Usually, it is religion that spawns art; the many churches, temples and chapels of the City are filled with huge works in oil depicting saints, gods, ways of life. Peasants plough fields overseen by clergy with scrolls, men sit in comically small towers, their body filling their crenelated tops completely, as if they wore a skirt made of bricks. A complex scene explaining a small miracle is made ridiculous by the dreamlike landscape behind. Statues are popular, too, and there is even the occasional photograph, soundscape, or other form of more modern art. And then there is the Church of Her Exquisite Messengers (CHEM), a religion that was spawned by a piece of art.
The first chronophotograph was produced in 1842 by a performance artist called Formor Fishcast, who had been previously known for his penchant for dancing naked at weddings. Fishcast’s performances were always popular with the wedding attendees, but the happy couple often had their feathers ruffled as they became upstaged by a stranger on their special day. Of course, this conflict was, to Fishcast, all part of the performance, but after a severe beating in 1934 he realised it was time for a change; he began to experiment with camera technology. Eventually he produced a set of images with which he was content, and exhibited them widely across the City.
The images of that first exhibition are much in the same vein as his previous works; they show a naked male form dancing, the various steps of the dance laid over each other so that the movement is visible all at once. The man becomes a snake of many men, a firelight-after-image that does not fade as it moves across the frame but stays solid, the head as defined as the tail. They are undoubtedly beautiful images, and he produced many similar pieces with a different dance in each, but they are not what spawned a religion; they are far too somatic for that.
Today, over the City, around fifteen thousand laughing lapwings will fly over the City, twisting in strange shapes around the towers, and moving in a generally erratic manner. Before they reach the City they move in the classic ‘V’ shape familiar in other migratory birds, but as soon as they fly over the first houses they split and scatter, wheeling hither and thither, like a wave breaking on a rock. The odd spectacle seems to have been going on annually for time immemorial, although the earliest known written reference is from 1657 so earlier instances cannot be verified. A recent study has linked it to the phenomenon of radiodance (an electromagnetic fluctuation particular to the City), although again this has not been verified.
When he took the chronophotograph that would later form the basis of an entire religion, Fishcast wasn’t even trying to take a photograph of the laughing lapwings; he had travelled to the top of the Benetek University tower, where the spires of Ranaclois could be clearly viewed, and was setting up the camera, intending to dance before it. As he was looking through the viewfinder, the birds arrived and he thought, ‘why not?’ The image, in which the wing movements and erratic flight patterns of the birds are captured in beautiful, elaborate detail was included in Fishcast’s next exhibition, where it was seen by Jennifer Cormorant, founder of CHEM.
Cormorant had recently lost her mother when she visited the exhibition; she died of septicaemia resulting from a broken toe. Cormorant stood there for three hours, studying the painting, a lucent smile on her face. She returned at least five times before she began preparing for the next year’s flyover, setting up a number of cameras across the City, designed to capture different stages of the laughing lark flight as they split and spin over the roofs of Buentoille. In each photograph black lines cut across white or blue skies, in whirlwind shapes, or twirling tendrils, like fronds of kelp in a turbulent ocean.
According to CHEM these shapes are messages from god herself, which the Church endeavours to study and understand. They are simply too beautiful, too strange to be anything less than divine (why else would they suddenly change formation over the City?); it is simply a matter of finding the correct angle at which to take a chronophotograph and all will be revealed. Throughout the year, acolytes of the Church spend many days studying the huge library of images they now hold, trying to discern some definite meaning therein. A book of revelations is kept, where the photograph that granted each revelation is juxtaposed with its words (‘17.E – The Turtle does not know what he does, but his life is painted on his back’).
At dawn today over three thousand cameras will be set up, ready to begin capturing a steady stream of flowing images at the command of Cormorant, who still heads up the Church, despite her advanced age. Fishcast died eighteen years ago; despite never having any particular interest in the religion he (inadvertently) helped found during his life, his will specified a cremation in the customs of CHEM. Great honour was paid to the expired body of the old dancer, who is something of a saint, albeit in a saintless religion. Perhaps the old man saw the whole thing as one last performance, the crowd watching as the flames danced over his flesh.
Other festivals happening today:
- The League of Typist’s Day of Hand Massages
- Plink Plonk Music Hall Festival
- The System Restored – A Day of New Beginnings