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Roman Portraits plays on and against the three principles of connection suggested by the eighteenth century empiricist philosopher David Hume: Resemblance, Contiguity, and Causation; and it plays with the very three examples Hume offers as analogies to his principles. Hume offered the billiard ball as an image of causation; the portrait of an absent friend as an image of resemblance; and, with regard to contiguity, Hume likes to suggest that the actual presence of an object has more significance than a memory. What is interesting about these examples is that a slippage ·occurs from the apparent exactitude of causation and contiguity into the more flimsy realm of resemblance, which depends so much upon the ephemeral faculties of memory and imagination. In Hume we go from the precision of the billiard ball, and the actual presence of objects, into the ephemeral realms of recollection.
Roman Portraits works along that ridge of undecidability in locating the object which falls between the promise of presence and the threat of reverie. Roman Portraits is played to the soundtrack of a pool-game, an aural register of collisions, glancing blows, the fall of billiard balls. The visual track presents a series of place names - satellites, conquests, possessions, battle-fields of the Roman Empire, a contiguity of geography, commencing with the outer limits of the empire, moving towards the centre, Rome. Yet each place name bears the trace of Roman law "ubi pedes, ibi patria - where the feet are, there is the fatherland" (Virilio, Speed and Politics, p.20). The place names are interspersed with glacial images of aerial combat - stasis in transition to movement. Arrival at the Empire's centre marks a catastrophic shift (with the voice-over "You're a Roman Bert, you've got to win them all": The Hustler) to a new register - images of a female cabaret singer and a popular song "West of the Wall."
Suspended over the video screen is a static image of a woman, eyes shut, undecidably dead or alive, with some trace on one cheek of her face, the trace from a wound or glancing blow. This cadaverous portrait of a woman's face presents a general principle of blindness in Roman Portraits that opposes the implicit principle of visibility or presence in Hume's general law of belief. The aurality of motion of the billiard ball refuses the visual empiricism of causal connection in the presence of the object; the contiguity of the Roman Empire inverts the effects of distance- to reach the centre of the empire is to arrive at its moment of collapse. Belief in living presence via the resemblance of a portrait is disturbed by the very undecidability of life in this resemblance to the living.
Roman Portraits presents precisely what for Hume is annihilation, a perfect non-entity, all perceptions removed, death, blindness, refusal of connection, dissolution of a body - a violation of the possibility of the self-presence of the object of sensation.