphing into the new form completely. This is the dance of the double agent. It is the mechanism of disguise. To hide, one must skirt the edge (that porous membrane) between one and the other.

* * *

Might we think of the photographic index in similar terms? Perhaps it’s a stretch (a ruse or contrivance), but what of the mimetic capacity of the camera?

Whether it subscribes to pictorial realism or not, a photograph retains (memorialises) a line of contact between the subject and its facsimile that is mediated by light. A photograph is a means and mode of representation (to take-up a banal and overly simplistic interpretation of the medium’s agency). But what if we thought of the photographic transaction as a type of embodiment? A photographic image is never a straight copy. It is a new, aberrant form that bears the haptic trace of the original referent. A comingling where both terms (image and subject) are indivisible yet self-defined.

The camera mechanically fulfils the mimetic mode of image production that Taussig describes. The photographic replica is not merely an instance of visual equivalence. There is something more at play. The image is bound to its subject with an umbilical cord made of light. Following this logic, we see that the photograph itself is more than just a ‘picture’. It is a performance—a masking and a disguise. It is the porous membrane. Not one thing but the seam and suture between two entwined terms. It is a double agent.

* * *

But where does the photographic act itself slip, revealing and concealing itself in one fell swoop? At what point does the slapstick routine unravel?

—Isobel Parker Philip


1. Jayamanne, Laleen. Toward Cinema and its Double: Cross-Cultural Mimesis. Indiana University Press, Indiana. 2001 p. 183
2. Benjamin, Walter. ‘On the Mimetic Faculty’. In Reflections; Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (ed. Peter Demetz) 333-336. Schocken Books, New York 1986 p. 333
3. Taussig, Michael. ‘Physiognomic Aspects of Visual Worlds’. In Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses 19-32. Routledge, New York. 1993 p. 19

A version of this essay originally appeared as an accompaniment to the exhibition Double agents at Long Division Gallery, Melbourne 2016.

Image: untitled 2011 © Isobel Parker Philip

Isobel Parker Philip is a writer and curator based in Sydney and is presently Assistant Curator, Photographs at the Art Gallery of NSW. Her first solo curatorial project at AGNSW, Imprint – photography and the impressionable image, was held in the Photography Gallery from 6 February to 18 May 2016 and her most recent exhibition, New Matter – recent forms of photography, opened 10 September 2016 and runs until 19 February 2017. Her most recent freelance curatorial project, An elegy to apertures, is on display the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne until 12 March 2017. 

In addition, Isobel has independently curated exhibitions at UTS Gallery, Firstdraft, MOP Projects, Sydney Guild, Breezeblock and the Villa Alba Museum, Melbourne. Her written work has appeared in Art Monthly Australasia, Museum Magazine, un Magazine, Runway, Das Superpaper, and RealTime among other publications and she has written focus essays and catalogue texts for numerous artists including Robyn Stacey, Anne Ferran, Polixeni Papapetrou, Justine Varga, Nick Dorey, Anna John, Deb Mansfield and Clare Milledge.