Markéta Uhlířová: Restriction – Power of Vision

Markéta Uhlířová: Restriction – Power of Vision         1.3.2000

The camera makes no distinction between important and unimportant, characteristic and uncharacteristic, it records reality in an egalitarian manner, not distinguishing the necessary from the random. [1]

Keaton’s Cops (1991) by the American Avant-Garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs, 24 Hour Psycho (1993) by the Scottish-born artist Douglas Gordon and After the Assassination (1998) by the Czech artist Filip Cenek are three works of 1990s that offer some interesting insights when juxtaposed to each other. These three contemporary works, realized in three different media of moving image – respectively in film, video installation and single channel video – all recycle films in order to deliberately transform their syntax. Such an act of appropriating [2] film – removing it from its creators and re-inventing it – raises various questions about the character of authorship and originality but perhaps more remarkably, about the implications of unlocking film from the conventions of the classical paradigm.

Created in the 1990s, the three works discussed here can be readily classified with respect to postmodernist photography, video, film and other art practice as a shift from production to reproduction, a shift from revelation to discourse. [3] Although they all employ the already made and already consumed, and thus inevitably perform an analysis of film representation as well as institution, their backgrounds and interests are different. Emphasizing the aspect of postmodernity may therefore prove to be reductive rather than instrumental in dealing with works that do not share the same departure points or cultural context.

Ken Jacobs comes out of the “New American Cinema”. In his work, he is very much concerned with the purity of the aesthetic image while, like other Avant-Garde filmmakers, referring back to modernist painting. Douglas Gordon is an artist whose strategies are associated with the late 1980s generation of British artists known as “YBAs”. In his more complex art production, video is used together with photography and language as a tongue-in-cheek take on of the mainstream culture - a commentary on its mediated realities. Filip Cenek, [4] on the other hand, is an emerging artist presently unknown in the international scene. Unlike Gordon, he does not use classic imagery that is internationally recognizable. Instead, he chooses to work with culturally specific images that provide him with equally rewarding material base for inspecting the canons and structural conventions of film. The reason for drawing parallels between these works is to create a conceptual space, in which they can inform and play off each other in aspects that I will attempt to tie back to what Sitney called the “cinema of structure”. [5]

In Keaton’s Cops, Jacobs rediscovers the footage of Buster Keaton’s silent film of 1922 by the gesture of rephotographing its full length and re-screening it in a theatrical mode of exhibition. The introductory pattern, in which a girl commands him to succeed in the business world, sets the pattern. As a result of Jacobs’s intervention, however, the viewer is denied further information of the full screen and with it the narrative structures and gags of the original farce are lost. The visual field is restricted to a mere x bottom strip and the rest of the screen is left black and vacant. This plain tableau, confining the informational film frame to a minority, creates a somewhat iconoclast experience, which is, in fact, further echoed by Jacobs’s minimalist intervention in his found footage. This gentle, yet radical shift that Jacobs performs is no less witty than what actually remains visible of the moving image.

In this new regime, the viewer’s eye is re-oriented from the whole to the detail, which is now almost entirely purged of the mimetic original. What remains visible in such a de-centralized space is the foreground “sub-stage”, at times empty, at times defined by walking, marching or running boots, horses’ legs and shoes, carriage wheels, heads or body-fragments. All these marginal fragments, which would otherwise be in subordinate roles to the objects and scenes in their whole, suddenly gain the ultimate importance in the viewer’s process of creating meaning. Such an activity may turn into a challenging sensory experience. What is evoked is not Keaton’s Cops but instead the genre of silent film comedy with its theatricality. In Jacobs’s Keaton’s Cops, which declares filmic material as stripped of its story-telling function, we feel nostalgia for the spontaneity and exhibitionism of the pre-Hollywood era, with its own distinctive norms, models and designations.

Whereas Jacobs delves deep into the forgotten treasures of the archival film footage of the beginning of the 20th century and reminds us of their beauty, Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1995) is a slowed-down frame-by-frame archeological excavation of a famous Hollywood film. Gordon’s choice to return, together with Hitchcock, to the spectacular aesthetics of the 1950s filmic representation is hardly surprising: Psycho represents a perfect example of an archetypal psychodrama inevitably inscribed in the American as well as European collective memory.

One day of Psycho… A concept that may at first seem to be a witty commentary; a postmodern take on a piece of  “popular culture”, becomes a compelling experience of time, image, movement and finally, film itself.  What happens to a dramatic film when it is diluted to 24 hours, made silent and mounted as a large-screen video installation in an art gallery? What happens to the participation of audience, whose potential to identify themselves with the characters is crucial for any drama? Hitchcock, notoriously known for his capacity to control spectators’ emotions, virtually loses his directorial power as his film turns into a close inspection of its individual “photogrammes” [6] and the material of its construction replaces the original narrative logic. It is not only transformed image, however, that results in 24 Hour Psycho’s emotional vacuum. As Richard Flood has observed: “The absence of sound in Gordon’s film turns out to be a major formal asset.” [7] We realize that in Hitchcock’s film it is not the dialogue but Bernard Herrmann’s forceful music soundtrack that most successfully triggers restlessness and apprehensive expectations in audiences.

The time portrayed in 24 Hour Psycho is strikingly reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s experiments with filming steady objects such as sleepers or architecture in real-time. Only extravagant spectators will claim to watch these works from beginning to end; the rest will be happy to get absorbed long enough to acknowledge a change in perception or “get the gist” of the work. Nonetheless, Gordon and Warhol do not only arrive at a provocative time score that enormously exceeds the classic feature length standard. More importantly, both artists present a spectacle that obviously lacks in action, a director’s management or, indeed, in any creative intervention of the artist’s persona. Like in Michael Snow’s Wavelength, the new routine allows the viewer’s eye to move freely across the image-frame and examine its details with a changed awareness.

In 24 Hour Psycho, every shot is “blown up” and, consequently, every detail, previously unnoticed, gains unprecedented significance. The seduction of Hitchcock’s unusual camera angles and points of view, his surprise effects and the psychology of his characters all give way to animated film stills that allow the viewer time to analyze the settings, the movement of the camera, the artificiality of the characters’ expressions and their interactions.

Like Keaton’s Cops and 24 Hour Psycho, Cenek’s title acknowledges the work’s original film material: Jiri Sequens’ Assassination (1964). Cenek re-makes a film remembered mostly by those generations of Czechoslovak television audience living or growing up under the communist regime. In this piece of  “official culture”, the artist operates with a relatively fresh memory of the film’s context, one that deeply affects his nation’s and his community’s sense of identity. [8] It is in this sense that After the Assassination is much more private than Psycho. In his video, the artist limits all his attention to the five opening shots of Sequens’s film and re-works them digitally into three two-minute sections. Cenek’s camera restlessly moves around an interior setting, across close-ups of furniture, kitchen objects and body-parts belonging to several figures engaged in a dramatic debate. A number of other images that the camera rapidly shows are hardly distinguishable by the viewer’s eye.

Perhaps the most vital aspect, which makes Cenek’s work fundamentally different from Jacobs’ and Gordon’s is the presence of sound and its role to control meaning. The sound becomes particularly important in those blind areas where we are not given full access to the Sequens’s psychologically constructed drama. The position of figures around the table, their stressed gestures and agitated body-language become extremely elusive as they flip back and forth between the portrayed and the imaginary: we can mostly grasp them through their hands, clothes or briefly by their talking heads and bodies. Instead of the image, it is the conversation, psychologized by silence filled with the sound of pacing shoes, a person’s shouting or gasping that is key for our understanding of the drama.

These subtle alterations become exceptionally poignant in the case of  Sequens’s “fictional documentary”, which is in fact an attempt at accurate re-construction of one of the most traumatic moments in the Czechoslovak history during the 2nd World War. [9] Sequens’s somewhat pompous realism manipulates audiences’ emotions as much as his skillful build-up of tension throughout the narrative, the characters’ speech, their expressions and movements. By means of re-framing the given material in Adobe After Effects, Cenek arrived at three versions of one film fragment that all appear subtly different visually, yet not aurally. It is the sound that forms a consistent background, an area of intersection which ties the three segments back  together and reminds us that they are all, in fact, the very same scene.

“I have a problem with the word appropriation. I think ‘homage’ would be a better word." [10]

Keaton’s Cops, 24 Hour Psycho and After the Assassination appropriate films, either in part of in full, to re-fabricate their meanings. Appropriation has been defined as a conscious use of material (images and sound in case of film) that derives from sources outside the work. To appropriate an image (or sound) in this sense is to incorporate it intentionally into the context of one’s own body of work. [11] Such strategy of direct quotation is most often associated with the discussions about authorship and representation in postmodernism. According to Hal Foster,

"It (postmodernist art) may steal types and images in an “appropriation” that is critical-both of a culture in which images are commodities and of an aesthetic practice that holds (nostalgically) to an art of originality. And yet, can a critique be articulated within the very forms under critique? Again, yes: how else could it be articulated? Such a critique, however, cannot hope to displace these forms; at best, it indicts them as “mythological” and stresses the need to think and represent otherwise." [12]

Fragmentalizing the visual field and breaking through the narrative primacy, these works release borrowed images into a multitude of readings that shift away from the original texts. The choice of film material, far from arbitrary, is an act in which the author communicates a statement. The (new) language these works generate is established and determined by the (old) language of films: “what constitutes the Text is (…) its subversive force in respect to the old classifications.” [13]

Appropriation, which challenges schemes of representation, has a history that goes back to 1920s’ and 30s’ political montage of John Heartfield and dadaist-surrealist practices of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell and others. In 1960s and 70s, an era of art Avant-Garde merging with socio-political activism, this device became widely employed by artists engaged in critical analysis of the implications of mass media image making, reproduction and commodification. Rather than making uniquely subjective, autonomous images, a number of artists and video makers came with an oppositional agenda of re-contextualizing modes of representation that were already accessible in the vast territory of visual culture. Avant-Garde filmmakers as well as artists working in various media directly referred to images from existing magazines, film, television and posters and by means of quotation and picture montage manipulated their original meanings, desires and realities.

Alongside these practices, a few filmmakers, most notably Ernie Gehr, George Landow and Ken Jacobs chose to challenge the ubiquity of image conventions by denying them and instead extending the structure of discarded film material, or early film’s fantastic, almost forgotten imagery. Importantly, these independent filmmakers were among the first to employ the method of manipulating films by merely rephotographing them in various fashions - without mixing them with any external material.

The temptation of Stan Brakhage’s concept of liberated cinema and its “adventure in perception” [14] is still apparent in Keaton’s Cops. Here, Jacobs turns wistfully back to the era of technological fascination with cinema’s gesture of presentation, the era before the classical forms fully developed. From its margin, he pulls out a conundrum of details of the street life that, without a story or characters, operate on an increasingly aesthetic level. In his book Visionary Film, published in 1979, ten years after he first identified the genre of structural film in Film Culture, Sitney based his explanation of Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom in Shklovsky’s thesis about de-automated perception. According to Shklovsky, the purpose of an artist was to create a condition in which perception would be impeded and its automatism thus removed.

The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. [15]

Sitney assumed that Jacobs, among a group his colleagues and friends engaged in reflexive cinema, was on a special mission to counterbalance the commercial cinema ideology and its machinery of desire. The viewer was deprived of an encounter with the industry of cinematic illusion. Instead, their perceptual experience was to be sublimated by means of fixed camera position, the flicker effect, loop printing and rephotography [16] off the screen. This most often resulted in altered duration (elongation), disorientation, and indecipherability of the narrative logic. Underlying the Avant-Garde film practice that Sitney celebrated in his Visionary Film was a serious belief in progressive cinema that could be redefined and transformed into a medium characterized by formal issues, aesthetic subtlety and distorted perception.

The film counterculture aspired to confront in a solemn protest studio drama based on ever repeated formulas that, having made its way into television, came to stand for a barricade that was necessary to break through. In this light, Jacobs’ gesture of reinventing the “almost forgotten” imagery in much of his work, with its ostentatious emphasis on a different form of spectatorship, serves as an excellent instance of the Avant-Garde’s radical segregation from the authoritarian classical paradigm.

Both art practice and theory throughout 1960s and 70s principally articulated the classical film through the rhetoric of power, commodity and gaze and positioned its spectator as predominantly passive in relation to the economy of illusionism. With Hollywood studio filmmaking as its quintessence, classical film tended to be perceived as a rather monolithic entity, a style, which “aims toward homogeneity and closure and, for all purposes, attains it.” [17] A growing awareness of media dominance in this time in fact originated in reflections of ever more influential Marxist thinkers coming out of the Frankfurt School.

Classical film’s basic formal concern has been defined as to tell a comprehensible and unambiguous story that possesses emotional appeal that transcends class and nation. [18] In such establishment, an author’s creation has a role subordinate to the system of genre conventions and ethical, social and political norms that rest on values of the American society. According to Bordwell,

The fluctuating quality of authorial presence in the Hollywood film suggests that radical disruptions crop up rarely. Genuine breakdowns in classical narration are abrupt and fleeting, surrounded by conventional passages. In Hollywood cinema, there are no subversive films, only subversive moments. For social and economic reasons, no Hollywood film can provide a distinct and coherent alternative to the classical model.

Bordwell goes on to claim that no authorial ‘disruption’ of norms can seriously challenge the classical paradigm of film.

“Really problematic Hollywood films become limit-texts, works which, while remaining traditionally legible, dramatize some limits of that legibility. They do not, however, posit thoroughgoing alternatives. So powerful is the classical paradigm that it regulates what may violate it.” [19]

Naturally, appropriation as a way of retaining and outsider critical position was itself normalized, or perhaps more precisely – appropriated by the mainstream. Through re-printing and montage of film and video makers such as Dara Birnbaum, Wolf Vostell, Martha Rosler, Bruce Conner, Ernie Gehr, Ken Jacobs among many others, appropriation has been recognized as a genre within the media of moving image. [20] Nevertheless, such strategy has since the 1970s traveled a journey from the marginal to the middle-of-the-road; [21] its oppositional character has been obscured and complicated since it was absorbed by feature film as well as various television genres including commercials.

Keaton’s Cops, 24 Hour Psycho and After the Assassination hardly sustain the 1960s’ and 70s’ beliefs in a realistic alternative to the commercial structures of cinema. It is no longer the gesture of rejection or parody that plays an important role in these appropriations. The argument that these works dissociate filmmaking from the norms and policies of industrial production and turn to the medium’s specific properties (like structural film and arguably video art before them) is not good enough either. A lot of Jacobs’s, Gordon’s and Cenek’s accomplishments, on the other hand, stay strikingly close to those of the film and video Avant-Gardes.

I suggest that essential to these artists is the fascination with the informative potential of a film frame as well as what takes place outside it, in the “out-of-field”. [22] It is a fascination that examines how audiences watch films and how distortion of frame or temporality can change their knowledge. Interestingly, Cenek’s work is an experience of two almost separate narratives, in which the sound frame no more coincides with the picture frame. What is seen and what passes by unseen? Jacobs, Gordon and Cenek are aware of the information overload offered by every film sequence. They realize that our perceptual and cognitive mechanisms can process only a limited quantity. Perceptual theories have shown that

if a lot of information is presented in a very short period of time, the visual system simply loses some of the information. [23]

In three different ways, these artists discover for the viewer the minutia, the peripheral beyond the frame of immediate vision. They bring to the center those details that within the whole set of a frame do not generate enough stimuli and are thus camouflaged. These are schemes of viewing that respect, rather than dismiss the qualities of the original. By imposing new restrictions and hierarchies, they actually highlight what is already contained in the cinematic image. What at first appears to be a relentless constraint to our understanding of the narrative, reveals the random, enigmatic components recorded by the photographic medium. The intensity shifts from storytelling to visual attraction, as in Tom Gunning’s  “cinema of attraction” described as a desire to present objects on display. [24]

[1] Fillip Cenek’s unpublished “Notes on the Fragments After the Assassination”,
[2] In the context of Jacobs’s and Gordon’s work, this approach is mostly described as ‘found footage’ – e.g. Annette Michelson, “Gnosis and Iconoclasm: A Case Study of Cinephilia,” October no. 83, Winter 1998
[3] For the shift from the modernist to the postmodern paradigm, see Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Photography After Art Photography,” in Art After Modernism, p. 75-76
[4] In fact, Cenek’s work discussed here was created as a college exercise. It was shown in the Students Section of the ENTER-Multimediale festival in Prague in Spring 2000.
[5] P. Adams Sitney, “Structural Film,” Film Culture, no. 47 (Summer 1969), p. 1
[6] I borrowed this term from Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1. The Movement Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986, p. 2
[7] Richard Flood, “24 Hour Psycho”, in Parkett no. 49, 1997
[8] Curiously enough, the (state-run) Czech TV channel CT1 released in the year 2000 Sequens’s infamous, politically controversial series Major Zeman. After a 10-year-democracy period of obligatory relegation of such programs to the film archives, CT1’s act heated much debate about the series’ legitimacy in the public scene.  Underlying the explicit criticism was a manifestation of fear of the series’ power to manipulate the audience it once did quite successfully.
[9] Sequens’ film is based on a detailed study of the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, which was carried out by Czech resistance fighters living in exile. As a result, the SS reduced the Czech village Lidice to ashes and executed all its male inhabitants over the age of 16. In the meantime, more mass executions took place in Prague. For obvious political circumstances, the painful war era became the country’s heroic and ever-present theme, heavily promoted by the totalitarian regime.
[10] From a conversation with Ken Jacobs
[11] Crispin Sartwell:”Appropriation”, Michael Kelly, ed., Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, vol. 1, Oxford university press, New york, Oxford, 1998, p.68
[12] Hal Foster: “Post,” in Brian Wallis, ed., Art After Modernism, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1984, p. 197
[13] Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in Brian Wallis, ed., Art After Modernism, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1984, p.170
[14] Stan Brakhage, “Metaphors of Vision,” in John Hanhardt, ed. A History of The American Avant-Garde Cinema, New York, American Federation of Arts, 1976, p.99
[15] Victor Shklovsky: Art as Technique (1917), quoted by P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film. The American Avant-Garde, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1979, p. 365
[16] These were Sitney’s four characteristics of Structural Cinema as given in Visionary Film. In The essay’s earlier version of 1969, Sitney claimed only the first three techniques to be typical of structural film.
[17] Constance Penley, ‘A certain Refusal of Difference’: Feminism and Film Theory, ” in Brian Wallis, ed.: Art After Modernism, p. 337
[18] David Bordwel, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson: The Classical Hollywood Cinema, Routledge, New York, 1985, p. 3
[19] Ibid., p. 80-81
[20] See for instance the exhibition catalogue Desmontaje: Film, Video/Apropriacion, Reciclaje, IVAM Centre del Carme, 1993
[21] J. Hoberman: “After Avant-Garde Film,” in Brian Wallis, ed., Art After Modernism, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1984, p. 68
[22] The term “out-of-field” is explained in Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1. The Movement Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986, p. 16
[23] Kathryn T. Spoehr and Stephen W. Lehmkuhle, Visual Information Processing, Brown University, W.H. Freeman and Coup., 1982, p. 23
[24] Tom Gunning, “Now You See It, Now You Don’t,” in Richard Abel, ed., Silent Film, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, new Jersey, 1996, p. 74