CASE STUDIES: MEDIA ARCHAEOLOGY – The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff (2011)

Zoe Beloff – The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff (2011)

Zoe Beloff - "The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff";
Zoe Beloff – The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff;
Zoe Beloff - "The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff";
Zoe Beloff – The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff;

In order to analyze The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff by Zoe Beloff, I will draw on critical texts, written by the author and situated within discourse around media archaeology. Although Beloff’s work itself draws on Marxist discourse, there are also elements of her work, and my analysis, which will fall within Semiotic methodologies as a re-interpretation of historic signs in new contexts.

The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff is an installation created by Zoe Beloff in 2011. The original work was created for Site Gallery in Sheffield, UK and consisted of films, photography and object installations in holistic arrangement with one another. On her website, Beloff has archived installation photographs, an essay catalogue and links to an online iteration of the exhibition, commissioned by Triple Canopy and entitled “Bodies Against Time”. From this collection of documents, one can decipher an idea of what the exhibition looked like, and develop an in-depth understanding of Beloff’s concepts, based on her critical writing. In the .pdf of the installation photographs, the first image displays the entrance of the exhibit. which consists of four old wooden chairs, set up in front of a screen and 16mm projector. The film playing is the titular The Infernal Life of Mutt and Jeff (c. 1930), however, it is not a comfortable movie-screening setup, rather it is reminiscent of being in a classroom. Next to that setup is a series of three films projected onto the wall, and several historic-looking implements and apparatuses, including a Bolex camera on a tripod, a metal shelf with film reels and other objects on it, and a small desk that holds a fountain pen and inkwell, rotary telephone and a mid-century style desk lamp. Opposite from this setup is another antique desk, this time set up in front a gridded blackboard, and stocked with a large pile of white blank paper, a pegboard and a timer. An adjacent small gallery hosts a variety of wall charts, photographs and an anachronistic flat-screen monitor playing the Mutt and Jeff film On Strike (1920). In addition, that gallery contains a second gridded-blackboard and continuing pattern on a table, with wire models of a chronocyclograph. These gridded boards, ensuing photographs, and three films is where Beloff begins her investigation into these old technologies. As explained by Beloff in the online catalogue accompanying the exhibit, the chronocyclograph was invented by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth to “make motion visible” (11). It consisted of light attached to a subject’s fingers, which was then captured through a slow photographic exposure on these gridded backgrounds. The photographs in the exhibit are Beloff’s engagements with this early motion-capture technology, and they connect ideas of structured movement and the objectified subject from the chronocyclographic materials to the early Mutt and Jeff animations, to the two found-footage industrial film and the third film created by Beloff. The artist notes that the work explores “how utopian visions of social progress intersect with the cinematic apparatus, industrial management and modernism” (7), which connects Beloffs interests to Marxism and questions disembodiment through technological and institutionalized progress.

Zoe Beloff - "The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff";
Zoe Beloff – The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff;

What is of particular interest to this case-study, in relation to the ideas of media archaeology, is how this work fits into that category. Beloff’s work is not media archaeology in the same way as Jussi Parrikka imagines “zombie media”, even though they use many of the same terminology. It is not a re-contextualizing the technology itself, or re-purposing it as a material. Rather it is a conceptual reanimation of the technology in the same way it has always operated. The 16mm projector projects a film made in the 1930’s. It does not modify or manipulate it, it just enacts what it was originally designed to do. Similarly, the chronocylographs are still just studies of motion. The technological object has not captured the image any differently than if the Gilbreths themselves had operated it.

Zoe Beloff - "The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff";
Zoe Beloff – The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff;

Instead, Beloff’s work seems to approach media archaeology towards Parrika’s imagining of it as “an experimental set of questioning about time, obsolescence, and alternative histories”(”What is Media Archaeology?”). In drawing attention to the presence of the technological objects as out of time, or anachronistic, Beloff is able to draw attention to narratives that might have been effaced by the time and technology. In an interview with Heather Hendershot, Beloff describes how she “…began to wonder if in order to look back in time, one ought to work with media that people would have been familiar with in the past rather than just dressing people in period costumes” (132). Here, the same media is activated to address the missing voices from that period. In her critical essay on the exhibit, Beloff highlights the way that both the chronocyclographs and the industrial found footage create a disjunction between the movement and the subject. She writes that “[m]ovement is abstracted from the individual and exists as an independent entity and most importantly as a useful commodity” (8). In one film, a woman acts out motions in a split screen in order to demonstrate wasteful motions versus efficient ones when carrying out simple tasks. The film states directly that the more efficient movements will save time and money for the institution that trains their employees properly in this method. However, this training mechanizes the body-each worker must enact the same “perfect” movements in order to attain success- and therefore any personality quirks, personal beliefs or other individualistic traits have no role in this workplace. The second film depicts two women under psychoanalysis**  which as Beloff notes, illustrates “how to identify, but not treat, mental disorders” (“Bodies Against Time”). The poor patient rails at the doctor that she needs help, that she just wants to be free like he is, but to no avail. Despite the patient’s desperate need to be treated as a human being, the Doctor continues his objective analysis. In the third film, which is created by Beloff and acts as a mediation for the two found footage works, an actress combines the movement and dialogue of the two films in a single event, drawing attention to the desperation of a body mechanized in the name of progress.   **[EDIT 12 Feb, 2014: In an email, the artist points out that the women here are not being treated with psychoanalysis, or even treated at all, but rather housed in a mental hospital. This, I think, indicates larger issues around the approach to mentally ill patients and the way that they are de-humanized and disregarded as well as the assumptions we make around what needs to be “treated” and what the “cure” to their problems might be. All of these issues are interconnected with capitalist approaches to labour, colonialism and other forms of social power imbalances. I have left my original wording as is in order to integrate it into this dialogue—to leave archaeological traces of learning.]

Zoe Beloff - "The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff";
Zoe Beloff – The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff;

In terms of Parikka’s “zombie media” one could compare this process to that of planned obsolescence. The epitome of capitalist design, planned obsolescence discards technology as soon as it is no longer the “newest” or the most efficient. It may still function, even function extremely well, but it since there is already a new model available, the device is discarded. Like the mechanized workers in capitalist pursuits, the bodies are used and discarded without second thought, in favour of bigger and better. Once a body is no longer “perfect” (for example if it is maimed on the job, tires with age, falls pregnant, displays mental illness, or otherwise fails to fit into the category of “productive”) they are also replaced and discarded, left to fend for themselves or if they are lucky, collect welfare while being mocked for unproductivity. By connecting the long-standing traditions of capitalist shaping of the worker-body, Beloff highlights the problematic ways that the human body has been used as nothing more than a piece of technology… in its own way replaceable and upgradeable. It brings up questions like “what happens to the worker-machine when the obsolete parts are discarded”. Much like the old technology presented in the gallery… 16mm, chronocyclographs, and even fountain pens, they are left to gather dust until someone else sees use in them again. Maybe like the paper, they can be recycled, or maybe they’ll just be used for a short film screening and returned to the shelf.

On a final note for this study, Beloff offered an extraordinary opportunity to remotely experience some version of this work through her website and through the web iteration of the project. Although the “Bodies Against Time” website primarily doubles the catalogue, the text is simplified and illustrated with video and slide-shows that could not be presented in the essay. As such, it opens up an experience of the ideas contained within the text, and provides strong connections to the Beloff’s artworks within the context of the broader exhibition. I found that by supplementing the images on Beloff’s website, the catalogue and the “Bodies Against Time” site, I was able to map out a clear understanding and emotional map of the work. Although it is not exactly like experiencing it physically, I do feel that the translation was effective (and affective) in its own way. I noted that the format of the web presentation was similar for all the projects housed on the Triple Canopy site, however design-wise, it straddled the feel of a magazine or blog, while managing to visually separate the single project from the others that they have in their archives. I feel that this visual separation is crucial in my feeling that I have had the rich experience of the work rather than just reading about it.

Screenshot; Zoe Beloff - "bodies against time";
Screenshot; Zoe Beloff – “bodies against time”;

Works Cited
Beloff, Zoe. “Bodies Against Time”. Triple Canopy. 15, 17 January 2012: N.p. Web. 25 November . <;.
—-. “Catalog: The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff”. Zoe Beloff. Sheffield: Site Gallery, 2011. Web. 25 November 2013. <;.
—-. “The Infernal Dream of Mutt and Jeff Installation Views – Site Gallery Sheffield (2011)”. Zoe Beloff. Zoe Beloff. Web. 25 November 2013. <;.
—-. “Installations”. Zoe Beloff. Zoe Beloff. Web. <;. 25 November 2013.
—-. Interview with Heather Hendershot. “Of Ghosts and Machines: An Interview with Zoe Beloff”. Cinema Journal. 45.3 (Spring, 2006): 130-140. JSTOR. Web. 18 November 2013. <;.
Parikka, Jussi. “What is Media Archaeology? – out now”. Machinology: Machines, noise, and some media archaeology by Jussi Parikka. Jussi Parikka. 8 May 2012. N.p. Web. 13 November 2013.


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