Thursday, 30 October 2008


Ben Rivers, (TOP:) Astika (UK-Denmark, 2007), 8 mins. (BELOW:) Ah Liberty! (UK 2008), 19mins. 

London Film Festival Experimenta Weekend, Day Two, curated by Mark Webber, BFI Southbank,  26 October 2008.

The second day of Experimenta weekend balanced attempts at understanding with states of unknowing. Sometimes this was a beautifully realised aim and effect of the work, sometimes it was an uncomfortable effect of a disjunction between the work's intensions and its actual effect on the BFI Southbank audience.

The day began with Nathaniel Dorsky, who presented two new films, Winter (2007) and Sarabande (2008), alongside Triste (1978-96). Dorsky was present and took questions between each film. Whilst revealing, this ran the risk of  confining the films within Dorsky's rather dogmatically held sense of "devotional cinema." Both Winter and Sarabande comprised sequences of images that were balanced between evoking a location in the everyday world, their presence within the technology of camera and film stock, and a sense of abstraction and mystery, often energised by changing patterns of light. 

In some ways all this was redolent of the "perception, material, memory" of Peter Gidal's recent Park Night. But whereas the films at the Serpentine held that triad together at the level of the film itself, Dorsky - and this was a consequence of the films as well as his words about them - seemed to have an unquenchable faith in the beauty of his images, and the spiritual value of watching his films. When someone in the audience said they didn't actually find them that beautiful, Dorsky, shocked, could only say "watch them again."

Nathaniel Dorsky, Sarabande (USA 2008), 15 mins.

A screening of Triste provided some context: an assemblage of moments from many unfinished films where this distinctive cinematic project first took shape. It posed the question about what happens when the quest for such moments shifts from accident or by-product to conscious intention. It highlighted, too, reasons for my growing irritation throughout this session: I experienced the delicacy and fragility of Dorsky's images not as definite instances of beauty but as constantly bordering on a failure of resonance, a risk of insignificance and non-communication. 

The same issues emerged in a very different form in the three hour video epic that was Michael Auder and Andrew Neel's The Feature (2007). Auder has kept video diaries since the 1960's, when he recorded his involvement in the world around Warhol's Factory, and his marriages to Viva and, later, Cindy Sherman. In this film - although the boundaries of truth and fiction were always uncertain - Auder, diagnosed with a brain tumour, is prompted to edit the vast stock of tapes into an autobiography. A narrative in the present in which new relationships unfold, a new film is planned, and Auder makes his will and otherwise plans or denies death - is intercut with this chronologically arranged autobiography, over which the 2008 Auder refers to his former self in the third person.

I suspect that if you couldn't identify various members of Warhol's circle, then it all might seem horrendously vague and egotistical - which may explain the steady hemorrhaging of an already small audience. If you could then The Feature functioned on one level as a very useful social history, being completely uninterested in the normal kind of 60's reminiscences of many recent documentaries. Instead, it often worked by simple juxtaposition. Footage of a young Taylor Mead is juxtaposed with recent shots of an angry poetry reading in which he rants about property tycoons destroying Manhattan, and says he hasn't had sex for 27 years because Gay Liberation and AIDS were a big turn off. Auder films himself watching Mead's performance - raising lots of thoughts about aging, and what has happened to these artists in forty years, but always remaining at the level of the look.

Michael Auder and Andrew Neel, The Feature (USA 2008), 177mins.

Large amounts of the film also chronicled Auder's very evident vast wealth, and a lifestyle of drifting around the world, seemingly doing little but eating very nice looking meals with various beautiful women in expensive hotel rooms. With a little editorial tweeking it could have been a great satire of artist-millionaires, and maybe it partly was. But actually this was a beautifully put together film, variously an essay on death, on the precariousness of the artistic life, and the ethics and meaning of an ongoing practice of video diarying. In contrast to the Dorsky, Auder's film fascinated through its lack of aspiration to a particular, carefully selected moment, and through his sheer desire to film everything, no matter how ethically problematic that might be. It's many casual moments added up to an absorbing, consistent whole.

"Whenever we have a problem, rather than talking about it, you film it" screamed a frustrated Viva on several occasions. But nothing was particularly revealed or known by all that videoing, or the films great length, other than a slightly perturbing sense of moments once lived become oddly alien in their video afterlife. The end result revealed Auder similarly to a Warhol Screen Test or Henry Geldzhaler, where a certain level of pose falls away in the camera's continued stare - here one lasting forty years and counting. 

Work in the two evening programmes dealt more consciously  with acts of world-making. In Remote Intimacy (2008), Sylvia Schedelbauer constructed her film from different categories of documentary footage, testing how such footage could be related to the seemingly personal narrative of the film's voice-over and intertitles. Brigid McCaffrey and Ben Russell's Tjúba Tén (The Wet Season) (2008) evoked the ethnographic film when it presented - subtitled over a black screen - extracts from sessions recording local songs and stories. But the film's assumptions about why and what one might document through field work differed radically from conventional ethnography.

Brigid  McCaffrey and Ben Russell, Tjúba Tén (The Wet Season) (USA-Suriname, 2008), 47 mins.

What kind of incidents and details add up to depict a particular place and society? What kind of totality does a depiction involve? Over its forty seven minutes McCaffrey and Russell's film was definitely in some way comprehensive. But it didn't attain this through the normal categories upon which such a portrait might focus, such as festivities or religious ceremonies. 

Even as I found them highly resonant, I struggled to articulate what was leading particular scenes to be filmed, and why they were filmed from particular camera angles and locations. A commitment to the everyday? To the inadvertent life alongside the formal activities of a community? Was this in some way a filming from the inside, where things were assumed rather than articulated? A desire for the incongruence of an experience to remain in the image? It was bits of all of these, and much else besides. A challenging and exciting film to watch, rebutting any conventionally formulated requests for information an audience might have.

Ben Rivers, (TOP:) Origin of the Species (UK 2008), 17mins. (BELOW:) Ah Liberty! (UK 2008), 19mins.

Something similar was at work in the four recent films by Ben Rivers that concluded the weekend, although Rivers' films also have a rich, theatrical sense of human personality that also engages viewers through storytelling and human interest. The films here focussed on individuals who have created distinctive lifestyles for themselves, often in rural locations, be it the Scottish Highlands of Ah Liberty! (2008), the Suffolk of A World Rattled of Habit (2008) or the Danish countryside of Astika (2007).  The films, in varying proportions, let the subjects act and speak about their lives, as well as trying to let the objects and landscapes, too, have their say. Indeed, what linked these films was how places and personalities become intertwined.

Rivers noted in the Q&A that when filming Ah! Liberty! (2008) he had immediately felt both a freedom and a danger in the lives of two children growing up in this  remote part of the Scottish highlands. The films documented their subjects lives in a tender, imagistic  way,  and it's really our own values as viewers that determine whether we see them as fulfilled and acting out a distinct sense of life's purpose,  or damaged and dysfunctional.  Viewing the films together suggests, too, how the individual lives are dissolved into ongoing themes around delicate combinations of utopia, dystopia and apocalypse. Indeed, different films offered different places and combinations on a spectrum ranging from social realism documentary to something more poetical and fantastical - think Werner Herzog's Fata Morgana or Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's Atomic Park

Sometimes - as in Ah Liberty! - the film itself had a fragile, flickering texture as if constantly negotiating with itself between representation and flare up (Rivers' noted that he processes the film himself in his kitchen). It was an apt image for the days and the weekend's most suggestive films, their mix of eager enquiry with a chronic uncertainty about the qualities and ethics of what was found.   

Wednesday, 29 October 2008


Alina Rudnitskaya, Amazons (Russia, 2003), 20mins. 

London Film Festival, Experimenta Weekend, Day 1, curated by Mark Webber. BFI Southbank, Saturday 25th October, 2008.

One of the pleasures of Alina Rudnitskaya's films was being reminded that experimental isn't necessarily about particular forms, but about a certain quality of engagement. The three films show here - produced at the state sponsored St.Petersburg Documentary Film Studio - took classical documentary form, but were transformed by their careful attention to the way people communicate, the sheer vivacity of their subject matter, and the sense that something about the history and contemporary reality of Russia was being worked out in the gestures, words and emotions of these individual lives.

Amazons (2003) documented the teenage girls running a stables in St.Petersburg; Besame Mucho (2006) chronicled a female amateur dramatics group preparing an opera recital for a group of Italian visitors; while Bitch Academy (2008) documented a self-empowerment class for women, mainly focussed around the arts of seducing and controlling men. In each Rudnitskaya was sketching out a particular territory: the self-definition and development of individual women revealed through their involvement in groups. Her films were drawn to people full of a passion and life that was only stumblingly and partially expressed in their everyday lives. 

Alina Rudnitskaya, Besame Mucho (Russia 2006), 27 mins.

It could have been mawkish, but it was kept dynamic by the alertness and honesty of her camera. When the  operatic recital is underway in Besame Mucho, Rudnitskaya focusses on the body language of the bored Italian audience. In Bitch Academy, as Rudnitskaya explained in the Q&A, the workshop leader told the women their desire to change their lives was connected to a willingness to be filmed, and those who weren't comfortable being filmed should leave. One class exercise involved a woman being told to seduce the cameraman - as she stood, laughing and embarrassed, looking into the camera, it was a  dramatic way of exposing the film's formal relations within a very non-artistic context.

This sense of finding a clear structure for the variety of ways in which form and content can combine - was one thread running through Day 1 of the Experimenta weekend. Completed during a six week residency in Toronto, Nicky Hamlyn's Four Toronto Films (2007) began, he commented afterwards, when he observed the patterns of some Toronto pavement slabs and their similarity to strips of film. Subsequent images explored this conjunction through the water of a lake, or viewed the heavens through an open skylight.

Nicky Hamlyn, Four Toronto Films (UK 2007), 18 mins.

Each of these images gave an immediate, if unspecific sense, of a particular place. But any sense of geography was always in tension with the film-maker's manipulations. The sky and the lake water rushed by in time lapse high speed, as the window frame and the wooden jetty remained still. Most enjoyable about these films was the way their formalism worked in two directions: a world that looks like film, and a film looking like the world. When shadows play on the wall through the skylight they may be speeded up by the film makers intervention, but they are also the world itself offering a form of cinema.  

Such impulses reached negation and apotheosis in two Guy Debord's films, the 18 minutes short Sur Le Passage De Quelques Personnes À Travers Une Assez Courte Unité De Temps (1959) and the not-at-all-short In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consummiur Igni (1978, 105 mins). Something of the tone of both Debord's films can be seen in the statements that puncture In Girum: I will make no concessions to the public in this film, he observes at the beginning. Two thirds of the way through he observes that having taken away everything else he will now remove the image itself, leaving a white screen. And at the end - which, much as I enjoyed this film, I found it impossible not to greet with some sense of relief - a caption instructs that the film be seen again from the beginning.

Guy Debord, (TOP:) Sur Le Passage De Quelques Personnes À Travers Une Assez Courte Unité De Temps (France, 1959) 18 mins; (BELOW:) In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consummiur Igni (France, 1978) 105 mins.

Through the majority of In Girum, Debord provides a biographical voice over of the history of situationism and revolutionary politics. If that description is a bit general, it's because I found it near impossible to take in the specifics of what Debord was saying, whilst also paying attention to the images. The voice over has a shifting relationship to the image, which at different times is still photographs of Paris or footage appropriated from a variety of sources, including Westerns and War films. Styles and discourses clash, at the same time as they are woven together into Debord's particular poetic universe. 

Initially, I was a bit preoccupied with the relationship of still and moving images to the voice over. At what point did an experience earn the right to moving images? It seemed as if Debord's descriptions of "despicable Bourgeois Paris" were emphasised by still images in which the city was literally composed of the frozen dead (or the absent - most shots were of the city were from above, devoid of people). Talk of young comrades in cafes planning social revolution, however, was moving images - as if social aspiration, even in failure and uncertainty, maintained a fluidity more associated with the moving image. 

Debord accompanied these cafe shots with commentary on how he had botched the tracking shot, highlighting how these and other devices - white screens, intertitles, found footage, life itself - were ever balanced between life and death, creation and negation. One moment that struck me: it was a shock to experience the emotions of a view across the skylines of Paris, and not realise for a moment that it was a pan across a photograph.

After Debord, I followed these impulses into the much gentler and lyrical realm of David Gatten's How To Conduct a Love Affair (2007). I remembered Gattens films from last year, both at the festival and at a Light Reading. Here, too, Gatten began with a short found text: this time round it was on how to maintain a long term relationship. The text appears first as a solid mass of text, then as constellations of isolated words and phrases -  a technique I related directly to poetic experiments such as Ronald Johnson's RAD I OS or Tom Philips' Humument.

Whilst many of Gatten's films stay within the realm of image-as-text, here this opening section gave way to a series of delicate, lyrical images, including fabric, paper, stitches, and an egg on a spoon. The framing and texture of its daily poetic lyricism reminded me immediately of Robert Beavers, whilst the shifting from word to object evoked Hollis Frampton's Zorns Lemma, albeit with a very different tone of poignancy and melancholy. A gentle beauty suffused this possible connection and inevitable distance of language and object. Even aside from these specific influences, this was a film whose images and text seemed to be interested in constructing a legacy and tradition for themselves.

David Gatten, How To Conduct A Love Affair (USA 2007) 8 mins.

In the film's final section, there was a return to text, in which the initial focus on relationships seemed to have been re-framed in terms of acts of writing and reading. Having seen so many films by this point my perceptual capabilities were a bit numbed and I'm unsure if this involved a wholly new text or another re-working of the opening paragraph, but that uncertainty fits with the sense of permutation, variation and difference throughout a film that, in retrospect, has become more defiant in its gentleness.

This, then, is one thread through Day One. A sense of summation also came from  Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin's Lossless #2 (2008). Images of Maya Derens Meshes of the Afternoon were subject to digital decay, reflecting on the process whereby the kind of work seen at Experimenta is translated into digital and web-based formats, changing its patterns of distribution and composition. The film tantilisingly proposed such processes as both annihilation, transformation and redemption.  

Monday, 27 October 2008


Nathaniel Dorsky, Sarabande (2008), 16mm, 15 mins.

Nathaniel Dorsky presented three films at the BFI Southbank on Saturday 26 October 2008 as part of the London Film Festival's Experimenta weekend, curated by Mark Webber. Dorsky introduced the screening and took questions after the first two films. The following text is a reconstruction of those questions and comments from the handwritten transcription I made during the event. 

NATHANIEL DORSKY: I like to show films in the reverse order to which they were made. Inbetween the films I'll take questions. The films are a bit of a poem. It's best if they don't run into one another...

Most cinema is language-ideas. This film is the actual physicality of progression through presences.

[Screens WINTER]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: So are you having an idea and shooting footage to fit that idea? Or are you selecting later from a lot of footage what seems related?

DORSKY: I don't follow a programme. It's shot over a period of time. I trust that the circumstances of my life have a through line

Most films are novels. The screen is a stage - the bottom of the screen is the stage. This film is a poem. It's about a state of mind. It's about the progression of states of mind to create hopefully deepening resonance in the psyche. 

Its about direct vision. These films are meaningful rather than having meaning.

In Winter everything was damp and on the ground. This lead me to make Sarabande which was more dance like.


AUDIENCE: When a film is finished does it seem fixed or are there are other possible variations of the same material?

DORSKY: There are always one or two things which I think I could change. But, no, there's a point where it seems inevitable. I trust that inevitableness.

AUDIENCE: I don't understand what you mean by saying your films don't have meaning but are meaningful.

Nathaniel Dorsky, Sarabande (2008), 16mm, 15mins.

DORSKY: Meaningful is something enriching to heart and mind... the nobility of human presence. Meaning is an idea.

AUDIENCE: But the nobility of human presence is an idea..

DORSKY: Human nobility is quite real. It's not an idea. (SEEMS IRRITATED) These films you have just seen. They are visually expressive. Don't you find them beautiful?

AUDIENCE: No.... a bit...

DORSKY: Watch them again.


DORSKY: These films are Kodachrome films like oil paintings are dependent on oil. Kodachrome has been discontinued and I have enough for one more film. 

AUDIENCE: Do you see your images before you look into the camera?

DORSKY: If I saw the images and then tried to capture them I would get a B. To get an A grade you have to translate onto the world of the screen. A genius film maker does this so that the screen manifests as image.

I see something that is translatable. Then begins the adventure of a new moment: to see if the rectangle can manifest. 

Nathaniel Dorsky, Triste (1978-96), 16mm, 19mins.

AUDIENCE: Do you have a script? Do you shoot more footage than appears in the final film?

DORSKY: A film manifests in the same way that you'd turn milk into butter. Friends love to look at all the raw footage, but it is self-referential - it's your development into a subject. So I take out a lot of material and a nature re-declares itself. I take out more, and it re-declares itself again. The thing self-mutates...

AUDIENCE: So what percentage of the original footage is in the end film?

DORSKY: Maybe 15%.


DORSKY: Eastman Kodak have produced a new film stock which I like very much. It will be like changing from oil to tempera. A new palette. It'll be like a new lover. 

Kodachrome is just in my body. I don't have to use a light meter. I'm just there with it. 

I've seen some digital films at the festival and I'd rather do this (GESTURES AT SCREEN). I'm fortunate. I think my life will coincide with the life of film. 

AUDIENCE: What do you think when you watch your films?

DORSKY: I enjoy them. But it changes. There's an unnameable thing...a night when a film will work... when it's the right time.

There's a satisfaction of reaching the point when a film no longer needs you. It's like a parent and a child. I used to turn against films after I had made them. I thought they were dead.

AUDIENCE: How do you decide the duration of shots?

DORSKY: A feeling. A rightness. You know when you're done. No more is necessary. Often people don't do this. We've all got a friend who says something, and they should be done. But they say it again. 

Film-makers normally treat the audience horribly. I try to be decent. 

AUDIENCE: But in Sarabande are you finding the images or making them?

DORSKY: It's all found... but also the frame is found. I was tired that the bottom of the image had to be coincident with the bottom of the screen.

AUDIENCE: But the title -

DORSKY: I'm not good at titles. It's not important. I apologise if it's distracting. It's the best I could do.


AUDIENCE: I'd like to see these films in a gallery, on a loop..

DORSKY: The problem with showing films like that is that it turns everything into wallpaper. It's very degrading. You don't synch up to a linear progression of material. It's horrible. 

Maybe in the future with the possibility of telecine conversion to HD. But for the moment I'd rather keep film as a rarified thing... like a live performer.

It's like using a Mozart string quartet in an elevator. If you're seriously interested in music it's absurd.


DORSKY: Are we out of time? We'll screen Triste and we'll be done. Triste was made from parts of many unsuccessful films going back to 1973. There must be seven, eight or nine different emulsions, some out of date and with various malfunctions.

It was the first time... since I was in my 20's I had had an intuition of a kind of cinema that wasn't a reference outside itself... where moving through the film was the magic... no limitation.. a film opening up moment to moment like our consciousness... could a film be humane?

Saturday, 25 October 2008


Anri Sala, Long Sorrow (2005). 16mm transferred to DVD. 12m 57 secs.

Photographers Gallery, London, 24 October 2008.

One of the more surprising appearances on the London gallery talks circuit was Michael Fried lecturing at the Photographers Gallery on artists' film. Fried, of course, as his own introduction to his lecture made clear, formed his critical faculties as an "apprentice" to Clement Greenberg, and has lived for forty years with the infamy surrounding his 1967 essay "Art and Objecthood", in which he lambasted minimalism for - unlike the work of friends such as Anthony Caro and Frank Stella - shifting the focus from the qualities of the work itself to the whole circumstances of its positioning and the event.

Shortly after the essay, Fried stopped writing art criticism and became an academic art historian, but the themes remained much the same. In Diderot, as Fried explained at the Photographers Gallery on Friday night, he found a guide who theorised a quality of absorption in the paintings of David, and who also had a horror of a lesser quality - where subjects were pretending or performing solely for the painter - that equated to Fried's theatricality. A trilogy of art historical tomes followed that unfolded this fascination, and also the shift in focus to Manet, where subjects did look directly at the painter - and at the viewer - but  still somehow maintained their absorptive quality or, as Fried called it, "facedness."

How Fried got from this to a lecture on Long Sorrow, a 2005 film by Anri Sala, was one element of a dense, fascinating talk delivered at considerable speed. One starting point, back in the 1980's, was Fried's developing interest in the photography of Jeff Wall, many of whose works, he observed, seemed also to engage with this quality of absorption. Fried joked he had the "academic's fantasy" that Wall was reading his books, before discovering in an interview that Wall actually did (Fried happily read aloud the quote where Wall confirmed academic fantasy as reality). Fried reciprocated the interest, becoming fascinated by Wall's portraits in which absorption was also about the re-creation or representation of a moment so that "portrait" became only one of the many genres that the picture participated in. 

This unfolded into a wider critical engagement with photography, and Fried's new book Why Photography Matters As Art As Never As Before, ostensibly the reason for this talk although it was scarcely mentioned. Instead, Fried screened Sala's Long Sorrow, in which, to a sound track of free jazz, a camera slowly zooms in on an open window, which appears to be propped open by a strange object. As the camera closes in on the window - evocative, Fried noted, of Michael Snow's Wavelength - the object by the window is revealed to be a human head. 

The remainder of the film - always working through fragments - comprised sequences of extreme close ups of the figure's mouth and eyes, slowly revealing a figure - musician Jemeel Moondoc - stood improvising on the saxophone on a ledge fixed to the outside of a high rise block of flats. The constantly shifting camera also takes various outside perspectives, of the flats themselves and the playing figure on the ledge. In the films conclusion, the head of saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc  appears to float and drift in space. 

Installation views of Long Sorrow at circolo filologico milanese (Nov 15-Dec 18 2005). Curated by Fondazione Nicola Trussard.

Fried followed the screening by offering a description of the work, lamenting that such a simple statement of what was seen was rarely practiced in art critical writing about video works. He rooted his own engagement with the work to a particular experience - walking into the Marion Goodman gallery in New York and immediately being absorbed by what he saw. He offered reasons for his fascination, trying to explain why the camera's incessant movement, forever making you aware of the film makers choices, could enhance rather than rupture the state of absorption and empathy. In part, Fried related it to a quality of present-ness - defined back in "Art and Objecthood" - shared by both film-maker and musician in what was a deliberately stressful and literally on the edge situation. He was fascinated by Sala's remark that he was "filming the intention to make music." 

All of which made for a fascinating, if slightly odd, talk. One key to this oddness was a passing joke when Fried observed that he had no pre-existing theoretical model to apply to art but if he did he would write for October. It was a reminder that for all the seeming dogmatic puritanism of his early essays, Fried's notion of absorption is actually one that at its core is a profoundly uncertain and even rather mystical position. 

This is revealed in the unquantifiable experience of an individual standing in front of a painting by David or Chardin, and it is also there in terms of any individuals broader array of  cultural encounters, so Fried could wander in off the street into Marion Goodman, have an absorption, as it were, and begin lecturing and writing on a medium for which he had previously had no time, with a mix of high erudition and the enthusiasm and naivete of the beginner. 

Fried didn't show any signs of wanting to pick a fight, but if he did want to get more involved in contemporary art, his ideas would likely be as challenging and annoying to certain contemporary ideas as they were to Robert Morris and Carl Andre. On this London trip Fried will also lecture on Douglas Gordon at the ICA and it's hard to imagine Fried's Gordon will have much in common with the Gordon celebrated by, say, Nicholas Bourriaud. Indeed, it's hard not to see participatory and relational aesthetics as a coming to life of Fried's worst nightmares, its chain of relationships and encounters a dilution of the all-important undiluted encounter with the work itself.  

Not that Fried had lost any of his 1960's conviction that a role of criticism is to say clearly what is good art, what is bad, and why. At the Photographer's Gallery he expressed a vehement contempt for Bill Viola, I guess because in Viola the qualities of absorption become too articulate, too self-aware, which for Fried would be a sure sign of the fall into theatricality. He also said, in answer to an audience question, that he was going back to look at work by Snow and Warhol, recognising the connection to Sala or Douglas Gordon, but not sure yet what it was. It was surprising, he said of his re-engagement with Warhol, who must have once appeared to be the evil embodiment of theatricality.

The lingering sense of this lecture was how, as a critic born in 1939, Fried seems to have ended up in an open and curious position, writing about new work and young artists, whilst still pursuing the elusive filagrees of ideas that have obsessed him for longer than those artists have been alive.