Motion Sickness: Matthew Noel-Tod’s Nausea

By Steven Ball

nausea-matthew-noel-tod-1.jpgNausea, 2005

“Something has happened to me:

I can’t doubt that any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything obvious. It installed itself cunningly, little by little; i felt a little strange, a little awkward, and that was all”[1]

Matthew Noel-Tod’s Nausea starts with shifting colour fields, a melody plays, sky through trees, then abstract colour. A text reads “...THE WORDS UNFINISHED THE THOUGHTS THE INSIDE...” [2], speeding illegibly over trees, streets, “...IN THE PAST IN ACCEPTING MYSELF NIGHT ...SO VAGUE SO METAPHYSICAL I AM ASHAMED...” [3].

The text’s source is Jean-Paul Sartre’s first novel Nausea, which on publication in 1938 established itself as one of the most significant philosophical novels ever. Its Existentialist themes of angst and alienation have subsequently characterised it as a novel identified with by moody adolescents. The text as it appears in Noel-Tod’s Nausea becomes sequences of random non sequiturs, maintaining the diaristic first person tense of its source but with broken syntax abstracting the suggestion that these are the words of fragmented subjectivity.

Nausea’s impressionistic blocky abstracted video images are produced entirely with a mobile phone. Mobile media is everywhere. One of the first public manifestations of the use of phone video recording capabilities was, disquietingly, the delinquent ‘happy slapping’ phenomenon: gangs of youths capturing phone video of themselves assaulting strangers in public places then brazenly posting the evidence on websites.

Mobile ‘phone video became increasingly visible in the aftermath of the 7th July 2005 suicide bombings in London: it assisted police forensic examination while on TV news provided a rarified glimpse from the epicentre of the explosions. In the smoke filled carriages passengers were on hand to record the events. The low-resolution phone images become a signifier of subjective veracity, with image qualities eerily similar to the footage beamed in via satellite by TV reporters from the war on Iraq. With video phones we all now can, and occasionally do, report from the frontline.

The frontline of subjectivity has become ubiquitous in the last few years. With the convergence of mobile phone video, web-based phenomena like the blog, the videoblog, RSS feeds and podcasting, a critical mass of private individuals is recording their lives and publishing open diaries in the blogosphere* [4]. Videoblogs ostensibly operate in aesthetic territory once the domain of first-person filmmaking practice, with the web, rather than a cinema-like screening space, its primary outlet [5]. Proto-existential explorations of individuals’ everyday lives abound. Perhaps a little disingenuously festivals and screening events are beginning to present programmes of videos made on and/or for mobile media players, phones, PDAs and iPods* [6], domesticating works intended for less terrestrial distribution and reception. Noel-Tod’s Nausea is ahead of and distinct from this trend. Extending artists’ use of low resolution ‘consumer level’ media into the communications age, rather than joining the flight from auditoria, Nausea exploits the qualities of the media in a cinematic context.

Through decades of artists’ use low-res media, their indistinctness of image coupled with mobile hand-held recording devices, have become signifiers of subjectivity, with an indexical link between the shakiness of hand movement and human movement as reproduced upon the screen. There is also a less direct but implied indexicality between fuzzy lack of clarity and individual consciousness. The suggestion that the artist, beyond presenting an image of the world mediated by a recording device, presents a personal subjective view is commonplace.

An oft-cited example might be Stan Brakhage’s attempts to present subjectivity, ‘closed eye vision’, by exploiting the portable softness of 8mm film; in particular his Songs series from 1964 onwards. But these works frequently become a closed loop, engaged in a subjective exploration of the filmmakers’ ‘psyche’ and the pursuit of personal myth, rendered unparsable, beyond interpretation or conceptualization, where reading as subjective representation involves an act of faith. Beyond Brakhage there might be less determined ways of approaching abstracted subjectivity. To experience images sensuously suggests a kind of musicality, affective on mood and emotion; such works produce a haptic viewing, a tactile close engagement. [7]

Low-res formats also draw attention to the medium’s social status, providing historical resonance through foregrounding the images as in home movie media, signifying hazy childhood memory, etc, shorthand for personal histories, real or imagined nostalgia and its discontents. Remember the Fisher-Price PXL 2000 (Pixelvision), a video camera produced in the 1980s for children, its blocky pixilation produced by the low specifications of a system designed to be recorded onto audio cassette and most famously used by Sadie Benning in disaffected teenage lesbian mini-dramas. This too is echoed in the crude beauty of the approximate blown-up mobile phone video images of Nausea.

nausea-matthew-noel-tod-2.jpgNausea, 2005

In terms of formal qualities, literary influence and its travelling quality as a continuous journey, Nausea is particularly reminiscent of Michael Mazière’s The Red Sea (20 mins, 1992). Influenced by an earlier French text, Arthur Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat, The Red Sea like Nausea is in part an abstracted flow of images drifting in and out of readability. The two works share an experiential passage, travelling one or several journeys: Nausea contains many images shot from a train, on foot, by road, while The Red Sea moves mostly by boat.

The romanticism of The Red Sea is part function, part result of its indistinctness which, like the enigmatic quality of Rimbaud’s verse, requires interpretation on the part of the viewer, a rite of passage in reading the text, an aesthetisation of experience. But where The Red Sea takes advantage of aesthetic conventions and notions of abstract ‘beauty’, Nausea goes further. Its beauty becomes difficult, its softness tends to liquidity, solidifying momentarily into impressionistic forms suggesting a conventional representation of dream states perhaps, but as a departure not an end point, a function of the technology lulling one into a false sense of aesthetic security while becoming a catalogue of incongruities and conceptualism.

Is the text’s juxtaposition with the image arbitrary or intentional? It occasionally forces associative commentary: “...I REMEMBER ONE OF THOSE TERRIBLE EVENINGS BECAUSE YOU COULD NEVER START AGAIN...” [8] over interior scenes, lampshades, saturated pink and magenta, “... SIXTY MINUTES, JUST LONG ENOUGH TO MAKE YOU FEEL THE SECONDS PASSING ONE BY ONE...” [9], a clock. How much do we read an inner monologue like the diary of Sartre’s novel and how much is an abstraction of process and concept?

So Nausea is more then than enigmatic enigma. Its text is a rush of concrete poetry, an aesthetic dynamic independent of meaning. Occasionally, it slows to non sequitur; arrested meaning plucked from the flow could shed light on the enigma, but instead it mostly serves to obfuscate. The text’s real significance is conceptual: Sartre’s Nausea in its entirety squeezed into 54 minutes necessarily passes at great speed, a fate fitting for a novel among the first to explore the implications of the idea that life is meaningless. And Sartre’s existentialism is all about subjective humanism, action in the present written in the form of a diary. Noel-Tod’s Nausea is also diaristic, the image sequences snatches of everyday life, as relentless as life. Relentless too is the music track establishing themes and variations, melodic, even, slow, rhythmic; veering close to soundtrack sentimentality, to driving a reading of the images, but its insistence throughout mirrors the determined continuance of the text and images in resigned necessity. A process once set in motion must be followed to its conclusion, to the end of the video.


... All of a sudden you feel that time is passing, each moment leads to another moment, this one to yet another and so on; that each moment destroys itself and that it’s no use trying to hold back, etc, etc, and then you attribute this property to the events which appear to you in the moments; you extend to the contents what appertains to the form. [11]

The mobile phone is the most personal form of communication, the lightest of media that carries the weight of intimacy. A contemporary communications technological setting for a seminal philosophical text might be nothing less than a proposition about what existentialism could mean to the early 21st century. The problem it sets obliges it to embody the working through of this problem, this question; anything else would be compromise, bad faith as Sartre might have had it. Accordingly Nausea is a structural work by default. Although employing conventional elements of image, text and music during its course, it reaches beyond the normal manipulative pull of music, beyond reading for meaning of the written word, and eschewing the putative affectiveness of the images; insistent on having played out one abstracted narrative sequence it pauses, starts another section, becoming an experiment in what happens in the tension between structure and affective material following a set of rules in motion to a logical conclusion. Its duration draws attention to itself. In this sense Nausea is also an existential text, in the Sartrean sense the for-itself of the consciousness of the viewer, the individual through its encounter with Being, the in-itself, creates the world. [12]

Nausea forges a new direction in post-personal experimental cinema, a new combination of formal conventions and media specificity. In the age of personal media technology and aggressive individualism, it suggests an existentialism to abstract the individual, moving towards the twin imperatives of formal aesthetic materialistic exploration and a reinvigoration of the possibility of the text, avoiding the knowing postmodern irony of appropriation and intertextuality through its transcendence of semiotic codification. It is an exploration risking ‘failure’, but also an enquiry producing a brave example of what experimental cinema can be in the early 21st century.

[1] Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre, 1938, trans: Robert Baldrick, Penguin Books, 1963
[2] text overlay in Nausea, Matthew Noel-Tod, video, 2005
[3] ibid.
[4]there are no reliable maps of the blogosphere but a good place to start enquiries might be to search here:
[5] more largely uncharted territory, but this is as good a place to start as any:
[6] events such as the Wireless Media screenings at the San Francisco International Film Festival: and Microcinema’s Mobile Exposure:
[7] For a detailed explication of this concept see Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Laura U. Marks, University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
[8] text overlay in Nausea, video, Matthew Noel-Tod, 2005.
[9] ibid.
[10] ibid.
[11] Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre, 1938, trans: Robert Baldrick, Penguin Books, 1963
[12] see Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre, 1943, trans: Hazel B. Barnes, Washington Square Press, 1984.

Nausea (54 mins, video, 2005, UK) by Matthew Noel-Tod is distributed by Lux ( and will be exhibited at Outpost Gallery, Norwich from 2nd to 21st July (

Matthew Noel-Tod is also showing his new video Obcy Aktorzy / Foreign Actors in the Cambridge Film Festival, 4 July - 14 July (

Steven Ball is an artist and Research Fellow at the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection, Central St Martins College, London (;