History is generally depicted in a timeline as a series of great events.

“It is sometimes said that the aim of the historian is to explain the past by ‘finding,’ ‘identifying,’ or ‘uncovering’ the ‘stories’ that lie buried in chronicles; and that the difference between a ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ resides in the fact that the historian ‘finds’ his stories, whereas the fiction writer ‘invents’ his,” explains Hayden White in Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe.  “This conception of the historian’s task, however, obscures the extent to which ‘invention’ also plays a role in the historian’s operations.” (1)
The filmmaker Hollis Frampton famously lampooned the goal of the historian in his essay “For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses”.“The historian of cinema faces an appalling problem,” writes Frampton. “Seeking in his subject some principle of intelligibility, he is obliged to make himself responsible for every frame of film in existence. For the history of cinema consists precisely of every film that has ever been made, for any purpose whatsoever: [instructional films, sing-alongs, endoscopic cinematography, and much, much more.] The historian dares neither select nor ignore, for if he does, the treasure will surely escape him.”(2)

“The metahistorian of cinema, on the other hand, is occupied with inventing a tradition, that is, a coherent wieldy set of discrete monuments, meant to inseminate resonant consistency into the growing body of his art.”

Frampton’s coherent history of “discrete monuments” makes sense of the past by selectively linking artifacts to tell a meaningful story (and de-emphasizing or eliminating from the historical record those that detract from the story).  History, he suggests, is a highlight reel shaped by an editor; the actual past, on the other hand, is simply too large and complex to record.

“Such [discrete monuments] may not exist,” writes Frampton, “and then it is [the duty of the artist or historian] to make them up.  Or they may exist already, somewhere outside the intentional precincts of the art (for instance in the prehistory of cinematic art, before 1943). And then he must remake them.” 

In his installation, “Ancient Cinema,” Henry Jesionka takes on Frampton's challenge and makes a plausible case for extending the history of cinema to the ancient world. Jesionka fabricates an ancient  Roman “film” projector consistent with the sophisticated technological and artistic skills of Greek and Roman artisans at the turn of the millennium. He also presents archaeological "evidence" (inscribed coins, lamps, glass slides) to support his claim.  Although the installation is entirely speculative, it tackles the very real project of history and its construction. Jesionka creates a "missing link" in the recorded history of cinema to bridge the (unacceptably large) gap between Paleolithic cave art (32,000 BC) and William Lincoln's zoopraxiscope (1867), the first modern film projector.


  1. White, Hayden.  Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973, p. 6.
  2. Frampton, Hollis. Circles of Confusion: Film, Photography, Texts, 1968-1980, Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1983, p. 107. http://hollisframpton.org.uk/frampton16.pdf