Documentary and the cinematic thought machine

Provocation by Bettina Frankham

First Chaldaic Oracle
There is something you should know.
And the right way to know it
is by a cherrying of your mind.

Because if you press your mind towards it
and try to know
that thing

as you know a thing,
you will not know it.
It comes out of red

with kills on both sides,
it is scrap, it is nightly,
it kings your mind.

No. Scorch is not the way
to know
that thing you must know.

But use the hum
of your wound
and flamepit out everything

right to the edge
of that thing you should know.
The way to know it

is not by staring hard.
But keep chiselled
keep Praguing the eye

of your soul and reach—
mind empty
towards that thing you should know

until you get it.
That thing you should know.
Because it is out there (orchid) outside your and, it is.
–Anne Carson

Documentary practice is a way to think the world.  It is a formulating, a historicising, a narrativising of a world that is often otherwise chaotic and confusing. However if we are to engage with the way of knowing advocated in the above poem, it is to come through lateral approaches, patience, perhaps even intuition. There is a sense of accumulating understanding that speaks of an experiential kind of knowing that cannot be articulated or contained in a few rhetorical dot points. This is also where the sense of spending time and being open to ‘nothing’ happening and seeing where that might lead is valued as part of the process of coming to know “that thing you should know” [i].

My interest lies in how an artistic practice can shift the work from a didacticism that says, “I know all about this topic, come and listen to my wise words”.  While the notion of an “art work” can have the effect of elevating the artist and the work above the ordinary, the openness of expression permits room for the audience to bring their own understandings to bear on the issues under consideration with the attendant possibility for greater and more deeply experienced impact.  In the admission of uncertainty and the acknowledgement of complexity, the agency of the audience and their ability to “know that thing”[ii]in multiple ways is mobilised.

The work I am currently editing, How many ways to say you?, is intended to create an experience through the audio-visual material of the film both as an echo of my experience travelling through Cambodia but also as a way to think through ideas of relationship, history, memory and representation.   At the time of filming there were constant questions raised for me about the impact of recent Cambodian history upon people’s (both locals’ and visitors’) being, their interactions with each other and ways of understanding this world.  My approach to and treatment of the raw footage has been an attempt to explore these ideas.  Through a methodology that has notions of photogénie [iii] at its core, I am trying to convey a sense of the affective impact that this place and these people had, and continue to have, on me.

The material of the film is arranged according to a poetic structure that is based on fragmentary sketches of the relationships implied through the use of the different ‘you’ words that appear in Khmer.  The footage can be described as adopting an observational style, inasmuch that, in filming, I have frequently taken a position of standing back and watching, waiting for moments of interaction and absorbing the scenes on which I have trained the camera.  While filming frequently has the effect of taking one out of the current, physical moment, in this instance, the camera actually facilitated a way of looking that was more akin to accretion than analysis.  It became a way to approach understanding rather than an attempt to subdue, preserve and pin down the world in front of the lens [iv].  The camera became a point of conversation and interaction with people, as those standing with me behind the camera would tell those in front that they were on camera and what they could see.

This kind of interaction is indicative of the overall intention for the work.  In contrast to a more strict interpretation of an observational mode of production, certain aesthetic techniques have been used to undercut the realist style of the footage.  There is a twofold motivation to this approach.  Firstly, it is part of a reflexive strategy.  By emphasising aesthetic choices I am attempting to negotiate some of the ethical problems of an observational visual style [v].  While there are sections where the subjects appear unaware of the camera, I have tried to balance this out by drawing out the moments where the subjects look back and engage with my presence.  Through using a frame within the frame, motion effected video (slow motion and time lapse), filters to create different visual textures, long dissolves and text on screen the constructed nature of the work is also made blatantly apparent.  Secondly, the aesthetic treatment is part of a conceptual approach that seeks to address what-has-yet-to-be-thought through images, their appearance and combination.  In embracing a Deleuzian notion of the “cinematic thought machine”[vi] I am working to draw out aspects of intuitive and perceptual knowledge through the very particular aesthetic approach of this film.  This isn’t an attempt to duplicate reality but to create an experience of the film in itself.

Although fragmented, the work does try to convey a sense of people as individuals with lives beyond what is captured in the frame.  While their images do constitute the aesthetic material of the work it is my intention to imply lives lived beyond that are much greater than the framing of this film.  Their presence gives some dimension to the abstract concepts of the different ways to say you but the clear boundaries of the inner frame indicate the limits of these representations.  It is my hope that they don’t simply stand in as archetypes to represent a word.  Through their looking back and engagement with the viewer through the device of the camera I hope to denote their particularity and unique humanity.

The combination of a few, basic English phrases, my fairly sketchy grasp of Khmer and the process of filming prompted many exchanges and the gift of time in halting conversation. Using a standard definition pro-sumer video camera, filming took place with the small in-built LCD most often turned towards the subjects.  This enabled me to capture the looking back of subjects as they are both watching themselves and returning the unblinking stare of the camera.  However, this wasn’t a longitudinal filming process associated with an ethnographic methodology.  These are brief glimpses and fragments accumulated over a three and a half week period of independent travel through Cambodia.  So while the material may have an observational appearance, the container or structure of the work reflects the fragmentary nature of the experience. These are snapshots rather than detailed studies.  Nonetheless they are moments of significance, instances of impact drawn out from their quotidian context for closer examination.  There also remains a sense of time unfolding through the work with a languid flow to the pacing created through long dissolves, slowed footage and a feeling of lingering on moments of quotidian beauty.  Time is also spent with people, situations and otherwise passing instances as a way to explore how they might connect with the title word of each section.

My creative practice in making How many ways to say you, is a key part of my research.  Through my research I am interested to expand the range of what constitutes knowledge in a documentary context.  I want to advocate for the importance of conveying experience and the role that an aestheticised approach has in offering up that experience in a way that encourages audience connection.  In many ways this means that I am working at the edges of what might properly be considered documentary.  I am exploiting the use of actuality to establish documentary credentials.  I am playing around with issues of indexicality to see how far I can push it before the connection with the real is weakened to the point of loss.  I am drawing on materials from the world to conjure something of the experience and the emotion of an encounter.  I am trying to embed theory, ideas and concerns in the very way that I treat and approach the material.  I am working to generate a practice that addresses issues in an essayistic way.  It is a tentative approach that acknowledges complexity, difference, difficulty, lack, insufficiency and incompleteness.  I’m interested in the territory of documentary that doesn’t seek to be an expert witness but that can engage with serious issues nonetheless.  It is my contention that this combination is possible through a poetic approach to documentary.

[i]^ Carson, A. 2000,Men in the off hours, A. A. Knopf, New York.
[ii]^ ibid
[iii] ^ See for a discussion of this somewhat nebulous concept.
[iv] ^ By the same token it was also important to acknowledge moments where I needed to put the camera aside and be present, letting my memory be the record rather than have a recorded image become my memory.
[v] ^ Among the criticisms, charges of ‘visualism’ has seen observational work come to signify “a distanced, disembodied, controlling gaze that objectified human subjects and denied them agency and history” (Grimshaw, A. & Ravetz, A. 2009, ‘Rethinking observational cinema’, JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL ANTHROPOLOGICAL INSTITUTE, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 538-56.)
[vi] ^Huygens, I. 2007, ‘Deleuze and Cinema:  Moving Images and Movements of Thought’, Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], no. 18, viewed 21/05/2012,

Documentary Polyptychs: Multi-Screen Video Art on a Theme of Climate Change

Provocation by Adam Sébire

Recently I happened upon a field of study called counterfactual history: it asks questions such as what if the Nazis had won World War II; or Al Gore the US Presidency; or Archduke Ferdinand the 1914 Eurovision Song Contest; etc. But if we undertook a counterfactual history of cinema, we might be tempted to ask questions such as, what if projection had been standardised within a circular, rather than a rectangular frame? What if cinema was dominated by animation (today, CGI) while live action films were relegated to the status of a novelty for kids? What if holography had become viable before 3D? What if that which Lev Manovich calls spatial montage — simultaneous depiction of multiple separate events within a space, dominant in representational art for so many centuries in forms from frescoes to tapestries — had remained ascendant over the linear narratives of cinema and novels? And, in tandem with that, what if multiple screens had become the norm in cinemas and homes alike, whilst single screen cinema with its rituals of fixed seating, darkened auditoria and classical montage became the sole preserve of contemporary art galleries with their other strange pretensions?

As a documentary maker, the majority of my work ends up on small screens, often received distractedly, or at worst passively. Documentary which makes it to the cinema undoubtedly enjoys a more engaged experience. Yet it insists its spectators sit quietly immobilised at a pre-ordained time in order to watch the filmmakers interpret reality for them within a single, framed window-on-the-world. It’s a strong rhetorical and aesthetic strategy, but increasingly one from another era.

Documentary film & video art installations exhibited across configurations of multiple screens — diptychs, triptychs and so on — are becoming increasingly common. They actively position their viewing visitors as editors, between screen-images, asking them to create meaning in space and in time, to question both what is shown and what is positioned outside or between the frames. Such polyptychs can represent multiple perspectives on the same aspect of reality. They are less strait-jacketed by narrative demands and can be more transparent in their construction.

I might, for example, challenge the broadcast conventions that require I deliver a documentary of exactly fifty-two minutes’ duration by running my interviews unedited on multiple screens throughout a space. Or I might use one screen reflexively to expose the artifice underlying the images on the others: think of Isaac Julien laying bare green-screen techniques in his extraordinary Ten Thousand Waves which ran across nine screens and 9.2 channels of audio at the Biennale of Sydney in 2010.

Installation view of Ten Thousand Waves (2010) by Isaac Julien

Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves (2010). 9-channel 35mm film transferred to HD. 9.2 surround sound. 49mins 41sec.
Installation view, Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai. Photograph: Adrian Zhou.

Documentary polyptychs insist that the visitor navigate their own channels between multiple streams of audio and imagery: they must choose where to look or to move, and what associations to make between simultaneous aural and visual elements that may initially appear dissociated. That is to say, they must ‘perform’ their own spatial montage. A visitor required to think around an idea — to make their own autonomous connections — comes away with concepts they’ve constructed, at least in part, themselves. This is quite a different proposition to being presented with a linear argument by means of an editor’s single-channel montage. Certainly, polyptychal filmmakers need to accept a loosened grip on their rhetorical tillers, but the trade-off for documentary with a social agenda comes if this can provoke in the visitor heightened or affective engagement with multi-faceted issues — such as climate change.

Documentary polyptychs offer models for the creation and reception of ideas which are both responsive to, and build upon, the ubiquity of electronic windows and screens in contemporary visual culture, as well as the emergence of new participatory modes. This culture bombards us with fragmented, multiplied and mobile imagery. Yet multi-channel gallery installations can provide a contemplative space rarely found in other media; perhaps even time for the ‘pensiveness’ that Roland Barthes felt was missing in the cinema.

Spatial montage challenges the dominance of ‘cause and effect’ in single-channel narrative cinema; it can be open, looping, unresolved. As documentary filmmaking delights in the revelations of ‘life caught unawares’ so the juxtaposition of images in a polyptych — particularly if each screen is on a loop of a different length — can create epiphanies unique to each viewing visitor.

The polyptych’s visitors search for commonalities, differences and dependencies in the subject matter. Within the immersive affect of multiple event streams they may perceive temporal and spatial relationships physically. They are thus implicated; almost forced to take sides. Passivity is not an option. An installation demands the viewer splice images to create meaning, or more powerfully still, splice themselves between images. Writes Peter Weibel: “The spectator slowly becomes part of the system he observes.”

All this does not come without qualifications of course! Leaving aside the manifold problems of exhibition in a gallery space, on which many a critique exists, multi-screen installation artists sometimes rue the transient level of visitors’ engagement with their work. The temptation to keep on walking when confronted with something confusing, or which refuses to tell a linear story, or which challenges the visitor’s preconceptions, can be high. Polyptychal documentary needs to ‘unfold’ over time; it cannot be perceived instantly as a whole. It demands engagement. In return, the visitor expects intelligent use of the form: the subject matter and ideas need to have a raison d’être as multiple screens. Gratuitous multiplicity for the sake of mere spectacle is easily dismissed by the visitor.

All that is solid melts into air (2008) Mark Boulos

Mark Boulos: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2008). Two-channel video (colour, sound), 15 min.
Courtesy the artist and Galerie Diana Stigter, Amsterdam. © 2012 Mark Boulos.

Mark Boulos’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2008) is a brilliant documentary diptych on commodity fetishism. The viewer is positioned between two worlds which though removed from oil materially, deal with it conceptually in their own ways: one screen shows oil futures traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange; the other represents members of a revolutionary army fighting to rid their lands in the Niger Delta of exploitative multinational oil companies. Boulos describes it as a phenomenological work, in contradistinction to the evidential modes more often associated with documentary. Its powerful dialectic derives from its simultaneous, bipolar juxtaposition of two separate but interconnected worlds.

The challenge I have set myself in the second year of my MFA is to develop a poetics of documentary polyptychs suited to addressing another set of interconnected phenomena: sea level rise due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

The possibilities opened up by multi-screen documentary will provide a formal framework to examine the disconnect between the way we live our lives and the effects of our actions upon our environment. At the heart of climate change as a problem lies dissociation: of cause from effect, of today’s action from tomorrow’s result, of behaviour here from outcome there, and more fundamentally, of human beings from Nature. Largely estranged from the effects of climate, cocooned by air-conditioning, we find its variances easier to ignore. There is perhaps a fundamental flaw in humans — evolved as we are for flight, fight or freeze responses — that makes dealing with threats that are geographically displaced, or imperceptible, or which become apparent only years hence, so paralysingly problematic.

This is where we need a new take on the prosthetic kino-eye of Dziga Vertov’s The Man With The Movie Camera (1929) — and perhaps to add a kino-ear! — to enhance our perception of the world. (I suspect Vertov would have embraced multiple screens, if his pioneering use of the split screen is any indication.) How else to comprehend a problem that is planetary, when we can only experience the ‘local’? To make apparent the time spans of climate change, imperceptible in quotidian existence? To apprehend the effects of our invisible gas emissions?

Documentary polyptychs offer a powerful formal model with which to explore the binaries, correlates and incompatibilities posed by climate change. Immersion and involvement can drive audience connection. And an emotional connection to environmental risk — which scientists’ graphs have, so far, struggled to engage — is something we could do with urgently.