Review of Manifesta Biennal in Palermo for a-n.co.uk

My first foray in art criticism! Review of Manifesta Biennial in Palermo for A-N from the subjective perspective of an artist working with queer and feminist themes and an underground ethos.

My review has been featured in GLIMP, free international queer art newsletter from the Netherlands, September 2018 edition.

Manifesta 12: Chercher La Femme, Chercher Le Queer

I applied to for a bursary to visit Manifesta 12 partly out of interests for its core themes of migration, and space/place as politically charged, especially as sites of repression, which I explored in my own work (Ghost House, Disciplinary Institutions), and partly out of interest for visiting Palermo itself, where Luchino Visconti, an artist I greatly admire, had made his masterpiece The Leopard.

At the time of applying, I was unaware of the 2014 controversy of Manifesta 10 taking place in St Petersburg with direct funding from Putin’s government, despite several calls from various artists and organisations to either withdraw and boycott or organise with more curatorial and financial independence, in protest of the Russian government’s repression of LGBTQ rights, and human rights in general. As an artist dealing with feminist and queer themes, this new information influenced my perception of the Biennale.

My review will first explain my reservations and criticism towards the Biennale’s general curatorial concept, which I perceived to be heavily biased towards a specific type of artwork rather than presenting balanced, varied approaches to the mandated subjects, then focus on the few artworks that I perceived dared to go beyond the restricted view of the curator and engaged with the subjects in deeper, more thoughtful, critical and independent ways, and therefore stood out for me.

Manifesta 12 is split into three curatorial themes, each investigated both generally and within the context of Palermo, with themes occasionally overlapping. The Garden of Flows explores plant life, gardening and climate change. Out of Control Room examines geopolitical power and migration. The City on Stage, the theme explored most closely in relation to Palermo, focus on the urban life of the city.

Amongst the 3 themes, I was most interested in Out of Control Room as I regularly explore repression of minorities and social control in my own work. As it turned out, it was the theme for which I was most disappointed with the curatorial process. I felt a disproportionate quantity of artworks, most of which especially commissioned for Manifesta, explored the theme purely from the angle of collating and visually presenting big data about various forms of violence taking place in contexts of armed conflict or migration, without ever digging into the controversial questions of ‘Who benefits from the crime?’, ‘Who is pulling the strings?’. In short, too much of the work focused on the factual ‘What’ and ‘When’, but shied away from the ‘Why’, and even to a certain extent from the simpler issues of ‘Who’ and ‘To Whom’.

‘Signal Flow’, a video installation by Laura Poitras, documents the US military presence in Sicily. ‘Liquid Violence’, an installation by Forensic Oceanography looks at the militarized border zone of the Mediterranean, leading to the death of many migrants at sea. Both works are mostly detailed records of strikes or deaths, and their factual circumstances. ‘Unending Lightning’ a video installation by Cristina Lucas documents the history of aerial bombardments and bombings over civilian targets, from the first, in 1911, to the present day. World wars and civil wars, terror campaigns and random bombings are all gathered in a database assembled by several research groups over the last five years, that methodically counts who killed whom, how many civilian casualties there were, when and where. But because the work lists together so many events that happened in widely different geopolitical contexts, motivated by wildly different causes or ideologies, whose only common denominator is the ‘What’ (civilian death by airstrike), if feels even more devoid of critical context and analysis than the previous examples, which at least narrowly focused on one specific, coherent type of event.

While I fully relate with the artists’ drive to expose human rights abuse, when bombarded with such accumulation of data, my mind starts wandering in wild directions, about Western regimes silently supporting dictatorships in the Middle East for decades, the extent of human rights abuse taking place in far away countries that never end up landing on the shores of Fortress Europe, the shadowy links between repressive regimes abroad and authoritarian, regressive groups in Europe, and the refusal of the work to engage back with me about the complex underlying causes of the carnage it catalogues leaves me frustrated.

When looking at most of the work, I kept wondering whether I was looking at designed/animated infographics made for a newspaper, a mainstream news documentary aiming to present a ‘neutral perspective’ (as opposed to artist’s documentaries where the subject is filtered though the artist’s critical and creative perspective), or a video clip for a charitable fundraiser that sticks on purpose to dramatic human stories without digging into the more controversial political or economic underlying causes. All these media have their use, but Manifesta 12 is world class art event, and I would have expected it to tackle its chosen political themes from more controversial and critical angles.

I asked myself what may have been the drive behind this curatorial focus on big-data and fact-gathering. At first, I thought it might have been a deliberate intellectual response to ‘fake news’ and the rejection of facts and experts during the Brexit and Trump campaigns, but these events happened in the second half of 2016, by which time the curating and commissioning process must have been advanced, so this theory most likely does not hold. I then looked into the origins of Manifesta: Manifesta was created in 1994, aiming to ‘enhance artistic and cultural [international] exchanges after the end of Cold War’. Extrapolating and venturing into my own highly subjective perception (please consider this sentence a disclaimer), I felt that the creation of Manifesta in a context of East vs.West conflicting ideologies may shed light on the curatorial angle, except in the context of the migration crisis, the concept has shifted to North vs. South oppositions. While a whole third of the program was devoted to power, repression and migration, the vast majority of the works explored power dynamics from country to country, with affected human beings identified solely by their nationality/geographical origins, and a country’s population was mostly presented as a homogeneous cultural entity. Other forms of repression, gender-based, against minorities in a given country, or between conflicting ideologies and values within a country’s population, the very conflict that drives cultural change, were mostly ignored. Consequently, the works that stood out for me were the ones that offered alternative or counter- narratives.

‘Purple Muslin’, by Erkan Özgen. Photo: Melanie Menard.

Purple Muslin, a documentary video by Erkan Özgen created in collaboration with women refugees in Europe and Turkey who fled the war zones of northern Iraq, records in interviews the women’s experiences of violence, repression, and being forced to leave their country to survive. The video made for harrowing viewing and while it focused on recording testimonies without providing context (ISIS is named as the perpetrator but the video does not dwell on who funds/supports them), the work shed light on uncomfortable questions that none of the other migration-related works addressed: that women bear the brunt of repression and violence, both in repressive regimes and in war zones. And also, since a lot of the women interviewed lived in refugee camps near the Irak border, do we (Europeans) only care about human rights abuse when its victims land on our borders, while washing our hands off repressive regimes far away?

‘Pteridophilia’, by Zheng Bo. Photo: Melanie Menard.

Another human group bearing the brunt of repression and violence, namely LGBTQ+ people, often sent back to unsafe countries when their asylum requests are rejected by European countries, was conspicuous by its absence. The only explicitly queer work in the whole of Manifesta’s program (compare with last year’s Venice Biennale program…) is Pteridophilia, a video by Zheng Bo exploring the ‘eco-queer potential’ of sensually connecting with nature and ‘relying on bodies rather than language to initiate affective relations’. The work is playful and sexy, and appealed to my love of camp and eccentricity. But it felt like a slap in the face that the curators’ token queer work did not address LGBTQ+ repression amongst a program so heavy on power and migration, especially in light of the previous St Petersburg controversy. Like our queer lives do not matter.

Indeed, to find work addressing LGBTQ+ repression, and artist-activists fighting back against the laws of their own countries, one had to dig all the way into the collateral program (of independently curated fringe events): the Visual Arts strand of Sicilia Queer filmfest curated a group show of contemporary artists from Beirut, exposing the situation of LGBT rights in Lebanon, and offering glimpses of the clandestine queer scene of the city, including a lot of compelling photographic work, from the stark documentary to the aesthetic and conceptual. But the show was only on between 30 May and 30 June.

‘Night Soil’, by Melanie Bonajo. Photo: Melanie Menard.

‘Night Soil’, an experimental documentary by Dutch artist Melanie Bonajo, alternating social documentary and experimental hallucinatory visions, explores the disconnection most Western people feel from nature, and the consequent feelings of fragmentation, emptiness and alienation. The artist documents how her subjects, mainly women, because she believes their voices are insufficiently heard even today, tackle the problem by exploring alternative way of life outside the mainstream system, based on a different relationship with nature and a reassessment of ideas surrounding gender. Melanie Bonajo’s long term, intensive collaboration with her subjects, and the artist occasionally stepping into the frame herself, both observer and participant of a community, reminded me of Nan Goldin. ‘Night Soil’ highlights and celebrates the possibility for unknown individuals to affect change, both social and intimate, using their creativity and self-directed willingness to resist enforced norms, to make and be the change they want to see in the world. The work stood out for me as I felt it was the sole representative in the whole of Manifesta’s program of the avant-garde strand of contemporary art that, throughout the 20th and 21st century, defined art not as a remote/detached commentary on life, but as a laboratory for new ways of living, often operating at the intersection of the official art world and underground, alternative communities.

“I’m happy to own my implicit biases (malo mrkva, malo batina)” by Nora Turato. Photo: Manifesta.

Nora Turato’s “I’m happy to own my implicit biases (malo mrkva, malo batina)” is a spoken word performance (and a site specific recorded sound documentation of it when the artist is absent). The monologue is inspired by the Sicilian tradition of the so-called donas de fuera, that is “women from elsewhere”, who at the time of the Spanish Inquisition were treated as outcasts due to their unconventional powers and behaviour, and adapts it to a contemporary context by whispering secret stories, commonplace clichés and popular myths exposing contemporary sexist discourse and cultural normativity. The performance celebrates the concept of “elsewhere” (artist’s own description) or “The Other” (my interpretation) understood as a ‘space of emancipation within a contemporary culture that increasingly promotes the concept of inclusion as a deterrent to diversity and change’. I felt parts of the monologue satirising the worst cliches about the supposedly ‘irrational and hysterical female’, lines such as “I’m ready to cry, or combust or scream” or “I don’t need to make sense”, were especially powerful. The historical reference to the repression of female behaviour by the Inquisition, when read in parallel with Erkan Özgen’s documentary of female victims of ISIS in contemporary Irak, created a chilling historical echo across time and space, a powerful reminder never to forget past abuse and never to take progress and acquired rights for granted. As a piece of side trivia, the installation-performance takes place in the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, a stunning baroque oratory also home to the reproduction of a stolen Caravaggio. Fascinating women stories are collected in a series of related critical writing: ourladiesfromtheoutside.org

“Videomobile”, by MASBEDO. Photo: Melanie Menard

“Videomobile”, a video multi-channel installation by MASBEDO transforms an old van into a ‘video wagon’ that roams locations loosely associated to the cinema of the past, investigating Sicilian society and the history of Palermo through the angle of power dynamics, the genius loci, and the struggle for ideals. When roaming, the van acts a mobile video recording studio. When stationary (as I saw it), the van displays the collected videos on 3 small screens and 1 larger screen. The work stood out for me as it gave voice to ‘characters who had worked in cinema in an almost anonymous or marginal form, such as make up artists, extras or technicians’ alongside ‘better known figures such as directors, intellectuals, producers or politicians’, but gave each of them an equal voice. One of the clip pays homage to Pasolini’s Comizi d’Amore, where he interviewed women and children on the taboos of sex, love and freedom, and I could feel the influence of this ethos in the way the film-makers presented each of their subjects, whether famous or unknown, as a thinking, reflecting, autonomous individual, and gave them equal opportunity to address deep subjects if they wished. Some testimonies offered fascinating insight: collaborators on Visconti’s film described how his love for pomp and grand design infected their own later creative output. A musicologist explains how Visconti, when he adapted ‘The Leopard’, ‘turned a right-wing book into a left-wing story’, and how this process may have been related to Visconti’s own social ambivalence, coming from an aristocratic background but having leftist ideals. This insight made me reflect on how powerful and thought provoking political art can get (think of Visconti’s The Damned) when the artist does not shy away from exposing their inner contradictions, and playing with formal ambiguity, something I felt was sorely lacking from most of the overt but one-dimensional political work in Manifesta. In another very moving sequence, a photographer Letizia Battaglia speaks to a 10-year old girl Aurora ‘as though to her confidante’ and photographs her ‘as a mirror image of herself’. The artist shares her experience with the young girl in the most honest, profound, unpatronising manner: she talks of her younger self’s desire to take beautiful photographs, only to have it confronted by an uglier reality, of the profound meaning images can take when produced in a spirit of civic sense, quest for beauty and commitment to utopias and ethics. Live on camera, she relays onto the next generation how to think, create and initiate change in the world. In its unpretentious simplicity, I found this film extremely empowering when compared to other works which, while more overtly political, only extorted ordinary citizens to act after the artist had done the thinking for them (The Peng! Collective ‘Fluchthelfer.in. Become an Escape Agent’ and ‘Call a Spy’). Both Letizia Battaglia and a lesser known subject worked at the Palermo left-wing and anti-Mafia newspaper L’Ora and one of them (I can’t remember which and quote the film from memory) recalled how the newspaper acted as a local hub for artists and intellectuals of international caliber, including Visconti, the first point of call where they came to inform themselves of the local cultural and intellectual climate when they came to Palermo to work on a project. By paying homage to the ongoing work of local artists and intellectuals who, despite most of them remaining unknown, contribute to the ongoing cultural change and development of their city, long after the art stars have passed and moved on, the work could have provided inspiration for Manifesta to engage with local communities in a less patronising way, by thinking in collaboration with the locals instead of observing their lives but imposing external interpretations on them.

“Ministry of Interior Life”

I’ve been reading about the Decadent movement as background research. Today, I learned something that made my day in the introduction of the English translation of Huysmans’ A Rebours (Against Nature).

Huysmans wrote most of his novels while sitting at his desk at his day job at the French Ministry of Interior, often using official Ministry letter paper to save money. When he retired, he stole a bunch of stationery on his way out and re-titled the letterhead “Ministry of Interior Life”.

Now, the pun works perfectly in English, but “Ministère de l’Intérieur” would not morph as neatly into “Ministère de la Vie Intérieure”, so I’d need to check the original source to find out exactly what he’s supposed to have scribbled.

But in any case the anecdote is so poetic it hardly matters whether it’s true or not.

Cognitive film theory

While doing some bibliography research for my UAL Ph.D. application, I found out about cognitive film theory.

Cognitive film theory was born in the late 80’s from a dissatisfaction with dominant film theory that tended to analyse films either from an ideological viewpoint, be it marxist, Althusserian, feminist, Lacanian or such, or as a codified language through the use of semiotics. Cognitive film theory tends to focus on the experience and reaction of the film spectator, on the relationship between film content proper, context in which the viewing experience takes place, and viewer psychology. Scholars of cognitive film theory include David Bordwell, Noel Caroll, Per Persson, Carl Plantiga, Greg M. Smith.

The cognitive approach is interdisciplinary and varied rather than a unified methodology and its scholars draw from from various disciplines including philosophy, empirical psychology, neuroscience. Its founder Caroll focuses on ‘look[ing] for alternative answers to many of the questions addressed by or raised by psychoanalytic film theories … in terms of cognitive and rational processes rather than unconscious or irrational ones’ ( his own words from ‘Engaging the Moving Image’). Greg M. Smith and Per Persson favour a cognitive psychology approach, and their books study the cognitive and emotional responses of the film spectator.

According to an article Caroll believes that film cues the spectator’s emotions primarily through narrative, and studies this process within different genres: horror (‘The Philosophy of Horror’ (1990), but also suspense, humor, melodrama (‘Engaging the Moving Image’).

On the other hand, Greg M. Smith believes that the “primary emotive effect of film is to create mood” moods having longer duration and being elicited more throughout most films, whereas emotions are intense, brief, and intermittent. Smith also argues the emotions depend on moods as “orienting states” that prepare the viewer for specific emotional responses. Smith believes that mood is primarily created by stylistic devices rather than narrative.

I can only write this very simple overview because I haven’t read any of the books yet, but the focus of this theory on the audience’s emotional and intuitive response to film seems related to my moving image practice, and I plan to study it further after the MA. I’m especially interested in Greg M. Smith’s concept of mood as a product of aesthetic choices rather than narrative devices.

Reference books I included in the bibliography for my Ph.D. application were:

Allen, R. (1995) Projecting Illusion: Film Spectatorship and the Impression of Reality. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bordwell, D. & Thompson, K. (2008) Film art. London: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Persson, P. (2003) Understanding cinema: a psychological theory of moving imagery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Plantinga, C. & Smith, G. (1999) Passionate views: film, cognition, and emotion. London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Smith, G. (2003) Film structure and the emotion system. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Contextualising my practice within experimental film and traditional video art

I read the book ‘Film and video art’ by Tate publishing in order to find more moving image artists who share my themes and concerns. The book surveys moving image art from early cinema to today’s digital moving image, which enabled me to isolate certain themes and genres that creep back in different cultural and technological contexts.

The book surveys avant guarde cinema close to Surrealism, for example the films of Germaine Dulaine and Man Rays’s Le mystère du chateau de Dé, where the camera tracks at low level through the empty rooms of a modernist house, anticipating contemporary works dealing with space and emptiness. I have already written about these artists when I surveyed photography and cinema within Surrealism.

In the 1940s, a new wave of avant garde cinema reappropriated the Surrealist idea of the importance of subjective vision in film. Filmmakers in this tradition are Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton. Critic A.L. Rees coins the term ‘psychodrama’ to describe their works that deal with inner life and conflict, and suggest their air of menace and obsssession may be linked to the cold war climate of paranoia which also influenced the film noir genre.

In Maya Deren Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a woman chases a cloaked figure that may or may not represent the temptation of suicide in successive sequences that blur chronology and geography.

Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947) is one the first films ever to have an explicit gay theme: a sleeper awakes to be tormented and and torn apart by mocking sailors, but is reborn in a flow of light and balm to find himself back in bed but no longer alone. The theme reminds me of the old myths of the vegetation Gods (Dyonisos) who suffered ritual sacrifice to be reborn.

(Warning: the following short film contains nudity. Click the embedded player at your own risk.)

Kenneth Anger later made another film dealing with ritual sacrifice: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954-6).

‘Fireworks’ and other films depicting dreams are sometimes referred to as ‘trance films’. The term “trance-film” is taken from P. Adams Sitney, whose book ‘Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) has become the bible of American avant-garde film history.

Sidney Peterson’s The lead shoes (1949) deals with Oedipal themes.

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The Lead Shoes (1949) by Lost_Shangri_La_Horizon

Stan Brakhage, a young student of Maya Deren, investigated wish-dreams vs. reality in his films. I liked the light play in ‘Cat’s Cradle’ (1959)

Bruce Baillie’s ‘Castro Street’ (1966) is a non narrative film made of footage of urban landscape and industrial spaces.

During the 60’s, experimental cinema moved towards formal abstraction. In the late 1970’s however, some film makers moved back to exploring the subjective. The best known are Patrick Keiller (now famous for dealing with psychogeography in his films), and Derek Jarman and the ‘new romantics filmmakers’ (including Cerith Wyn-Evans and John Maybury).

The 70’s marked the beginning of a stronger separation between experimental film makers and gallery based video artists. The two traditions of work became very distinct, with gallery based video art tending back then to be non narrative.

However, some works explore the boundary between the real and the dreamlike, for example Robert Whitman ‘Prune flat’ where two performers merge with the images projected onto them and the background.

still from Prune flat

The ‘Psychodrama’ genre in experimental moving image picked up in the 90s.

The works of Canadian artist Stan Douglas deals with the uncanny, the urban space and memory.

‘The Sandman’ (1995) shows two loops filmed at allotments in Potsdam in former East Berlin, while on the soundtrack, someone reads an adapted version of E.T.A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandmann’ that inspired Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’.

‘Le Detroit’ also uses 2 loops, one projected in negative, the other in positive. It shows a black woman wandering through an abandoned house, looking at abandoned possessions. ‘Le detroit’ makes references to Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and Marie Hamlin’s 1883 chronicle ‘Legends of Le Détroit’ (Le detroit being a French name for the city of Detroit, MI). The video uses the conventions of the horror film to comment on the decline of urban neighbourhoods in Detroit, and the problems of racial tensions in this city.

still from 'Le detroit'

Isaac Julien and Sunil Gupta ‘Looking for Langston: Homage Noir’ (1989) mixes archive footage, dream sequences and staged photographs to talk about American Black Gay poet Langston Hughes and the cultural renaissance of Harlem.

Matthew Buckingham’s film installation ‘A Man of the Crowd’ (2003) is based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe that influenced Baudelaire’s concept of the Flâneur. The camera follows a man wandering through the streets of Vienna, and shows reflections in cafes and store windows while the viewer themselves is reflected on the glass used to make the installation, thus questioning reality and illusion in everyday life.

still from 'Man of the Crowd'

Catherine Sullivan explores theatricality and social conventions. Her work is insprired by film noir and avant-garde cinema. In ‘The Chittendens’ (2005), a six screen video installation, actors in period costumes perform gestures that symbolise different social attitudes or psychological mindsets. Most of the video was shot in an abandoned Post Office in Chicago. The work reflects on property, insecurity, the act of performance in everyday life and hysteria.

still from chittendens

Judith Barry’s ‘Ars Memoriae Carnegiensis’ reinvents the Renaissance concept of ‘memory theatre’, that is, a mental process where a person maps memories to the physical space of a building filled with symbolic objects (and also the drawing or painting of the resulting imaginary space).

In Doug Aitken’s video installation ‘Electric Earth’ (1999) shows a black man wandering the streets and parking lots of Los Angeles by night. The installation is immersive: the viewer is invited to physically moves through the spaces delimited by the several screens, while the sound design gives a unity to the different visuals. The immersive quality invites the viewer to share the protagonist’s feeling of urban alienation.

In 2006, Aitken produced ‘Broken Screen: 26 Conversations with Doug Aitken’ (Distributed Art Publishers, 2006), a book of interviews with twenty-six artists who aim to explore and challenge the conventions of linear narrative. Interviews included Robert Altman, Claire Denis, Werner Herzog, Rem Koolhaas, Kenneth Anger and others. It seems this book cross references both artists that I found while doing this research, and filmmakers that I like such as Herzog, so it may be worth checking it out.

Irish artist Willie Doherty also uses installations to create feelings of physical unease and psychological paranoia. Ghost Story (2007) shows how the landscape of the North of Ireland is haunted by the traumatic events that took place there. The camera moves down a road, never reaching any destination, while a man (actor Stephen Rea) narrates in voice-over horrible events that he witnessed. However, no pshysical trace of these events are visible on the onscreen visuals, it is just an empty landscape. The land is scarred psychologically, but not visibly.

Kutlug Ataman’s five-screen video installation ‘Stefan’s Room’ (2004) is a psychological study of obssession and an individual’s relation to their private space. On one screen, a young German man, Stephan, discusses in detail his passion for moths which he both breeds and collects. The other screens show close-ups of insects, either live specimen crawling quietly on Stephan’s arms and hands, or his collection of dead specimen on display in his appartment.

Stephan's Room still

Douglas Gordon uses the screen and formal cinematic conventions to explore psychological instability. In a show ‘what have i done’ at the Hayward Gallery in 2003, he used mirrors reflecting his screen based work to create illusions of spatial confusion in the viewer. Because he is is interested in the formal conventions of cinema, he often uses found footage, most notably in ’24 hour psycho’ (about which I had already talked in a previous blog post) where he slows down Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ to last 24 hours. However, a newer piece ‘Fog’ (2002) uses original footage. Inspired by a 19th-century Scottish novel by James Hogg, ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ (1824) where a man meets his double, who really is the Devil and convinces him to commit crimes, ‘Fog’ shows a man looking at his own shadow. The image is repeated on the other side of the screen, deliberately out of synch, so that at times the man is looking at himself looking at his shadow. The theme of the double is also present in ‘Self-portrait’ (1994) where the artist confronts his reflection. The video is shown as a negative image so as to question issues of reality and illusions. In Douglas Gordon’s own words, ‘The negative image indicates a flip-side of our reality, and so everything we know is turned upside down / inside out. What is the reverse side of self-reflection? What is the opposite of truth?’

I found my own video work to be very close to these works which use the aesthetic conventions of fiction, such as horror, noir or other genre movies or dream sequences, to talk about social concerns without formally resorting to the traditional documentary style. I like the aura of moral and philosophical ambiguity that blurring the lines of documentary and fiction gives to a moving image work.

‘Flâneur’ vs. ‘Dérive’

The ‘Flâneur’ (approximatively equivalent to ‘roamer’, ‘wanderer’) was invented by Baudelaire and was a key figure in late 19th century and early 20th century decadent literary movement. It is a gentleman who strolls the city in order to experience it, as a detached, gently cynical observer. The flâneur is a passive figure, he observes the dynamics of the city from a disengaged point of view. Baudelaire called the flâneur ‘a botanist of the sidewalk’.

The Surrealists reused the concept, putting a greater emphasis on the role of random chances in the activity of ‘flânerie’. The Surrealist version of the flâneur was to devise experiments involving randomness and chances in order to experience the city without being blinded by mundanity. For example, follow beautiful female strangers across the city, or visit a city while guiding oneself using the map of another city. The ultimate Surrealist goal was to reach a higher level of truth by attaining the point where ‘reality’ and ‘surreality’ converge. By playing with random occurrences while strolling the city, the surrealist flâneur expected to gain a higher awareness of the city, beyong immediate reality. Therefore, the Surrealist flâneur is already a more active explorer than its decadent ancestor.

In ‘Theory of the Derive’, Guy Debord defines the concept of the ‘Dérive’ which he explicitly defines as opposed to ‘different from the classic notions of journey or stroll’. The ‘dérive [literally: “drifting”]’ is ‘a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances’ that ‘involves playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects’. The participants of a Dérive must ‘let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.’ A Dérive implies the ‘domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities’. This phrasing has connotations of the scientific explorer, almost of the military strategist. Indeed, Debord compares the mindset of the Dérive to those of the ‘ecological science’, and the act of ‘Dérive’ is a tool in the Situationists’ revolutionary project.

Debord explicitly takes position against letting chance take a too important role in a Dérive, because ‘the action of chance is naturally conservative and in a new setting tends to reduce everything to habit or to an alternation between a limited number of variants. Progress means breaking through fields where chance holds sway by creating new conditions more favourable to our purposes.’

Ghost Towns in the USA: Detroit and New Orleans.

On Triple Canopy website, I found a presentation by Bryan FinokiThe anatomy of ruins: New American landscapes: varieties of blight, idylls of desolation, the lifespan of decay.

It presents the new phenomenon of Ghost Towns, caused by economic recession (Detroit) or natural disasters (New Orleans). The case of New Orleans is also not purely natural because it is the lack of State investment in public infrasctructures that made the city unprotected from known natural threats. Therefore, as argues the author, these images are in all cases a symptom of the failure of Capitalism. He links these Ghost Towns to Naomi Klein’s concept of ‘disaster capitalism’, that is the strategy of private corporations exploiting natural catastrophes and lack of governement infrastructures as opportunities for profit.

The author says that these images of no man’s land have become contemporary icons expressing our ‘infatuation with our own destruction’ and the ‘phantasmagorias of the End Times’.

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An article about the destruction of Michigan Central Station, Detroit.

Surreal Friends – Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Kati Horna.

Surreal Friends , an exhibition at Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, presented the work of three Surrealist women artists who met in exile in Mexico after fleeing political persecution in WW2 Europe: British painter Leonora Carrington (b. 1917), Spanish painter Remedios Varo (1908-1963) and Hungarian photographer Kati Horna (1912-2000).

Leonora Carrington is one of my favourite painter. I love the way the often esoteric subject of her images is always counterbalanced by gentle irony, as though inviting the viewer not to take anything too literally. I also like the way the foreground and the background seem to merge in shadows in her paintings, giving an impression of a warped space where distances cannot be easily determinated.

leonora in 2000

A brilliant article from the independant about Carrington, now in her 90s and still kicking!

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http://www.entropic-empire.com/journal/adelita_escapes_by_leonora_carrington.JPG

http://www.goddardcenter.org/Carrington-compressed.gif

http://www.thecityreview.com/s00latc9.gif

http://lh5.ggpht.com/_UdnAVKY1lQk/SWPYwyr67EI/AAAAAAAAUsU/O0DA2wgs5ss/Leonora%20Carrington_pastoral.jpg?imgmax=800

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http://www.pallant.org.uk/images/carrington_darvault_0.jpg

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Remedios Varo is even more influenced by Alchemy and esoteric belief in her work than Leonora Carrington. Although I do admire her precise drawing technique (she was trained in technical drawing by her father, an architect), I am not drawn to her work as much. I feel the very precise lines and perfectly delimited surfaces make the images too literal. I feel that the lack of dark corners deprives them of ambiguity. Critic Stefan van Raay says that ‘Carrington’s work is about tone and colour and Varo’s is about line and form’.

http://www.pallant.org.uk/images/varo_bonheurdames_0.jpg

http://www.labjor.unicamp.br/biotecnologias/calcadao/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/les-feuilles-mortes-remedios-varo.jpg

http://serandipity.50megs.com/rv02.jpg

http://endicottstudio.typepad.com/endicott_redux/images/2007/05/06/remedios_varo_1.jpg

creation of birds

http://mysticmedusa.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/la-despedida-remedios-varo.jpg

http://s005.radikal.ru/i210/1008/df/8b204a6d47fb.jpg

http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/images/mahy14/2009/04/01/yes.jpg?maxWidth=500

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http://proton.ucting.udg.mx/galeria/arte/Remedios%20Varo/remedios%20varo.jpg

Kati Horna mostly make street and documentary photography in the Surrealist tradition, some photomontages and a few staged photographs.

horna - stairs to the cathedral

She took documentary photographs of the Spanish Civil War and made some political photomontages about it.

http://irmielin.org/nothere/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/horna_fot052.jpg

http://discursovisual.cenart.gob.mx/dvweb13/imagenes/fotos/ent_1-7.jpg

I was impressed by this series where she documents an asylum.

http://images.arcadja.com/kati_horna-bailando_la_casta%C3%B1eda~228~10260_20090827_528_113.jpg

I loved the uncanny feeling of her photographs of Paris flea markets and skull-shaped Mexican candy.

http://www.pallant.org.uk/images/sugarskulls_1.jpg

In her staged photographs, I loved this collaboration with Leonora Carrington (‘Ode to necrophilia’).

http://www.independent.co.uk/multimedia/archive/00392/Kati-Horna-6_392426s.jpg

And also her creepy photographs of interiors.

http://melaniemenardarts.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/museosad.gif?w=194

http://melaniemenardarts.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/katihorna.jpg?w=141

Camera Lucida – Roland Barthes

In his book “Camera Lucida”, Roland Barthes asks himself what gives a photograph impact. Why do some photographs command our attention while other just do not draw us so powerfully, even though we may still recognise an interesting subject and/or technical qualities in them?

Barthes believes that a photograph talks to is viewer using ‘two languages, one expressive, the other critical’ (p20). What he calls ‘expressive’ is what I call ‘intuitive’. He goes on to define to define the specific discourse of the photograph within those two languages.

The ‘studium’ is the appeal of a photograph on a critical level, the way it can grab a viewer’s attention on a cultural level, mediated by moral, cultural and political references.

The ‘punctum’ is something, often a small detail in the photograph, that disturbs the neat interpretative order offered by the ‘studium’, thus creating ambiguity and different levels of reading. A photograph without this ‘punctum’ only has one level of reading, whereas the punctum brings a ‘duality of language’ to a photograph. For the punctum to work, it must not be a too obvious contrast within the photograph, but rather a surreptitious detail. Something elusive enough so that the viewer cannot easily name it or explain it. For Barthes, the impossibility to name something is ‘the best symptom of the feeling of uneasiness.’

I find that Barthes concern with ambiguity and different level of meanings is similar to what interests me in particular artworks.

Relational Aesthetics

This post contains reading notes from “Relational Aesthetics” (“Esthétique relationnelle”) by Nicolas Bourriaud, and discussion of some concepts. Bourriaud focuses on the relationship/communication between the artist and their audience via the artwork. He is particularly interested in a particular type of ‘participatory’ art where the audience is invited to take part in the making of the artwork but his more general ideas are relevant to other types of art as well. I liked this book because it makes central the question of the social function of art and its philosophical implications, something that I feel is too often overlooked in contemporary art.

(Page numbers are from the French edition.)

P12: Three philosophical traditions during the twentieth century: the rationalist modernism (derived from 18th century enlightenment) and the philosophies of liberation through the irrational (Dada, surrealism, situationism) are both opposed to the authoritarian state.

P16: art is a ‘social interstice’ in the marxist sense, that is an activity that, although it takes place within the capitalist system, suggests alternative exchange values.

P18: the concept of ‘relational aesthetics’ comes from a marxist/althusserian philosophy where existence has neither pre-existing meaning nor goal. The only real thing are the links between individuals, that always take place in a specific historical concept, ‘the sum of the social relationships’ as Marx puts it.

P26: Duchamp: “it is the viewer that creates the painting”. The audience creates the meaning of the work.

P44: Marx defines money as a value reference that is used to compare abstract quantities of different items, such as work. Art is an exchange activity that cannot be regulated by money or any other ‘common substance’ because it is the sharing of meaning in its raw state (“le partage du sens à l’état pur”).

P47: Bourriaud thinks modernism had a logic of opposition whereas art today is concerned with coexistence and negociation.

P59: Bourriaud lists artists that do not believe in the producer’s ‘divine authority’ to assign meaning to their work, but instead engage in open-ended, unresolved discussion with their audience. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.

P62: Bourriaud says modernity was concerned with liberating the individual against group tendencies, and nowadays individualism is criticized. He thinks that today the emancipation of the individual is no longer the most urgent concern, but instead communication and relationship between humans. I completely disagree with that, I think the emancipation of the individual is the key thing against reactionary thoughts. Post 1970s reactionary thoughts distorted the notion of individualism, taking it away from ‘critically defining one own values for oneself’ (individualism in the philosophical realm) to ‘destroying all social solidarity and pitching individuals against each other in the economical realm’ (individualism in the economical realm). I believe art must support the notion of individualism in the context of defining one’s own values as a valid alternative to reactionary thought which encourages individuals to accept state ideologies blindly while at the same time shedding all sentiment of class solidarity (Thatcher, Sarkozy, Cameron …)

P71: reference to Nietzsche’s concept of art taking over the possibilities offered by new techniques to create ‘life possibilities’ out of them, refusing the authority of technology but instead using technology to create new ways of living, thinking and seeing. I like this idea in the context of digital art. To use digital technologies to create something meaningful (in a active way) rather than simply reflect on the changes technology itself brought to human lives (passive thinking).

P88: Bourriaud thinks that today’s mainstream ideologies do not value work in a non economical context, and do not assign any value to free time. I completely agree with this. Work is not valued as a way of creating meaning but only when it creates immediate profit. Bourriaud also says “to kill democracy, one starts by silencing experimentation, then accusing freedom of being rabid” (“Quand on veut tuer la démocracie, on commence par museler l’expérimentation, et l’on finit par accuser la liberté d’avoir la rage.”)

P91: As a critic, Felix Guattari is concerned with ‘subjectivity’. Maybe look into him further. However, Guattari, like Nietzche, only considers subjectivity and meaning from the point of view of the creator of the artwork.

P103: Mikhail Bakhine defines the concept of “transfert of subjectivation” as the moment where the viewer assigns meaning to the artwork they are looking at.

Duchamp in the 1954 Houston conference about “the creative process”: the viewer is the co-creator of the work. The “Art coefficient” is the “difference between what the artist had planned to achieve and what they actually achieved.”

P107: Marx criticises the classical distinction between “Praxis” (the act of transforming oneself) and “Poiêsis” (the act to produce something and transform matter): he thinks that both actions work together.

Guattari: “the only acceptable finality of human activities is the production of a subjectivity continually enriching its relationship to the world.”

p114: Bourriaud believes that the characteristic of artwork produced within totalitarian regimes is that they do not offer to the viewer the possibility of completing them; they are closed on themselves. He calls this “the criteria of coexistence”: the act of asking oneself, when looking at an artwork: ‘does this work offer me the possibility to exist alongside it? Does it authorise a dialogue?’

Research Paper ‘Director’s Cut’

Click the link and it will send you to a pdf of my research paper Mental space on screen: through the examples of Last year in Marienbad, Stalker and Lost Highway as submitted for the MA.

Research Paper: Mental space on screen (Melanie Menard)

Abstract

This paper explores how the different elements of a film work together to depict the mental space of the characters, that is, give the impression that the events shown on screen reflect their subjective experience, and the space shown on screen is a projection of their mental state. Through the examples of Alain Resnais’ Last year in Marienbad (1960), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1996), I show how similar techniques recur in films made in completely different cultural contexts, but that have in common to picture the subjective world of the characters. These techniques are: narrating events as the characters think about them, remember them or imagine them rather than how they actually happen; a labyrinthine set design where the inside and the outside contaminate each other; lighting and colours that reflect the mental state of the characters; rhythm that traps the viewer inside the characters’ subjectivity and, finally, sound that creates a mood of its own rather than illustrating or simply enhancing the images, with sparse dialogues becoming an integral part of the sound design.

Keywords: space, subjectivity, cinema, cinematography, sound

A few sections of the research paper were removed to keep word count down. Mostly I rephrased and condensed, which accounts for the somewhat dry style, and the lack of sometimes explicit transitions between ideas. The dry style is fine by me, it’s a research paper not a literary work, but I think more explicit transitions between ideas would have made the paper more reader friendly. However, I had a word count problem and decided to sacrifice a bit of fluidity in order not to cut out relevant ideas. I think the 2 last sections ‘sound’ and ‘rhythm’ are written more fluidly, with more explicit transitions between ideas. That’s because I wrote my paper backward so I was not so worried about concision when I wrote them (the last sections, more technical, were written first, and the first sections, more general, were written after).

However I cut out 3 complete paragraphs because they were interesting but not so directly relevant. I put them here.

1)This was cut out because it was a discussion where neither me, nor the person whose idea I was discussing, were really convinced of what we said. We were both formulating hypothesis to open up discussion, without being personally convinced of these hypothesis. So it was interesting but non essential.

Vida & Petrie (1994, p190) discuss Tarkovsky’s habit to shoot dream scenes in black and white in most of his films, and compare it to Stalker:

‘The choice of black and white for dreams may reflect the conventional idea that most people dream in black and white, but more probably implies, in line with Tarkovsky’s belief in the essential “reality” of black and white, that the inner truth of our experience is to be found within our dreams. In Stalker the basic pattern is reversed, with black and white creating the sordid reality of the everyday world of the future and color representing the potential escape from this offered by the Zone.’

This leads to an interesting issue. The only sequence in the Zone that contains monochrome shots (sepia rather than black and white) is indeed the dream sequence. If characters are dreaming, they may approach their inner truth. It is possible, then, that the Zone as a whole offers fake hope and illusion rather a gateway to inner reality, an interpretation that could be corroborated by the characters’ final decision not to enter the room. Maybe the Zone is, like in Lost Highway, the world of illusion and fantasy, rather than the world of hope and spirituality.

2)this was a transition between the ‘rhythm’ and ‘sound’ sections. It contained an interesting reference for further research, but was non essential to the subject.

Quoting Vlada Petric, Vida & Petrie (1994, p240-241) list ‘cinematic technique’ which can be used to simulate the experience of dream in films. Tarkovsky uses several of them, not only to depict literal dreams, but to ‘throw a dreamlike aura over virtually the whole film.’  ”Camera movement through space [contributing to] a kinesthetic sensation”, ”illogical and paradoxical combinations of objects, characters and settings”, ”dissolution of spatial and temporal continuity”, ”ontological authenticity of motion picture photography [which] compels the viewer to accept even the most illogical events … as real” together correspond to the combined action of discontinuity editing and slow rhythm described in this section. “Color juxtaposition [which] emphasizes the unusual appearance of dream imagery” has been discussed in the previous section. ”Sight and sound counterpoint” will be discussed in the next section.

3)In the conclusion, I discussed the philosophy of art of the 3 directors, and the way a film interacts with its audience. This was interesting but not directly linked to the subject, so was cut out.

When all these elements are combined, we get what Deleuze (1985, p35) calls a ‘conscience-camera’, that is a camera that ‘subordinates the description of a space to the functions of thought’ and ‘enters’ inside ‘mental relationships’. ‘Objective and subjective’, ‘real and imaginary’ then become ‘indiscernible’. The camera is no longer descriptive: instead it ‘questions, responds, objects, provokes, theorises, hypothesises and experiments’. This new nature of film allows new possibilities (Deleuze, 1985, p210): it ‘elaborates a circuit between the author, the film and the spectator’. This circuit has two ways of communication that work together: first a ‘sensory shock’ that ‘elevates the images to conscious thought’, then thought that brings the viewer back to the images and gives them an ’emotional shock’. This ‘coexistence’ between ‘the highest degree of conscience’ and ‘the deepest level of the unconscious’ is what makes, for Deleuze, the power of ‘Time-image’ cinema.

This vision of the dual nature of film, intellectual but also unconscious, sensual, emotional or irrational, the later allowing a direct connection between the artist and the audience, is shared by Tarkovsky, Lynch, and Robbe-Grillet. Tarkovsky (2008, p176) states that ‘cinema is the one art form where the author can see himself as the creator of an unconditional reality, quite literally of his own world’ and ‘a film is an emotional reality’ perceived by ‘the audience’ ‘as a second reality’, which ‘allows for an utterly direct, emotional, sensuous perception of the work’. For Lynch (interviewed by Rodley, 2005, p140), films are ‘a subconscious thing’. In an interview together with Resnais, Robbe-Grillet (Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967, 170) says that art is ‘a reminiscence’ or ‘an illumination’ of ‘the world’ and that it ‘interests us because we find in it ready-made the things to which we feel impelled by the emotions reality has generated in us’, and Resnais agrees with him on that. Robbe-Grillet also says that ‘when an image strikes [him] in the cinema, it is always because [he] recognise[s] [his] own experience’ in it, and this shared experience is what makes ‘communication’ possible between the artist and the audience, through the medium of the work.