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Bowerbirds and Borders

What is the theory of Threshold to a medium that belongs to the “to be or not to be”?


If the threshold subject22, an individual undergoing ontological transformation, is on one side of a door, what stands on the other side of the door is inherently a stranger. In Derrida's notion of threshold, the individual undergoing ontological transformation is viewed in relation to the stranger on the other side of the door. The passing through the threshold is said to have two modes: invitation and visitation. The former is a welcoming of the Other that seeks to determine in advance how hospitality will occur and how the territory or home will be affected in the process. This type of hospitality is characterised by fixed thresholds and doors that function like borders, linking one delimited place and form of alterity with another. An example of “Invitation” can be seen in land borders and policing who and what may enter. On the other hand, visitation in Derrida's theory of the threshold proceeds under the assumption that doors must be taken off their hinges, and thresholds are and should remain porous zones of passage. This form of hospitality sees the welcoming of the stranger as an opportunity to be, and practise, the threshold in the form of a zone of relation and passage. The two modes of hospitality can be seen as representing two contrasting models of threshold, with the invitation displaying a hegemonic model that creates a fixed distinction between two identities or territories and visitation representing a more fluid and open model that allows for the possibility of transformation and exchange. For Derrida, welcoming the other is a creative and experimental practice that lacks the cognitive and conceptual certainties of fixed notions of identity.


If the medium of film is intrinsically linked to the Anthropocene23 —  through the “to be”, the release of light pixels, the animation of a sequence of still images at 24ish frames a second and the interpretation of the image— then perhaps we can think of both the filmmaker and especially the viewer as the threshold subject which encounters the film, the stranger. The process then, of making and watching, acts as a threshold passage, a transitional space through which we undergo transformation. The act of viewing a film can be considered as a crossing of a threshold between the viewer's reality and the cinematic constructed reality. When we sit in a cinema or press play on a film, we immerse ourselves in a different realm, suspending our disbelief and engaging with the on the screen events. This act of crossing a perceptual threshold aligns with Derrida's idea of thresholds as transformative spaces that challenge and expand our perception. Filmic visitation creates an environment where transmission and relation can transform us ontologically. Could it be that the threshold subject who watches many films may sit more comfortably in the disaster event because the cinematic experience is disasterful?


Film, video and 21st century moving images (and content if you dare),  belong to vessels, metal tins, plastic casing, megabytes and files. They are often awakened by a specialist human hand, and only then can the image erupt through particles of light, where it is thrown onto walls or sprawled across rectilinear screens. It is contained by squares and rectangles and sometimes mapped over textures and shapes like buildings or donuts as in the work of Tony Oursler. In recent years, the advent and proliferation of digital media and the internet have dramatically expanded the availability and accessibility of moving images. However, despite this increased technological sophistication, the process of viewing moving images still relies heavily on the human hand.This is demonstrated by the fact that, despite the diversity of media platforms – from film reels to web addresses – the image can only be accessed and consumed with human interaction. Our own hands become that unique vehicle, that taps and scrolls awake the trillions of gigabytes, a tsunami of moving images that, with the exception of animation, stand to represent a past occurrence, should it be 100 years ago or 30 seconds ago. The optical consumption of all that we know to be moving image, relies on the hand. While there may not be a “1:1” relationship to the apparatus anymore–– cameras have grown legs and formed bonds with remotes and dollies––  there is still a reliance on the human gesture to present, play, rewind, fast-forward, pause, scroll or view the moving image, and furthermore to ingest, interpret and understand.   When considering the question of whether a moving image requires a human presence, we are forced to confront the ontological nature of the medium. Contemporary film practice is deeply reliant on human threshold subjects. Unlike a sound or a sculpture, the moving image is uniquely dependent on anthropic viewers for interpretation and meaning–– while we need 24 frames a second cats see at 100 fps–– and while bowerbirds may continue to advance the conventions of sculpture, the capture and release of moving images as we know it, that may very well end with us.

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BBC Earth footage of a male Bowerbird trying to woo their female counterpart by means constructing an elaborate sculptural bower adorned with found-material

The courtship spectacle

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