Ten years ago in November 2009 Sam Renseiw and I started a year-long collaboration called Lumière et Son, a vlog as they were then called. Sam made the Lumières, minute long videos in the style of the original Lumière Brothers silent one-reel films such as La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon (1985), to which I then added sound. The videos were originally shown on line at the rate of roughly once a week, but as serendipity would have it they were ideal for the Kerry Baldry curated One Minute programmes, and so somewhat paradoxically several of the pieces reached another (and often wider) audience in the more traditional context of the screening room.
To commemorate the ten-year interval I have for the last three weeks or so been posting the videos in chronological order on the Snatch Tapes Instagram page. Here also is the text of a presentation I gave at London South Bank University a couple of years ago when showing five or so of the pieces at a colloquium.
‘Lumière et Son’: a collaborative videoblog by Thomas Wiesner (Bergen School of Architecture) and Philip Sanderson (London South Bank University)
Paper by Philip Sanderson presented as part of The City as Modernist Ephemera, a one day colloquium at London South Bank University Friday 16th Jun 2017.
The modern city and cinema grew together symbiotically, the one reframing the other in a form of topographical dance. We understand, and to some degree, live the city through the screen and the films that depict it, which in turn transform the streets into a soundstage, a mise-en-scène of often small ephemeral gestures.
The city that never sleeps is all bustle and movement, and from early avant-garde films such as Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929) or Berlin Symphony of a Metropolis (1927) by Walter Ruttman, through to more contemporary examples such as Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982), filmmakers have sought to capture the futuristic movement, sound and speed of the city. To do this the full arsenal of cinematography and editing techniques have been deployed: using combinations of montage, superimposition, camera pans, dolly shots, cranes, helicopters, fast editing, etc. All in an attempt to depict the crowds, moving cars, busses trams, trains and general hubbub of the city.
The inspiration for the project I’m talking about today by Lumière et Son predates all of this by taking us back to one of the very first films, the Lumière Brothers La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895). This silent one-reel film shot from a fixed tripod, lasts approximately 46 seconds and it was this form, that was perhaps surprisingly adopted in 2007 by Andreas Pedersen and Brittany Shoot and applied to making contemporary online video work. The constraints were that the videos should be no more than one minute in duration shot from a fixed camera, with no zooms, edits or sound. Such videos were named ‘Lumières’ and Pedersen and Shoot set up a web site where contributions could be indexed and linked. An enthusiastic adopter of the Lumière form was Thomas Wiesner a Danish architect who works under the online pen name of Sam Renseiw. Sam made a large number of Lumières and here I quote from an essay by Michael Spazkowski (2012) characterized by. “…a profound sensitivity to space and to how people and objects move along variously restricted and open trajectories”
Renseiw became a prolific maker of Lumières producing over 400. So much for the Lumière what of the Son? This is where I came in as the 'Mr. Sound' in what developed into a year long collaborative project in which a new one-minute piece combining moving and image with sound was uploaded to the Lumière et Son blog on a weekly basis where it was accompanied by a couple of lines that portray a fictionalised day-to-day artistic practice, somewhat spoofing the videoblog’s usual diaristic nature. So the first entry describes a meeting, “Lumière was studying a composition through a concrete letterbox at the Barbican, whilst Son was listening to music from Baron Blood", or “Lumière takes in a fine Polish performance, whilst Son only has ears for the Portsmouth Sinfonia and eyes for the Sugar Plum Fairy”. These small fragments built-up over the course of the year an online work composed like the city of several fragments that could be recompiled in any
way the viewer chooses.
But hang on - on the face of it Sam’s Lumières are not in need of audio intervention, however to quote Spazkowski “Another defining stamp (of Wiesner’s Lumières) is a musician’s sensitivity to rhythm and tempo” this together with the fixed camera makes Wiesner’s Lumières especially receptive to the addition of sound, not used it must be empasised to reinforce the visual but to extend and develop it, to use sound to reframe and recontextualise what we are seeing, creating an audio-visual dialectic
A guiding principle and influence in the use of audio within the project was John Smith's 1976 film The Girl Chewing Gum. The film opens with footage of what looks to be an everyday East London street scene; various people go about their business, walking left then right, crossing the road, pausing a moment and so on. What transforms the footage is an authoritative male voice-over that appears to direct the ‘action’ by issuing a series of instructions such as: “now I want the old man with white hair and glasses to cross the road, come on quickly”. A ‘cue’ that is immediately followed by a bespectacled elderly man appearing from left of the screen, before quickening his pace as he crosses the street. A stream of other such commands by the ‘director’ are given and each time the on screen ‘characters’ seemingly reacts accordingly. It takes a few moments before we realise the artifice of a voce over added afterwards rather than being recorded simultaneously.
Smith actively plays with the deception for only some of the street action is directed, and there are moments of absurdity such as when pigeons are asked to fly past, and the hands of a clock are told how fast to rotate. This all serves to confuse and upsets the linear temporal logic of the piece before finally the ‘director’ reveals that he is elsewhere, speaking from a field many miles away. What in part Smith is exploiting is the inherent adhesion between sound and image.
Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov were the first to notice this adhesive quality in their 1928 Statement on Sound. Whilst they feared (and rightly so) that sound would be used to reinforce image, to create an hermetically sealed story world, the adhesive properties can also be used dialectically. If this causal link is broken, an asynchronous ‘push-pull’ dynamic is created, as seen in Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum, in which we are seduced by the voice appearing to direct the ‘action’ in the street, before the realisation that the voice was added post-filming, makes us reframe our view of the footage. Nonetheless, momentary adhesion occurs throughout the piece, and there is an ongoing revelation of the audio-visual mechanism at work. Several of The Lumière et Son pieces use variations on this ‘push-pull’ technique, with both voice and music employed to draw out and counterpoint elements within the moving image.
Though I make music myself the audio used in Lumière et Son was predominantly ‘found sound’ taken from a range of sources, including shortwave recordings, film and television soundtracks, YouTube videos, etc. These eclectic sources, mostly originating online providing the scope for a wide range of reframings.
Square Dance (2010) as with Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum,uses the voice as the key audio reframing device. The voice-over from a YouTube line-dancing tutorial repeatedly counts out a series of steps, “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight”. The footage shows a Polish square, which members of the public traverse at different angles and speeds going about their business. As the figures cross the square,many of them appear to fall into step, and in time with the counting, as if following the instructions. The correspondence is often brief, but for these instances, voice and image adhere on screen, and become located in the motion of the pedestrian, before the person falls out of step or exits the frame, only for a new synchronisation to occur as another person approaches from a different angle. We move seamlessly between everyday ambulation and the performative.
Spring Greens (2010) shows a young man and woman in a Danish park/garden. The man has a camera and gestures to the woman who removes her coat and begins to strike various fashion-shoot poses, whilst on the soundtrack we hear a couple talking. The on-screen couple are too far away for their lips to be seen, but their actions and gestures seem matched with the flow and tone of the discussion; she striking a pose after being asked to, he crouching to take a shot before we hear the shutter click. We at first assume that the sound and image are from the same location. The sonorities of the recording are however more interior than exterior, and though unlike Square Dancewhere there is a continual push-pull revelation, here we more slowly begin to question whether what we are listening to is actually from the park. For cineastes there is maybe a certain familiarity about the dialogue, and some will recognise it is as being taken (un-edited) from the soundtrack to Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) with the couple in the Danish park unwitting engaged in a remake or re-enactment of the photo shoot scene originally played by the actors, David Hemmings and Veruschka.
As per the prediction in the ‘Statement’ (Eisenstein et al, 1928) that synchronised sound would be usedto provide “a certain “illusion" of talking people”, dialogue has developed as the key way in which a faux naturalistic world is created in mainstream cinema. Here the intention is to disrupt such certainties by creating a false adhesion, synchronising voice and action, but with dialogue that slowly reveals itself to be from outside the frame, indeed from a completely different film.
In these two examples (Letterboxing, Goings On (2010)) it is music that is used as the principle reframing device. In commercial cinema, music is used to heighten on screen action, be it soaring strings during a love scene, or fast tempo beats to accompany a car chase. As Hamlyn (2003, pp167) puts it “music controls the emotional response to a scene”, thereby making it difficult for the audience to create their own reading. The mechanism by which this works is paradoxical, in that though Gidal (1989, pp 29) describes music as“filling the image”, in the context of narrative cinema, music is often sublimated, bound inside the image, almost unnoticed, with the visual element, the ‘action’, deemed to be what is emotive.
Letterboxing, Goings On and Nutcracking which we saw at the start are examples of pieces that intentionally use music to reframe the visual, seeking to foreground its role in shaping our perceptions. This approach is a combination of that used by Chris Marker in La Jetée, in which sections o Boosey & Hawkes film library music help imbue the sequence of photographs with meanings and quasi-cinematic resonance; along with a nod (once again) to Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum, except in this case, instead of the voice, it is the music ‘directing’ the images.
Letterboxing shows a small group of girls playing rounders. We only see the lower half of the girls’ torsos, with the image cut off by a concrete lintel (creating the letterbox window), nor are the other players or the ball visible; all the ‘action’ is off-screen. Juxtaposed with this image is music from the soundtrack to Baron Blood (1972), which is of the type heard in many films of the ‘60s and’70s, with strings and vibraphone building a ‘dreamy’ atmosphere. Despite the music being composed for a different film, it melds with the Lumière creating a kind of reverie as the girls shuffle back and forth on their base with one of them (perhaps aware of the camera?) performing a half-hearted ballet step. Music and image combine, and yet the sound is not sublimated, for we remain aware the two are quite distinct and can perceive the affect the music is having. Finally, a minor chord sounds, and as if on cue, one of the girls runs out of frame. As when voice and image correspond in Belisha Code and Square Dance, the motion creates on-screen adhesion, pulling the viewer from the reverie and into the frame just as the girl exits, and the screen goes black. Having briefly tied us into the picture, the music then directs our attention out of the frame, and to what possibly lies beyond it.
The Portsmouth Sinfonia’s somewhat atonal version of the Dance of the SugarPlum Fairy (1973) is matched in Nutcracking to a shot of three workmen engaged in repairs to a house on a street in Poland, whilst members of the public walk past. The music creates flashes of adhesion with both the workmen and passers-by. Firstly, the rhythm from the bowed strings corresponds with the motion of the first pedestrian to cross from right to left (in a way not dissimilar to the counting in Square Dance), before the xylophone plays, and our attention turns to one of the workmen all but tapping in time with a small hammer on a tile by a door. We know that he can’t be playing the tune, or even miming to it, indeed he has been tapping all along, and yet we are drawn to the adhesion. The music builds, with a mournful brass section creating a comedic undertow as an old lady enters the frame from the left, pauses for a moment as if awaiting her cue, and then lugubriously traverses the frame, pulling a shopping trolley behind her.
A nighttime scene outside the Glasgow School of Art is the source of the footage for Goings On. Nothing in particular happens:a car drives up the hill, two men walk past from different directions, and a figure on the right of the screen, who is initially in shadow, steps out from the darkness and rubs his hands. This no doubt innocent activity is infused by the guitar music of Glenn Branca’s The Spectacular Commodity (1981) adding menace and creating dramatic tension where none previously existed. The man in shadow begins to look suspicious: what or who is he waiting for, why is he there? Is the car on the way to a drug drop? Sound and image bind together in a way that seductively reveals the manipulation brought about by the music’s filling of the image. Had the scene been acted, part of a longer drama, we may well have been seduced into the director’s narrative world, but here we can feel our emotions being played with, demonstrating how the unscripted can so quickly and easily become ‘cinematic’ with the addition of a few chords.
There were 44 Lumière et Son pieces of which today we have seen a few short extracts, all the videos are still available on the Lumière et Son blog and a few have had another life as part of the Kerry Baldry curated One Minute Programme. Focusing on the small scale, the ephemeral, the what might otherwise be unnoticed, the collection forms an alternativedepiction of the modern city in contrast to the dynamics of the city symphony.
Eisenstein, S. M., Pudovkin, V. I., and Aleksandrov, G. V., 1928. A Statement. In: E. Weisand J. Belton (eds). 1985. Film Sound: Theory and Practice.New York: Columbia University Press.
Gidal, P., 1989. Materialist Film. London: Routledge.
Hamlyn, N., 2003. Film Art Phenomena. London: BFI.
Szpakowski, M., 2012. Lumière and Son – A Discussion, a Selective Commentary & Some Remarks. Furtherfield.
[Accessed 10thJan 2016].
Antonioni, M. Blow Up(1966)
Brava, M. Baron Blood (1972)
Lumière Brothers. La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière à Lyon (1895)
Marker, C. La Jetée (1962)
Smith, J.The Girl Chewing Gum(1976)
Ruttman, w. Berlin Symphony of a Metropolis (1927)
Vertov, D. Man with the Movie Camera (1929)
Lumière et Son, videos by Philip Sanderson and Thomas Wiesner available at http://Lumière-et-son.blogspot.co.uk. The following videos were shown at the colloquium.
Belisha Code (2010)
Spring Greens (2010)