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Daniel Crooks has kindly provided RealTime with excerpts from Phantom Ride. Enjoy them as a prelude to reading the artist’s account of the inspiration for and the making of the work. The Editors.

The video work of Daniel Crooks presents folds and tears in reality—rifts in the fourth dimension and slippages beyond. His latest work, Phantom Ride, the result of the second biennial Ian Potter Moving Image Commission, is now showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and while I haven’t seen it in situ, the preview video suggests Crooks is getting even closer to manifesting a multiversal time machine. But rather than stepping into a Tardis, Crooks’ chosen method of time-travel is by train.


In the earliest days of cinema, there were non-narrative films called ‘phantom rides’ in which the camera was placed on the front or back of a moving vehicle (generally a train) showing views of the world silently gliding past, a stunning revelation for the audience of the day. Speaking to me by phone, Crooks cites perhaps the earliest version of these, the Lumière Brothers’ Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (1896), as a direct inspiration. However in his version of a phantom ride, Crooks has filmed railway tracks heading towards the horizon, mainly in rural locations but with some urban cameos, and then embedded them inside each other like Babushka dolls, so that the viewer passes through a seemingly infinite set of nested landscapes.

Trains have featured in Crooks’ practice from the very beginning. About Train No 1 (2002), he says, “I was commuting three and a half hours two days a week on the train, spending hours looking out the window. And then the experiments started to take form. Looking back it’s not such a coincidence given the train’s illustrious history in relation to the cinema and to our modern idea of time. [Standard time or railway time was established in 1840 in England to allow timetabling accuracy for the growing national rail system.] I think there’s something about the linearity and predictability… about seeing that line heading into the future and that line receding in the past. Then there’s that great echo of train tracks in film, the physical material of film.”

Time travel

Phantom Ride is a two-channel work projected onto a double-sided screen—one side offers a forward journey and the other a view travelling backwards. Crooks tells me that there’s a moment in the middle when the camera/point-of-view mounts a revolving train-turntable and the direction of each screen is reversed.

“You have one side looking into the future, the other side looking into the past and then the screen itself is this moment of now—a very thin meniscus where the present exists. I really love the idea that even the train lines themselves converge into the centre of the screen [in] classic one point perspective. It’s almost like the future and past converge into the centre of the screen as well. The light rays passing through [make a] lens—a time lens. That has some really nice echoes in terms of hourglasses, light cone diagrams, causal event diagrams. I love the idea of these cones emanating from a plane and the plane is always called ‘now’.”

The volume of video

Most of Crooks’ previous works have a marked horizontal orientation, either the camera or the figure shifting sideways. However in 2013’s An Embroidery of Voids there is a shift in technique as the camera travels down the alleyways of Melbourne, the point-of-view essentially moving forward into the screen.

A Garden of Parallel Paths (2012) offers the transitional moment in this approach. Here the camera pans horizontally but reveals a series of vertical views down the laneways. The other key difference in these later three works is a transparency and clarity of image. The time-space shifting happens with the physical movement of camera and editing rather than the additional extruded artefacts that are a signature of his earlier studies.

Crooks explains, “I’m still working with the other technique as well…it all comes from the same place. [The Garden of Parallel Paths presented] the laneways as slices that have been removed from the city, negative slices. So instead of me slicing a section out of the video frame, someone had already taken a slice out of the city. Applying that same strategy [I wondered if it might be] possible to link a series of slices together into a new whole. I’ve always been interested in the ‘multiple worlds’ interpretation—that there are parallel universes spiralling off from every possible causal event. It was a way to start talking about that a little bit more explicitly. And then works beget more questions for more works [to answer them]…So that’s where I found myself with these more recent ones. It’s less about trying to explore a physical time—looking at time from the side—and trying to look at how you can connect these discontinuous spaces into a single whole.

“I also think it’s trying to push more into that third dimension. It’s funny with the older works, a lot of the construction is done in a 3D [software] environment and I’m often thinking of the volume of a video as a three dimensional object—how we actually navigate that. So I guess that 3D thinking has started to permeate the practice a little more.”

Daniel Crooks Daniel Crooks
photo Steffen Pedersen
Commission consequences

What has always made Daniel Crooks’ work stand out from the pack, especially considering the turn-of-the-21st century fondness for lo-fi performance video, has been his high production standards. Crooks bemoans the bed he’s made for himself: “They’re very simple propositions but to get the audience to this point where they can appreciate that simple proposition you need to get the video up to a level where they’re not being distracted by weird, anomalous mistakes that we’re so good at detecting. It’s also a problem when we’re installing these works. They’re almost stress tests for playback systems. I’m always taking them to museums and galleries and putting them up and it’s obviously not playing back at the right frame rate or there’s some sort of problem in the system that would normally be invisible. I think 99% of works played in that situation would look fine, but with mine, because the movements are so smooth, you notice it straight away.”

While the works have been successful so far using technology that Crooks says he’s “homebrewed,” the Ian Potter Moving Image Commission meant that he was able to approach a motion control engineer to assist in the design of a computerised dolly system to ensure a precision in the speed of the tracking shots. Most importantly the commission allowed him to create a work of far larger scale than he could have if self-funded (in particular moving up to two channels) and to work with what he quite simply terms “realistic” production methods. Of course the commission is also a partnership with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image who provide a significant exhibition opportunity and inclusion in the ACMI permanent collection.

Future-past projections

With Phantom Rides up and running (until May 29) Crooks is now onto the next thing. Coming up at the end of March at the Wellington City Gallery, New Zealand, is the exhibition Bullet Time, featuring Crooks and fellow New Zealander Steve Carr. Their work will be placed in relation to pieces by moving image pioneers Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) and Harold Edgerton (1903–90), a prospect he’s very excited by, although it’s Muybridge’s peer Étienne-Jules Marey who is Crooks’ real hero.

“Some of the images that he was making and some of my first experiments in the late 90s are freakishly similar and I had not even heard of Marey at that point…Marey was trying to break down motion—to stop the world and to see the little moments that are in it—and how those come back together to create motion. Whereas I was coming from an absolutely diametrically opposed situation of trying to break [filmed] motion down to recreate it and make [new] motion. And at the opposite ends of the circle we meet up.”

As with all things Daniel Crooks, past and present, time and space, constitute a looped and folded moment.

Ian Potter Moving Image Commission: Phantom Ride, Daniel Crooks, presented by Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), 16 Feb-29 May 2016

Bullet Time, Wellington City Gallery, New Zealand, 25 March-10 July 2016

Daniel Crooks and Natalie Cursio’s at least for a while anyway was one of the highlights of Carriageworks’ 24 Frames Per Second in 2015.

Applications for the next Ian Potter Moving Image Commission will be due mid 2016.

RealTime issue #131 Feb-March 2016 pg. web

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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