This short essay was written in about 2008 and has been languishing unpublished ever since. I have the intention of expanding it to include a discussion of William Raban’s film MMX (2010), since both have a number of features in common, most notably the deployment of a combination of variable rate time-lapse with incremental camera movements. If anyone knows a publisher who might be interested…
This essay was commissioned by Media City Film Festival, Windsor, Ontario and was originally published in abbreviated form in Sequence journal issue no.1, published by No.w.here, 2010.
I have decided to post a number of previously unpublished essays, or ones that have been previously published, but in significantly abbreviated form. Medium Practices, posted below, is the first of these. More will follow when I have gathered the images together for them. Click on the title to open as PDF.
Duncan Campbell’s 55 minute Turner Prize winning film It For Others begins with a long section consisting of static black and white shots of ‘African’ masks. A monologue describes the way the ‘western eye’ has misread these objects as artworks, appropriated them as commodities, in general violated their being in a manner that symbolizes the west’s exploitative relationship with Africa. The decontextualisation of these artifacts goes hand in hand with their transformation into commodities, their commodifiability. All this is well-known, so Campbell is merely rehearsing familiar knowledge in a work he claims is an essay film. The voice-over is certainly monotonously didactic in its mode of address, yet produces no new knowledge as one might expect of an essay film: it has the air of a scholarly essay but lacks any real scholarship. The arguments it rehearses constitute little more than a very basic overview cum primer in post-colonialism, imperialism, the ransacking of other cultures for profit, the culture of the IRA, the pricing of artworks, the unreliability of history and other topics.
On the other hand, it is stated that, for example, ‘without the influence of a number of enlightenment philosophers…Nigeria would have had a very different constitution or perhaps none at all’, without saying how or why this would come to be. Thus the monologue is on one level simplistic, but on another hopelessly cursory: lacking in explanatory detail and hence in effect mystificatory. The film is strewn with such mystifications, assertions in want of expansion and explanation, but this is unsurprising, indeed inevitable, given the range and complexity of the topics canvassed in such a short time. Campbell states his film is inspired by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s film Statues also Die (1953), which it resembles superficially in the way one or two of the masks are filmed. However, Statues speculates in detail on what these images might mean to a modern French black person, and on what we can know about what the objects might have meant in their own time and the limits to what kind of understanding we can have of them now. In other words Resnais/Marker establish a dialectical relationship with their material, which is considered in its specificity, in detail, in contrast to Campbell’s film, in which the artifacts function as place-holders, fulfilling a generic, illustrative role, by virtue of the fact that the soundtrack talks in abstractions and generalities around the objects as examples of commodified artifacts, and does not address them in their specificity. Statues, by contrast, concerns itself with issues proper to the experience of trying to understand artifacts from other cultures, and this is where it functions as an effective art-discourse. It is not that it is anti or un-scholarly, but simply it asks the viewer to ask the kind of question that anyone might ask about such things.
The objects, presumably Nigerian -though the film doesn’t make this explicit- are filmed in isolation against a black backdrop, and lit so as to show them starkly, dramatically even, in the manner of a venerable TV cultural programme. Thus, ironically, the manner in which they are presented as images perpetuates precisely the attitudes criticised in the voice-over, which is that the de-contextualisation of artifacts renders them into mysterious and exotic commodities by wrenching them from the culture in which they had their original meaning and function, investing them thereby with exchange value. Campbell offers no auto-critique of the way in which he has represented the bronzes, such as Godard might have done, for example. Thus the authorial voice of the artist and his editorial decisions are not themselves subjected to the critique that is offered in the voice-over: the images remain unquestioned, as self-evidently sufficient, the objects as ‘timeless’ and ‘beautiful’.
In the second section, Michael Clark’s company perform a dance, shot from high overhead, also in high contrast black and white. The choreographic moves are based on theories of the commodity and are designed to illustrate them. Marx devoted several hundred pages of Capital to analyzing how commodities are formed, how they embody value in the form of materials and labour-time, how, through circulation, they accrue exchange value and how that value can fluctuate according to external forces, so how a short dance sequence can add anything to or elucidate any of this is questionable, especially as the most crucial values in a commodity are invisible, such as monetary values, which are not formal features of the commodity as such. In Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov exposed the invisible labour embodied in a commodity by literally showing workers making things, finished examples of which are then shown being consumed. Campbell’s dance sequence, by contrast, uses ‘formulae’ from Capital to generate a choreographic score, in much the same way that a star map was used to generate the musical score for John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis (1961-2), for example, but if one wants really to understand Marx’s theories of the commodity, one is better off reading Capital which is a lucid, if long, read: the dance sequence is about as much use to a student of Marxist theory as Cage’s music would be to the crew of a space ship.
In the third section of his film Campbell offers an animatic of containers for shampoo, ketchup, perfume, cleaning fluids and other products; plastic and glass bottles with faces on them: the human side of the commodity? Its attempt at endearing itself to its buyer? There are potentially interesting possibilities in the exploration of this phenomenon, but Campbell opts, instead, for a soundtrack of drumming. In the final sections the debate widens, from offering guidance on how artworks are valued financially according to size and materials, and some reflections on the unreliability of history, via archive footage of IRA marches, and in the example of the way in which revolutionary images –Che Guavara’s head being the most infamous- become commodified: the commodification of everything.
Like a lot of contemporary artist filmmakers, Campbell seems not to be content with making art that is proper to its own field of enquiry, conducted in a discourse that is its own and not borrowed from other disciplines or cultural forms. It is apparently necessary to take on big non-art topics, complex theories and fields of study with their own histories, trajectories, protocols and standards of scholarship. That the artist can enter these fields –of anthropology, history, political-economy etc- and make a meaningful contribution is as presumptuous as it is pervasive, particularly in the area of artists’ film and video. At the same time the work produced is often artistically conservative: conventional and impoverished. The visual language of the various sections of Campbell’s film can be summed up in a few words; pre-colour BBC TV arts documentary, post-modern dance forms with a distant ancestry in Busby Berkeley’s abstracting camera style, 3D animatic work of found objects (a notable and superior antecedent being Paul Bush’s While Darwin Sleeps (2004) a similar film, though of insects) and the ubiquitous ‘archive footage’. In themselves these forms can be exciting, but Campbell does nothing new with them, and their efficacy is diminished by their serving as illustrations to inadequately explicated concepts, presented on a soundtrack that is itself deeply conservative; uni-vocal, authoritarian, non-discursive and non-reflexive.
Very sad to report that Al Rees, educator and writer on artists’/experimental film and video, died on November. 28th Al studied philosophy and politics at Lancaster University. He became interested in experimental film through visits in the 1960s to Better Books and subsequently the Arts Lab and the London Filmmakers’ Co-op. After David Hall’s retirement in 1988 (David also died recently), he ran the Time Based Media course at the newly created Kent Institute of Art and Design, Maidstone, from which numerous graduates have made careers in film and video, both as artists and commercially, and in related areas. Al was a rigorous tutor, and Crits would often last all day, running into the evening, with only a short lunch break. Students were expected to discuss and defend their work in detail. The experience was often grueling, but most came to appreciate how much they learned in the process. In 1996 Al moved to the school of Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art, to become Research Tutor there. He had put in very long hours at Maidstone and was frustrated by the lack of understanding and support among management. At the RCA he successfully supervised many MPhil and PhD projects, several in the growing area of ‘practice based’ projects, about which he had misgivings, but was always supportive of the students doing them. Al had a vast and detailed knowledge of C20 culture, embracing philosophy, politics, history, critical theory, Fine Art and music, as well as cinema history and theory, which he had taught as a visiting lecturer in a number of art schools around the country (and in which he had begun an uncompleted MA at the RCA previous to joining the staff there). The learning was worn lightly, and one would sometimes be surprised by unsuspected areas of knowledge, as when, walking down Queensgate one evening, he identified a rare Lamborghini: Al didn’t drive but it turned out he knew a lot about cars. He was very good at spotting, or rather defining, trends. One of his recent bugbears was what he called ‘cultural studies’ art: art, often film, which picks ready-made references and cultural phenomena and forms them into an undigested melange that usually fails critically to transform or examine its own constitution or status. He blamed this trend on the way cultural studies and so-called theory has replaced the teaching of art history among other things. Al published many essays and book chapters, but will be best remembered for his A History of Experimental Film and Video, which has been through two editions and many reprints since it was first published by the BFI in 1999. Its breadth and detail attest to his vast knowledge. Al was a wonderful, loyal friend, mentor and colleague: supportive, argumentative, acerbic and funny. He will be missed by the many generations of students he taught, as well as by friends, colleagues and admirers and not least Angela Allen, his partner, also a highly knowledgeable teacher and wonderful painter. Between the two of them they once effortlessly convinced me why Lucien Freud was not the great painter that most critics take him to be.
The sculptor, video artist and educator David Hall has died. He started the Film Video Sound course at Maidstone College of Art as it then was, and on which I later taught, albeit after David had taken early retirement due to ill health. David designed a sequence of brilliant first year projects, for the first two of which the students had to make time-based work without the use of technology. David made some of the most iconic and rigorous video art ever, including the TV Interruptions for Scottish TV in 1971, which established a template for subsequent such works, and which set the bar very high indeed. In 2012, at Ambika P3 gallery, he realised a magnificent 1,000 TV version of his earlier piece, 101 TV Sets, originally made for Gallery House (now the Goethe Institute) in 1972. http://www.davidhallart.com/
This essay was written in 2012 for a booklet to accompany the re-issue of a lost LP originally created in 1978 by CCMC, including Michael Snow on piano and trumpet, and John Oswald on alto saxophone. Because lack of funds prevented publication of the booklet I am publishing it here. Since it was intended primarily for distribution in North America, some terminology reflects that, ie the us of the word ‘faucet’ instead of ‘tap’
Claps and Bangs: Film, sound and synch.
In the 1980s, when working as an assistant film editor at the BBC, I came across a hand-written text that a colleague had attached to the wall of one of the corporation’s 120 film cutting rooms. Entitled The Beaufort Synch Scale, after the famous wind scale of the same name, this terse document defined degrees of loss of sync, from one to ten. The first level, corresponding to “smoke rises vertically” on Beaufort’s scale, was “stiff upper lip”, followed by level two: “loose lower lip” and so on. The tenth level (Beaufort’s “very widespread damage to vegetation”) was defined as “wrong film”. The Beaufort Synch Scale memorialized the perpetual and often ingenious struggle undertaken by film editors and their assistants to keep picture and sound in synchronisation, a consequence of the fact that in traditional film editing, picture and sound are recorded on separate media -celluloid film and its magnetically coated equivalent respectively- and remain thus until the final stage of the process, when a “married” print conjoins the two on a single strip of celluloid via a series of intermediate processes. Interestingly, “stiff upper lip” could be the product of the sound being slightly early, whereas most subsequent degrees of loss assume lateness of sound. This possibility points to another way in which film does not correspond to nature, where sound is always late relative to vision. (It has been a common practice of editors to synchronise the sound of explosions filmed from a distance when in reality the sound would follow some time after the image).
Wojciech Bruszewski’s Match Box (aka Audio Visual Experiment) (35mm, B&W, sound, 1975) is one of a small number of films that manipulates the synchronisation of sound and picture precisely to structure an experience of duration. In a broad sense sound plays some such role in most films, however, not all films give us such a direct, somatic experience as Match Box, in which the drift in synchronization between sound and picture engenders palpable physical-mental tensions in a particularly focused and acute manner. The film consists of two alternating, repeating shots described by its maker thus:
“1. A hand tapping a matchbox on the window-sill with the tap itself coming right in the middle of the take (90 frames).
2. An incomplete view of the window (30 frames).
The repeatable section of the picture (take 1+2) remains constant and lasts for 5 seconds (120 frames).
The repeatable stretch of sound, in which apart from the tap there is silence, is 5,O833 second long (122 frames). With each repetition of the action the sound falls behind the picture by another 0,083 seconds. This means that if in the first audio-visual variant the tapping is synchronous, the next synchronous tap will occur in variant 61” (1).
Thus the picture moves –rotates- forwards, while the sound moves in the opposite direction, shifting incrementally until it arrives back in synch after five minutes, at which point the film ends. The work’s efficacy turns on the contrast between its absolute structural transparency and the autonomic responses it stimulates and focuses, responses similar to those experienced when engrossed in a narrative movie.
As the sound in Matchbox starts to lag behind the picture, it feels as if it is still being generated by the box-tapping hand, but at a distance in time. One has the sense of there being a causal delay, or rather it feels that that is what one wants to impel: one strains to keep the causal link alive, well past any point of rationality. Next, a rhythm emerges between the box hitting the surface -the bang- and the cut to the window-sill, a rhythm composed of equally spaced image events with the sound event halfway between them; box tap, sound, cut-to-window-sill. This lasts for a short while, to be gradually replaced by the sound moving into conjunction with the picture cut. Once one realises that this is going to happen, a strong urge, a sense of anticipation, or alternatively, a willing for the sound to move forward, to accelerate so as to synchronise with the picture-cut, takes hold. This is eventually satisfied, yet it is an irrational satisfaction because the bang and the cut don’t naturally belong together, obviously. Even when the bang is in its rightful place, as generated by the box hitting the table, synch is only a function of framing: for synch to occur in a film or video, it’s necessary for us to see the event that generates the sound. As soon as picture and sound recording devices are spatially separated by even a few feet, synch is effectively lost, not because of the difference in speed between sound and light, but because the camera is no longer looking at what the microphone is recording. Godard demonstrates the way synch sound becomes effectively non-diegetic, and vice versa, in the Mozart farmyard chapter of Weekend (1968). In his film Videotape with Bicycle Sound (8’, colour, sound, video, 2001) the English filmmaker Colin Crockatt records himself on video setting off on a bicycle equipped with a mini-disc recorder. As soon as he leaves the frame –the camera is left behind on its tripod to film the park in front of it- the sound goes out of sync. Or does it? Insofar as camera and sound recorder are recording at the same time and broadly the same location, picture and sound could be said to be in synch, or at least contemporaneously conjoined, but in terms of cinematic conventions synch is lost, simply because the camera isn’t pointing at the source of the sounds on the soundtrack. This situation persists until Crockatt arrives back in frame at the very end of the video (2). Tim Bruce’s little-known precursor to this film Underground Movie (, 12′, 16mm, b&w, sound, 1973) rehearses a similar strategy. A cameraman (the film-maker John Smith) films inside a London Underground train. We hear what we take to be synch sound, but which doesn’t consistently fit the visual environment. Eventually a sound recordist with a Nagra tape recorder –Tim Bruce- steps onto the train, approaches the camera and taps the end of the microphone to create a definitive synch point, before walking away.
“Cutting on the beat”, which occurs twice in Match Box at the points where there is a cut to the window sill and a cut back, is considered by editors to be a dreadful filmmaking cliché, but that dread evidences a resistance to the strong desire for the mutually reinforcing integration of sound and image. Match Box, though, supersedes the cliché, or overhauls it, since the two points at which it occurs are integral moments in a continuous structure that is non-hierarchical in form but highly uneven as an experience.
One wants to stabilise and regulate certain rhythmic conjunctions or disjunctions, even though any given such moments only occur strictly once. However we seem to will certain rhythms to continue for several repetitions, and this says something about how we struggle to manage the material by ordering it into phases or stages. What we should do is surrender completely to the constantly drifting sync events, in which case the experience becomes disconcertingly ineffable.
The point in Match Box at which the bang synchronises with the cut to the window-sill arguably fits the definition of “wrong film”: the two events, though not entirely unrelated, do not belong together in any natural, causal sense, but that doesn’t weaken our sensation of there being a causal connection: the cut seems to cause the bang, or is it vice versa? This moment in the film illustrates Hume’s sceptical admonishments regarding our strong disposition to attribute causal connections to events that coincide with or succeed one another where there is no empirical evidence to warrant such an attribution.
The sound in Match Box is as much a music track as it is documentary sound, and its rhythmic beat connects it to the Sink section of Michael Snow’s film Rameau’s Nephew. In Sink, Snow drums with his hands on an empty sink (3). After a while he drops a plug into the plug-hole and turns on the faucet, continuing to drum as the water fills the sink to the very top, at which point he is splashing in shallow water, resulting in a kind of miniature version of kicking through waves. He then pulls the plug and continues to drum as the water empties out. In their discussion of this section of the film, Ivora Cusack and Stéfani de Loppinot focus on word play –sink / synch- and correspondences between the world and language, and between image and language: “The faucet figures language in many regards: a liquid flows out of it, just as language and its sound cascade from the mouth” (4). One could add: “pulling the plug” in a metaphorical sense: Snow pulls the plug on the sequence at its mid-point, after which its conclusion is inevitable. The water drains away like sand through an hour glass, and time runs out for the film. Conversely, the sound’s resonance increases as the quantity of water decreases: less is more, or rather, more air equates with more sound. This symmetry though is unbalanced in a sonic sense, because the sound of the sink filling is loud and splashy, whereas the emptying is much quieter, apart from the odd gurgle. Overall, in musical terms, there is a diminuendo, a splashy middle section, then a crescendo. This is just one of many symmetries in the film. The water, as well as changing the resonance of the sink contributes another sound to the mix, and comes close to dominating at the point where the sink is full. This mix is like a slow dissolve, but built in to the situation, arising organically from it.
Sound rises from the sink, amplified by its highly resonant volume. Evidently the sink is made from something like fiberglass or thickly coated steel, but not porcelain, and not stainless steel either, which sounds a lot less “dry” than fiberglass. Snow enacts a primitive musical event, using the most natural of beaters –human hands- and a mass-produced, but primitive, resonating body –the sink (5). The latter is rectangular, and its proportions correspond quite closely to the aspect ratio of the film frame: 1: 1.33, corresponding to 3 x 4 in video parlance. Furthermore our angle of view on the sink is similar to Snow’s, so that a kind of symmetrical relationship is established between his extended hands and our directed gaze, which is drawn around the perimeter of the sink by Snow’s hand movements as he drums on its four edges. Curiously, the sink’s design is such that its apparently shorter sides align with the frame’s longer, horizontal ones, and while the sink is symmetrically centred in the frame, the composition as a whole is asymmetrical, with part of the draining board visible to our left and a wooden work surface on the right. The faucet extends into the frame from the bottom left area at a 45° angle, aligning diagonally with, and indicating, a different symmetry, that of the square within the frame’s rectangle (the “1” part of the 1: 1.33 aspect ratio). The sink, which resembles a drum in some important respects, becomes one, in the act of being so used. One could also think of it as a Foley artist’s tool: if one were to put the sound to the image of rain beating on a tar-paper roof, it would be hard to identify its true source.
Thus two essential components of a musical instrument, a sound generator and an amplifying device, are present in an absolutely transparent form. However, where most musical instruments contain these two elements, which are then manipulated by a third element, the performer’s hands, here the hands are both the means with which the “instrument” is played and the source of the sound itself, in the same sense as pizzicato string playing. From this perspective, then, there is a kind of short-circuit, or rather the performer and the instrument are one and the same in part, or rather, the instrument, like the synch sound, only exists at the moment of their conjunction. The instrument is virtual or potential, and unique at every occasion on which it is played: another sink and pair of hands, another instrument. The same applies to the space in which the performance takes place, since that is also a resonating body. The microphones and their placement introduce further levels of variability into the sonic outcome. Thus, from a simple event, transparent in its technological means and mode of execution, a complex of sonic possibilities becomes apparent. Hi-fi
enthusiasts are obsessed, if not distressed, by these variables. Entire houses have been rewired with oxygen-free copper or even more exotic materials, components cryogenically treated, and, specifically, listening rooms populated with sound absorbing objects in order to “tune” the space, to prevent it from contributing its own resonances to those of the recording, much as cinema auditoria are draped in sound-absorbing materials.
Sink’s resistance to this neurotic culture is embodied in the sound of the water, which in a sense interferes with the drumming sound. Its presence is necessary to affect the change in timbre but at the same time it imparts its own character on the total sound of the work. This is consistent with the work’s transparency of means, an ethic shared by both the films discussed here: no process may be introduced that does not inscribe its own contribution to the overall process into the work.
- I discuss this film and related ones in my book Film Art Phenomena (BFI, 2003), pages 167-177.
- Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Denis Young) by Wilma Schoen by Michael Snow, 16mm colour film, 266 minutes, 1970-74.
- Ivora Cusack and Stéfani de Loppinot, trans. Pip Chodorov: Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Denis Young) by Wilma Schoen by Michael Snow, accompanying book to the Revoir VHS edition of the film, 2002, Paris: Exploding, pages 45-46.
- Steve Reich composed Clapping Music, for two pairs of hands, in 1972, right in the middle of the production period of Rameau’s Nephew.