In the 2011 I came across a flip book that has fascinated me ever since.
That summer, as part of my MA, I undertook a placement with the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, (also one of our partners on this project). Working with artist Clare Thornton, I co-curated the Unfurl exhibition that featured this flip book and its partner: a skirt dancer. These two flip books came to stand in for Clare and I, allowing us to have our own presence in the exhibition as each image flicked through on screens within the space. The items we brought together were all chosen for their potential to articulate and visualise Thornton’s interpretation of Deleuze’s Fold1 which centred on the capacity of the shape to conceal, transform and reveal. And, in many ways this particular flip book has continued to unfold itself to me, revealing more hidden corners and layered meanings.
As part of this project, I found myself thinking again about this particular nineteenth century object. One of the things I’ve found fascinating about it is the relationship it reveals between touch, eye and movement. In many ways, it sums up a lot of how I’ve come to think about nineteenth century viewing. (Although, I am a little resistant of words like ‘viewing’ and ‘spectating’ because they risk diminishing the other senses involved).
First patented in 1868 by John Barnes Linnet, the flip book exhibits the characteristics of many nineteenth century optical entertainments such as the thaumotrope and stereoscope. The viewer is guided by the creator and the technology, but controls and activates the promised experience through their bodies. In this case, through the activity of their fingers touching and manipulating printed card. This physical activity and its relationship between hand, eye and perception is one that Tom Gunning argues, when analysing the thaumotrope, had the capacity to open up an imaginative virtual reality. It is through creating motion that the thaumotrope’s seperate bird image and cage image become a single image of a bird fantastically placed in a cage.2 However, in this experience and the flip book’s flicking there is a feedback mechanism triggered as the experiencer receives back the sensation of air disturbed. It is also one that in its invitation to connect solo fingers and a singular pair of eyes contains an intimacy.3 This is a long way from passive spectatorship.
Fast forward to October 2020 and I’m browsing Twitter. An item in The Guardian on flip books and their relationship to early film causes me to think about this item again. I’ve always wondered quite how this series of images came into being. Were the images created for flip books or for some other purpose? Recent scholarship indicates that flip books hold the potential to reveal the big screen’s forgotten films (or their trial runs)4 captured in a portable minature format held within the grasp of a hand.
Follow the fold backwards to somewhere around 2015, and I’m sat at the Albany circus training space in Bristol. In conversation with two of my aerialist friends, the flip book comes in conversation. I have my laptop with me, so I show them the images and we start to discuss repertoire. The aerialist is performing a series of strength moves that include a planche and a meat hook. Interestingly, all of the movements performed in this sequence have been adapted to appear under the trapeze bar, suggesting their sequencing for this specific recording. At the time I’m researching the preeminent international 1920s aerial celebrity, Lillian Leitzel, who was known for revolving her body around her wrist repeatedly in what are termed planche turns. I find myself wondering if this could be one of her female family members? Could the reliance on strength moves like the planche, mean this is her mother, the aerialist, Zoe Pelikan? …or, is that me attempting to impose a narrative that is a little too neat?
Today, as I return to the images of an unnamed aerialist in minature and gigantic form, I find myself wondering if they reveal something more interesting entirely. My work on aerialists has tended to focus on stars because coverage of the lesser acts seldom makes it into printed word or image. Perhaps, this flip book is a window into a performer’s repertoire who didn’t ‘make it’ and whose obscurity let their movements to permanently disappear. Perhaps when I flipped those pages I might have performed a double trick of reconstruction: I might have reactivated the lost film of a forgotten aerialist.5
This thought leads me to try finding out more about TW Eggers using today’s technology. Googling TW Eggers and following the lead on Silent Film’s website to consult Pascal Fouché’s catalogue of his over 10,000 flip books, I find only flip books dated 1897 that cover what probably were vaudeville or variety acts. Here are men boxing, ‘cats’ boxing, the skirt dancer I recognise and various acrobats. This flip book is a snapshot of three different popular entertainments who organised the same visual materials in different ways: minature flip book, lifesize aerialist (albeit with an adapted act) and gigantic film. Only the minature material media remains to tell the story of an enmeshed entertainment industry.
It will be a long time before this particular item will lose it’s fascination for me; an allure that is magnified by the haptic promise it holds.6 I still hope some day to use this historical object and its moving image to produce a creative work that plays with the potentiality of stuttered aerial movement. It is just a little more time until that particular fold will reveal its form and structure…
1 Deleuze, Gilles (2006) The Fold, trans Conley, Tom, London: Continuum.
2 Gunning, Tom (2012) Hand and Eye: Excavating a New Technology of the Image in the Victorian Era, Victorian Studies 54(3): 512-3.
3 Doane, Mary Ann (2009) The Location of the Image: Cinematic Projection and Scale in Modernity, in Stan, D & Eamon, C (eds) Art of Projection, Stuttgart: Hatje Cantz: 153-4.
4 Lecointe, T, Fouché, P, Byrne, R, Hutchinson, P (2020) Discovering the Lost Films of Georges Meliés (1896-1901), New Barnet: John Libbey Publishing.
5 As I’m not a film scholar, I’m unclear if it is actually ‘lost’. All I know is that my initial investigations mean I’ve not found a record of it online (including within Niver, KR, (1985) Early Motion Pictures: The Paper Print Collection in the Library of Congress. Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.)
6 I use this term deliberately to activate Helen Freshwater’s use of allure, with its capacity to erroneously charm, as it feels like an object that has already suggested deceptive links. Freshwater, H. (2003) ‘The allure of the archive’, Poetics Today, 24(4): 729–58.