Monday, June 02, 2008

Reflecting on Le Grice

On Friday went to an interesting screening of Malcolm Le Grice’s digital works at the Birkbeck cinema in Gordon Square. I had seen some of Le Grice’s digital pieces at a Cog Collective screening about a year ago but this turned out to provide a far more rounded view and one of Le Grice’s comments afterwards was quite illuminating.

Almost the first thing Le Grice said was that he had been wrong to deny or ignore the overtly personal nature of the footage used in Little Dog for Roger. At the time of its making and for a number of years afterwards the choice of footage of family members and pet had been presented as almost random; a matter of chance that this old 9.5mm home movie footage happened to be hanging round and so was used to make the piece. It seemed now however that Le Grice was acknowledging that the choice of footage was not just a random selection and that the personal nature of the subject matter was in some way integral to the piece.

This is not to say that somehow Le Grice is re-branding himself as an artist home move maker in the manner of Derek Jarman but there is a recognition that the interaction between materialist strategy and subject matter is a far more complex one than was presented at the time. Over and over again materialist filmmakers chose what in any other context would be seem as overtly romantic things to film. Ponder for a moment Fog Line by Larry Gottheim or Le Grice’s own Whitchurch Down or Gidal’s Clouds. Read the accompanying texts and polemics and one learns much about process, about disrupting any sense of naturalistic representation and so on but scant attention is paid to what was in front of the camera. By reconnecting to the subject matter of these films whilst not denying the material process what emerges is an alternate form of depiction. Alternate and in opposition to the narrative impulses of the mainstream cinema of the day but a depiction nonetheless. A depiction whose material process and processing is in many respects stylized and painterly.

Attempting a reconsideration of Le Grice’s work in the context of a reconnection to the subject matter of the films and digital works is simultaneously straightforward and highly complex. Straightforward in the sense that those of us who came to such pieces after the first flush of polemical materialism often took for granted that the subject matter was integral to a reading of the work even if it was often played down or unrecognsied by the filmmaker. Complex in that a complete reinterpretation of an artist’s work that runs counter to most of what he himself has written (and said) is naturally problematic.

There is a further complication of a purely personal nature as well in that for some time I had been aware that the descriptions of my own work on the Psouper website are similarly process descriptive and avoid much if any investigation of the subject matter. “Digital videos that upset the hierarchy between sound and vision resulting in unexpected synchronisations, sonifications and visualizations.” Or “A white square is animated by a quasi-random score of electronic sequences generated in max/msp, causing it to contract, expand, duplicate and in so doing perform a series of performative movements and steps “…tells us very little about what we might expect to see and to an extent parodies the process led descriptions of structuralism.

In part this was intentional as during the 90’s when making installations and simultaneously reviewing for Art Monthly I tended to write at some length about my own work in press releases that accompanied the exhibitions. After a while this seemed, well, just a touch vainglorious and I erred on the side of letting people watch the work and hopefully on some level it would be self-explanatory. On some level it is obvious what the subject matter is and yet I would struggle to put my finger on it.

In other words I think the time is ripe for a real re-assessment of materialist filmmaking that re-connects with the subject matter and perhaps for myself to also attempt some declaration with regard to subject. These two projects are of course quite distinct but also inextricably linked.


Steven Ball said...

It is interesting that MLG among other filmmakers of his orientation and generation, chose to ignore or play down the autobiographical aspects of their work. If I recall correctly Roger (for whom the little dog is) is MLG's brother, however as you point out, until this talk I have only been aware of him talking about its formal and materialist properties. Other films of his have similarly autobiographical elements. For example I believe the blackbird in Blackbird Descending is Gill Eatherley and another reading of After Manet could easily be of a rather convivial afternoon boozy picnic with 4 filmmaker mates. Think also of Gidal's Room Film, how much of the content of that room tells us about Gidal, his tastes his obsessions, but of course it is not 'about' the room. Gidal has kept this up to date as Volacano, his most recent film, he claims, isn't about a volcano. There is something of the modernist machismo in this. Of course Modernist Man has to make work which is going to be taken seriously as part of such grander project, an aesthetic enquiry, a political dialectic, a problematic, a critique, it has to be chipping away at the coalface, it has to be new, it cannot, must not, will not, allow itself to slip into the personal, the sentimental, the whimsical. *yawn*. This in retrospect looks like pure bluster, posturing, over-justification, over-coding, at least MLG is now prepared to risk the accusation of sentimentality with Unforgettable - a very personal portraits of 4 generations of female Le Grices. Also interesting that the female structuralists were more likely to attach formal experimentation to 'real world' personal and political issues, Lis Rhodes comes to mind here. Perhaps with the boys it was a question of using what was at hand as 'material' for the grander, more important project, the personal becomes the elephant in the Room Film. Indeed 'Narrative' was also a big no-no. Perhaps Jackie Hatfield's idea of a project to uncover the narrative in experimental film might have had some work to do here. I think the series of films that Tony Sinden and David Hall made in the early seventies (Edge, This Surface, Actor, etc) made the polemical connection between form and subject much more successfully and wittily as did the likes of David Lamelas, none of these were part of the Co-op-based structuralist project. They all still resisted 'the personal'.

In some ways I think the opposite is true with the likes of Jarman and some of the other early so-called New Romantics like Maybury and Wyn-Evans. In foregrounding the personal, subjective and exhuberant, they tended to play down the formal and technical innovation at play in their work. What's interesting now is to look at some of Jarman's Super 8s alongside Gidal's films and 'objectively' they share many qualities, the graininess of the Super 8, the shaky handheld qualities which might once have signified 'personal', 'home movie', are not so far from what signifies 'material', 'alienation' and distanciation in Gidal.

However I think there might be a problem with forcing the issue either way. I have understood many of your Jitter experiments to be to do with an extension of the idea of a structuralist and a materialist (although not 'Structural Materialist' in Gidalian terms) being applied to digital moving image making processes. Notwithstanding, or perhaps in full awareness of the irony of, the difficulty of the idea of 'the material' in 'the digital' (as MLG was struggling with, his fundamental mistake was to argue from the specific to the general while confusing 'media' with 'technology' and 'materiality' with 'physicality' I think, but that's a separate discussion) it becomes a pastiche of materialism, one which simultaneously address the problematics of the possibilities and the impossibility. It is a sense beyond dialectics. In this sense there is a kind of objectivity of the relationship between you (Professor Ham) and your ostensible subjects (a motorbike engine, a picture of Marilyn Munro, etc). Now if the images were of your room, your pets, members of your family, etc, that might be a different issue, and using them as raw material for experimentation would raise begging questions about the relationship between formalism and the autobiographical. "On some level it is obvious what the subject matter is and yet I would struggle to put my finger on it..." suggests that the real subject exists in some third space, somewhere that is created in the viewing after the fact of taking the material subject and applying the experimental processes and this is the world of experimental practice is it not. That the 'meaning' of the work is in its liminality, in that perceptual space that is the work of the viewer. We haven't yet (will we ever?) reached much of an understanding of what formal experimentation actually does, apart from experiment formally. How it either attaches itself to, or is integral to the subject. My friend Dirk de Bruyn often talks about damage to the film material as an analogy to psychological damage, as somehow an inscription (directly, literally, viscerally) of a condition. I don't think he's got there yet, his work to me is still too random, still self-consciously full of the tropes and badges of Experimental Film. It's beautiful and exciting stuff but fails to reach that place which it suggests can be created beyond juissance, a place of flow and communication; still, in his and most other 'experimental' works, the process is the thing, the experimental has never coalesced into another language (and I use the word loosely) a way of reading (again loosely) and experiencing meaning. This is problematic stuff because it has the whiff of utopianism, the modernist dream of pure expression where we inhabit many parallel worlds of contingency and pragmatics. These are the worlds that the work both inhabits and draws from, this is the inextricable link between your two projects. The modernists forgot the most important part of Duchamp's famous dictum, they forgot the "whole world".

ps said...

Well there is a lot to respond to, or perhaps not as (for once) I largely agree with most of what you say. n time a new reading of the structural materialist films will emerge that engages a discourse far wider than the one proposed by the filmmakers themselves and which many will find uncomfortable as it will give investigate subject matter and not just take it as a given and indeed as you suggest will also cast its net wider to cover those such as Jarman on the romantic fringes. One might question why such a thing is important and indeed on the blog I have often argued against the time devoted to a relatively small number of filmmakers who enjoyed privileged access to funding and distribution. However for all its faults and confusions there is something in the overall approach of particularly Gidal and MLG both on screen and on page, which offers a starting point for a theoretical approach to moving image making even with completely different technologies. The current approach to analysis of the moving image within the gallery context (where such analysis occurs) is vaguely rooted in a notion that it has something to do with cinema. The end result is some sort of half digested, half remembered fetishisation of another place both on screen and infront of it.

As you say my own practice is in part a response to the legacy of the structural and material and the issues that emerge and is also an attempt to perhaps suggest a discourse around what the non-cinematic moving image can be. I’m beginning to think that this process might have a lot more to do with (deeep breath) painting than I first thought. Not painting in the sense that it struggles on (triumphal in its redundancy) but in a sense that the artist moving image offers a resolution to the modernist problematisation of painting once it had exhausted its attempts at representation. This has everything to do with movement and is the antithesis of the tableau which was always a compromised half way house state of multiple arrest. The artist moving image frees up the painting which always had the intention of being been time based.

Steven Ball said...

The painting link is an interesting speculation and I think that you're onto something there, particularly with MLG who studied painting at the Slade (I went to the Slade MA shows at the weekend and there is very much a sense in the current work in all media that they are creating 'tableaux') his interest in colour and texture perhaps, the explicit references to paintings, and the lack of spatiality, yes it is very much about images in time but even in works that *should* have a spatial element, like After Manet, become a flattened tableau. In refusing conventional narrative cinema these avant-gardists leaned towards other disciplines. Interestingly there is more space in Gidal's work, there is a searching restlessness, the camera scans rooms and skyscapes, in and out of focus, the techniques he uses to problematise the 'pro-filmic' often reveal it's very material, three dimensional, spatial quality. A room is as much the space contained its walls. In a way if there is an equivalent to the painting imperative on Le Grice, in Gidal it's oddly theatre, the minimalist theatre of Beckett, the self-evident theatre of Brecht, the theatre of absence of Warhol. Gidal's films are full of the emptied stages of Waiting for Godot.

Steven Ball said...

A room is as much the space contained BY its walls.