Thursday, July 10, 2008

Multi Faceted Cinema

When musing a couple of weeks back about Le Grice I began looking at the painterly aspect of such practice. Cautious as one is about the term painterly there is definitely something in Le Grice’s work which is reminiscent of forms of depiction associated with early 20th century oil on canvas practice and in particular cubism.

In Le Grice's a Lecture to an Academy (10 min, video, 2005), different passages from a lecture by Peter Gidal in Karlstad Sweden are mixed together so as to create a multi faceted representation of the talk. The more usual cinematic and sequential nature of depicted time and space are replaced by a simultaneity of perspectives.

Its easy to see how both conceptually and visually this relates to cubism. The difference of course is the factor of time; on a basic level Le Grice’s piece is time based and a cubist painting is static. However an element of cubist painting was that not only does it present a complexity of viewpoints upon the subjects but also that these viewpoints are also an expression of a disrupted and fragmented time frame. These time frames are effectively unlocked by the viewer as their eye moves across the painting reading the painting. In other words the cubist painting is essentially a distilled time based piece. The idea of compressed time in a painting is of course not unique to cubism indeed the very trajectory of painting up to modernism was associated with narrative and the “telling” of biblical, mythological or everyday stories. The difference with cubism is that there is no order or sequence to the timing, and no story to unfold or read. This avoidance of narrative is a central value of Le Grice and other materialist filmmakers practice.

So we could say Le Grice is pursuing and expanding upon representational and depictive problems or issues first encountered some hundred years previously. Bald as such a statement might be there probably is some truth to the notion that a great deal of experimental film practice did indeed struggle with problems that their predecessors had grappled with on canvas. One could ponder for example Brackhage’s preoccupation with Turner and so on. Productive as such a comparison might be perhaps there is something potentially more interesting going on if we were to look at the relationship of cubism to early cinema.

Pablo Picasso. Woman in a Chair, 1910

In an exhibition last year entitled Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism at the PaceWildenstein gallery in New York the influence of early film on cubism was explored. Alongside visiting the cinema being part of the cultural backdrop that informed cubism more arrestingly the exhibition investigated the idea that “the two artists were just as taken by film’s processes, its camera angles, lighting, shadow patterns, fades and dissolves, and editing techniques, especially time lapses and overlaps that followed the principles of segmentation, division, and alternation to create a unique pattern of scanning within the frame” (extract from press release).

The argument that cubism was effectively responding to cinema’s depiction of time and space by focusing on the “segmentation” and “division” would chime with the work of Tom Gunning, who in his 1986 essay, "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde" argues fro the non narrative uses to which editing, time lapses and so on where used in early cinema. In other words tools and techniques that would later be used to create seamless narrative flows initially were in early cinema only to pleased to draw attention to themselves. Here for example is a Georges Melies, Un homme de tetes - from 1898.

This then presents a potential conceptual flow from the early cinema of attractions or what might in this context be called disruptive cinema through a distillation in cubism of the multi faceted and a re-exploration in structural materialism of such concerns once again within the time based.


Steven Ball said...

Hmm, I'm not so convinced by the Melies example. True that it is a kind of illusion that is clearly an illusion or trick in the sense that no-one would be expected to be able to remove his head and place multiple heads on a table. But to its contemporary audience, unfamiliar with cinematic technology, it must have appeared a marvelously realistic illusion, in much the same way that audiences fled the cinema when the Lumieres' trains appeared to threaten to burst out of the screen. In that sense the tools and techniques do not draw attention to themselves, they create, deliberately or not, surprise and astonishment in the audience. By the time Le Grice et al were engaged in a polemical deconstruction of illusionism the techniques of cinema were more familiar to an audience that, by and large, were and still are, actually quite happy to be deluded by the trickery of cinema. It is interesting to speculate on how a kind of remediation takes place though, how the concerns of cubism migrated into an artists' film practice, how the experiments of painting become remediated by film. The old tropes of experimental film have become commonplace in contemporary moving image media. Mainstream audiences are now accustomed to seeing image manipulation once the preserve of the avant-garde on television, in adverts, music videos, etc. One wonders though, if there is an argument for tracing a historical media narrative of development through formal concerns, what is the point of Le Grice's 'Lecture to an Academy'? What is the point yet again of 'doing cubism' with an added temporal dimension? These are just idle questions really that don't require answers as we are way past the endpoint of Modernism and the point of course is that there is no point, except perhaps that, in terms of media specific analysis, remediation continues apace, experimental digital moving image media work incorporating the concerns and processes of an experimental film processes which themselves incorporated and expanded upon the concerns of cubism. The fatalistically linear trajectory of a modernist teleology is snuffed out by Le Grice not actually doing anything much new with the 'new media'.

Back to Melies though, the film was made but a few years before the invention of Schizophrenia (that is to say when the condition was given that name), Friedrich Kittler points out the coeval development of cinema and Freudian psychoanalysis, the cinema of attractions gives visual form to the inventions of the psyche that were being unearthed. This is not so much the influence of Psychoanalysis on the Surrealists, for example, or the more recent Lacanian approach to cinema of Zizek et al, but that the developments reflected each other. This is perhaps not surprising that such a fundamentally perceptual and cognitively profound media such as film is should find its parallel in a pseudo-science of the mind. Melies's man with several detachable heads could have come straight from the shrink's couch. Few people have made the link between the avant-garde of the mid-sixties and the interest in drugged perception and psychedelics (although Peter Gidal does refer to Warhol's use of the term "drug time" to as a defining characteristic of the pace and duration of his films), mostly experimental film is characterised as a polemical and seriously critical political practice, but for how many acid trips must it also have been the visual accompaniment, fragmentation, segmentation being an experience induced by that state as well as reflected by the materialist experiments on the screen. I guess my point is that, while I think media specificity and remediation (which exist largely in the domain of the artist, the media, the braodly self-referential) are significant, it is also important to think about how these mesh with other factors in the broader culture, or indeed within the personal life of the maker. Following on from your speculations a few weeks back about the personal in the work, Le Grice's video above is just as much an affectionate dig at an old mate whose polemicising often seems to become opaquely tangential and unfathomable!

ps said...

The Melies example was chosen partly because of the visual similarity between the Melies heads and those of Gidal. It was just too good to resist. Nonetheless I would argue that the illusion is in no way realistic. We and the turn of the century audience may marvel at it but it is a self declared trick borrowing as it does the conjuror’s repertoire of gestures and style of presentation. Our complicity is complete and knowing, the technique self declared. This is far removed from the “invisible” repertoire of different shots used to construct a narrative.

In all of this I am positioning both modernist 2D post impressionist practice and experimental moving image work as in a sense different attempts to negotiate the problem of representation. The linearity of modernist discourse might suggest that as you say well what is Le Grice adding some 70 years later other than a clearer and more direct temporal aspect? However the problem or re-presentation investigated as it is through artistic expression is not necessarily resolved by cubism or le Grice. The problem is arguably ongoing and modernism alive and well!

Steven Ball said...

But modernism is no longer the grand narrative that it once was, at best it is just one of a number of possible available narratives - or rather its tropes and gestures are. Sure the illusion isn't realistic, but neither is what you characterise as the narrative derived from a seamless succession of shots particularly realistic, it offers an illusion of realism that viewers are happy to be complicit in suspending disbelief. The problem I have with most of the modernist avant-garde polemical argument is the rather condescending suggestion that the viewer is somehow being duped and not aware of the wool being pulled over her eyes. But it's OK, here comes the hero Professor Girdle and chums to tell us all how we can find liberation from this enslavement of illusionistic narrative by watching films that will confuse, frustrate and bore us. This to my mind is the least attractive tendency of the avant-garde, otherwise it has a lot going for it! I'm also really not so sure that anyone really thinks representation is a problem. It can be made problematic for all sorts of rhetorical reasons and that can be interesting and instructive, but whether 'representation' itself continues to present a problematic relationship, to what 'reality'? The relationship of signifier to the signified? Of the symbolic to the actual. I'm not so sure.

ps said...

Well I can't disagree with some of what you say as I have been know to say it myself before.

In terms of illusion there is an important distinction between complicit suspension of disbelief that occurs when an illusion is self declared and simply riding along on the seamless flow of edits that characterise most cinema. I wouldn't say we are duped by this latter form or that it is really a visual illusion of the same order more that it presents a form of continuity that is many ways synonymous with the illusion of continuity we experience in everyday life both in terms of consciousness and vision itself. The use of the word illusion in these different contexts is probably not helpful and this is probably one of the few instances where one of those invented distinctions so beloved by the French (Lange & parole etc) might actually be useful. I suspect that historically the seamless edited narrative occurred so early in cinema and became so dominant is a result of the confluence between continuities of vision as experienced on screen and in everyday life. Given this and our natural tendency to combine a propensity for continuity with another tendency that of giving meaning then unsurprisingly seamless cinema and narrative achieved a quick and lasting marriage. Seamless cinema is wonderful at telling stories and suggesting meaning.

As such using the techniques of seamless cinema to other ends is always going to be a somewhat pointless task though Godard made a rather good goes at it. Outside of seamless cinema the question of re-presentation has to be integral to any kind of practice. I take your point that this is not as simplistic as there being an integral and holistic reality that is then re-presented through a medium, be it time based or not.

That what passes for reality is itself produced by the illusion of continuity mentioned earlier and is increasingly made up of the already re-presented and mediated forms of still and time based media further problematices an already inherently problematic activity. Such logic proposes an accommodation of both a Greenbergian position and Pop Art that could argue not for the demise of modernism but its continuity but that is probably another entry.

Lastly I like the change from Professor Griddle to Professor Girdle (no doubt the latter’s PhD is called something like: Support or Constriction: female form and its mediation through foundation and corsertry garments.

Steven Ball said...

"Outside of seamless cinema the question of re-presentation has to be integral to any kind of practice."

OK, my question, seriously, is why? Who says it "has to be integral"? OK there have been aspects of western art practice that have grappled with the questions of representation, verisimilitude, what have you, but that is just one line of enquiry. But this is the kind of crisis that photography threw painting into, or perhaps the dents that digital imaging made in the integrity of photography, this is historical but art practice has moved on beyond being just about visual representation, surely?

And where does this idea that the illusion of seamless continuity somehow mimics the continuity of vision in everyday experience come from anyway? Is it not life that mimics cinema? Technology brings the stuff of cinema to our everyday experience. We are accompanied by musical soundtracks playing in our heads as we move around the city, the shot cuts to another scene by turning a corner, other voices play on our soundtracks when the phone rings, the police siren sound effects get turned on every so often, everyday experience is characterised by anything but continuity, it is full of disruptions, discontinuities, recursivity, rewind, repeat, replay, etc...

you said yourself: "what passes for reality is itself produced by the illusion of continuity mentioned earlier and is increasingly made up of the already re-presented and mediated forms" I take modernism, and Greenberg of course, as being a project that was concerned with the grand western narrative of progress and advancement, the new. It is not just about aesthetics. Of course its aesthetic tropes are going to stick around and be recouped, remediated, but in another context. In artistic terms it has left the legacy of western art still being primarily self-reflexive, art all about art, still, tired and redundant. It is my dissatisfaction with this state of affairs that makes me irritated at your self-fulfilling recursive problematics. It's what makes me want to make blogs about the unremarkable places in my local area, as art, if you like. Or to make performances about mediated self-representations of paranoia on YouTube. The formal, the aesthetic, the ontological approaches no longer seem to be of any use to the world. Sure they'll always be there, as they always were even before modernism, but art is about so many other things too. Critical reflexivity in itself is something of a dead end.

ps said...

Well there seems to be a lot of wilful misrepresentation here. Lets be clear I am not arguing for a return to Greenbergian values or on a focussing on aesthetics above and beyond everything else or some sort of failed heroical modernism you are ascribing to me. What I am attempting is a (small, lets keep it modest) revisiting of the critical framework that underpinned a lot of 20th century thinking; looking at possible new connections, at unlikely marriages and so on.

You say, “art practice has moved on beyond being just about visual representation, surely?” I agree it is not just about that but how has it moved on and to what precisely? Elsewhere you speak passionately about wanting to make “blogs about the unremarkable places in my local area, as art, if you like. Or to make performances about mediated self-representations of paranoia on YouTube. “ What is this if not a re-presentation. You see, hear, smell, read etc etc and then make something which re-presents of all that into something else. Re-presentation is in this sense integral. Is art just about that no, but I didn’t say it was just about that I said it was integral and as such its mechanisms need to be considered alongside the question of what is being re-presented. Hence my Le Grice entry previously about the personal aspect of the subject matters. The two aspects work with/against each other in the creation of the work.

So I am not arguing for an art that is “formal, aesthetic, or ontological” or any such thing what I am arguing for is something that goes beyond postmodernism and the sort of remediated meta data paradigm that Mute was promoting some 20 years ago. It’s the three Bs. Take a dash of Baudrillard mix in a lttle Ballard and then some Burroughs.

You say “Technology brings the stuff of cinema to our everyday experience. We are accompanied by musical soundtracks playing in our heads as we move around the city, the shot cuts to another scene by turning a corner, other voices play on our soundtracks when the phone rings, the police siren sound effects get turned on every so often, everyday experience is characterised by anything but continuity, it is full of disruptions, discontinuities, recursivity, rewind, repeat, replay, etc...”

Very nice indeed, but this could have been taken from a futurist manifesto from the early part of the 20th century. And once again I didn’t say everyday experience was characterized by continuity but that our perception works to create and illusion of continuity; sometime against the odds of the everyday experiences you mention.

Steven Ball said...

Well I'm glad for the clarification. I think we've been the victims of the problems of this mode of conversation via the comments box where things can become easily misinterpreted small nuance enlarged (not willfully misread though, I was perplexed at what I thought your thesis was, but also I've been responding between intense bouts of writing two funding applications and preparing a performance so already in fragmented and anxious states of mind - context is important!). But it did seem to me that you were suggesting that modernism is still central, as should be a concern with representation (in a kind of whether we like it or not way). Yes of course modernism will reverberate through contemporary art and of course in the broadest sense representation is an important component of practice but my argument is that the suggestion that practice is primarily concerned about the 'problematics' of representation, is simply not the case.

Two key sentences of yours suggested this to me:
"The problem is arguably ongoing and modernism alive and well!" and "Outside of seamless cinema the question of re-presentation has to be integral to any kind of practice."

That you keep using the word "problematic" seemed significant to me, a very Girdle-ian word! Very much the stuff of polemical critiques. Problems are what you make of them, a problematic shared is a problem doubled, and all that. Questions, yes, issues, maybe, but a problematic, to me, is taking it into another dialectical realm.

Anyway notwithstanding all that, I don't think it would be a contradiction to say that I think it is an interesting time to revisit questions of representation, post-postmodernism as it were. The problem with that is that it can easily get characterised as a recouperation or a revisiting of modernism. I think that in a contemporary media context there is a lot more going on and I think that much of your work does this and takes account of the mechanics of context, Fleshtones is a good example. So a modest revisiting of the critical framework is fine, but I think it has to take into account the fact that the world has moved on. Clearly you are.

Interesting your remarks about Futurism. The crucial difference is that Futurism was celebrating the possibility of a radical break with the past into an accelerated present. My little scenario could also be seen to have as much to do with the Surrealists and Situationists. The difference being that I am describing a contemporary experience of reality where as they were variously anticipating/fantasising about/deliberately creating a radical discontinuous fragmented experience, in many ways this is now the way life is now experienced. The surrealists' practice of random cinema going, the situationists' derive, very much prefigure/predict the experience of everyday life. The question is more about how we deal with it in practice (as Lefebvre and de Certeau elaborate)... but that, as you say, is another blog entry!