Action at a Distance
16 mm film transferred to HD video.
19’35’’. Colour, sound.
The starting point of this film project is Arthur Eddington’s 1919 expedition to the island of Príncipe, a Portuguese colony in the Gulf of Guinea, to observe the effects of a total solar eclipse. There are no photographic records of the experience. Only a stone stele mounted upon a whitewashed plinth —at the approximate spot where the eclipse was observed— reminds us that Eddington’s achievement signified the verification of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. The purpose of Eddington’s expedition was to confirm that light altered its linear course when in contact with a powerful gravitational field (such as the one created by the sun), an aspect of the General Theory of Relativity “visible” only during a solar eclipse.
We can only imagine the tremendous mobilization of resources in any scientific undertaking of this nature. Its present-day parallel presented in the film is both evocative and eloquent: Local residents, operating according to their own organizational model and division of labour, rip an architectural element out of the ground and haul it off with chains and an unassuming truck. The film shows the moment in the summer of 2011 when the stele commemorating Eddington’s achievement was moved, at the artist’s suggestion, to the exact spot where, according to her research, the astronomical observation “apparently” took place.
By re-enacting the process through which the obelisk marking the colonial expedition in Príncipe was erected, the artist proposes a collective choreographic procedure that further reveals the perverse and meaningless nature of such politically charged celebratory gesture, as it did not only entail local human labour but also the imprecision of scientific data, therefore the misallocation of the monument — scientific precision being, in theory, the very reason for the placement of the monument, and the expedition itself. By fixing the position of the landmark, the violence of such enterprise becomes evident both on physical and metaphorical levels.
This project bears witness to an absence generated by certain aspects of the handling and transmission of information. The absence revealed is that of the colonial powers that supported expeditions like Eddington’s. Their position and presence were not always transparent, but they did establish a single point of view about the world. Their power was not completely visible, but it was rigorously exercised, and the constant presence of chains in the film can evoke the dark memory of slavery.
The film has relocated something that was not in its position, “in its place.”: Principe remains a remote corner monumentalized by an astronomical accident and continues “to not exist.” In the logic of imperialism, Edward Said declared, knowledge is power, and the accumulation of knowledge automatically signifies an accumulation of power. Faced with the various perspectives adopted by this project, there re-emerges the image of the unique position that inspired the colonial fever: an empire on which “the sun never set”.