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.